December 28, 2018- The Gift of Joy…or the Pursuit of Stuff? Isaiah 9:6-7, Isaiah 29:19

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For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:6-7 (ESV)

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on our own personal comfort, and therefore on the pursuit of stuff. Who wouldn’t want a lovely adjustable bed or an instant cosmetic fix for facial imperfections? Those who deal with late night insomnia and have a subscription to cable have no doubt been inundated with the endless procession of infomercials that extol the virtues of just about every product under the sun.  The late night infomercial announcers sing the praises of stuff you never knew existed, and stuff you never knew you needed….until now!  For example, why bend over to wash your feet when you can use:easy feet

The problem with the pursuit of stuff is that there is never enough stuff, or the right stuff.  Material things in and of themselves are morally neutral- God made the world and everything in it, and gave humanity stewardship of it. (Genesis 1:26-28) Stuff isn’t good or bad.  Our use of stuff can be considered good or evil, and as we are saints and sinners at the same time, our use of stuff is generally a mixed bag.  Sometimes we are good stewards of God’s gifts, and other times we are not. Our dilemma begins when we esteem the created thing more than the Creator.  We are all guilty of breaking the First Commandment.

The First Commandment:

You shall have no other gods.

What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. – Martin Luther, from the Small Catechism

None of us can claim to perfectly fear, love and trust God above all things. All of us fall short in this regard, whether it is by making idols of our relationships, or our wealth, or our position in the community, or by simply not believing that God is in charge of everything.

Yet Jesus came to set us free from our sins. While we were still sinners and lost, He broke the curse of Eden so we would not have to endure death and hell. Jesus came to this earth as a human, yet as God at the same time, to live the perfect life we cannot live and to be the perfect sacrifice we cannot be. In Him we are given true joy. We who are named, claimed and marked with the Cross of Christ forever, in our baptism, by the faith that He has given us, have been set free to live joyfully.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is generated internally. Happiness is fleeting and is largely dependent on our circumstances and our feelings. Joy is given- it comes from outside of ourselves. Joy is not dependent upon ourselves or our feelings. Joy is a gift of serenity and peace, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:19-23)  We are given joy in the Lord regardless of our circumstances, because in faith we trust that He is with us forever, and we share in eternal life with Him.

The Prince of Peace is with us.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, we are reminded that our salvation and our joy come from Christ alone. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this as Isaiah said.  God’s will be done.  His joy is given to us, from outside of us.  It is a gift, unearned, undeserved and freely given.

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah 29:19 (ESV)

God With Us, (Luke 2:8-20, John 3:16-17) Jesus, Herod and the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-18)

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And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:8-20 (ESV)

We all know and love the Christmas story. We marvel at the miracle of the Incarnation and can even imagine hearing the angels sing on that blessed night. The Light of God came down to earth. The birth of Jesus is good news indeed. It is wonderful for us to gather around in the light and the wonder of Jesus’ birth. We should celebrate and be glad that God has come to live and be with us. We are reminded of the timeless, sweet, saving Good News from the Gospel of John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”- John 3:16-17 (ESV)

If not for the miracle of Jesus’ birth, we would have no Savior. There would be no one qualified to be the one Sacrifice to save us from sin, death and hell. We would be left without hope and forever under the death curse of Adam and Eve.

There is another side to the liturgical season of Christmas that is not as popular with the culture around us, yet it is an integral part of the story.

Jesus entered into our world of suffering. The King of Glory, Jesus, entered into a world in which glory would be subdued, and sacrificed. He exchanged His sovereign crown for a crown of thorns. He became the cursed one to die on a tree, the One who bore our griefs, who carried our sorrows and was smitten by God and afflicted in our place. (Isaiah 53:1-5)  He took the punishment we earn and deserve.

In this world of not-yet, we have been baptized not only into the eternal life of Jesus, but also into a life of sacrifice and suffering in the here and now. Jesus Himself said that if we are in love with our lives here in this world we will lose our lives, but if we lose our life for Him we will gain it. (Matthew 16:25)   We are not promised an easy life here and now.  This is a temporary place.

In the liturgical season of Christmas- along with the joyful, blessed Incarnation- we also remember those who gave their lives, willingly or even unknowingly, for the sake of Christ.

Now when they (the wise men of the East) had departed, behold, 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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:13-18 (ESV)

The Slaughter of the Innocents is a particularly sad commemoration. Herod was so desperate to maintain his own earthly might- confusing the King of Kings for an earthly ruler- that he killed hundreds of baby boys so as to do away with any potential threats to his power.  God made a way to keep Jesus safe, just as He had provided for Moses to be pulled from the river Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter.  Herod had no way of knowing that he would die in a few short years himself.  So much for earthly power.

Yet in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, we can see the anguish of so many mothers over the loss of their baby boys, the senseless killing, and the unspeakable grief. We cannot help to acknowledge in this not-yet world that even the most blessed and joyful of events are tainted with our suffering and grief.

It is sobering that even in great joy, we are living the paradox. In this bittersweet world full of sin, we are soaked in death and despair and disappointment.  Yet in Christ we are baptized- soaked in His LIFE- so that no matter what weeping and sorrow and loss we face in this life can win out.  We know the end of the story.  Jesus wins, and so do we who trust in Him.

 

 

December 21, 2018- The Lion of Judah, a Refiner’s Fire, and God With Us- Malachi 3:1-5, John 1:1-18

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“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:1-5 (ESV)

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”)  For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. John 1:1-18 (ESV)

In C.S. Lewis’ wonderful story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy ask the Beavers if Aslan, the lion, the king, is “safe.”  Mr. Beaver replies to them:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” – C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

One of the names of Jesus in the Bible is: The Lion of Judah. There is no such thing as a safe lion, just as there is no such thing as a safe God. Jesus is God, and God is omnipotent, meaning He holds all power in the universe.

The prophet Malachi tells us of a terrible day of reckoning, when the Messiah will come to earth as a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap. We learn from Scripture that the world as we know it is going to be completely destroyed and completely remade (2 Peter 3:1-13.) This grand scale of destruction and rebuilding that Jesus will preside over on the End of Days may seem incongruent with our vision of Jesus as a fragile baby born to a peasant girl and laid in a feed trough- but Jesus is not a “safe” lion. Evil will, and must be, rooted out and destroyed. He is, however, merciful, gracious and good.

The above passage of judgment from the prophet Malachi is disturbing. Because all humans are naturally dead in trespasses and sins, in and of ourselves, we cannot escape the fire. We are all guilty of everything that Malachi names off- sorcery, adultery, bearing false witness, oppressing others and not fearing God. We deserve to be consumed by the fire. We deserve the full punishment and wrath of God. If the message from God stopped with Malachi’s warning, there would be no hope for any of us.

The good news is that God’s message does not stop with Malachi’s warning. That day of judgment is indeed coming, but the price has already been paid for those who belong to Christ. He has sacrificed Himself and poured out His blood on the Cross so that we do not have to endure the eternal flame. He transforms us and walks with us so that we can make our way through this world of “not yet.” In Him we have the confidence that no matter what trials we encounter along the way that we are citizens of His kingdom that has no end.

Jesus, God Himself, came into the world not displaying His terrible and limitless power, but as the Light, as a helpless child, a teacher, a healer. Jesus came to us as one of us, not just to be a teacher and a healer but ultimately to take the punishment we deserve, and to sacrifice Himself so that our sins would be wiped away in His blood.

A “safe” lion would not have the power to defeat the darkness.

We are celebrating the Light coming into the world- not a “safe” Lion, but Almighty God, powerful and good. A Light no darkness can overcome. In Jesus, we see God in the flesh, God with us.

December 16, 2018 -John the Baptist, Repentance and O, Come Emmanuel!

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In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.  People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

 

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV)

Repent. It’s not a word we like to hear.  It means we need to change our outlook, our opinions, our view of others.  It’s a word that says we not only need to identify our sins, but to confess to God and others that we fall short.  We’re not doing things correctly- too much we have done should have been left undone, and so much left undone that we should have done.  The apostle Paul shows us in Romans 7 that as long as we live in the “not yet” world, we will struggle with the dilemma of being both God’s saints and sinners who sin.  We can’t just straighten up and “fly right,” but we trust that Jesus has done for us what we are not capable of doing for ourselves.

Repentance is more than “I’m sorry I got caught,” or even a mia culpa. It is a deep desire to turn from our sins, a gift of the Holy Spirit that promises that in our baptism our sins are drowned and washed away from us every day.

John the Baptist points out that Abraham’s children are the children of the promise- the children who God has raised up in Christ.  John the Baptist points us to Christ, the one who was far greater than him.

In this season of Advent, we not only celebrate Jesus coming to us as God-with-us, we also look to His return to this earth.  The end of days as we know them and the re-creation of heaven and earth can and will occur at any time, but there is no cause for those who belong to Christ to fear.  Since we who trust Jesus know that we are baptized, named and claimed for Him and that He has won the victory over death, Satan, evil and hell, we look forward to that day.  The day of the Lord is near.  Repent and turn to Him.  He provides us with all we need, now and in the world to come.  O, come, o come, Emmanuel.

December 11, 2018- The Majestic Name of the Lord- Psalm 8

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Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.

Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

 Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8 (ESV)

Sometimes praising God is the furthest thing from our minds.  When we are in pain or stuck in sadness usually our first response is not to look up to God and know that He is there. Yet even when our lives seem dark, the Light of the world is never far from us.

It is good to praise our majestic God, God Who is above all the sadness and suffering of this world.

It is good to remember in this season that can be dark and depressing for some, that the Light of the world is with us.

The same God whose majesty is reflected in the heavens is the same God who chose to live among us, the same God who came to us as a humble child born to a peasant girl and laid in a manger.

The same God who is beyond time chose to endure a brutal death on a Roman cross to take the punishment for our sins and save us from eternal death.

The majesty of God is both beyond us, and intimately, always with us.

Take comfort this season.  The God of creation is always near.

 

 

December 4, 2018 By Faith, Jesus was Born of Mary-Matthew 1:18-25

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Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) (which means, God with us).

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV)

We share a common ground with Mary. Like her, we are saints.  Like her, we are sinners.  Like her, we have our life and being and our salvation in Jesus, our Savior. Mary is indeed blessed among women, because God chose her for a very special as well as a very daunting mission.  She is not immaculate, nor is she the co-redemptrix with God. She is a human being like us.  She is a human being through whom God worked.

By faith she received the gift of Jesus as not only her Savior, but also her firstborn son. By faith, Jesus, became fully human, as well as fully God. He shares His humanity with us.  The only difference is that Jesus alone of all humans is free from the curse of sin.

We learn from Scripture that we, like Mary and all of the saints who have gone before us, are saved by faith- not by what we do or even by who we are, but by faith in God.

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of countless generations. Mary acknowledges in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that in Christ the promise of Abraham is fulfilled.

God has a history of working in and through His people. He even chose to do His greatest work- the bodily incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus- through human flesh.

We have to wonder about the faith of Joseph as well. Certainly he may have faced accusations from the family or the community that either Mary or both of them had engaged in immoral behavior. It’s understandable that it would take an angel of God to convince him of what in every other situation would be a biological impossibility- a virgin carrying a child.  God made a way for him to believe, and worked in him the faith necessary for him to trust God and trust that Mary’s child was indeed the Son of God.

In Christ we are given the gift of faith. We are given the gift of God’s faith at work in and through the saints, like Mary, whose faith in Jesus was her righteousness.

God provided the lamb for Abraham, and God provides the Lamb for us. In Jesus we have God-with-us. We cannot come to faith in and of our own reason or power. God works great and wonderful gifts in and through the faith He gives us.

November 30, 2018 The Lord’s End-Times Timing, Promise and Hope – 2 Peter 3

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(Peter writes: )This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder,that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God,and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. 2 Peter 3 (ESV)

Eschatology (the study of end times) is not a major focus for Lutherans as a general rule.  Yet at the end of the church year we look with hope to what Jesus has promised us beyond this life.  He will return again.  He will remake the heavens and the earth.  There will be a day when the earthly kingdom is no more and we will live fully and completely in God’s heavenly kingdom.  The paradox of living in “now but not yet” will end.  Until that day we live in that promise that Jesus will return and establish that “not yet” kingdom.

This chapter is a bit frightening. Peter tells us that when Jesus returns the universe as we know it is going to be destroyed by fire and remade.  Nothing of this “now” world is going to be left. Then Peter tells us that in order to be part of the new creation, we need to be holy.  On the surface Peter’s warning sounds like an admonition for us to “straighten up and fly right.” However, if we are honest with ourselves we know that we are definitely not holy. We are definitely not capable, by our own strength or reason, to “straighten up and fly right” by our own power.

Peter is not telling us to put on the window dressing and go into full blown holier-than-thou Pharisee mode. He redirects us outside of ourselves, to count the patience of our Lord as salvation. True holiness and sanctification are to be found in Christ alone.  Rather than despair about how wicked and terrible we are, we only need to confess our sins to Jesus, cling to the Cross and know that He has already won our forgiveness and salvation.

Christians have always faced ridicule and persecution for believing in Christ. The Man of Sorrows isn’t all that popular among those who worship the gods of power or money or self.  One doesn’t have to look very far to find the scoffers and critics of Christian faith that Peter warns us about.  In the greater culture, believers are presented as being intolerant of others, or ignorant and uneducated because we stand for Christ and believe in the One True God.  We are scorned because we believe that truth is not a matter of opinion.

In some places Christians are put in jail or even killed for the sake of Jesus. The opponents of Jesus (Satan the adversary, our own sinful selves, and those who have not been transformed by the Gospel) fight hard to convince us to surrender to the enchantments of the world.  We are all tempted by the invitation to hedonism, to serve the god of self rather than to take up the Cross of Christ.  We sin constantly, every day.  Even so, the Good News is we belong to Christ.  We can’t make ourselves good or earn our way in.  We are only justified through the grace of God, by faith in Christ.  Through the water and the Word in our baptism, and through the hearing of the Gospel, He has named us, claimed us, and is coming back for us no matter what misery or what valleys of shadow we walk through in this world.  He brings us to repentance, forgives our sins, and delivers us from sin, death and evil.

We do not know the day or the hour of Jesus’ return, but He is coming back. It might be tomorrow or thousands of years from now. We might face Him at any time at the hour of our death.  Even so, our faith- which is a gift from God- is counted to us as righteousness. We can look forward to Jesus’ return and the remaking of the world with hope and confidence.  We know the world is getting crazier and scarier as time goes on, but we are not alone.  Our hope is in Jesus.