Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Day Sermon -- John 1:1-18

December 25, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“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 any thing made that was made. 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.”

John’s words about the Word are put before your ears again this Christmas Day. They take you to the reason for celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord. The heart of this day is found in what the Gospel Writer says about the Word: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Christmas Day is a time to celebrate life. Not celebrating everything that is done while living, but life itself, especially the life that has been restored to humanity.

John’s words that start his gospel account take us back to the beginning, the Creation Account. The Gospel Writer starts with the same phrase that gave us the first statements about God’s existence and ours. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So the Creation Account begins. So John states about the Word: “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 any thing made that was made.” This Word that became flesh and dwelt among us was before the start of time. He was present at the creation of the cosmos. He was the source of life at the very beginning.

But the same Creation Account tells us about the darkness that came into the world. The Lord’s creation that was full of life became full of death. Death was established as the curse for disobedience. It was so for the first humans who defied the Lord’s command. The same is so for you and your own transgressions. Every sin, great or little, is answered by the curse of death. And so you experience it all around in this creation. It is what you are forced to observe, forced to encounter, forced to mourn.

But what do you hear this morning? “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.” What happens in this creation with its darkness of death? Light shines in it. Light is given to you, the children of man. But it is not a light that comes from you; the light emanates from another and falls upon you. The light is from God Himself, is God Himself. The light comes from the life that is in God, the life that comes to this world with the nativity of Jesus.

That is what the Gospel Writer wants you to know. He tells you about this Word that is made flesh and dwells among you: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” The life of Jesus is the light of men. It can enlighten all, everything that was created by Him. His life can enlighten you—you who are benighted by sin, shrouded by death, lingering in the shadows of evil. This is given by the Man Jesus, but only because that same Jesus born in Bethlehem of Virgin Mother is also “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” The true light that Jesus brings to you, the life that He carries is due to what the Epistle Writer disclosed about His identity: “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.”

John’s words about the Word take you back again to the beginning. But this time, there is a new beginning, a restarting, a rebooting. The creation that has fallen is graced again with life. That is what starts with the Nativity, why this day is a time to celebrate life. Just like in the beginning, a Man is once again created. He is not born of Adam, but has God as His eternal Father. He does not bear the flaw of sin. He is not corrupt like you and I. No, this is a pure source of life for the creation: “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…. And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” This grace includes the life that Jesus brings into the world victimized by sin and death.

Grace and truth are given by this Word become flesh. “Grace and truth”: How different those words sound to what this world puts forward! Revenge and retribution, lies and deception: those are words that we know well. They are words that mankind has seemingly known forever. They are what you deal with everyday. You experience all sorts of examples of them throughout your life: from children’s arguments over playthings to betrayals of confidence in the high school hallways to the vindictive natures of co-workers to the frauds that are attempted against senior citizens. Everywhere the opposite of grace and truth are seen. But grace and truth is what Jesus brings. And He makes it known to you.

John’s words about the Word tell you: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.” The Word become flesh has made God known; He has made Himself known. That is the light that He brings to the darkness. You know man. You know his lack of grace and truth. But the Word-become-flesh has made God known to you, including the grace and truth that leads to your salvation. What was lost after mankind followed lies and deceptions has been restored by Jesus. The identity of God as a source of grace and goodness has been made known by Him. Instead of only knowing God as a Supreme Being that needs to be appeased lest He smite you, you have Jesus showing Him as the source of blessing and good.

The graciousness and steadfastness of God is displayed in the Nativity of Our Lord. The birth of Jesus shows that God does not leave you helpless. He does not abandon you only to what your sin deserves. No, you are given to see the radiance of God’s glory and to see it used for your benefit. Jesus’ birth demonstrates that the promises made by God are certain and true. His words are not like those around you that are soon forgotten or broken. What He says will come to pass.

At the heart of this divine graciousness and steadfastness is what Jesus brings to you. John tells you about it: “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.” The restarting, the new beginning of creation is given to you. You have a new origin. You are rebooted. You are not only children of Adam; you have been made children of God. Life is made to be yours, as you are born of God, born from above, born again. The divine grace and truth are made your possessions. The divine light that is the life of men is shined on you. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness of your sinfulness, your mortality, your own evil does not overcome the light that Jesus brings. Rather, His light overcomes your darkness. His light makes you children of the light. You have the life of men that Jesus has brought.

This is what the Church celebrates on this day. Life—the life of the newborn Jesus and the life that His Nativity brings—is celebrated. The joyous songs and carols ring out because of it. You are given to participate in the celebration. The birth of Jesus is remembered, the time when the Lord was once again with His people. What the prophets foretold has happened: “The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted His people; He has redeemed Jerusalem. 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.” This is what the birth of Jesus has brought to pass.

In Jesus is found your life. In Him is your joy. That is what the grace and truth that Jesus brings has given to you. His Nativity marks the start of your new birth. The beginning of His life marks the start of your new life. And so you can celebrate life this day, the life that Jesus brings by being part of His creation, by becoming man, by being the Word-become-flesh. “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.” Thanks be to God the Father that His Son was born and brought grace and truth, so that you also could become children of God.

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

Vigil of Christmas Sermon -- Matthew 1:1-25

December 24, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

The Evangelist sets the Messiah’s birth in the long line of Israel’s history. It is the culmination of what the Lord had promised through the generations. The promise had been made and handed down from Abraham to his descendants. You heard the listing of the names incorporated and involved in the promise. Some are quite familiar to you, names of people that you have learned about: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon. Some are a little less familiar, names that sound familiar but you can’t quite place them: Boaz, Judah, Rehoboam, Hezekiah, Josiah. Then there are the unfamiliar names: Zerah, Obed, Abijah, Jechoniah, Eliakim. But each one has his place in this long line of individuals. In each generation, the promise of the Messiah was reaffirmed.

The Lord had declared from the beginning: “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.” The promise had been set, spoken by One whose word cannot be broken. The offspring of Eve would have their fates reversed. The curse spoken against her and her husband would come to and end. And the promise was told that the One to end that affliction, the One who would wreak vengeance against the Serpent that deceived her would be her descendant.

Through the generations, the Lord reaffirmed His promise. Despite the sins committed by Eve’s offspring, another generation of them appeared. The line of humanity did not end. Fratricide, adulterous affairs, family feuds raged throughout these generations. Even worse, some did not believe in the promise that the Lord had made. Each father named in the list had his faults. Some have nothing really good to be said about them. Yet, another son would be born who would beget his own offspring. The Messianic Line had further names added to it.

Not only were names added to the Messianic Line, more details of the promise were added with them. The Lord disclosed these details through His prophets, men sent to speak to His people. You have heard these details about the Messiah and the Line from which He came:

“The virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”

“Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”

“There shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

“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 coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

This is the One eternally elected to be the Serpent-Crusher, the Reverser of Curses, the Restorer of Eve’s offspring. Generation after generation waited for this to occur. Those of faith believed that the promise would be fulfilled, despite the long wait. This is what Matthew reminds us: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Forty-two generations, each one standing after the other in expectation of the Promised One. Forty-two generations, each one clinging to the promise in the peaks and valleys of their line’s history.

So now, the day of the Messiah’s arrival is remembered. Matthew tells us: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’” Even at the Messiah’s arrival, the people in His Line had to be reminded of what had been promised, of what the Lord was going to do.

But Matthew tells us that it occurred, just as the Lord had determined: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a Son. And he called His name Jesus.” All took place to fulfill what the Lord had said. The long wait was over. The Messiah had arrived. Eve’s long sought for Descendant had appeared.

On this night, your place in this line of people is also reaffirmed. You are Eve’s offspring. The Lord’s promise from the beginning was made to you. And He has fulfilled it. The Serpent’s head has been crushed for you by Him who is the Son of God and the Son of Mary. He has done so by death and resurrection. You are meant to receive this fullness of God’s love, as John testifies: “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.” The long Messianic Line that passed through names familiar and unfamiliar, faithful and unfaithful shows just how wide that love of God is. His promise is fulfilled, despite all that may attempt to thwart it.

You are added to this line of people who belong to the Lord: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God abides in him, and he in God.” He does so despite your doubts and failures. He is present for you in the peaks and valleys of your lives. He is here now, bringing your generation and the one that will follow into fellowship with Him. That is what we remember in this Vigil of Christmas. It is what the readings of the promises and the record of the Messiah’s birth make known to you again. The culmination of what the Lord had promised through the generations has taken place. So give thanks for the fulfillment of the divine plan formed long ago that opened the way of salvation for you. Watch for the day when that promised salvation is fully made yours at the Messiah’s promised return. Faithfully trust the Lord’s statements of promise until you see your Redeemer with your own eyes. For all shall take place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken, the One who truly keeps His word.

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

St. Thomas Day Sermon -- John 20:24-29

December 21, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.’”

Pictures or it didn’t happen.” That phrase has entered into modern usage. There is a demand for evidence for every extreme, extraordinary claim. You had dinner with the President? Pictures or it didn’t happen. You sat next to a supermodel/actor on an airplane? Pictures or it didn’t happen. You shot a 12-point buck, were introduced on the floor of Congress, drove a Lamborghini, etc? Pictures or it didn’t happen.

But this demand for evidence, for proof, is not a modern phenomenon. The demand for visible signs goes much further back, into the pre-modern, even ancient times. Tonight, as the Festival Day of St. Thomas is kept in the Church, his demand for proof is also heard. You know about this demand for proof quite well. It is read on every Second Sunday of Easter. But hear the words again: “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.’”

The apostles’ claim seemed exaggerated: they had seen Jesus who had died alive again. Not only one individual claimed it, but all ten. That doesn’t even include Mary Magdalene and the other women who had witnessed the Risen Jesus. The claim is extreme, though it is not the first time that the apostles and others had seen a resurrection. You will recall that Thomas himself was the one anxious to go to Bethany where Lazarus was raised after four days in the tomb. But when the claim was made that the crucified Jesus was alive, Thomas wants proof: “Unless I see…,” he says. It’s kind of a 1st Century “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”

As you also heard this evening, there have been others who made the same demand. The Old Testament figure Gideon was put in front of you again. He had been told something extraordinary: the Lord would use him, a farmer, to bring Israel out from under the oppression of the Midianites and Amalekites. Gideon had seen the angel of the Lord. He had been told explicitly what would occur.

But the Lord’s statement seemed unbelievable. How would a farmer take up such a task? How could he lead a group of people much weaker than their enemies to victory? So Gideon wanted a sign, something he could see to bring proof of the claim: “Then Gideon said to God, ‘If You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.’” Yet even when that took place, Gideon still wanted more: “Let not Your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and all the ground let there be dew.” And once again, the sign is given.

Only after receiving such proof did Gideon take up the mantle of leadership. Only then did he accept the statement that the Lord had made to him, that he would be the one by whose hand Israel would be saved. It is very similar to what took place with Thomas: “Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’” Like Gideon’s demand, Thomas’ desired sign is given. And it leads to his confession of faith: “My Lord and My God!” Now Thomas would take up his role as an apostle, a witness to the Risen Jesus, one through whose hand the accomplishments of Jesus’ death and resurrection would save His people.

The demand for proof is what we desire. The examples of Gideon and Thomas show that we are not alone in this. But ultimately, it is a desire that comes from frailty, from sin, from imperfection. For us, it is not enough simply have the Lord declare something and believe it. Instead, there is want for experience, evidence, something empirical. But that is not how faith works. Belief in something not seen, hope in something not yet in your possession: those are the concepts of faith. There is a trust in what a trustworthy one says.

Jesus’ response to Thomas illustrates the blessedness that comes to those with such trust: “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And yet, the Lord still condescends to our level. The words of the psalm spoke of His character: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” The steadfast love that the Lord had for Gideon, for Thomas, and even for you causes Him to act mercifully for you despite your frailty, sin, and imperfection. Signs are given with His Word, so that your body may cling to something tangible, while believing His statements. So it is with Christ’s Sacraments, where something visible accompanies what can’t be seen. You can’t touch Jesus’ hands and side, but you do have Him present with you in water, bread and wine. Something for your senses is given, even as His words are spoken to your souls.

The Collect for this festival day confirms that: “Almighty and ever-living God, You strengthened Your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in the resurrection of Your Son. Grant us such faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, that we may never be found wanting in Your sight….” Thomas was given true faith in Jesus and His resurrection. It even allowed him to face his own martyrdom because of his role as an apostle. His testimony about Jesus—“My Lord and my God”—did not waver. We pray for the same faith. We pray not that can have whatever sign that we might demand, but that we would receive from our Lord what He desires to give to bolster our fear, love, and trust in Him.

As that fear, love, and trust is created in you by the words and signs that the Risen Jesus gives, you are also led to the right confession about Him. You make the same statement as Thomas did: “My Lord and my God.” With that confession of faith comes the promise of your own resurrection. Then what Thomas demanded will be made to be yours: seeing with your own eyes and touching with your own fingers the Savior who died and rose for your salvation. Jesus’ words and signs are given now through the hands that He uses to dole out His salvation, so that Thomas’ experience will be yours in the future. Such is Jesus’ steadfast love to answer your frailty, imperfection, and sin.

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

LSB Advent 4B Sermon -- Luke 1:26-38

December 18, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And behold, 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. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of his father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

“Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy….” Power and might. That is what the Church prays for Jesus to use. Power and might to lift the sins that weigh us down. It is a prayer that has been offered throughout human history, from the moment of Adam’s sin to now. The burden of sin is known, known too well. It is the burden that you suffer under: the burden that you add to everyday and have others pile on, as well. The prayer is for deliverance from this burden, deliverance that is only possible by divine action done for you.

Divine action being done for the burden of sin to be lifted is what the Church begins to hear about on this Fourth Sunday in Advent. As the calendar has turned to this last Sunday prior to Christmas, the focus of the readings has changed. The focus is not on the glorious return of Jesus. Neither is it on the preaching of repentance, so that you may be made ready for Christ to appear. No, the focus is on the appearance of the Son of God in time, the arrival of Jesus to be the Deliverer from sin, the Fulfiller of the promise of salvation. God is acting: that is what the readings for this day tell us. And His action is with power and might to lift up the sins that weigh you down.

In the Old Testament Reading, you heard a promise made by the Lord to David, the King of Israel. Before the Lord made that promise to David, the king had desired to do something for the Lord: “Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ And Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.’” David wanted to build a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant, a house for where the localized presence of the Lord could reside. This desire came after the Lord had given David victory over his enemies, an act of divine power that took place for this King of Israel. The Lord’s power and might had brought deliverance to the people of Israel: the Hittites, Philistines, and Amalekites were no longer great threats. Israel lived in the safety that the Lord provided for them.

But the Lord’s provision was to be more than that temporal peace. Though David had wanted to build a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant, the Lord’s will was to perform an even greater action for David and all who would follow in his line, those who were bound to the Lord by an eternal covenant. So a promise was made to the monarch. Power and might would be used to bring a great benefit, something even more than David and Israel experienced: “I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over My people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house…. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before Me. Your throne shall be established forever.”

Eternal security and safety, an everlasting household and throne: those were the promised ends that the Lord disclosed to David. They would come as He acted for the king and the people. What was promised could only come about as the Lord accomplished it. Just as He had exalted David from the sheep herds to the throne of Israel, so the Lord would exalt all His people, bringing deliverance and salvation down from heaven.

The fulfillment of the Lord’s promise was not immediate. It did not come with the coronation of Solomon after David’s death. David’s grandsons Jeroboam and Rehoboam would bring anything but peace and security to the nation. Further generations of Israelite and Judahite monarchs would experience war and exile. The royal house of David appeared to be ready to die off. But it was precisely then that the Lord exercised His power and might, stirring them up to bring His promises to fulfillment.

This morning, you heard the words that announced the beginning of the promise’s fulfillment: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’” The annunciation to Mary revealed that she was the object of divine favor. The Lord was with her, just as He had been with David a millennium before. Something great would be done through her: “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, 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. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Gabriel’s words to Mary hearken back to the promise that had been made to David. The Lord had promised acts of power and might to be done for David’s heirs and people. Eternal peace was to be given. An everlasting house was to be established. Divine favor was to be shown to a particular group of people. The angel’s appearance in Nazareth revealed that the time for those promises to be fulfilled had arrived.

But note how Mary responded to that announcement: “And Mary said, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’” The question points out the obvious: How can a child be born when the chosen mother had not taken part in the acts that lead to conception and birth? But the question leads to the revelation that what was to take place, beginning in Nazareth, was not a matter of human origin. Instead, the Lord was going to act, using His power and might to benefit His people: “And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’”

“Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy….” That is what the Lord did in Nazareth. Divine power and might were used, so that a virgin could conceive and bear a Son. Divine power and might were exercised, so that an eternal kingdom could be established through God becoming human. Divine power and might were stirred up, so that the Son of God could bring salvation, delivering people from their sins, just as His name Jesus disclosed. Divine power and might caused a maiden in a small Galilean town to be called “God’s favored one” by all generations.

Centuries had passed since the promise had been made to David. But in the fullness of time, the Lord determined that the promise was to be fulfilled in His own chosen way. He selects Mary to be the vessel through which His power and might would take flesh. David had wanted to build a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant. But the Lord’s desire was to make a maiden the dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant where His glory would dwell, as He took flesh and became man. Born of her, the promised Descendant of David would come and fulfill all that had been sworn and pledged from on high. And Mary’s response to this was the same as David’s response when first hearing the promise made to him: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word.”

In Jesus, divine power and might have been employed to benefit you. The promise was made that the Lord would give a great name, appoint a place for His people, bring everlasting peace, and establish an eternal house. That is what Jesus has achieved. By His dying and rising from death, He has gained authority over all things in heaven and earth. His ascension has opened Paradise for you and appointed it as the place where His people will dwell. He has routed all the enemies that haunt you: His obedience has overcome sin, His resurrection has overcome death, His perfection has overcome Satan and his deceptions. Jesus has established a divine household that stands for eternity, as He makes you to be children of God, heirs of everlasting life. All that had been promised to David is fulfilled in his Descendant, Jesus.

That is what the Scriptures reveal to you this day. As they are proclaimed to your hearing, “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, brings about the obedience of faith” in you. The preaching of Jesus Christ’s words and works cause you to make the same statement that Mary did in Nazareth: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word.” Your desire is to have what Jesus has accomplished—every promise that His actions have fulfilled and established for you. So when you hear that baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection brings you life, you want what His word declares. When you hear that what hung on Calvary’s cross to atone for your sins is present on the altar now, you want what His word declares. When you hear that there are people who speak Jesus’ statements of pardon, you want what His word declares. You know that this is how divine power and might is put into action for your salvation.

What took place in Nazareth was the exercise of divine power and might for the benefit of all who trusted that the promise made to David would come to fulfillment. That is how the Lord has acted for you who first did not know what that promise was but now have had that mystery revealed to you. The appearance of the Son of God in time has brought that promise to fulfillment. Now you wait for the promise to be applied in full to you. You have been made part of the household that lasts forever. You have a King who sits on a throne to rule for eternity. A place where His subjects will dwell in security from all your foes has been designated for you. That is what Jesus has accomplished for you.

So you look forward to receiving all that has been promised. You anticipate receiving what Jesus has earned for you. Sins weigh you down and burden your souls, but they are sins that Jesus has atoned. Enemies threaten and harass, but they are adversaries that Jesus has defeated. The people of this world find you strange, but Jesus has established an ending date for your exile. All that He has accomplished to fulfill the promises made to David will be made yours when He returns. It is what awaits you when Jesus will stir up His divine power and might once again to deliver you. Looking toward that day, you pray that Fourth Collect of Advent: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy….” And as you are the Lord’s servants, His favored ones who believe His promise, your prayer will be answered according to His word.

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

St. Lucy Day Sermon -- Psalm 45

December 14, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him.”

December 13 is when the Church commemorates St. Lucy, a martyr of Christ. Like many of the saints of old, not much is known of her. The records of time tell us that a young, unmarried woman named Lucy was executed for her faith in the Sicilian city of Syracuse in AD 304. A disappointed suitor reported her identity as a Christian to the governing authorities. This took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, an avowed enemy of the faith and Christ’s Church.

The acts of martyrs that have passed down through the centuries fill in some more details about Lucy’s fate. It is said that Lucy’s father had died and that her mother attempted to arrange a marriage for her, even having a man selected to become her husband. But Lucy’s desire was to be totally devoted to Jesus, even forsaking marriage to be so, especially marriage to an unbelieving husband. Instead of using the dowry money that had been saved to facilitate a marriage, Lucy convinced her mother to allow her to distribute it to the poor. Such giving away of wealth gave the appearance to her suitor that Lucy was rich. When told of her refusal to marry that meant none of the money would become his, the pagan suitor informed the authorities that Lucy was a Christian. That led to her martyrdom.

Other details have been added to Lucy’s story, including some of the gory details of her torture and demise. While some of these cannot be determined and some appear simply legendary, the death of people because of the faith is not a matter of dramatic fiction. It does happen. Likewise, the devotion to Christ exemplified by Lucy and the other martyrs is not just a tall tale. Many who will go nameless through time have suffered the same. But they did so, knowing like Lucy that they had a greater treasure than all the dowry money in the world. They held to the words of Jesus that you heard this evening: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” The laying down of one’s life for the sake of the faith can certainly be described as selling all that one has.

There is another aspect of Lucy’s life that illustrates another truth of Jesus’ identity and work. Remember how Lucy spoke of being totally devoted to Jesus, so that she was not united in marriage to an unbeliever. Lucy’s action helps to depict the connection that Jesus has to His followers. The paradigm of husband and wife is used in the Scriptures to speak of Jesus and the Church: Jesus being the groom and the Church being the bride. It is a comparison also used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between the Lord and His people Israel. Sometimes it is used positively to speak of the bond that Jesus has with believers; other times its used negatively when speaking about the Lord’s people being unfaithful, an adulterous wife.

Tonight, let us focus on the positive aspect. You heard Paul’s description of the Corinthian Church this evening: “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” This is the way Paul speaks of the followers of Jesus. He has arranged a marriage for them. They are to be bound forever to Jesus. But this husband is not like the suitor that Lucy was betrothed to. He is not interested in obtaining wealth or status from them. This is not a marriage of convenience or an attempt to marry up. No, you and all believers in Jesus have been brought into a relationship where He bestows you with all that is good. A new life has been given to you, so that all the faults and failures of your sin are removed and you are presented as pure to your groom Jesus. That is the way that the Lord considers you and acts for you.

The Psalm prayed this evening extends that same paradigm. In it, a picture of Christ, the Church’s husband is given to you: “You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your splendor and majesty. In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach you awesome deeds! Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.” This goes beyond the fairy tales and their descriptions of Prince Charming. You are united to a husband who has more than just chiseled features or a striking appearance. Christ’s virtue and abilities go beyond that. His words speak grace to you. His cause is for truth and meekness and righteousness, a cause that He fulfills for your benefit by dying and rising again. He strives and fights against His Father’s enemies, those who would do you harm, and He is victorious against them.

This is the true husband to whom Lucy and you have been betrothed. So the Psalm takes uses the picture of a wedding to describe you: “Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him. The people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of people. All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.” That depiction does not describe what you are in your own nature, your own selves. But this is what the Lord makes you to be. It is the honor and status bestowed to you, as you are made righteous by the work of the bridegroom Jesus.

Betrothed and united to Jesus, you are given an identity greater than all the brides on earth. What has been given to Lucy and you is a truly royal wedding, something that no dowry could purchase. Instead, it has been divinely arranged and accomplished. It is purchased by the death and resurrection of God Himself. The groom has placed the finest of rings on His bride’s finger. The greatest of gifts—the pearl of great price—is granted to her. This union does not last until death does them part, but goes beyond it.

That is what you have been given as Jesus’ betrothed. So when you hear of your Bridegroom’s arrival during this Advent Season, you have great reason to rejoice. With Lucy and all the patient saints who bear cross and sufferings now, you will stand with Christ, your groom, before the altar of God the Father. Eternally you shall be with Him as the promised end spoken of in the Psalm comes to pass: “I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.” That is certainly worth being totally devoted to your husband Jesus, faithfully awaiting His arrival.

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

LSB Advent 3B Sermon -- John 1:6-8, 19-28

December 11, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation….” The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent speaks of a light that will dispel darkness. But this is not the darkness from a lack of sunshine or a failure of the power grid. The darkness spoken of in the prayer is much worse. It is sinister. This darkness is the gloom and shadows that come from death. This darkness is the blindness that sin causes in humanity. This darkness is the curtain that hangs over the world that is frustrated and bound by evil.

But the Gospel Writer tells us of something that has happened to dispel this darkness. A light comes to shine in this world. And a witness has been appointed to make this known: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” This is what John the Baptizer came to do. He was present to bear witness about the light that the Lord was bringing to the darkened world. It was his divinely-appointed role. Even from before his birth, John’s identity had been set. His father, Zechariah, prophesied this at John’s birth: “And you, 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, through the tender mercy of our God; when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

So John came bearing witness about this light from the Lord. While bearing witness about the light, John did not confuse his role with that of the Light-Bringer. You heard this from the statements that John gave when he was questioned by the religious leaders of Israel: “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” When pressed by these leaders, John reveals his identity: “So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.’”

John points out that he is a herald, a messenger, a witness. He is present to bring testimony about what the Lord will do when His Christ appears. But he is not the one who accomplishes these actions. No, there is someone greater than he who will fulfill the divine promises. John simply is the one who fulfills the promise of being a messenger: “I baptize with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” The visitation of the Christ was beginning to take place. And John has revealed that the time is now.

John’s role is to bear witness. He is the one who points to Jesus. That is why he has been often depicted in Christian art as a figure with an outstretched arm and an elongated finger. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” But such a role as a witness is not unimportant. Those who suffer from the shadow of death, the blindness of sin, the oppression of Satan and evil must hear about the light that comes to them. They must be directed to the light that visits them from on high. This is stated so well by the Gospel Writer: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.” John’s work brings people to belief. The belief is in him as a witness. But more importantly, the belief is in subject of his testimony—the Promised Christ.

John’s work points people back to what the Lord had promised would occur. You heard one of the great promises about the Christ in the Old Testament Reading for this morning. Hear what was said about the Anointed One, the Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”

The Lord’s promise is lengthy. It seems to go on and on and on. But it is so because of the darkness that has befallen upon His creation and His people. He promises that His Christ will dispel this darkness, that He will remove the shadow and gloom. So the Lord speaks of all the different aspects of it: poverty, brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning. All of these are the results of the darkness that sin has brought. They are what you suffer from as victims of sin—whether it be the wrongful deeds done by other against you or the self-inflicted wounds that your own faults, imperfections, and transgressions have brought. The fullness of the darkness is dealt with by the even greater fullness of the Lord’s light. This is what the Anointed One, He who carries the Spirit of the Lord, the Christ brings. It is the work that the One who came after John accomplishes.

Blow by blow, the results of the Christ’s work are disclosed. The poor hear good news: Christ brings the riches of heaven to them. The brokenhearted are bound up: their wounds of sorrow are bandaged by the joy that Christ brings. The captive and imprisoned are given a declaration of liberty: the Christ sets them free from bondage. Those who suffer wrong have their scores settled: the Christ declares that they shall have the Lord’s favor and that the day of retribution against their enemies is coming. Mourners and grievers are comforted: the Christ removes their ashes and gives them a garment of praise and joy. This is all the Christ’s work, the effect of the light that comes into the world.

So John and others bear witness about the light that the Christ brings. The testimony is not about themselves, but about what He has done. The witness is given, so that all might believe in Christ through what they proclaim about Him. That witness is not just about the results of the Christ’s work, but what His work was. It includes the great message that all the benefits that the Christ brings to those in the darkness is due to His being both victim and conqueror of that same darkness. He has brought reversal of what all the negative things that you endure by Himself suffering through them. He restores the Lord’s order by experiencing the disorder and chaos of sin.

Think again of that list of the promised benefits that the Christ would bring: reversal of poverty, brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning. This is what Christ experienced. He had no place to lay His head and was dependent on others to supply His earthly needs. Seeing the effects of physical illness and spiritual death, He had His own heartache. To set in motion the great act of atoning for sin, Christ was arrested and bound by the Temple Guard and Roman soldiers. Christ was a Man of sorrows, including His mourning over Lazarus’ death and Jerusalem’s failure to listen to Him. These are all His experiences in this world where His gracious visitation took place. And yet, they are what He reverses through His resurrection, through His perfect life of obedience, through His miraculous deeds, through His assaults on Satan and the demonic. “The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The results of Christ’s work are to be made yours. It is why there are people like John who bear witness about the light that Christ has brought into the world. That witness goes out to you, so that you may receive the benefits that Christ brings. So it was promised of old about the Christ’s work: “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring that the Lord has blessed…. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.” The prophecy speaks of you. You have an everlasting covenant made by the Lord. You are the offspring of the faithful whom the Lord has blessed. Righteousness and praise sprouts up from you, even in this world still plagued by darkness. This is what the Lord’s Christ has wrought in you.

Because you believe in the testimony of John and others, because you believe the promises that have been made by the Lord to you, you make the same statements as the psalmist did: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” You trust the results of what has been done for you by the Christ: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” These statements of faith are made, even as you still see darkness around you. They are made because you know of what awaits in the future that the Christ has secured for you.

This is why you pray the Third Collect of Advent: “Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation….” You wish to have the Christ’s visitation that He brings now: His words of forgiveness and comfort and salvation that are spoken to your souls. They bring what He has accomplished to deal with your poverty, brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning. And you look forward to what is yet to be: the visitation that comes with the Christ’s glorious return. Then you shall have the fullness of what He has done for you in the age when there will be no darkness, not even one bit of shadow of sin to hover over you.

Until that day, pray that Third Collect of Advent. Receive the testimony of John and others who bear witness of the Christ’s light. Trust in what the Lord’s Christ has done: His suffering the same as you do and His overcoming it. Anticipate the fulfillment of all His promises. The sinister darkness will come to an end. “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.”

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