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

300px-Adoration_of_the_sheperds_-_Matthias_Stomer

 

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.

 

 

January 25, 2018- Hezekiah Prays With Shameless Audacity- 2 Kings 20:1-6, Romans 3:19-26

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In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”

 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.’” 2 Kings 20:1-6 (NIV)

Hezekiah was one of the few “good Kings” of Judah – kings who tried to live as God wanted them to.  When he was faced with his own mortality, Hezekiah was not afraid to pray with shameless audacity.

One can argue that today we would not want to bargain with God based upon our own merit or perceived “goodness” because we really don’t have any. Hezekiah really only had the argument that he was “good,” because God gave him the heart to live God’s way. Even before Jesus walked the earth, God’s grace was still in action for Hezekiah, who came to God in faith, prayed with shameless audacity and had his prayer answered in a most unexpected and generous way.  He believed God is who He claims to be.

We can only protest our case with God on the merit of Jesus, who became our righteousness. Because of Jesus, we too can pray with shameless audacity- as Jesus tells us to do.

So what does that mean? The apostle Paul explains:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:19-26 (NIV)

The apostle Paul demonstrates an important concept in Lutheran theology here too: the juxtaposition of Law and Gospel. The Law shows us our sin and our desperate need for Jesus.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus has justified us by His perfect sacrifice and His limitless grace.  We need to hear both the Law and the Gospel.  Without the condemnation of the Law, how do we know and appreciate our desperate need for Jesus?

No, we are not good. God doesn’t hear our prayers because we are good.  He hears our prayers for Jesus’ sake. We are sinners and lawbreakers, every one.  But we are also saints, because we cling to Jesus and believe He is Who He claims to be.  In His name and by His merit, we can pray as Jesus tells us to, with shameless audacity.  Anything and everything is fair game for prayer.  God already knows our hearts.  Prayer that comes from believing Jesus brings us closer to the heart of God.

December 15, 2017- Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy – Psalm 126

joy reaping

 

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations,  “The Lord has done great things for them.”

 The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. – Psalm 126 (NRSV)

Not long after my maternal grandfather died, my mother and I went through the necessary task of going through his possessions. Mom donated most of his clothing and household items to St. Vincent DePaul and other charities, but she kept some things. It was especially difficult looking through all the things my grandmother had sewn and embroidered for him.

I had the privilege in all these things of finding my grandmother’s Bible. She had died suddenly fifteen years before my grandfather, and her death was a great sorrow for him. It seemed as if he was a broken man after my grandmother passed. They were a very close and loving couple and her absence was a sore grief to him.

In the front of her Bible I found a letter she had written to my grandfather. At the beginning of the letter she had written out Psalm 126, as this particular Psalm was an encouragement to them.  Knowing that she had such a powerful faith in God and His provision has been a deep encouragement for me as well.

There were so many circumstances in both of their lives in which I am sure they had to sow in tears. I know that my grandfather lived in sorrow for the fifteen years after my grandmother’s death. It’s part of the human condition.  Yet my grandparents still joined in that hope that God will take our sowing in tears and turn it in to reaping in joy.

Our world is definitely a place in which there is a great deal of sowing in tears. Every day we see sorrowful things on the news, all over the Internet, and all around us- poverty of material things, poverty of spirit, violence, natural disasters, drug addiction, political strife, and the list goes on.

The Psalmist speaks of the joy to come, the joy that we can anticipate, but don’t experience fully here in the world of not-yet.

As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are painfully aware of the tearful sowing and toil that we endure in this world. But we are encouraged by knowing that sowing in tears will be followed by reaping in joy.

May 17, 2017-The King of Glory and the Suffering Servant- Luke 24:25-27, Isaiah 53:1-5

deus ex machina

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. Luke 24:25-27 (NRSV)

Who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:1-5 (NIV)

The disciples were disappointed – and perhaps kept themselves from seeing Jesus because the real Jesus was so much different than their expectations of Jesus. They were looking for a warrior king, but they got someone who submitted to a humiliating death on a cross.

We want a deus ex machina kind of God.  We want God to show Himself to us as an example of that literary device that makes action movies so fun to watch.  We want Him to come to life in the form of someone swooping in from above in a blaze of glory- wielding a machine gun, magically solving all of our problems, and making the world safe for democracy.   The problem is that isn’t how Jesus works.   The King of Glory is really the suffering servant who enters into the messy reality of human life that Isaiah portrays so eloquently.

It would be so much easier if Jesus were that blaze of glory kind of savior. But He is the kind of savior who gets dirty with us, who walks with us, who carries our pain and suffering, and who knows what it is to be rejected and unloved.

anguish

One of the things that may keep us from seeing Jesus is that we don’t want to think that He is stuck in the mundane like we are. We don’t want to think of Jesus as being awkward, or ill, or poorly clothed, but He entered into the entirety of the human experience including suffering, humiliation and even death.

On the surface we might want to think of Jesus as a cosmic Dirty Harry, or as the ultimate deus ex machina, but He is so much more than that.  Rather than just being an external entity or a deliverer from afar, Jesus gets up close and personal. He enters into our experience.  Including the parts that we would rather skip.

How can we have a more realistic view of Jesus and how He manifests His glory in the world?

April 18, 2017 He Is Not Here- Luke 24:1-5

empty

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Luke 24:1-5 (NRSV)

We have heard the Easter story so many times that it seems “normal” to us. But if we really put ourselves in the place of the women who went to Jesus’ tomb how would we feel?  Frightened?  As if someone were playing a sick joke?  After all, the natural order of flesh is that dead is dead.  People don’t just spring back to life, especially after being dead for at least 36 hours.

My initial thought would probably have been that someone had taken Jesus’ body and hidden it as a cruel joke, in spite of the words from the angelic appearing men. After all, He wasn’t there, dead or alive.  The logical approach would have been to be like Thomas who didn’t believe Jesus was alive until he saw Jesus’ pierced hands and feet. The women may still have needed to see Him for themselves to believe that he truly was alive.  Doubt is part of faith.  There is nothing about belief that says that we are supposed to check our brains at the door. (1 John 4:1-4) There is an old Russian proverb that says, “Trust, but verify.” It’s important to discern even as you believe.

Yet faith often defies logic- the sick are cured, the blind can see, the impossible becomes possible. Even in the everyday there are countless pocket miracles in which we can clearly see the hand of God if we only look for it.  It is not so much about our faith (which is weak and riddled with doubt at best) but in the One in Whom we believe.

The power of the Resurrection is that life wins. Death has lost its power.  Jesus was supposed to be dead, but now He is not in the tomb.  The tomb could not hold Him.

What does that mean for us?

April 14, 2017- Good Friday: The Crucifix and the Empty Cross- John 19:30, 33-36, Isaiah 53:1-5

jesusdiesonthecross

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)  These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”  And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the One whom they have pierced.” John 19:30, 33-36

Most Lutheran and almost all other Protestant churches do not display a crucifix in the church. Jesus is risen, and we don’t want to focus on the gory reality He suffered to purchase our redemption and freedom.

Yet His suffering was both necessary and costly. Our freedom and redemption was not bought without a price. One Lutheran church I belonged to displayed both the crucifix and the empty cross, because our pastors believed we need to acknowledge both Jesus’ sacrifice and the miracle of the empty tomb.  We cannot have the glory of the Resurrection on Easter without the passion and sacrifice and pain of Good Friday.

We should pray and meditate on today’s sorrow and passion, but we should not dwell upon the suffering of Jesus without the realization that it culminates in resurrection, and that we share in that resurrection. Even as we stand at Golgotha, there is hope.

Today is a day in which we should take a long and loving gaze on the One we have pierced. Our sin put Jesus on the Cross.  While we should not go around guilt tripping about that, because sin is part of the human condition we were born into, we should realize that it wasn’t just the Jews or the Romans who killed Jesus.  Every one of us has His Blood on our hands, but it is blood of atonement rather than guilt.  Blood freely shed to cover our sin and shame. Blood freely shed to set us free and to give us life.

Today is a day in which we can learn from the iconography of the crucifix, even though that image itself is sanitized. Yes, the crucifix depicts Jesus nailed on the Cross, but the reality of crucifixion is much bloodier and more gory.  The Mel Gibson movie, “The Passion of the Christ” is extremely graphic, but it is probably the closest we can see to the actual horror of scourging and crucifixion.  Sometimes our hardened hearts need to see that image Isaiah gives us of the Suffering Servant:

Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

 But he was wounded for our transgressions,crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole,and by his bruises we are healed. Isaiah 53:1-5 (NRSV)

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He didn’t have to do it /He could have set Himself free /He didn’t have to do /But He stayed there just for me /Surely, surely, surely He died on Calvary

Surely, Died on… He died, he died, on Cavalry – Richard Smallwood, from the song “Calvary”