Thursday, December 24, 2015

Departing Life in God's Peace

During these last few days of the year, it is good for us to remember that, unless the Lord comes for us, there will be for each of us a year into which we do not enter.  The Bible says that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”  All of us will die unless the Lord comes first because “the wages of sin is death.”
How do we cope with our own mortality?  How can we depart this life in peace?  The way that we answer that question-- and the way that we find to deal with the specter of death-- determines not only what happens on that day when we draw our last breath-- but it determines where we will spend eternity—and how we will live our life until that last day. 
God’s answers about our eternal life-- and finding meaning for this earthly life-- and what the day of our death will be like for us-- are found in our text today as we see two faithful people of God—Simeon and Anna—who are at peace with their own mortality because they had seen the salvation of God in Christ.  The Bible says 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  (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord")  and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord…" 

            Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were in the temple doing what the law demanded:  offering a sacrifice for Mary’s purification and offering a sacrifice for Jesus as the firstborn Son.  That is what the Law demanded and that is what they did.
The obedience and faithfulness of Mary and Joseph and especially of Jesus would be a recurring theme throughout our Lord’s life as we see him faithfully keeping the demands of the Law—for he was born under its demands just as we were.  The Bible says that:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” 
It is Good News for us that, from the very beginning of his life—in moments like the one before us today-- and throughout his life--Jesus kept the law perfectly—fulfilling what we are unable to do because of our sinfulness. 
When we look back upon our life there are plenty of regrets—a lot of wasted time--plenty of things that we wished we had done differently.  But what sustains us day by day is the knowledge that Christ’s righteousness is ours through faith in him.  What consoles us in the hour of our death is that our heavenly Father regards Christ’s righteousness as our own-- and counts it in his sight as our salvation. 
Peace with God in this life and peace with God when we depart this life comes from knowing the Good News that the righteousness of Christ is for us.  Simeon knew that salvation had come for him and all people in the birth of the Christ Child.  Taking baby Jesus into his arms he was at peace.  He said:
"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." 
            We don’t know much else about Simeon other than what we have before us today in Luke’s Gospel.  He was righteous and devout.  He eagerly awaited the coming of the Messiah.  God had blessed him with a special gift of the Holy Spirit and had promised him that before his death he would see the Savior. 
His song of praise—known as the Nunc Dimmittis from the Latin translation of the first two words “Now dismiss”—has been sung in the church for two thousand years. 
            When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple to fulfill the demands of the Law, Simeon recognized by the Holy Spirit that the little baby in their arms was the Savior of the world--the promised Messiah who would set us free from our sin-- and he blessed God for that moment and expressed his readiness to depart this life, for his soul was at peace in the presence of God’s salvation. 
That is exactly where we find the peace to deal with our own mortality as well—in the Messiah of God, Jesus Christ.  No less than Simeon have our eyes of faith beheld the salvation of God in Christ. 
In fact, much of what was still to come in the salvation story, Simeon would not see-- while we have it before our eyes in the pages of the Gospels:  Jesus’ miracles, his death, his resurrection and ascension.  And seeing the salvation of God—we have peace with God and peace in our hearts. 
We have peace because our sins are forgiven—peace because Jesus is with us as our Immanuel—peace because Jesus has guaranteed another life for us by his resurrection.  Peace in life and peace in death for all people who will receive it in faith from the Christ Child like Simeon did that day.  He told Mary:
"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." 

Simeon knew the peace of God because he saw the salvation of God in Jesus and believed in him.  He had been waiting and hoping and yearning for the Messiah of God to be revealed because he believed the promises of God. 
This is an important lesson for us in the life of Simeon—the most important lesson of all if we are to know the peace of God in this life and at our death as Simeon did—and that lesson is that the salvation of God in Christ must be believed if we are to receive God’s peace.  But not all do. 
Simeon prophesied that Jesus would cause the rise and fall of many—that he would be opposed—and that he would reveal the hearts of many.  His prophecy was true from that moment on. 
The wise men believed in Jesus and worshipped him.  Herod tried to put him to death.  Many of the common folk believed in Jesus while many of the religious leaders rejected him.  Some of Jesus’ own people jeered at him as he was dying on the cross --while a Roman soldier and a repentant thief came to saving faith that same day.  That division between faith and rejection is the way it has always been. 
            Then and now Jesus is the dividing line between those who are rising to heaven and those who are falling to hell—between those who are being saved and those who are being condemned—between those who have forgiveness for their sins and life everlasting and those who stand under God’s judgment in time and eternity.  It all hinges on Jesus. 
Those of us like Simeon, who by the Holy Spirit recognize and believe in Jesus for who he is, are saved.  Those who reject the work of the Holy Spirit on their heart as he calls them to faith in Jesus will be condemned. 
It has always been that way and will always be that way until our Lord’s return in glory.  It was that way for another elderly person in the temple who rejoiced in Christ’s birth along with the Holy Family and Simeon.  The Bible says that:
There was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 
            Anna is another person who we don’t know a lot about except for what we have here in Luke’s Gospel.  She was a faithful child of God who was devoted to worshiping God.  She had the spiritual gift of understanding and interpreting and applying God’s Word and her life spent with God in worship was perfect preparation for eternal life.
Like Anna, we can depart this life in peace only when we have come to enjoy the very things that eternity will consist of:  worshiping in the presence of God and receiving the gifts of forgiveness and salvation that God gives in his Son and responding with praise and thanksgiving and holy living. 
Anna not only worshiped but she also witnessed to other faithful Israelites who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem—the deliverance of the people of God from sin and death by the blood of the Messiah.  The Bible says that:
At that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 
Worshiping and witnessing—that’s a pretty good summary of the Christian life.  To live like this doesn’t mean that we have to spend every waking moment in church or walking the streets aggravating people with our literature like the cults. 
What it does mean is that “day by day” our hearts are full of thanksgiving and praise for everything that God has done for us in Christ—that our lives are a shining witness of what it means to be the redeemed people of God—and that there is a deep and abiding peace that fills our living and—one day--our dying-- because we have seen and believed the salvation of God that he gives in the Christ Child.  Amen. 

The Love of God Made Manifest

1 John 4:7-16 There are very few things more beautiful than the scene we have before us tonight in this place.  Seated in this gorgeous sanctuary.  Hearing the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel.  Singing familiar Christmas carols by candlelight.  Surrounded by family and friends and fellow believers.  These moments are beauty and blessing.
For many of us, this is our favorite service and our favorite time of the year.  In this time of worship there is a deep sense of peace—a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life—an intense inner longing that says, this is the way life ought to be:  surrounded by those we love, in a place of beauty, the darkness of this world kept firmly at bay by the light of our candles and the sound of our voices.
But the true wonder and beauty of this night can also be found in the halls of a nursing home where there are no visitors; in the hospital rooms where there is no hope of recovery; in the streets of Damascus and Baghdad where there is no peace.
That may seem beyond our comprehension sitting here tonight in this sanctuary, surrounded by those we love, but it is not only possible but true-- because the real wonder and beauty of this night can be found wherever there is a human heart that remembers they are loved by God with an everlasting love—that his love does not depend on our circumstances—but is true and beautiful and unchanging in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.  The Bible says:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.   Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
            It is easy for us to know and feel and experience God’s love sitting here tonight.  I pray that God would grant you and your family many more occasions just like this where there is plenty and peace. 
But of course we know that our human situation can’t help but change and for so many Christians, already has.
            In the Middle East, in places where there have been Christian churches since the time of the apostles, the sanctuaries churches lie in empty, dark ruin.  The Christians who used to worship there have either been martyred or they are found in refugee camps.
            There are fellow believers who are no longer with us this Christmas.  There are family members who are usually with us who just couldn’t make it home this year.  There are those whose ill health keeps them away.
If our certainty of God’s love depended on any human, earthly standard of “friends and family and festivities”-- we could never really be sure about it at all.  There would be some doubt. But the love of God was made manifest in this:  he sent his only Son into the world. 
That word “manifest” means obvious, plain, certain and visible.  That is the undiminished beauty of this night—whether we are in a hospital room, or a refugee camp, or an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean-- we can be certain that we are loved by God because he has sent his Son into the world to give us life and hope-- in place of death and despair.  The Bible says:
This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
            The story of the birth of the Christ Child—with a young mother and a manger and barnyard animals and angels singing and shepherds worshiping is a sweet and tender story. 
But we must never forget that standing at a distance, past the manger and stable and beyond the shepherd’s fields-- is a cross.  We must always remember that what can be heard over the cattle lowing and the angels singing is the sharp ring of a hammer upon a nail.
 That is what this night is all about—not just the gift of God’s Son—but the gift of a Son sent into this world to be the sacrifice that reconciles us to God—a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation from God to us.
When we open gifts later on this evening or tomorrow morning we will be on both sides—we will give and receive.  But the gift God gives at Christmas goes only one way—from him to us. 
When we open gifts later on this evening or tomorrow morning the gifts we give will be given to those we love and who love us.  But the gift God gives to us, and the love he has for us in Jesus Christ, is for those who do not by nature love him.
That is difficult for us to hear—particularly on this night when our hearts swell with love at the goodness of God in Christ!  But the love we have for God did not begin in our own heart, it began in the heart of God. 
He is the one who sought us out when we were lost.  He is the one who planned for our rescue when we didn’t even know how desperate our situation was.  And he is the one who made a way back to him by sending his Son to be the sacrifice that would wash our sins away and remove God’s wrath over our love-less-ness.
 The glory of the Christmas story is the Good News THAT God’s love and the gift of his Son does not depend upon us and our love for him-- but rather it rests safe and secure in his love for us.  It is that kind of selfless love that inspires our love for others.  The Bible says:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
            Our calling as those who are loved by God, is to share that same love with others.  Certainly that begins with our family and friends and fellow believes like we experience here tonight-- but our love for others must extend far beyond these walls and these people.
We are called to show forth the same love with which we have been loved in Christ—a love for others that is willing to sacrifice for their good.
There is a natural love that all people have—a love that finds something lovable in another and desires to hold onto that.  But that is not the love that God has for us.  He loves us despite what he sees.  He loves us because that is who he is. 
So it must be for those of us who know the love of Christ—that we too love those who are different than we are, those who do not share our culture and values, even those who are our enemies. 
It means that our love for others goes far beyond mere words, to a willingness to sacrifice for- and act with mercy towards -those in whom we find nothing lovable, even to those who do not return our love and care.
That was the mission of Jesus Christ.  His love for the world is the reason for this holy night.  And his love for all people is our mission as well.  The Bible says that:  We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
What we experience here tonight in the fellowship and music—in the beauty of this candlelit sanctuary and the story of God’s love in the gift of the Christ Child-- is meant by God to be shared by those who know it and believe it.
Praise the Lord that we have heard it and seen it and experienced it!  How can we ever thank God enough for his mercy in sending the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears of faith so that we can see and understand the greatness of his love for us in Jesus!?
But that vision- and that experience- and that story- is intended by God to move us into action—doing our part in God’s mission to save the world by testifying to his love for the world.
After the ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost the disciples could not stop speaking of what they had seen and heard in the life of Jesus Christ.  So it must be for us as well! 
With the eyes of faith we have seen the birth of the Christ Child and his terrible death on the cross and his glorious resurrection.  With the ears of faith we have heard the testimony of angels the he is the Savior of the world and his words at the cross that we are forgiven and salvation is finished.
And having heard these things and seen these things and having been transformed by this good news of Jesus, we are called by God to testify to the world about the gift of God’s Son so that they too can confess that Jesus is the Son of God and be saved.  The Bible says that:
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
            We are blessed by God to be here tonight in this beautiful candlelit place surrounded by those we love.  But when this service is over we will go back into the darkness of the night.  Over the next several days our loved ones will go home.  All of the decorations will be returned to the attic.  And life will go on—but not as before.
The good news for us tonight is that God goes with us from this place.  Jesus is Immanuel—the God who is with us.  His love will not leave us but instead his presence and his powerful love will abide with us tonight and throughout our lives, no matter where that journey takes us. 
May the love of God revealed in the Christ Child abide with you and yours tonight and always!  Amen.