Sunday, January 25, 2009

Conversion of St. Paul Sermon -- Matthew 19:27-30

January 25, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said to them: “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

The Lord Jesus makes a great promise for both the Twelve Apostles and for everyone who follows Him. Underlying the promise is the fact that following Jesus involves earthly loss. There is a cost of discipleship that every follower of Jesus pays, some more than others. St. Peter said to Jesus: “We have left everything and followed You. What then will we have?” Jesus promises a restoration of what was lost, not every individual item but the value of them and more, in the life of the world to come.

This promise is extended to someone who was not part of the Twelve, the original company of apostles. That individual is St. Paul, the man whose conversion the Church commemorates on this day. Paul was not an original hearer of these words spoken by Jesus, but he does fit the description that Jesus gave of those who follow Him. The Lord speaks of leaving house, family, and lands—the things of earthly value—in order to be His disciple. And as you heard the story of Paul’s conversion, you can identify such loss in his life, a loss that would lead to eternal gain according to Christ’s promise.

The Church knows many things about Paul, as it possesses accounts of his life from his contemporaries, as well as a number of his own writings. You heard from one of those accounts—the Acts of the Apostles—and from one of Paul’s letters—the Epistle to the Galatians. In both of these narratives, Paul’s conversion was described. And there were few details omitted, not even some of the embarrassing ones.

The anger and wrath that Paul had for those who followed Christ was seen in the conversion accounts: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Paul had arrest warrants for Christians, so they could be tried for apostasy and heresy, for their belief that Jesus was the Christ.

But this is not libel from the pen of the author, it is confirmed by Paul himself: “You heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the tradition of my fathers.” From Paul’s own hands, it is written that he wanted to destroy Christianity and was on a good career track with great potential because of his undying devotion to Judaism.

So what happens to Paul? All of this is turned upside down. The Lord God literally knocks him off his horse and keeps him from achieving his goal. But his is not just an obstructive move, it is the process by which the Lord God achieves a much greater purpose, a good purpose, in Paul’s life. A divinely-wrought change takes place in Paul to bring him to everlasting life and for him to become an implement that the Lord God uses: “He is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” By being selected by the Lord God for His task, Paul then becomes part of the people to whom Jesus promises great reward.

After the incident on the Damascus Road, the Lord God directs one of His believers, Ananias, to aid Paul in completing his conversion. And in the instructions given to Ananias, the Lord God reveals a part of Paul’s future. Not only will he go and carry Christ’s gospel to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, Paul will experience loss: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name.” Paul experiences loss, just as Peter and the Twelve did. But this means that he fits the description that Jesus gave: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” That is Paul’s new fate.

Before his conversion, Paul would have none of that. Instead, he was the one causing Christ’s people to lose property, family, and earthly life. But this would be reversed, so that Paul would no longer be an enemy of Christ with earthly gain. Rather, he would be Christ’s apostle with a heavenly profit. And why is this so? Hear Paul’s own words: “He who had set me apart before I was born called me by His grace and was pleased to reveal His Son to me.” For that reason, Paul could make the great confession of the Christian faith, as you hear Peter make it last week: “Immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”

The Conversion of St. Paul is a great event, because it was how the Lord God set into motion the large-scale evangelization of the Gentiles. Individuals outside of the bloodlines of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were now being made part of God’s People, including many of your ancestors—those on the north side of the Mediterranean and beyond the Rhine and Danube and even to the very ends of the earth. It is part of your story of faith, your family tree in the Church.

But more can be said than it is part of your background. The Conversion of St. Paul is the story of your faith. What happened to him also happened to you. The place, time, and setting were different, but the mechanics were the same. You were an enemy of Christ, a hater of the Son of God and all He stood for. Some of you were active persecutors of those who held to the faith. You were blind and without sight of what was truly good, right, and salutary. Instead, you had a love of what ran contrary to mercy and pity and compassion, for all you knew was greed and hatred and oppression.

But what has transpired to make you different, to change your belief and actions, to turn you to devotion to Christ so that you are even willing to suffer things for His name’s sake? What happened? The One who set you apart before you were born called you by His grace and was pleased to reveal His Son to you through the work of the Holy Spirit. That which occurred in Paul’s life took place in yours. That is how you can see your own story of faith in the events of Paul’s conversion.

You were set apart even before you were born. The Lord God knew you would exist, even choosing you to be a recipient of His Son’s merits at that time. God the Father ensured that you would be in a place and time where you could hear the Gospel of His Son that the Holy Spirit would work through the Word of God being proclaimed in verbal form and distributed with earthly elements. You were placed where some of Christ’s disciples would declare to you that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that this same Christ gave His life to atone for your sins and that He also wants you to follow Him. This is how it pleased Him to reveal His Son to you for your salvation.

For some of you, this may have been a dramatic occurrence, like the Damascus Road experience of Paul. For others, this took place near the very beginning of your earthly lives. But in both settings, the depth of your sin and your impending condemnation was great and the work of the Holy Spirit to remove that from you was dynamic. Settings differ, but the mechanics remain the same: you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in your lives, so that you can make the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, my Lord and Redeemer.

All of you have heard the message that you have broken the Law of God, but have also been redeemed by Christ’s suffering and death. You have heard that you have new life because Christ has been raised from the dead. Through unworthy servants who have also been chosen by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit has worked this in you. And so the blindness is removed from your eyes; you can see the truth of God and the goodness of His will; you have a new view of divine righteousness that is yours, given to you by Christ Himself, as you have been called to faith by the Holy Spirit. That is the conversion that Paul and you and every Christian undergoes.

So like Paul, you can also proclaim the truth about Christ. You can follow Jesus and the Way wherever you may end up leading you earthly lives. You can suffer loss, even of your earthly lives, for His name’s sake. And this is so because you know what has been made yours by receiving the merits of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Confession of St. Peter Sermon -- Mark 8:27-35

January 18, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told Him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered Him, “You are the Christ.”

Who do you say Jesus is? That is the question which is answered today as the Church commemorates the Confession of St. Peter. It is not simply a day to remember what one of the apostles said, though that is a worthy act. Rather, all of us who claim the title “Christian,” who say that we adhere to the Christian religion, are given the summary of it by the chief apostle. And the summary of the faith is the proper answer to the question: Who do you say Jesus is?

In the Gospel record, Peter answers the question very simply: “You are the Christ.” But that four word answer is actually quite complex. Peter properly identifies Jesus. Jesus is the Promised One, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about a forthcoming Redeemer. With his answer to Jesus’ question, Peter is making a claim on behalf of all his ancestors who had awaited the arrival of the One promised by the Lord God.

But what does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ? What actions accompany that title which Peter says truly identifies who Jesus is? We hear this, not from the mouth of Peter, but from Jesus Himself: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” This is the “job description” of the Christ. It is not the path to success as is typically measured. It is not what most would think of as the duties of the Christ. Yet this is what Jesus says would happen, what He was sent to accomplish.

And to Peter’s ears, that “job description” did not seem good and right. Sure rejection and death had happened to Elijah. John the Baptizer, and many of the prophets. But Peter did not say that Jesus was Elijah or that Jesus was John or that Jesus was a prophet. Peter said: “You are the Christ.” He identifies Jesus as something much greater than these great men. So when Jesus speaks about rejection and death, we hear what Peter thinks about it: “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.”

But what Jesus says must take place. It is necessary for Him to undergo these things. And to show Peter that it is so, He rebukes him: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Rejection, suffering, death: this is the path that the Lord God has laid out for the Christ. It isn’t an original thought to Jesus, something conjured up on the road to Caesarea Philippi. No, it is what has been foretold. For even the Psalter, written nearly a millennia before Jesus walked the earth, had spoken of this fate: I thank You that You have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Rejection, suffering, death: they are abhorrent to the eyes. That is what Peter’s rebuke of Jesus indicated. But when rejection, suffering, and death are the acts of the Christ, the fulfillment of what had been prophesied, then their nature changes. Seen through the eyes of faith, through the enlightenment that the Holy Spirit brings to the Lord God’s people, rejection, suffering, and death become wonderful things. For when the Christ experiences them, then salvation is at hand. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again,” and because this happens, you are redeemed, you are delivered, you are saved.

This is the great confession of the Christian Church, the confession that Peter makes. Yes, he did not fully comprehend why Jesus spoke of rejection, suffering, and death. As he had his mind set on the things of man, all of this was foolishness. But when Peter had his mind permanently set on the things of God, he treasured these sacrificial acts of Christ.

You were given a depiction of this change that happened in Peter in the First Reading for today. You heard a portion of Peter’s address to the Sanhedrin. What wasn’t included in the portion of Scripture read was that this took place after Peter and John were arrested for healing a man at the Temple and for publicly speaking about Jesus as the Christ. But what you heard shows boldness in Peter: “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by Him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Such a statement is not what one whose mind is set on the things of man would speak. Peter had once dismissed the idea of a rejected, suffering, and dying Christ. But when he is put on trial, Peter doesn’t hide from Jesus and His acts. Rather, he identifies the Crucified and Risen Jesus as the Christ, the One that the Scriptures spoke of. But not only does Peter say that Jesus is the Christ, but that He is the one and only path of salvation. The Crucified and Risen Christ is not to be written off as a failure, but as the ultimate success, treasured as Lord and Redeemer.

That is the confession of Peter, the confession of the Christian Church. And from Peter’s allusion to the Psalm, we see how this is the foundation of our faith: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The foundation of the Church is the rejected, suffering, and dying Jesus, who was raised from the dead by His Father. In Him we have our salvation and on Him our entire lives as disciples are based.

The Church continues to confess what Peter said about Jesus. There is a sharing of the same faith. This is what Peter alludes to in his letter to Christians that was read on this day: To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” A faith of equal standing with Peter is what you share as you confess the same thing, when you give the same answer to the question: Who do you say Jesus is? That faith of an equal standing is what you as members of the Lutheran Church truly possess.

So who do you say Jesus is? There really is no better answer than what Peter confessed: “You are the Christ.” And just what does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ? It means that He as rejected, suffered, and died for you, so that He may be your Lord. What does it mean for you to confess that Jesus is the Christ? It means that “this Jesus is the stone that was rejected . . . has become [your] the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which [you] must be saved.”

This is what you have learned as the foundation of your faith in the words of the Small Catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

May that always be your confession, as you set your mind on things of God, just as Peter had his mind removed from the things of man. For in that true confession about Jesus, he found life everlasting, and so shall you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of Our Lord Sermon -- Mark 1:4-11 (LSB Epiphany 1B)

January 11, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

When [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”

Many millennia had passed since any man heard those words from the mouth of God the Father. Not since the time when “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters,” had such a declaration been made about any man. The Lord God had once said: “Let us make man in our own image and likeness.” And it was so that “He formed the man from the ground.” That man had the Spirit of life breathed into him and was called very good. And with him the Lord God was well pleased.

But the pleasure of God was short-lived. For that man who was called very good disobeyed the Lord God. Though made in the Lord God’s image and likeness, Adam forsook it to try to be God. Not content with being a creature with God’s image, Adam attempted to take the place of the Creator. And in his sin of rebellion, he received the curse of God instead of divine blessing: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

Man was cursed. Man was the object of divine wrath. Man was not very good, and with him the Lord God was not well pleased. That is, until the Lord God Himself took on human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. For in that act, in the Incarnation, there is Man in the exact image and likeness of God, for Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. And when this Man treads into the waters of the River Jordan, great things occur.

The Evangelist Mark writes, as you heard: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.” These are the actions of those who suffer the curse of God and seek out His mercy where it can be found. They come to rid themselves of their sin and guilt, to have it float away, as it were, down the Jordan to the Dead Sea.

But the Evangelist also writes: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Jesus is baptized, though He is not an object of the divine curse. He suffers no taint of sin, no flaw exists in Him. He is the perfect likeness and image of God, diminished in no way. So when Jesus steps into the Jordan, He goes not to loose Himself of sin, not to receive forgiveness. Rather, He enters the water to take up all the sins of humanity, to bear them as the sacrificial Lamb of God, and to provide salvation to all who are under the curse that Adam inflicted upon mankind.

The Baptism of Our Lord is an act that is done in substitution for all humanity. It is just as if the clock had been reset back to the first days of creation. Where Adam faltered, Jesus would act perfectly. To bear witness to this, the events at Jesus’ baptism take place: “When He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are My beloved Son, with You I am well pleased.’” Once again, just as at the Creation, the Spirit hovers over the face of the waters. Once again, Man is formed out of the dust, this time out of the frail human nature of the Virgin Mary. And once again, the Lord God looks upon Man and says that he is very good.

This is the significance of Jesus’ baptism. He is identified as the One who will reverse the sins of Adam and its effects on his descendants. He is witnessed to by God the Father, given the divine stamp of approval and endorsement of His work. Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit, made the Christ, placed before the world as the eternal heir of both David’s earthly throne and the realm of heaven itself. The sin of Adam had once barred the gates of Paradise to all mankind, but as Jesus begins His public ministry to take Adam’s and all humanity’s place, the heavens are opened to Him and to all who receive His salvific work. The events that accompany Jesus’ baptism declare it to be so.

When Jesus enters the water, all the prophecies about the Promised Christ are on their way to fulfillment. Even John the Baptizer said: “After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That Mightier One is Jesus, He who receives the Lord God’s endorsement and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He is the One all the prophets had foretold and in whom salvation is found. For what the Lord God had promised takes place through the actions of Christ.

This same Jesus suffers and dies, carrying the world’s sin, so that the world is redeemed. This same Son of God and Son of Man in whom the Father is well pleased absorbs all the guilt which mankind incurred, soaking it up like a sponge, and pins it to Calvary’s cross. And this same Anointed One who is given the Holy Spirit distributes It to others, so that they themselves may become holy. Everything that Jesus does and undergoes, even His baptism, is for the benefit of others, including you.

And so it is that Jesus fulfills what John the Baptizer says. After His death and resurrection, He institutes Holy Baptism as the way sinful human beings are adopted by the Lord God, forgiven of their sins, and made heirs of salvation. By Christ’s command, the Spirit hovers over the water of the font. For in that act of connecting Christ’s Word to water, the Holy Spirit is given to all who are baptized. This is how John’s statement comes true: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The result of your baptism and belief in the Mighty One who stood in Jordan’s stream is forgiveness of sins and new life. So Jesus Himself says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” And this is why the Apostle Paul writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”

The Apostle speaks about a union, a connection with Christ in Holy Baptism. You are mystically united with Jesus. So when He steps into the Jordan, you are there. When He is anointed with the Holy Spirit, you are, too. When God the Father declares, “with You I am well pleased,” He is talking about you. Your sins have been absorbed by Christ. Your sinful selves have been crucified and buried with Christ. You have been raised again by the glory of the Father, just as Christ was. And you are truly called sons of God, beloved ones, given a status like Christ. All these are the full effects of your baptisms which find their foundation in the baptism that Jesus underwent for the forgiveness of your sins.

Because you have been united with Christ in Holy Baptism, He invites you to pray to God, calling Him your Father. Since you have been united with Christ in Holy Baptism, He directs you to drown your sinful selves and the love of sin, so that you may live instead in the newness of life and righteousness. As you have been united with Christ in Holy Baptism, He also invites you to be united with Him in the Sacrament of the Altar. And finally, the union you have with Christ through Holy Baptism will cause the Holy Spirit to raise you and all Christians on the Last Day and the angels to usher you through the newly-opened doors of heaven.

So it is, because Jesus stepped into the Jordan River as a substitute, taking the place of Adam and you and all humanity. There is a new day that awaits the redeemed creation, even you. For you shall receive the results of Christ’s life and work, even His baptism, as the Eternal Father will irrevocably say to you: “You are My beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Second Sunday of Christmas Sermon -- Luke 2:40-52 (LSB Christmas 2B)

January 4, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

“And the Child [Jesus] grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.”

The wisdom of Jesus, the wisdom of God, is seen even in the midst of His youth. The favor of God is upon Him, for He is the very Son of God. So the Fourth Evangelist says: “We beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The favor of God is upon the Boy Jesus, as His earthly parents conveyed the teachings of the Torah and the practices of the Covenant to their son, as you heard in the Gospel Reading: “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.”

Though very little of Jesus’ youth is recorded in the canonical Scriptures, what is included in St. Luke’s Gospel shows His obedience to the Law and all its prescriptions. Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day. He is presented on the fortieth day. And when Jesus reaches the threshold of adulthood, He goes to the Temple at Passover: “And when He was twelve years old, they went up [to Jerusalem] according to custom.” Being raised in the teachings of the Torah and the practices of the Covenant, Jesus is a faithful Jew, a believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, an heir to what was promised even to Adam.

But unlike all the other faithful people of the Covenant who went before Him, Jesus’ obedience is done not for Himself alone, but for the benefit of the entire world. “The favor of God was upon Him,” as Jesus made Himself subject to the Law in order to be the substitute for sinful mankind. His obedience is also different, as Jesus’ actions are how He is “in [His] Father’s interests,” taking up the family business, so to speak.

As depicted in the Evangelist’s account, the Boy Jesus amazes those in the Temple as He sits in the midst of them as a twelve year-old: “After three days they found Him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And even His parents saw Him, they were astonished.” This is the wisdom of God on display. The Boy Jesus who is full of the Spirit of truth and understanding demonstrates it in His speech, showing wisdom greater than Solomon’s.

But Jesus’ demonstration of wisdom is not for the purpose of astonishment. He is not a smart aleck or show off. Rather, His actions in the Temple show Jesus’ identity. It is how He begins to reveal His Father’s will for humanity. His first public audience is the teachers of the Torah and His earthly parents who overhear the last bit of His dialogue. As the Christ, Jesus’ destiny is to reveal what the Lord God’s true will for humanity is. Though humanity is sinful and depraved and unmerciful, Jesus will show perfection, virtue, and compassion to the world. He displays what the Eternal Father has always thought in His heart: a divine love for the world He created, even as it limps along in the effects of it own self-inflicted wounds.

The Boy Jesus tells His guardians Mary and Joseph: “It is necessary for Me to be in the interests of My Father.” That is why He became incarnate. The interests of Jesus’ Father are the plan of salvation, the redemption of the world. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Put a bit more succinctly, what the Eternal Father makes known to us through His Incarnate Son is the wisdom of salvation. God suffers and dies in order to reconcile us to Himself, as we say after confession and absolution: as we have been reconciled to the Father by His Son. That is an astonishing thought, one that would amaze even the priests and teachers in Jerusalem’s Temple. To speak about a deity who dies seems most unwise, even totally foolish. But this is what even the Boy Jesus can make known to those who hear Him. It is what He makes known in the act of crucifixion and resurrection. And it is what His Spirit given to the Church discloses to all the ends of the earth in our day.

That wisdom is what we pass down to another generation of Christ’s disciples. Like Mary and Joseph, we are called to hand over the teachings of the Scriptures and the practices of the New Covenant made with us. We are to speak about what the Lord God has done for us through His Son, Jesus Christ. We are to bring our children into the Covenant through Holy Baptism. We are to make it our custom to attend the Paschal feast that Christ has instituted. For through these things, we have been filled with the wisdom of our salvation. And like Jesus, our children can grow, become strong, and have the favor of God upon them.

This is the work of the Holy Spirit that takes place in our lives in the midst of our parish. It is what He accomplishes by having the Torah, the teaching of God, spoken and heard by those who “in love [the Father] predestined for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace.” So the Psalmist David, who himself heard and spoke God’s teaching can write: “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. . . . I understand more than the aged, for I keep Your precepts. . . . How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”

The treasured status that the Lord God’s Word receives from His people is a reflection of its value. This is how we have been made wise for salvation. This is how the favor of God has been made known to us. We can easily understand divine wrath, how the Lord God is displeased with our behavior. We know how angry we get at those who cross us. And by nature we know the laws of God and His expectations for us, the very things we transgress. But we would know nothing of divine favor had it not been for the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, revealing the Eternal Father’s love for us, and teaching us how compassionate He is. That is what the Christ and His Spirit have revealed: it is the reason for the Incarnation we celebrate as this Christmastide draws to its conclusion.

The Apostle Paul says: “In [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.” As you have heard the testimony of Christ delivered to you by His Spirit, so you also have grown and become strong, filled with wisdom. The favor of God is upon you. The constant repetition of the teachings of the Scriptures, belief of it, and practice of it will increase your wisdom and stature and divine favor.

That is the Father’s interest in you, how you have a place in His house. You also can astonish the world with your understanding and your answers about salvation. For you know the truth about the Lord God’s will for you—that you may share in the salvation that Christ has earned for you: how God became flesh and died, so that you might live and be transformed into His likeness at the Last Day. It is a wisdom that the world does not know or grasp. But it has been given and entrusted to you, to shine forth in your lives and to lead you into the life of the world to come.

So you see in the example of the Boy Jesus and so you have received by hoping in the same crucified and risen Christ. This is the true Light of the Incarnate Word that has shined and continues to shine today in the darkness of this world as His words are spoken, heard, and believed. May you so speak, hear, and believe the wisdom of Christ for your salvation, thus finding a place in His Father’s temporal house here on earth and in His eternal home in heaven above.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Calvary during Christmastide

Center Aisle in the Nave

Chancel with Sin & Grace Trees

Creche, Christmas Tree, and Baptismal Font

Organ and Choir Pews

Christmas Day Sermon -- John 1:1-14 (LSB Christmas Day Propers)

December 25, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The Lord God takes on human flesh and nature and appears on earth, full of grace and truth. It is a novel concept in the history of religious teaching. But what the Evangelist describes with his words is neither legend nor myth. This is not the better mousetrap of religion, a finer crafting of human concepts about deity. Rather, it is a description of how divine life and light again make themselves present in the darkness of death and sin. It is the story of re-creation revealed by the Lord and Giver of Life Himself.

The Evangelist tells of the great mystery of how God became man in order to save mankind. “For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven”: so the Church confesses in the Creed. It is a confession of faith, of belief in what transpired in Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and other points in ancient Judea. What took place was for mankind’s redemption: God being incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and made man, so that He may suffer and die to atone for sin.

John’s Prologue to the Gospel literally takes the hearers back to the beginning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” The beginning of creation is the focus of John’s opening sentences. God the Father spoke the Word, God the Son, and creation came into existence: light and darkness, land and sea, sun and moon, grass and trees, birds and fish and land animals. That same Word was spoken when God the Father said: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” And everything was good.

Yet you know how what was good in the beginning quickly became anything but. What once had the fullness of God’s favor lost it with the Fall into sin. As the medieval carol says: “Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond; four thousand winter thought he not too long. And all was for an apple, an apple that he took, as clerkes finden written in their book.” Man lost the likeness of God, becoming thoroughly tainted and corrupt. What the Word had made and pronounced as very good was now evil. Death entered where there once was nothing but life.

But the Word which was in the very beginning was not tainted, not marred by sin, not cursed by death: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Word was still there after the Fall, and it was a word of promise, even amidst the divine curse: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her Offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” This was spoken in the beginning, a Word of salvation for mankind.

There would be deliverance for Adam’s sinful children of all generations. But it would not be an angel or any other creature that would bring it about. In fulfillment of this promise, the Word and the light and life He possessed came down from heaven to redeem creation: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” For it is the same creating Word that would accomplish what had been promised: “All things were made through Him,” and all things would be redeemed by Him.

And so “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Logos, the Word which brought all things into existence, was Himself made man, held by the Virgin Mother [as you see depicted on your service folders]. He becomes man to atone for the sin of Adam and all men. The Creator takes on human nature, so that He may give Himself in sacrificial death.

That is the great two-fold mystery of Christmas. There is the first profound mystery: God became man, the divine became human, and yet still remained fully God. How this can take place is beyond our understanding, but the Word was spoken and was conceived as a male Child in Mary’s virgin womb. What was spoken came to pass in fulfillment of the Lord God’s will. And there is the second mystery: The love of God for His creation was so great that such a selfless act was done. That is beyond our comprehension, as the love we show, even during these holidays, never reaches that level.

But these acts did occur, mysterious as they may be. And with them come consequences and results that gladden the hearts of men and women around the globe. The Evangelist says: “[The Word] was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” It is evident that not everyone believed what happened. And yet, there were some who believed what the Word said in the beginning: “But to all who did receive Him who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

What the Evangelist describes are those who received and believed the Mystery of the Incarnation. For them, the Word speaks and delivers to them what He has earned. Salvation comes to the descendants of Adam, so that they may rightly be called the children of God. For the Word speaks alongside the waters of Holy Baptism and generates life in them, the life that the Word always possessed. He declares them to be adopted, and so they are, restored to the status of Adam in the beginning—having God’s favor—and promised to be re-created in full at the Last Day.

Re-creation and restoration: that is what the life-generating Word accomplishes. The Nativity of the Incarnate Word is the first chapter of this taking place here on earth. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” so that this could take place. Christmas is always celebrated with Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost in mind, as is seen in the great Christmas carols. For it is not simply a day to speak about the event of God becoming man, but that “we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” It is grace and truth that the Son of God brings which makes you God’s children.

Paralleling the Evangelist’s description about the Word is the Author’s writing about Him: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . . .” These are the acts of grace that the Word does for you. And as you receive the truth about Him, the purification of sins He brings is yours. You are regenerated and restored by the Word who first made you.

The Prophet said: “The Lord has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” The might of God is seen in the Word becoming flesh. His glory has been seen in the undoing of Satan’s works here on earth. And so, you have become witnesses of divine salvation, experiencing it yourself as the Word-made-flesh, the Son of God, makes you God’s children.

So it is that the Nativity you celebrate on this day is not only a commemoration of Christ’s birth. It is a celebration of your own regeneration accomplished by the Incarnate Word of God, as you prayed this morning. John testified about Christ: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” As John saw, so you also shall see in the fullness of eternal life, when the restoration and re-creation begun in you by the Word is completed at His return. For life is still in Him, new life which is meant for you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Christmas Eve Sermon -- Luke 2:1-20 (LSB Christmas Midinight Propers)

December 24, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

The angel said to [the shepherds]: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Some events just need fanfare and accolades. Our nation’s president hears “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief” as personal honors when he makes public appearances. College football players are given the honor of the full sound of marching bands prior to kickoff, some even participating in parades beforehand. Music may not be present at the entrance to the Academy Awards, but the flash of cameras and the shouted questions from the paparazzi along the red carpet provide their own kind of overture. And when babies are born in rural villages, they are greeted by an angel choir singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”

Or maybe not . . . no one would expect that. In many little towns and boroughs around the globe, there are millions of infants born, some even being born on this night. But none of them receive musical fanfare, let alone a song from a choir of heavenly beings. Their births are not the cause for people to worship God and speak about His peace extending to the ends of the earth. Certainly, their parents are thankful and glad, but only the most megalomaniacal would say that the occasion of their child’s birth is “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.”

But that is the accolade the Babe of Bethlehem is given, as “[Mary] gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger.” Born in a stable, “because there was no place for them in the inn,” Mary’s Son is the unlikeliest Child to receive such announcement. The family lodging in a barn has no one to share their joy with: a stranger in a strange town is not often welcomed under normal circumstances, let alone when the village is overrun by crowds because of governmental orders. But the identity of this Child will cause the heavens to ring with song and people to come running to His bedside to see Him.

That identity is what the angel makes known to the shepherds in the fields. It is the cause for the announcement to be made: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” It is the cause of your celebration on this night. For the Babe of Bethlehem’s identity is being the Christ, the Promised One whom prophets throughout the centuries had foretold. Born this night is a Savior, One who would redeem the world and deliver it from slavery to sin, death, and Satan. Such a cosmic figure will receive a majestic fanfare at His birth.

It is customary to welcome the arrival of earthly conquerors with cries of joy and singing. Throughout our nation’s history, we have welcomed victors of the battlefield and ballfield with tickertape parades. Even relatively trivial accomplishments are celebrated by mayors declaring a special day on the municipal calendar. But what of this Child, who is Christ the lord? He is no earthly conqueror, but an eternal victor. And the conquest that He achieves would not be a cause of joy solely for a hometown or fans and alumni of one college or even an entire country. Instead, it is “good news of a great joy for all the people.”

You who carry the name Christian and rightly have a claim to it understand the full extent of Jesus’ work. You understand the reason for this gathering of the congregation, as well as the Christian Church around the world. There is joy present here, even amidst the sorrows and troubles of this past year, “for the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” Salvation is present because of the accomplishments of Him who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made Man.

You have experienced the results of Jesus’ work, the One “who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” The Bethlehem sky shone with the glory of the angels because the One who brings the light of God truth and salvation lay in the manger. It is the light which shines in your lives, even in the midst of the darkness of this world.

The events of Bethlehem only make sense when the identity of the Child born in a stable is known. In fact, the events of this day in Mechanicsburg only make sense when that Child’s identity is known. Otherwise, the carols you sing, the ornaments and decorations you see, the prayers you offer, the Sacrament you receive, let alone your presence on a December night in a building watching ceremonies conducted by people in 6th Century attire makes no sense at all. But they are the natural response to the word of salvation that the angel brings: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

What you do on this night corresponds to what the Bethlehem shepherds did after hearing the angel’s message and heavenly host’s song: “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another: ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger.” Your worship this day is the way you witness what happened in Bethlehem: for in this place you hear again what transpired for your benefit; you have the “good news of a great joy” placed again in you hearts and minds, so that you may share in the salvation Jesus has acquired for you.

Though lacking a home at His birth, the Christ has earned an eternal home for you. Though a stranger in the world He created, the Christ has made you a child of God and an heir of eternal life. Though wrapped by Mary in swaddling cloths so His limbs could not move, the Christ has freed you from the chains of sin, death, and Satan. This Babe of Bethlehem fulfills the ancient prophecies and promises about your redemption: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation; You have increased its joy; they rejoice before You as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, You have broken as on the day of Midian.”

What you and all Christians celebrate on this night is the anniversary of the Eternal Victor’s appearing. And that deserves the fanfare and welcome greater than any you give to the rulers, champions, and celebrities of this world. Because of the identity of Bethlehem’s Babe—“a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”—you have been given a new identity—“the people for His own possession.” All who share in that identity, being joined to Christ’s righteousness, have been delivered by Him. It matters not what race or nation, for the “good news of a great joy is for all people.” The angelic choir’s song sums up the joy of this night: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

“The grace of God has appeared” for you, so that you may be part of those people with whom the Lord God is pleased. That is what the Babe of Bethlehem has accomplished for you, as “[He] gave Himself for [you] to redeem [you] from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” There is newness of life again for you on this night, as you have heard about the birth of God Incarnate into life here on earth.

Celebrate that this Christmastide, for it is “good news of a great joy” which cannot be matched. For what you have heard is the announcement of your salvation which comes from Christ the Lord. Receive the news “the Lord has made known” to you now, as He makes this holy night shine with the brightness of the true Light. As you have known the mysteries of that Light on earth, may you also come to the fullness of His joys in heaven, where you will be joined with all who have believed the same “good news of a great joy” about Christ the Lord.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.