Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Word of the Lord Remains Forever

1 Peter 1:22-25 New Year’s Eve (as we are celebrating tonight--the passing of one year into the next) is not a church festival per se-- but I do think that there is great value for the child of God in attending worship services on this occasion.
We gather together as God’s people to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of our lives in this world (that time does indeed pass us by!) and with each passing moment, we draw closer and closer to our own passing from this world into eternity.
With that sober reminder at the forefront of our minds, we gather together to recommit our lives and our purposes and our goals in the year to come-- to that which does not pass away:  God and his Word.  The Bible says that:
All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass; the grass withers and the flower fall, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
Not the most flattering analogy in the world is it?  That our lives in this world are no more lasting, no more enduring, than the grass of the field which is, as Jesus says, here today and tomorrow cut down and thrown into the fire.
Satan tempts us to believe that the world revolves around us.  The world tells us that we need to put ourselves first and look out for our own self-interests.  At the very least, we like to believe that we will make our mark on the world:  that our accomplishments–our name–our place in this world will endure.  But the Bible has a very different view of humanity.
James tells us that our lives are a mist that is present in the morning but is quickly dissipated by the rising sun.  And here in First Peter, our lives are compared to the spring grass that is alive and green at the beginning of the summer but by the end of the season is dry and withered and dead.
We get God’s point, don’t we?  Our lives, even when they are long by human standards--are almost nothing when compared to the length of human history-- to say nothing of their brevity in the light of eternity.
The end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 should be a sobering reminder to each of us of this inescapable reality:  that time marches on-- and for a while we march along with it.  But unless the Lord comes first, there will come a new year into which we will not enter-- because our earthly lives will be no more.
That is true for us all.  No matter how great or important or influential or loved we are--the Bible says:  ALL men are like grass”.  Yes, there are accomplishments and there are successes while we live–there are joys and victories. 
The bible says about these high points:  “their GLORY is like the flowers of the field.”  There ARE wonderful things that we can accomplish that enrich and beautify the lives of others around us--but just for a time.
I think about the wild-flowers of the hill country:  glorious, vibrant, bursting with more colors than the rainbow each spring.  It is a joy and delight to see each new variety as they flower and beautify the countryside. 
And yet within just a two or three week period, they are gone again–those individual flowers never to be seen again on this earth.  So it will be for our lives—and so it will be for all tht we have accomplished. 
The Bible says that:  “the grass withers and the flowers fall.”  We must come to that hard realization (as uncomfortable as it is!), that our earthly lives as we know them now will not endure if we are to number our days aright so that we can apply our hearts to what truly matters and what will endure past this life–and that is God and his Word. 
The Bible says:  “The Word of the Lord remains forever.”  In contrast to our fleeting, transitory lives, the Lord and his Word endure forever. 
In the beginning, God spoke this world into existence by the power of the eternal Word, and by that same eternal Word the heavens and the earth are preserved—right up until he lifts his voice and this world will be no more.
Countless generations have come and gone.  Billions of people have lived and died.  Empires have risen and fallen.  But the Word of God has endured through it all and will endure forever.
During the Christmas season we learn that, the Word of God which was in the beginning, through whom all things were created, is the second person of the Holy Trinity who took on human flesh and became man–the Incarnate Word of God.  The bible says that:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” 
Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, spoke the word of God throughout his earthly ministry, calling people to repent and put their trust in him.  And from the rough cross of Calvary, he spoke the most important words the world has ever heard:  Father forgive them” and “It is finished”.
Jesus Christ is the final Word of God to all of humanity.  On Christmas morning we heard that, in many and various ways God spoke to his people of old but now in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”.  God has spoken words of forgiveness and peace and reconciliation and new life that has no end in His Son Jesus.
It is appropriate that we remember and take note of the passing of time.  But on this New Year’s Eve it is even more important for us to remember that just because our life on this earth doesn’t endure forever, that doesn’t mean that we won’t live forever–because through faith in the Risen Christ–we will.  The Bible assures us that we
“…have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, the living and abiding Word of God.” 
Each and every person born of human parents, dies–it is inescapable.  Adam’s sin has cursed every one of his children.  The bible says that, “sin entered the world through one man and death through sin and in this way death came to all men.”  Not one of us–young or old, rich or poor, male or female–is immune from the deadly effects of Adam’s sin.  We will die.
Because of this, if we are to live beyond this life, if our lives are to be more than a mist that is gone with the rising of the sun or grass that is cut down from one day to the next, we must be born again.  Jesus said:
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.  No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh give birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to the Spirit.” 
The Good News for us tonight (we who stare into the grim realities of the passing of time) is that we have been born again of an imperishable seed–a seed that cannot die–and that is the Word of God.
That Word of promise, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, has been spoken to us in Word and Sacrament—at the font and pulpit and altar.
It is this Word of Good News that has been preached in Christian churches week after week since the time of the apostles that–that has been given with the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion–that gives new life again and again–a life that has no end.
And because this is who we are, born again believers through Spirit-worked faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we approach the new year with confidence and joy–knowing that each day is a day to live for God’s glory until that day we enter into his glory. 
Because this is who we are, we have a different set of priorities and goals and resolutions for the new year, and for the rest of our life, than the sinful world around us.  The Bible says that:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.
Let the world around us resolve to:  lose weight–to get the upper hand on their finances– to get organized.  Let our resolve as the people of God be to love one another more and more–to obey God’s Word-- and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.
Countless millions around us at this very moment lives in fear and dread at the passing of time.  They attempt to cover that fear with a foolish facade of substance abuse and sensuality, but make no mistake about it, it is always there–this fear and dread at the passing of time.
 For us who are born again into a living faith in Christ, that fear has been removed.  We don’t have to worry about what the future holds because we know who holds the future.  We don’t have to worry about getting ahead, about having more this new year than last year, about achieving greater and greater heights in our career.
Instead, our lives as God’s people are focused on things eternal: caring for one another in loving ways–submitting our lives in obedience to God’s direction–and drawing ever closer to the One with whom we will spend eternity.  God grant us this life in the year to come and eternal life in the end!  Amen.

To Fulfill What Was Spoken by the Prophets

Friday, December 27, 2019

To Fulfill What Was Spoken by the Prophets

Matthew 2:13-23 Life doesn’t always work out as we had planned.  I know that’s not exactly a news flash--but still, we’re shocked when the course of our life takes a turn that we never planned for and never expected.  We suffer under the illusion that life-changing, even life-shattering events always happen to someone else.  But they don’t–they happen to us too--and the entire course of our life is changed.  
            A young wife and mother is unexpectedly left with small children to raise when her husband dies.  Chronic illness changes the plans of a couple who have waited their entire life for their golden years.  Our adult children make decisions that we could have never foreseen—decisions that change the future that we had planned. 
As we travel through this world on our way to our heavenly home--events big and small change the direction of our lives-- and oftentimes, we are forced to go down roads not of our own choosing.  Instead of the straight and easy road that we want–we find ourselves traveling a path of suffering and hardship.
That is the way it was for the Holy Family who were also forced to go home another way–a way not of their own choosing—and yet a way of God’s guiding.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him….This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son.  
            Life for Mary and Joseph started out hard and just got harder.  At the beginning of their lives together there were all those painful questions and difficult events surrounding Mary’s pregnancy.  Then they were forced to travel to Bethlehem in the late stages of her pregnancy.  Then she had to deliver her first-born in a stable.  And now this flight into Egypt–away from all that was familiar and comfortable. 
Joseph must have thought to himself:  “What else can go wrong”?  But there was much more hardship still to come for the Holy Family.
            The king who ruled Judea at that time was a man by the name of Herod–a wicked king by even ancient standards.  Herod heard of the birth of the new born king of the Jews from the Magi and was determined to kill this rival just as he had murdered his own sons and wives who got in the way of his ambition.  Nothing would stand in his way this time--not even the death of every male child around Bethlehem two years old or younger.
            Not only did it seem that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were at the mercy of one of the most powerful, evil men of their day, we learn from the book of Revelation that Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents was not just the action of an evil king, but the plan of Satan to destroy the Messiah while he still a helpless child.  Powerful, evil forces were allied against the Holy Family.
            And while Mary and Joseph could not have known the cosmic dimensions to all these events–their loving heavenly Father did-- and his guiding hand was upon their lives.  He had other plans for them–plans to bless and prosper them.  He had prepared a way home for them that was even better than what they would have chosen for themselves.
            They were not at the mercy of terrible forces beyond their control at all.  Instead, they were safe and secure in the hands of their loving heavenly Father who was guiding their lives and ordering history for their good—and for our salvation.
            God had already seen these events before the beginning of time and made plans to accomplish his good and loving will in their lives.  Everything that happened to them—even the painful and unexpected—worked together according to God’s plan for their good and for our salvation.  The Bible says:
 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:  "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation”…But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,   saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel…And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene."
Centuries before Jesus’ birth, God had promised through the prophet Hosea that he would call his Son out of Egypt and so he led the Holy Family to safety in that land.
And then, when Archelaus (Ar-ka-lay-us) was ruling in Judea, God had already planned that they would find safe refuge in Nazareth so that his Son would be called a Nazerene—just as had been prophesied, fulfilling his promise.
            God took the evil that surrounded the Holy Family and worked it to their good.  In every situation and moment, he directed the events and circumstances of their lives by his guiding hand so that they would be a blessing to them and accomplish our salvation. 
Of course, God could have easily have prevented the whole situation.  He could have changed the course of history so that Herod was never king–he could have directed the wise man so they never met up with Herod–he could have had his Son be born in a different time and place.  So many different paths the Lord could have taken. 
When we look at that situation it might seem as if we could have done the whole thing a lot better.  But the Bible says that,
“When the fullness of time had come (in other words:  at just the right time and in just the right way) 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.” 
God’s timing and God’s plan were perfect in the life of the Holy Family—not only for their sake-- but for our salvation.
An important part of God’s plan to save us was for his Son to succeed in every place where man, and especially ancient Israel, had failed.  Though the Israelites were led out of Egypt by the might of the out-stretched arm of the living God, through their disobedience and faithlessness, they failed to enter into the Promised Land. 
            But God’s Son would not fail.  He too would be called out of Egypt by God’s guiding hand, but where his people had sinned, he, by perfect obedience and faithfulness to his heavenly Father, would lead his people to the Promised Land. 
Led by Jesus, we are on the way home to heaven at this very moment.  On our way home, there can be detours–changes in our travel plans for us too.  I know that we would all very much prefer the smoothest, most direct way to our heavenly home with no bumps or roadblocks along the way.  But life doesn’t work out that way.
            As those who follow Jesus Christ as his disciples, we must not think that we will receive better treatment than our Lord received.  Just as the Christ child went home another way that was much more difficult, so will we who follow in his steps.
            Like the Holy Family, we too are affected by the broken sinful world around us–there are events and people and circumstances beyond our control and not to our liking. 
The devil who prowls this world like a roaring lion looking for those he can devour just as he once tried to devour the infant Jesus.  We struggle to live in a world broken by sin–experiencing fires and famines and disease.  Our own sinful flesh leads us astray.  But just as God did not just zap Herod on the spot, so God does not eliminate every evil and hardship in our path.
            In the journey of the Holy Family, we see that just because we suffer hardships or setbacks, it does not means that God is angry with us or punishing us for some sin.  God punished Jesus once for all on the cross—in our place-- for our sins. 
The hardships we endure and the plans that go awry are simply a part of the life of a child of God who lives in a broken world-- just as they were for the sinless Christ Child.  But just like him-- we are always safe in the guiding hands of our loving heavenly Father who fashions and shapes hardship and suffering for our eternal good.
            When you have setbacks and detours in life I want you to remember that God sent the Holy Family home another way-- not to punish them, but to help them and protect them.  In the same way, God’s guiding hand rests upon all of those who are his children by faith in Jesus.  And so I ask you ere this morning:
            Has your life taken an unexpected detour?  Is it not going according to your plan?  Do you find yourself on a road of suffering, sacrifice, and trial?  Do you feel as if you are traveling down a deserted highway?  You are not alone.  God has not abandoned you and you can be confident that he will bring you home.
            In fact, all of God’s faithful people have gone home in ways that they never expected–in ways that they never would have chosen for themselves.  We cannot arrive at our heavenly home by always following the way of ease, safety, and comfort.  
The Christian life involves fleeing evil, enduring hardship, and making sacrifices.  That’s the way it is for the Holy Family and that is the way it is for all those who follow Jesus in a world broken by sin and death and held captive by the power of Satan. 
            But you are not alone on this earthly journey.  God goes with you and God is in control.  God led the Holy Family home another way to protect, help, and save them.  He did it so that his perfect plan of salvation would be accomplished and his name would be glorified.  May God’s guiding hand lead us home for the same reasons!  Amen.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

God Has Spoken to Us by His Son!

God Has Spoken to Us by His Son!

Hebrews 1:1-12 If we had been there that first Christmas morning in Bethlehem we would have seen a young family like many others:  an exhausted but happy new mother with her husband and their newborn baby in a humble dwelling.  In and of itself—that scene is nothing at all remarkable—certainly nothing miraculous.  It was repeated thousand times over that same day in the ancient world. 
But what we see with our eyes does not tell anything close to the whole story—for the one who lies in a manger-- is God—the same God who is everlasting to everlasting—the same God who upholds the creations that was brought into being through him--the Almighty One, clothed in the flesh of a human baby. 
That story must be revealed to us from above—and not only must it be revealed to us—but God the Holy Spirit must do his sanctifying work in our hearts-- so that we might believe it and come to the manger in faith and worship Immanuel—the God who is with us in baby Jesus.  The Bible says that his story is revealed this way:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,
            From almost the very beginning of time, God had been speaking through the prophets and telling the story of the coming One who would make things right between God and man. 
            Moses promised that he would be the “seed of a woman”.  Micah spoke of Bethlehem, the place of his birth.  David promised that he would be both a priest and a king like Melchizidek.  Hosea spoke of the years he would spend in Egypt.  Jeremiah prophesied the death of the Holy Innocents at Herod’s hands.  Zechariah spoke of his betrayal and the thirty pieces of silver.  Isaiah foretold his virgin mother and his suffering and death and resurrection. 
            All of the prophets promised that the Messiah would be a greater prophet than Moses—that he would be an everlasting King—that he would be a priest forever, making intercession for his people so that they might be reconciled to God. 
            It was the most natural thing in the world then, that among his people-- collectively and individually-- a mental picture would be drawn of this one who was the ancient of days and conquering king and righteous judge—mighty and powerful and strong to save.
            And then one night two thousand years, the mighty One promised by the prophets—appeared—as a baby—a newborn.  Then and now, God’s appearance in human flesh cannot be discerned by sight—but has to be revealed by the Holy Spirit so that we might know him for who he is and worship him as God.  The Bible says that:
In these last days God has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
            Oftentimes you will hear Christians say about our Lord’s earthly life—“Oh if only I had been there!”  Even one of our Christmas hymns, “Now Sing Ye, Now Rejoice” picks up in this idea in the last stanza:  “Oh, if we were there!”  The idea behind these expressions that if I had seen it all with my own eyes—then my faith would be greater—then I wouldn’t struggle with doubts.  But I’ve always wondered if that is true-- and I’m not convinced it is.
            Looking at his peasant mother and her husband--gazing around at the humble place of his birth--looking into Jesus’ rough crib—would we have recognized that baby to be God’s Son and heir of all things—would we have known him to be the One who was from the beginning, the One through whom all things were created and who upholds all things?  Would we have perceived the glory of God and the exact imprint of God’s nature in his Jesus’ little face? 
            No, the truth of this baby’s identity is so marvelous, so wonderful, so glorious, so far above human comprehension-- that it must be revealed and made known to us by God.  And that is exactly what happened at our Lord’s birth as the heavens were opened and the angels proclaimed the birth of the Savior so that all might know who he is and what he came to do.  The Bible says of his person and work that:
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.  For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”?  Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”?  And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.”   
            From the moment that John the Baptist and Jesus were conceived-- to the night of our Lord’s birth-- to the day that Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt--the heavenly angels were on the scene to make sure that everyone knew just exactly what all these miraculous events meant.  They tell us that:
The conception of John the Baptist was not just a physical miracle-- but the fulfillment of a prophecy of the Messiah’s forerunner—the conception of Jesus within the womb of the Blessed Virgin was not just a biological oddity--but God himself taking on human flesh to save the world from sin—shedding his blood on the cross to purify the world by washing our sins away.
We must never forget that—that Jesus came to make purification for sins-- for his birth was not an end unto itself—but finds it ultimate meaning in the cross and empty tomb-- and the reconciliation that he accomplished there between sinful mankind and a holy God.
It is for the sake of his atoning work that the heavenly Father has seated him at his right hand and exalted him above all things in heaven and on earth—worshiped by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven for who he is as God’s Son and what he has done as the Redeemer of the world. 
Seated at God’s right hand—the One born in humility--rules the world for the sake of his people.  The Bible’s says that his throne: 
…is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.  You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 
            Too often on Christmas Day, the emphasis--even in the church—is on the sentimental and the sweet—and it is a tender scene that we see in our Lord’s birth.  But the Holy Spirit reveals so much more—that the little baby who lies in a humble manger is a king—and not just any king—but the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  The wise men recognized this and worshiped him in faith—even Herod recognized it but tried to destroy him in fear.  And those two poles of fear and faith are still the reaction of the world to his birth. 
Those who confess him as their Lord and Savior-- love him, and recognize his authority over their lives, and desire to please him in all that they say and do by living lives that are righteous in his sight.  His word-- is the final word-- in their lives-- for by the power of the Holy Spirit they recognize him as their king and desire to serve him with their whole lives.
            But there are many, many more who refuse to recognize him for who he truly is—God in flesh, their Savior and Lord and rightful King-- and so they reject his will for their lives and distort or disregard his Word when it rebukes their sins. 
And ultimately they reject him because they know that he is a righteous king who hates sin and has never changed his mind about what is right and what it wrong—for the tiny baby who entered into human history at a particular moment in time is also the eternal God who does not change.  The bible says of him:
“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed.  But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”
            Over the days and weeks and months and years after the birth of our Lord, little Jesus began to change—as all babies do.  He learned to sit up and walk and talk.  He learned to read and the skills of a carpenter in Joseph’s shop.  But the God hidden within his human flesh did not change.  
From the moment of his conception within the womb of his blessed mother, Jesus was the God who laid the foundations of the earth and made the heavens above.  He is the God whose righteous standards have not changed or adapted with the times.  And he is the God who will still be there when time comes to an end.  He is our Savior and Lord who does not change in his love for us.
The great comfort for us on this Christmas morning is that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit has been done in our hearts.  God has rescued us from the dominion of sin and death in Holy baptism and granted us the gift of faith.  He has sustained and nourished that faith through his Word and Sacraments. 
And he invites us to gaze in faith at the Babe of Bethlehem and know him to be Ancient of Days who loves us with an everlasting love—to rejoice in the Good News that when our years come to an end-- and finally when time itself comes to an end—that he will still be the same everlasting God of love who was born on this day.  Amen.

The Grace of God has Appeared!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Grace of God Has Appeared!

Titus 2:11-14 Depending on your family’s tradition, either tonight or first thing in the morning there will come that eagerly anticipated moment when the presents that have been hidden underneath wrapping and bows-- will finally be opened.  The gifts that have just about driven the kids crazy with curiosity and excitement and wonder over the last month, will finally be in their hands-- and if you’re lucky, the “new” will last long enough for you to take a nap without being awakened by those words that we dread to hear on the Christmas break: “We’re bored”.
It’s a rare parent or grandparent who can give a gift to a child that holds their interest for as long as they’ve wondered what’s under the wrapping.  The joy and excitement of those few moments of opening Christmas presents doesn’t last for long–and that’s not just true for the little kids–it happens for us big kids too.
There is so much to do and look forward to at Christmas and then when it’s here it passes all too quickly and often times it doesn’t match up with how we’ve built it up in our minds.  But on this holy night, our gracious Heavenly Father gives a gift that will not disappoint us–that will not wear out or fade away–our gracious God gives us the gift of his own dearly loved Son–and that gift of a Son will continue to give us the blessings of salvation, new life, and hope throughout this new year and into eternity.
The Bible says that:  “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men...”  Our heavenly Father is a God who loves to give gifts to his children–that is what that word “grace” means–a “gift”–and that we have a gracious God means that he is a gift-giving God.

We see those gifts all around this Christmas season.  Precious gifts of home and family–food and fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.  But the greatest gift of all–the gift that gives meaning and purpose and lasting value to all the others is the gift of God’s own Son.
The love of God for you and for me (despite our sins and failures) took on human flesh in human history on this night nearly two thousand years ago.  The gift of God that surpasses all other gifts appeared for all to see as a new born baby.
We must always hold this truth before our eyes because there is so much to distract us at this time of year from what is truly important and meaningful and lasting.  It is so easy for us to get side-tracked by the things of this world that will never really satisfy us.  It is so easy for us to be disappointed at Christmas if we follow the ways and thinking of the world.
But the gift of the Christ child will never disappoint us for he comes to us bringing salvation.  The Bible says that, “Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness...”  The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ is portrayed in art and music and literature as something soft and sweet and gentle and that’s fine and good and right. 
But we must never forget that in the background of that tender stands a cross where this same baby, then a man, would die a horrible death to set us free from Satan’s rule. 

Into a wold broken by sin–filled with death and despair-- came a tiny newborn baby with a life-saving, life-giving purpose–to save us from our sins.  The One who was given in love by the Father, gave himself in love into death on the cross where his shed blood was poured out as the ransom price to free us from slavery to sin and death.
The blessings of this perfect, once for all sacrifice did not end the day of his birth or the day of his death–they have kept on giving God’s grace throughout the centuries down to this very moment--again and again in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the words of Absolution, in the true body and blood of Christ given in the Eucharist—to strengthen our faith and sustain our faith until we enter our heavenly home.  Until that glad and glorious day, the gift of a Son not only gives us salvation—but also gives us a new, changed life.  The Bible says that God’s gracious gift of Jesus:
“Teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age–to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
All of us to love to open presents but as we get older we also come to realize that there is at least as much joy in giving gifts as there is in getting them.  We’re so pleased and thankful when a gift that we have chosen with care and consideration brings joy to a loved one’s life.  And so our Christmas celebrations involve not only getting gifts, but also giving gifts.  So it is with our relationship with God.

Each Christmas season we celebrate once again the glorious good news that he has given us the most precious gift of all in a Son but we also need to remember that we a have remarkable, wonderful opportunity to give him a gift as well, and that is the gift of our lives, given as living sacrifices for the sake of those around us. 
That is God’s purpose in saving us by his son, not that we would be unwilling servants who offer him grudging obedience and service, but that we would be his sons and daughters who freely, gladly, joyously give him the gifts of our loving obedience in service to others.
The gift of faith in Jesus Christ given to us by the Holy Spirit gives us the power to say “no” to sin–the power to live in the world but not be of the world–the power to live a life like God’s own Son, eager to do the Father’s will.
Just think about what a wonderful gift this is, not only to God, but to the world around us! How many countless millions of people are fed and clothed and sheltered and educated around the world on a given day by those who are sons and daughters of the new born king–who have learned to love others because of God’s love to us in a Son.
Think what a blessing it is for our nation that there are Christians who desire to do only what is right in God’s and take courageous stands against those who would misuse the weakest among us through abortion and euthanasia.

Think what a blessing it is for those closest to us as we give the self-sacrificing love of Christ to our spouses and children and neighbors.  Every time an act of mercy and love and care is done in this world in the name of Jesus Christ, the gracious gift of God’s love given at Bethlehem continues to be given again and again.
This world in which we live is a better place because those who have been given the greatest gift of all in a newborn babe, desire to give a gift of their love and obedience back to their heavenly Father.
And as wonderful as it is to know and love God and others here in time, we also know the best news of all: that this love and the new life that comes from it is eternal.
The gifts we give our kids at Christmas work great for a while.  But sooner or later they wear out or break and are cast aside. That is simply a fact of life living in this broken and dying world.  But the gift that God gives at Christmas will never grow old, wear out, or fade away.
The Bible says that:  “We wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  From the promise of the seed of the woman who would crush Satan’s head that God made to Adam and Eve in the garden, every Israelite woman hoped that her child would be the promised One–right up until this night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, when as the old carol says, “the hopes and fears of all the years were met in Thee tonight”. 
What the people of God had hoped for thousands of years became a reality in the birth of baby Jesus through the Blessed Virgin Mary.  His birth continues to be the source of hope for his people today—a sure confidence in the gracious God who keeps his promises.

And because Jesus came as a helpless baby in perfect fulfillment of God’s promises, we know that he will come again as a mighty victorious king–just like God promises.  It is that promise of God that fills our lives with hope.
We know that our Lord’s return in glory will mean the end of Satan’s reign in this world–we know that the sorrow and sickness, death and despair that we still see all around us will be brought to an end never to trouble the people of God again. And because we have this hope, our lives are filled with joy and peace and confidence as we face the future-- because we know the One who holds the future in his mighty, nail-scarred hands.
And so we get up in the morning and go to bed at night in the warm glow of that hope no matter what troubles and hardships we are called upon to endure for a time.  In darkness and disappointment we are not bowed and broken because we know that this life is not all there is–that there is a better day to come.
Our joy and peace and blessedness this Christmas-time is not based upon what presents await us under the tree when go home tonight and get up in the morning.  We have already received the greatest gift that has ever been given and that is the gift of a Son.  Through that one gracious gift we have forgiveness for our sins–a new, holy, life like his, and the sure hope of a glorious eternity in his presence.
May that one gift of the Christ-child given to you and yours keep on giving these blessings of God throughout this new year and even forever more.  Amen.

Immanuel Has Come!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Be Patient!

James 5:7-11 Advent, this season before Christmas, is a waiting time.  All of us, and especially our children, are counting down the days to Christmas.  And because Christmas is still about a week away, there is a lot of waiting to be done.  We wait in line at the store.  We wait for our turn to get into the mall.  We wait for our family and friends from out of town to arrive. 
None of us likes to wait very much.  We hope and pray that the people in line in front of us have picked up an item with a price tag.  We’re outraged when someone cuts in front of us in the line of cars turning into Walmart or HEB.  We beg and plead with mom and dad to open just one present before Christmas.  
We want to be first—first in line, first to check out, first to open presents.  But what is required in these days is patience.  Patience with others in line before us.  Patience with Mom and Dad’s plan to open presents after church on Christmas morning.  Patience as we count down the days to Christmas.
Advent, because it comes before Christmas, is a waiting time in our culture but more importantly Advent is a waiting spiritually.  The focus in Advent is not so much Christmas but the day of our Lord’s return in glory and the blessings he will bring.  That is what Advent looks forward to but still we have to wait for that too.
We have to wait for the end of death.  We have to wait for the judgment of evil.  We have to wait for a new creation.  And we don’t like to wait for those blessings any more than we do Christmas. 
We don’t want to say goodbye to loved ones or face our own passing.  We’re grieved that evil seems to flourish.  We know that in the year to come many people will be burdened and broken by the forces of nature hurricanes and tornadoes and floods. 
We’re ready for things to be different-- but what we need is patience to wait for that day.  That is what we hear tonight in God’s Word, a call for patience as we wait for the Lord.  The Bible says:  Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.
None of us are patient by nature because we are sinful by nature and our impatience reveals the truth about the fundamental self-centeredness that all of us are born with.  We want—not only what we want—but when we want it.  Our prayer life is filled with all our wants but also the timetable we expect God to adhere to. 
But God has not only a will for our lives—he has his own time table to accomplish that will.  He will destroy death.  He will wipe every tear from our eye.  He will bless us with every blessing.  But those blessings will be accomplished on his own time table—many of them when Jesus comes again.
The word that is used there for “coming of the Lord’ is the word:  Parousia—and it is always used to describe Christ’s return as King and Judge. 
The point is this:  many of the things that we hope for and yearn for in our lives of faith (an end to our sinful flesh and the destruction of evil and the end of the grave) are things we will have to wait for—blessings that will come only when our Lord returns.  And that requires patience.  The Bible says:
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also, be patient.
            Farmers can do a lot to make for a successful, abundant harvest.  They can plant, and cultivate, and fertilize.  They can spray weeds and choose the right seeds.  But there are some things that they simply cannot do:  they cannot cause the rain to fall or the sun to shine.  These are things that only the Creator can do and the farmer knows that and simply has to wait.
So it is for us in this waiting time before our Lord returns.  These words about patient farmers were penned by James, Jesus’ brother-- but they were inspired by the Holy Spirit and there is a reason why the Spirit chose this example. 
Not only was it familiar to the people of that day who lived in an agrarian society, it perfectly describes what is actually going on as we wait for our Lord’s return:  the living water of the Spirit is falling upon the earth and a harvest is being gathered in. 
We long for and are impatient for the blessings of the Lord’s return-- but the Lord’s saving will extends beyond us and he wants every possible person to be saved. 
And so patience is not only a virtue required of us and a spiritual gift given us, it is an attribute of our heavenly Father.  The Bible says that:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
We wonder why the Lord delays—thinking only of ourselves and what we want—but God lovingly looks at a world full of people who need his blessings just as much as we do and he is at work right now to bring them to himself.
This helps us to be patient as we wait for the blessings of the Last Day because we know that God is busily accomplishing his saving will so that every possible person can be saved and our Lord’s patient love changes our attitude towards those around us.  The Bible says:
Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
            Much of the time that we spend impatiently waiting, we are stewing about it on the inside.  But there are times when that impatience it spills out onto others:  the checker at Walmart, the car in front of us, our kids or spouse.  God wants us to remember that Jesus can come again at any time and indeed will come at a time when we do not expect him.
The question is this:  Do we want to face the Judge while we are berating the girl at Walmart or yelling at our kids or making a rude gesture to the driver ahead of us?  Of course not!  Do we want Jesus to be impatient with us when we fail him again and again?  No! 
And so rather than being impatient with others during this waiting time we can use this same time to establish our hearts.  The words that are used there mean to strengthen our hearts and learn to stand firm. 
I used to jokingly say that I never prayed for patience because what the Lord gives instead are opportunities to practice patience and that is exactly what I do not want. 
But I do need the practice and you do too.  We are not yet the people that we ought to be and so rather than being impatient with those around us we can consider this waiting time as a day of grace to become better Christians like the faithful who have come before.  The Bible says:
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job,
            I know that this will come as a surprise to all of you but patience does not come easily or naturally to me.  It is a constant struggle and an ongoing source of frustration and spiritual failure and I almost despair of making progress in this part of my faith.
But progress is possible—for me and for you.  The faithful saints of old and many faithful saints of our own day learned patience.  They were born with the same fallen flesh as we have.  They had the same or even greater challenges that we face.  The prophets saw many if not most of their people reject the Lord.  Job lost every earthly blessing.  And yet they remained steadfast and patient in waiting times. 
Patience is not an impossibility or a virtue that others have or a spiritual gift that I have not been given.  All of us can gain and grow in patience.  The Bible says: you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.  Here then is the secret to patience:  a living faith in the Lord who is compassionate and merciful.
Jesus didn’t keep our sins and failures at arm’s length.  He looked upon our lives broken by sin—including that selfish sin of impatience—and was moved with love at our sad condition and had compassion on us and in mercy carried our sin burden to the cross. 
  For all of those times we have been impatient, for all of the times we have lost our temper with others, for all those times we have demanded God’s blessings on our own time table—Christ laid down his life on the cross and paid the penalty for those sins with his own blood.
And then he rose again to give us the power to live a life like his.  A life that puts others first.  A life that bears the burdens of others.  A life that trusts God’s will AND God’s timing.  He is the living source of the power to live a life like his. 
The Bible says:  Consider Jesus who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
During these waiting times—whether it is waiting in line at the store or counting down the days to Christmas or waiting for the blessings that will be ours at our Lord’s return, look to Jesus Christ in faith; hear his voice in the Word; learn from the life lessons of the saints; and rejoice that the Lord’s patience means the salvation of others and an opportunity to grow in your own faith.  Amen.

Have Hope!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Have Hope!

Romans 15:4-13 We Christians ought to be people of hope.  As dark a day as was Good Friday, Easter Sunday changed everything.  Living on this side of the resurrection we know that darkness and death have no claim upon our lives. 
The Bible says that the one who began a good work in us WILL bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ and that all things work for the good of those who love God.  In other words, no matter what befalls us in life, no matter what we have to go through, the Lord who died and rose for us is at work in our lives and will bring us to himself.
We Christians ought to be people of hope.  And yet when we are caught up in some conflict with our fellow Christians, whether that is in our congregation or family or marriage, we have a tendency to believe that the dark cloud over our lives right now will never go away—and that robs us of hope. 
That is why the Lord speaks to us in his word today—so that we might have the encouragement we need to live as people of hope.  The Bible says that: 
Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
            I want to give you two word pictures that I hope will help you understand what the Bible is talking about when it comes to endurance and encouragement. 
First of all, picture a weight lifter holding a barbell above his head.  The weight is pressing down on him but he is determined to hold it up.  That is the meaning of the word endurance—the strength to bear up under pressure that weighs us down. 
Now think about a long trench full of soldiers in WWI.  Bullets are whizzing over head, bombs are raining down.  The soldiers are scared to death.  But there in the trenches with them, running up a down the lines, is an officer who is calling upon them to be brave and do their duty.  That is the picture behind the word encouragement. 
Endurance and encouragement are the spiritual resources that we need to live as people of hope—especially when there are disagreements and conflict between us and our fellow Christians in our marriage and family and congregation. 
We are bound to one another by a shared faith in Jesus-- but that doesn’t mean we are always going to agree with one another about every little thing.  There are going to be difficulties and disagreements that weigh down upon us like a barbell that we have to hold up.  We need to be encouraged to love one another even when there is conflict.
Endurance and encouragement are going to be needed so long as we are in this world and Paul says that we can count on God giving them to us.  They are spiritual gifts that come through hearing his Word so that we can grow in Christ-likeness and live in harmony with one another.  The Bible says:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus…
            The scriptures which give endurance and encouragement come from the God of endurance and encouragement.  The God who inspired the words of Scripture is the same God who empowers our life so that we can live in harmony with one another.
The word that Paul uses there for harmony means like-minded—in other words: we think about things the same way.  But isn’t that that the very problem so many Christians have with one another—that we don’t always see things the same way? 
That is why Paul adds those important words:  in accord with Christ Jesus.  In other words, it is not so much that we think about things the same way among ourselves-- but we make sure that we are thinking about things the same way as Jesus Christ.
The true measure of Christian harmony is not just that we get along with one another or put up with one another or grit our teeth and get along--there are plenty of marriage and families and congregations like that. 
What does matter in our life together as Christian people is that our harmony comes from being united by Jesus Christ—his word and will having the final say in all that we say and do. 
Where he has NOT spoken, then it is his love that is to be evident in our lives as each of us endeavors to put others ahead of ourselves—willingly laying aside our personal preferences for the good of our brothers and sisters.  The Bible says that we are to live in harmony with one another so that: together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  
When there is division and discord among Christians in marriages and families and congregations, what the world hears is not a united voice of praise to God or a common witness to the goodness of Jesus Christ--but what they hear instead are the complaints of one Christian against one another.  Griping and complaining does not serve to glorify God or extend the saving mission of Christ. 
Instead, we should follow the example of Jesus Christ and treat our fellow Christians as Christ treats them.  The Bible says:  Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  And so the question is:  how did Christ welcome us?  Just as we were—spots and wrinkles and blemishes.
He reached out to the woman caught in adultery- and ate dinner with Zacchaeus- and made a place for disciples who would fail him in his hour of need.
Our relationships with fellow Christians becomes Christ-like when there is a place in our midst for people who are different than us—people who have a different perspective from ours—people from a different place in society. 
If Christ has welcomed them into God’s family by faith- we are to welcome them and make a place for them in our lives.  This is why Christ came to earth—not only to reconcile us to God-- but to reconcile us to one another.  The Bible says that:
Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
When Adam and Eve sinned it not only wrecked their relationship with God-- it wrecked their relationship with one another-- and not only for them-- but for all their descendants down to the folks sitting in these pews this evening.  But Christ came to reconcile all people to himself and all people to one another. 
That reconciliation was a promise that God made first to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and then renewed again and again with his ancient people Israel.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Moses and David and the prophets-- all knew this promise of reconciliation-- and God kept his promise and sent his Son who was born of the Jews to save the world.
God’s faithfulness was proved beyond any doubt in his gift of a Son whom the Bible says become a servant of the circumcised—that is the Jews. 
Just think of the graciousness of God in that statement!  The people who abandoned the Lord—the people who in large measure stopped looking for the Messiah—were given the gift of a Savior—and not only for them-- but for the world.  The Bible says that Jesus also came:
in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name."  And again it is said, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people."  And again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him."  And again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope." 
            God the Father sent his Son into the world to show his faithfulness to his covenant promise to his covenant people, the Jews.  But from the very beginning, God intended to save all people. 
The messiah would come from the Jews but he would be for the world.  He was sent so that we too might glorify God—so that we too can rejoice in God’s salvation—so that we too can know his wise rule and live with him forever.  And so then…
What are our petty differences compared to our unity in the Lord who has always wanted to unite us into one body of his Son Jesus Christ?  What are our disagreements compared to the unity we have as fellow believers in Christ?!
The encouragement and endurance we receive from God through his Word is the power we need to get past differences that don’t matter and turn our eyes of faith to the future and the eternal life we will one day share with one another.  The Bible says:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
            Just as the God of endurance and encouragement gives endurance and encouragement to his people-- so this same God of hope gives hope to his people.  We don’t have to wonder or worry about what the future holds for us or for our fellow Christians in our marriages and families and congregation because the joy and peace we have right now as God’s children-- will also be ours in the future. 
The same Holy Spirit who has brought us to faith and made us a part of Christ’s body will continue his work among us, drawing us ever closer to one another so that we may, with one voice, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.