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Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Morning: Song of Simeon

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
Oh, what a blessed day!  Did you see Him!?!?!  Did you SEE Him?!?!?!  That little baby, the one that I just held so tenderly in my arms, and did you hear His name?  They called Him Jesus, meaning “God Saves!”  How appropriate, because God will indeed save through that child, for He is the Lord’s Anointed One, the Redeemer of the world.  And I, Simeon, a simple man of Jerusalem, had the privilege, the honor, the blessing of holding God’s own Son in my arms!  Oh, please excuse me.  I must sound absolutely crazy to you.  Let me explain.
            Shalom.  God’s peace to you.  My name is Simeon.  I have anxiously anticipated this day like the watchman waits for the morning.  You see, like many I have been eagerly waiting for the consolation of Israel, that is, I have been waiting for the long expected Messiah to appear.  Years ago the Lord revealed to me that I would see His Anointed One with my very own eyes before I die.  Little did I know I would be able to hold Him in my arms.  Oh, what a blessed day!  I have thought about this day and what would be like many times.  But I have to be honest, I did not expect it would happen in this way.  I don’t quite know what I was imagining, but I definitely did not expect to see the Savior of the world come as a baby.  It’s hard to imagine that child being the Lord’s Christ, but I digress.  Let me tell you about what I experienced today.
            Today, I was simply going about my business when the Lord spoke to me, and told me to come to His temple.  I didn’t quite know what awaited me, but I hurried as fast as I could.  When I first arrived, I was a little disappointed.  It seemed like business as usual.  People were coming and going, bringing their offerings to the Lord.  The priests were going about their temple duties paying no attending to the crowds surrounding them.  I was just about to ask God why He had brought me here, but then, I saw them; three figures making their way anonymously through the crowd.  No one was paying any attention to the small family as they approached, for there wasn’t anything special about their appearance.
They looked like any other poor peasant family would.  With the tiny baby in their arms you could tell that they were coming for the purification of the mother and the dedication of their firstborn son as required by the Law of Moses.  They brought with them two pigeons as an offering, the alternative sacrifice for those who could not afford a lamb.  Nothing in particular made them stand out from the faceless crown surrounding the temple.  Even when they caught my eye, I didn’t notice at first, but then the Lord spoke: “This little child, this infant, is My Son, My Anointed One.  He is the glory of Israel and the light to the Gentiles.”  And with that my eyes were opened to see what the masses couldn’t. 
I couldn’t help myself and rush over to them.  I asked His parents if they would let me take Him in my arms.  They were surprised at my request, but willing to do so.  When I took Him, I felt…I felt alive in a way that I never have before.  I felt the Lord’s Spirit stirring within me as I looked upon this little child.  There was a beauty, and innocence, and majesty in his eyes that I couldn’t even begin to describe.  I knew, as I stood there holding Him that I was now holding the coming Christ.  My eyes have seen God’s salvation, as He revealed to me by His Word, and I was at peace.  I am free to depart like the watchman who sees the rising sun, for the Son has finally been revealed.  My days of waiting are over.  OUR days of waiting ARE OVER.
As Isaiah foretold of old, God is doing a new thing.  Through this child, He will establish a covenant of peace for all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike.  Through His Christ, God will gather all nations to Himself, bringing justice to the oppressed, giving sight to the blind, making the lame dance and the mute shout for joy.  All knees will bow and all tongues confess that He is God alone.  To those who sit in darkness He brings this marvelous light of revelation: this child will deliver the world from our sins.  Surely, God’s Spirit rests upon Him in a way like never before, for when this child entered the temple God Himself returned to His Holy House.
For when I looked into His eyes I saw much.  I saw life, and I saw death.  I saw hope, and I saw despair.  I saw the beginning, and I saw the end.  In Him, I saw everything there was, and is and is to come, for in this little baby, I saw the very presence of God.  The heavens sing for joy and the earth exalts Him, for the one who has stretched out the heavens with His hand and laid the foundations of the earth has come to redeem His people!  The Lord has returned to Zion!  His salvation is here!  This is the news that I declare to you today!  As Isaiah declared, “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
There are no words to describe the moment I realized what child this is all that lay before Him.  At first, I was amazed that God would choose such a birth, but as I gazed into His eyes the words of the prophets rang in my ears.  “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.  As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.”  
Who will believe me?   Who has seen the arm of the Lord revealed?  For this child is God’s servant.  He will be great before the Lord, obeying all He has said, but He will be despised and rejected by men.  As Isaiah predicts, “Surely he will bare our griefs and carry our sorrows; yet we will esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he will be pierced for our transgressions; he will be crushed for our iniquities; upon him will be the chastisement that brings us peace, and with his wounds we will healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He will be lead like a lamb to the slaughter, and on account of His suffering and anguish we, who have gone astray, will be counted as righteous.  For our sake, he will bear our sins so that we might be inheritors of His kingdom.  It is for this reason that the Christ child has been born.  No doubt He will cause the fall and rise of many, for He is a sign to be opposed.  But for those who have faith, we will be redeemed and with everlasting love the Lord will show compassion on us.  His steadfast love will never depart from us and His covenant of peace will never be removed.  We shall be with the Lord forever.  And we shall have all this for the sake of this child.

So did you see Him?  Did you see the Christ child?  Did you see Jesus?  He is the Anointed One, God’s Salvation come at last!  Now, please excuse me, as I must go tell all that will listen!  Shalom.  Oh, Anna!  Anna, I’ve got something to tell you!

Sunday, December 21, 2014


            In the age of communication, we are surrounded by voices.  Especially in this busy time of the year, we are bombarded with advertisements and year-end pleas.  People telling us why we’ve got to have their product or why it’s the best one out there.  People telling us to donate in order to save the rainforest or feed the children.  These voices are always calling out to us, trying to capture our resources.  But there are other voices too, voices with a different goal in mind.  Voices that try to capture us and lure us away from our God, and they will say whatever they need in order to get their way: sometimes they entice; sometimes they pressure; sometimes they accuse.
            The voices that entice promise us happiness.  They draw us to themselves by promising us whatever we want.  They tell us that we deserve to be happy; that we deserve to have love; that we deserve nice things.  These voices feed off our selfishness and sense of entitlement, and tell us if we don’t listen we will be miserable and unhappy.
The voices that pressure promise us acceptance.  They coerce us by telling us that everyone is doing it.  They tell us if we don’t make waves we will be liked; if we go along with the rest we will have friends; if we join in we will be popular.  These voices feed off our desire to belong, and tells us if we don’t listen we will be rejected and alone.
            The voices that accuse threaten punishment unless we conform.  These voices can be the strongest of all because they shame us by telling us we are in the wrong.  They tells us that we are being unloving and need to do the “loving” thing; that we are being oppressive and judgmental and need to let others be happy; they tell us that we are being hateful and offensive and need to support others no matter what.  These voices feeds off our sense of guilt, and tell us if we don’t listen and relent, we will be judged and punished.
            All these voices speak directly to our heart.  They target our innermost desires and fears, desires and fears that were given to us by our God to draw us closer to Himself, but in our sinful nature they have been corrupted and turn to other voices instead.  With the cacophony of voices, it’s hard to know which voices to listen to.  Even as a Christian it is hard to know which voices to listen to and follow.
Recently I was having a conversation with a close friend of mine.  She wanted to know why I couldn’t support her relationship.  She accused me of being unfair and insulting.  What made it worse was that I wanted so badly to support her, to tell her that what she was doing was okay, and to tell her that I was happy for her, but I couldn't.  Despite what my heart wanted, I knew God's Word said otherwise, and I had to stand firm in God's Word.  I'm sure you've been a situation like that too, where you were caught between someone you love and what you know to be right.  Those voices creep in and try to lure you away from the Truth.  Your heart begs you to give in and relent, promising all will be well if you do.  Unfortunately, our hearts, like everything else in the fall, are corrupt and also lead us astray.
In the beginning, everything was perfect.  Everything was ordered just the way God intended.  Everything had its place and knew its purpose.  That was, anyway, until Satan appeared to Eve in the garden.  Satan tempted Eve, telling her that God was holding back on her.  He made Eve doubt God’s voice.  He enticed Eve into rebelling against God, sowing in her the desire to become her own god.  When Adam and Eve sinned all the world fell with them.  Creation plummeted into chaos.  God cast Adam and Eve from the Garden out of mercy, so that their sin may be condemned in the flesh and die, but He promised, by His Word, that one day an offspring of Eve would rise up and crush Satan under His feet.
            Though this promise wasn’t forgotten, the world went on.  People began listening to other voices, voices of sin and death and the devil, turning farther and farther from God.  Wickedness and evil increased until God intervened with the flood, washing away all the unrighteous and leaving only faithful Noah and his family.  As time continued people yet again turned to other voices so that wickedness and evil grew once more.  Humanity decided to set themselves up as gods by building a tower that reached toward the heavens.  God came down in judgment to destroy the tower, scattering the people and confusing their languages in order to curb the wickedness of the world.  Through it all, God’s promise remained, yet to the sinful world it remained a mystery.
Indeed, as St. Paul says in our epistle, the promise remained secret for long ages until it began being disclosed by the prophets.  When the time was right, God started revealing His plan for salvation, calling Abraham forth, promising to make him a father of many nations and saying that his descendants would be a blessing to the world.  The Israelites became God’s chosen people; His instrument; His mouthpiece to all the world.  Through them, God spoke His Word and declared that a Messiah, an Anointed One, was to come and redeem them.  This Messiah would suffer for their sake, and through His sufferings establish a new covenant with all people, a covenant of peace.  For though the people constantly turned from God, the Messiah was going to restore them.  His obedience and suffering He would atone for all people, and save us from our sins.  Through His sacrifice, He would establish the throne of David forever.  This is God’s eternal Word.
            In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  The fullness of God’s promise and glory was revealed in its entirety through Jesus Christ.  Hear me, dear brothers and sisters.  The time of advent is ending.  The night is almost over!  The radiant Sun is about to be revealed!
            Listen to me, dear Christians, and just as St. Paul declared, let Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel, according to the Gospel that has been made known to all nations and given to you and to me, that has become our own, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, let Him speak to you and tell you of all He has done.
It was for this reason that Christ stepped down from His heavenly throne, wrapped Himself in flesh, and came into our world so long ago.  Listen, dear brothers and sisters, listen to the cries of Mary as she cries out in labor.  Listen to the cries of a baby humbly born in a manger.  Listen to the cries of the angels as they exclaim “Gloria in Excelsis!”  Listen to the cries of the shepherds as they proclaim the news to all that would hear.  Listen to the cry of one calling out in the wilderness to prepare the way for our Lord.  But listen, for the cries of Christmas are nothing without the cries of Good Friday.   
Listen.  Listen to the cries of the religious leaders as they accuse our Lord.  Listen to the cries of the crowd as they scream to crucify Him.  Listen to the cries of the soldiers as they mock and beat Jesus.  Listen to the cries of the women of Jerusalem as Jesus is lead away to be crucified.  Listen to the cries of the nails as they are driven into Christ’s hands and feet.  Listen to the cries of Mary at the foot of the cross, as the blood flows down Christ’s mangled body.  Listen to the cries of the chief priests, the scribes and the elders as they demand that Christ save Himself.  Listen to the cries of our Savior as He cries out, “IT IS FINISHED!”  Listen to the cries of the heavens and earth as the thunder rips through the sky and rocks shake and split.  Listen to the cry of the centurion as he declares that “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
But keep listening, for the cries of Good Friday are nothing without the cries of Easter.  Listen!  Listen to the cries of the women at the empty tomb!  Listen to the cries of the angel as he declares that Jesus is no longer among the dead but is risen!  Listen to the cries of the believers who saw Jesus after His resurrection!  Listen to the cries of Jesus as he declares, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Listen to the cries of the angels that promise Christ will return.  Listen to the cry of the Holy Spirit as He descends upon the world, and listen, listen to the cries of the Apostles at Pentecost as for the first time the mystery of the Gospel is revealed in its fullest by man.
For this is the same Gospel preached today.  I share this Gospel with you, as St. Paul did, to bring about the obedience of faith.  This obedience is not one of the law, but one that knows Christ is the fulfillment of the Law.  This obedience is not one that says that something left to be done, but one that knows Christ did it all for us.  This is the obedience of faith, the obedience that comes from hearing the eternal Gospel proclaimed and clings to every word.  The obedience of faith hears the promises of God and holds fast despite what else it may hear.  Therefore, when we hear of the promises of the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, we respond by saying, “YES!  YES!  I BELIEVE!”  For we know Christ did not come into the world to condemn it, but so that we are saved through Him.  So listen to the voice of Christ when He says, “I did it all for you!”  Listen to the voice of Christ when He says, “You are forgiven!”  Listen to the voice of Christ when he says, “Beloved, go in peace!”
Listen to His voice, for in the end it is the only voice that matters.  On the day of Christ’s return, all other voices will be wiped away.  So as we wait, listen.  Listen, be still, and know that He is God.  May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent Midweek 2: Song of Mary

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.
            Last week we began our journey alongside people who were part of the Christmas story.  First, we encountered Zechariah as Gabriel appeared before him in the temple, bringing him the news that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son, and that son would be named John.  He would be the prophet of the Most High and prepare the way for the Lord.  Tonight, we encounter another person, a well-known person, Mary, the mother of our Lord.
            We aren’t told much about Mary.  We are only told that she was a virgin and was engaged to a man named Joseph of the House of David.  While these details seem insignificant, they actually are quite important, for they fulfill prophecies concerning the coming Messiah.  Yet when Gabriel appeared to Mary and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” she was troubled and unsure what his presence and greeting had meant.  So Gabriel assured her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Gabriel told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, and His name would be Jesus.
While Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be great before the Lord and called the prophet of the Most High, he told Mary that Jesus would be great and called the Son of the Most High.  While John made for the Lord a people prepared, the Lord was going to give to Jesus the throne of David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.  Like Zechariah, this was a tall order for Mary to take in, but unlike Zechariah who responded in disbelief, Mary responded in faith and trust.
            She asked Gabriel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  Her question was not of doubt, but one that desired to know the will and work of God.  Gabriel responded by saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”   This was enough for Mary, she was satisfied with all Gabriel told her, “And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”” And Gabriel departed from her.
            Could you imagine?  You’re sitting there, going about your business, when an angel appears and tells you that you are going to be the mother of God.  How do you respond?  How do you react?  Add on top of that, Mary wasn’t even married yet.  She was a virgin!  The possibility of conceiving a child is absolutely absurd!  And what would this do to her?  People would talk, adultery would be assumed.  We know that when Joseph found out, he went to go and break off their engagement.  This was a major inconvenience in her life and she had every right to protest and say, “Not me, God!  Find someone else!”  …But that’s not what Mary did.  She accepted all of this by faith.
            In fact, soon as she got the chance she rushed to visit Elizabeth out in the hill country.  When Elizabeth heard her greeting she said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”…And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  Elizabeth did not pity Mary, but called her blessed!  Mary herself responded by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”  There it is again.  Blessed.  But what does this word mean?
            If you aren’t aware of it, in this age of communication there is a trend sweeping through social media and networking sites.  This trend, is called “the hashtag.”  A hashtag is a word or phrase prefixed with a hash mark, also known as the number sign, to form a label.  In order to see what I mean, look down at your bulletin and there you will see as the sermon title, “Song of Mary: #Blessed.”  No, that is not a typo; that is a hashtag.  Hashtags are often used to categorize posts so they can easily be referenced later.  Hashtags are used in advertising, marketing, campaigning, researching trends and so on, but it has also become popular to informally use a hashtag to add some kind of emotion or sentiment to post.  Some of these popular hashtags include #love, #happy, #bored, and as our sermon title tonight shows, #blessed.
            If you search for the hashtag blessed, you will discover all kinds of things that our culture considers as being “blessed.”  Social media sites are full of people who feel blessed because they were accepted into college or were nominated for some kind of award or went on an exotic getaway or met a celebrity or received a job promotion and so on.  While many of these things are good things, are they really blessings?  Do they really make someone “blessed?”
            What did Mary mean when she said that “from now on all generations will call me blessed?”  What would make her so special that all generations would turn to her and recognize her as blessed?  We know, of course, that Mary was blessed because she was chosen by God for a very special duty.  She was given the honor of being the mother of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world.  Though she was not chosen because of any merit or worthiness in her, but as she sings, “for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
            The definition of “blessed” is “to be made holy, to be consecrated.”  To be set apart.  Mary was set apart for this very act because God looked upon the humble estate of His servant, and out of His mercy He exalted her.  But even more so, Marry was not only blessed because she was chosen by God to be the one to carry Christ in her womb, but because Christ carried her from death to life.  It is out of His mercy that God sent His Son into this world to redeem His children.  It is out of His mercy that God has shown the strength of His arm by overcoming sin and death.  It is out of His mercy that He blessed not only Mary, but all of His people.  For “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
            We too are blessed.  We too are set apart.  God has called us by the Gospel, not out of any worthiness or merit in us, but out of His divine love and mercy.  He has set us apart as a people prepared for Himself because just as Mary bore Christ within herself, Christ bore our sins within Himself upon the cross.  We are blessed, because we are baptized.  We are blessed because we are set apart, we are consecrated, made holy by the sufferings and death of Christ, and called to lead a holy life in our own sufferings and death.  We are blessed because Christ humbled Himself to come to us in our lowly estate of sin and death and exalt us into His righteousness and life.  He paid the ransom so that we could be born again into this new life, one full of righteousness and free of the guilt of sin.  This, dear Christians, is what truly makes us blessed.  So as we continue in this Advent season, we recognize our blessings through Christ and join Mary in magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our Savior.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent Midweek 1: Song of Zechariah

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.
Blessed Advent!  Last Sunday we began our journey through the Advent season.  During our midweek services we will be making this journey alongside the people who were part of this miraculous event.  We will be stepping into their world, their experiences, as they express and declare the work of God through an outburst of joyous song.  Tonight, we encounter Zechariah. 
As we read, Zechariah and his wife were righteous and walked blamelessly before the Lord.  Yet one thing was lacking from their life.  They were childless and well beyond the age to conceive.  This brought great shame and heartache, and children were considered the blessings and favor of the Lord.  Little did they know that God had already set into motion His plan of salvation, and that plan included them!
One day when Zechariah’s division was serving in the temple, Zechariah was chosen to offer the incense in the Holy Place.  This was once in a life time opportunity!  This was the closest anyone ever got to the Most Holy Place, the place where the Spirit of God rested as He dwelled with His people.  All that would separate Zechariah from the presence of God was a thin curtain.  Though this was a high privilege and honor, nothing out of the ordinary was expected to take place and it didn’t last long.
So when Zechariah was taking longer than expected, people began wondering what was happening.  Their imaginations could have only run wild with what was happening inside the temple.  When Zechariah finally emerged, he was unable to speak.  When the others saw this they knew that something had happened to him in the temple, that he must have seen a vision and that God was at work.
We have the privilege of knowing just what happened to Zechariah as he was offering incense to God.  Gabriel appeared and him the good news that Elizabeth was to give birth.  He told Zechariah to be name the child John, and told him that John will be great before the Lord.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, he would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, making ready for the Lord a people prepared.
This news was almost too much for Zechariah.  Although he wanted to believe, human reason told him it was impossible, so he doubted.  He asked, “How could this possibly be?  We are MUCH too old to have children!”  Gabriel reminded him, “Do you not know who I am and where I come from?  I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God Himself!  It is He who has told me to bring you this good news!”  But because Zechariah doubted God’s words, his own words were taken from him and he was unable to speak until God’s work had been fulfilled.
Soon after, Elizabeth did conceive and gave birth to a son.  Remembering Gabriel’s words, Zechariah named him John.  When this was done, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.”  Out of all the things he could have said, the first thing out of Zechariah’s mouth was a praise and blessing to the very God that rendered him mute.  Yet he knew that what was happening was much bigger than him.  He knew that the Lord their God was coming to His people.
Like Zechariah’s silence, God had been silent for over 400 years!  The last prophet, Malachi spoke around 430 BC.  In His letter, God rebuked the priests for despising His Word and not trusting in His promise.  They should have guarded the true knowledge of God, but instead by their instruction they lead many astray and caused many to stumble.   Yet the Lord is the Lord of Hosts and the King of the Nations and the Father to all the world.  Malachi warns them of the coming judgment in the Day of the Lord.  Yet before that happens, God promises to send a messenger, one who will preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to prepare the way before Him.  Until the time of his coming, the Lord would remain silent.
Yet God opened the mouth of Zechariah and he prophesied.  This was it!  Zechariah knew God’s promise!  He heard the words of Gabriel!  The time was here, God was returning to His people and it is Zechariah’s son who is His messenger, His great prophet who is to go before Him to prepare the way of the Lord.  No wonder these were the first words out of his mouth.  His silence was over, but even more importantly God’s silence was over.  The day of His salvation is near.
For in that day, “we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”  On the day of His salvation, God will wipe away all our enemies, including sin, death, and the devil!  He will show us His mercy and deliver us from our sins, so that we will serve him in all holiness and righteousness without fear forever.  What a great and awesome God and Father we have!  Though we are unfaithful, He remains faithful.  Though we are wavering, He remains steadfast.  He has come to his people once again!
Zechariah turns from his praise of God to his own son, the one who was chosen by God to be His messenger.  “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Though the priests of old by their instruction led people astray and caused them to stumble, this child would bring people to true knowledge of their God, to the knowledge of their salvation!  He would preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins, calling them from the darkness and the shadow of death, guiding them to the light, for God is merciful to those who call upon His name.

That light, dear Christians, we know is Christ Jesus.  He is our salvation, He is the light of the world.  Jesus Christ, became flesh for our sake, to fulfill the Law for us, take our sin upon Himself and make the ultimate sacrifice, so that we who trust in Him are called the children of the Most Holy God, and He is our Father.  So in this Advent season, we cling to the promise of His salvation and join Zechariah in singing praise to the God of Israel.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Sermon, 2014 “We Praise You, O God.”
For our sermon today, we will be singing through the hymn, “We Praise You, O God.”  To follow along, turn to hymn 785 in your hymnal.

The story behind this hymn isn’t that inspiring or moving.  In fact, it goes like this: There was an organist who loved this tune but disliked the accompanying words, so he approached Julia Cory, an author in the early 1900’s, to pen new lyrics to the tune.  Simple as that.  Yet when you begin exploring the words of the hymn, you quickly realize that though the hymn’s origins are simple, the hymn itself is quite profound.
In the first verse, right away we encounter our Redeemer, Creator.  This is not some far off god that we singing our praise to, but the one true God that has revealed Himself to us in a very personal way.  He has even given to us His holy name!  Long ago, at various times and in various ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.  To them God revealed Himself as our Creator.  He has revealed Himself as Yahweh.
Not only did he form the heavens and the earth, but as our creator, God made us and all creatures; He has given us our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all our senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all we have. He richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support this body and life.  He defends us against all danger and guards and protects us from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of our own. For all this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  It is His Son that saved us from our sins.  As our Redeemer Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is our Lord, who has redeemed us, lost and condemned people, purchased and won us from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.  It is God as our Creator, Redeemer that we kneel before to give thanks, and it is His holy name that we bless and sing praises to.
Let us now sing the first verse of our hymn.

We praise You, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
    In grateful devotion our tribute we bring.
We lay it before You, we kneel and adore You;
    We bless Your holy name, glad praises we sing.

In the second verse, we worship our God with confidence, knowing that He has been faithful to our fathers.  We have seen Him deliver His people Israel from the bonds of slavery and the land of Egypt.  We have seen His ever enduring patience and mercy as His people strayed from His Word.  We have seen Him guide them in the way of righteousness and through persecution and oppression.  We have seen that He too has delivered us from the bonds of sin and the land of death, and His ever enduring patience and mercy as we stray from His Word, and Him guiding us in the way of righteousness and through persecution and oppression.
In the days of old, God let His Spirit rest upon judges, prophets, priests, and kings.  In that way He led His people Israel and protected them from all harm and danger as well as corrected them when they went astray.  In the latter days, God has spoken to us through His Son.  Christ has revealed the Father’s Will to us.  For God our Father has plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future.  When Christ ascended, He sent to us His Holy Spirit, the great comforter, so that the Spirit of God rests upon all of us.  With the assurance of the Holy Spirit, we know that though trials and tempests come, we are secure in God’s hands and nothing can pluck us from it.
So we are able to face what comes our way, knowing that Christ has not abandoned us.  Instead, Christ comes to us through our suffering, and it is while we suffer that His power is made known.  It is in our suffering that God is glorified, not by the suffering itself, but by what God does through our suffering.  In our suffering the Spirit is at work, comforting us, guiding us, strengthening us.  He is building us up and conforming us to Christ.  He creates life out of death.  This is the power of the Spirit, and for that we are thankful. 
And when that day comes, when the perils of this life overwhelm and overtake our bodies of flesh, we know that we are not forgotten.  For when we live in Christ, we die in Christ.  Whether in life or death, we are His because Christ is the victor over death and the grave.  We are not forsaken in death, but instead ushered by Christ to the throne room of God where we will dwell securely in His presence.  On that day our struggles will be over and our battle won.  On that day we will have everlasting peace.  So we worship God as our guide in life and in death.
Let us now sing the second verse of our hymn.

We worship You, God of our fathers, we bless You;
    Through trial and tempest our guide You have been.
When perils o’ertake us, You will not forsake us,
    And with Your help, O Lord, our struggles we win.

In the final verse we move from individual to corporate worship.  We sing out with voices united as the whole Christian Church on earth praises our God as one.  Further, we have discussed how God was faithful to our fathers, but now we turn to our fathers themselves.  We recognize that the Church on earth is not alone in its praise, but that when we sing we are joining in a heavenly song that has been sung since the beginning of time.  Not only are we worshiping with all the angels and arch angels, but with all the company of heaven.  We worship with all the saints who have gone on before just as we worship with the saints that are with us now.  The Holy Christian Church is not bound by time and space, and thus our worship is everlasting and eternal.  We worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit with the whole Christian Church, both in heaven and on earth.
We have moved from the past to the present, now let us move from the present to the future, the reason for our salvation.  God, our Creator, Redeemer, has made everything out of love, and He has sent His only Son to reconcile us to Himself, so that we one day will enjoy His creation the way it was meant to be.  On the Last Day, Christ will come and we will be raised with all the dead, and the faithful found in Christ will rise to eternal life.  We will have glorified bodies; without fear, without sickness, without sin.  God will spread His presence over all creation and we will dwell securely with Him forever and ever.  This is the reason for our hope, this is the reason for our praise, and this is the reason for our Thanksgiving.
Let us now sing the final verse of our hymn.

With voices united our praises we offer
    And gladly our songs of thanksgiving we raise.
With You, Lord, beside us, Your strong arm will guide us.
    To You, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Caught Up"

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Pentecost 23 
 Focus: As we enter advent, we not only remember Christ’s birth, but we look forward to His return.  While we wait it is easy to get caught up in the world and lose sight of His return, or to get caught up in a false understanding of His return.  Instead, we should be caught up in Christ and stand firm in His word so that we will be ready for His return. 
Function: That the hearers are not caught up in the world or a false understanding, but are caught up in Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
It doesn’t take much to figure out it’s that time of the year again.  Just walk into Walmart and the shelves are stocked with Christmas merchandise.  Commercials are asking if you’ve started your shopping yet.  Catalogues arrive by the dozens in the mail.  The next gotta-have gadgets and gizmos are being released.  Lights are being strung on houses and trees.  Parties are being planned and travel arrangements made.  All that’s keeping the Christmas season at bay is Thanksgiving Day, but we know soon as it has passed the flood gates will open wide.  Excitement buzzes all around, and there truly is much to be excited about.  In just two short weeks the church itself will be preparing for the advent of our King.
            During advent, we join in the expectant hope of the Old Testament prophets as they wait for God’s salvation.  Yet what they waited for in darkness, we see in marvelous light.  They anticipated things to come, we remember things that are here.  While they did not know what God’s salvation would look like, we know that Christ was born in human flesh to ransom the world from our sin.  On the cross, He broke our bonds to sin and death and when He rose He established His Kingdom here on earth.  However, during advent we do not only remember Christ’s advent, but we look forward to His second advent, His second coming.  On that day He will finish what He had started and the fullness of His kingdom will be realized.
            But until that time are caught in is tension between the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom and its consummation, that is, when all things will be made new.  While we live under Christ in His kingdom now, most days it doesn’t feel like it.  We live in a world corrupted by sin.  Although Satan, our accuser, has been conquered and cast out of heaven, he still walks freely on earth, prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  He afflicts us and oppresses us.  He does everything he can to tempt us to sin against Christ our Savior and our Father in heaven, and though we are no longer condemned by our sin, its effects still way heavily upon us.  Even our own sinful flesh betrays us.  We all experience the hurt, pain, and sorrow caused by sin, and in the end, we will all eventually die.  So we eagerly wait for Christ’s return when this cycle of death and destruction will finally end once and for all.
            Yet while we wait, it is easy to get distracted.  Often Christians make one of two mistakes.  Either they lose sight of Christ’s return and they get caught up in worldly things, or they worry about Christ’s return and get caught up false theology.  Paul addresses both of these concerns in his letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul begins chapter four with an encouragement to lead a godly life.  Though the Thessalonians accepted the Gospel in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, Paul feared for their sake because his ministry there was cut short.  Opposition to the Word of God was strong and caused Paul to flee, leaving behind this infant congregation who, while he was there, was growing in the Word each and every day, and whose faith was an encouragement to all the world.  Paul feared, however, that the opposition and cultural influences would grow too strong for the congregation and would choke out their faith.  So Paul sent this letter urging them to withstand the sexually immoral and idolatrous culture and walk in a way that pleases God all the more, for God has called us to a life of holiness.  Paul writes, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you…But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”  Paul instructed them to remain holy for this is the work that God has given them to do, and to remain watchful for Christ’s return, for it would come like a thief in the night.
            Paul’s words apply to us too.  Today we see many churches caving in to persecution and cultural pressure.  We see them compromising the Word of God, tolerating sin as if it is not sin at all.  We see churches bending to the will of political agendas.  We see individual Christians, even ourselves, easing our stance on things like abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, even going as far as to say that there is salvation apart from Christ.  But all of this is clearly against God’s Word and will for our lives.  We should not get caught up in the world but stand strong in the testimony of our faith and be mindful of that day when the Lord returns, for Paul warns both the Thessalonians and us that God will take vengeance upon those who do not heed His Word.
            Now concerning that day Paul also did not want the Thessalonians to misunderstand and be caught up in false theology about Christ’s return.  Paul tells them, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  You see, the Thessalonians were afraid that all those who had died in the faith while waiting on the Lord’s return would miss out on the promise, that is that the dead would stay dead and not receive everlasting life and blessedness in the presence of the Father and of Christ.  They did not fully understand the promise that the Gospel offered and believed that Christ’s kingdom would simply be an earthly kingdom that extended forever.
            We too see misunderstandings of Christ’s return in our day.  One of the best and most obvious examples of this is the belief in a rapture.  Some believe, even based off our text to the Thessalonians, that one day Christ will come back, resurrect the faithful, and secretly rapture His Church, that is snatch them out of this world and take them away with Him to heaven, leaving the unfaithful here on earth to endure seven years of tribulation.  This is the stuff of the Left Behind books and movies.  They falsely assert that after the tribulation Christ will visibly return for the whole world to see and He will separate those who repented from those who did not.  Not only is this theology not supported in Scripture, it ultimately goes against what is clearly witnessed to in Scripture and we must not get caught up in it.
The clear witness of Scripture states, as confessed in the creeds, that there is ONE return of Christ and ONE resurrection of the dead.  When Christ returns, as Paul says, He will bring with Him the souls of all of those who have died in the faith.  When God created us, He created us as a unified body and soul.  God never intended for death to be part of creation, but allowed death to enter when Adam and Eve sinned.  He took pity on Adam and Eve in their fallen state.   He did not desire His creation to live apart from Him forever.  So He removed them from the garden and barred them from eating of the truth of life, for if they had eaten it they would have lived in the fallen state, apart from God, forever.  So God let death enter into creation so that our sinful flesh may pass away and our soul to be brought to be with Him in heaven.
            Heaven, however, was not meant to be our permanent estate.  God had made creation and it was good, it was very good.  Sin entered through the weakness of our flesh and the temptation of the devil.  When Christ returns, not only will He conquer Satan and bind Him forever, but He will bring with Him all the souls of those who have died in the faith.  At His command He will raise their bodies of dust, transforming them into new bodies in which there is no weakness of sin, and for those still alive at Christ’s return, their flesh will also be transformed into bodies of glory and we will all be caught up together with Christ. And He will descend and make all things new for the full realization of His eternal kingdom here on earth.
            This is the comfort that Paul is sharing with the Thessalonians and the words that he tells them to share for mutual encouragement.  He does not want them to be ignorant, but to know that all those who have died in the faith, all those who have died while waiting upon the Lord are not excluded from everlasting life, but Christ will bring their souls with Him and they will be resurrected and will be inheritors of Christ’s everlasting kingdom along with all the faithful.
            That means, dear brothers and sisters, that death cannot hold you down, but Christ has defeated death for your sake.  When we live, we are in Christ, and when we die, we are in Christ. So whether we live or we die, we are Christ’s.  He is our God and our Savior, and He knows each of us by name, so we will not be forgotten whether in life or in death.  One day He will return, and this pronouncement will resonate through all creation as it is made new and we are given new, glorious bodies to dwell with God the Father and the Lamb who was slain forever and ever.
So as we wait don’t get caught up in the world and lose sight of Christ’s return, and don’t get caught up in a false understanding of His return, but be caught up in Christ and firm in His word, knowing that our salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  Thereby we will be ready for His return.  For Christ has died!  Christ has risen!  Christ will come again!

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

“A Church United”

Revelation 7:2-17, All Saints Day
Focus: The vision of the Church Militant and Church Triumphant presented in this text is one of the most beautiful and comforting in all of Scripture.  It gives hope and inspires perseverance for the saints who are going through the great tribulation and are tempted to be disheartened.  While Revelation is rightly called a book of judgment, this scene shows that Revelation was written for the encouragement of the saints and to ease troubled minds. Function: That the listeners are inspired by the words of John to live confidently amidst the great tribulation. Structure: Verse-by-Verse

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The book of Revelation has not only captured the imagination of Hollywood, but has captivated the minds and imaginations of the church throughout history.  Much has been debated over the centuries as theologians have explored the mysteries of John’s letter.  Questions concerning the millennial reign of Christ and the great tribulation have plagued the church since its birth, and more recently the development of rapture theology in the 1700’s has complicated things further.
Problems occur when we look at Revelation as the starting point for our theology, and use the prophecy to decipher the people and events in our world.  Using Revelation as a guide to interpret history is not only misguided, it’s a bad idea and misses the point of the book completely.  Revelation was never meant to be the basis for doctrine, instead it was written to encourage the saints and give them comfort.  It is the story of salvation in condensed form, played out poetically in the symbolism of John’s vision.  To understand Revelation, you must keep in mind the testimony of the rest of Scripture.
When you read John’s words, you begin to see a pattern emerge: Seven Seals; Seven Trumpets; Seven Bowls, all bearing God’s wrath.  Each repetition is a retelling of the story through different lenses.  The tellings are not a fixed time, but are representative of the conditions, circumstances, and contexts that all humans have faced throughout history.  Through these visions, John is witnessing the human experience from the fall of Adam and Eve through the return of Christ and even beyond.
Thus, each generation has seen the words of Revelation reflected in their own time since it was written.  Even today we see ISIS and the rise of terrorism, civil unrest in Africa, global financial crises.  We hear reports of Ebola and other diseases; of devastating earthquakes and tornados and hurricanes and tsunamis and floods and droughts and famines.  Often, these things leave us troubled and afraid of what is going to happen next.  For the unbeliever, and for those who don’t completely rely on God, John’s visions trouble their conscious and works at bringing them to repentance and faith in Christ before He returns.  But for those who cast every care on God the message is completely different.
In the midst of affliction and terror, John witnesses something that gives him comfort and assurance.  In contrast to the chaos of the world, John looks and sees another angel ascending from the place of God’s activity.  The angel called out to the others who were given power over creation for judgment.  “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”  God had sent this angel to preserve His servants, His saints, through all the evils they would face.  Many great and terrible things are headed their way, but they stand ready and steadfast because God has sealed them.  He has marked them and made them His own.  They are now under His authority, protection, and care.  There is nothing and no one that can pluck the saints from God’s hand, for this seal is founded on His eternal and unshakable word.  But just who are these saints that are sealed?
John declares, “And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.”  Who are the 144,000?  While this number is used nowhere else in scripture, we can infer its meaning with confidence.  Keeping in mind that the terrors that John had witnessed were an expression of the whole human condition since the fall, this number too is also a representative of a whole.  In the testimony of Scripture, the number 12 most often represents God’s people.  In its most complete sense, there were twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament and twelve apostles in the New.  12 times 12 is 144.  This is the COMPLETE Israel, the true Israel by faith, the Holy Christian Church that stands ready to do God’s will.
So we know where the 144 comes from, but what about the 1,000?  The number 10 is a number of completeness, and the number 3 is a number of perfection.  So what happens when you multiply 10 three times, 10 by 10 by 10?  In this case, the number 1,000 represents a perfect completion.  We see this number reflected in the Old Testament when 1,000 men from each tribe of ancient Israel were selected to represent the whole nation in battle.  This connotation also carries over to our text as we see the saints arranged to engage the enemy.  And what happens when you multiply 144 with 1,000?  The 144,000 becomes an emphatic representation of the whole Christian church on earth at any given time.  The Church Militant, ready to carry out God’s marching orders.  These saints aren’t just the faithful on the last day, but the number includes all the saints, from beginning to end, during their life on earth.  Past, present, future.  Right now, this means you and me, but we are not alone in our struggle.  There have been many who have waged this war before us, and there will be many who will wage it after.  We are numbered among the 144,000.
So how do we know that we are numbered?  We know because God has given to us His Holy Spirit who guards and protects us, who daily and richly forgives our sins and keeps us firm in the faith.  Through the proclamation of the Gospel, the waters of baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, we can hear, see, feel, and taste that we belong to God and are known by Him.  We are reminded that Christ has taken away our sin and died in our place so that we are free from God’s judgment and wrath.  We do not have to fear His wrath for we know that we are His.  This confidence is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  Because of Him, we can even stare death in the face, our final enemy, because we know that we are still the Lord’s even in our death.
With is, John’s gaze is shifted from the battle front to a new scene, one that fills him with much comfort.  He is once again looking at the throne room, where now “a great multitude that no one could number” was standing before the throne.  They are clothed in white robes, waving palm branches in victory and triumph.  They are “crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!””  What a contrast to the saints on earth.  While the saints are numbered as the 144,000, this crowd was so large that it couldn’t even be counted.  Among them were ones from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  While the saints on earth were aligned for battle, these were already singing a victory song, praising God and the Lamb.
The scene was so powerful that John was rendered speechless.  Knowing what he was thinking, an elder gave voice to John’s words: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  John was eager to know, so the elder answered his own question: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”  These were the saints that were sealed on earth, who are now being carried through death to the throne room of God.  Their righteousness has been made complete through the blood of the Lamb.  For them, the battle is over, the war is won.  These are the saints who have gone before us.  Among them are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses and the prophets; Kind David and Daniel; the apostles; the Church fathers; the reformers….grandpa and grandma, mom and dad, brother and sister, son and daughter.  These are the Church Triumphant.
The scene of the Church Militant, those who stand ready for battle, couldn’t be complete without this scene of the Church Triumphant, all those saints who have come through the battle and now, finally, are at rest.  Together they are the most beautiful, most powerful portrayal of the Universal Church in all of Scripture.  Together, we are one, connected by Christ, the lamb who was slain.  Today, on All Saints Day, we remember those who have died in the Lord.  While we struggle with the emptiness that death has left in our lives, we take comfort knowing that they have passed safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
And on the other side of death they have found comfort in the arms of Christ.  They are before the throne of God, and He is with them forever.  They deal with no more sin, no more danger, no more pain, no more evil, for there is nothing but God and His goodness.  God gives them every good thing, there is no need or suffering before His throne.  For God is their comforter and protector.  He shepherds them day and night as they eagerly wait for the resurrection and the bliss beyond.  What joy this is!  What assurance we have in the God of all comfort!  Though we may face all kinds of evil now, we know that our final resting place is with God, and in His presence we will lack nothing, nor will we suffer from sorrow or pain or any evil ever again!
So let your voices ring out with all the saints who have gone before and with all those yet to come and with all the company of heaven as we declare: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

“The Final Battle”

Revelation 14:6–7, Reformation Day
Focus: Judgment is drawing near.  The demands of the Law are too much for us to bear.  What are we going to do?  Our only hope is to lean on Christ, for whoever the Son sets free is free indeed.
Function: That the hearers cling to the saving Word of Christ.
Structure: Verse-by-Verse

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and ruler of kings on earth.  To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to him be the glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.
This is how John greets the Seven Churches.  Revelation is one of the most mysterious and confusing books of the Bible.  It’s easy to get lost in the midst of it, getting turned around, not knowing up from down.  But when you look at it as a whole, you start to understand where each peace fits and the beauty of the story comes alive.  You realize that this story isn’t just any story, but it is THE story from beginning to end.  It’s about Satan’s rebellion and being cast out of heaven along with those who followed him.  It’s about the war they wage on earth to corrupt humanity and turn us away from God.  And it’s about the Lamb, who was slain, who conquered the dragon and his beasts once and for all.
John is witnessing this battle raging.  Satan and his beasts wreaking havoc on earth, branding everyone with their mark, claiming them as their own.  Christ gathering those on earth who remain faithful to Him on His holy mount.  A mighty song comes rushing from heaven, from all the angels and archangels and all the saints who had gone before.  It is a song of victory, a song of triumph.  It was their rally cry for the stage is set, and the final battle is at hand.  That’s when John looked up and said, “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.  And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
This angel had a powerful message, one that has resounded through the church from the beginning.  Fear God and give Him glory, for the Creator has come to judge His creation.  He has come in awe and power, and that thought can truly be terrifying.  But this is only the first of three announcements.  “Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.” This is the word pronounced upon Satan and all his horde, who enticed us away from our Creator, who lured us into adulterous idolatry.  Our evil enemy has been conquered by the Lamb who was slain.  The war is over.  The victory complete.  Satan has been dethroned and condemned, but the judgment isn’t over.
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Not only does Satan and his army have to pay, but all those who have served him, those who have been marked and branded by Satan and his beasts.  All those who have turned against God and made Him their enemy.  All those who have raged against the saints on earth.  They too face the full wrath of God, tormented with fire and sulfur, having no rest day or night.  This is God’s judgment upon humanity.
On this final day, all will stand naked before God Almighty.  Every sin they have ever committed will come to light.  Every evil feeling they have ever harbored will surface.  They will be judged according to every thought, word, and deed they have ever produced.  All of this will take place before our Lord, the Holy and Righteous God of the Universe.  So let me ask you a question, have you ever broken any of His commandments?  Let’s just take the first one for example: You shall have no other gods.  Have you ever trusted in yourself to get the job done?  Have you ever used your own cunning and deceit to make things happen?  Have you ever wanted something so bad that you were willing to give anything for it?
How about the second: You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain?  Have you ever used God’s name flippantly when you were hurt or when something angered you?  Have you ever told someone, or even thought of telling someone, to go to hell?  Have you ever used God’s name to manipulate someone into doing something that you wanted them to do?  The third: Remember the Sabbath by keeping it Holy?  Have you ever skipped church because something else was going on?  Have you skipped or just not go to Bible study or Sunday school because you didn’t feel like going?  Do you read, mark, and study Scripture on a daily basis?  We could keep going, but I think the point is clear.
We are all guilty of breaking God’s Law.  Since Adam and Eve, we have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.  Satan has relentlessly accused us, day and night before God.  He has tried to claim each and every one of us as his own, marking us with sin, and in that sin we stand condemned by the Law before God.  That is why Paul says in our epistle, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.”  Satan has won this battle, our guilt is evident.
Thankfully, Satan doesn’t have the last word, for he has been condemned, bound, and cast out of heaven.  The only one left before the throne is the Lamb who was slain.  Unlike Satan, the Lamb pleads our case before His Father.  He took all our sin upon Himself and was slain in our place, and has promised us that whoever believes in Him will not die but have eternal life.  Jesus tells us, If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Jesus wasn’t giving some moralistic teaching about telling the truth, Jesus was telling His disciples that HE is the Truth, and that we can trust in Him for our salvation.  He repeated once more, because He wanted to be absolutely clear, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, has taken away the sin of the world.  He has gathered His saints and has washed us clean through the waters of our baptism.  He has taken away the mark of Satan and has given us a new mark, the name of the Lamb and of His Father.  He has given us new garments that were dipped in the blood of the Lamb.  Satan tried to claim us, but he was no match for Christ, the Son of the Living God, for Christ has purchased and won us not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  We are no longer condemned by the Law before God.  When God looks upon you on that last day, He will not see a tainted sinner, but He will see one of His most precious, dearly loved Children and welcome you home with a feast too good to be imagined, for you and all believers have been made righteous through faith in Christ.
Paul continued, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  This is the eternal Gospel that the angel declares.  This is the Gospel that the martyrs died for.  This is the Gospel that the reformers fought so hard to protect.  This is the Gospel that our faith clings to.
YOU are the redeemed!  YOU are the righteous!  You are Christ’s holy saints!  Revelation continues, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.  And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors!”  Though Satan’s war is still raging, we know how the story ends.  We know that though we live as sinners now, we are declared as righteous.  God our Judge is also our refuge, He is our stronghold.  Christ has already won, Satan’s time is limited.  It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.  So we wait, enduring the trials and tribulations of this world, because we are confident of Christ’s return.
So as the angel has proclaimed, “Fear God and give him glory.”  Fear not for the threat of punishment, but because we stand in reverence of the power and might of our Almighty King and Lord, in awe of the tenacity of what He was willing to do, and did do, to reclaim His people, and we give Him glory for He has vanquished our foe and has covered us with the blood of the Lamb.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Forgiving Forgiven”

Matthew 18:21–35, Pentecost 19
Focus: We are incapable of forgiveness on our own, but we are empowered by Him to forgive.
Function: That the hearers embrace God’s forgiveness and let it become who they are.
Structure: Narrative

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
In college, I read a story that captivated both my heart and my mind.  I knew its theology was questionable, but I wasn’t reading it for its theology.  What intrigued me was the intense, raw, and powerful emotions that the main character was struggling with and how he encountered God, grace, and healing in a way that I pray many of us never have to.  I can still remember how my stomach churned as I read how Mack’s six year old daughter was abducted, and all that was found was her torn and blood soaked dress in a rundown shack hidden in the woods.  Mack became bitter, and he blamed God for all that had happened.
A few months later, Mack received a note in the mail.  It said, “Mackenzie, It’s been a while.  I’ve missed you.  I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.  Papa.”  As he read it, nausea rolled over Mack like waves crashing upon the beach.  He thought someone must be playing a sick joke on him.  You see, Papa was a nickname that his wife had given God.  Fear, anger, grief, anxiety, and a whole flood of emotions came over Mack as he contemplated that note, but in the end curiosity prevailed.
With much apprehension, Mack made the long voyage out to that shack, not knowing what to expect when He arrived.  The shack was as just as he had last seen it.  Inside, he could still see the blood stain in the floor boards from where his daughter once laid.  Rage built inside.  He began smashing everything in sight and yelling at the God he believed wasn’t even listening.  Finally exhaustion overcame him and he slumped down against a wall and fell asleep.  When he awoke he headed back to his truck, kicking himself for coming in the first place.  Suddenly, a warm breeze cut through the cold winter.  He turned and the shack had transformed into a cozy little cottage, and there standing in the front door to greet him was God Himself.
What happened over the next couple days was full of both joy and hardships.  Mack felt his life being transformed and his relationship with God renewed bit by bit.  God and Mack talked about all sorts of things, not only about the pain and suffering he was currently going through, but also the wounds Mack suffered as a kid that hindered his relationship with God.  As they talked, Mack found the strength to forgive the wounds of his past, and the more he forgave the more joy he felt and the closer he felt to God.
As the weekend came to a close, God took Mack on one last hike.  When they stopped to rest, God looked at Mack and said, “I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart…you already know what I want, don’t you?”  Mack knew alright.  His emotions came to a boil as tears streamed down his face.  He opened his mouth to speak, “God, how can I ever forgive the man who killed my Missy?  If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do.  I know it’s isn’t right, but I want to hurt him like he hurt me…if I can’t get justice, I still want revenge.”
This is often how we respond when we’ve been wronged.  We ask, “How can I forgive those who have hurt me so badly?”  Often, instead of forgiveness, we want to get even.  We want to inflict the same pain that was given to us.  Like Mack, we just can’t forgive what has been done to us.  How could we just let it go?  How can we forgive those who have wronged us so badly?  …Maybe though…this is the wrong question we should be asking.  Maybe this question comes from a misunderstanding of what forgiveness truly means.
In our text today, Peter comes to Jesus and asks Him a question that we ourselves frequently want to know.  “How often are we to forgive those who have wronged us?”  With this question Peter throws out what considers a pretty generous offer.  It is said that according to Jewish custom of the time, you were only required to forgive someone three times before your obligation was satisfied.  Peter’s offer is more than double that.  Even so, Jesus does not respond favorably to Peter’s offer.  He says, “I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven.”  The point is clear: Jesus is telling us to not keep a record of wrongs and is calling us to a forgiveness that never ends.
Many may think this is an impossible task.  Continual forgiveness?  We just don’t have it in us…or is that the point.  Jesus explains with a parable declaring that the reign of God is like a king who wished to settle accounts.  One was brought before him who owed ten thousand talents.  That was more money than all Rome was worth.  This guy was in deep, and there was no way he could ever pay it back.  The king pronounced judgment upon him, and ordered all his possessions, family, and even he himself to be sold so that the king may recover something of the debt.
But the servant fell upon his knees and begged the king to have patience with him, insisting he would pay everything back.  Despite the ridiculous request, the king took pity on the man and forgave him his debt in its entirety.  The man was released free and clear.  But when he went out he saw a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  Compared to his debt that could not have been paid off in several life times, this fellow’s debt could have been paid off in three to four months, yet he seized his fellow servant by the throat and demanded repayment.  When his fellow servant pleaded in the same manner, he refused to show the same mercy he had been given and threw the man in jail.
Distressed at what they had witnessed, the other servants went and told the king.  Thus the king summoned the man before him and declared, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  And in his anger the king delivered the man to the jailers until his impossible debt was paid.  Jesus closes with telling His disciples, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  So then, what are we to do?
A few weeks ago I preached over Paul’s words from Romans 11.  I declared that there is nothing that you can do to earn the gift of salvation.  As Paul says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”  As sinners, we are spiritually dead.  This means that we cannot forgive any more than we can to earn forgiveness, for forgiveness brings life and as such it is only of the Spirit.  The reason it seems impossible for us to forgive is because it IS impossible for us to forgive.  The ONLY way forgiveness is possible is by living in the forgiveness that we have received.
In His parable, Jesus is shifting our focus from the wrong we have suffered at the hands of others to the wrong that we have done with our very own hands towards God.  When we compare our actions to the Law of God, we see our offenses stacking higher and higher, far outweighing anything that has been done to us.  We are confronted with the harsh reality that we have nothing to offer and justly deserve judgment and death.  Recognizing this we confess with Paul, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.  But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
You see, when Christ hung on the cross and paid the debt that we never could, He gave us life and in doing so made us agents of that very same life.  The life that He gives doesn’t just flow into us.  It flows THROUGH us.  When we refuse to forgive, we are refusing the life that Jesus has given to us.  Just as the man who refused to forgive his fellow servant, if we refuse to forgive others we too will be cut off from the promise of salvation.  Now…I want to make one thing clear, struggling to forgive is not the same as refusing to forgive.  Struggling is part of being both a saint and a sinner.  Your struggle comes from yielding to the power of the Spirit as He works against your sinful flesh.
God told Mack, “For you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me.”  Each one of us was formed by the hands of God and God desires the salvation of all.  Yet Mack struggled to forgive this man because he knew he could never forget what this man did.  God told Mack, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it’s about letting go of another person’s throat.”  These same words ring true in Christ’s parable.  When the man saw his fellow servant, he quite literally seized him by the throat.  He resisted letting the mercy he received flow through him, and by doing so brought condemnation down upon himself.  We all struggle, but it is the outright refusal to forgive that condemns us.
When we refuse to forgive we resist the life giving water and let sin fester within our heart until it becomes scabby and hardens not only against those who have wronged us but ultimately against God Himself.  But when we yield to the Spirit and let go of the other person’s neck, we allow the Spirit to kill our sin that is choking us.
Mack asked God, “So is it alright if I’m still angry?”  God responded, “Absolutely! What he did was terrible.  He caused incredible hurt and pain to many.  It was wrong, and anger is the right response to something that is so wrong.  But don’t let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck.”  Forgiveness isn’t easy.  When we are hurt we experience a lot of powerful emotions that make it feel as if forgiveness can never be possible.  It might take declaring that forgiveness every day, but with each declaration the Spirit works in our heart until one day we are finally healed and at peace. 
So as Christians we do not ask, “How can I forgive them,” but “Father, forgive them for what they have done,” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” for it is only through His forgiveness that we not only have the power to forgive but are healed and find peace.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

“Do Not Be Afraid”

Matthew 14:22–33, Pentecost 14
Focus: God saves ALL who call upon His name.
Function: That the hearer continues to trust in God’s Word alone.
Structure: Biblical Story Interrupted
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’m sure many of you are on the edge of your seats, eager to start the next fifteen minutes or so of our worship service. For better or worse, you’ve endured nine years of hearing Pastor Snyder preach from this pulpit. Sure, you’ve listened to others preach while pastor was away, but this is different. I’m not leaving when Pastor comes back. You’re stuck with me for the better part of a year. So I would imagine you are wondering how I am going to be as a preacher. Am I going to be funny? Am I going to be exciting? Will I speak with a lot of colorful images or be as dry and boring as a doctrinal textbook? Will I be theologically correct? Will I be politically correct? And just who is this guy standing before you anyway? Well, let me start my sermon by telling you a little about myself.
Entering college I had no idea what I wanted to be. The farthest thing from my mind was that I wanted to become a pastor. It took most of my freshman year and several changes in my major to arrive where I am today. though I hadn’t the slightest clue academically, I started the year knowing who I wanted to surround myself with socially. I immediately immersed myself in a search for a Christian group to join. I hadn’t been involved in church much since confirmation, but my faith brought me through a pretty rough depression in high school, and I knew I needed to feed and nourish my faith if I wanted it to grow. The first week of school I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I didn’t know it then, but that was where I would meet my now wife, Marie. With some encouragement from my friends, I also joined Sigma Theta Epsilon, National Christian Fraternity in the spring.
I owe much to these two groups as they are the ones who put the fertilizer on my faith, but it was my fraternity brothers that really challenged me to grow and put me on the path to the seminary. After our fraternity’s spring retreat, I came home to a dark and empty dorm room. I began reflecting on what I had witnessed. My brothers were all gathered in Christian community: serving each other, laying their struggles and burdens on one another, worshiping together, and having good, clean fun…and there may have been some fire jumping, fireworks, and shotgun shooting too. Back in my room, I closed my eyes and silenced myself, and just sat and thought. That’s when it hit me. From that very moment I knew I belonged in the ministry.
Shortly after that, my freshman year concluded and I was finally on track towards the seminary. I wish I could say I lived happily ever after, but unfortunately life is much messier than that. Fall of my sophomore year brought many more challenges than I was prepared or able to face. I was trying to find out who I was as an individual. I was frustrated with leadership roles I took on in InterVarsity and often felt like a failure. My duties as the activities chairman in the fraternity were stacking up. School was getting tougher as I started my core classes. I was struggling in being a supportive boyfriend in a Christ centered relationship. Conflict within my family strained relationships at home. The internal pressure and turmoil built and built until finally it exploded. In the spring I was presented with an opportunity, a temptation, and I had no strength within myself to resist. I gave in and I messed up. I messed up BIG. Not only that, in the wake of my sin I made a shipwreck of not only my faith, but the faith of someone very close to me.
…I was broken, lost, and alone. I was going to be a pastor, but now…look at me. I was tainted and sure that God wanted nothing more to do with me. I tried to hide my sin and run from God. I couldn’t stand being in His presence as it only brought shame, guilt, terror, and pain. Yet I couldn’t wriggle free from His grasp. The harder I tried the tighter He held. Finally, I relented and gave in. I had no choice but to stand, confronted by the Almighty Father, the Creator and Judge of the universe, with Jesus Christ not as my Savior but as my accuser. My fear had blinded me and I doubted that even in His infinite mercy, Christ could not love me anymore.
I did not recognize it at that moment, bit I was not the first to be terrified because I did not recognize Jesus for who He was. In our passage today, we find the disciples exhausted, slowly fighting against the wind and the waves all night long. They were alone, and expected nothing out of the ordinary to happen, for Jesus stayed behind to pray. Sometime during the fourth watch, the darkest part of the night before dawn’s light breaks, they see a figure approaching their boat from across the water. They were terrified, because the only conclusion they could make was that it was a ghost.
I am sure many of you know this story well. You probably even have a mental image of it playing in your mind. Jesus, standing a distance from the boat. The disciples seeing this and are terrified. Jesus, telling them to no longer be afraid, for it was Him and no one else. Peter, confident in His Lord, declares, “Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus smiles, pleased with His disciple, stretches out His hand, and says, “Come.” And in daring faith, Peter jumps overboard and runs to Jesus over the bobbing waves. It’s hopeful. It’s inspiring. It leaves us wishing that we too could have faith like Peter to walk on the water. Entire books have been written and programs developed dedicated to this single image of Peter’s faith. The problem is though, when we look at the text it just doesn’t add up.
In the broad context of Matthew’s Gospel whenever we see Peter acting on his own, we can bet he is giving a rash response to whatever the situation may be and should not be emulated, but whenever we see Peter acting on behalf of the disciples it ends up being a true confession of faith. Applying this to our text, Peter is giving a hasty reply to Jesus’ words of comfort. Doubting it was Jesus, Peter shot back, “Lord, if it is you!” At this time the disciples still had no idea that Jesus was God Himself, so it does not take much to believe that Peter doubted the figure walking on the water was actually Jesus and not just a ghost trying to deceive them.
After expressing his doubt, Peter then gives Jesus a bizarre demand. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” This is not a bold confession of faith, but a test. Peter knows that if this was a ghost trying to deceive them Peter would plummet into the water below, but if it was Jesus then He was obviously some powerful man with a unique relationship to the Creator and could surely make Peter walk on water too. But of all the things he could have chosen, why did Peter choose this? Why would he risk making himself look like a fool? It just doesn’t make sense…unless you’ve been there yourself.
We all struggle with doubt, and if I had to guess I would say most people in this sanctuary have even questioned their faith at some point. Maybe you found Christianity too hard to believe. Maybe, like me, you messed up big and thought there was no way God could love you anymore. Maybe something horrific happened and you were left wondering why God would allow it to happen. Doubt comes in many forms, but it happens to all of us. Doubt comes from insecurity in our faith and we want God to prove Himself to us, to show us that we are wrong in our doubt.  Therefore, we put Him to the test, and the stronger we doubt, the bigger and clearer we want the message. For Peter, that was walking on water. For me, well…
In my time of struggle I was surrounded by friends who were mainstream charismatics. Their affirmation of faith was in seeing God work supernatural wonders in the lives of believers. They themselves spoke in tongues. They watched documentaries about exorcisms in developing countries, about spiritual revivals where people had manna miraculously appear in their hands or had fillings inexplicably turn into gold or had a disease mysteriously cured. They believed God makes His presence known through powerful and wondrous displays. In my insecurity this was just what I needed. I was desperate, so one night I prayed, “Heavenly Father, prove to me Your love. Lord, please, if you love me send me some heavenly manna so that I know that I am your forgiven and redeemed child.”
A couple days passed by silently. I was ready to give up hope when one day I walked into my room, and there sprinkled all over my bed were little white flakes. I could hardly believe this was actually happening to me. My heart raced inside my chest. With cautious excitement I reached out my hand and picked up a flake. I held it up close and examined it. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, so I slowly brought it to my mouth and delicately placed it on my tongue. I took a deep breath and lifted my face toward heaven and there I saw…paint…flaking off my ceiling. I was mortified, than ashamed. I thought to myself, “If only you had the faith…”
When Peter stepped out of the boat and onto that water, even though he was within arm reach of Jesus, fear overcame him and he started sinking. His new found confidence in Jesus quickly waned. This time he did not call for something bizarre or miraculous, but he called out to Jesus for rescue, and immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and saved Peter. Out of everything else in the text, what happens next is the most important part. Jesus did not congratulate Peter on the risk he took. He did not hold up Peter as an example to the disciples to follow. He didn't even rebuke the other disciples for not having the faith to walk on the water like Peter. Instead, right there, standing on the surface of the sea, Jesus looked at Peter in the eyes and said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
This miracle isn’t about the cool stuff that Jesus did. This miracle isn’t about the cool stuff that Jesus can do through us. This miracle, as with all miracles, is about who Jesus is. When they climbed into the boat, the disciples fell down and declared, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Jesus was not telling Peter that if he had only persisted in faith he would still be walking on water. No, Jesus is telling Peter that if he had not doubted then he would have seen Jesus for who He truly was. He would have taken Him at His initial word and would never have gotten out of the boat in the first place!
In just a few chapters Jesus will be asking Peter a different question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter will respond, this time on behalf of the disciples, by confessing, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is because of this response that Jesus declares that Peter is the rock upon which He will build His church. Peter’s faith is an example, not because of the risks he took, but because in the end he recognized Jesus as the one who saves. Later, he would discover that not only did Jesus stretch out His hand to save Peter here in the Sea of Galilee, but that Jesus would stretch our His hands to save Peter, and all of us, upon the cross at Calvary.
You may be wondering how someone who made a shipwreck of his faith, someone who was so completely lost, scared, and alone that he was desperate enough to eat paint chips because he had hoped them to be manna from heaven, became the same man speaking these words confidently to you today. Let me tell you, it was not something miraculous that changed my life and strengthened my faith. It was just the opposite. It was the continual reminder, the whisper in my ear, through the Word and Sacrament that revived my faith and brought me back into God’s family. While I know that most of the time we do not feel the weight of our sin to the point that it is crushing us, I pray that if you ever do find yourself doubting the love and mercy of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, that you remember as long as you allow Christ to hold onto you, His blood will run down and cover you and wipe away even your worst transgressions.
We are continually made new in Christ each time we hear His Word and partake in His Sacraments.  Christ will one day return, and on that glorious day He will raise all the dead, and to those who are found in Him this renewal will be made complete.  So no matter how big you messed up, or no matter how scared you are, just hold on to the hope and promise of Christ because Jesus is NOT your accuser, but your loving and merciful Savior, and He won’t let go of you.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.