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.

 

 

July 16, 2018 – Setting Our Minds on God-Mark 8:31-38

crucifix5And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:31-38 (ESV)

The apostle Peter gets it so right (Mark 8:27-30) then he slips up and gets it so wrong. He goes from rightly naming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, to having Jesus call him Satan- all in less than a chapter of Scripture. Even the apostle Peter was a saint and a sinner at the same time.  No one wants to hear about persecution or suffering, especially when it comes to one who doesn’t deserve it. No one wants to contemplate losing his or her closest friend, especially in the way that Jesus had to die.  On the surface the thought of the Lord of Life having to die a cruel death seems counterintuitive. How can the Messiah save His people if he is rotting in a tomb?  And what is this business about rising again after three days?  No wonder Peter protested.

The necessity of and the reality of the crucifixion is hard to put one’s mind around. The closest we can get to understand the barbarity and sheer repugnance of crucifixion was historically accurately depicted in the movie The Passion of the Christ. The truth of the resurrection, which was not shown in that film, is even more difficult for us to get.  How can the dead be raised?  Better yet, how can death lead to life?

It is really easy to get tied up in the pursuit of things in this world. It is easy for us to get comfortable and to take confidence in our physical or mental ability, in our relationships with other humans, or in our possessions.  The reality is that while those are good gifts from God, they are not our reason for living.  All of those things, as good as they may be, are only temporary.  Only God is forever.

Taking up one’s cross is not a popular thing to do. It may cost us friends or family. It may cause others to think we are silly or uneducated. Our confession of Christ may cost us material wealth or temporal security.  It may cause us to go to prison or even be killed, which happens routinely in countries ruled by governments that are hostile to Christianity. For the sake of the Gospel we might be called to sacrifice for others in ways that have a heavy cost- materially, physically or emotionally.   Yet we know our life is with Jesus, no matter what our circumstances in this life might attest.  We cannot be ashamed of the Author of life.

We don’t take up our crosses to earn brownie points or add currency to a merit account. Nothing we do- or don’t do- can earn us salvation. It’s all on Jesus.  Even our faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus – by faith- because we were created for the good works He planned for us (Ephesians 2:10).

Are we setting our minds and hearts on the things of God? Do we have peace knowing God is in control? The Holy Spirit is always with us and in us. We can always pray for God to give us faith, strength, hope and His peace no matter what our circumstances.

April 12, 2018 In the Name of Jesus We Live – Acts 3:12-23, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 2:10

jesus_resurrection

While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.  You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.  You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.  By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.

 “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.  Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.  Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.  For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you.  Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.’ Acts 3:12-23 (NIV)

Yesterday’s lesson was on the lame man (Acts 3:1-10) who Jesus healed through the ministry of Peter and John.  The lame man was healed through Peter and John because Peter and John had faith in Jesus, faith which is a gift of God. Today we move on in Acts 3 to Peter’s explanation of who really performed this work- and as we see, it wasn’t Peter or John.  Peter leads us directly to the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

So why does the Resurrection of Jesus matter anyway? In what we believe to be a day and age of rational thought and of the primacy of science and technology, why should we hold on to a belief that God incarnate was put to death and rose from the grave? It seems silly or irrational on the surface to believe such an implausible account, but the death and Resurrection of Jesus is literally the premise upon which we live or die.

The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 (it is helpful here to read the whole chapter) that if Jesus did not come back from the dead, we are wasting our time believing in Him.  If Jesus did not come back from the dead, we are dead in our trespasses and sins and fallen nature and we might as well eat, drink and be merry (and be free to lie, steal, fornicate and pillage, etc.) because the only thing we have to look forward to is the grave.  If this world is the end, we are stuck in a rather hopeless state of affairs.

Thankfully this world is not the end.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

We were not created by God to make our own gods, or to turn ourselves into our own gods. Yet that is exactly what we humans do when we are left to our own devices.

The premise of God’s Law is summarized in the Jewish shema: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Deuteronomy 6:1-4) The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) spell out God’s requirements in even more depth.

God requires our perfect obedience to this Law. We can’t do it.  But because God loved us, and did not want us to suffer the consequences of our sin and disobedience, Jesus had to take our place as a perfect sacrifice.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 (NIV)

We are not able to follow the Law’s requirements. We are fallen, broken and fallible. Jesus has done what we cannot do for ourselves, and that is Good News.  In Him we have life.  We rise with Him also. He is Risen.  He is Risen, indeed.  He is real.  Our life in Him is real too, and it is forever.

March 29, 2018- Life, Wisdom and Salvation (Maundy Thursday) Mark 14:22-25, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

last supper 2

 

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them.  “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Mark 14:22-25 (NIV)

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;     the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (Isaiah 29:14)

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (NIV)

Several years ago there was a scandal involving a United States president and the meaning of the word “is.” In the English language, few words have a more definitive meaning than the word “is.” It is a concrete word.  It is not abstract, and Jesus intends for us who follow Him to believe He is who He says He is.

Definition of:  IS

  • present tense third-person singular of be (this is the link to the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition)

Jesus tells us that the bread of the Last Supper (or the real First Communion) is His Body. Not that it might be, or it represents, but it is. He makes the same claim for the wine that was poured at the Last Supper, that it is His Blood. It sounds absolutely insane to the rational mind. On the surface it even sounds as if Jesus is proposing cannibalism. He is not proposing cannibalism, but a radical inclusion for us. In this meal where we eat His Body, His body becomes part of us. We receive His life in His Blood. It may sound like insanity, but coming to the altar to eat and drink the Body and Blood of the risen Christ is truly wisdom.

Jesus’ Body, broken and given for us as He died in our place. Jesus’ Blood, shed to cover and wipe away our sins. These realities are foolishness for the rational mind, but they are life and salvation for those who have been named and claimed by God in Christ.

The apostle Paul reminds us that our life is centered on Jesus- Jesus crucified, poured out from the Cross, for the redemption and salvation of all.

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.

September 11, 2017: Love or Hate? Life or Murder? 1 John 3:11-16

twin towers

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.  Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.  We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.  All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 1 John 3:11-16 (NRSV)

Today being the 16th anniversary of 9-11, we may think for a minute of where we were in those horrible hours and how we felt.

We felt violated, invaded, vulnerable, and wondering where would the terrorists strike next.

It’s easy and very human to paint with a broad brush, to assume that everyone who is a specific nationality or of a specific tradition wishes us harm and that they will perpetrate it. It’s easy to return hate for hate.  It is much harder to pray for those who wish us harm and to see Jesus even in them.

As individual people it is not our place to rain down judgment upon those who commit evil acts. Yes, from a legal and moral standpoint we are permitted to defend our families and ourselves- as self defense is a human right- but only as a last resort.

As Jesus followers we are called to love. Love leads to life.  Hate leads to murder and death, whether or not it is justified.

Martin Luther spoke in great depth on the Ten Commandments, as the Law shows us how God wants us to live, as well as the boundaries He has given us for our behavior and our dealings with Him and others.

Therefore the entire sum of what it means not to kill is to be impressed most explicitly upon the simple-minded. In the first place that we harm no one, first, with our hand or by deed. Then, that we do not employ our tongue to instigate or counsel thereto. Further, that we neither use nor assent to any kind of means or methods whereby any one may be injured. And finally, that the heart be not ill disposed toward any one, nor from anger and hatred wish him ill, so that body and soul may be innocent in regard to everyone, but especially those who wish you evil or inflict such upon you. For to do evil to one who wishes and does you good is not human, but diabolical.

Secondly, under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but he also who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him and yet does not do it. If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see any one innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. And it will not avail you to make the pretext that you did not afford any help, counsel, or aid thereto for you have withheld your love from him and deprived him of the benefit whereby his life would have been saved.” – Martin Luther, from the explanation of the 5th Commandment, The Large Catechism

The 5th Commandment sounds easy on the surface: You shall not murder. But there is so much more to murder than simply refraining from killing people (murder meaning killing another’s body– excluding killing in war or killing in self-defense.) I’m not a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Ted Bundy- but I am just as guilty of violating the 5th Commandment regularly.  We all do it.  Sin is hardwired into us.

Murder is more than causing cessation of life in another’s body without a justifiable reason. Murder includes murder of character (that bit about “employing one’s tongue to instigate (harm)” or setting someone up for failure from afar.

Humans love gossip. We also love to have a pecking order in which A. is better than B. but B. is so much better than C. or heaven forbid, D.   We all do it, whether we consciously realize it or not, and it’s murder- murder of heart and soul and character.

Withholding love is the same as active hate. If we have the means to show love to others, and we refrain from doing it, we are still living in hate.

As the writer of 1 John says:  All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 

That’s a hard truth to accept– especially when we feel compelled to help everyone, but only have the means and ability to help a few. It’s hard to love when others actively hate us and do cruel things or say cruel things about us.

The good news is that God knows our limitations and accepts our frailties.

As a Jesus follower we are called to do something radically different than what human nature expects.

Love one another.

Especially the weirdos, the haters, the tweakers, the freaks, and geeks. Love them even more.

July 18, 2017- Seize the Hope- Hebrews 6:17-20, Matthew 27:50-52

hope jesusIn the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 6:17-20 (NRSV)

Carpe Diem. This Latin phrase means, “Seize the day.”  While making the most of every day is a worthy goal, as Jesus followers we are also encouraged to seize the hope.

The writer of Hebrews (who was addressing believers from the Jewish community) refers to Jesus as our high priest, an intermediary on our behalf who makes God available to us. Through Him the boundary that separates us from God is broken. We are “unholy” because we are all tainted by sin, but because of Jesus intervening on our behalf, we can enter the Holy of Holies and enter into the presence of God.

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Matthew 27:50-52 (NRSV)

Because of Jesus we can seize the hope. The curtain in the temple separated the Holy of Holies (the place where the Presence of God would come to earth) from the common person.  Only the high priest was ever allowed to go behind the curtain, and then only at certain times to offer sacrifices and prayers.  When the curtain was torn, the Spirit of God was set loose.  Because of Jesus there is no barrier. There is no holding back the Spirit of God. There is nothing holding us back from embracing and receiving the Spirit of God.  We have the hope that can only be found in Jesus- not just for eternal life but for life lived to the fullest, life surrendered to God and dedicated to His purpose for us.

Because of Jesus we can seize the hope- and run with it, and spread it around. Hope in action speaks words of comfort and performs acts of mercy.  The things that would hold us back from living as God’s people are no longer there.

How can we seize- and share- the hope today?