Thursday, December 31, 2009

January 2010 Parish Letter

“Lord Jesus Christ, You have always given to Your Church on earth faithful shepherds such as Timothy to guide and feed Your flock. Make all pastors diligent to preach Your holy Word and administer Your means of grace, and grant Your people wisdom to follow in the way that leads to life eternal . . . .”

[Collect for Festival of St. Timothy]

The latter part of January includes three days that commemorate teachers of the Apostolic Church. January 24 commemorates St. Timothy; January 25 marks the Conversion of St. Paul; January 26 is the festival of St. Titus. These names are recognizable, as they are scattered throughout the New Testament Scriptures. The life-story of St. Paul is told multiple times each year to our parish youth, as they study his missionary journeys in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. It makes him well known. But the other two men—SS. Timothy and Titus—are often less familiar.

This year, St. Timothy’s Day falls on a Sunday, so we will be have the opportunity to commemorate him in our Divine Service. The day designated for St. Titus happens to fall on the Tuesday that our Circuit pastors meet, so they also will honor him in morning worship. But why are these two men worthy of honor? Is it because their names appear in the New Testament? No, for there are others who do not receive such remembrance. Is it because they are inherently different than other men? No, they were mortals born in sin who needed salvation, just as all who are born of woman are.

The reason for commemorating SS. Timothy and Titus is the office they held and the work that they did. These two men are among the first clergy of the Church, the first beyond the Twelve Apostles to receive Christ’s authority to make disciples by baptizing, to proclaim His Gospel, to hand down to people everything that He had commanded them, and to remember His sacrifice by administering His Holy Supper. Their appearance marks the second generation of the Church’s leadership, the way that Christ’s followers would be led until His return.

The task given to SS. Timothy and Titus by St. Paul is mentioned in his letters to them. The apostle writes to St. Timothy: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”(2 Tim 4:1-2) Likewise, he speaks of the Gospel that St. Titus is to deliver to the disciples in Crete: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.” (Titus 3:4-8)

Both men were appointed by the Church for the task of handing down the Gospel of Christ to people who had yet to hear of Him. In fact, most—if not all—of the people that SS. Timothy and Titus would encounter had never witnessed Christ Jesus when He walked the earth. They had not seen the miracles performed, the great crowds clamoring to hear His wisdom, the marks in the hands, feet, and side of His risen body. But these people became His faithful disciples. Why? Because men like SS. Timothy and Titus delivered His Gospel to them, the dynamic words of Christ that carry the Holy Spirit who makes dead souls alive. That great divine act accomplished through these two mortal men is what makes them worthy of honor.

The office of delivering the Gospel to new disciples through Holy Baptism, the proclamation of the Divine Word, the absolving of sinners, and the Sacrament of the Altar is how Christ has chosen to bring new people into His Church. That office is alluded to in the Collect of the Day for the Festival of St. Timothy, as seen above. It is an honorable task that is given by Christ. We confess that our Lord continues to place men into that office and continues to deliver His forgiveness, life, and salvation to present-day disciples through it.

So we honor the two men who were among the first charged with that honorable task. This summer, our parish will also have the opportunity to honor one of our members who was entrusted with that office 50 years ago. We do so, not because these men are inherently different than any of us. Rather, the honor is given because they have been instruments of Christ’s choosing to distribute salvation to another generation of people in need of it. Recognizing the divine acts done through them, we commemorate SS. Timothy and Titus. May all who hold that same office be diligent in their duties, and may we continue to receive Christ’s eternal life through them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Day 2009 Sermon -- John 1:1-14

December 25, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

“All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

The words of the Evangelist describe the power that the Word of God has. That Word which “was with God” and “was God” brings life to this world. By His being spoken, the Son of God brings the universe into existence. By His being spoken “He upholds the universe,” as the Epistle Writer declares to the Hebrew Christians. This Word of God is dynamic, bringing things into being and sustaining them.

But the Word of God is more than a creating force. Certainly, that role is important and should not be overlooked. Yet, the act of creation is not how true life is given. Once it was so. God the Father spoke the Word and everything perfectly came into being. St. John is correct: “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” And when God the Father saw His creation, He declared it “very good.”

“Very good,” however, does not correctly describe the world now, for everything has been tainted by sin. Full of death the world goes on. It taunts its Creator by its actions. But the same Eternal Word of God who made and shaped this creation acts to restore it. He will not have His “very good” creation eternally bound and corrupted by sin and death. No, the dark forces of pure and utter evil will be dispelled and life will come forth in its place.

That is what the Evangelist depicts happening with the Incarnation of Our Lord: “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 creating force becomes part of the creation in order to redeem and restore it. The Son of God is the opposite of what sin had caused. The world was full of wrath and lies; the Word was “full of grace and truth.” The world was dark with death; “in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men.”

The appearance of the Incarnate Son of God, the Word of God in the flesh, marks the display of divine power to effect great change. He comes to act with righteousness and mercy, to free people and the rest of creation from their self-imposed bonds of sin. The Eternal Word of God sees the plight of the world He has made and says: “No more! It shall not be this way! My will for this world shall not longer be thwarted. What was once very good shall return to that state!” So He acts to save. And the only way to save is to get His hands dirty with the sin and filth and decay in order to cleanse and purify it.

The Incarnation of Christ is that act of salvation. For what the Son of God would do on this earth brings about the redemption of the world. Isaiah’s prophecy declares: “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 Lord God makes His salvation visible. It is seen in everything that He does as both God and Man, the divine who takes on human nature. The Word of God in the flesh speaks and acts, and what is seen is the divine glory used to overcome sinfulness.

Think on what John means when he says: “We have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” What had John seen? What would cause him to make such a statement? The Evangelist saw Christ heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, make the lame walk, cast out demons, raise the dead. The cancer and mutation that sin brings about were overcome. The death in the world is conquered by the life in the Word. But not only does the Son of God do these things, He also experiences them. He Himself dies and rises again, the true expression of divine glory.

Why is this so? Because “in Him was life, and the life was the light of man.” In Christ was found everything good, everything pure, everything true, everything that the world had lost. And as that righteousness, purity, and truth was once again found in the creation, it shone like a beacon in the darkness. Just as the Word of God was first spoken and brought light into the dark chaos of the primordial world, so His light entered the dismal disaster of the sinful creation. But “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

No, the darkness did not drown out the light of Christ. It could not do so. Instead, His righteousness, purity, and truth remain present in the world today. It is here for you who walk in the shadows of death and the darkness of sin. It is present for you to see and receive, so that you may have Christ’s life in you—“the light of men” that are benighted by their sinfulness.

Christ’s presence in this world is for your benefit, so that you may live. It is His Father’s will for you. The Epistle Writer describes the Father’s Son who came to this world: “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.” That is who Christ is. Even as the Babe of Bethlehem, He is the Son of God in human form. But the author also tells you what the Christ has done: “After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” His presence in this world was to purify you of your guilt and imperfection, to cleanse you of your sin.

That is “the salvation of our God” which you and “the ends of the earth” see. It was on display in the miracles Jesus performed. But it was even more on display in the innocent suffering and death of the Incarnate Word who had life in Him. It was confirmed in the resurrection of that same Incarnate Word, as the darkness has not overcome Him. For through these acts—the acts of redemption—you have received light and life.

The Evangelist puts it so plainly well: “To all who did receive [the Word], 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.” The divine will has been fulfilled for you. God the Father desires you to be His children, and His Eternal Son has done everything necessary for this to be so. The Word of God has spoken you into existence. As He was heard and believed by you, you were made children of God. You have been filled with life—true and real life—given by God Himself.

That is the importance of this day, why the Church continues to celebrate it, even as others attach so many different meanings to it. As you know your own darkness—your own sins, imperfections, faults, failures, habitual acts of transgression—you know your need for deliverance. As you feel its effects, the shadows and gloom overwhelm you. Your darkness must be dispelled. And it is, as you know and believe the light of Christ. As you confess His who He is and what He has done, you are enlightened, no longer subject to eternal death. Instead, you have Christ’s life, “the light of men,” within you. The light that the Son of God brings shines and your sinfulness will not overcome it.

For where Christ is present, there the glory of God, full of grace and truth, is found. It is present here, as the Word-made-flesh continues to speak and be heard. It is located here, as His Name is spoken and given to people in Holy Baptism. It is found here, as more and more are made children of God according to His will. He is even here, so that you may eat and drink to be filled with His salvation. The grace and truth of Christ is this: “for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” Because this is so, you have witnessed His glory, the power used for you.

Exercised by Christ, that power has saved you. Made yours as the Eternal Word of God speaks to you, you have become children of God. For you have received Him and believed His Name. Trusting in His identity and works, you are now heirs of grace and truth instead of children of wrath and lies. Now His life is yours, the light that overcomes and purifies your sin. You have seen the salvation of your God with the eyes of faith. May you also witness it eye to eye, when you see the return of the Son of God who dwelt with mankind, so that you may eternally dwell with Him.

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

Christmas Eve 2009 Sermon -- Luke 2:1-20

December 24, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

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. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

Wonder at what the shepherds told them: that is how the Evangelist describes the reaction of the people to the shepherds’ report. What had come out of the shepherds’ mouths to cause this response of wonder? St. Luke states that “[the shepherds] made known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child.” The repetition of the angelic message is what brings the shock and awe to the people of Bethlehem.

The angel was very clear about the Infant Jesus. The details provided concerning the description and location of the Child were explicit: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a Baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Not many newborns would be located in the town, let alone any who were sleeping in a feeding trough. But it is the angelic statement about the identity of the Child that brings about the people’s amazement: “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.”

The promise of the Christ had been long known and long believed. For millennia, the Chosen People of God had awaited the appearance of a Deliverer, a Redeemer. Signs throughout the centuries had been given concerning this Promised Savior. From the first prophecy to the last, the Lord God had provided details about the identity and work of the Christ. It included the unique sign that you heard this evening: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

But now the shepherds of the fields come to town in the middle of the night and declared that this Promised Savior has arrived. They repeat the statement of the angel, that the Child lying in the manger is “Christ the Lord.” And this amazes. Few would be shocked that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. It may not be the most expected location, but the City of David is a fine place for the One who would sit on David’s throne forever to be born. But when the shepherds apply the angelic message to Mary’s Son, the Infant in the stable, surprise sets in.

Announcement of the Christ’s birth would bring about elation. But what happens when the messenger is a shepherd and he points his staff at the manger and says: “That is the One the angelic hosts told us about. That Child is the Lord God in human form.” Joy and jubilation turn to disbelief and doubt. It isn’t what was expected. It challenges all assumptions. It even contradicts what the eyes behold.

And yet, the shepherds insist that it is true. With their hearts they believe what their ears had heard from the angel. With their lips they confess that belief, “[making] known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child.” The angel said that this was “good news of a great joy,” and after witnessing the Holy Infant, “they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” All those who heard and were led to believe experience the same. Like Mary, those who believe treasure up all these things and ponder them in their hearts.

Why is this so? Why do you come here to listen again about the birth of a baby in a rural Palestinian village and assert it to be your “good news of a great joy”? Because the appearance of the Lord God as an infant in a manger shows that it is meant for all people. Everyone could behold the baby in stable and claim to be of a greater status. The Lord God comes to this world, but makes Himself accessible to all, not putting up barriers. As Jesus makes Himself a servant to all, His appearance is lacking in all grandeur. And yet, He is present with all divine power and authority to reconcile God and mankind.

The apostle John declares: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Christ’s presence on earth is to offer Himself as a sacrifice for your sins and the sins of the entire world. By making atonement for them, divine love is put on display, as God the Father does not condemn you for your sin and enter an eternal summary judgment against you.

So that you may receive the benefit of His sacrifice, the Lamb of God is first laid in a manger. The Son of God comes in extreme poverty. He is born in the City of David, but is not surrounded with regal grandeur. David’s eternal heir, the Prince of Heaven, is dressed in humble cloths instead of velvet robes. But this is how divine love is shown to you. For the Babe of Bethlehem did not lack any claim to such things. Rather, He set them aside to assume your nature and to deliver you from your total lack of anything good. In this way, selfless love from God Himself is shown to you.

The effect of that selfless love displayed in what the Christ would do is why the angel proclaims: “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” The great joy is the salvation that you receive from His work: forgiveness of every sin committed, life extended even beyond the grave, freedom from the dominion of Satan and all evil. You lacked all these things. But as Jesus becomes impoverished for you, you are enriched by Him. That which makes you abound in all good things is what you treasure. It is why this night is beloved by you, full of the joy spoken of by the angels.

But not only does this bring about your elation, it also causes the entire heavenly host to rejoice. The same Child in the manger would say as an adult: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” When the One who would bring salvation to all sinners who repent comes to this fallen world, the angels sing their hymn of joy: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” For they know what the great result of Christ’s work will be.

Tonight, you respond like the shepherds “to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” But it to see what has happened is much more than to observe an Infant wrapped in swaddling cloths. No, you are invited to celebrate with great joy what that Child has accomplished for you. You are called to participate in His death and resurrection, to proclaim it as the source of your salvation. You are called to witness Christ the Lord who comes to you again, not wrapped in rags, but veiled in bread and wine to deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation for you. For this is how the result of His work—His birth, life, death, and resurrection—is applied to you, just as the Lord has made known to you.

On this night of joy and wonder, you may point to the altar and say that is His manger for tonight. Here is the sign for you that your salvation is complete, “a sign as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven.” It may lack visible majesty and grandeur, but it is the Lord God present for your benefit. You have been reconciled to God the Father. And as Christ makes Himself available to you here on earth, you know that He is your heavenly peace.

So rejoice with the angels and sing their hymns. Praise God the Father for the sending of His Son. Declare to one another the great thing “that has happened, which the Lord has made known to [you].” And as you receive again your salvation, treasuring it in your hearts, “return [home], glorifying and praising God for all [you have] heard and seen, as it had been told [you].” For the good news of great joy that Christ’s work achieves is for you and all people: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.”

So it is true for you who receive that message, for you who “have come to know and to believe the love that God has for [you].” Believe with amazement “the saying that has been told [you] concerning this Child,” the wondrous message of Christmas: Christ made Himself nothing, so that you may have everything.

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent 4 Sermon -- Luke 1:39-56 (LSB Advent 4B)

December 20, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is fruit of your womb! And why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Elizabeth’s statement touches a nerve with many American Christians—and not only because of how she addresses Mary. Many do not want to hear about uniqueness or special statuses. Instead, they want all people to be the same, even if they do call everybody special. But uniqueness is part of the Lord God’s design. He does confer different statuses to individuals, making them unique.

One of the ways that the Lord God confers a different status to an individual is by filling them with the Holy Spirit. The Lord God has done so often, for that is how He has used individuals to utter prophetic statements, using them to disclose His will and His word. So it was for Elizabeth. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, given the ability by the Lord God to state a great truth for people to hear, even generations later. That truth is what Elizabeth declares concerning Mary and the Son she would bear, the truth about their uniqueness.

You heard Elizabeth’s prophetic declaration: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth speaks about the Blessed Virgin’s status. The maiden Mary of Nazareth is different than all other women who will ever exist. But Elizabeth also speaks about Mary’s Son. Her Son is also different than all other children who will ever be born. And this is so because it is the Lord God’s doing.

Elizabeth is devout, a true believer. Earlier in his gospel, St. Luke gives the finest description about her and her husband Zechariah: “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” By the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth is given to know how the Lord God has acted. But even she is astonished by being able to see it firsthand. She reacts out of her humility. Her statement reveals her wonder: “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

The amazement that Elizabeth has is her response to witnessing the work of the Lord God with her own eyes. But it isn’t just seeing what the Lord God does that moves her; it is also her thinking about how He works. The entire Infant Narrative of the Christ is full of unique statuses unexpectedly being given by the Lord God to individual people and places. You heard the prophecy concerning the birthplace of the Christ: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Even the Christ’s place of birth astonishes and amazes—a fact that will be illustrated on Epiphany.

The two individuals in the Gospel Reading are also quite unexpected. A barren woman and a virgin are both with child. And not only will births occur, but one son is filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb and will be the last prophet of the Old Testament and the other Son is the Lord God incarnate. But this is the Lord God’s work, His actions that make people and places unique. Even in unexpected ways, the Lord God does so to accomplish His good and gracious will to bring salvation to His fallen creation.

These great divine acts are why Elizabeth was given to prophesy about Mary. Those same great divine acts are the reason why Mary is “blessed among women,” as she herself testifies: “For behold, from now on all generations will call be blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” All these individuals in St. Luke’s account of the Christ’s infancy are made unique because the Lord God is at work, using them as instruments in His bringing of salvation.

That is why everything in the Gospel Reading hinges upon the statements that Elizabeth makes about Mary’s Son: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb!” and “the mother of my Lord should come to me.” For that is what brings the uniqueness of the entire event. Elizabeth’s declarations about Mary are based upon what the Angel Gabriel had said to the maiden: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

It is the presence of that Son of the Most High that leads to the pre-born John’s leaping. It is the understanding of what has taken place which inspires Mary’s song of praise. The desire for people to know the identity of Jesus is why the Lord God pours out His Holy Spirit upon Elizabeth and causes her to prophesy and bless. All this takes place, so that you also may believe what the Lord God has done for your salvation, so that you may be given a unique status by the Lord God.

Everything in the Gospel Reading hinges upon the identity of Mary’s Son and what He would accomplish for her and Elizabeth and John and you. The great praise that Elizabeth gives about the pre-born Jesus—“blessed is the fruit of your womb”—is based in the fact that she herself will be blessed by Him. John’s leaping is caused by his joy at encountering the Christ whom he would herald to the people. Mary’s worship confesses that her Son is the way that the “[Lord God] has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And that same Jesus is your salvation, the One who makes you blessed.

As the people in Zechariah’s house bear true witness about Mary’s Son, so you may hear and believe. Their inspired testimony carries the Holy Spirit to you. Through it, you know the identity of Jesus: He is the Lord God incarnate. He is the “Shepherd of Israel,” He who is “enthroned upon the cherubim,” but who also descended to this world. That Jesus fulfills the prophecies about Him, including the words of Micah: “He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth.”

How does Jesus accomplish this for you? How does He give you a blessed and unique status? By what He has done to fulfill His Father’s will for you. His appearance in time had that great purpose. In the words of the psalm, Jesus declares: “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.” And what was that will? It was what the Lord God declared through the prophets: to take upon Himself human nature, live perfectly among us, and to offer His life as a ransom for many.

You heard the effects of Jesus’ accomplishing the Father’s will: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The Jesus who was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man offered Himself for you. He takes upon Himself your human nature and substitutes His holiness for your sin. He takes your curse and gives you His blessing instead. For that is what was foretold about Mary’s Son. That is His uniqueness, a uniqueness to benefit Mary, Elizabeth, John, and you.

The unique identity of her Son is what Mary believed. It is why she is blessed, just as the Spirit-filled Elizabeth declared: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” That same unique identity is what Elizabeth believed, why she was amazed that “the mother of my Lord should come to me.” It is what John believed and inspired his jumping about in the womb. And it is what you believe as you confess the Son of Mary to be the Son of God and your Savior.

So you also are blessed, for you have been made special. You are shown the mercy of the Lord God that is “for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” You are given to recognize Jesus as your peace with God. You can now exhort Him to “stir up Your might and come and save us!” And He does so, as He makes Himself present in His words for to receive and believe. The mother of your Lord does not stand in your presence, but her Son places Himself here in His audible and visible Gospel. And through it, you are made His disciples, children of the Lord God, recipients of forgiveness and everlasting life—a blessed state indeed!

Thus, Elizabeth’s words about Mary can be spoken of you: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Blessed are you, as you believe the divine word that your salvation will be fulfilled: possession of life everlasting, total perfection, an end to all sin and curse. This is what Mary’s Son promises to you, as you are declared to be His followers and His Father’s heirs.

Everything hinges upon His unique status. The fruit of Mary’s womb is blessed, for He is the Lord. And so you are blessed, for you have been made holy through the mercy of the Lord God. You have been sanctified by the offering of His unique body for you. May you receive and keep with humility the blessed state that has been given to you, so that it will be granted to you to see with your own eyes John, Elizabeth, the mother of your Lord and the Lord Himself.

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent 3 Midweek Homily -- Luke 2:8-20 (Gloria in Excelsis)

December 16, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

The angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

The words of the Gloria in Excelsis are the last of the songs from St. Luke’s Gospel that we will consider during this Advent season. (The Nunc Dimittis will be taken up on the First Sunday after Christmas, December 27.) We have already heard Mary’s worship of the Lord God for His exalting work. Zecharias’ song praised the Lord for remembering His promises and sending salvation to His people. Tonight, we are graced with an angelic hymn—a song first sung by no human voices.

In fact, we heard two angelic hymns in praise of the Lord God. From the prophecy of Isaiah, we listened in on the choir of heaven singing: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts; the whole earth is filled with His glory.” The seraphim praise the holiness that the Lord God possesses and His glory that even all the creation cannot contain. Peeking into Paradise, mortal man is terrified. Isaiah records his dread, his certainty that he was eternally doomed.

The prophet said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the Lord of Hosts!” The glory of God fills heaven and earth, and it is a terrifying thing for us humans, we who are tainted and corrupted by sin. We cannot bear to see the glory and holiness of the Lord God, for it is a power greater than we. It seeks to engulf and destroy all that is contrary to it; a divine perfection that obliterates creation’s sinfulness.

But Isaiah is spared from doom, but only as his sin is purged from him. A holy coal cauterizes the wounds of sin and transgression: “Your guilt is taken away; and your sin is atoned for.” Isaiah does not receive eternal death, but life instead. By heavenly action done for him, Isaiah he is enabled to speak the words of the Lord God.

The same glory of the Lord frightened the shepherds of Bethlehem. We know the story well, even without hearing it again this evening. The angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds: “The glory of the Lord shone all around them. And they were sore afraid.” The reaction of the shepherds is the same as Isaiah’s: “We’re all going to die! Woe is us! Our eyes have seen the Lord’s glory!”

But just as Isaiah heard, the shepherds are given a message of forgiveness: “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy.” The angel’s message tells the shepherds: “In Bethlehem the Savior is born, the One who will save His people from their sins. Do not fear, for your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” The heavenly touches mortal Isaiah, and he is forgiven. The Lord God touches creation by entering it and being born that Bethlehem night, and the world’s sins are atoned for.

Such events receive angelic worship, for no human mouth can truly praise it. So the cherubim and seraphim sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” The heavenly host praise God and tell all humanity about how the Lord God will use His glory. Their song testifies that the Christ’s arrival, the entrance of the Lord God into creation was meant for our benefit.

Humanity was not greeted that evening with a song of doom. Our ears did not hear the battle hymn of heaven or a Valkyric war cry. Instead, we are graced with a harmony of praise and comfort: praise of God and comfort to mankind. The shepherds heard the song of salvation: “good news of great joy that will be for all people.”

Perhaps that is why this portion of St. Luke’s Gospel is so beloved by many of us. We all know the power and glory of God, but we want confirmed that He uses them for our good, for our salvation and not our destruction. For all of us know the reaction of Isaiah and the Bethlehem shepherds. The perfection and majesty of God exposes our uncleanness. What we cover in the shadows of shame and darkness are brought into bright light for Him to see.

Confronted with that, our consciences cry out in fear and terror. We may even be moved to cowering and tears when our sin is exposed. But then we are presented with that angelic message. The divine words of heaven come down to us again: “I have touched you and you are clean. I have entered your world and your guilt is taken away. I have died and risen, your sins are atoned for.”

The message that the angels brought to Bethlehem with their song is the summary of the Gospel: God is glorious and His pardon and peace is given to those whom He loves. So it is that we sing their song, too. We sing it in the worship of our Lord, for we believe it to be true.

We join the angelic hymn on the Sundays when we have the Lord God come to us to touch our lips and cleanse them, when He comes to absolve us of our guilt with His grace. The angels’ song is given to be our song when our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in His proclaimed Gospel and His Body and Blood distributed to forgive our sins.

The good news of that Bethlehem night is meant for Christmas. But it is also meant for our Advent, Lent, Easter, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, or whatever day in which we find ourselves. The angels proclaim our forgiveness because of the Lord’s merciful nature. They sing about the Savior, the One born to die so that we may live and the One who lives so that we may never die.

So let us sing about that Savior as we celebrate His coming for our salvation: “Glory to God in the highest, and one earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent 3 Sermon -- Luke 7:18-35 (LSB Advent 3C)

December 13, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

Jesus answered them: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”

Jesus’ words are His response to John’s inquiry. Languishing in Herod’s prison, the Baptizer sends two messengers to Jesus with a very pointed question: “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John wants an answer from Jesus’ lips. He seeks certainty about Jesus’ identity, for that certainty will confirm his own identity as the Lord God’s chosen forerunner of the Christ.

It isn’t that John had no idea about who Jesus was. No, John had been quite sure about Jesus. You can recall how John reacted to the presence of Jesus, even before the two of them were born. John had encountered Jesus when the Virgin Mary carried Him in her womb. His mother Elizabeth testifies: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” That certainty about Jesus’ identity extended into John’s adult life. Standing alongside the Jordan River, John declares to the approaching Jesus: “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” As John sees Jesus later, he bears witness about Jesus’ identity: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

So why does John send messengers to Jesus to inquire about His identity? Why does he now demand to hear testimony from Jesus’ own mouth? The context of this event gives the reason: time in the dungeon will cause minds to waver and hearts to doubt. John knew about who he was and what he was supposed to do. He declared it to all those who came to hear his preaching: “I baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” But what now? Is the blade of Herod’s sword the fate that should await the Forerunner of the Christ? Should the one whose birth was foretold by Gabriel in Jerusalem’s Temple suffer death?

John’s impending death drives him to want to know for certain that everything he had preached was true and that the One whose way he prepared was truly the Lord’s Promised Christ. Do I have the right hope, the right faith? That is the question that is framed in John’s words: “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

So how does Jesus answer John? How does the Christ respond to His hesitant herald? “In that hour He healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind He bestowed sight. And He answered [John’s messengers],Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.’” Jesus quotes the prophecy of Isaiah and then fulfills it. And He tells the messengers to report exactly that back to John.

It is an interesting way of responding to John’s question. Jesus doesn’t just come right out and say: “I am the One who is to come.” And yet, He gives John that answer by what He says and does. Jesus takes John back to the Lord God’s covenant promises that He was fulfilling. He knows that John is a believer, but a believer whose faith needs reassuring. So Jesus presents John with what is not doubted: John’s question indicated that he believed in the promises of the Old Testament. Remember, he asks Jesus: “Are You the One who is to come?” John was certain that a Christ would arrive. So Jesus cites the prophecy what that “One who is to come” would do. But Jesus does one thing more: He fulfills that prophecy and sends witnesses of it back to John.

Jesus’ response to John’s question gives certainty to John, because it takes John to the certain and true Word of God. Hearing the report, John can be sure that the Christ had arrived. Isaiah’s words had given John his identity; further words of Isaiah bear witness to Jesus’ identity. He is the Christ who does everything that the Lord God had declared would take place. So John can know that his work was not in vain, that his hope was not empty, that his imprisonment and impending execution were not the Lord God’s rejecting of him.

No, John can rejoice, even in his shackles, because all the covenant promises were going to be fulfilled by Christ. There is no reason for John to take offense at Him. Though he suffers injustice and will be martyred, John can cling to what the prophet Zephaniah states: “‘Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. . . . At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the Lord.”

This way of responding John’s demand for certainty is the same way that Jesus alleviates your doubts. Jesus does not often answer questions in the way that you desire. But He does not ignore your questions. No, He gives reply by taking you back to the promises that He has made to you, promises that He has fulfilled.

All of you have suffered or will suffer afflictions in earthly life. Some will be minor, but some will cause you question the divine promises: “Where are You, Jesus? What have I done wrong, God? Have You abandoned me, Lord? Are You the One I should trust You, Jesus, or should I look for another?” Those are the questions that spring from your hearts, sometimes even leaping off of your lips for many to hear. Like John, you question Jesus’ identity, His promises, His ability to save, His way of life. The words of the psalm become your own questions: “Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?”

Why is this so? Because you see with your own eyes what happens in your lives. You rightly claim to believe in Jesus and His acts for your salvation. And yet, you suffer many things. You believe that Jesus delivers you from sin, death, and Satan. But when you look around, you see that these enemies are still powerful and even show dominance in this world. What you experience leads you to take offense at Christ. Like John, you can wonder just what is wrong, why this is happening.

But how does Jesus answer you? Does He immediately vanquish your foes? Does He show great displays of His power? Does He heal you straightaway? Does He raise your loved ones back to life? Does He cast out demons? No, He doesn’t usually do any of these visible things. Rather, Jesus responds to you as He responded to John. Jesus takes you back to what He has promised to you and what He has already done for you.

Your hearts and minds want peace from Jesus. His apostle says: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” How does that peace reach your hearts and minds? It happens as the psalmist says: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, to His saints; but let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord God continues to speak to you, retelling you what He has promised and what He has done. As His actions are remembered and recalled, your faith is reaffirmed.

Do you question your identity as one of His people? Jesus says: “You believe that I exist and all My people bear My name. You were baptized and My Name has been placed on you.” Do you doubt whether your sins have been atoned for? Jesus says: “You believe that I have died for your sins, that I have made payment for you. Now receive My Body and Blood that I offered for your forgiveness and proclaim My sacrificial death for you.” Do you wonder whether you can endure suffering? Jesus says: “You believe that you are no greater than I, your Master. I suffered greatly, and so will you; but I have overcome these things, and so will you.”

The words of Jesus are repeated, so that you may hear them again and again. They carry the Holy Spirit who brings faith to you. Like John, you hear the witness of what others have seen and heard. Trapped in Herod’s prison, John didn’t see the events take place; trapped in the bonds of time, neither have you. But when you hear the words of Jesus that tell about His works, doubt is removed, faith is restored. It is just as the Scripture writer says: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith believes what the ears hear, so Jesus sends messengers with His command: “Go and tell what you have seen and heard.”

As what Jesus spoke and did is told, His identity is displayed. He is the One who is to come, who fulfilled the old covenant, and who will fulfill His great promise to return. That truth lightens the darkness of your hearts. It strengthens your faith. It dispels your doubt. And so the exhortation is given to you and all the Lord God’s faithful people: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a Mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” Jesus confirms His identity by repeating what He did for you. So you need not look for another, but rejoice with the hope in Him who fulfilled the divine promises for you.

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Advent 2 Midweek Homily -- Luke 1:57-80 (Benedictus)

December 9, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

Zecharias praised God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.”

The opening lines of Zecharias’ song are familiar to many Lutherans. It is the beginning of the Benedictus, the Gospel Canticle which is sung or spoken together during the Order of Morning Prayer. It is also the second of four songs about the Savior found in St. Luke’s Gospel.

Like the Virgin Mary of whom we heard last Wednesday, Zecharias sings about a miraculous birth, what the Lord God had accomplished. We are told that Zecharias and his wife Elizabeth were “advanced in years” and that Elizabeth was barren. But an angel of the Lord had spoken to Zecharias in Jerusalem’s Temple, telling him that he and his wife would have a son.

Doubting that possibility, Zecharias was struck mute by the angel until the time his son would be born. The angel also instructed Zecharias to name his son John and that John would be a great man with a great purpose: “He will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Now after the length of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, her son was born. And when the infant boy was to be circumcised and named, Zecharias scribbles out the name John on a tablet, giving this name to his son as the angel had commanded. As the last letters are printed, Zecharias’ tongue is loosed and he opens his mouth in praise of the Lord God.

But notice what Zecharias says, how his song of praise begins: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.” Zecharias’ prayer and praise has the Lord God as its object. But his prayer and praise is not first for his baby boy. Instead, Zecharias worships the Lord God for providing a Savior.

Who is this Savior? Who is “the horn of salvation in the house of His servant David?” It isn’t Zecharias’ son. His boy doesn’t fit the criteria. John’s lineage is like his mother’s and father’s: from the house of Aaron and the house of Levi, the priestly line of Israel. John is not born into the royal house of David. Zecharias’ son is destined for great things, but only in service of the promised Savior.

John is the Savior’s forerunner, the one who makes ready the people for the Christ’s arrival. He does what Malachi prophesied: “Behold, I am sending My messenger to prepare the way before Me.” His father’s song places his work in its proper place: below the worship of the Christ and His work, in the subservient position. John is lauded and praised by Zecharias because of the One he will serve: “You my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God.”

John’s destiny is wrapped up in what he will do for Christ and what Christ does for him, not in what he does for himself. The Christ who “saves us from our enemies” and “shows the mercy promised to our fathers” is the main subject of Zecharias’ song, not the birth of his son. And like Zecharias, we Christians also have the Savior as the focus of our worship.

We sing Zecharias’ song because of what the promised Savior does for us, just as He did for Zecharias and Elizabeth and John and all of our ancestors in the faith. “The oath sworn to our father Abraham” has been fulfilled in the birth of Mary’s Son Jesus and in His life’s work for us. He has “delivered us from the hands of our enemies” of sin, death, and Satan. And now, “we serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all of our days.”

The work of John was to make known the identity of the Savior. With that completed, his task, his purpose was fulfilled. As John himself would say: “Behold, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And pointing to Jesus, he would also rightly confess: “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him. He must increase and I must decrease.”

Like Zecharias, his father, John worships the Christ and serves Him without fear. The same calling is given to us. We are to take the same humble position as John and to exalt our Savior Jesus as Zecharias did. Our redemption and hope is found in “the horn of salvation.” Not in ourselves, not in the messengers of Jesus, but in the Savior alone is our deliverance.

In this season of preparation, let us focus on that great truth. Let us know that our salvation is in the forgiveness of sins that our Lord Jesus Christ provides us through His work, His life, His crucifixion, and His resurrection. That is what Zecharias and John have made known to us by testifying about the Lord God. Let us “serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all of our days,” just as Zecharias’ song declares. Then let us thank the Lord God for the messengers He has sent, those who have made Him known to us and prepared His ways, always placing Him first in importance.

And finally, we will join in Zecharias’ song both now and when our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory and brings the Church to everlasting life with Him: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.”

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