Faith Lutheran Church Desboro
When Jesus Preaches...
We Are Blessed
St. Matthew 5:1-12. ESV
The Fourth Sunday After The Epiphany
A sermon... based on a sermon? Oh Pastor, now that’s a bit much, don’t you think? Yet, that’s what we have today and the following two Sundays: the Gospel reading for three weeks from Matthew, chapter five: the Sermon on the Mount.
How about we think of it this way? Just as if your called Pastor is away, say on vacation or at a conference, and Jesus is filling in as the guest Preacher over these three weeks.
When Jesus preaches... we are blessed.
So, here we go... Jesus goes up on a mountain and finds a rock pulpit to sit at and deliver this sermon. His disciples come near and hear His voice, clear and confident. Jesus begins to preach: “Blessed are...” Oh, I like that! “Blessed.” That means content, at rest, at peace. Everything is all right. םלש Shalom. God is in His heaven and everything is right in the world. I like this kind of sermon. The one that says we are blessed.
Now, who is that, exactly? These people who are blessed? “Blessed are the poor in spirit...” Jesus says as He continues to preach. Poor in spirit? Well, I don’t know if I like to hear that! Poor in spirit—that means spiritually poor, struggling in my faith. That’s the kind of person who is blessed? What kind of sermon is Jesus preaching? And, He doesn’t stop there. “Blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn...” All of that sounds like sin: my sin! Jesus even preaches about those who are reviled, insulted by others, persecuted for doing the right thing. Those who cry in mourning for loved ones taken away in death; those whose spirits are humbled by their sins, meek and lowly, with a repentant heart. Even as we find ourselves in our sins, Jesus has the audacity... the boldness even, to preach: “you are blessed!”
The Blessed One
Because of the Preacher. He is ever with us. We are blessed in Jesus. He entered our world in poverty—poor in spirit and in this world’s goods—born in the stable of Bethlehem. Out of all humanity, Christ alone is pure of heart. Jesus came down from heaven to earth in mourning for the devastation that human sin has caused to His dear people: sinners persecuting each other, sorely in need of a Peacemaker, mired in a world uttering all kinds of evil words to hurt and harm our neighbours. Jesus hungered and thirsted to make us righteous, since we sinners have no righteousness of our own. For us and for all the world, Jesus meekly went to the cross so that we would be blessed eternally. His precious blood makes peace between us and God, the high price Jesus paid to earn the forgiveness for our sins. Ransomed and redeemed by the death and resurrection of God’s own Son, Jesus shows mercy to us: releasing us from every guilt and burden that would entrap us. I really like this sermon! We are blessed in Jesus!
“Blessed...” What does that mean? Listen to Jesus as He explains.
In Christ, when we are hungry and thirsty to be righteous, He satisfies our souls. Jesus feeds us with the bread of life in Communion. Jesus gives our souls the water of life in Baptism. When Jesus gives us the meekness of true faith in Him, He blesses us with an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, nor fade. As that faith in Jesus moves us to show kind acts of mercy to those who are in need, Jesus shows mercy to us with His forgiving Word, and with the blessing of His merciful Sacrament. And, when death breaks our hearts wringing them out with the deep sorrow of mourning, Jesus alone comforts our hearts with the sure and certain promise of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Jesus blesses baptized believers with a pure heart. Even when our spirits are made poor though times of persecution, even then, Jesus blesses us with His promise: we are part of the kingdom of heaven!
Man, if this is how Jesus begins to preach, I can’t wait to hear what He says next. I can’t wait until next week!
A Reason To Live
St. Matthew 4:12-25. ESV
The Third Sunday After The Epiphany
Since June 2016, MAID, that is, Medical Assistance In Dying has opened the way for people in Canada legally to seek the help of medical professionals to bring their lives to a premature end. Why? Affliction with a serious illness, disease, or disability. The kind of bodily sufferings that Christ healed in today’s Gospel. Before 2016, assisted suicide was against the law in Canada. Now, it is legal. And, on March 17, 2023, the laws will change. Medical Assistance In Dying will be offered to an even broader group of people: those suffering with mental illness will also be eligible to seek help to end their lives. Our world looks to death as the solution to many problems we face. The law for assisted suicide seems to provide a legal justification: a reason to die.
God condemns this. “You shall not murder,” He commands. The fifth commandment forbids actively seeking to end our own life or the life of someone else. Assisted suicide is a sin. Along with every way we despise, injure, endanger, or harm this body and life. Not taking care of ourselves—bad habits, bad diet, laziness, overwork, worry and anxiety—each and all of these abuses of our life in the body goes against God’s holy will for us in the fifth commandment. The Lord has given us life as a gift—do we despise this gift? Repent!
Life Springs To Life
We have a reason to live. God has given us many reasons, in fact. Life comes from God. He is the Source of life. God spoke and all life was created. By His divine Word, the Lord called every living thing into being in the heavens and on the earth. Yet, when it came to human beings, the Lord gave life in a most intimate, hands-on manner. God crafted the body of Adam from the dirt of Eden, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Then, the Lord literally gave him the breath of life, filling Adam’s lungs with air for the first time: a kind of divine CPR, breathing into his nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7) . Lonely Adam was given Eve as his dear wife from his own bone and flesh. Out of Adam’s rib, the Lord crafted the one who would be joined to him in one flesh: the marital bond of love for all their lives through. With equal care, the Lord has made each one of us who is present here today, “knit us together in [our] mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13) in body and soul, alive by the gift of God—what a reason to live!
Sadly, Eden’s perfection was soon shattered. Forbidden eating rejected God’s Word of command that He gave to protect His gift of life, earning the consequent punishment: “You shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17; 3:3). The first people, together with all who would live after them, including us face the terminal diagnosis of death in this world due to sin.
Son Shine On Life
So, God sent His Son into this dark valley of the shadow of death. The Light was born in the darkness of Bethlehem’s stable, the Light of the world (v. 16) born of Mary in the dark shadow of bleak midwinter. “And this light was the light of men” (St. John 1:4). For the whole world, born under the curse of the Law and the condemnation of sin, leading to death, Jesus, God’s Son, the Light of the world was born. His whole life one of obedience to God. Christ followed the path of life, perfectly keeping the 10 Commandments where we have not. For us, and for all the world, Jesus went to the cross, suffering and dying for our sins of thought, word and deed. And, because He is God, the death of Jesus takes away our death. His life counts as our life. Even though we still die in this world, the Lord Jesus gives the gift of eternal life in heaven to all who believe and are baptized into Him. Death is not the last word for Christians. A greater life awaits us in heaven—a reason to live!
The Lord cares for this life He has given us—every day. The Holy Spirit teaches us to live holy lives while we live and breathe in this world. Baptism, Bible, and breaking of bread in the Sacrament: these are the ways the Holy Spirit keeps a living faith in Jesus alive in our hearts. The Holy Spirit gives us a reason to live: not just for ourselves—to squeeze all the pleasure out of life while we can—but also to live for others; to pray for those who are having a hard time keeping body and soul together; to help people who have bodily needs; and to speak to the needs of the soul who hasn’t heard that Christ is their Saviour. The Holy Spirit keeps us with Jesus Christ each day of our lives. In faith, we treasure our lives, and care for the lives of others—a reason to live!
God the Father created us.
God the Son redeemed us.
God the Holy Spirit sanctifies us.
The Holy Triune God lives—and gives life to us.
First Things First
St. John 1:29-42. ESV
The Second Sunday After The Epiphany
Here we are in church on the first month of 2023. The beginning of a new calendar year gets us thinking about where in the world we are going. What will the year ahead bring? Making plans and setting priorities gets us thinking about what we value, what is truly important, what we absolutely we don’t want to leave out, or miss out on. Forward facing faith puts first things first.
Down In The Minors
That’s so important. Sin in us, in the world, inspired by Satan urges us to “major in the minors,” to get lost in unimportant details, worrying about small matters. Like finding you have spinach on your tooth after the job interview. You missed that sale on the truck you had your eye on. Spilling spaghetti sauce on your best clothes. Did I remember to charge the cell phone? Dwelling on the little stuff can make you miss what’s most important.
The year was 1956. The circus came to town. Ten-year-old Jimmy had never been to the circus. His dad gave him five dollars and the day off from doing chores so that he could go into town and see it. Jimmy was so excited as he headed down the road. Crowds of people pressed in around the fenced-in area outside the city. Jimmy reached the gate that led to the circus. A clown stepped up and gave him a friendly “Hello.” Jimmy was ecstatic. So this is the circus,” he thought. He gave the clown all his money, turned around and walked home. Jimmy thought that the clown was the circus. Actually, he missed it.
Many little things capture our attention, distract us, deplete our faith in Christ, and rob us of the “one thing necessary” (St. Luke 10:42).
First In Forever
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29). First things first: that was John’s job. To point to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is first. For John. For you and me. For all the world. This Man, coming after me, says John in verse 31, is number one my books (ἔμπροσθεν) because He is first (πρτος). Jesus was born of Mary in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But, He existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit already in eternity, before anything was created. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (St. John 1:1). Among the important things that hold rank in our lives, Jesus comes first. First things first.
Not just in the sequence of time. The Lord Christ’s saving work is first for us and for all the world. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29). John points out Jesus for his disciples and for us, not just as a spectacle (θεάομαι), but as the Saviour. He is the Lamb of God: Son of the Father, equal to the Holy Spirit. This Jesus is fully man and fully God. Indeed, He is the Lamb of God: the One perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices of countless lambs offered on sacrificial altars since the tabernacle services began. Not on the flames of an altar of bronze, but in the agony of a wooden cross, the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. One perfect, spotless, holy Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, lifts (αἴρω) the curse of sin that leads to eternal death by His self-offering on the cross of Calvary. The Church’s proclamation to the world has always put Christ, the Lamb of God in priority position: St. Paul wraps up his first letter to Corinth: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures...” (I Corinthians 15:3-4). So, Paul also starts that letter: “we preach Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23a).
First things first.
For Christ puts us first. Jesus came down from heaven to be born at Christmas to put our eternal destiny first: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. God in His love for the world, together in fellowship with the Holy Spirit gave His dear Son to put the world first: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (St. John 3:16). Washed in His forgiving Word, combined with this water, our gracious God gives us a new start in Christ. Feeding His worthy communicants with His own living body and blood, behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
First things first.
After cracking out of its shell, the baby bird senses the mother bird is near. From that time on, whenever that mother bird lands on the nest, the chicks turn to her, stretch their necks and make a racket: feed me! In nature, what’s called “imprinting” teaches young animals stay close to the ones who will care for their needs. In the Word of God and water of our Baptisms, we meet our first love: the smiling face of God turned toward us in benediction.
Following Christ as the first love in our hearts moves us to tell others. Andrew was among the first of John’s disciples to turn and follow Christ. What was the first thing he did? “He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus.” (v. 41-42a). By the witness of Andrew, his famous brother Simon Peter was led to Christ. And the Light shines into all the world.
First things first.
When Heaven Opened Again
St. Matthew 3:13-17. ESV
The Baptism Of Our Lord
A silent night. The sheep huddled together for woolly warmth. Stars studded the Bethlehem sky. Sleepy shepherds out in the fields nearby kept a night watch over their flocks through those dark hours. All quiet on the Bethlehem front.
Suddenly, the heavens were opened. The shepherds’ eyes opened wide. The heavy drowsiness that lay upon them quickly vanished. Instantly, they snapped to attention. The sky lit up with an unearthly brightness, a glorious glow that stretched to the horizon. The glory of the Lord made their skin crawl. The air was electric. The hair on the back of their necks stood up. The scene gave them goose bumps. Before them stood an angel from heaven. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (St. Luke 2:10-12). The glory of the Lord overwhelmed the light receptors in the eyes of the shepherds.
Then, the heavens opened wider. This massive choir of heavenly angels sang out: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased” (St. Luke 2:14). From heaven above, God the Father sent His Son to earth below. His birth brings salvation to the world. At Christmas, heaven opens.
Reeds and rushes grew a rich ribbon of green meandering through a dry desert landscape. Through a haze of shimmering heat, piles of penitents made the pilgrimage from the cities to this remote wilderness oasis. A crowd of people stood around a wild man, clad in a camel cloak, bound with leather, preaching “Prepare. Repent. Be Baptized.” Interspersed with His fiery preaching, this rough man was leading repentant candidates to the river water.
One Man from the crowd stepped forward. The two men exchanged a knowing look. “I need to be baptized by You,” said John the Baptist, “and do You come to me? ” (v. 14-15). This Man from the crowd was unique, one-of-a-kind. Jesus is different from every other person. Ever. John knew it. Jesus did not need what Baptism gives. No forgiveness necessary. He alone had no sin. So, why was He there? Jesus was baptized for us. At His Baptism, the Lord took our sins upon Himself. At His Baptism, Jesus took our sins away. From His Baptism, Christ took our sins to the cross. The sin which keeps us out of heaven was washed away in the Baptism of Jesus. The sin which keeps us out of heaven was taken from us, put on Jesus and put to death in His body. Our sin died with Jesus. He opens heaven to us.
Freshly baptized, dripping with Jordan river water, Jesus walked with John up the river bank: God of God, light of Light, very God of very God, Christ Jesus our Saviour who opens heaven. There’s no mistaking it. “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (v. 17), boomed the voice of God. The Father’s approving word spoken over His Son was joined by the Holy Spirit, “descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him” (v. 16). God the Holy Trinity is present for this sacred moment. Heaven opens.
The dimmed lighting in church carries an atmosphere of anticipation. Even the front of the church looks different on this day: the baptismal font is front and centre. A faint wisp of water vapour rises from the bowl in the cool morning air. The flame from the pascal candle burns brightly. People begin to enter and sit in the pews: more visitors than usual. The family gathers with the Pastor and Elder at the baptismal font. Verses of Sacred Scripture followed by the prayers echo in our ears. The sign of the cross is traced on the forehead and heart of the child. Satan is renounced. The Holy, Triune God is confessed. Her name is spoken. Water is poured over her head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. She cries. She wriggles a little. Parents smile. Pastor is proud. And God welcomes a new soul into His kingdom.
Right here, with this simple Sacrament. All the work of Christ in His holy cross and empty tomb for young and old is poured in a rich flood of blessing into our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls.
Here, heaven opens again.
To Save Us
St. Luke 2:21. ESV
The Circumcision and Name of Jesus
“He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (v. 21). Jesus means, “the Lord saves.” This eight-day-old was called Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. To save us, Jesus was brought by the Holy Family to the local Rabbi in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph brought the infant Christ to be marked in His own flesh with sign of the covenant God made with Abraham. Christ’s circumcision obligated Him to keep the entire Law handed down to Moses on Sinai: the Law that commands us to love God above all things, and to love our neighbour as our ourselves. Eight days after Christmas, the Baby was laid down, and His foreskin was cut clean with a knife of flint: the foreskin that represents our sin and rebellion against God was cut away. The infant Christ was scarcely in this world and His blood was spilled: the sign of greater bloodshed yet to come.
Together with Christians around the world, we gather today, the first day of a new calendar year to rejoice in the circumcision and naming of the infant Jesus. Throughout the Old Testament, the sign of circumcision was a sign of God’s grace: a sign to God’s people Israel of His faithful promise to Abraham: that one day, a Descendant of Abraham and Sarah would be born; the Messiah who would bless all nations.
The people of God longed for the Saviour to be born because of the burden, indeed, the curse of the Law. The Holy God commanded that His people also be holy: perfect, righteous, without fault. The Ten Commandments, handed down to Moses continue to express this holy will of God for us and all people today. Yet this law brought terror: at Sinai, Israel clapped their hands over their ears and pleaded for God to stop speaking to them. So Moses brought the two stone tablets written with the finger of God to Israel. The people marked with the sign and promise of circumcision were obligated to obey the Ten Commandments. So are we. Our Holy God demands perfect obedience to His will. He threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Even once. The Law of God brings us sinners no comfort. Like God’s ancient people Israel, we long for the Messiah to save us from the Law’s curse.
Severed To Save
“You shall call His name Jesus,” the Angel instructed Joseph, “for He will save His people from their sins” (St. Matthew 1:21). The Rabbi cut this sign upon His infant flesh—the sign of the Law and the promise. Yet, this Child Jesus stands as the last, great and final circumcision: the promised Descendant of Abraham; the One to whom every circumcision in the nation of Israel pointed; the One who brings eternal blessings to all the nations of the earth. But how? In what way does this newly-circumcised Boy bring God’s benediction to the people of the world?
The blessing this heavenly Child brings is to end the curse of the Law for us. Jesus did not need to be circumcised, nor to be baptized, because He had no sin to forgive. Yet, He did it all for us. For us, Jesus was circumcised, placing Himself under God’s Holy Law to obey it perfectly for us. His holy life was an unbroken offering of obedience to God on our behalf. Jesus saves us by His active obedience to the Ten Commandments. His sinless life, holy death, and blessed rising to live again were all for you, for me, for the nations of the world. Beginning with the rite of circumcision, Jesus placed Himself under God’s Holy Law for us who have not kept that Law. Jesus endured the rite of circumcision to bring us the blessing God first promised to Abraham: to save His people.
The Lord still takes little babies and marks them with the sign of His promise: not with a flint knife, but with water. The Apostle Paul calls this the “circumcision made without hands,” (Colossians 2:11) that is, by Christ. This mark stands for us as a sign that God’s Law has been obeyed, and that He has kept His promise to Abraham and to us. The blessings of Jesus are poured out on us freely in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. Here, we receive the forgiveness of our sins, rescue from death and the devil and eternal salvation. Here, we are joined to the One who shed His blood for us at His circumcision and on the cross. Here, we are marked with the cross of Christ and renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways. Here, we are joined to Jesus who rose alive from the grave on the eighth day. Here, the Holy Spirit teaches us to believe in Jesus who saves us. The Holy Spirit delivers all these gifts to us by His grace so that we obey God’s commands and serve our neighbour with acts of love. The blessing promised to Abraham, foretold in the sign of circumcision is delivered to us in Holy Baptism.
When we begin each day of the new year remembering our Baptisms, Luther instructs us to make the sign of the cross and say, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen.” Returning to Baptism with repentant, faith-filled hearts, the Lord gives us a fresh start: new, clean and pure as the eight-day-old Christ Child. He takes away our guilt: cleansing our past in the sea of His baptismal grace.
We don’t know what 2023 will bring. But this we do know: Jesus spilled His blood on the eighth day and on Good Friday to save us from the curse of the Law. He has marked us in Holy Baptism as His own for all eternity. He will never leave us nor forsake us.
Romans 8:31b-39. ESV
New Year’s Eve
Less is more.
Have you heard that phrase before? That expression, “less is more,” captures the truth that sometimes, it is better, more effective, to show some restraint, rather than go full bore and pour it on. Think, for example, of the young girl who is just learning to use makeup. A little applied sparingly to her face has a more pleasing effect than smearing it on with a trowel.
Less is more.
God goes even further in Romans 8: what can get between us and His love for us? Not less, not some things, not just a little. What can stop God’s love? Nothing!
When it comes to our salvation, we are always tempted to believe that we’ve got to do something to earn God’s love, to work our way into His favour, even if it’s just a little to save ourselves. Less is more—our little works of good should count before God to make up for our sins—so we think. Little or a lot, we can’t. Less or more, we don’t. “... for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21 NIV).
That’s why God gave His Son. The Lord did not do the least for our salvation. God in His love did everything, the very best, the ultimate and greatest act: He “did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all” (v. 32). Did God hold anything back to earn our salvation? No! Christ went to the cross for us. God would stop at nothing to earn our salvation. If we believe in Him, if we have been washed in His cleansing Baptism, if we hold fast to Jesus our Saviour in hearts of faith, what can stop us from being forever with our Lord? Nothing!
Υπερνικμεν from the root word ὑπερνικάω that’s the Greek word God chose to use in Romans 8, verse 37. Notice that it takes five words in English to translate this massive Greek word. Υπερνικάω means “we are more than conquerors.” And, if you say it with a bit of a southern drawl, “hooper nike,” it sounds like an endorsement for basketball gear. The hooper nikes: they come out as winners in the end. And, that’s us: we are the hooper nikes, the “super-conquerors.” But not alone. By our own strength, skill, power, might, and goodness, “we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (v. 36). But, through Christ crucified, through Him who died and rose to justify us, through the Son, given to all the world at Christmas by His dear Father in heaven, through Jesus who loved us to death and back, “we are more than conquerors” (v. 37). As long as we are in Christ, what can stop us? Nothing!
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul wrote these verses to encourage the Christians at Rome. They would see their fellow believers go through terrible persecution under the Roman Empire. The Imperial persecutors of the Church did not subscribe to the dictum: “less is more” when they tried to eradicate and stomp out Christianity. Rome did nothing in half-measures. The awful spectre of the cross—that excruciating method of torture and execution—shows what the Empire would do to a person to exert its will over them: they would do everything!
But even when the world has done it’s worst, it cannot harm those who are in Christ. Faith and His gifts lie deeper than worldly circumstances, like time, money, health and even life itself.
Worst case scenario. What’s the worst the world can throw at you? How intense can the devil’s temptations become? How deeply might you be betrayed even by your own sinful nature? As bad as it gets, God’s love is greater, stronger, more powerful than anything that might try and get in His way. Is there anything coming to you in 2023 that will be able to separate you from God’s love in Christ? No! Nothing.
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever! (LSB 657:4)
What can separate us from God and His love in Christ?
Good News Spreads
St. Luke 2:1-20. ESV
The Nativity Of Our Lord
“Bad news sells newspapers.” That’s what they used to say. Now that most people follow the news through digital sources, I wonder what the updated expression of that truth is now? That bad news headlines and photos from clickbait platforms and Facebook feed generate the most online traffic?
Christmas is such a welcome relief in our bad-news world! This holy morning, God’s heavenly messenger, the herald angel announces good news: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people” (v. 10). This earth-shaking news—God has come to earth, Jesus born at Christmas—is such good news that it cannot be contained, but spreads like wildfire: a contagious chain reaction from angels to shepherds, to all people. Christmas is good news for everyone!
But, there are moments. Like a dark storm cloud passing ahead of the sun, or the moon in eclipse, the bad news of sin threatens to obscure the good news of God’s rich grace and love for all the world at the birth of Christ. Even at Christmas, sin—our sin—shows its ugly head.
Look at the shepherds. Almighty God, the Eternal Father, reached out to the world in the birth of Jesus, then announced it by angels. And the shepherds were terrified! That’s sin. We feel it. When sinful people meet the holiness of God, there’s fear. St. Peter felt this fear in the presence of the holy Christ on the Sea of Galilee (St. Luke 5:8). The women at the empty tomb on Easter morning felt this fear, and ran away, saying nothing to anyone (St. Mark 16:8). When confronted with the raw power of God at work, we sinners are afraid. Even when we have good news to spread, fear keeps us silent, saying nothing to anyone. Then, all we can do is confess our sin.
God forgives us when we confess. He forgives us for the sake of Jesus. That’s the good news. “Fear not,” says the angel to the women at the Jerusalem tomb; says Jesus to Peter in the boat. “Fear not,” says the angel to the shepherds. This Child, born of Mary, is your Saviour. His holy blood will be spilled on the cross to take away your sins and the sins of the world. This tiny Child, born in the poor stable of Bethlehem has come into this dark world of sin to be “the Light which enlightens everyone” (St. John 1:9). By His cross and empty tomb, He will defeat death and the grave and bring life without end to His dear people. This unique Child from heaven has come down to earth, born in purity and without sin to open heaven to us. This truly is good news.
The angel continued his message to the shepherds. The sign of this good news is the sight that awaits you in Bethlehem: “You will find a Baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (v. 12). A newborn in a feeding trough? That’s news! Truly, in every place of that whole little town of Bethlehem, there can be only One!
Excitement at this gracious news moved the shepherds into action. Believing the word of the angel made them want to go and see this good news with their own eyes. Leaving their sheep, “they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger” (v. 16). God in Christ had come to them! They hurried over to Bethlehem to see Him.
From there, this good news spread immediately. This visit to the manger, a true worship service, moved their lips to tell others: “they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child” (v. 17). Not the sight in the manger, but the Word of God the angel had spoken: that was the news the shepherds spread, “... on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere” (LSB 388:1-3). What word? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11).
We are here in Church on Christmas morning, retracing the steps of the shepherds. God the Holy Spirit “has called us by the Gospel” (SC II:6) to believe in the Saviour Jesus, born for us at Christmas, gathered us around His Holy Word, the Bible, read and preached in this place, and that same Holy Spirit moves us to hold that Word sacred in hearts of faith. Like the shepherds on that first Christmas morning, we are excited to go over to the altar where the Christmas Saviour is truly present for us with the sign He has given: wrapped in the swaddling cloths of bread and wine. Here, with joy we find the Lord Jesus with His gifts: forgiveness, life and salvation. Good news!
And not just for us. Jesus is born to bring “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (v. 10). Follow the shepherds from the manger of His altar out into the world to make “known the saying concerning this Child” (v. 17), this Jesus, born to be our Saviour.
Christmas is good news—good news that spreads through the whole world.
He Knows My Name
Philippians 2:7-10. ESV
The Nativity Of Our Lord, Christmas Eve
Have you ever been hacked? Had your personal information stolen by unknown digital thieves? In a moment, private, vital information about yourself is leaked, and you don’t know who has access to it. To be hacked is to be violated and vulnerable. When anonymous perpetrators steal your online identity, you feel helpless and betrayed.
Cybercrime is a picture of sin. Satan, the world, and our inborn sin have stolen the identity God gave to the first people at creation: sinless creatures living in happy harmony with their Creator. Selfish tinkering with God’s holy 10 Commandments has hacked into that original identity God gave to His people—corrupting our compatibility with others, cutting off our access to the Almighty.
So, we want to hide, like Adam and Eve, who hoped that God would not see them in the bushes and trees of the Garden of Eden. The guilt of our sins makes us want to go off the grid, concealing user name and password and all that might give us away: anonymous, nameless, invisible. But, we can’t hide who we are. There are no anonymous people. Everyone has a name.
God knows us. We don’t stay invisible to Almighty God. He sees who we are—sin, guilt and all of it. And, He loves us. Despite our faults and failings, He remains our kind and loving God and Father, giving us the best Christmas gift of all: the Lord restores our proper identity, protects our honour, and welcomes us into the warm arms of His loving embrace as His dear children. God knows what we need most of all this Christmas: not more stuff, not more technology, not more entertainment. We need a Person. So God gives us Jesus. The holy, innocent Child born in the poor Bethlehem stable is God’s personalized Gift to you and me and to all people. The Child of Mary named Jesus, praised by angel choirs and worshipped by shepherds working their regular jobs: this Child was born to restore to us the proper dignity of every person here: dignity God created us to have. His name is Jesus, for He was born to carry out this great purpose: to save His people from their sins (St. Matthew 1:21). Jesus lived up to the meaning of His name, taking the guilt of our sins and nailing it to the cross in His own flesh, human flesh that was born this holy night in the manger of Christmas. By taking our place, He clears our names of every sin. And this Jesus, God’s one and only Son rose to life again three days after His burial in Jerusalem’s tomb to bless each one of us. Through faith in Jesus, each one of us can personally look forward to rising from our final earthly resting places to live forever with Jesus in a life without end.
God knows us. He calls the stars by name (Psalm 147:4 NIV) ; God also knows our names. As a good and kind Shepherd leads His sheep, so Jesus calls us each by name (St. John 10:3). God loves us.
Our lives in the modern world can leave us cold and unfeeling: as if just a number in a database; one out of thousands of nameless online “friends;” one digit lost in a vast demographic.
The main character of the television show, “The Prisoner” is exactly that: this former government agent was taken to a beautiful island called the village. Deprived of his name and identity, known only as Number Six. “I am not a number, I am a name,” he protests.
God agrees. The Lord knows us personally. He writes our names in the Book of Life (Revelation 21:27) our names spoken when we were baptized. God in heaven knows your name! New life is given to us personally, for the sake of Jesus. Jesus! Immanuel! God in the flesh! Our Saviour, born for us at Christmas!
St. Matthew 1:18-25. ESV
The Fourth Sunday In Advent
Josephs dream. Dreams sent by God. Jacob’s favoured son Joseph, the one clad in the coat of many colours, mocked by his brothers as the Dreamer (Genesis 37:19) received unique, prophetic dreams from God: dreams of his ascendancy to become the Prince of Egypt, dreams revealing the fate of his fellow prisoners, and dreams of the seven-year-bounty, followed by seven years of famine that would afflict the land. God sent these dreams to Joseph, along with the interpretation of those dreams to bless his family, and nations of believers and unbelievers, “that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).
About 1 500 years later, God sends a dream to another Joseph, also the son of another Jacob (St. Matthew 1:16), of the family line of David. Yet Joseph is not just dreaming. God Almighty sends His angel to bring good news to Joseph and to all the world. The Son to be born to his betrothed wife, Mary, will save His people from their sins (v. 21).
But, before this good news, Joseph learned some bad news. Mary, his betrothed wife was with child. Pious and chaste, Joseph knew that this baby wasn’t his: he learned about this pregnancy, “before they came together” (v. 18). Regretfully, Joseph considered what to do: “divorce her quietly,” literally, to set her free secretly (λάθρα v. 19). You see, Joseph wanted to protect Mary from the shame of a public divorce, and do what he could to preserve her honour. But, who can keep such things quiet? The disgrace, both for Mary and for Joseph would be a nightmare!
As it is every time we depart from God and His holy will for us: a nightmare! Sins of “great shame and vice” (SC III:18), as well as small infractions against God’s Commandments—all sin divorces us from God and from other people. And since we all sin, our desire is like Joseph: to keep that separation silent—a “quiet divorce.” Yet, the truth will out.
God set things right. In a dream, His angel revealed the truth about this unborn Child to Joseph: in a Christmas vision.
In the midst of what must have been a fitful night of tossing and turning, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph to calm his troubled soul. ‘Do not be afraid. This Child growing in your dearly beloved is from no man—the Holy Spirit caused the life of this Holy Child to stir within her.’ As prophesied by Isaiah (7:14), with her virginal honour still intact, Mary conceived this divine Son—God Himself in the flesh. Not from shameful beginnings, but from holy origins, this Holy Child of Christmas truly is the Object of our faith in this world and our hope for life in the next world—a Christmas Vision!
Joseph’s dream state continued, revealing to his eyes ever greater visions even than the virginal conception. “You shall call His name Jesus” instructed the angel, “for He will save His people from their sins” (v. 21). Jesus means Saviour. That’s the kind of Child that Mary will bring into the world at Christmas: in the spirit and power of Joshua, who led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the promised land of Israel. Jesus is the new Joshua. Not leading Israel, but the Leader of the holy Christian Church. The destination is not Palestine, but the promised land of heaven. Salvation is not a dream, but a reality. The vision of heaven for us sinners, Jesus purchased at the high cost of His innocent suffering and death on the cross. This Child, conceived by Mary, born in Bethlehem, visited by shepherds and adored by Wise Men is God’s Christmas vision: our forgiveness, eternal life and our salvation.
God’s dream is to bring all things together—in Jesus to unite earth and heaven, man and God—binding together what sin has divorced, shattered, and cloven in two. “For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one... [to] reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14, 16). The Apostle St. John sees into heaven, a vision of God dwelling with His people: John writes, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Jesus, born at Christmas makes this vision reality. “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (v. 23).
It seems that Christmas is a time for unusual, even miraculous visions.
In “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, miser and mean business owner, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited in a night vision by his former partner, Jacob Marley and three spirits. The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future chill him to his soul with sights and words that call him to repent. What a terrifying vision of Christmas!
In Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Nutcracker, inanimate objects are pictured coming to life. On Christmas Eve, a family gathers for a big meal, and then exchange presents around the Christmas tree. After everyone goes to bed, the visions start: Gingerbread men, tin soldiers and dolls come to life, all fighting against an army of mice. Even the nutcracker springs to life, leading the toys in battle.
In the popular poem, Twas The Night Before Christmas:
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
A Christmas vision dreaming about dessert? Really!
Sacred Scripture is no fiction. We are awed by God’s mighty acts now and always. The Lord moved heaven and earth, sending angels to proclaim to all the world the ultimate vision of Christmas: Jesus is born for us! “He will save His people from their sins” (v. 21).
St. Matthew 11:2-15. ESV
The Third Sunday In Advent
In the 2008 movie, “Yes Man,” Jim Carrey plays Carl Allen, a bank loan officer who is constantly saying “no.” Carl always sees the negative side of everything. That is, until a friend urges him to join a self-help workshop where there is just one simple rule: say “yes” to everything. At first, his whole life changes for the better overnight: Carl is promoted to a new position. Now, he has a girlfriend. Previously, Carl was captain-bring-down, grouchy, pessimistic: a “no” man. Now, he is optimistic, upbeat, positive: it’s “yes” no matter what. But Carl soon discovers that some things are better to refuse. Being a “yes man” can lead to trouble.
Do The Twist
“Yes man” is not a kind way to describe a person. Spineless, indecisive, unfaithful, fickle: these are some qualities we attach to the yes man. Jesus uses the example of “a reed shaken by the wind” (v. 7). Whatever can this mean? Only this: like the reed is pushed one way with the wind, then points in the opposite direction when the wind shifts, so the one who is eager to please others follows the trends of popular opinion, speaking and acting with the majority. Not consistent. No integrity. Not reliable. Like a reed in the wind, the yes man goes with the flow.
John is no yes man.
Not woke, not politically correct, not simply telling the people what they want to hear, John the Baptist tells it like it is. He lets the chips fall where they may. John is no yes man.
Integrity comes with a price. John has been in prison now for a year, locked up by King Herod for preaching the unpopular truth. Yet, on this Sunday where joy is in focus, see the joy in the Baptist’s proclamation. John’s truth-telling is not merely to annoy people, irritate emotions, nor afflict consciences with guilt. With joy, the forerunner prepares the way of the Lord, pointing repentant sinners to the greater One to come. John preaches the hard truth so that Christ will bring the joy of salvation to repentant sinners. In his great love chapter, the Apostle Paul has truth-tellers like John in mind when he writes about the joy of love: “[Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (I Corinthians 13:6). John rejoices to preach the truth: yes man!
Today in our Gospel reading, John does some fact-checking from prison to be sure of his God-given work. “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (v. 3). Through his delegation of disciples, John asks Jesus, ‘Are You the Messiah? Yes, or no?’ Jesus answers with a resounding, ‘Yes, man!’ For the Messiah is as the Messiah does: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (v. 5). These miracles are the calling card, the identifying marks of the Messiah, the One foretold by Isaiah the prophet in today’s Old Testament reading. Jesus describes His Messianic works in ascending order of power: first, physical healing, then resurrection from the dead, and finally Gospel preaching that gives faith and forgiveness to those poor people whose hearts are cold and dark without saving faith in Christ. The Messiah works to quicken body, life and soul. Yes, man!
Jesus has come to bring joy in the midst of doubts—even as John, the great and last prophet, experienced doubts running through his heart as he sat behind bars in prison. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (v. 6). Christ Jesus came to be more than a healer, life-giver and Gospel preacher. Jesus is our Saviour. Christ was crucified to take away the offense of our sins. Because He died for us, all offenses are gone, washed away in His blood, buried in His tomb. Jesus has come to bring us the joy of renewed faith in Him, right in the middle of all that we might be going through right now. Is He the Messiah? Yes! Is He the Messiah? Yes, man!
For the Word of Jesus does what He says—His powerful words not only identify the Messiah for John. The Word of Christ gives John saving faith to sustain him through the hard times that are certainly coming. That’s what Christ’s Word does for us today—in Scripture and Sacrament, the Messiah comes to give us the joy of faith for the road ahead, strengthening us for what is to come.
Here’s a simple yes or no question. Is Jesus your Messiah? As we live and speak, we answer that question every day.
St. Matthew 3:1-12. ESV
The Second Sunday In Advent
This is the time of year to send Christmas cards. What if we sent out “John the Baptist” cards? Not cheery cards with pictures of winter snow, glorious angels, nor peaceful nativity scenes, but rough trans-Jordan desert dunes. The prominent person pictured: John? Hairy, rough, camel coat clasped together with wide leather belt, biting into a locust dripping with wild honey. The card’s inscription would be the verse on the front of today’s bulletin: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” How many would send John the Baptist cards? Not likely to be sold out any time soon.
God sent John the Baptist. John had one job: to prepare the hearts of the world for coming Lord.
Repent “Repent” (v. 2) preaches John. “To repent” (μετανοέω) means to turn 180º, to change, to stop doing the offense, sinning against God’s Ten Commandments. Repentance is hard work. But it’s not us. Ultimately, this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. He leads us to repent, just as the crowds from Jerusalem and its outskirts repented when they went out to John. Like them, we know that we have repented when we confess our sins; when we return to our Baptisms. Baptism and repentance go together (v. 6, 11).
Both John and Jesus preached the same message. As we meet John at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). In the next chapter, Jesus begins His earthly ministry calling out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (4:17). Jesus is coming. He brings a heavenly kingdom. We need to be ready. We need to change.
In both digital media and coffee shop conversation, the world says to each person: “You’re the centre. Your opinion is all that matters.” Each individual exalted to the highest place. Repent!
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. We are not god. We have Almighty God to relieve us of the ways we try to be first in our lives. He is our heavenly Father. We can trust in Him to look after our needs. God the Father provides for us so that we can put the needs of others first and care for them.
The world teaches us that time belongs to us. How easy to despise God and His Word, driving right past the services offered here in His house to spend our time playing games, working or just staying home. Repent!
The kingdom of heaven is at hand: here, in the divine services of God’s house, in true Word and precious Sacraments. With these means, the Lord holds out to all people free forgiveness, salvation from the fires of hell and eternal life in Jesus Christ. Here, the Lord Jesus speaks His word of blessing upon us. Here, even with two or three gathered in his name, the Lord is present (St Matt 18:20).
The world is now a place where sexual orientation is a matter of personal choice. Although created to join a man and a women, marriage has been redefined to unite also those of the same sex. Repent!
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Christ calls Himself our heavenly Bridegroom; the church of baptized believers, His dear bride. Out of love for us and all the world, Jesus laid down His life to forgive, to cleanse and to save His dear bride, the Church. Heaven is pictured in the Bible as the unending wedding feast (Revelation 19:9).
Discontent reigns in the hearts of many in the world today. “I’m not happy with my life” is the restless desire that rules the tiresome pursuit of happiness. Why so much coveting? If only God had made me different, given me a different life. Repent!
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. As a kind and loving Father, God provides for us. Even for the ungrateful and the evil. “For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (St. Matthew 5:45b) . To calm our every discontent stirring in our hearts, the Lord promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
To be sure, these are hard words to hear. (John lost his head, in the end). The Law, God’s commandments, always accuse (Ap III:8). We can try to excuse ourselves or try to justify our actions (Romans 2:15). But God’s Word points us in the opposite direction, 180º. Repent!
For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. God the Father welcomes repentant sinners, like you and me, into His open arms for the sake of Christ His dear Son who died and rose again for us.
One of the most cherished memories I have of working on our trail, “the Way in the Woods,” happened one summer afternoon. I suggested to my son that the trail was getting overgrown and needed some attention. The two of us headed out to what turned out to be several hours of work. With saw and pruners, we cut back the branches that grew over the trail, hauling each load of brush out by the wheelbarrow-full. Rocks the size of your head poked up through the wood-chip-lined path. Between the two of us, we dug up several of these rocks and hauled them off the path. The shadows fell across the trees in late afternoon by the time we called it a day. It was hot and sweaty work. But I think of what we accomplished each time I walk that part of the trail—between stations 6 and 7—from the burial of Jesus to His resurrection.
Repentance is hard work: trimming the branches of bad habits from our lives; rooting out the hard stones of unbelief from our life’s path. Repentance prepares the way for the Lord. Christ rose from the dead and now lives and reigns to all eternity.
In Him, the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Amen
Here He Comes
St. Matthew 21:1-11. ESV
The First Sunday In Advent
“Where is Mom?” At first, the kids were just curious. A good chunk of the afternoon had passed. They were having fun in the snow, building things and whipping snowballs at each other. They hadn’t seen her for a while. Fact is, she was busy at the mall buying Christmas presents while they weren’t around. “Hey where is Mom?” one child asked. “I dunno.” shrugged another. Hours passed. Shadows of the trees grew long. Their cheeks were rosy and cold. Tummies started rumbling. “Where is Mom?” they cried in a chorus of urgency. How happy they were to see the truck pull in the laneway. Here she comes!
“Where’s the Doctor?” The family was gathered around Grandpa’s bed. He was doing really well until last week. It all started when he took a fall: tripped over the footstool in the living room. Nothing was broken, but still he couldn’t get up on his own. When the ambulance was called, Grandpa was taken to the hospital for an assessment. For a good part of the afternoon, nurses ran a whole battery of tests. Members of the family came to visit Grandpa at his hospital room, anxious to learn if he was okay. But the time seemed to drag on, as if the clocks were running backwards. Where is the Doctor?” they kept asking until the moment he came walking down the hall. Here he comes!
Advent means “coming.” The Church year begins today: this pre-Christmas season urges us to prepare our hearts and lives for Jesus. Ready or not, He is coming!
We want to be ready, like the Palm Sunday crowds who met the Lord Jesus with joy, spreading their cloaks on the road before Him, and waving palm branches in welcome. Faith in Jesus makes us ready: believing His Word, trusting His sacramental word in Baptism and Communion. Faith rooted in His Word gives us joy in Jesus to welcome Him: here He comes!
Those whose hearts do not hold tight to Jesus are not ready when He comes. Some standing on the sidelines were not ready for God in the flesh to ride in triumph into the holy city Jerusalem. Amidst the joyful cloak-spreading and palm-waving of those who said, “Here He comes,” still others, unprepared asked, “Who is this?” (v. 10). Without faith, we miss Jesus.
A man was in the habit of coming to church just about every Sunday. He sat in the same pew, followed the service until the sermon, when his eyes glazed over and his mind wandered. For many years, He attended church in this way. Then came his diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. At best, he had a few months to live. Before the Pastor came to visit, God the Holy Spirit had been busy preparing this man’s heart with true repentance. “Pastor, you know I have been faithful in coming to church services over the years,” the man began, “and I know your sermons are from the Bible and talk about God’s love. But to be honest, whenever you started preaching, I tuned out, and never really paid attention to what you were saying. It never seemed to matter much to me. But now, Pastor, I want you to preach one more sermon to me. I’m listening.”
So that’s what he did. In a clear and simple manner, the Pastor preached the Gospel to this poor, miserable sinner, whose life in this world was ebbing away. The man, like the Pastor and every other person in the world was a sinner incapable of doing anything to make up for his sins, to save himself from hell, nor work his way to heaven. Jesus Christ came to take sin’s curse from this poor dying man and from all. God’s only Son died on the cross to spare us from eternal dying in hell. Jesus rose to life again to open heaven to all who trust in Him as Saviour. With tears in his eyes, the man was so happy to hear this good news. With open ears and an open heart, he welcomed the Saviour Jesus. Here He comes!
As the Church year begins, think of three ways that Jesus comes to us. First, He comes to us and all the world at Christmas. Born the human Child of Mary in the poverty of the stable at Bethlehem, and at the same time, the Divine Child, begotten of the heavenly Father from eternity, free from sin’s corruption, Advent prepares us for Christ’s coming at Christmas. What’s His purpose? He comes to save us! “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (v. 9).
Jesus also comes to us here, in the Sacrament of the Altar. One of the ways our Lord has given us to prepare for His Christmas coming is to draw near to us here in this gracious gift. Human reason and the five senses of our perception only see bread and wine. The Word of the Lord teaches us to believe that so much more crosses our lips and takes up residence in our hearts. Here, Jesus comes to be with us now and always. Here He comes to save us! “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (v. 9).
Jesus is coming again. His final advent will be in judgement on the last day of the world. That will be a terrible day of fear and despair for all who rejected the Saviour, Jesus. Yet, for all who welcomed the Christ in faith as He has come to them, that final day will be redemption, vindication and joy: the beginning of heaven. Jesus comes on the clouds of judgement to save us! “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (v. 9).
Are you ready? Here He comes!