St. Peter Lutheran Church
February 10, 2016
“Return To Me With All Your Heart”
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Joel 2:12
“Return to Me,” God says at the beginning of Lent.
And possibly, you are thinking, “Return? But I’ve never left you, Lord. I believe in Jesus. I’m not aware of any grave sins in my life, only the normal struggles with sin that none of us can avoid.”
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, they were too busy to stop and consider what had happened, what they had done. First they realized they were naked and set about to cover themselves up with fig leaves. Then they heard the sound of the Lord God and they were busy with trying to hide among the trees of the garden. They were busy trying to deal with their sin themselves, and that occupied their minds so that they did not have time to stop and think about what they had done.
Until God called, “Adam, where are you?”
Then they started to realize where they were. They were separated from the God who made them. They were far away from Him—not physically, but spiritually. They had taken leave of Him in their hearts.
Then He called, and they had to come out and face Him, look into His eyes and see their guilt reflected back at them, face the punishment they had brought upon themselves.
When God says “Return to Me,” He is calling to us just like He did to Adam and Eve. He calls us to stop and consider where we are, something we often don’t do because we are busy—busy, in the end, running from God. You may not have committed any conscious, willful sins against God. You may not be living in any sin you consider great. Or you may be.
Regardless, God calls you to return to Him. All our sins of thought, word, and deed alienate us from the Triune God, the giver of life. And we are always turning from God. Turning from Him to make an idol of our work or our pleasure, drawn away from loving God above all other things. Even when it is as common a thing as neglecting to pray, we are withdrawing from the living God.
God calls us, even commands us in His Law, to be wholly and completely His people. We are not supposed to be partially God’s, but wholly His own—heart, soul, and body. “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession…” (Titus 2:13-14) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” We were created to love God and to be wholly His. And after we fell, we were re-created in Baptism in order to be God’s own.
And yet no matter who you are, how holy you are, you have not been wholly the Lord’s. You have not been faithful to your God.
“Return to Me with all your heart.” During the season of Lent we are invited to take to heart just how serious a thing it is to depart from God.
The ashes we put on our heads are not decorations. They remind us of the consequences of departing from God. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God told Adam (Genesis 3:17). “The wages of sin is death,” says Paul in the 6th chapter of Romans. By the sin in which we were conceived, the sins we have committed unintentionally and those we have committed willfully, we have brought death on ourselves. Each one of us must one day experience the pain and agony of death because of our sins, and along with it (unless God grants us grace), we will also experience the fear and sorrow of knowing that it is the just punishment for our sin. The things we love and enjoy in this world—friends, children, loved ones, along with food and drink and every other lawful pleasure—we will have to leave to come before God. We will return to Him to be judged when we die, whether or not we willingly return to Him in this life.
The ashes also symbolize something worse than death. They symbolize the wrath of God. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah was burnt to ashes by fire that fell from heaven because of God’s wrath and indignation, so we deserve to be burnt in the eternal fire of hell for departing from the Lord.
Even more, during Lent we see our sins reflected in the suffering of Jesus. See how Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane for fear of God’s wrath. How he was condemned and suffered the physical agony and shame of the flogging, the mockery, and the crucifixion. See above all how He cried out on the cross that He was forsaken by God.
Jesus never departed from the Lord. He always obeyed, always loved God, never turned away from God to give the love, faith, and worship of His heart to something or someone else. And if this innocent Son of God suffered so bitterly for sins that were not His own, what kind of torment will come to people who do not return to the Lord in repentance?
So what does it mean to return to the Lord with all your heart? How is it done?
It is not something we can do by our own free will. When we return to the Lord, it is because the Spirit of God turns us. Through His Word He makes us see where we are, how we have left behind the God of life and tried to find life elsewhere. And through His Word He reveals what restores us to Him—the suffering of Jesus.
To return to the Lord is first of all to listen to the Word of God, His voice calling to us “Where are you?” Like Adam, we hear God’s voice while we are hiding. To return to the Lord means to listen to that voice as it exposes our sins. We stop running and examine ourselves in the light of the ten commandments. By that light we see how we have departed from God. We learn to know ourselves; we recognize that we are not able to return to God by keeping His Law, because our sinful nature prevents us from fulfilling it.
Second, to return to the Lord means to confess our helplessness to God and seek His grace.
Third, and most importantly, we believe the Gospel that God proclaims to us. In the face of our sins, we cling to the good news that God does not count our sins to us. He has given them to His Son, who made atonement for them with His blood. By Jesus’ suffering and death God receives us as if we had never departed from Him. He has made peace with God for us so that our sins are not counted to us. Believing in Him, we return to God.
Finally, having returned to God through faith in Christ live in Christ. We devote ourselves to His Word and draw near to Him daily in prayer, asking for His help to put away our old nature and to put on the image of Christ. We devote ourselves to good works, not merely turning away from sin but practicing the good works God would have us do. We give ourselves to neighbors by serving them in the positions to which God has called us; we forgive those who sin against us; we show mercy to the poor and to those who have not heard the Gospel. We pray for and mourn over our neighbors, seeking their salvation.
But you will notice that the reading from Joel does mentions other things besides repentance and faith. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13) “With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” What does fasting, weeping, and mourning have to do with returning to the Lord?
“Fasting, weeping, and mourning” are outward signs of the sorrow we should feel because of sin. But fasting also has another purpose. It helps to discipline the flesh, to put it to death so that we are able to give our attention to the Word of God and prayer. It is also a way of humbling the flesh. Fasting helps us to hear and to pray by disciplining our bodies so that we can give our attention to His Word and prayer.
Fasting need not be difficult. It is simply a matter of limiting or abstaining from food for a certain period of time, and then using that time to engage in self-examination, confession, meditation on the Word and prayer. A simple way to fast would be to skip one meal on Wednesdays during Lent, and then to attend Matins or Vespers to hear the Word and pray. A more difficult fast would be to abstain from food until after sundown one or two days a week
Finally, in the reading from Joel God gives promises and encouragements to those who would return to Him with all their hearts.
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” (Joel 2:13-14)
Again, God says through Joel: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The Lord answered and said to his people, ‘Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” (Joel 2:18-19)
Today it is largely forgotten that God not only punishes sin eternally in hell for those who do not return to Him; He also sends earthly chastisements and punishments for sins to bring us to repentance.
Most of us have many crosses and difficulties in our personal lives. Besides this our congregation experiences many difficulties with declining attendance and an increasing budget deficit. On top of this there are the troubles we see afflicting our synod, our nation, and the Church throughout the world.
We don’t always know the reason that God allows these difficulties to come to us. But we know that He does send “temporal punishments” and chastisements for sin, and we know that we have plenty of sins for which He could rightly punish us. But in this reading from Joel God says that He is gracious and merciful and often “relents from disaster,” turning away the temporal punishments we have brought on ourselves when we return to Him with all our heart. How many of the difficulties experienced in our homes, our church, and our nation might be averted if we returned to the Lord with “fasting, mourning, and weeping”?
God encourages us about this, but does not promise that He will turn away all suffering. But though we are not promised that all our earthly suffering will be averted by returning to Him with all our hearts, we are promised that He will receive all who repent and turn to Him in grace. He will graciously forgive them their sins, turn His face toward them, and give them eternal life.
When Adam heard God call, “Where are you?” and Adam returned to God, He must have been full of grief and terror. He must have feared the punishment He deserved and grieved over the way He had squandered the honor God had given Him.
But when He returned to the Lord He did not find destruction or shame. Instead the Lord promised that He would send a man who would destroy the power of the serpent who had deceived him. Adam was promised that in the future a man would destroy the power of death. And though Adam deserved shame and had to live under a curse, God promised him that he would be relieved of his disgrace. An offspring of the woman would bear Adam’s shame, suffering death and condemnation for his sin. He would silence the devil’s accusations against Adam and his offspring by bearing their offenses.
In the same way when we return to the Lord, facing the bitterness of our sins, He shows us grace instead of punishing us. We return to the Lord in sorrow for our sins and hold fast to His promise that Christ bore them. And in Christ’s wounds God’s wrath passes over us. He receives as though we had never departed from Him. He replaces our shame with honor.
May the Lord aid us this Lent to return to Him with our whole hearts, that we may learn to know His grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 18:31-43
February 6, 2015
“Jesus Will Stop for You”
Why should Jesus stop?
That may seem like a harsh question. Yet it is in the back of the minds of many people. Sometimes you’ll hear people say something like, “I don’t pray much. Why should God pay attention to my prayers? There are billions of people in this world asking Him for help. What’s so special about me, that He should listen to me?”
It’s a question that might have occurred to the blind man on the road to Jericho. It might even have seemed a little arrogant for him to shout at Jesus as Jesus passed with a great crowd down the road to Jerusalem.
After all, Jesus is the Son of David, the promised Christ, the King anointed to rule the nations forever. Does this man think this great King has nothing else to do, that He should interrupt His business and stop for a blind beggar? How do you feel when a beggar approaches your car when you’re waiting for a red light, on your way to work? Do you ever feel a little irritated or put out? What if they are yelling for help with a loud voice?
Besides this, Jesus is surrounded by a great crowd of people. Does this blind man think that no one else in the crowd might want to ask Jesus for a healing, for a miracle, for mercy? But they don’t interrupt Jesus’ procession to Jerusalem.
Maybe this is what the people who rebuke the blind man are thinking. Their rebuke could even seem devout and pious. “Why are you screaming at Jesus? You’re being prideful. Who do you think you are?”
Does this man think the world revolves around him? Does he think he’s so important that, of course, Jesus should stop what He’s doing and come to serve him, a blind beggar?
This is how we might think. But Jesus makes it clear by His actions and words that He does not think this way. He stops what He is doing to answer the blind man’s prayer. He puts Himself at the blind man’s disposal. He praises the man for his faith.
What gave the blind man such boldness?
He had heard good news about Jesus. He had heard that Jesus was able to cure the sick, the lame, the paralyzed. And he had heard that Jesus not only possessed such power, but that He was gracious and kind and did not turn away those who came to Him for help. Perhaps he had also heard about how Jesus had mercy and received even the greatest sinners in Israel. Perhaps he drew the conclusion that Jesus was the promised anointed one, or perhaps others told him that.
The blind man believed the good news that he heard. He had faith. And when his own conscience and others rebuked him and told him that Jesus had other things to do, he persevered in faith and believed that Jesus would have mercy. He believed in spite of everything that Jesus was able to heal him and that he wanted to heal him, even if it meant that he was the only one in a great crowd of people for whom Jesus would stop and give him his attention.
It was not that he thought highly of himself. He thought highly of Jesus’ mercy. He believed that Jesus’ mercy was greater than everything else. The blind man didn’t believe that he was the center of the universe. He believed that Jesus’ mercy and love were so great that Jesus was willing and able to deal with him as though he was the only one in the world.
Although this man couldn’t see with his eyes, he saw Jesus far better than most by faith. By faith He saw that Jesus was the son of David, the promised King and Savior. And by faith he saw—perhaps even better than the 12 disciples—what kind of a King Jesus was. He was and is not a king who came to be served but to serve. He came to give of Himself freely; to have mercy.
On the other hand, the earlier part of the gospel reading shows us how the disciples did not understand fully who Jesus is.
Of course the disciples understood that Jesus was God in human flesh. Three of them saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. They saw Jesus tell the stormy winds and sea to be still and they obeyed Him. They saw Him raise the dead. Peter had confessed what all the disciples believed—that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is what the season of Epiphany that is now ending is about—Jesus revealing Himself as God incarnate, God with us in our flesh and blood.
The disciples believed and knew that Jesus was God with us, but they did not clearly see what that meant. They did not grasp well what the apostle John later wrote in his first epistle, that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
They believed Jesus was God. But when Jesus told them that what had been written by all the prophets was about to be fulfilled in His going to Jerusalem, they could not understand Him. They did not understand what the Scriptures said about God, nor did they fully understand Jesus.
“And taking aside the twelve, [Jesus] said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day He will rise.’ But they understood none of these things.” (Luke 18:31-34)
This was the third time Jesus told the disciples about His impending death. But they didn’t understand Him. Why didn’t they?
This did not fit with their understanding of who God is. They understood that God was all-powerful and glorious, holy and righteous. It was beyond their comprehension that the Son of God should be mocked, treated shamefully, spit on, and killed.
But Jesus told them this so that when the Scriptures were fulfilled and Jesus was handed over to shame and execution, they would not think that it happened accidentally, that Jesus didn’t know about it and couldn’t prevent it.
How could God be handed over to enemies, be mocked and spit on and be killed? Clearly, the only way this could happen to the eternal, Almighty God is if He let it happen. If He allowed Himself to be taken captive. If He allowed Himself to be mocked and spit on and nailed to a cross.
But in their minds, God would never allow this to happen. Why would He?
For the same reason He let Himself be stopped by the blind man on His way to Jerusalem. God is as great in mercy and love as He is in majesty and power. As His power and knowledge far exceed our ability to understand, so does His mercy.
His mercy is so great that He interrupted His procession to Jerusalem to be the servant of one blind beggar. He stopped to give this man his request, to heal him.
But His mercy is greater still. He finished His journey to Jerusalem so that He might serve each one of us individually by becoming sin for each one of us. He went and accomplished what no one was asking Him for, what no one would think of asking Him for. He bore our sin and atoned for us with His death.
Jesus saw clearly what was coming in Jerusalem and He went anyway. He did not go grudgingly but willingly to shame and spit and abuse and flogging and death. He went joyfully and suffered for the sins of each one of us. As He was lashed, as He was spit on, as He was laughed at and scorned, He healed us our guilt before God. As the prophet prophesied seven hundred years before, Jesus was “wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” (Is. 53: 5)
If the disciples had understood the Scriptures, they would have understood that this is what Jesus came to do, and that nothing short of this would save them from their sins and from condemnation.
And if they had known that only Jesus’ blood would save them from their sins, would they have dared to ask Him? Would they have said, “Please bear my sin; let Your divine majesty serve me, a sinner with no excuse. Let yourself be captured, mocked, put to shame, spit on, and crucified to pay for my transgressions”? Do you think they would have dared to ask for that?
Would we dare to ask that of the high and holy God, of our innocent and gentle Jesus?
Yet this is what God proclaimed through the prophets that He would do.
Like the disciples, we are slow to believe the Scriptures, and we are slow to believe in the love of God for us. We do not think highly enough of His love toward each one of us individually, or grasp the greatness of His mercy.
When the blind man yelled out for mercy Jesus allowed Himself to be stopped and caught by the man. He made Himself the man’s servant. In the depth of His love He allowed Himself to be taken captive by the man’s faith in Him.
Like the blind man we also cry out to Jesus for mercy in the liturgy. Like beggars we sing, “Lord, have mercy upon us” in the Kyrie. When we pray that to be sure we are asking that Jesus would bless and help and heal us in this life. But we are asking for an even greater gift; the forgiveness of our sins and for salvation.
But long before we started singing that, Jesus answered our cry. Or better—He answered your cry individually. He did not go to Jerusalem simply to die for the sins of the world as a mass. He died for each one of your sins individually. For your guilt, for your sins which cry out for your condemnation, Jesus willingly went to Jerusalem and was mocked, spit on, flogged, and killed to present you holy and righteous before God.
In answer to our cries for mercy, Jesus still stops and serves each one of us. He cleanses us with His blood as it is sprinkled on us in the preaching of the good news of his cross.
He feeds us the body that was nailed to the cross for us; He tells us to drink His blood which was poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
Today as we prepare to enter the season of Lent in which we remember His suffering and death, Jesus tells us that He willingly endures all this for each one of us. Nothing else can take away your sins except for Jesus, who has mercy on you and endures your shame and punishment.
By the blind man’s example He encourages you to hold fast and believe that His mercy is for you, and is greater than you can comprehend. His love is deeper than we can grasp. No matter how much your faith expands it will never be able to exhaust the riches of His love and mercy.
We are often doubtful about whether God will listen to our prayers. He is so great and we are so small; the world is full of people and we are just average individuals, with nothing special about us. More than this He is holy and we have provoked His anger with our many sins.
We would never have dared to ask God to pay for our sins with His own humiliation and suffering. Yet He did, even when we did not ask. He did it for each one of you specifically and bore your sins. And if He did that, how will He deny us any other good thing?
Take courage. Jesus will stop for you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
Eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 2:21
December 31, 2015
“The Blessing of Abraham”
Since Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden people have marked the passing of the years. What else could they do? They could not stop the progress of time, or slow it down, nor stop the inevitable fulfillment of the curse God pronounced on the first sinners and their children: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They could only watch as the years fled from them, taking with each time a little strength, a little beauty, a little vigor. They could only watch, and perhaps remember that they had not been created for this. They had been created to live forever.
But in the midst of the flying years stood the promise of God, which some few people remembered. It was a promise to take away sin and its curse, death. Adam heard this promise; Noah trusted it. Then many years after the flood when it seemed that everyone had forgotten it, God spoke to Abram and gave the promise to him. He told Abram, who was already old, that He would bless all nations and peoples on earth through Abram’s offspring. He wasn’t promising a vague, inconsequential blessing like we wish people when they sneeze. God never gives vague blessings. He was promising something concrete. Through Abram’s offspring, Adam’s curse would be replaced by God’s benediction and blessing on human beings. Instead of cursing human beings, God would lift up His countenance upon them. Where all human beings were polluted by sin from conception, God would bring about righteousness and purity for all nations through Abram’s offspring. Instead of all nations being captive to death, God would give eternal life again through Abram’s descendant.
But the years went by. Years turned into decades. Abram was ninety-nine years old and he still had no offspring. It seemed like God had not kept His promise. After all, can a ninety-nine year old man beget children? With a ninety year old wife?
But then God appeared to Abram. He repeated His promise about Abram’s offspring. And it was more than just a promise—it was a covenant, a legally binding contract. God gave Abram a sign of His covenant. Abram and all his descendants would be circumcised. That mark in their flesh would be a physical sign and reminder to Abram and his descendants that God was going to send one of their flesh and blood to take away sin and the curse of death.
When God gave this sign of the covenant to Abram, he also did something else. He gave Abram a new name. Instead of “Abram” which means “exalted father,” he would henceforth be called “Abraham,” which means “Father of many nations.” God’s promise to Abraham made him a new person, gave him a new identity. Instead of being barren, he would be a father of many nations, he would have a multitude of descendants.
Soon after, one hundred year old Abraham and Sarah his wife had their first son, Isaac. God’s word made “a father of many nations” out of a one hundred year old man. It did what it said, as God’s Word always does.
And then 2,000 years passed. Generations were born and died. All through that time Abraham’s descendants were circumcised when they were eight days old. It was a sign in their flesh of the covenant God made with their ancestor, a covenant that was intended for all Abraham’s descendants. A young Israelite would never have seen his father Abraham, but his circumcision was a physical testimony to God’s ancient pledge to send a Savior from the curse of death. It reminded of God’s promise that one of their flesh and blood would be that blessing to all nations. And it also symbolized something about what Abraham’s descendants should be as they waited for God to fulfill His promise. Their flesh should be cut off; that is, they should be separated from the sinful flesh inherited from Adam. By faith in the coming Savior they should put off the flesh and not fulfill its desires.
And now, today, eight days after Christmas, they bring Mary’s Son to be circumcised. Like all Jewish babies, He receives His name when He is circumcised, just like father Abraham got his new name at the same time God gave him circumcision. But unlike other babies, Mary and Joseph had been told what to name this boy by God, by an angel from heaven. He is named, “Jesus”, which means, “the Lord saves,” or “Savior.” He undergoes circumcision and His innocent flesh bleeds. But unlike all the other offspring of Abraham who received this sign of the covenant, Jesus is Himself the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Seed of Abraham who brings blessing to all nations instead of the curse—not just to Abraham’s physical descendants, the Jews—but also to all the Gentiles. He comes and replaces God’s curse on Adam’s offspring with God’s favor. Where Adam’s children are sinful from the womb, Jesus provides righteousness for all men that stands before God. In Adam all men die and return to the dust. But in Jesus all men are made alive, made not to watch the years pass with dismay, but to live endless years. He is what His name says—the Lord’s salvation.
Unlike Abraham and others who were circumcised, Jesus does not need to put off His flesh. Jesus’ flesh is unstained, innocent and holy. He did not receive the stain passed on with a father’s seed, because H was born of a virgin.
But He has come to put off the flesh nevertheless—that is, to receive in His flesh the condemnation for sin—for Adam and all Adam’s descendants. He sheds His blood on the eighth day of His life because He has come to later pour out all of His blood to cleanse and purify us of all sin, to make atonement for all our sins before God. By His death on the cross He will be cut off from God for us, and cut off and cut away all our guilt before God.
Through Him God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled. The world receives life instead of death, blessing instead of curse. And through Him Abraham becomes the father of many nations, because through this child people from every tribe, language, and nation become sons of God through faith and inherit the blessing of life and salvation which was promised to Abraham.
It has been another 2,000 years since Mary’s Son was circumcised and received His Name—“Savior.” Generations have been born and have died. Like Abraham and the Jews, they waited to see the Lord’s salvation. As they waited, the years passed, flew away.
We have now watched the last year, 2015, come and go. In that year, like the Jews and Abraham, we have doubted or forgotten God’s promise of blessing through Abraham’s seed.
Instead of living in unshakeable faith and certain hope that the blessing of Abraham has come and been given to us, we have often looked for our consolation not in Jesus, but in this passing world.
We have wasted time. We have lived according to the flesh and its desires, neglecting to seek the life that is to come. Like Abraham, as time passed we have doubted that God will keep His covenant and prove true to His Word.
This year is now gone along with its many missed opportunities, its unbelief and other sins, its disobedience and disbelief toward the true and faithful God.
But that sorry history of our failure, along with the whole history of Adam’s race, is cut off. Our speedy course toward the grave, the curse on sinners, has been replaced with a new story, the story of God’s promise fulfilled, the story of blessing and eternal life. That’s what is taking place as Jesus is circumcised and given His name.
The old year with its sins and rebellion and failure, and even those sins, rebellions and failures still to come, have been swallowed up by the blessing of the God of Abraham.
The Lord has sent His Jesus, His salvation. By the blood He shed, in a trickle at His infancy and in a torrent in His passion, he has wiped out the record of our debt, taken ownership of the world, and history, and time, and you, and me.
He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
And He has turned the curse of sin and death into the blessing of resurrection, life, and righteousness.
We no longer receive a sign of a covenant waiting to be fulfilled, as the Jews did in circumcision. We receive Baptism, in which we are born again into new life, into eternal life and salvation. We are clothed with Jesus in Baptism and named with His Name, the name of salvation. As Abraham was renamed at his circumcision, we receive a new name in our Baptism. We bear the name of Jesus, and share His inheritance and kingdom as the Son of God.
And so we go forward into the new year in that name, the name of Jesus. We go forward knowing that death and the cross await us there, because we are in Jesus. We share His name and His life, His cross and His death. But we go confidently, knowing also that Jesus has made death and the cross the gate to resurrection.
All things are His. And He makes all things serve for the blessing and salvation of those who are baptized and believe in Him.
Soli Deo Gloria
The Epiphany of our Lord (9:15 am—schoolkids’ service)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2015
“Those Far Off”
–Today is the Epiphany of our Lord.
“Epiphany” means “the revealing of God.”
–It’s called that because God guided the wise men from far away to see Jesus in Bethlehem and worship Him. When they saw Jesus, they saw God, because Jesus is God become one of us, a human being.
–This summer in Vacation Bible School a little girl asked, “Where is God?”
I said, “God is everywhere.”
She said, “Why can’t we see Him then?”
A good question. What’s the answer?
One answer is—God is invisible. He is spirit. You can’t see Him with your eyes.
But another answer is that we don’t recognize God because we are born in sin, and sin
blinds us to God.
But now God shows Himself. He shows Himself in Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem.
–And the story of Epiphany is that God brings those who are far away from Him to see Him and be saved by believing in Jesus.
–How do we know God and come near to Him? We listen to His Word. We go to church, hear His Word, and believe in what the Word says—that God came to save us by becoming a human.
–But lots of people are not near to God. They don’t go to Church, don’t hear His Word.
–The wise men were like that. They were very smart and wise. They knew all kinds of things about the stars and the planets. But in their country they didn’t have God’s Word.
–But somehow they heard about the King of the Jews, the promised Savior. And then they saw a miraculous star that told them the King of the Jews had been born.
–So they followed that star. They packed up their camels with treasure and rode across the desert from the East for months to see the newborn King of the Jews and worship Him.
–Why did God lead them? Because the King of the Jews was for all people. He is God in the flesh who has come to save all people to the ends of the earth from the curse of sin.
–He saved us by being born without sin for us, by keeping God’s commandments for us, and then by receiving the punishment for our sins and dying under God’s judgment on the cross.
–Sometimes people in church take Jesus for granted. We forget that Jesus came to save all people, even those who seem the farthest away.
Sometimes people in Church don’t pay attention to God’s Word that tells them about this great
treasure from God, Jesus.
That’s why the people in Jerusalem and Herod were disturbed when the wise men came and said the king of the Jews had been born.
They weren’t ready for their king to come. They had other things on their minds, other things that were more important to them, that they loved more. They didn’t take God’s promise of the king and Savior as their highest joy and treasure.
That’s sometimes how we in the Church are. We take for granted the good news about Jesus that’s preached to us and have our hearts set on earthly things.
–But God wants all people to be saved through Jesus. He leads all people to His Son.
Those who are far away, who don’t have God’s Word or refuse to listen to it—who worship other gods. God calls them from far away to see Him come near to us in the baby at Bethlehem.
Also those in Church who don’t pay attention to His Word like they should and who don’t value it above all other treasures. God calls them too to see the great treasure of His Son. That means, He calls us to draw near and receive His forgiveness and salvation.
–Jesus is our great treasure.
He takes away our sins.
He gives us eternal life.
He makes us kings who reign with Him.
–The wise men gave Jesus kingly gifts—gold, frankincense, myrrh.
Jesus, the little baby in Bethlehem, is worth more than all treasures on earth. All earthly possessions that are dear to us, even the people we love most, even our own lives—are God’s gifts. But Jesus is God Himself, born a human being for us. He is the treasure that does not fade. In Him we receive God’s gift that endures forever and gives eternal life.
–The wise men bowed down and worshipped Jesus, giving Him presents because they believed that He was their Savior and a greater treasure than the wealth they were carrying with them.
–So we Christians, who believe in Jesus, also worship Him and lay down all our treasures before Him.
We do it because we believe in Him, that He is our Savior who called us to Him and gave us the forgiveness of sins when we were in the darkness of sin and death and couldn’t find God.
When we were little babies born in the darkness, He baptized us and put the bright star of His Gospel in our hearts.
And He continues to call us to Himself by the bright light of His Word.
So we in turn worship Him, lay our treasures and even our lives before Him.
And we pray to Him that He would make us stars that lead others to Him.
–Where is God? He is revealed in Jesus. And Jesus reveals Himself to us in His Word.
Soli Deo Gloria
Rorate Caeli—4th Sunday of Advent
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:19-28
December 20, 2015
It’s a few days from Christmas, but instead of “Joy to the World” we have John the Baptist in the desert by the Jordan River. He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” He preaches that we must be prepared for the coming of our God even though in our secular celebration of Christmas everyone is trying to relax and enjoy the holidays. John preaches that we should be awake, not asleep.
The priests and the Levites who have come out from Jerusalem to talk to John are offended by this. What does John think the priests have been doing? They’ve been conducting the worship of God at the temple. They’ve been trying to teach the people the law of God. They’ve been trying to make things straight among the people of God.
But John acts as if all that is nothing. If people want to be straight for the coming of the Lord they must come confessing themselves to be sinners and receive John’s baptism. “Among you stands one you do not know,” he says, “even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
But why are we listening to John? After all, we do know the One he was proclaiming. We know who Jesus is and why John wasn’t worthy to unite His sandal. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, the 2nd person of the Trinity—God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. He was begotten of the Father from eternity but born of the Virgin Mary; the true God has become man, so that He might deliver us from death. We know Jesus and confess Jesus, and we have been baptized in His name. So why is John still crying out to us, “Make straight the way of the Lord?” Why is he telling us to prepare when we already know what is coming on Christmas?
–First of all, not everyone does know Jesus.
Some think of Him as a prophet or a teacher
Others believe He is God, but that He has come as our example or lawgiver
He is so great and mighty that John is unworthy to touch His feet.
He has come not merely to teach the way of righteousness, but to bear sin, to restore, to bring human nature into union with God.
–Secondly, even when we do know Jesus by faith we are still always coming to know Him.
Ephesians 3:18-19 Paul prays that the Ephesians would “have strength to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Philippians 3: Paul says he knows Christ—“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” But he goes on to say: “[I want to] know Him and the power of His resurrection, and…share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Through repentance and faith we come to know Jesus again and again and more intimately. We participate in His sufferings, His death, and His resurrection. We experience life in Him, not merely knowing about Him intellectually, but participating in His sufferings and His resurrection.
–Third in Baptism Christ gives us a new life in Him, not merely knowledge.
A life lived in the assurance of the forgiveness of sins.
A life in which we are united to the glorious One whose sandals John was not worthy to touch.
Together with Him we are not merely servants, but sons and heirs of God.
As Christmas approaches let us heed John’s call:
Turn away from our self-willed lives, our life of sin apart from Christ
Look in faith to the coming one whose righteousness unites human beings to God.
Soli Deo Gloria
First Sunday after Christmas
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 2:33-40
December 27, 2015
Christmas as a secular, American holiday is over. In our society Christmas starts around Thanksgiving when the stores start advertising their wares so that they can rake in money for Christmas. Then Christmas comes; the wrapping paper litters the floor, family goes home, and the credit card bills arrive in the mailbox.
But in the Church’s calendar Christmas has a different significance. The great gift we receive is not electronic and can’t be bought at a store. Our gift comes from God. It is not an earthly treasure, but a heavenly and spiritual treasure. It is not a gift that gives pleasure for awhile and then gets old. It is God’s treasure, His greatest treasure that He values most—His only-begotten Son who has been with Him from eternity. The Son of God is given to us in our flesh and blood, in the womb of the virgin.
This treasure is so great that it passes human understanding—that God should become man. So we spend the weeks of Advent preparing for His coming. Otherwise how easy it would be to behave like a child on Christmas, who tears open his presents and ignores the ones that have great value—like a family heirloom or a classic work of literature—and is happy to receive the latest plastic gimmick toy that will break in a few days.
In the same way we prepare our hearts that we may see the heavenly treasure that God gives us on Christmas. And in the Church’s calendar the rejoicing in this gift of God isn’t limited to one day, to Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning. The Church’s celebration of the birth of our Lord extends over 12 days, to January 6th, the Epiphany of our Lord, when the Magi from the east bring their gifts to the infant Lord. It would be good if we could reclaim this long celebration of Christmas to bear witness to the world and to ourselves what the real treasure of Christmas is—God with us in the flesh—if we continued to celebrate Christmas in our homes and if we gathered to hear the word of our incarnate Lord during the 12 days of the Christmas season like we gather each day in Holy Week.
Our Gospel reading for the first Sunday after Christmas presents us with two prophets who utter amazing things about the baby Mary and Joseph have brought into the temple, just as the shepherds proclaimed in Bethlehem that this baby was Christ, the Lord. In the verses before our text, Simeon has taken the baby Jesus in his arms and sung the Nunc Dimittis—“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” He says, “Now I can die, because in this baby I have seen the salvation God has promised since the beginning of the world.”
Also the prophetess Anna praises God when she sees the baby in Mary’s arms. She tells everyone who is waiting for Jerusalem to be redeemed—that is, set free from slavery—about this baby, saying that He is the Redeemer sent by God. And so Mary and Joseph are amazed at what is said about Him, even though they have already heard many things like it from the angel Gabriel and the shepherds.
But now comes the first inkling that Mary and Joseph have about what it will mean for this Child to be the Christ, the Redeemer, the promised King. Simeon warns that not everyone will accept this child. He is “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” Many among the people of Israel will trip and stumble over Jesus. They will be offended by Him and reject Him. He will be “a sign that is opposed.” Though He is God’s Son, many will speak against Him and try to stand in His way. And as a result pain will come to Mary and to all who love Jesus: “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” In this way this infant Jesus will reveal what is in the hearts of many people. He will reveal that some who appeared to be godly did not know their God and Lord at all. But for others, He will be the cause of rising; He will lift up those who were cast down in sin and death and be the cause of their glorification.
But all this is so far in the future. How can Mary and Joseph understand what the prophets are saying? They can’t. They simply have to hold on to their words, along with the words of the angels and the shepherds, by faith. They have to hold on to God’s Word that this infant they bring home to Galilee, despite appearances, is not just a baby, but the Lord of Israel in human flesh, the promised Messiah, the King who comes to save His people.
Then St. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph and Jesus went home to Nazareth in Galilee. And then what did the infant Lord do? Did He make Mary and Joseph’s house a place of miracles? Was Joseph’s business blessed and made successful by the presence of the Lord in his house? We hear nothing from Luke that suggests that Jesus did any miracles or signs while He was in His parents’ house.
What do we hear? “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.”
Jesus, like all children, grew up. Though He was God He matured and grew physically and intellectually like every human child. In fact, the majority of His time on earth, Jesus was a child and a young man growing up in His parents’ house.
We all know growing up is not easy. It’s hard to be a child under your parents’ authority. Children often feel like they’re in a holding pattern until they become adults and can do what they want.
On the other hand, parents and grandparents know how easy it is to make decisions when you’re young that set the whole course of your life—choices made without experience and wisdom. That’s why we try to guide and shape our children and grandchildren and not leave them to their own way.
Childhood and youth is really a time to submit to your parents’ authority, as God commands us to do in the 4th commandment, to learn wisdom and be prepared to serve God and your neighbor in your adult life.
Happiness in childhood and young adulthood is really found in the same place it’s found in adulthood, middle age, and in old age. True happiness isn’t found pursuing the desires and dreams of youth, but in knowing God and serving Him.
Yet childhood and youth is the time when many people—even most people—begin to stray from God. The Bible recognizes this, which is why King David wrote in the 25th psalm: “Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according to thy steadfast love remember me, for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord!” (v. 7)
(Not Jesus. He was filled with wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7)
As a child and young man He knew God, trusted God, was godly, obeyed His parents.
The favor/grace of God was on young Jesus because He always did what was pleasing to the Father.
Jesus is an example to children and youth. Do you want to be wise and walk the way that leads to joy, blessedness? Be godly in your youth. Believe in Jesus, your God and Savior. Follow His example. Obey your parents, gladly hear and learn His Word. Read your bible, pray. Learn the commandments and live according to them; repent and receive His forgiveness when you sin.
But what about those of us who are now adults, and who look back on childhood and youth and see the many sins of our youth?
How we served ourselves, not the Lord
How we did not listen to His Word diligently
How we did not honor our parents
How we established sinful habits that haunted us later in life?
Recognize these things for what they are and repent, even if you don’t feel as sorry as you should. Recognize that all the sins of our youth are foolish and separate us from God and His joy.
But Jesus is the one who makes it so that the sins of our youth are not remembered by God. He faithfully did the will of His Father.
God’s favor was on Jesus because of His perfect righteousness, obedience, and holiness
Jesus came to offer up His obedient childhood up for us as a sacrifice on the cross;
His godliness and obedience covers our sinful youth
So that we are sons and heirs of God (Galatians 4); we bear fruit, being engrafted into Jesus through Baptism and faith in Him.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:1-18
December 25, 2015
“The Word Made Flesh”
God is never far away from any one of us. But there are moments when He seems nearer than others. Usually those are times when we are not distracted by ourselves, our worries and desires, but are able for a moment to step outside ourselves and pay attention to the order and beauty in the creation. Like when I was fifteen and a cousin took me and my sister and my dad to a cottage in the highlands of Zimbabwe in Africa. I can still remember looking at the stars, which were amazing because there were so few lights around, and noticing with wonder that they had different constellations than we do in Illinois because there we were south of the Equator. But it wasn’t just that. It was that the stars were so beautiful, old and vast, and we were so small. People throughout the history of the world from every nation have had experiences like this and said to themselves, “How can all this exist unless there is a God?”
The same feeling and thoughts come at other times. Sometimes we hear music that moves us so powerfully that we seem to participate in a beauty that is greater than our own existence. Or we fall in love, and everything we come into contact with reminds us of that person we love. Or we give birth to a child, and suddenly instead of living only for ourselves we experience what it is to want to live for someone else.
But even when we do not have such experiences, the creation goes on with a purpose and an order that is not ours. We can discover it, recognize it, but we don’t create the order. The sun rises and sets, the days grow long and short according to the seasons each year. Our brains, without our conscious thought, regulate our breathing, digestion, heartbeat.
That’s the reason that throughout human history people have always stubbornly believed in a God or gods. We can recognize from creation’s order and from its sublimity that there must be a powerful and wise Being who brought it about. And the ancient Greeks, looking at creation and using their reason, concluded that God must have used this ordering principle to create and sustain the world. They called this ordering principle “The Word.”
The Greeks got about as far as human reason will take you in coming to a knowledge of God. Which is to say they had some right ideas about God, but they were a long way from knowing Him. God does have a Word through Whom He created, ordered, and sustains the universe. The Word is the Son, the only-begotten Son of the Father. He was with God in the beginning. He is God. And through Him everything that is came into being. All the beauty, order, and wisdom in the world are the prints of His fingers. It came into being through Him and continues to exist through Him. His life is what upholds the world and what gives it meaning and order. Music works and is not just a cacophony of noise because of the Word. Mathematics and science work because there is order in the world that comes from the Word. “From His fullness we have all received,” says St. John. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Everything that gives us life, sustains our lives, and gives them meaning and purpose comes from the Word of God who was in the beginning with God and who is God.
You would think, then, that it would be everyone in the world’s goal to draw near to that Word of God. If everything beautiful and lovely and good comes from the Word, surely the Word would be the best of all, just like water at its source is clearer and better than what is downstream. But that is not what people do. They love the gifts of the Word and ignore the source of the gifts. They set their love and trust on created things rather than the Creator. Instead of the beauty of the stars causing them to glorify the God who made them, they bowed down to the stars as gods. Instead of knowing the Divine Love of which all human love is but a shadow, they set their hearts on the love of their spouse or children. And we are no different. By nature we know there is a God, and yet we have loved and trusted and become attached to the things He made instead of loving and trusting in Him above all things.
That leaves us cut off from the Father’s Word, alienated from His life, without the life that gives light to every man. The Word continues to uphold us, but we reject Him. And everywhere you can see and experience the sadness and the dying that comes from being alienated from the source of all life, truth, and goodness.
We are restless and dissatisfied. We are vain and selfish. We cannot step outside of ourselves and marvel at the wonderful works of the Word and be led by Him into the glory of God the Father. We are preoccupied with glorifying ourselves.
We make a god of our own happiness, seeking it even at the expense of others. Yet we never arrive at contentment or rest.
This is death. It is the beginning of the never-ending death that is the result of separation from the eternal Word. In hell there will be no rest, but only the eternal despair of ever being happy, the eternal regret of knowing that we once enjoyed the gifts of the eternal Good but rejected the One who gave them.
But Christmas changes all this.
Where we once saw glimpses of the eternal Word from far away, we now see Him in His fullness. He has come near to us. He who was in the beginning, in the Father’s bosom from eternity, has entered time.
He has become one of us, a human being. And through His coming in our nature He makes us know God. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”
The Father’s eternal Word who made and upholds the world has come into the world. He who was in the beginning, in the Father’s bosom from eternity, has come to us. He has come to us not merely as a spirit or a force. He has become one of us, a human being. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”
He has come to us in a form that we understand—as a human person. He has not come to terrify us or to condemn us, but to show Himself to us in a way that we are able to bear. That is why on Christmas we adore the baby Jesus. The mighty God, the eternal Wisdom, the Word, is wrapped up and held close to the breast of His mother. He shows that He loves human beings, even though we have turned away from God to demons and the darkness. If He wanted to destroy us, why would He become one of us? If He wanted to terrify us, why would He become an infant? No one is scared of an infant. So the mighty Word comes near to us in our flesh, to live our life and bear our iniquity.
The Word became flesh and lived among us. He did this to reveal Himself to us and to reveal the Father in Himself.
He came to restore human beings, so that we not only reason that there is a God, but that we know the true God. Through the Holy Spirit we know the Son as our Savior and Brother. Through the Son we know the Father as our Father in heaven.
He came into human flesh to re-create it, so that it is able to dwell in God’s presence again. To see God and not hide in the darkness.
And He came not only to bring us back to God as His creatures, but to give us new birth as God’s sons and heirs.
In the Old Testament, Moses went up into the presence of God on Mount Sinai. He came back down with God’s Law. The Law contained God’s rules for how people must live to be pleasing to Him. In some ways people already knew this Law, because their consciences witnessed to it. But the Law on tablets of stone made it clear and undeniable what God expected of human beings.
But as you know, having the Law of God didn’t make the Israelites right. Just because He told them what to do didn’t mean they were able to do it. And so despite knowing God’s law we see throughout Israel’s history that they continually turned away from Him. Away from the light.
St. John preaches to us on Christmas: “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
Jesus does not come with a new Law. He comes with grace. Grace means that God loves you and blesses you even though you haven’t deserved it.
Jesus is the well of grace. In giving Him, the Word, to become a human, God gives us His pure favor and grace and love. Jesus is the One who fulfills the Law. Grasp Him by faith and you have fulfilled the Law; you enter God’s presence and live.
Because Jesus brings us back to God. He lives without ever turning away from God. He dies the death that we have earned by rejecting God. He fulfills the demands of the Law for us. Then He raises our human nature with Him to the right hand of God.
Everyone who believes in Jesus receives the power to become a son of God through Him. Through faith in Him God gives us new birth as His sons. We are reborn into Jesus who died for our sins, rose from the dead, and ascended to the Father. Through faith in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we no longer merely speculate about God from a distance.
We know Him. We see Him in Jesus.
And we not only see Him and know Him as outsiders. We know God as sons. Because when God’s only-begotten Son took up human nature, He united human beings to Himself. He adopted our sin and death and made it His own on the cross, taking it out of the way. Then He raised our flesh to reign at God’s right hand.
If you believe this, you are reborn. You are given new birth by God. You are created anew by the Word in His image. You share in Jesus’ life by faith. You are born of God and know God. Throughout your life you will experience the cross and suffering and finally death, as did God’s Son. But you will be raised with Jesus and reign with Him. You will know the power of His resurrection and attain to the resurrection of the dead.
So we feast and rejoice on Christmas Day. No one has ever seen the Father, but God the Word has revealed Him by coming in the flesh. He has come down to us and raised up our flesh to heaven. He has united us with Himself and made us sons of God.
The body and blood that He gave for our sins we eat and drink this Christmas morning. We are forgiven. We are united to the eternal Word. We rejoice in the eternal Word who created us and who now has become what we are through His incarnation.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria