Tuesday, December 27, 2016

We Are Sons of God through Faith

Galatians 3:23-29 When we think of Moses on Mt. Sinai we think about the Ten Commandments.  But there were many, many other laws given there as well--hundreds of laws that spoke to every aspect of the Jews’ lives as individuals and as a nation. 
There were laws about food and clothing and relationships and money and social justice and worship.  God gave these laws to the Jews and demanded that they be obeyed-- and the penalties and punishments for breaking these laws were harsh.  This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote that:
…before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.
            The Jews were hemmed in on every side by God’s law just like a jail cell hinders the movement of an inmate—and that was its God-given purpose—to keep them close together until he could set them—and all men-- free. 
Those rules and regulations were never meant to be a permanent way of life—but only a temporary measure until Jesus came into the world to live and die and deliver the world from the bondage to sin and death.
The person and work of Jesus is the “faith” that Paul was talking about here in this verse when he says:  before faith came.  He is not talking about the faith with which we believe.  That had always been the way to life with God. 
Four hundred and thirty years before the law was given to Moses at Sinai, the Bible tells us that Abraham believed God and God counted it as righteousness.  But here Paul is talking about the faith THAT IS believed—the content of saving faith which is Jesus Christ:  his birth, life, death, and resurrection. 
The purpose of the rules and regulations given at Sinai was to guard the Jews as a people until God revealed the Savior in his Son Jesus Christ.  Paul wrote that:
…the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
            That word “guardian” that Paul uses here has a very specific meaning.  In the ancient Greek and Roman world, a servant would be appointed by a boy’s father to watch out for him.  This servant would walk him to school and back home again.  He would make sure he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd.  He would teach him manners and how to behave in polite society and correct him when he did wrong. 
He was his guardian—but only until the boy reached adulthood—for then he no longer needed a guardian.  The servant had accomplished his purpose when the boy took his rightful place in the father’s house as a full grown son.
            Those hundreds of laws and precepts and rules that God gave at Sinai to govern the life of his ancient people—regulating every facet of their lives—served as a guardian over them until Christ came. 
But those ceremonial and religious and political laws of the Jews were never meant to be an end unto themselves or a permanent way of life—they only existed so that the Jews would be preserved as a people until Christ came, as Paul says, so that we might be justified by faith.
.           Here Paul moves from the faith that is believed—the content of faith—to the faith with which we believe—what we trust in. 
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the content of the Christian faith and when we believe it—when we put our faith in it and build our life upon it--we are justified in God’s sight—that is, we are declared righteous in his sight and we take our place in God’s family as his sons.  Paul wrote:
…now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
            The rules and regulations and precepts of the Jews that governed every facet of their lives have no place in the life of a Christian—whether they are Jew or Gentile.  That kind of guardianship has come to an end with Christ. 
So it is with every new rule or regulation or precept that some Christian group mistakenly wants to impose on us for our own good.  To tell a Christian what day of the week they can worship or that they cannot eat meat-- or what color their buggy has to be—or what they should do about their children’s education-- is a return to Judaism and the dead works of the law.
The Bible says that we are justified by faith APART from the works of the law.  In other words, our right standing in God’s sight and our relationship with him does not depend upon keeping all the rules and regulations and precepts that God gave to the Jews-- or the rules some misguided Christian wants to impose on us.  Instead, our place in God’s family comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son.
He kept every rule, regulation, and precept God gave to Moses at Sinai.  Already at the very beginning of Jesus’ life we see him keeping the covenant God made with Abraham as Jesus is circumcised in the temple, shedding the same blood with which he would forgive the world’s sins at the cross. 
Jesus’ circumcision was the beginning of a lifetime of holy obedience to his Father’s will for our sake—so that through faith in Jesus his obedience could become our own and we could be counted as sons in God’s family.
Just a few verses after our text, Paul said:  When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  This is the purpose of God’s redeeming work in this world—that we would be restored to what God created us in the beginning to be:  his sons.
It’s interesting and important to note that Paul is not inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the word “children” but the word “son.”  It’s not because we are not God’s children (we are!) but that we are “sons” describes our status as full-fledged mature members of God’s family, with all of the rights and responsibilities and privileges as God’s only-begotten Son Jesus.
That’s Paul’s point—that through faith in God’s Son-- we who are God’s adopted sons can expect from our heavenly Father exactly the same blessings as he gives his only-begotten Son.  That is how important it is to have faith in Jesus! 
But how did we receive that faith in Jesus that makes us a part of God’s family?  That came through the power of the Gospel proclaimed in Word and Sacrament.  Paul wrote that:  … as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.   
The Bible teaches that every person who has been baptized with water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—has been baptized into Christ’s death and raised up in his resurrection so that we would walk in newness of life until that day we pass into everlasting life.
The picture that Paul uses in our text is that of someone putting on Christ like a garment-- and that is exactly what happens in baptism.  We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ—his death becomes my death—his holiness becomes my holiness—his resurrection, my own eternal life—and all of this through faith in him. 
This righteousness of Christ is that wedding garment that Jesus said all must wear to enter into the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom. 
Christ’s righteousness is the white robe that all of the saints wear as they worship around the throne of the Lamb in heaven—people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages—having just one thing in common with one another—the one thing necessary to stand in God’s presence:  the robe of Christ’s righteousness they have received in Holy Baptism and put on by faith.  Paul wrote that, clothed in the righteousness of Christ:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
            There are six billion people on this planet—each of us different from the others—different races, different genders, different places in society.  There are many billions more who have lived and died—all of them different from one another.  Perhaps there will be many billions more to come.  But there is only one Man who is perfectly holy and righteous in God’s sight—and that is God’s own Son Jesus Christ. 
When we were baptized into Christ, his life became our own-- and we were clothed in his perfect holiness and righteousness-- and so through faith in him we also stand before Almighty God in exactly the same way as Jesus does right now—with the blessing of the LORD and his bright, beaming face shining upon us. 
And as God’s adopted sons we can count on the same glorious future as his Son Jesus enjoys right now.  Paul wrote:  …If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.  So that there is no doubt in your mind…
The grammatical construction in the original reads this way:  If you are Christ’s—AND YOU ARE!—then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promises.  There is no doubt about it!  Baptized into Christ, clothed in his righteousness, believing in Jesus—you are sons of God and you will inherit everything God first promised to Abraham—everything that Jesus earned for you in his life, death, and resurrection.  The Bible says that is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. 
We have a renewed and restored relationship with God.  We don’t have to worry what his attitude is towards us because we know what it is towards Christ:  love and blessing.
We have the gift of the Holy Spirit--giving us joy and hope and peace despite whatever the world throws at us.
We have the abiding presence of Jesus who has promised to be with always—speaking to us in his word and feeding us with his body and blood.
And we have an eternal life in God’s presence to look forward to and a new heaven and new earth where sin and suffering and sorrow have no part.

The Good News for us on this first day of a new year is that we are God’s sons through faith in Jesus and a great and glorious future awaits us.  Amen.

Lord, Teach Us to Number Our Days

Psalm 90:1-12 When we come to the end of another year, we cannot help but think of how we have spent our time over this last year and what we will do with the time that we are given in the year to come.
Even those folks who are not people of faith recognize that time is a precious, limited commodity and they resolve to spend their time more wisely in the New Year than they did in the past-- even as they drink and dance this night away.
The prayer that we have before us tonight, “Lord, teach us to number our days” is of course about much, much more than merely knowing how many days we have lived and how many days we have left to live -out of that fixed number that the LORD has granted to us—a number that no one knows except God himself. 
That we would “number our days to get a heart of wisdom” is not really about “counting” at all--but it means that that we would see our life as the LORD sees it:  brief and broken—and that this knowledge would humble us and give us a new perspective and a new set of values that puts God first in this new year. 
The first thing that we discover from God’s Word tonight about our life is its brevity.  The psalmist writes,
“The years of our life are seventy or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone.”  
It’s always amazed me that when I was younger time seemed to go on forever.  Watching a classroom clock, I could have sworn that time had reached a standstill.  Waiting to turn sixteen so that I could drive seemed like an eternity.  But now that I am older time seems to rush forward and I don’t even know where it’s gone. 
When I was a boy someone who was seventy or eighty years old seemed ancient.  Now that I’m fifty-four, it doesn’t seem nearly so old.  Seventy or eighty (still today the average life-span in the United States) seems very short indeed—especially when we measure our brief life against that which is truly ancient.  The psalmist writes,
“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.  For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”   
            What is our lifespan compared to the mountains and seas and ground upon which we stand?  What is our lifespan compared even to human history which is ten thousand years old?  Even the longest human life is like the blink of an eye compared to the age of the world around us and the civilizations that have come and gone. 
And yet, as old as human history is-- and as old as the created world is—what are they compared to the God who created them?  A thousand years of history is like a few hours in God’s sight for he exists from everlasting to everlasting.
So how does this recognition of the brevity of our lives help us to gain a heart of wisdom?  How does it help us live a better life in 2017 than we have in 2016? 
First of all we learn humility and perspective.  The sun does not rise and set on our lives and we are not at the center of the universe.  The toils and troubles we face—as serious as they are at times—are not the end of the world. 
This kind of humility and perspective provide us with the gift of steadfastness that is so important to living a calm, peaceful, stable life. 
            Secondly, recognizing the brevity of our lives also gives us a measure of respect for those generations who have come before us and for the collective wisdom of the ages. 
Our culture’s current questions regarding marriage and family and sexuality (that have never been up for grabs in all of human history) are today-- because we have forgotten just how short our lives are and how many countless generations have come before us with a wisdom gained through experience over thousands of years. 
When we consider the fact that God has existed before this world began and will exist after this world comes to an end-- we come to realize that maybe, just maybe, God really does know what’s best for our lives, even though we often act as if we know best and go our own way rather than his.
And that is the next thing that we see about our lives as reflect upon them at the end of this year:  that we are broken by sin. 
We have lived as if we stand at the center of the universe and we have rejected the guidance of the One who made us and who sets a limit on our days.  The psalmist writes:
“You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.  For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.”   
            When we number our days aright—when we are truly reflective about our lives—when we think about this last year--we cannot help but see that we have failed to live as we ought:  loving God above all else and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 
All of us would blush with shame if we could add up all the hours we have spent sinning in thought, word, and deed.  Thankfully we can’t!  But God can and does!
The psalmist writes.  “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”    Our lives are measured by the perfect standard of God’s holy law and that measure reveals that we are broken by sin, deserving of death--which is why we are here tonight in the first place.  You see…
The only reason that the end of one year and the beginning of a new year has any meaning at all for us is because we know that there will come a day when we will not be able to enter into a new year because we will not have lived through the old year. 
The bible says in Romans that “the wages of sin is death”  and that judgment will be rendered upon all of us one day.  The psalmist knew the same about himself.  He wrote of God’s judgment of sinners:
You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’  You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:  in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.  For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.” 
            Because we are broken by Adam’s sin and because we are sinners in our own right, there will come for each of us a last year and month and week and day of life—and we will die—returning to the dust from which humanity was created. 
But rather than discouraging us, the sobering reality of our own mortality is one of the best means of enriching the life we live now—for when we number our days and recognize them as finite—it helps us to realize that each day we live is a gift from God—a sheer gift of his grace—a day not meant to be lived in sin and unbelief—but a day to live for God and for the good of his people.
The first step in living each day as a day of God’s grace is this important realization that we are sinners and that our lives will come to an end because of it. 
But knowing that we are sinners is not the end of the story for us at all.  If it were our lives would be lived in fear and despair and ultimately end in futility. 
But this brief life is not all there is!  Even when that last year and month and week and day come for us—there is still another life for us to live—a life lived in eternity with God.  The psalmist writes:  “Lord, YOU have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
We get very comfortable with our lives lived on earth and I suppose that’s the way it always is.  But God’s Word tells us that this world is not meant to be our eternal dwelling place.  The writer to the Hebrews says:  “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come”.
While the wages of sin is death and the wrath of God against sin is real-- it is also true that the gift of God is eternal life and that God’s love and care extends even to the worst of sinners.
The proof that both of these are true—the wrath of God that leads to death and the love of God that leads to life—is found in only one place—and that is in God’s Son Jesus Christ. 
In his death on the cross we see both:  God’s righteous wrath over sin that he pours out upon his Son who stands in our place as the chief of sinners --and the love of God that reaches out to the world from those arms outstretched on the cross. 
Jesus resurrection from the dead three days later is God’s guarantee that the Lord is indeed our dwelling place—both in this life and in the life to come. 
Yes, there will come a day when we return to the dust but that very same moment the psalmist promises us that we will fly away—that our body will be laid to rest but that our soul will find its true home in its eternal dwelling place until it is reunited with the body on the last day when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.
When we begin to number our days aright and see that time is short and eternity long--when we begin to see our lives as God sees them—as those who have been redeemed from sin and death—as those who will one day be called upon to give an account of our lives—we will, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s help-- begin to live our lives right now and in the new year as those who are wise in God’s sight.  Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-18 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  That is the amazing, wonderful, saving story that we hear at Christmas.  Matthew and Luke tell that story with all of the historical particulars:  real people and places and political leaders. 
But John tells us that story is not LIMITED to a particular place and time—it is not just a footnote of history because the story of the Word who becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth stretches back into eternity for he is the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity-- and it stretches forward into eternity for he lives and reigns forever at the Father’s right hand. 
Matthew and Luke reveal the historical particulars about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth-- but it is John who reveals the eternal significance of who it is that is born this day.  St. John the Apostle writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
            Many thousands of years before this moment in history when the Word takes on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth--Moses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote about the beginning of time. 
He said that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, speaking them into existence by his Almighty, powerful word.  Light and life where before there was only darkness and emptiness—brought forth in the beginning, not by an impersonal force—but by a person—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who with the Father and the Holy Spirit was there at the beginning—always existing together as one true God.
            And not only was he the One who brought life and light into being—he himself IS light and life—and everything in all of creation finds its existence and meaning and purpose in him.  PAUSE
            Joseph was told by the angel of heaven that God’s Son would be:  Immanuel.  But it is John who reveals what that means:  that Jesus is physically “God with us”—not some disengaged, impersonal force who merely set things into motion in the beginning—but at his birth:  God in the flesh of a newborn baby. 
That is the cosmic reality behind Jesus’ identity—but the question that must now be answered is:  Why?  Why was it necessary for God himself to enter into human history—why was it necessary for the Creator to become a part of the fabric of creation?
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
            Here we have the great tragedy of our human existence:  a world that was created by the Word of God—a universe that was enlightened and enlivened by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—a human race that owes its existence moment by moment to the eternal Word—no longer, by nature knows him.
The very purpose of our lives—our existence—our presence in this world—has been ruined by sin.  We were created by the Word to live with God forever—to bask in his glorious light—to have fellowship with him as his children.  We were called into being by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity for that purpose eternally.
But when Adam and Eve sinned, creation rebelled against her Creator.  It was no longer light in which they lived-- but they tried to hide in darkness.  It was no longer everlasting life they possessed-- but now they would die.  
The light and life that they had been granted by the One who is light and life was lost to them-- and not only was it lost to them but it was lost to all their children—lost to us-- along with the relationship that we were created to have with God.
That is why it was necessary that the Word—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—God’s own Son who is Light and Life --entered into the world.  Because these gifts had originally come from him—he was the only one who could restore them. 
But because the world no longer recognized him—it was necessary for him to be revealed to the world.
That is why John the Baptist came preaching repentance of sins—that is why he pointed to Jesus and proclaimed him to be the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world and re-unite God and man. 
That is what Jesus had come to do—to restore that which he had originally created:  a relationship between us and God which is that of a father with his children.  St. John promises us that:
All who receive him, who believe in his name, Jesus gives the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
            Later on in his ministry Jesus would explain to Nicodemus what he had come to do.  Jesus told him:  Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he see cannot the kingdom of God.  Flesh gives birth to flesh and that which is born of spirit is spirit. 
We must be born again by God to be his children and the new birth that makes us God’s children comes in only one way:  and that is by the power of God working in those who receive Jesus in faith and believe in his name and recognize him as the God who is with us and the God who saves us.  This new birth cannot come to us in any other way but by our heavenly Father’s life-giving Word.
He is the One who claims us for himself in Holy Baptism—uniting us in his Son’s death and resurrection.  It is the powerful voice of the Holy Spirit who works faith in our hearts every time the Good News about Jesus is preached.  It is Jesus who makes himself present in the Sacrament of the Altar, applying the saving benefits of the cross to us personally and individually by giving us his body and blood to eat and drink.
What Jesus created us to be in the beginning (God’s sons and daughters) he has recreated us to be-- so that now, through faith in him, we are restored to the family of God.  St. John writes:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
            In our sermon hymn, we asked the question that is the question of the ages—the question that must be asked and answered if we are to be saved:  What Child is this?  Who is surrounded by livestock?  Who is this worshipped by king and commoner alike?  Who nurses at his mother’s breast?
            It is in these first verses from John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit gives us the answer to that eternally important question:  he is the Word which was from the beginning—he is the Son of the Father—he is Jesus, the Lord who saves—he is Christ the promised Messiah—he is God.
The Bible tells us that in the beginning, God walked with Adam and Eve—he knew them face-to-face and had perfect fellowship with him.  But sin destroyed that relationship and from that moment on sinful man could not bear to look upon the glorious, holy face of God—and in fact, that sight would bring death—for that is the penalty for sin.  Even a man as close to God as Moses could only look upon God from behind as he passed by.
The chasm that lies between our sin and God’s holiness remained an insurmountable barrier until that night two thousands years ago when Jesus was born.  There in Bethlehem, God’s grace reached out across that barrier and made a way for us back to our heavenly Father.  And the glorious face of God that sinful man cannot bear to look upon, was clothed in the precious face of a child that can be loved and cherished and adored.
That is why Jesus came as he did—so that once more we can draw near to God unafraid and unashamed.  God’s unveiled glory that is too much for us to bear-- is now clothed in the flesh of a child who beckons us to come and bask in his presence.
Only one person can reveal God to us in this way—in the way that he desires to be known (as the God of grace and truth and love who wants to be reconciled to his wayward children) and that person is God himself in the person of his Son Jesus who now lives and reigns at the Father’s right hand. 

To know Jesus is to know God-- and to believe in him is to possess all of the gifts and blessings we were created to receive and retain forever:  gifts of life and salvation and forgiveness and fellowship with God.  These are the gifts that the Christ-Child gives and I pray they would be yours in abundance now and forever.  Amen.  

Good Tidings of Great Joy

Luke 2:1-20 On this holy night, as we remember and give thanks to God for our Savior’s birth as the Babe of Bethlehem, we see God’s wisdom guiding the course of history so that his Son would perfectly fulfill all the prophecies that were made about him and we are comforted that God still rules this world for the sake of our eternal salvation. 
We hear the angel’s good news of a Savior who is born and we rejoice that things are right between us and God and that we have peace with God him and a place in his family because our sins are forgiven. 
And like the Shepherds, we feel the Spirit’s call to share that Good News with the world, giving our life meaning and purpose.  Comfort, peace, and joy:  these are the gifts of the ChristChild.  Luke writes that:
…there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 
            You can read about Caesar Augustus and Cyrenius and Herod in history books.  You can visit Bethlehem and Nazareth and Galilee. 
When Luke wrote the biography of our Lord’s life in his Gospel- and the history of the early Christian church in the Book of Acts- he took great pains to show that the story of our salvation happened in real places and times and people. 
What God the Holy Spirit wants us to know is that the story of our Lord’s birth is not a myth or fable—but fact and history.  Paul says that: 
when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.
Every moment of history.  All of the technological innovations.  The rise and fall of nations-- and the plans of great men—God carefully worked together so that his promise of salvation and plan to make us his children was fulfilled with the birth of his Son in Bethlehem.  Luke writes that while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem:
…she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
            The Savior of the world that God had promised took on the human flesh of a particular person in a particular place in a particular moment in time: a baby named Jesus, born in Bethlehem, while Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire.
Jesus’ birth was the pivotal moment—and he the pivotal person-- in all of human history.  Everything and everyone ultimately find their meaning and values and purpose in him. 
What the world had been hoping for—praying for—searching for --was accomplished one dark night two thousand years ago as the Savior of the world was born –in- a –shelter- for- animals. 
You would think that such a momentous event and person would be marked by opulence and luxury—but it was not—it was cloaked in the deepest humility.
The humble nature of our Lord’s birth (his peasant mother—a rough manger for a crib—surrounded by barnyard animals) puts flesh and bone on the words of our Lord—that he came not to be served—but to serve—and to give his life as a ransom for men.
His birth in our flesh—his death in our place—and his glorious resurrection has reconciled us to God.  Those are the good tidings of great joy for all people that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds that holy night.  Luke wrote that:
…the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 
            Already in these first moments of Jesus’ earthly life the reconciling, redeeming work that Jesus came to accomplish for the world was on full display. 
The angels of heaven tell the Good News of a Savior—to lowly men—and all of heaven rejoiced to see that great chasm of sin and death that separated us from God was bridged by the perfect, holy life of Jesus.
            There is a reason that the Good News of our Lord’s birth was first proclaimed to lowly shepherds.  In that day and time they were the least among men-- and in their humble, lowliness--they are representative of us all. 
We may have all kinds of pretenses—we may regard ourselves as a cut above everyone else—we may look down upon others—but who we truly are-- is who we are in God’s sight.  And God says that, by nature, we are his enemies—by nature we are unworthy of the least of his many gifts—by nature we are the dust of the earth and to the dust we will one day return.
And yet, on this night, God condescends to bestow upon the lowliest- the greatest gift of all—the gift of his Son Jesus—and in the angel’s announcement of this world-changing event, we are promised that this gift of God’s Son is for us too.
No longer do we have to stand before God guilt-ridden and ashamed—no longer does his great glory reveal only our lowliness—but the sign of a baby lying in a manger reveals the peace now exists between us and God.  Luke writes that:
…there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
The Father’s saving plan was accomplished-- and just as the multitude of the heavenly host rejoiced that Christmas morning, knowing that the restoration of the world had begun—so do the heavenly hosts still rejoice with singing each time a sinner is restored to their heavenly Father through faith in his Son.  They sang:
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards men and these were not just the words to the heavenly anthem sung by the angels at our Lord’s birth-- but they revealed God’s gracious attitude towards man on account of his Son.
God’s true glory is not the shaking of mountains and the roaring of the sea and the fire and lightening of Sinai.  God’s true glory is the newborn baby of Bethlehem and the humble man of Galilee and the dying man of Calvary and because of him we really do have peace with God that passes all understanding. 
Every bit of the precious gift of salvation that is given to us in Jesus, God intends be shared with others.  St. Luke writes that the shepherds:
…came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
God has never promised that an ongoing heavenly choir will proclaim the greatness of his love to every time and place.  That night’s recital was a singular event seen by only a few lowly shepherds. 
And yet the message of that heavenly choir is a message meant by God to continue to ring out throughout the world.  It is a message that he has entrusted to our vices to share with others.
Each Lord’s Day we are invited to do just as the shepherds did—to come and see.  We come into the presence of the Lord and we hear his voice as his Word is preached.  In Holy Absolution we receive the gift of forgiveness that he came to bring.  In Holy Communion we kneel in his presence as he comes to us in bread and wine just as surely as the shepherds kneeled at Jesus’ manger.  We worship him as they did. 
But we do not remain here in the glow of candles while so many around us remain in darkness.  Instead, we go out into the world just like the shepherds did, bearing the Good News that there is grace and peace for all people on account of Jesus.
The Lord has made this Good News known to us and he has entrusted us with the mission to make it known to the world.  Luke writes that Mary:
…pondered [all these things] in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen…
            As it was for Mary and the shepherds, so it is for us tonight.  The gift that God has given in his Son Jesus Christ is for each and every one of us.  It is intensely personal.  We know our own sins that need forgiving.  We know our own worries that need comforting.  We know our own burdens that need lifting.  Just like Mary, we ponder in our hearts what Good News it is for us that Christ is born and glorify and praise God for his mercy.
But our individual faith in God’s Son always draws us into a worshiping, witnessing community of believers just like the shepherds—glorifying and praising God for Jesus and sharing that Good News with the world. 

May God grant that this Christmas season will be an opportunity for us to be renewed in our own faith—but also re-committed to the church and her mission in the world.  Amen. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Birth of Jesus Took Place This Way

By the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit St. Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ conception and birth:  Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  You will notice that he did not say:  “Once upon a time in a land far, far away.” 
The story of our Lord’s conception and birth—with all the miracles surrounding it—is not a fairy tale or myth.  It is an objective fact of history—grounded in a particular time and place—as real as the Norman conquest of Britain and the Protestant Reformation and the D- Day invasion.
The Gospel writers knew that the story of our Lord’s birth was miraculous—they knew that it contained details that were far from ordinary—they knew that it would take faith to believe what they said about our Lord’s birth--but they never downplayed those elements or tried to explain them away. 
They simply recorded them.  And the church has confessed them for two thousand years:  I believe in Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  Such is the teaching of the Bible and such is the confession of the church and such is the personal faith of every true Christian. 
Now, we all know that unbelieving world rejects this story out of hand and it has always been that way.  During our Lord’s earthly ministry the Jews called into question his miraculous birth and the ancient and medieval rabbis who followed them said that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier. 
So it continues today—even in the church-- as faithless leaders try to make room for modern skepticism by removing the miraculous from Christianity.  But what is left of Christianity when the miraculous is gone?  Just another man-made religion that finally has no power to change our lives for time and eternity. 
That was not the faith of the apostles.  That was not the faith of the reformers.  That is not the faith of believing Christians today.  We believe what the Holy Spirit inspired and what the writers of the Gospel recorded.  We believe that:  The birth of Jesus took place this way.  The Bible says that: 
When Jesus’ mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
            It’s important to understanding and believing the story of our Lord’s conception and birth that we know a bit about betrothal in the ancient world.  The betrothal was a ceremony where the bride and groom publicly committed themselves to one another as husband and wife in the presence of witnesses—generally their families. 
From that moment on they were married, even though the celebration and their coming together as husband and wife under one roof would follow at a future date.  The Bible says that Mary became pregnant after the betrothal but before they consummated their marriage.
Both Matthew and Luke tell us that this was a miracle.  The child conceived within the womb of the Virgin was not the product of Mary and Joseph’s love for one another.  The child was the not the product of Mary’s sin. 
The child conceived within her was the product of God’s love for the world that moved him to send his Son and the power of the Holy Spirit who accomplished that gift of love within a Virgin’s womb.
Nothing more is said—no other details are given-- except that this child who began his life with the division of cells just as we begin our lives—was there within Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, what else can be said about the greatest miracle of all:  that God took on flesh and entered into human history.
People in the ancient world were absolutely no different than we are—they were just as smart—just as wise in the ways of the world.  They knew how babies were made:  that it takes a husband and a wife and the love they share to create a child.  That is why Joseph reacted as he did.  The Bible says that:  Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put Mary to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
We can imagine what must have been going on in Joseph’s mind:  “I know that I have not been together with her and so she must have sinned”.  Joseph was no fool.  He knew how babies were made and in his mind there was only one possibility.  And so he resolved to divorce Mary.
The Bible says that Joseph was a just man.  Other translations say that he was a righteous man.  What does that mean?  It means that he was a devout believer in one true God and his life reflected that faith in every way.  He could not-and would not-- abide with sin or give it a place in his life or look the other way.  Not even when it cost him so dearly as his own wife. 
His faith and personal holiness were such that it drew the attention of the Gospel writers and he would certainly stand out today.  We live in a time in the church when our confession of faith is often times very different than our life of faith.  People have learned to mouth the right words but the life that is supposed to be a reflection of that faith is not there.
Joseph shows us what a true and living faith looks like:  forgiven of sin, he resolved to have nothing to do with sin even in the smallest way—even at the greatest cost.
There is something else remarkable about Joseph’s faith.  He would not even let sin get close to him- but he dealt gently with Mary when he believed that she had fallen into sin.  He did not want to shame her or ruin her.  A deep personal faith and a life of holiness did not translate into him being holier than thou or self-righteous—it made him compassionate to sinners.
In Joseph’s faith and life—in his holiness and compassion--we see God’s wisdom in entrusting his Son to Joseph’s care—for it was indeed God’s Son, the Savior of the world who would be born of Mary.  The Bible says that:
As Joseph considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
            There was no sin in our Lord’s conception and so there was no shame for Joseph in taking Mary to his home as wife.  The Savior had not come into the world as the result of sin but to save the people from their sins.  That was his mission.
It is important that we know and believe the story of our Lord’s conception and birth that we learn from the Bible.  But the beginning of that story is told so that we can know the end of the story: that the child who is born of Mary is the Savior of the world.  He entered into the world for us and for our salvation. 
He was born a perfect, innocent child so that he could be the perfect, once for all sacrifice on the cross by offering his life in place of our own under God’s wrath. 
It is a beautiful story that we hear at Christmas and it is a lovely scene that is set before our eyes of faith in the story of his birth--but that story and that picture ultimately leads to a rough cross outside of Jerusalem and a crown of thorns and a soldier’s spear.  It’s not an accident that it ends that way.  It was God’s plan from the beginning to save the world through his Son. 
It was the Father’s Son who was born of Mary and he had the right to name him.  Joseph would speak the name “Jesus” but the name itself was given by the heavenly Father to the Son he loved because it perfectly captured what he came to do and that is to save us from our sins just as he had promised.  The Bible says:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
            The real miracle of our Lord’s conception and birth was not just that it was accomplished without the aid of a human father—not just that the baby was born to die.  The real miracle is who it was conceived within the womb of the Virgin:  that he was God.
That is what Immanuel means:  God is with us.  God took upon himself our flesh.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity—the Word who was from the beginning and is God—entered into this world as a bit of flesh, redeeming every moment of our life by his own holy life.
Matthew 1:18-25 From the very beginning of the story then we know who Mary’s child really is:  God in human flesh come to save us from our sins.  And the Good News for us is that he is still Jesus, our Immanuel: the Savior who is with us.  The power of his saving work continues down to this moment as he speaks to us in his word and makes himself present in the sacrament so that we might receive the blessings of his death and resurrection.
He is the God who is with us—with us through our joys and sorrows—with us as we pass through this life—with us as we die--with us forever into eternity.  Jesus is our Immanuel and like Joseph that calls for our obedience and faith.  The Bible says that:
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

            What we see in Joseph’s life is exactly the response that God is hoping for from all of us:  faith in his Word and obedience to his commands.  There was a cost in this for Joseph as there always is for believers.  Ugly rumors would surround his marriage and family.  Joseph would forgo that part of marriage that was rightfully his so that there could be no doubt that Jesus was God’s Son.  His faith moved him to service and sacrifice.  May God grant us the same faith—the same obedience, and the same willingness to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  Amen.