Monday, December 31, 2018

Jesus: The LORD Saves!

Luke 2:21 “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”                      
When you count off eight days from December 25 (the day of Jesus’ birth), you come to January 1 (the day of his circumcision). 
So while the world around us observes the beginning of a new solar year in time, we Christians celebrate the circumcision of a Jewish boy 2000 years ago and in doing so, the first of January becomes for us not just another notch in time, not just another passing year, but a genuine link with eternity through the flesh of God’s own Son.
The circumcision of Jesus may seem like an odd event to even remember much less celebrate–but some eternally important things for our salvation happened in this moments of our Lord’s life, things that we ought to remember and rejoice in this evening.  PAUSE
It is in this moment that we first see Jesus actively fulfilling the Law in our place.  Though his entire life was one of perfect obedience to the Law of his Heavenly Father in place of our disobedience, we see his obedience to the Law first as he was circumcised in keeping with the demands of the ancient covenant.
It is in this moment that we first see Jesus suffering and bleeding for our sins.  While Jesus he suffered and shed his life’s blood on Calvary’s cross to pay for our sins, his first shed blood upon this sin-filled earth was at his circumcision. 
Therefore the name he was given in this ceremony:  Jesus, the LORD saves--not only signified what he would do, but what he had already begun to do, in these moments, at just eight days old:  the salvation of the world by his holy life and bloody death. 
And so this evening, we not only look forward to a New Year, but we also look back to the very beginning of our salvation.  The Bible says
“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  
Every Son of Israel was given his name at the time of circumcision.  So our Lord was also given his name by Joseph. 
But his was no ordinary name!  His name was literally given from heaven, announced by an angel to both Mary and Joseph at his conception.  The angel told Joseph:  “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins.”
And so this tiny bundle of humanity was given the strong name of Jesus:  the LORD saves!  A name signifying not only what he would do in saving the world-- but who he was–none other than the one true Savior God, the LORD, in the human flesh of a newborn baby boy. 
Jesus grew up from that moment on, to fulfill that name in the most wonderful of ways for us and for our salvation. 
All that God’s Holy Law demands from you and me, all that we have failed to do over this past year, Jesus fulfilled perfectly and completely–in all his thoughts, words, and deeds-- holy and righteous in his heavenly Father’s sight.
When we think back over the past year, when we reflect on our obedience to our heavenly Father’s will, we see that we have failed in countless ways to please him in thought, word, and deed.
Jesus’ circumcision began a perfect life of obedience for us, in our place–a life lived in perfect agreement with his Father’s will–a holy life that God counts as our own when we believe in Jesus. 
And so we go forward in this New Year confident in God’s grace, knowing that the Father is pleased with our lives on account of Christ’s holy life-- and that we are his children because we are connected by faith and baptism to his Son. 
All that you and I by our sins deserved, the punishment and death, the forsaken-ness by God-- Jesus suffered patiently and thoroughly (once for all) in our place on Calvary’s cross.  God the Father laid upon him the iniquity of us all and it crushed the life from him. 
For our salvation and to give us new life he was crucified, died, and was buried and rose from the grave on the third day with the promise that death is not the end for those who trust in him.  PAUSE      With the passing of time we cannot help but be reminded that one day, time will come to an end for us, and we too will pass from this earth. 
But Jesus’ story is one of new, eternal life for us and for all people because he was physically raised from the dead on the third day to give us new life.  New life here in time and in eternity and a fresh start for us in this New Year.
We go forward in this New Year confident of God’s grace knowing that through faith in the name of Jesus, we have already passed from death to life and we have nothing to fear when we pass from this life into the eternal presence of our Savior God.  The Bible says that this is why:
God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  And what a blessing it is for us to know that:  There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.  PAUSE
The Name of Jesus and all the blessings that it conveys is the best of news of all for us as we begin this New Year. 
The world around us is filled with uncertainty and bad news.  Where will our leaders take us?  What will happen in war torn areas around the globe?  What will the economy do?  What will this New Year bring for my job and my family and my health?  How will we handle the changes and chances of life in this New Year?
The Good News for us this evening is that by the grace and help of God we will handle all of it –both the blessings and the struggles--in the strong, saving name of Jesus.  PAUSE
Now, there’s nothing magical about the name of Jesus in and of itself–it was a common name then and in some communities it’s still a common name. 
Rather, the power in the name of Jesus is the power and authority of the Son of God himself and that power is ours as we go forth in this New Year in his Name.  So what does that mean for us practically in 2019? IT MEANS THAT:
1. When we pray in the name of Jesus, our heavenly Father regards it as Jesus’ prayer and so we can be confident that our prayers are heard and answered by our heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake to our eternal good.
2. When the Word of God is preached in the name of Jesus, it is the authority of Jesus Christ himself that stands behind that word:  calling us to repent of our sins and assuring us that we are forgiven and guiding us in how to live a life that is pleasing too God.
3. When we Christians give a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus or perform some other act of mercy or good work in this new year in his holy name, we can be confident that it is Jesus himself working through our hands and feet and lips to provide for the needs of our neighbor so that our charity and good works and gifts are a real participation in Jesus’ redemptive work of love in this dark and dying world. 
In summary, it means that whatever we do in the name of Jesus, whether in word or in deed in this New Year, we give glory to God and we can count on his presence and blessing in our lives and homes–our marriages and families
This evening, the clock will tick down on another year for planet earth and the big shiny ball will fall in Times Square.
But in this moment, we Christians gather together to gain a firmer grip on eternal things: to receive forgiveness for our sins–to hear the Good News that gives eternal life–to thank God for his blessings over the last year and to seek his blessing for the year to come–and in these ways to prepare for the eternity we will spend in God’s presence.
Confronted by the relentless march of time and the approach of death, the unbelieving world thinks it is better to spend life in drunkenness and carousing than to have to confront the terrifying truth that for each of them time will come to an end.
But we Christians rejoice tonight, even in passing years and approaching death, knowing that when time comes to an end for us, it is not the end of us at all, but the beginning of a new life that will last forever.
And so in the name of Jesus we begin the new year confident and secure and at peace.  And if, in this year, the day comes that we depart this earthly life, we still will have nothing to fear, for then we will die as we lived —in the strong, saving name of Jesus.  Amen. 

Put on Love!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Put on Love

Colossians 3:12-17 Christmas is past and the New Year is at hand.  Have you had the nerve to step on the scale?  Have you checked your credit card balances?  Have you gotten all of your thank you notes written?  Am I spoiling your Sunday morning?
I ask these questions because, in day or so, millions of our fellow Americans are going to make their New Year’s resolutions.  They will resolve to lose weight and they will resolve to get their finances in order and they will resolve to get better organized.  These are all worthy goals and every journey begins with a single step and so I’m in favor of making resolutions.
But for the child of God, for us here today, those resolutions cannot be the only thing )or even the main thing) that we want to accomplish in the year to come.
Our hopes and dreams and plans for the future are not only for this year-- or even for this life-- but for the life to come.  And so we hear today from the Holy Spirit who encourages us in what really matters- and endures- and stands the test of time.
While these words from Paul are going to sound like a list of things to do—and they are—what they really are is an invitation to put on Christ—to put on Christ’s love and to put on Christ’s holiness.
We’re going to hear that language throughout the text and whenever you hear those words in the New Testament you are hearing baptismal language:  that we are to lay hold of the life of Christ into which we were baptized and put on his righteousness like a garment and wear it each day in the year to come.  The Bible says:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience; bearing with one another… 
            This is our baptismal identity—this is who we are in Christ:  God’s chosen ones, holy in his sight through faith in Jesus and loved by him with an everlasting love. 
And so then, when the Holy Spirit calls us to lives of compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience—he is simply calling us to live out our baptismal identity as those who have died and been raised with Christ and who are empowered to walk in newness of life.
God is not asking us to memorize this list of spiritual attributes (though that would be time well spent), what he is asking us to do is to strive to live out Christ’s life in our own life:  to have a heart that is tender towards others in their brokenness, to think of the needs of others before ourselves, and to patiently endure the irritations that come when sinners live together in marriages and families and schools and workplaces and congregations.
Just imagine what this New Year would be like for us- and for those around us- if more and more of Jesus was made manifest in our lives?  Imagine what a blessing we would be to one another! 
But of course we know how often our best intentions and sincere resolutions fall short-- and so we must be people of forgiveness in the year to come.  The Bible says:
if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 
            Many, many people are carrying some extra weight into the New Year.  Many, many people are carrying some extra debt into the New Year.  Many, many people are carrying a list of things to do into the New Year that is a mental and emotional burden.  These are all part of life.
That said:  brothers and sisters in Christ, I am here to tell you that there is one burden that you do not need to bear and that is the burden of your own sins and the burden of those who have sinned against you. 
Lay that burden down and do not even think about carrying it into the New Year for there is no need!
Our Lord Jesus Christ has fully and freely take away your sins.  He has paid the sin debt you could not pay.  He has borne the sin burden you could not bear.  As far as the east is form the west your sins have been removed.  They have been cast in to the depths of the sea and God no longer remembers even one of them.  Cast your burden on the Lord for he cares for you!
But here’s the thing:  he has also done this for those who have wounded you and sinned against and he wants you to not only lay claim of his blood-bought forgiveness for yourselves-- but he wants you to apply that same powerful, cleansing blood to all of the sorrow and pain and hard feelings in your heart because of the sins of others.  The Bible says:
Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.
            Each and every one of us here today are loved by God and forgiven by Christ.  No matter what this New Year holds for us, there is a peace that passes all understanding that fills our hearts and minds because we know that the one thing that really and truly matters eternally—our life with God—is safe and secure in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ.
            But in this New Year, our Lord Jesus Christ would have that love and forgiveness and peace we have received in faith, move from us to others in ever expanding circles of spiritual influence that impacts those around us in powerful, life-changing ways.
That is especially to be true of us in the church.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are members of the same Body of Christ.  We have the same loving Father.  All of the saving merits that Jesus Christ has bestowed upon us are to be evident in how we treat one another in the church.
In the early church the one characteristic that drew the attention and admiration of the pagan culture around them was the way the Christians treated one another and cared for one another.  “See how they love one another” was said of the church.
What a worthwhile goal for us in the year to come, that we grow in our love for our fellow saints in this place, that those in our community would take note of the way that we love and care for one another. 
For all these blessings of body and soul, the Holy Spirit says:  be thankful.   All of us want to make progress in the year to come.  Maybe we want to finish our degree or graduate from high school.  Maybe we want to save more money or get a raise or promotion at work.  Maybe we want to get healthier.
There is not a thing in the world with wanting to make some progress in life unless it blinds us to what we already have and silences our thanksgiving to God for those blessings.
To be more content and joyful and have more peace of heart in the year to come, it is not necessary in the least that we always have more and more.  Instead, the path to contentment and peace and joy begins with thanksgiving for what we already have. 
That we are sitting here today among God’s people fed and clothed and sheltered, makes each and every one of us among the most blessed people in the world and we need to make a commitment to be more thankful in our hearts to God in the year to come.  The Bible says:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
            If there is one thing that I wish I could make happen as a pastor by waving a magic wand it would be to get every member here more grounded in the word of God and more committed to the private and public worship of God.
There is simply nothing else that will bless you so profoundly as spending regular time in the Word of God.  There is nothing else that will more surely lead to spiritual maturity as reading and studying God’s Word on a daily basis.  And so then, I encourage you in the Lord…
Make a commitment right now that each and every day you will have a daily devotion.  Make a resolution that you will worship God each day and pray for yourself and one another.  And especially make a solemn decision that this year you will worship each Sunday and attend Bible class.
You need this and we need you.  We do not worship only for ourselves but we come together to worship to be strengthened by the presence of our fellow Christians—to be reminded that there are those who share our faith and our values in this dark, unbelieving world—and to make sure that the worship and knowledge of the one true God goes forth into the world.  The Bible says:
Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
            By virtue of our baptism into Christ we bear his name.  We are Christians.  And so here in these words is a wonderful summary of everything we talked about today:  that we would do nothing in this New Year that we cannot ask the Lord to bless—that we would only do those things upon which we would not be ashamed to place his name.
To glorify God in all that we say and do means that we will magnify him by what we say and do—it means that those around us will praise God because of what they see in us—it means that the Savior who lives within us by his Spirit would be made manifest in every moment of our life.
Losing weight and saving money and getting organized are worthy goals and helpful resolutions but they cannot compare to being a better, more consistent witness to Jesus.  And so then let us put on Christ and his love and glorify God in all that we say and do.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Virgin's Son

Isaiah 7:10-14 The Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The LORD spoke to Ahaz.  It may not be readily apparent, but there is profound comfort for each and every one of us in those words!
There is the promise that no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how great our sin, no matter the distance between ourselves and God:  the LORD is always ready to reach out to us in love—even to someone as terrible as Ahaz.
There is really no way to adequately convey to you what an evil man Ahaz was.  He was a king of God’s people who led the entire nation away from God.  He never turned to God in his need and instead sought out help from the pagan nations around him.
He burned his own children alive in worship to pagan gods and he established pagan worship places among God’s people so that they could follow his hateful example. 
His sins were really beyond imagination and what was even worse is that he led God’s people into spiritual slaughter by causing them to abandon their Savior God.
He was as evil a man as can be found in the Bible and yet…God loved him.  God loved him.  Can you imagine such a thing! 
Now please understand, God did not love his sin—not at all!  He hated it with a holy, righteous, burning hatred. 
But he loved Ahaz-- and so long as Ahaz was still among the living there was still hope for him to repent of his sins- and turn to his Savior- and lead his people in the way of life.  And so the LORD spoke to him with words of warning and promise.
To every person assembled here today—whether you are a so-called “Christmas and Easter” Christian who only make it to church on those days—whether you have been dragged here by your wife or mother and grandmother to keep the peace in the family—whether you are someone who struggles with a besetting sin and never seems to make any progress in being done with it:  no matter who you are, no matter what you have done—God loves you and he speaks to you today in his Word so that you might hear his voice and know his love.  The Bible says:
The Lord spoke to Ahaz:  “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
            Ahaz had big plans for himself and for the nation he ruled.  He thought he had everything worked out so that he could preserve his reign and his fortune.  He formed alliances with greater nations than his own and he was certain that he would come out on top in the conflicts to come.
But all of this he had done without consulting the LORD who had other plans.  Even in those dark moments, even when Ahaz had abandoned the LORD and encouraged the people to do the same, the LORD promised that he would be their deliverer—that they didn’t need to rely on armies or alliances—that he was still their Savior God and could be counted on to save them.
And what’s more, he made Ahaz an incredible offer:  ask of me any sign you choose—anything at all whether it reaches the heights of heaven or the depths of earth and I will bring it to bear so that you can know and believe that I am the God who saves. Just ask me for a sign.
Our lives may seem pretty far removed from Ahaz --but his way of thinking is familiar to us. 
When we have a job and money in the bank—when our kids are healthy and happy—when we have big plans for our future and all that we want to accomplish—we may think that we have the world by the tail, but we need to ask ourselves the question Ahaz should have asked himself:  where is God in all this?  Have I sought his will for my life?  Am I going in his ways?  Is my only need of God to get a divine stamp of approval on what I want to do?
For Ahaz and for us, the LORD wants us to turn to him—to see in him alone our hopes and plans for the future and to trust that he will truly bring the blessings we need. 
And so what was Ahaz’s response to the LORD’s invitation to ask for a sign?  Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  At first glance this may seem very pious.  It is true that we shouldn’t demand a sign from the LORD.  The promises of the LORD should be more than enough to earn our faith and trust.
But it was the LORD himself who offered the sign.  And Ahaz refused.  Dear friends in Christ, I cannot begin to tell you what a terrible, faithless thing it is to refuse the signs that the LORD himself gives so that we can know and believe and lay hold of his love for us.
Think about God’s Word and Sacraments.  Much more than mere signs of God’s love—they are the very substance of that love set before our eyes and ears so that we might know the goodness and mercy of our Savior God.  And yet, what is our attitude towards them?
Do we eagerly open our Bible each day so that we might hear the voice of the living God of the universes who stands ready in every moment to encourage us and guide us and empower us with his Word?
Do we reclaim for ourselves each day (with the sign of the cross) the promises of our Holy Baptism:  that we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ so that we might walk with him in newness of life? 
Do we treasure the Sacrament of the Altar where we are given the very Body and Blood of Christ so that we might know that the One who died for the world on the cross also died for us, personally and individually?
Are we glad for every opportunity to gather among God’s people in this place to worship the LORD who goes far beyond the gift of mere signs to give us the very substance of his saving love?
We may look with scorn upon the lack of faith and false piety of someone like Ahaz, but while we do, we must also look at our own hearts and ask ourselves:  have I wearied the LORD with my own unwillingness to receive the gifts he stands ready to give?  Isaiah said:
“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
            My dad was a pretty patient guy but when he told us kids, “I am getting sick and tired of that” you had better pay attention.  That’s what that Hebrew word means when Isaiah says that Ahaz and the whole people of God had “wearied” the LORD.
The LORD didn’t have a short fuse.  The LORD had simply had enough.  These words were spoke after centuries of disobedience—after centuries of un-kept promises from his people to change—after centuries going the way of the world and following after false gods. 
And now, when the LORD stood ready one more time to come to their aid and give them salvation from their enemies, they turned their backs on his promises and rejected his sign and the LORD had simply had enough.
We know that moment had come for Ahaz and his people-- but we don’t know when that moment will come for us. 
And so we have to ask ourselves:  what am I doing that is wearying the Lord?  What promises am I rejecting, what signs am I neglecting, that would lead the LORD to say of me:  enough is enough?  I want you to hear now the LORD’s solution to the sins of Ahaz and Allan and all of you too.
The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Is that not the most remarkable, wonderful, comforting thing that you have ever heard?!  The Lord’s way of dealing with the faithlessness of Ahaz; the Lord’s way of dealing with a people on the wrong path; the Lord’s way of dealing with our sins and our allegiances with the world-- is the gift of a Son—given by the LORD himself in the most miraculous and wonderful way!
This was the Seed of the Woman promised to Eve (in the beginning) who would undo the destructive forces of sin and Satan and Isaiah promised that he would come into the world from the womb of a Virgin.  He would be given the name Jesus:  the LORD who saves-- and he would be our Immanuel, the God who is with us. 
Far, far from abandoning us to our sins--far, far from turning his back on us because of our wayward ways-- the LORD sent his Son into the world to be our Savior.
On Christmas day we rejoice in the birth of the Virgin’s Son.  It is a sweet and tender scene that fills our eyes of faith.  But we can never forget the reason why his birth was needed at all:  it was to die for our sins and the sin of the world.
Jesus Christ, the Virgin’s Son is the enduring sign of the love God has for us despite our sins—the Good News in human flesh that God is not done with us but desires that each of us would return to him with all our heart.  God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The King of Israel

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Since Wilbur Sohn’s funeral this will be the third sermon I have preached on the Spirit’s gift of joy-- which is three more than I have ever preached in my life.  And I have to say that it is has been good for me.
I suppose that I am, to use Garrison Keilor’s terminology, one of those dark Lutherans.  I actually enjoy confessing that I am a poor miserable sinner who deserves God’s temporal and eternal punishment.  Lent is my favorite time of the church year and I think that Advent ought to be a lot more penitential like it was when I was a kid.  My favorite hymn is, “Chief of Sinners Though I Be.”
In other words, joy does not come easily or naturally to me.  But what has been impressed upon me by the Holy Spirit as I have preached on these texts is that joy is an integral part of the life of a child of God—and why not?!
Our King has died and been raised for us to forgive our sins and give us eternal life.  Our King abides with us throughout our life, tenderly providing what we need.  And our King rules over every moment of our lives for our eternal good.  That is why the Bible says:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!  The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.  The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 
            Let’s deal with that word “exult” first.  It means to have an overwhelming feeling of elation and jubilation.  It’s the picture of an Olympic gymnast or figure skater who knows that they had a great routine and then sees a perfect score. Their joy is overwhelming and all-encompassing.
That is the feeling that we are to have as the children of God, knowing that God has delivered us from our enemies. 
When Zephaniah spoke these words, that day was still to come---but it would come!  God would set them free from exile.  He would bring them home.  Once again they would worship in the presence of God in the land he had given them as a promise.
But there was even more.  Zephaniah promised that ALL of God’s judgments would be taken away—that ALL the enemies of the people of God would be destroyed—that God himself would dwell in the midst of ALL his people—both Jew and Gentile.
Those promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  The judgments of God in time and eternity against his sinful people fell upon the Lord Jesus Christ who took our place under God’s wrath, and suffered God’s judgment, and was abandoned by his Father-- so that would never happen to us.  Death and the devil were utterly defeated by Christ’s resurrection.
And from the moment that the second person of the Holy Trinity took upon himself the flesh of humanity, God himself, our Immanuel has abided with mankind. 
Dear friends in Christ, there is simply nothing for us to fear in this life or the next! 
The vast, vast majority of our lives are filled to overflowing with the abundant blessings of God and even when we have to go through some hardship, or face some trial, we have the King’s own promise that in that moment he is working all things for our good—that having already given us Jesus Christ he will withhold no good thing from us.
Hearing this Good News of the King’s victory, why on earth would we not sing aloud and shout for joy and exult with all our heart!?  How can the darkness of living in a dying world overwhelm the light of salvation we have in the Lord Jesus Christ who rejoices over us?!  The Bible says:
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:  “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.  The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.   
For me, the most remarkable part of this text is that the very thing that the Lord desires from his people (singing and exultation and rejoicing over his goodness and mercy and enduring presence) is just exactly his attitude towards us!
Just think about that for a moment!  The Lord rejoices over you with gladness!  The Lord exults over you with loud singing!  We could never imagine such a thing and yet it is true!  This is God’s attitude over you right now! Joy and exultation and singing! 
How is this possible?  How did it come to be that the one, true and living God of the universe even knows that we exist-- to say nothing of this attitude of joy on account of us?
It is all because of the King.  The judgments of God have been taken away!  Our enemies have been destroyed!  We have been reconciled to God! And we have been re-created to be what God intended us to be in the very beginning:  the very pinnacle of his creation and his own dearly loved children.
That is what the King has done for us in his saving work.  He has reconciled us to himself.  He has redeemed us from our enemies.  He has renewed us and restored our fortunes and such is his love for us that he rejoices in our renewal and redemption and reconciliation. 
And so then, if you ever wonder in the midst of some hardship or difficulty or trial what God’s attitude is towards you in that moment, remember these words! lay hold of these words! believe these words! that the living God of the universes loves you beyond anything that you can even begin to imagine and there is no reason whatsoever for you to be discouraged or downcast.
That is what those words, “do not let your hands grow weak” mean—it is a picture of someone who is so overwhelmed that their shoulders are hunched over and their head is bowed down and they no longer even have the strength to lift their hands.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is nothing and no one in this world that has that power over you because you have an eternal Savior king who rejoices over you with gladness and exults over you with loud singing and will quiet your troubled heart with his love.  The Bible says:
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.  Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.  And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 
            These words of prophecy and promise were spoken during days of exile.  God’s people were separated from all that they knew and loved and held dear.  Their lives in that moment were not everything that they hoped for and they had to look forward and trust in the goodnesss of the King to make things right.
We are very much in the same place-- and oddly enough these festival days at Christmas impress that upon us all the more. 
Often times we are separated from those we love.  There is a dearly loved husband or wife or grandparent who will not be at the table with us this year.  There are family members we are alienated from and that pain is profound.  The reality of our celebrations this year will be very different than what we remember from years past.
But I want you to hear the promise of God:  you will no longer suffer reproach!  You will no longer suffer reproach!  The season of Advent is a season of hope—a season of looking forward with faith and believing the promises of God even when we cannot see how they will be fulfilled.
 And yet they will be fulfilled!  They will!  There is not one thing that that the child of God has ever lost that will not be restored.  There is not one thing that the child of God has ever lacked that will not be given.  There is not one enemy who has ever oppressed the people of God who will not be destroyed by the King in his glory when he stands upon the earth of the Last Day.  The Bible says that:
At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
            These words were spoken and these promises were made when the Israelites exiled far from home.  They lived in the midst of a culture that did not share their values.  They were surrounded by people who worshiped false gods and persecuted those who believed in the true God.
But the Lord promised that it would not always be that way.  He said that there was a day to come when he would gather his people to himself and that every promise he had ever made would be fulfilled in their midst with blessings overflowing and everlasting.
That promise is made to us too.  We are far, far from our heavenly home.  We are a pilgrim people who are aliens and strangers to a world that does not share our values and our faith.  And yet it will not always be this way.
  On the last day our Savior King will stand upon this earth and call us from our resting places and we will live with him forever in the home that Jesus has prepared for us—a new heaven and a new earth that us unbroken by sin and unburdened by death.  And so then…
Singing and rejoicing and exultation are entirely appropriate to the child of God for we have in the Lord Jesus Christ a King who has defeated our enemies and take away his judgments—a King who abides with us and provides for us—a King who rules all things in heaven and on earth for our good.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion: shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart.  Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Rejoice in the Lord Always!

Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  These words from Philippians chapter 4 come before us twice a year in the lectionary:  on Thanksgiving Day and on Gaudete Sunday.  I have had nearly fifty opportunities to preach on them and each time I have made a conscious, deliberate decision NOT TO until today.
Terrible, isn’t it?  And so why is that?  It’s because these words have seemed to me like one of those well-meaning but annoying people who tell us to smile-- without a clue as to what is going on in our lives at that moment. 
But since I’ve preached on the ministry of John the Baptist about twenty times, I was “forced” to deal with them this week.  And I have to say that I am glad the Lord dragged me kicking and screaming to actually listen to what he is saying and I hope you will be glad too.  The Spirit says to us today:  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 
What changed for me this week regarding these words is the realization that the Lord is not asking us to put some dopey, fake smile on our face.  He is not asking us produce an emotion that we cannot manage. 
What he is asking us instead to do is simply receive a gift that he very much wants to give us. 
That’s what joy is after all:  a gift of the Spirit.  A gift.  Not something that God demands of us-- but something he freely bestows on us as an act of his gracious love.  When we hear those words and understand them that way it really does change everything they direct us to the goodness of God!
Our Savior God has poured out his mercy and love upon us.  There is not one good thing that he has withheld from us.  He has given us our life and all the blessing of that life.  He has given us his Son Jesus who died for us and was raised for us to give us a new, eternal life without end.  He has given us his Spirit so that we can receive these gifts in faith and he wants to give us the gift of joy that is fixed (not upon the hardships and difficulties of life) but fixed upon this God of blessing and abundance who loves us with an everlasting love.
That’s what joy is—it is a deep, heartfelt understanding of who God is and who we are as his children that results in deep contentment and peace and happiness that is not diminished in hard times. 
I want that gift of joy for myself and I want you to have that gift of joy too.  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.
It’s a slight exaggeration but almost for as many English translations of the Bible as there are, there are that many different interpretations of the word “reasonableness”.  Some say “moderation”.  Some say “forebearance.”   Others says “graciousness or mildness or gentleness”. 
The reason for the variety of translations is because there is not a good English equivalent for the original Greek words or even a good Latin equivalent. 
So let me describe what the Spirit wants us to show in our lives.  Let me give an analogy.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, I have been avoiding this text for decades.  I dug my heels in and refused to preach on it. 
And yet for all the time that God’s servant and son (me) was acting like an unreasonable child, his heavenly Father was kindly, graciously, gently asking him to receive a gift that he desperately needed, and what’s more:  what his flock needed too.
That attitude of gentle, patient love is what the word means and we can only see it and understand it clearly in the way that our heavenly Father and his Son Jesus treat us. 
The Bible says that God deals kindly with us because he knows that we are merely dust.  The Bible says that Jesus will not blow out a flickering wick.  And so then, when our heavenly Father patiently forgives his wayward people again and again; when Jesus takes little children into his arms and cares for the sick and sad, there that words is.
What joy it gives us to know that this is the tender, gentle, patient, heartfelt love that our Savior God has for us-- and he calls us to extend that same gentle, patient, heartfelt love to others.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand…
These words stand at the center of our text and they point backwards and forwards in helping us to understand what God wants us to know today. 
First of all, these words serve as a reminder that God is near to us and sees how we treat others and he wants us to remember to treat them with the same gentle, patient love we have received from him.
Second of all, these words also point forward in our text to assure us that we can rejoice, no matter what we are facing, because the Lord is near.  We are not alone with the troubles of this life.  We don’t have to bear overwhelming burdens on our own.
Our mighty Savior God who loves us with an everlasting love is right there with us in every moment of life, comforting us with his presence.  The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything.
In the United States, one in every five people, 40 million people have anxiety severe enough to be treated medically.  That is staggering!  I am thankful to the Lord that he gives doctors and medicine to help those in need. 
But our Lord reminds us today that there is no need whatsoever for us to be anxious about anything because he is near us.
 He is near us when we are struggling in our marriage.  He is near us when our children have gone in a frightening direction.  He is near us in money problems and health problems.  He is near us throughout our lives and in the moment of our death.  
He sees what is going on in our life.  He knows what burdens us.  And he knows best how to help us. 
Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 
You have heard people (who ought to know better) say about some difficult trial, “Well, there’s nothing left to do but pray”. 
Brothers and sisters in Christ, prayer is not the last the last resort!  It is not the thing to do when there is nothing else left to do!  Prayer is the first line of defense in dealing with the sorrows of life and it is bulwark against everything that would make us anxious and rob us of joy.
Just think about prayer for a moment:  the one, true and living God of the universe, the one who is powerful and wise above all else, the one who created you and supports you day by day, the one who gave his Son to rescue you for time and eternity, invites you to speak to him about anything on your mind and promises to hear you and answer you for your good!
Prayer is just the opposite of worry and anxiety.  Worry comes from having a conversation with yourself about events that you have no control over.  Anxiety is utterly self-defeating, and unproductive.
Prayer is just the opposite!  Prayer is talking to the God who is mighty and powerful and strong to save and trusting that he will come to your aid.  Prayer is the source of deep and abiding peace and joy because we know that the Lord is so near to us that he hears the even the unspoken sighs of our inmost heart. 
And along with our requests for what we need, we are to thank God for what we already have.  This too is a key to joy.  So often in our life, our trials and difficulties blind us to all the good things God has already given us. 
But when we combine our requests for what we need, along with thanksgiving for what we have, we are reminded what a powerful, loving God we have and how he can be trusted to come to our aid because he always has!  Knowing that, worry and anxiety have to give way to joy and peace.  The Bible says that:
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
            Here is what the Holy Spirit wants us to pictures with these words:  a marine standing guard at the entrance to a military base.  Here’s the point: 
That we are God’s children, that we are reconciled to our heavenly Father by Jesus, that he sees and meets our needs, that he is with us in every moment of life—these promises stand guard over our heart and mind against every spiritual enemy of worry or anxiety that would rob us of joy and hope. 
And so then, God says to us today:  Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I say rejoice!
Friends, these words are not a burden that we cannot bear-- but they are a blessing we cannot be without.  God grant you joy and peace in this holy season and always!  Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Our Partnership in the Gospel

Philippians 1:2-11 Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi has been called “the epistle of joy” because the Spirit’s gift of joy colors and shapes and informs every word he writes.  Next week we will hear him say, “Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I say:  Rejoice! 
What is so remarkable about his joy is that as he writes these words, he is imprisoned for preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
He did not know how his case would turn out—whether he would be released or executed.  He was literally chained to a guard.  He had to depend on the support of friends for food and clothing. 
And yet it is joy and thanksgiving that fills his heart because he knows that he is not alone but there are thousands of Christians all over the world who love him and are concerned for him and are praying for him and who will help him—thousands of Christians who are partners with him in the Gospel. 
Today we are going to hear from a letter he wrote to some of them in Philippi and as we do so we will learn what a blessing it is—what a source of joy and thanksgiving—that we too are partners in the Gospel with all our fellow Christians.  Paul wrote:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
            Last May, the healthcare giant, Cigna released a study they did on loneliness.  The results are sobering.  54% of Americans identified themselves as lonely and isolated even when they were not alone. 
What that means is that the majority of Americans, even when they are surrounded by people, have no real connection to them at all.  Quoting from the study, respondents said that “their relationships were not meaningful” and they were “isolated from others”.
And yet Paul, separated from those he loved—having not a clue what the future held for him—surrounded by people who were violently opposed to everything he loved—is filled with joy and prayers of thanksgiving to God! 
Why is that?  Because of the partnership—the fellowship—he shared with his fellow Christians.  Even though he was alone—he was not lonely because of the connection-- the life-- he shared with his fellow Christians.
He knew that there were Christians who are praying for him.  There were Christians who shared his faith in Jesus.  There were Christians who would come to his aid.  There were Christians who loved him.  Their partnership in the Gospel gave him joy.  So it is for us.
            We spend a great deal of time in workplaces with people who do not share our faith.  We live in culture that rejects our values.  Many of us will spend time alone in a hospital room or nursing home.  Most of us will go through a trial that is deeply painful.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to feel depressed and downcast—isolated and lonely.  But we are not alone!  Dear friends in Christ, we are not alone! 
We have one another:  fellow Christians who share our faith and values—fellow Christians who are praying for us—fellow Christians who will help us—fellow Christians to whom we are joined together in the Body of Christ—partners with us in the Gospel that has changed our lives for time and eternity.  Paul wrote:
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
            Paul, of course, was inspired to write these words by the power of the Holy Spirit but they were written with a deep personal conviction of their truth that was born out of his own experience at the moment. 
From the very beginning of his apostolic ministry, Paul had a desire to preach throughout the Roman Empire and especially to preach in the very heart of Rome.  But how could he make that happen?  What he discovered in a personal, powerful way is that God would make it happen!
The violent persecution of the Jews and the self-serving, self-interest of petty government officials had all served God’s purpose for Paul to bring him to the very center of the greatest empire of the day so that the Gospel could be preached to all people. 
Yes, he was bound with chains!  But the Gospel was not bound and was being preached and shared in places that Paul could never have envisioned it going. 
The good work begun by Jesus in Jerusalem at the cross; the good work begun in Paul as he met the risen Christ; the good work begun in people from all over the world at Pentecost; was being brought to completion as more and more people—including those in Philippi—heard the Gospel and were baptized and came to faith in Jesus.
Paul had absolute confidence (born of the promises of God fulfilled in his own life) that the saving purposes of Jesus Christ would not be thwarted by anything in this world.
So it is for us.  We are partners in the Gospel:  with Paul and the other apostles; with the early Christians; with the saints that we have known in our own life, all of who testify to us with their own lives that the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, begun in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, will continue to work in us until God’s saving purposes for us are fulfilled and we live in his glory and peace forever. 
The testimony of God’s people from generation to generation is that God is faithful!  God is faithful!  God is faithful!  We are a part of those people.  We share their faith and we have fellowship with them in the Body of Christ. 
And so no matter what we face or the hardships we endure, our partners in the Gospel assure us that God will accomplish his saving purposes in our lives and that the complete fulfillment of his eternal love for will be accomplished in us as we stand before our Lord Jesus Christ on the Last Day with all our fellow saints.  Paul wrote:
It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
            The local church is an interesting place.  It’s a lot like a family in that we are bound to people that we would not necessarily choose for ourselves as friends.  And the Lord has a purpose in this in both church and family:  that we would learn to love others like Jesus loves us. 
We are loved by Jesus—not because we deserve it—not because there is something in us that draws him to us—but we are loved by Jesus because of who he is in grace and mercy.
So it is for us and our fellow Christians.  All of us are children of God by his grace.  Our place in this congregation is secured, not by who we are, but because of what Jesus did for us in the cross.  We all stand there by faith as beggars with open hands, waiting for our Lord to pour out his merciful love upon us.  That is true for us and that is true for everyone sitting around us.
And so we love one another and hold them in our heart and desire the best for them because they are partakers with us of God’s gracious love in the Lord Jesus Christ. 
We are not always going to agree with one another on every issue.  Some of us will always be oil and water.  But those human emotions and personalities have absolutely nothing to do with our life together in the church. 
We are all in this together—loving one another and helping one another in good times and in bad—just like for Paul and his partners in the Gospel.
 There were times of great joy for Paul and the Philippians as they saw their congregation begin with the conversion of Lydia and her household and then spread far and wide as the Spirit did his saving work. 
And there were times of sorrow and suffering as Paul was imprisoned for the faith.  But no matter what, in every moment, they were partakers together of God’s grace and had the best interests of each other at heart and in their prayers.  Paul wrote:
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
            Many times over the course of my ministry I have been asked by the elderly and those in nursing home and hospital beds:  why am I still here?  What’s the purpose of my life?  What can I do? 
And I always say the same thing:  pray for me.  Pray for your fellow Christians.  You are still my partner in the Gospel!  You still are united to others in Christ!  We share a common faith.  We have a common hope.  Pray for us!  And Paul tells us how.
Pray that we may have an ever deeper love for one another and God.  Pray that we may grow in our knowledge of God and his will.  Pray that we may be filled with the righteousness of Christ.  And especially pray that we may stand before Christ, holy and blameless on the Last Day.   Just imagine if we were all praying this prayer for one another—for greater love of Jesus and deeper knowledge of God and more abundant fruits of the Spirit—what a difference that would make in our life together as members of the Body of Christ! 
It was this deep understanding of his connectedness to every other Christian that gave Paul joy even in the midst of suffering and hardship for he knew that it glorified his Savior God.  God grant it to us in our day as well.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.