Sunday, January 30, 2011

Epiphany 4A Sermon -- Matthew 5:1-12 (LSB Epiphany 4A)

January 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them.”

The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount forms today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus starts to teach authoritatively, beginning with a number of statements about blessedness: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’ words lay out the characteristics of those who possess a blessed status from the Lord. But the criteria are not possible for humanity to meet. In fact, even the Twelve who first heard these words from Jesus’ mouth could not fulfill them.

Jesus’ words lay out the identity of those who have a privileged status before the Lord. But the failure to meet these criteria puts people outside of that status. This is what faced the Israelites to whom the Prophet Micah spoke. Listen to how the prophet begins his words: Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel.” The statements will be directed against the people who had belonged to the Lord. They will be indicted for their sin of apostasy, their falling away from the faith and not putting that faith into actions.

So the Lord speaks: “O My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer Me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O My people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” The Lord reminds the people of His actions done for them. He had taken them out of Egypt and made them a great nation. He had defended them and fought for them as they entered Canaan and took the land as their possession. As the Lord did these things for the Israelites, He gave them a Covenant. The instructions were clear: abide by it and you will live.

But what did the people do? They forsook the Covenant that the Lord made with them. They forgot that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Instead, they thought of these events as their own acts of conquest. Rather than delighting in the identity that the Lord had given them and the promises He had made, the Israelites chased after other gods, seeking out what was pleasing to them, looking for different prizes. This wearied the Lord. It was the basis for His indictment against His people.

So what should be done to rectify the situation? The Prophet Micah lists possible solutions that the people came up with to assuage the Lord’s anger: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The ideas show the desperation of the people. Clearly the Lord would want some sort of sacrifice, since that was the solution that all other gods demanded. But what should the sacrifice be? Will a year old calf do? Maybe the Lord would be pleased with a massive volume of sacrifices: thousands of animals offered. Or would child sacrifice be better? That was the way to appease Molech, one of the gods of the other peoples. But this is not what the Lord demands. He is not looking for the busyness of sacrifices to make Him forget the people’s sins. No, He is looking for faithfulness.

Hear what the Lord says to the people who think that they could present their works before Him: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The people’s way out of their predicament is not a myriad of sacrifices. It isn’t even really their efforts at all. Instead, it is a return to the Covenant that the Lord had made with them and believing it: to do what is just in His sight, to love the kindness that He has shown to them, and to walk in humility in His ways. These actions are really faith: belief in the work that the Lord has done for them and trusting that the Covenant He has established with them is good, right, and salutary. Salvation is not found in what is presented to God, but in what He has accomplished for them.

That great truth is stated by the Apostle Paul: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” The source of life—the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption that sinful humanity needs—is Christ Jesus and His actions. Boasting is not in what the Christian does, but what Christ has done for His people.

So it is for you. The source of blessedness that Christ describes is not found in you. Every statement of blessing that Jesus made in the Beatitudes is prefaced by a criterion: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” But these statements do not accurately describe you. No, there are sins that you commit that break those statements: pride, joy in others’ misery, arrogance, desire for evil, selfishness, treachery, quarreling, persecution of others.

Jesus’ criteria are similar to the Psalmist’s statements about those who can dwell in the Lord’s presence: “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent.” You don’t meet these criteria either.

So what should be done? Should you find a calf to offer to the Lord? Perhaps putting thousands of dollars in the offering plate would be the chosen option? Would you dare consider a sacrifice of your children to atone for you? None of this would work. None would acquire the blessed status that you lack.

No, the only solution for you is the actions that the Lord does for you, not what you do for Him. That is what makes you blessed. You don’t meet the criteria that were listed. But Jesus does. Remember the words spoken about Him that you have heard during the past several Sundays: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. . . . Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. . . . On those who dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, a great light has shined.” These statements testify about Jesus, the Blessed One who was poor in spirit, who mourned, who was meek, who desired righteousness, who showed mercy, who was pure in heart, who made peace, and who was persecuted because of it.

Micah’s statements indicated that people would offer anything to appease the Lord: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The answer to that question is No. Instead, the Lord answers that He has offered His firstborn for your transgressions, the fruit of His substance for your sins. That is what makes you blessed, what gives you life. That divine action is the Lord’s doing what He has promised for you, to make you His own, and to give you His righteousness.

As you have been united with Christ who atones for you in Holy Baptism, you are made blessed. You do not meet the requirements, but Jesus’ meeting them is credited to you. The Lord sees you through the prism of His Son’s work. He doesn’t see your faults, but sees the result of what His Son has done instead. His characteristics become yours, so that you are “the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Taking these characteristics of Jesus upon you, as you believe in what has been accomplished for you, then you receive the promises that come with each of the Beatitudes. It is what comes with the new way of life that Jesus establishes for you.

This is the fullness of the statement that the Apostle Paul made: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” The boasting is not in yourselves, but in the Lord’s actions for you. And so, you keep the statement that He makes: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Abide in His Word and walk humbly in the new life He gives you, trusting in what He has done, and then you will truly be called blessed.

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

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Epiphany 3A Sermon -- Matthew 4:12-25 (LSB Epiphany 3A)

January 23, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”

Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord had made a bold statement of promise. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the northernmost tribal areas of Israel, would be places of joy and glory: “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” The promise was bold, because these were territories conquered by the Assyrian Empire in the mid-Eighth Century BC. As the people of the Northern Kingdom apostasized and abandoned their covenantal identity, they would suffer the consequences. The Assyrian invasion was one such result.

With their status lost and being under the oppressive governance of a foreign empire, the lands of Zebulun and Napthali dwelt in gloom. They had been brought to nothing, humbled by their conquerors. The loss of their promised lands brought these people to great sorrow and contrition. But this is exactly where the bold statement of promise comes in: the Lord had not forgotten them. He would act for their benefit. And the promise of future action came to the tribes who would be exiled: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; You have increased its joy; they rejoice before You as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, You have broken as on the day of Midian.”

For centuries, the people of Zebulun and Naphtali awaited the fulfillment of this prophecy. It came true in part, with the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the convoluted political developments through the decades. Descendants of the exiles would return to their ancestral homelands. But even then, there would be foreign entities exerting control over them: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. The Lord’s fulfillment of His bold statement of promise would be much more than a political liberation by an earthly ruler, but the arrival of the Christ Himself.

This is what the Gospel-Writer Matthew makes known in his account, as you heard this morning: “Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the seas, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” This appearance of Jesus—the One who was baptized in the Jordan and confirmed to be the Lord’s beloved Son—marks the fulfillment of the bold statement of promise.

But how does Jesus fulfill it? Matthew tells you: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Jesus brings a new order, a new rule into creation, even to those who were governed by worldly pagan and impious rulers, such as Herod Antipas. With the appearance of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is present in the world. He begins an agenda of liberation. But this is not a political rebellion. No, it is a program of conquest against all that afflicts and oppresses humanity, physical and spiritual.

Matthew describes this program of conquest: “And [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” Jesus finds those who are oppressed and afflicted in body and soul, and He brings restoration and deliverance to them. It is part of the light that He brings to their gloom.

The new order that Jesus brings into the world is more than healing. It is wrapped up in the message that He proclaims: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And that kingdom is truly brought into the world in the actions that Jesus executes to bring salvation: His dying in place of sinful humanity and rising again to conquer humanity’s great enemies. This is what fulfills the bold statement of promise: “for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” This is how Jesus’ work is applicable to you. The message that Jesus brings is meant for Zebulun and Naphtali, it will be for all who believe that He can truly dispel the gloom that lingers over all mankind. It is exactly what the Apostle Paul declares: “The word of cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

So not only does Jesus go around acting alone on the behalf of people, He also brings others along to become part of this regime that He is instituting: “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. And going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him.”

These men are incorporated into the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is bringing. They will be part of the way that the light Jesus brings would be extended to more regions of gloom. As “fishers of men,” these disciples would be sent out to make other men and women of all nations be citizens of the heavenly kingdom—through baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep everything that Jesus commanded them.

You are people who are “dwelling in darkness . . . those dwelling in the region and shadow of death.” That is the reality of life in this world. It is not limited to the experiences of Zebulun and Naphtali. What Isaiah described is not simply and effect of being exiled by foreign entities or living under their political oppression. It is a valid description of your situation. There is gloom in this world, in your lives. Every time that sinfulness manifests itself, as imperfection is made known in reality, that gloom arises. Who doesn’t lament over the disasters that sin causes in their lives: broken homes and failed relationships, disease and illness, prevailing mindsets of cynicism and suspicion, betrayal and doubt, death and destruction. These are what oppress and afflict you. And worse than that, they are what you impose on others, as you become agents of misery and pain by what you do.

You have been brought into contempt; you help to bring others into it. You have been brought to nothing. You are not born with any privileged status. No, all mankind is subject to this affliction and oppression that have their source in another entity—Satan, his minions, and his deceptions. The situation you live in fits the description the psalmist gave of his own life: “Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation! For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in. Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.”

Yet, the new situation that Jesus brings also stands true: “He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will lift me high upon a rock. . . . I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” You are like the people of Zebulun and Naphtali. And the promise spoken to them is spoken to you by the same Jesus who fulfills it: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish.” His light comes into your region and shadow of death. The yoke of your burden, the staff for your shoulder, the rod of your oppressor, He has broken. It was broken in His resurrection and as you were made participants of it in your baptisms. When you step back under that oppression, Jesus’ work is present in absolution to break it again. As the shadows of death and the clouds of gloom enter your life again, Jesus extends His pledge that He has saved you and given you everlasting life in His Supper. In these ways, the light of Jesus continues to shine in your darkness.

Because you have the light of Jesus here for you, you can survive in earthly life, the region of darkness and the shadow of death. The kingdom of heaven is at hand for you. You have been incorporated into it, made part of Christ’s rule and dominion. He is a strong and powerful deliverer for you. So you may pray like the psalmist did: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.”

The psalmist’s confident prayer is made yours because what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah has been fulfilled: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” It was fulfilled in Christ’s mission of conquest: “And Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” And even more, the bold statement of promise was fulfilled to you in Jesus’ dying and rising again, so that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” So it is for you who part of the kingdom of heaven that is at hand, even here where Christ’s gospel of the kingdom is found and where your sin is forgiven.

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

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Epiphany 2A Sermon -- John 1:29-42a (LSB Epiphany 2A)

January 16, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

For a final time this year, the Church encounters the figure of John the Baptizer. He has been our companion for the Advent Season. Last week, John figured prominently in the Baptism of Our Lord. This morning, the Baptizer recalls that act: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

John acknowledges the divine sign that he had been given at Jesus’ baptism: “the Spirit descended from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him.” This sign pointed out Jesus’ true identity: “This is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” John had known about this special quality that the Christ was to have. Recall what John had proclaimed during his ministry along the Jordan River: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now John has confirmation about exactly who this Person is who baptizes with the Holy Spirit: “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain.”

So John does what he was born to do. Once again, he gives testimony about Christ. His work had been to prepare the people for the Christ’s arrival. Now, when the Christ has arrived, John completes his work: “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. The Forerunner has done what is expected of him. Now he can hang up his hat and put away his spurs. He needs no more disciples or followers. Instead, the Christ can begin to do His work, leading the Lord’s people to salvation.

John knew this well. Remember what he said about the Christ: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who ranks before me, because He was before me.’” Jesus outranks John because He existed before John. The Baptizer was just a simple, ordinary man who had been called by the Lord to be a Forerunner. But Jesus is anything but simple and ordinary. No, He is the Lord Himself who had taken upon Himself human flesh and blood. He is the eternal God walking and talking among humanity. And this was for the greatest of purposes: to “take away the sin of the world.”

Thus John points his followers to Jesus: “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” In a last act of witness, John points to Jesus as the source of salvation. Those who had believed John’s earlier messages were given his testimony about this Man whom he baptized in the Jordan River “to fulfill all righteousness.” This Man was the One John had talked about. He is the One who gave John’s message any authority and power. Even John’s message about confessing sins and receiving forgiveness depended upon this Man. Unless the Christ “takes away the sin of the world,” then no number of sermons preached about forgiveness would have validity.

But this identity of Jesus—His being the Savior and Taker-Away of the World’s Sin—was confirmed by the events at His Baptism. That identity was foretold in many and various ways by the prophets. It was spoken of by Isaiah, as you heard this morning: “It is too light a thing that You should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make You as a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Note what the Lord promised: His Servant would bring the Israelites back to Him. And there is more: His Servant would take divine salvation to the end of the earth. This is the significance of John’s statement about Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Yet, the whole of the prophet’s words should be considered. Isaiah speaks about the salvation that the Christ brings. But he also speaks about what will happen to that Servant of the Lord: “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and His Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: ‘Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen You.’” The One who would receive cosmic worship from the world would first be despised by it. Though He carries the identity as the Lord’s Servant, He would be made subservient to the earthly rulers. The One who takes away the sin of the world would be abhorred by that very world.

This is the great paradox of Christ spoken of in the Prologue to John’s Gospel, as many of you heard at Christmastide: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Though Jesus is the Christ, the Bringer of Salvation, He was not received by many who needed the salvation that He brought. They lingered in the darkness of sin and death, but did not receive the light of truth that Christ brought into the world. And yet, that rejection would be the way that Christ takes away the sin of the world. Rejected by the Israelite religious leaders and subject to their conniving political rulers, Jesus is sent away to be crucified and die. But that is exactly how He becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the Lamb of God who is slain, whose blood sets men and women to be free to be people of God.

Even in rejection, Jesus’ identity is not changed. Instead, it is fulfilled. John’s testimony about Him stands true: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And Isaiah’s statement spoken in the Christ’s voice is factual: I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.” Rejection of the Christ comes from the world, and yet the Christ fulfills His identity: the world’s sin is taken away; salvation is extended to the corners of the earth.

This is what happens when the testimony about Christ is brought to others and received by them. It is what began to take place with John’s followers: “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” Beginning with Andrew and Simon Peter, Andrew’s brother, people start to believe in the Christ. They are the first to be what the Prologue of John’s Gospel declared: “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.” As children of God, Andrew and Peter receive what Christ brought: they are recipients of divine salvation, their sins are forgiven, and they are made heirs of heaven.

But this is not limited to those who heard the vocables that emanated from the Baptizer’s mouth. No, the same testimony about Christ is given today. It is what makes sinful human beings Christ’s people. The testimony was proclaimed from Galilee to the ends of the earth. The members of the Corinthian Church received it, as the Apostle Paul describes: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in Him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The receipt of the testimony of Christ’s identity unites all who bear His Name: “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” You have heard and believed, so that you also may become children of God, having your sin taken away and receiving the salvation that extends to the ends of the earth. You have been called to believe what was said about Jesus, so that you recognize Him as the Lamb of God that was sacrificed for you. The testimony of John has become your own witness, your confession of faith. It is more than just a mantra or memorized code: it is a divine word that fulfills what it declares.

Through that word about who Jesus’ identity and work, salvation is brought to you. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and sanctifies you, making you members of the divine household, the children of God, as the Apostle Paul declared: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Through the received testimony about Christ, you have been brought to Jesus, like Andrew brought Peter.

But there is one thing more. What you have heard, you also speak, like the Psalmist wrote: “I have not hidden Your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness from the great congregation.” That testimony about Jesus has been brought to you, fulfilling what it declares. It is a divine word that also fulfills what it declares to those who hear it from you. Hearing that testimony brought you to faith. As others hear it from you, they also may become the children of God, calling on His Name. The testimony about Christ is strong, powerful, and true, bringing forgiveness, life, and salvation. So it is, since it testifies not about any ordinary Man, but about “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world . . . He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit . . . the Son of God.”

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

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Epiphany 1A Sermon -- Matthew 3:13-17 (LSB Epiphany 1A)

January 9, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. . . . Jesus answered [John]: ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.’”

Many came to the wilderness to hear the Forerunner’s voice. The Evangelist tells us: “Then Jerusalem and all the region about the Jordan were going out to [John], and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.” John’s baptism accomplished a purpose—the purpose given to him from before his birth, the purpose prophesied by Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” That was John’s task. He was preparing the Lord’s way. That preparation required people to acknowledge their sin and guilt and to revive their faith in the Lord’s promises about salvation.

John was good at this task. Many came and received his admonitions. They believed that John was the Forerunner of Christ. So they went into the Jordan River to be baptized. This baptism was a sign that they believed the message that John brought from the Lord about sin and salvation. It was an act of piety, demonstrating that the people were participants in the Covenant that the Lord had made with them. Their sins were forgiven, as they believed in the Lord’s actions that He would accomplish for them.

But one day, as John was preaching and baptizing, another Man walked to the river’s edge. That was not out-of-the-ordinary. But the identity of that Man was. And that led to an interesting confrontation: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying: ‘I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’” John knew what his work was: preparing people for Christ’s appearance. That preparation was done by preaching about sin and righteousness. John led people to acknowledge their guilt and to seek forgiveness. His baptism was part of that process. But what sort of preparation did the Christ need? The people were being made ready for Him! What does He need to receive from John, His servant?

Jesus has an answer for John. He knows the questions that are racing through His Forerunner’s mind. But the act must take place; Jesus must be baptized, because it is part of His mission as the Christ. It is essential to what He must accomplish: “Jesus answered [John]: ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” John’s duty was to prepare the Lord’s way, as Isaiah foretold. Jesus’ task was to fulfill all righteousness, just as Isaiah declared: “He will bring forth justice to the nations. . . . He will not grow faint or be discouraged till He has established justice in the earth. . . .” When the Lord Himself puts that statement to John—“for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”—the Lord’s servant does as instructed.

And what happens when Jesus was baptized? He does not go to confess sins and acknowledge guilt. No, He goes to be identified as the One who would bear the world’s sins and remove guilt from humanity. He enters the water to be anointed as the Christ, the Promised Servant and Savior: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a Voice from heaven said: ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Jesus is declared to be the Christ, the One whom the prophet had foretold: “Behold My Servant, whom I uphold, My Chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.”

Now Jesus goes to fulfill all righteousness by substituting Himself for you and the world. His work is to take upon Himself your guilt and to pin it to the cross of Calvary. It is a task that He accomplished. The Father’s Voice identifies Jesus as the One in which you can believe and hope. His statement about pleasure and delight is not valid for those who are unrighteous and sinful. But the Father speaks no lie about Jesus! He is without blemish, without fault, without guilt. Jesus has nothing contrary to the Divine Law that He has to confess. So He can act to bring righteousness to those who lack it. He has what no other human being possessed since the Fall into sin. And He goes into the world, not hording it for Himself, but bringing it to others to have.

This is what the Lord declared about Christ through the Prophet Isaiah: “I am the Lord; I have called You in righteousness; I will take You by the hand and keep You; I will give You as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” That is the righteousness which Jesus into the Jordan and out again to fulfill for John and for you. The Father gives His Son as a Covenant to you, so that you may receive divine benefit. He is well pleased with Jesus on that day, but will be even more pleased with Him as Jesus fulfills the prophecies spoken of Him.

So what does Christ achieve for you? Salvation and deliverance. It is accomplished by His death and resurrection. Those are the actions that save you. They are the acts that the Apostle Paul extols: “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That is the accomplishment of Christ for you: to liberate you from sin and to give you new life. It is the deliverance described poetically: “to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

But how do you receive what Christ earned for you? The answer is through Holy Baptism. That is how you enter the Covenant that the Lord has given to you through Christ. Like those who came to John along the Jordan River, you are made to know your sin and unrighteousness. You are led to confess it. But you are also given to know what Christ has achieved for you. It is not a secret. No, the crucifixion of Christ and the accounts of His resurrection are always put before you. For you in this sanctuary, the portrayal of this is so large that it is impossible to miss! But you are not just directed to look at a sculpture. No, you are given the opportunity to be united to the same Christ who died and rose again to fulfill all righteousness and make it yours. That is what Holy Baptism achieves for you.

This Sacrament that Christ instituted does more than the act of piety that John promoted along the Jordan River. Listen again to what the Apostle Paul says about it: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” You go into the baptismal waters to die, but you come up out of them alive in Christ. You go to drown your sin and to be raised in righteousness.

Why is this so? How can water do such great things? As our Small Catechism says: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.” Just as people believed the words of John spoken along the Jordan, you believe the words of Christ spoken over the font. You believe more than just a Forerunner, you believe in Him who is the Father’s Beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. Your faith is in the words of the Incarnate Word and Emmanuel—“God with us.” Your trust is in the Lord’s glory and strength. The One who fulfills all righteousness places His words of promise in Holy Baptism, and you believe and receive what the Lord Jesus Christ has sworn for you to receive.

The psalmist said: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters.” That is true, even in the waters of Holy Baptism. The voice of the Lord sounded over the waters of the Jordan River when Jesus stepped out of them. He revealed Jesus’ true identity as the Christ. That same voice speaks about you. When you were placed into the baptismal waters, the Father also spoke about you: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Since you have been united with Christ through Holy Baptism, that statement is also true for you. The Father looks at you and does not see your sin or unrighteousness; instead, He sees the holiness and righteousness of His Son who took your place.

Cling to the words of the Lord. Hold on to the promises and statements that the Father makes about His Son and His work. Trust and rely on the promises and statements that the Beloved Son makes to you. He speaks about forgiveness, and so your sins are forgiven. He makes a Covenant with you, and He fulfills it. He unites you with Himself, and so you have died and risen with Him. And He prepares you for His arrival, so that you also may see the heavens opened and hear the Father welcome you: “Come, My Children, and receive your place in My house that your Elder Brother has made ready for you by fulfilling all righteousness. I am well pleased with Him, so I am pleased with you.”

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

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Epiphany 2011 Sermon -- Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And Herod sent [the wise men] to Bethlehem, saying: ‘Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.’”

The Magi had come to Jerusalem looking for a new king. Like the shepherds in Bethlehem, they had been given a sign. But for them, it was not an angel declaring good tidings of great joy. No, the Magi had a different sign: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’” These men studied the stars. But now their study revealed to them a great event for the people chosen by the Lord as His own.

So the wise men come to worship this newborn king. This was a diplomatic mission. Whenever royalty is born, the surrounding nations send gifts and congratulations. The Magi had long served as advisers to the royal courts of ancient Babylon and Persia. So they go as ambassadors to King Herod, expecting to bestow gifts upon his newborn son. However, this birth was different than other beginnings of royal life. The One whom the wise men had come to see was not an ordinary king, but was their Savior and Lord.

Remember how King Herod reacted to the Magi’s message: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Herod had not fathered another son. There was no new heir to be found in Jerusalem’s palace. So who could this Child be? Immediately, Herod’s mind went to the thoughts of the Messiah. It is likely that Herod himself thought them to be myth. But he was familiar with the basic plotline. Herod knew that this Messiah was spoken of as an heir of David, one who would possess the Davidic throne forever. So he wants to know where this king which the simple and religious people expected was supposed to be born.

The chief priests and scribes also knew the Messianic prophecies. Studying the Scriptures, they recalled the Lord’s promise: “They told [Herod], ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”’” Bethlehem, the City of David, would be the birthplace of the Christ. It was where David had been elevated from a shepherd, anointed by Samuel to be king of Israel. From David’s lineage the Anointed One would come to shepherd the Lord’s people.

The repetition of a prophecy being fulfilled got Herod’s attention: “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.” Herod wanted to find that king, the One who was a threat to him and his reign. But the wise men also wanted to see the new king, in order to honor and worship Him with their gifts: “And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” After worshiping Him, the wise men were given another message: “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

These two different motivations of finding Jesus are still present in our day. There are many who would attempt to prevent, overthrow, or ruin the reign of Jesus. They do not want what the Christ would bring, for He is a menace to them. His work is to put an end to everything that threatens mankind and creation, especially sin and its effects. Having a victorious and powerful Christ means that the power and prestige of earthly kings must give way. Those who are overlords and oppressors see their places of privilege taken away by Him. If they can harass Christ’s people, perhaps His reign would be lessened. It was so with Herod, who would send his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the male children two years old and younger. The same actions can be found in the persecutors of the Church. And even if it isn’t persecution, the lies and deception of Satan are used to move people from following Christ’s way of life.

But the other motivation of finding Jesus is also found in mankind. Just as there are those who do not want anything to do with Christ’s work, there are others who want to benefit from the effects of His reign. They are given to acknowledge Him as the bringer of salvation. Through the Lord’s words brought to them, they know the true identity of Christ. They desire what was promised, such as what Isaiah declared: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” For those who are subjugated to the effects of sin and the assaults of Satan, the promise of divine light shining on them is most attractive. It is their desire to have it.

The two motivations of finding the Christ stem from the division of all mankind. Tonight, the command of Herod is still given: “Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” So why will you seek Him? Is it because you find Jesus to be a challenge to you, a threat that you would wish to remove? Are you another duplicitous Herod who would rid yourself of Jesus and His ways? Certainly, that is a tempting thought that your sinful natures may bring to your minds. It is so, when Christ’s identity and teachings cause sacrifice and suffering. Perhaps habitual sins will bring forth the motivation of Herod to you. Maybe it will be when your identity of being a Christian requires you to forgive someone that you really don’t want to or to waive your claims to what is right out of love for other church members.

But there is the other motivation also. Think again on the words of the psalm prayed this evening. Hear the requests and consider them through the prism of Christ: “May he judge Your people with righteousness, and Your poor with justice! . . . May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! . . . In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before him and his enemies lick the dust!” These are the pleas of people who desire a strong Ruler to shepherd and govern them forever.

The psalm’s petitions should also be the words that flow from your heart out through your lips. For you need the light of Christ to permeate the darkness of your sinfulness. You need Him to dispel the shadows of death. His truth is required to counter the lies of Satan that surround you. This is what has been made known to you, as the Apostle Paul’s words declare: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Him.” The riches of Christ have been revealed to you, proclaimed in His Gospel. So you know that He is your Savior, not an enemy to oppose, but an eternal ally to cling to and trust.

So you can “go and search diligently for the Child.” Christ is present here for you to find. You can come and worship Christ, by bowing before Him. Opening your treasures, you may give offerings in honor of Him. You can pray with the psalmist, appealing to Christ’s strength to aid you in your life now. But more importantly, Christ is here, so that with boldness and access, you may obtain the gifts that He has for you. You can find His salvation in the signs that He has left you, especially the pledge, seal, and token of salvation offered from the altar this evening. With that, you can live in anticipation of all the prophecies about Christ being fulfilled for your benefit, including the promise that you shall live under Him in His kingdom for all eternity.

In this way, you become part of the Epiphany story. The identity of Christ has been revealed to you. You know His purpose: to bring salvation for you who were plagued by the oppression of sin and the threat of death. The exceedingly great joy of the wise men is meant to be yours, because the duplicity of all the Herods of this earth is being thwarted. Even more so, the thick darkness of Satan is being dispelled. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” That light is found in Christ. “Go and search diligently for Him” here where He has made His unsearchable riches of salvation to be found now, so that you may bow down and worship Him when all His people eternally gather together.

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