The Baptism of our Lord

The Baptism of our Lord
January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7
“Fear Knots…Fear Not”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson from Isaiah 43.

My dear friends,

Have you ever thought about how powerful fear and worry are in our lives? When fear moves in, happiness moves out. When our hearts are filled with fear, there can’t be room for anything else. Fear and joy are mutually exclusive; you cannot be happy and afraid at the same time. And what do people fear? Pretty much everything under the sun! We fear being sued, finishing last, having no friends, disappointing those closest to us, losing our job, losing our business, going broke; we fear the mole on the back or new spot on our arm, what will happen if pastor leaves, and the sound of the clock as it ticks us closer to the grave.
Fear grabs us. Worry holds us. We find ourselves held by “fear knots.” When I was a kid, I used to get them every time I had to go to the dentist. Those are knots in our stomach when we think about that upcoming procedure or the looming court date, or the notice from the bank or the insurance company we just received. Fear knots are the things that migrate up and bind our hearts when we’re concerned about our children and grandchildren, a pain for which there are no words to describe. Fear knots tie us up and refuse to let us go.
Ancient Israel was bound up by fear knots. They were worried about how God felt about them. After all, they had disobeyed God time and again. Beginning in the wilderness with Moses, the people of Israel complained against God, doubted his goodness, and turned to idols. Moses is up on top of Sinai getting the Commandments; the frightened people are busy at the base of Sinai already breaking the 1st one! As the centuries rolled on, God continually warned his people against their idolatry, but they refused to listen. Instead of changing their ways and repenting, they told the prophets to stop preaching, even imprisoning some of them and killing others…right up to the day when the Lord punished them with the Exile.
The Exile…yeah…that didn’t help their fear. They were now afraid of the future because, for all intents and purposes, it looked like they DIDN’T HAVE a future. Yes, God had promised that their exile wasn’t permanent (70 years), but would he keep his promise? They had sinned against the Lord. They deserved his anger. They had earned his punishment. Could God ever forgive them? Would God ever forgive them? These knots of fear bound them like chains.
Ever felt like that? We are often bound by fear knots. Like Israel, we have disobeyed God. We even admit that. Earlier we confessed that we have sinned against God. Will my confession be enough? Is God still angry with me? Are all these fears and doubts and troubles in life my punishment for acting so poorly? We don’t trust God to take care of us, so we worry about what tomorrow may look/be like and end up being tied up in fear knots. We don’t have full confidence in God, so we get filled with anxiety – tied up in worry – and are bound with fear knots, which is NOT a great feeling.
The previous chapter, chapter 42, ends with scathing judgment. However, our lesson began with “But now . . .” With those words, Isaiah comes to comfort us! Yes, the Lord was angry, but now his anger is taken away. Yes, he punished his people Israel, but he will do so no longer. Now he will save them. Now he will protect them. The Lord comes to release Israel from their fear knots. He says to them, “Fear not.” “Fear not!” says the Lord. “Remember what I have done for you! I created you. I formed you. I redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Passing through the waters, walking through the fire – all the trials of life – it makes no difference. God is with his people, and he will bring them through. The water will not overwhelm, and the fire will not burn; the difficulties of life will not destroy you. God will protect you. “Fear not,” says the Lord, “for I am with you” (v 5). Jesus said the same thing before His ascension: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28).
Now in our Baptism, God says the same to us a hundred times over every day. God has created you in His image. That’s not physical, but it’s your ability to think and reason, to understand good/evil, right/wrong, your ability to make choices, to appreciate beauty, to be in relationship, and ultimately to love. In Baptism, he lovingly made us his own. In your Baptism, God reached down from heaven and placed his name on you. He called you by name, and he said that you belong to Him, and that is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour relationship.
Here’s an interesting note. The Lord told Israel that he gave Egypt for them and that he gave “men in return for you” (v 4). That happened to Egypt on the night of the 10th plague. But, the Lord has done even more for us. He did not give men in our place; he gave one Man in our place: his Son, Christ Jesus. The Baptism of our Lord is the beginning of His ministry and Jesus knew full well that the manger of Bethlehem led to the waters of the Jordan which would lead to the cross of Calvary…but let us not forget the empty grave of Easter. At the cross, something miraculous happened. The Lord redeemed us with His body. He paid for our sin with His blood. He made us his own.
Since God has done all that for us, we do not need to be afraid. We are his children. Since we are his children, we do not have to be afraid of what life throws at us. We will be tested by many trials. We will be confronted by many challenges. We will be frightened about the future. But the Lord promises to bring us through them all. “In the world you will have tribulation,” says Jesus. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Fear will knock on the door of your heart…but you don’t have to let it in! Instead, the Lord says, “Fear not.” “Fear not, for I have created you. Fear not, for I have redeemed you by the blood of my Son. Fear not, for I have summoned you by name in your Baptism. You are mine.” Be confident in the Lord; live life confident in the Lord. Let his Word undo your fear knots. Always…ALWAYS…remember his promise: “Fear not, for I am with you.”
Amen.

The Epiphany of our Lord

The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12
“One Wild Ride”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon on our celebration of the Epiphany of Our Lord is today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 2.

My dear friends,

Many of our snowbirds are back after their annual “White Christmas” up north and everything that comes with that: cold, snow, ice, frost, bad roads. Oh…FUN! One of the wonderful features of where we reside in south Florida is that we don’t have to deal with snow packed, icy roads. As someone who has driven on some pretty dangerous roads in all my years spent in Minnesota, I can tell you that is what I miss the least about the upper Midwest. That and the mosquitoes. But that doesn’t mean that driving is always easy peasy on the Suncoast. You ever been caught out on traffic during one of our torrential downpours of rain? They are brutal! Traffic slows to a crawl and it is downright dangerous to be on the roads. Whether it’s ice or rain or some other nasty condition, it always feels good to safely reach our destination and the comfort of home after a wild ride in difficult traveling conditions.
Today is the annual celebration of the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany is one of the oldest seasons in the Christian Church Year. The season emphasizes the revelation of Jesus as both God and man to Jew and Gentile alike. And every year we initiate our Epiphany season with the re-telling of the visit of the wise men or Magi from the east to newly-born Jesus. Boy…talk about a WILD ride!
As Matthew chapter 2 opens, the time frame of Jesus’ birth has jumped ahead upwards of two years. The baby is now a “child” (2:8-9); He is no longer a “babe/infant” like in Luke 2 and these are 2 very different Greek words. Additionally, the family lives in a house in Bethlehem in Judea (2:11), six miles south/southwest of Jerusalem.
The term “Magi” (magoi) was originally used in early records to refer to a priestly class in ancient Persia. Tradition has dictated that there were three wise men who came to see Jesus and their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior, but we don’t know for sure their names or even number. Regardless, these Magi were leading advisors in the religious court life of their country of origin. Since a large colony of Jews remained in the east after the Exile, espe¬cially in Babylon and Arabia, these Magi apparently had been exposed to Judaism from those Jewish colonies.
If the Magi came from the vicinity of Babylon, they would have traveled approximately 900 miles. Since they would have had to make arrangements for the jour¬ney and gather a traveling party, it could have taken several months from the time they first saw the star until they arrived in Jerusalem. That’s easy to figure out.
The average person can walk 2.5-3 miles per hour over normal terrain. The terrain between the area of ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq) and Bethlehem (modern day Palestine) is not the easiest ground to walk. Also consider this is a caravan of people and materials. If you’re going on a long journey in the ancient Near East, you’re going to take a lot of stuff: clothing, food/water, weapons, tools, money, medical supplies, charts/map, and anything else they would need. If the caravan could travel 2 miles per hour, and the distance to travel was 900 miles, it would take 450 hours or 19 days of non-stop walking. Factor in stopping for meals and sleep, it would have easily taken 30+ days through harsh terrain into a foreign land. Talk about a WILD ride!
But imagine their joy upon finding Jesus at the end of their journey! They had been walking across the desert for a month or more following this holy star, and now the end of the journey was finally upon them. Relief! Joy! Matthew 2:10 says they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” and that’s a good translation. They were overwhelmed with excessive joy! Their elation was without measure! Upon seeing Jesus they did what came naturally when you see God…they prostrated themselves; they fell down upon their faces not as a Yoga pose but in an act of total contrition and worship. They then presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were HIGHLY symbolic, and then they, like Simeon from last week’s Gospel lesson, disappear from the pages of Holy Scripture. Wow…talk about a WILD ride!
Well, I told you all of that so that I can now tell you this. Friends, you and I are also on a wide ride in life. It has its ups and it has it downs. It is not always easy. There are plenty of moments in life that make us smile and just as many that make us cry. As the people of God we are on one wild and crazy ride – this thing we call life – and the only way we get through is by and through faith in our born, lived, crucified, died, and risen Savior Jesus Christ.
In His Word, God has given us more than few reminders for confident, daily living because of who we are in Christ: “Be strong and courageous…for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6 ESV). “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20 ESV). “…the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4 ESV).
2019 is going to throw things at you that you don’t expect – maybe it already has. There will be unexpected highs, and confidence-shattering lows. As you go forward into a new year – 365 days of wild riding – know and remember that it is God who goes with you; loving you so you can love others, forgiving you so you can forgive others, providing for you so you can provide for others, and show you compassion, mercy and grace so you can do the same each day.
And just imagine the joy when you reach the end of this wild ride! Just imagine how good it will feel when you reach the eternal glory of heaven! Talk about relief! Talk about rejoicing exceedingly with great joy! Sure, it’s going to be a wild ride, but what a glorious finish awaits us! May that hopeful promise sustain and keep you throughout 2019 and into eternity.
Amen.

1st Sunday after Christmas

1st Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018
Luke 2:22-40
“It’s All Over…Or Is It?”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the newly-born King. The basis for the sermon is today’s Gospel lesson from Luke 2.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Well, it’s all over for another year, right? No more halls to be decked. No more yuletide carols being sung by fires. No more bells to be jingled. No more chestnuts to roast. Christmas is over. The presents are open. Many have their Christmas trees down, gift cards redeemed, and mistletoe safely stowed for another year.
But not so fast! Hang on there, little Grinchs. Technically, Christmas is not over. You see, in the world’s eyes Christmas ends sometime shortly after the presents get ripped open. But not so in the Church. Christmas is both a day – December 25th – and also a season. It is short, yes, but a season nonetheless. The Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song “Twelve Days of Christmas”), lasting from December 25th until Epiphany on January 6th (next Sunday). What has begun – Christmas – will be completed next week (Epiphany). So for now, we’re in the middle; what God has started we now wait for its completion. See where I’m going with this yet?
There was a man named Simeon who was in the same situation; what God had begun, he waited for completion. The Bible tells us very little about Jesus’ infancy and teenage years. It tells us even less about Simeon. Here is what we know from today’s Gospel as we set the scene.
You already know what happened previous to this: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) and then comes the angels, shepherds, swaddling cloths, and the whole 9 yards of the Christmas birth narrative. Now, 40 days had passed since Jesus’ birth. How do we know? Because Luke records that “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22). The Law of Moses says that after a woman gives birth she was ceremonially unclean for 7 days, then had to be isolated for another 33 days (Leviticus 12). Hence, 40 days had passed since our Lord’s birth. 40 days is significant: it is the period of rainfall that flooded the world in Genesis 6. It is the years of wandering for Israel. 30 years later, it is the number of days of fasting that Jesus will eventually endure prior to His temptation (Matthew 4).
Now, after 40 days, here comes Simeon. We know that he was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation or deliverance of Israel (2:25). We know the Holy Spirit was upon him (2:25). And we also know it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (2:26).
Well…here He comes. Joseph and Mary arrive at the same time that Simeon just happens to be in the Temple in Jerusalem. Coincidence? I think not. The Holy Spirit has brought all the “players” to the same place at the same time for a reason. Simeon has just met the Christ Child face-to-face meaning that he could one day die at peace knowing that God’s salvation of Israel would take place for sure. Simeon, who had longed for Israel’s deliverance, could depart this world – he could die – knowing that everything was going to be okay because he had seen God’s salvation.
Did you recognize the words of Simeon? You should. This song of Simeon is also called the Nunc Dimittis; the title is formed from the opening words in the Latin Bible called the Vulgate, “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord”. It is a beautiful song that was sung for decades in The Lutheran Hymnal and still appears in Divine Service Setting Three: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”
Simeon knew that what God had started by way of promise He had now fulfilled in sending His Christ to redeem – save – His people…all people Gentile and Jew alike. And then, like so many others in the NT, as mysteriously as he entered the scene, Simeon disappears from the pages of Scripture.
So, with the sermon nearly over and with the calendar year nearly over, can the same thing be said about you? What is it that you are waiting in life to see? Are you anxiously awaiting better health, a better job, a better home, better family? In short, are you waiting around for things to get better? Well, I hate to burst your bubble, because if that is the case for you, you may have a LONG wait.
Nowhere in scripture does God promise “better” lives. Nowhere does He promise riches or fame or glory or success. Nope. In fact, you should expect the opposite: suffering, pain, loss, grief, and persecution. Habitual sinners such as us shouldn’t expect glory this side of heaven.
But here’s the thing that Simeon teaches us. What God has begun He has also fulfilled in sending the Christ Child Jesus. What God promised in the Old Testament begins its fulfillment in the manger of Bethlehem will one day 33 years later be accomplished at Calvary’s cross and eternally finalized at Easter’s empty grave. That is the kind of information good enough to live AND DIE in. let that sink in a little bit. No one I’m sure will set a New Year’s resolution to die, but if we did we could do so in complete peace knowing that according to God’s Word we sinners have forgiveness and life everlasting because of what the Christ does for us. God never promises a “better” life, but he does promise a forgiven life…an eternal life.
Over? Nothing is over. Simeon’s life is over, sure. But you and I? Well, we’re in the same boat as Simeon in a sense. It’s not over for us just yet. We have seen what God has promised AND completed.
And in the meantime, as faithful people we get a wonderful reminder from Paul in today’s Second Lesson what we should be doing: “Put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other…above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:12-17 ESV).
May God enable you to do just that throughout 2019 and always.
Amen.

4th Sunday in Advent

4th Sunday in Advent
December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-45
“Upside Down”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text for the sermon today is the Gospel Lesson previously read from Luke 1.

My dear friends in Christ,

Many times my sermons have light-hearted, cutesy openings to get us started. Not today. This past week I observed a gruesome anniversary. The phone rang at 12:01 AM on December 17, 2006; 12 years ago. I mumbled “who calls us at midnight?” My general rule of thumb is any call before 8 AM or after 10 PM is never good. I knew right away that it couldn’t be good because it was my brother on the phone. For some reason, throughout the years my brother Mike has been given the task of calling me to let me know when close family members die. It had happened with both grandparents back in 2002, but in 2006 there were no grandparents left alive. What could Mike possibly want to tell me at 12:01 in the morning? Through his slurred words I heard him clearly say “we lost dad tonight.” “We lost dad tonight.”
That couldn’t be. It is impossible. My dad was only 66 years old and there had been no signs of medical problems. Sure, he had had a stroke 1 ½ years before, but he was better now. Not so much, I guess. At 11:30 PM my father had stood up, went into the bathroom, crashed into the wall, took 3 or 4 more breaths, and then went to meet his Lord and Maker right there on the bathroom floor.
Our world was turned upside down. We hurriedly “packed,” which is a nice way to say we threw some clothes into a suitcase, grabbed our dog Farley, and drove off into the cold night headed for mom’s house in northern Minnesota. Life became upside down. The Christmas tree in the house stood in stark contrast to all the flowers and plants brought back from the funeral. Dad’s Christmas gifts were divided among the rest of us. Gifts that he had ordered for mom kept showing up from L.L. Bean or Amazon; gifts which he never had a chance to hide, wrap, and place it under the tree with only the word “maw” written on the tag.
It is an open secret that my life has been upside down for almost all of 2018. Now, my youngest grandson Eli has Type I Diabetes and as a family we are learning what it will take to care for him until he’s old enough to care for himself. The reality of life is that life can certainly change from one moment to the next. Our normal life patterns and routines are more fragile then we think; medical crisis, death, weather emergencies, financial responsibilities and pressures, and the like all have the ability to turn life upside down for us in a heartbeat.
Talk about upside down! Consider today’s Gospel lesson. In the verses right before today’s lesson, in Luke 1:28-37, the angel Gabriel told Mary – a virgin – that she was with child, and would give birth to a son, and would call him Jesus (v. 31). Talk about upside down! Mary was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, but they had not consummated their marriage; she was still a virgin. But, this virgin named Mary was pregnant and was going to have a baby. That’s having your life turned upside down, right?
But it wasn’t just Mary. Mary’s relative Elizabeth, the devout wife of Zechariah the priest, was also with child even though she was “well along in years” (v. 18). I don’t know exactly how old Elizabeth was, but she was certainly past normal child-bearing years. For those of you here today that are past “normal child bearing years,” how would you like to find out you were pregnant all of a sudden? Wouldn’t that turn your world upside down?
How is this all possible: leaping babies, pregnant virgins, fathers being buried 4 days before Christmas, infants being diabetic? Why is it all so upside down? Did we ever stop to consider one thing? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, when God does something it is good, and we are the ones who label it “bad?” When death strikes, or uncertain times are upon us, or when we are alone, or when our finances seem stretched, in our sinfulness and our tendency to want things our own way, we think what God has done is bad. We want things the way we want things! It goes back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They wanted things a certain way contrary to God’s will, and look what happened. God looks at something and says, “it is good,” but we look at a situation or a circumstance and we say, “that’s NOT good. That’s not the way I want it! Why are things so upside down in life?” God doesn’t make mistakes, but in our selfish sinfulness we have a hard time seeing that.
So how do we persevere? How do we get through the upside down things of life? Consider Luke 1 verses 37 and 38: “For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” God is the one who makes all things possible whether it is going through grief or “getting through” the holidays or wrestling with issues of conflict or uncertainty. Nothing is impossible for God and our response, like that of Mary, is one of faith.
God uses what looks impossible to make the impossible a saving reality for His people. He arranges things such that His only begotten Son comes into the flesh via a virgin. He arranges things such that the child is born in a lowly and stinky manger. He arranges things such that the Son dies a cruel death on a Roman instrument of torture and humiliation – the cross. He arranges things such that the Son rises from the cold, stone tomb. He arranges things such that the Son then re-ascends back into heaven in full sight of His disciples. Our God is a God who makes all things possible, and these things are done for our salvation and the forgiveness of our sinfulness.
Armed with this knowledge, we can get through the upside down times of life by faith: we too can say “May it be to me as you have said.” When we can learn and discern and accept God’s will in this life for us, we are better served to live life by faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” As Christians we do not always see God’s wisdom of what’s happening in life and in our sinfulness we are not certain about what’s going on. However, we don’t live by sight or emotion or intuition. We live by faith; we are sure of what it is we hope for and we are certain of the things that we cannot see, despite the things that we do see happening in our lives.
Are we always happy with the way things are? No. But as Christians we can live and survive and even thrive through the upside down things of life because we know that God is still at work in our lives, that He is still in control, and that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God doesn’t make our lives upside down; He makes all things possible through Christ who gives us the strength we need to survive the upside down times of life.
Amen.

3rd Sunday in Advent

3rd Sunday in Advent
December 16, 2018
Luke 7:18-28
“The Coming Scandal”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson read from Luke chapter 7.

My dear friends,

What does it take for someone or something to offend you? Can you remember the last time you were genuinely offended? How did it make you feel? What was your response? Was it something like, “How dare you!”? “How dare you insult my intelligence!” “How dare you accuse me of wrongdoing!” Did you slap someone with a glove and challenge them to a duel? That would be sweet!
Our Lord Jesus was no stranger to “How dare you!” His earthly ministry lasted only three years, but it was enough time to offend all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. Some, like the Pharisees, were offended by Jesus because he threatened their authority and positions of power. Others, even some of his disciples, were offended because he disappointed them with the way he demonstrated his messianic calling or refusal to. The Gospels record how, time and again, people were scandalized or offended by something Jesus said or did, or even by something he didn’t do.
There were times when his words were just too hard to swallow. In John 6, Jesus proclaims to a crowd of fellow Jews that he is the bread of life, “the bread that came down from heaven” (v 41). That was enough for many to begin grumbling and arguing among themselves. And when Jesus eventually uses the language of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (v 53), “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v 66).
At other times it wasn’t Jesus’ words that caused offense; it was what he was doing. Jesus had the audacity to give sight to a blind man on the Sabbath…how dare He! Think how many of the culturally elite took offense as Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners or when he allowed himself to be associated with prostitutes and Samaritans.
In the end, it wasn’t only what Jesus said and did that caused so many to reject him. For some, what Jesus failed to do caused the greatest offense. Consider all those who greeted the Savior on Palm Sunday, laying down their palm branches and shouting their “hosannas,” believing that Jesus was the conquering hero who would lead them to political and military victory against their Roman oppressors. How disappointed, discouraged, and offended they were when Jesus turned out to be a compassionate and forgiving Messiah, full of mercy and grace and not violence and vengeance. In other words, he wasn’t exactly what they were expecting – what a disgusting, frustrating, scandal! – so when He stood before them the morning of Good Friday, they had no need of Him: “Crucify Him!”
So it is, then, that John the Baptist, sitting in prison by order of Herod the tetrarch, sends two of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Lk 7:20). A strange, frequently debated question, considering the fact that John was well acquainted with Jesus and was present at the Baptism of Jesus—when God the Father spoke from the clouds and proclaimed Jesus to be his “beloved Son, with whom [he was] well pleased” (Mt 3:17).
So why this question of doubt? Is John wavering in his faith? Or is it his disciples who need to be certain of who Jesus really is? It’s likely that all of them, to some degree, were struggling with the ministry of Jesus. John was in prison, the Romans and other enemies of God were still in power, and nothing extraordinary seemed to be happening. If Jesus was the coming one, he certainly wasn’t living up to their expectations! Quite the scandal…this silent, Messiah King.
Jesus directs their attention to his miracles among the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the poor, and even the dead. And he concludes by saying, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (v 23). “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Those words ring loud and clear even in our day, don’t they? We live in a time and place where many are scandalized…offended…by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sure, in the days leading up to the Christmas celebration, it might seem like the world is less offended than at most other times, but there’s no getting around the fact that for most, Jesus Christ is far too controversial to be included in our holidays, which drives the annual “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” issue.
Why do we sometimes have a problem when it comes to speaking and living the truth about Jesus? Why are we hesitant to speak of the exclusive claims of Christianity because it’s so scandalous? We’re all guilty. We’ve all acted as though Jesus was offensive to us. You can remember times when we were too squeamish to defend our Christian beliefs when confronted by a neighbor, a co-worker, or a family member. Or what about those times, even now, when Jesus doesn’t exactly live up to our expectations—when our lives seem to be coming apart at the seams and our hope for a brighter future is disappearing?
Why do we so often fail to let our Christian light shine before men? Why do we become so easily discouraged when it comes to matters of faith and Christian hope? Are we afraid? Are we worried about what other people will think of us? Or is it that deep down inside we are worried about what/how to express our faith and, since we don’t want to cause a scandal, it’s easier to just say nothing.
Let me remind you: It’s almost Christmas! It’s almost time to celebrate again what God has done in Jesus Christ. Which is to say, it’s time to confess our sins, lay them at the foot of the cross of Jesus, and then move on by the grace of God!
As we ready ourselves once again this Advent season to hear and believe the message of the Christmas Gospel, blessed are those who are reminded of all their blessings. Rejoice! Blessed are you who have been washed clean in the waters of Holy Baptism. Rejoice! Blessed are you who hear the words of Absolution spoken to your troubled hearts. Rejoice! Blessed are you who receive the body and blood of our Lord for complete forgiveness. Rejoice! Blessed are you who trust in God to be faithful—because he has been, is, and always will be! Rejoice! And again I say to you Rejoice!
Amen.

2nd Sunday in Advent

2nd Sunday in Advent
December 9, 2018
Luke 3:1-14
“Prepare the Way of the Lord”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson read from Luke chapter 3.

My dear friends,

The world gets ready for this season on one level, Christians on another. The world gets ready for just one great big blockbuster of a day on Christmas, kind of an annual consumer feeding frenzy, indulging itself in stuff and more stuff. Then when it’s over, it’s over. And all that’s left of Christmas on December 26 is a big pile of wrapping paper and trips to the store for after-Christmas sales.
Not so in the Church. For us, when Christmas comes, it stays. It lingers on through Epiphany and all the way clear through till Lent. We continue to ponder the great glad news that God has become man to redeem all humankind out from under the iron grip of death and hell. And we will sing our Christmas praises well into January and beyond. We make Christmas last.
But actually Christmas hasn’t yet begun; we’re still in Advent. We’re still getting ready. Yet our readiness is much more than just sending cards and decorating our homes and going to parties. It is a readiness of the heart that God desires at his coming. That’s why our Advent prayers include the petition “stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.” Prepare us to prepare the way of the Lord.
In our text, we start down the road toward a prepared heart through the prophet John the Baptist. He is the very prophet whom the Lord appointed to clear the way for his coming. And believe me, he prepared the way. No pulled punches, no political correctness, with John, and no tiptoeing around for him. He marched right in where angels feared to tread and laid it on the line to all who heard him: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v 9). Yup…that’s pretty direct; no pulled punch there.
That’s a little unsettling, if we have the ears to hear it…and maybe it should be. And it should be. For the sad truth is that more often than not, you and I don’t produce the good fruit our Lord expects. We simply don’t love God with all our heart and soul and strength, much less love our neighbor as ourselves. Despite our best efforts, there are those we have hurt and those we have failed to help. Our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin.
That’s how preparing the way for the Lord’s coming – Advent – begins. The way of the Lord is the way of repentance (3:8), meaning “to turn.” That is, it calls for change. A change of mind and heart and behaviors.
Not that such a change comes easy, mind you. It means the death of the habits of the sinful heart. And such habits always die hard. It’s always much easier to love and serve ourselves than it is to love and serve God and our neighbor for Jesus’ sake. It always comes naturally to the sinful heart to lash out with anger when we’re hurt, to return evil for evil, to repay injury with injury. It is much easier to cut down other people than to love them and build them up. It’s easier for the sinful heart to curse and swear, to lie and deceive by God’s name, than to pray, praise, and give him thanks. That’s why the Christian life is a life journey of constant repentance, a perpetual preparing for change in mind and heart.
And that road often takes some unexpected twists and turns. It might take us through some rocky terrain and rugged territory, dark places we would rather not go. The road of faith may lead us out into unfamiliar and uncertain places which can be frightening but also rewarding. Many people are familiar with the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” that ends with the line: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Such is the way, the road, we walk; not always the same as everyone else.
But we are not alone even there. The very God who washed away our sins and gave us life will not abandon us in those uncertain times. He who gave up his life for us on his cross and shed his blood to wash our robes and make them white will never let us go. “My sheep know me,” says Jesus, “and I know them. And they follow me. And I will give them eternal life. And no man will ever snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:1–15). The path you walk might seem rugged at times and very steep, the pathway long and hard, but it is the path of the Lord’s own choosing for you…never forget that.
Let’s stir up our hearts this Advent season. 2018 is almost over. It’s time for a change, a new way. Let’s lift up the valleys of our deep despair, bring down the mountain peaks of your anxiety, and straighten out our crooked ways to prepare the way of the Lord. What does this mean? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?
What this means for you I cannot tell. It means different things for different people, depending on who they are and where they are in life. You can tell that from John’s instructions to those who heard his preaching. For tax collectors, the way of the Lord meant to be honest; for soldiers, it meant to be content and not take what didn’t belong to them. For everyone, it meant generosity and mercy, giving food and clothing to those who had none, for Jesus’ sake.
So get ready. Prepare the way of the Lord. Get ready for Christmas most certainly, but above all else prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ. Prepare yourself to prepare the way of the Lord. Celebrate the reality that Christ comes this very day in his Word and Sacrament to make you new and whole and free. Let this be your constant Advent prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” May God truly renew a right spirit within us this Advent, this Christmas, the coming new year, the coming end of the age, and always.
Amen.

1st Sunday in Advent

1st Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2018
Luke 19:28-40
“A Not So Sentimental Journey”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that serves as the basis for the sermon is today’s Gospel lesson from Luke 19.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Have you ever felt like you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time? Maybe that’s how you feel today. I’ll explain. It’s December, and it’s Advent, the preparation for Christmas is underway. In church we expect to be transported a little bit towards Bethlehem, to at least get a glimpse of the manger. Instead, our Gospel lesson takes us to Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey. Remind you of another time and place? Like Holy Week? People around town are already putting up the Christmas decorations. Wal-Mart’s Christmas stuff has been out for weeks. Santa Claus appeared at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. So why do we have the Triumphant Entry for a Gospel lesson? Pastor, did you make a mistake?
No…not that I’m aware of. Strangely enough, the traditional Gospel lesson for the First Sunday of Advent is the same as that of Palm Sunday—Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It seems, in a way, wrong. Out of place. In Advent, we should be moving toward a celebration of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, and instead we hear the narrative about our Lord moving toward his death. We should all be going to the theater to see A Christmas Story, and instead we get The Passion of the Christ. What gives?
But maybe there’s something we can learn—something that, like Mary, we can take with us and ponder in our hearts. You may have come today wanting “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Instead, you got Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). For this reason, our Lord came from heaven. For this reason, the Son of God became the Son of Mary. We celebrate Christmas, and we even fight for the right to say “Merry Christmas” in the public square, but we rarely talk about why Christmas is merry. The Palm Sunday narrative that we hear today is the narrative from Holy Week that gives Christmas its real meaning and lasting value. You cannot have the manger without the cross, which awaits Jesus in Jerusalem.
The cross/manger. The manger/cross. Yet, Christmas seems, for so many, to be a holiday about the things of this world. In our society, Christmas has become a largely secular affair. The absence of Christ has left for many a big hole, an emptiness that needs to be filled. And so many folks try to fill the void with man-made traditions, songs, stories and store receipts. Rather than tell the story of Christ at Christmas, the world tells countless other stories: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life and A Miracle on 34th Street. The world has its own hymnal as well, with Christmas “hymns” ranging from Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Nat King Cole sings about chestnuts roasting in “The Christmas Song,” and Gene Autry still can be heard singing of Santa Claus coming down Santa Claus Lane. I like a lot of those stories, enjoy some of those songs. But if that’s all there is, we don’t have much to celebrate. No wonder Christmas has a tendency to fall flat in our eyes and hearts.
For many, Christmas is staying ahead of bills and credit card statements and not so much about the Babe born as the Christ. Throw in anxieties over work issues, a chronic medical condition, a dispute with the in-laws, the loss of a loved one, or a broken relationship, and you get a month of strife and sadness. Some of this sadness is because we live in a fallen sin-filled world, and truth be told, some of this sadness is of our own making: bad choices we’ve made, people we’ve hurt, relationships we’ve damaged.
At our Lord’s birth, the angels sang, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to all.” Peace? How could God be at peace with us? How could he be at peace with a world that is constantly at war? How could he be at peace with a world that disregards him, ignores him, mocks him, and takes his blessings for granted? How could he be at peace with a world that has taken the celebration of the birth of his Son and turned it into just another time to shop, eat, drink, and be merry? How could he be at peace with me, a sinner?” Where, then, is peace on earth, goodwill to all stuff to be found? Nowhere else than in the Christ Child. Not in some “Precious Moments” Christ Child but in the Child who was born to die. A real-world Savior for a world with real problems.
If we are to “re-discover” Christmas, we must, I think, re-discover Advent. Advent is a season of preparation—not simply of our homes, the tree, meals, and presents, but a time of preparation for our hearts. A time to recognize why our Lord came in the first place. A time to recognize why that infant child, born to be King, would one day receive a crown of thorns. We cannot have the manger and wise men without Pilate and the cross. But by Jesus’ life and resurrection, we now have peace and forgiveness and life eternally because of the Christ Child and our faith in Him; the One who as a man rode into Jerusalem to die.
In this season of Advent, let us prepare our hearts once more for our Lord’s coming, remembering his journey that lead to death. Let us love and forgive as we have been loved and forgiven. Let us embrace the child who came to embrace us; to die for us and for the forgiveness of our sins. And let us offer up our lives as living sacrifices, gifts to the One who came to offer up his life as his gift of salvation for us all.
Welcome to Advent in the year of our Lord 2018. Amen.

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 25, 2018
Mark 13:24-37
“Only Seconds Away”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, our great Triune God. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Every day we are always only seconds away from life-changing event. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That phone call you answered when you could have just let it ring. The pre-cancerous cell in our body changes. An unsafe and unsure driver on a busy street. One minute it’s “all good,” and then BOOM! Your life is never the same. Just read or watch the news sometime. It is filled with people who woke up assuming their day would be the same as the previous, but then everything changed. Just ask the folks of California. Many families assumed they would gather at their family table and feast this Thanksgiving just like last year, except now that table is in charred ruins. We are always only seconds away from a totally different reality. Does that truth ever make you anxious?
It doesn’t take too long watching the news for your anxiety to rise. Any day of the week, or any month of the year, brings anxious news. There is every indication that things really are that bad and getting worse; a classic sign of living in the “end times.” Violence, depravity, and chaos are found everywhere. Evils once observed from afar now seem to be coming closer at hand. More and more people in society are throwing off all morality and restraint, and the Church is beaten down, persecuted, mocked and despised; we’ve become a running joke or punch line for late-night TV hosts. When will it end?
As God’s people want some assurance; we want to KNOW that Jesus’ return is always only seconds away. We want to KNOW when Jesus will return – hopefully sooner than later. Remember the Gospel lesson last week? The disciples were warned by Jesus at the beginning of Mark 13 that Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed, and they asked when it would happen.
Jesus’ answer did not give a date, but rather signs showing when it was near. The signs are more bad news (just what we need…great!): wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecution would come first. Today’s lesson is a continuation and then conclusion of His teaching, and the news doesn’t get any better.
Jesus’ warnings at the beginning of our text about what will happen when his return draws near are even more dire (vv 24–25): sun, moon, and stars blotted out. If we saw the literal removal of God’s heavenly lights, we would guess it were the end of the world. That’s a pretty obvious sign. And as we ponder the signs that we do observe – declining morality, lapsing church attendance, Christians more “on fire” for Black Friday sales and not seeking and saving souls for Christ – it’s understandable for broken sinners to think that somehow God is losing control. That we are only seconds away from a complete collapse as a society. It appears chaos and evil are near total victory. It’s tempting to wonder if Jesus has abandoned us or forgotten us. He hasn’t; that’s something I know for sure. I also know 3 more for-sure truths (every Lutheran has 3 points in there somewhere, right?). For-sure truth #1: When it comes, it comes. It is always only seconds away, so our greater need is to be watchful and prepared in and through faith. For-sure truth #2: Things will get worse before they get better. For-sure truth #3 is that every time we see a sign, it reminds us that as sure as summer follows spring, Jesus’ return IS SURE (vv 30–31).
In today’s lesson Jesus also told a little parable. The parable of the fig tree shows the signs have a different purpose than timing Jesus’ return. The fig tree’s budding leaves come late in the spring. It is a sure sign that summer is just around the corner (vv 28–29). The point is not that we can discern or calculate the date of the end of the age. I cannot tell you precisely if the end of the world is only seconds away because No ONE knows that!
Friends, don’t worry that life could change in a blink of an eye; that life changes are only seconds away. Instead of calculating dates or living life in the despair of the moment, live confidently! Live boldly! Live redeemed! Live loved! Live generously! Jesus strengthens us through the Means of Grace – the Church – for our work here while we wait. He is near, and he is coming to take us to heaven.
Jesus has a habit of finishing what He starts. All is complete; all is ready; all has been set ever since Jesus’ “It is finished” on the cross. What Christ finished was God’s salvation plan…the forgiveness of humanity’s sins, a plan that took THOUSANDS of years! Death was then finished on Easter morning because of Jesus’ resurrection. Now there is only 1 piece of the narrative left. He was born, He lived, He died, He rose again. He IS coming back. Know that we will see him come to gather us and all the elect (vv 26–27). Christ’s birth, death and resurrection assure it! Jesus finishes what He starts.
And so in the meantime we wait as in the illustration of the traveling master and his waiting servants (vv 34–36). Jesus, like the master who is away in a foreign land, is beyond sight. And like the master with his servants, Jesus has given us work to do while we are waiting! Our work is assigned according to how God has stationed us in life. We have responsibilities as husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, employer or worker, pastor or member, neighbor, relative, friend, and so on. We seek to do his will where he has placed us. While we work at our various vocations, we watch, remain vigilant, and remain faithful. We trust. And we hope. We hope knowing that the return of Christ Jesus is always…ALWAYS…only seconds away.
Life changes are only seconds away, and so also is the coming of the salvation promised and purchased by Jesus. His forgiveness, His kingdom, His provision and His love are eternal and when they do come in their final fruition, they will never pass away (13:30), for which we gratefully proclaim Thanks be to God!
Amen.