Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Obama Says the Right Things

Credit must be given where credit is due. Recently President Elect Obama made a statement about the fighting in the Gaza strip. He said all the right things, with exactly the right tone of voice. It sounded like Ronald Reagan. He condemned terrorism and insisted that Hamas must renounce violence and come to the negotiating table.

Now, the question is, what is he going to do about it, or allow Israel to do about it. Talking a good game is important, but real credibility comes from action. What is he going to do to put the heat on Hamas? What can he do? What is he willing to do? Time will tell if he has real credibility. For the sake of our country, I pray that he does.

Sermon for December 27-28

The Feast of the Holy Innocents
December 27-28, 2008 (December 28)
Text: Matthew 2:13-18

Dear Friends in Christ,
Christ came to bring peace on earth many will say. But if you look at the Fox New web site or the Drudge Report, you will see that a man dressed as Santa killed a bunch of people. Israel launched attacks on the Gaza Strip. India and Pakistan are ramping up toward war. There doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of peace on earth. In reality Luke 2:14 records the song of the Angels as: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Christ did not come to bring peace between men. Rather He brings peace between God and man - the peace that surpasses all understanding. All too often the peace that God gives results in violence upon this earth. Christ Himself confirms this in Luke 12:51: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Many conflicts upon this earth are just sinful men contending with sinful men. But other conflicts are specifically directed at Christians. Sinful men, who choose to remain in their sins, hate Christ and His followers. They lash out, often blindly and violently, against Christians.

One such person was King Herod the Great. Now, as I have often noted, Herod gets a bit of a bad rap among Christians. There is no denying that became an evil monster at the end of his life. In his last years he appears to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Herod was never a nice man at his best. He was a military strong man who had plotted with Rome to get his crown. But he was a successful ruler and a great builder and administrator. The accolade of calling him “the Great”, is not undeserved. He was also one of most astute politicians to ever live. He was placed in power by Pompey, but at just the right moment, Herod switched to supporting Julius Caesar. Then at the right moment he cast his lot with Marc Antony. Later, again at just the right moment, Herod betrayed Antony and allied with Ocatavian who became Caesar Augustus. Had Herod died five years earlier, this might indeed be what people remember - his building and his political acumen. But he lived into a time where he became insane. And in those days, though it might have been clear to everyone that he was mad as a hatter, he was still the king. There was no process for retiring him. The Herod we see in our text is in the very last weeks of his life, when the insanity had completely taken over the man.

I want to take a moment here before we proceed to talk about the time of Herod and the historical context. Mary and Joseph lived in Herod’s kingdom. He ruled all of what would be today Israel, as well as parts of Syria, and Jordan. When he died the Roman’s divided Herod’s territory into three sections, naming three of his sons as rulers. Archelous, like his father was mad, and was soon replaced by a series of Roman governors, the most successful of which were Valarius Gratus and Pontius Pilate. In Herod’s time he had his own army, which he raised himself and was not reliant on a Roman occupation force. Later, under the governors, the Romans raised auxiliary troops to serve as the garrison. These were mostly Samaritans. There is a reference to an Italian Cohort or battalion in the New Testament, so apparently they did have one unit of actual Roman soldiers. I bring up this tangent to make an important point. The Jews circulated many false stories about Jesus, including, as Matthew records, that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. One such story is that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier named Panthera and this is how Jesus came to be. This claim has been given new life in our own day by recent authors. But at the time Jesus was conceived, there were no Roman soldiers in Galilee or Judea. There were very few actual Romans in Judea at the time of Jesus crucifixion. So this claim is false on the face of it.

Now, we should stop goofing off and get back to the text. Herod was an enemy of God. He was an enemy of anyone whom he perceived as threatening his throne. He even put some of his own children to death. He had no room in his heart for God. Herod was his own god. So he lashed out against Christ. He wants Christ dead. He sends his soldier to Bethlehem to kill all the young children. One point that needs to be made is that they counted age differently than we do, so what they called two years of age is what we would call one year of age. So Herod’s order is that they kill all the children in Bethlehem one year of age and under by our reckoning. This would not have been a large number. There is also some historical evidence that Herod’s soldiers knew of their king’s madness and tended to do just enough to satisfy him. Sometimes we have the image of hundreds of babies being slaughtered. In fact it would have been a small number of children who were killed.

The numbers don’t really matter, other than as a point of historical accuracy. They are the first martyrs of the Christian faith. They are first to shed their blood for the sake of Christ. The infants of Bethlehem teach us that the world’s first, instinctive reaction to the coming of Christ is to lash out against Him. He comes to bring peace between God and man, but many in this world only want odds between them and God.

Faithful Mary and Joseph flee as God commands them. They go to Egypt. Now this would in fact only be about a long days journey on foot to get across the frontier. The Gaza strip was part of the Roman province of Egypt. They may not have stayed long, perhaps only a couple days. However long it was, it was long enough that King Herod had died. Here too we see how the faithful react to persecution. It is not wrong to flee. One indeed should be foresighted. One should never seek to be a martyr. But what one must never do is deny Christ. Christ is our Savior. Apart from Him there is no life. To deny Christ is to run into hell. And so we must confess Christ who paid for our sins with His blood. He gives us life as a gift that the world cannot take from us. In the infants of Bethlehem we see what the world intends for us and all who would dare to even consider the possibility of peace between God and man. Though the King Herods of the world are still with us, we have a peace and life that they cannot touch, even if they take our lives. We have it because God Himself became a human being and brought that peace to us, when He was born in Bethlehem.

Sermon for December 24

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2008
Text: Luke 2:1-20

Dear Friends in Christ,
Have you ever walked through a village or town in the middle of the night? Have ever had to leave for some matter of business at three or four in the morning? Have you ever noticed how quiet it is? Have you ever noticed how still it is. Nothing is moving. Nothing is making nose. You get the same feeling getting out to a deer stand in the predawn. You almost feel like you are intruding upon something. Winter nights seem especially calm. The quiet of the night is a time of peace. It can be disturbing in a sense as well. It closes you in with your thoughts. Sadly, our thoughts are not nearly as peaceful as the night. Of course we don’t get much peace and quiet at this time of year Frederic - not with the snowmobile trail running through town. Of course I should apply something I once heard. A friend from seminary was assigned to his first parish. He was from the city. The parsonage at his church was just downwind from a large pig farm. His parishioners were quick to explain that this was the smell of money. I should comfort myself that the sounds from the snowmobile trail are the sounds of tourist dollars. But most of the time, nights are quiet. They are a time of peace and stillness.

Compare this to a king’s entrance. A king comes and his soldiers go out and take control of the streets. His ministers come and set up his court and his golden throne. Musicians are lined up to play music of festive pomp. Enemies are arrested and thrown into jail or maybe even executed. Everyone is warned to be ready - or else! One day Christ will come just in that manner. And every knee will bow to Christ. Either we will bow willingly, freely acknowledging Christ as our King, or we will be forced to our knees before being carted off to hell. Christ will come one day with more pomp, more glory, more awe, and more power than any earthly king ever imagined. But that is in the future - when His kingdom upon this earth will be brought to a close. However, it is not the first time Christ came to earth. He first came to establish His kingdom. And that arrival was very different.

When All was still, and it was midnight, Your Almighty Word descended from the royal throne. This is the traditional liturgical verse that introduces the Christmas Introit. The King has come into the world. But it’s not the way kings come. His army of angels didn’t sweep the streets in preparation. A palace wasn’t prepared for Him. There were no trumpet fanfares. There was only the stillness of night. A young couple arrived late in the day and took lodging in a stable - probably a cave used as a stable. This was not a mark of great poverty, but a common practice. They had no escort and very likely, didn’t even have a donkey. In fact, most Jewish girls of the time would have been insulted if their husband showed up with a donkey for them to ride. They would have considered it an insult. These were women who prided themselves on their heartiness and vigor. This had been part of their culture for centuries. We read in Exodus: “...the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." This was most likely a young couple, though Scripture does not tell us their age. The husband was probably about seventeen or eighteen. The wife about twelve or thirteen. She would have went off by herself and quietly given birth, cut the cord herself, and so forth. Jewish girls were well prepared to be mothers, and knew all that was needed. And that was it. There was nothing more to it. In the still, quiet of the night, the King arrived to establish His kingdom.

This is not unusual for God. We might consider Elijah who journeyed to Mount Sinai to speak with God. There was a fire, an earthquake, a whirlwind, but God was not in any of them. Then when all this had passed, Christ spoke to Elijah in a still small voice. Christ quietly gave His message to Elijah. There would be a new prophet in his place, kings would fall and many would die. Though the message promised great violence and upheaval, the Christ spoke His words softly. Maybe this where Teddy Roosevelt got the idea of talking softly and carrying a big stick.

Like Mary and Joseph, the shepherds were quietly going about their business. They were watching in the stillness of the night. Perhaps it was lambing time. Some of them were undoubtedly asleep, as they divided in watches. Their quiet was suddenly shattered. But wait a minute. The angels came to tell the shepherds that their king had come. That’s backwards. The angels were supposed to tell the world the king was about to come - at least that would be how an earthly king would do it. And further, what are they doing bothering with shepherds. Why weren’t they telling Caesar or King Herod? Why weren’t they telling the high priest? Everything is backwards. But Christ stands everything on its head.

Why does Christ come into the world in this peculiar way? Why does He come quietly, almost as a thief in the night? Because Christ is a different kind of king laying claim to a different kind of kingdom. The pomp, the glory, the raw display of power would come one day - a day that is still in the future. But not that night. That night Christ came quietly in the stillness of the night. He was coming to bring peace between God and man. He was coming to be the perfect Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. He wasn’t coming to compel us to bend our knees before Him with swords at our back. He was coming to invite us to kneel before the manger and see the face of a loving and gracious God. He is inviting us to kneel and see our Savior from sin and death. In the stillness and quiet of the night, Christ was born. He was born to be the perfect sacrifice for our sin - yours and mine. He was born to die in our place, so that we might live with Him forever. He was born to rise from the dead and ascend to the highest place of glory and honor in heaven. He was born to judge the living and the dead. But most all He was born to invite us into His gracious presence, not as conquered subjects, but as His brother. For in the end that is what Christ wants us to see when we look into that manger - our brother.

Sermon for December 20-21

The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 20-21, 2008
Text: Luke 1:26-38

Dear Friends in Christ,
I can just picture this conversation. A girl comes home from school and says, Mom, Dad, I’m pregnant, but it’s okay. An angel came and talked to me between algebra and lit. He said this baby comes from God. Somehow I just don’t think too many parents would believe the girl. I think they’d be looking for the “angel’s” picture in the year book and checking which side of the tracks this Gabriel comes from. They might even call the police depending on the age of the girl and the age of this Gabriel. But really, why should parents be so suspicious? Virgin conceptions and births happen every day don’t they? Isn’t that why we have so many teenage girl’s pregnant? It couldn’t possibly be anything else, could it?

Sadly, of course the parents are correct about a hundred percent of the time. If their daughter shows up pregnant it is by the will of a man. A friend of mine is one of those rare creatures who has remained a virgin throughout her life. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer she decided she’d better have everything check out. The doctor did a double take when she said she’d never had sexual intercourse. According to this doctor, our friend is the first virgin over fourteen she’d seen in many years. Such is the sad state of our society.

Our text deals with an event that has happened once in the whole history of the world. The implications of this one event are staggering and mind boggling. Luke’s simple prose cover the turning of the hinges of time itself. It’s such a simple thing. A young girl is pregnant. Knowing the customs of the time she was probably twelve or thirteen years old. But this was not uncommon. This was the typical age of marriage. But there is this once in the whole history of the world fact that changes everything. She is a virgin. This child is born apart from the will of a man. This little tidbit is a like a nuclear explosion on the time line of the world.

There is more to this than just that it’s only happened once. A child born apart from the will of a man breaks all the rules. When Adam fell into sin, that sin became his legacy to all future generations. Thus we say, “In Adam’s fall we sinnĂ©d all.” Everyone of us inherited sin from our father. Thus every human being is born a sinner, like his or her father. But here we have a child born apart from the will of a man. This child has no human father. He does not inherit sin from His Father. Why? Because His Father is not a sinner. His Father is not a human being. This child is not a son of Adam. What does our text say? Instead of being a son of Adam, this child is the Son of God. There are more implications to this than Colonel Sanders has chicken parts.

Luke’s straight forward account drips with massive amounts meaning. A Child without sin. A Son of God. One who would rule forever. If you ran all this through the most powerful computer in the world, it would blow up from informational overload. A Child without sin. That alone would be remarkable. A person without sin will not die. Sin is the cause of death. To understand this we need to look at the words of Genesis 2:16-17: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Now people will say that they weren’t struck dead. But that is not what is meant, and perhaps this is more clear in the Hebrew. With the fall into sin, death entered the world. The process of life was replaced with the process of death. By death here we mean the whole business of human frailty and infirmity. Mankind becomes capable of dying and physical death becomes his ultimate end upon this earth. Death along with sin is what we call original sin. It is, as we said, passed down from father to child. But, because this child that Mary is carrying has no human father, and therefore is without sin, it cannot die. He is exempt from infirmity and death. Death cannot claim Him, unless some sin becomes attached to Him.

What else does the angel say? He will be called the Son of the Most High. By this Luke is telling us that this Child will be called the Son of Yahweh. There was once another child called the Son of Yahweh. We read this in Genesis 4:1. But here we must consult the Hebrew, because most English translations get this wrong. The translators look at the Hebrew text and say that just can’t be right. But it is. We read: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man who is Yahweh.’” But Eve was wrong. It was quickly painfully obvious that Cain was not the Son of God, but the son of Adam. Cain was a sinner, like all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. But now in our text the Archangel Gabriel says that this Child will be rightly called the Son of God. He is the Son of God because He will be born in His Father’s image - that is the image of God the Father.

There were three things. What was the third thing? Oh, yes, He will rule over David’s kingdom forever. That’s a neat trick. Sure the Son of a Jewish peasant girl is going to be a king? Right. And He’s going to rule forever. Right. The last I checked kings have this habit of ending up in tombs. Usually really deluxe accommodations, Westminster Abby, a pyramid, or some such thing, but it’s still a tomb. But this One is going to rule forever. That’s the promise made by the great archangel.

All of this is pointing to one extraordinary fact. There is only one way for this promise to be fulfilled. The Child she was about to carry is not just a descendant of King David. This was great David’s greater Son. This child would have to be God. God in the flesh - Yahweh, the One enthroned between the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. In fact Mary was about to become a living Ark of the Covenant. I think, being a good Jewess, raised in the synagogue tradition, that Mary probably understood this. I don’t think that her serenity was just ignorance. Yes, she was very young, and like all of us, she would need some time to work out all the implications. I think she was just a faithful believer gifted with an incredibly serene nature.

Why then is God taking up residence in Mary’s womb? So that He can save us from our sins. We said earlier that someone without sin would not die. Christ took our sins upon Himself so that He could pay the price of our sins for us. He died because He carried our sins. He died our death. So in a real sense we can say that Christ took up residence in Mary’s womb to die - to die for us. This then is the significance of the angel’s words. Christ would rule over all believers, not as their conqueror, but as their Savior from sin and death. Once in a lifetime! That is once in the lifetime of the world. Only once would a virgin bear a Son. Only once would God be born among us as our Savior. Once was enough. The deed is done. Our salvation is a accomplished. The fulfillment of all of God’s promises began when a young girl conceived through her ear, and God took up residence in her womb.

Sermon for December 16-17

Note: In an ironic twist of fate, this sermon on the Third Commandment was heard by very few people. One of my congregations canceled do to poor weather and the other did have service, though we were barely dug out. Needless to say, attendance was poor.

The Third Midweek in Advent
December 16-17, 2008
Text: Exodus 20:8-11

Dear Friends in Christ,
The most dangerous place in the world is not on top of the Mackinaw Bridge. The most dangerous place in the world is not on some battlefield. The most dangerous place in the world is not the pirate infested waters off of Somalia. The most dangerous place in the world is that inner space between our own ears. Why is that? Because our mind is consumed by sin and blinded by self. The more we dwell within ourselves, the more we place ourselves in danger. Yet, for post modern man, all real authority is located in inner man. This is why you can never say to a person you are wrong, because there is no authority outside the self. Yet, the more man dwells within himself, the more deluded he becomes and the more distant he is from God. God’s answer to this is to come to us through very specific, external means.

The true God is not spiritual as the current day uses that word. God is incarnational. That is, He comes to us in material means in our world. Central to this is the Word. It is God’s intent that we carry His Word in our hearts and minds. But also that we gather around that Word on a regular basis. The Third Commandment is not about rest, but about the gathering together of God’s people around His Word. Why was the seventh day - Saturday - first chosen as the day of worship? The seven day week and worship on the seventh day, reflects the rhythm of creation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. So then the seventh day became the day to gather around God’s Word and rest from our other labors. In the New Testament, the Church was freed from the Old Testament ceremonial law, but not the moral law. Thus, Christians were still to gather around the Word, but it didn’t have to be on the seventh day of week. To distinguish themselves from the Jews, they began to gather on Sundays, the first day of the week, but also the day of Christ’s resurrection. But Christians gave Sunday worship a twist. They didn’t originally speak of it as the first day fo the week, but as the eighth day of the week. It was the first day of the new creation in Jesus Christ. Thus, baptismal fonts traditionally have eight sides. But the command to gather as the community of believers around the Word of God remained.

Why does God command this? Because God doesn’t want us to dwell in our own minds. What do we mean by that? The French philosopher, Rene Decartes locked himself in his house, alone, for a couple years, so that he could think things through. After a couple years, he suddenly came up with the proposition, “I think, therefore I am”. This in turn led to philosophy students joking that Decartes, while flying on an airplane, was asked by a waitress if he wanted anything to drink. Decartes replied, I think not, and poof he was gone. But what Decartes did is not what God want us to do. We are not to try to work it out in our own heads. Most people who try this, end up like the Irish writer who said he’s made his own religion, with a little of this and that and put it all together. Rather we are to be students of God’s Word, and in particular we are to be gathered with our fellow believers to hear God’s teaching, together. Originally, the Apostles Creed was worded as we have it - I believe. But the Nicene Creed, originally read, “We Believe.” I was hoping our new hymnal would restore that wording, but it didn’t. Many will have a canipition, saying how can anyone believe for someone else? But that is not the point. Rather, our confession is what we hold in common. It is something we share. We are to believe the same things. Why? Well, first because they are true. It is what God has revealed about Himself in His Word. We learn this from a common source - the Bible. So it is fitting to have one creed read “I believe” and the other read “We believe”.

It is essential that Christians gather around God’s Word, but it is also important to be students of the Word. When we read Scripture, we are to read in such a way that learn and know - not just so that it passes through our eyeballs. The sainted Dr. G. Waldmar Degner, was the son of an old German farmer in North Dakota. You sometimes felt a little of North Dakota soil was still clinging to him. He was not a brilliant theologian. He taught New Testament. But one day, I came to his office with a question. He pulled out his Greek New Testament, and I was shocked to see that every page was stained with the print of his hand, as though he had sat their for hours upon hours studying the text. That is a student of Scripture. I’ve never owned a Bible that was stained like that. So I know that I have a ways to go, before I become the student of the Bible that I ought to be, according to the Third Commandment. Likewise for you. You are not to just rely upon what I say, though I am thankful for your trust. You are to search the Scriptures diligently to see if what I say is correct. This what the Third Commandment lays before us.

Like all of God’s commands, the Third Commandment, has a positive purpose. God’s Word is holy and without error. But our minds, that inner space, is filled with sin, lies, and corruption. God would draw us out from within ourselves, and into His Word. And there we learn that God is indeed holy, just, righteous, and yes, even vengeful. But we also learn that He is loving, gracious, patient, merciful, forgiving and generous. His love and mercy are so great that He sent His Son to be born in a manger as our Savior. We won’t learn that in the inner spaces. We only learn that in Word.

Sermon for December 13-14

The Third Sunday in Advent
December 13-14, 2008
Text: John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Dear Friends in Christ,
“Heeeere’s Johnny!” The voice of Ed McMahon, for a generation, informed America that the host of the “Tonight Show” was coming out. McMahon had a hard job, in a sense. He was there to make Johnny Carson look good. He had to set up things for Carson. He was the straight man for Carson’s Karnak the Maginificent routine. Carson would hold up the sealed envelope with the question and give the answer. Then McMahon had to open the envelope and read the question. McMahon often appeared in skits with Carson. He was always setting things up to make Carson look good. Interestingly enough, though Carson, saw himself in a similar light. His job was to make the guests look good. This is why so many people would come on the “Tonight Show” as guests. They knew that they would be treated well. Carson wouldn’t ambush them with something that would embarrass them. So Ed McMahon was there to make Carson look good, and Johnny Carson was there to make the guests look good. The guests were the main people on the show. It’s hard gig, but Carson and McMahon pulled it off beautifully for 29 years.

The most important set up man in the history of the world was not Ed McMahon. It was John the Baptist. When he began to preach in the wilderness in 29 A.D. people didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know who he was, or what he was. For some time now, I’ve tried to imagine what it would have been like to have been the very first person to hear John preach. I wonder if it might have been like this: A man is traveling through the region. The road goes beside some large rock. Suddenly, a voice thunders out from the top of the rocks. “Repent and make straight the way of the Lord.” The man looks up, startled, and sees this strange man standing upon the rocks. The first thing the man probably would note is the hair and the beard. John was a Nazarite from birth, that is under a Nazarite vow. Sampson and Samuel would be examples of men who lived their whole lives under such a vow. Part of this vow is that they would drink no alcohol. Another part of this vow is that they would not cut their hair or beard. Nazarite vows were common enough among the Jewish people, but the normal practice was for a man to be under the vow for a short time. St. Paul was under a Nazarite vow for a time in the book of Acts. A great deal is made of the time when he cuts his hair, thus ending the vow. But John was to be a Nazarite from birth for his whole life. So John would have looked like a wild man indeed.

As we noted last week there had been four hundred years of silence. God had not sent a prophet since time of Malachi and Zechariah, whose ministries would have ended within a few years of each other. Suddenly John appears, preaching prophetically. Now there are two different ways in which one can preach prophetically. One can preach from the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. In this sense, pastors today preach prophetically, as would the Rabbis of John’s day. The other way of preaching prophetically does not apply to pastors. John preached that his authority and message came from God. He was not relying upon the Scriptures for his authority or his message. He only uses the Scriptures to explain who he is. He shows that his coming was predicted and that it should be seen as a sign from God. What was this sign pointing to? “...among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” What John was saying is you think I’m something? Look out, there is one already among you who so great that not even the greatest of the prophets is worthy tie His shoes. Not even Moses is worthy to His empty his chamber pot.

What an incredible claim! What was John saying. How could someone be that much greater than the prophets? How could one be greater than Moses who spoke with God face to face? How could one be so much greater than Joshua who ordered the sun to stand still? How could one be so much greater than Elijah who called fire from heaven and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire without dying? The shock value must have been incredible. We need this explained to us. The emissaries from pharisees needed no explanation. They knew exactly what John was claiming.

So what was John claiming? That God, that Yahweh, was among them as a man. The one that spoke the Ten Commandments to the assembled tribes of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai was right there among them. Some in fact think that Jesus was right there hearing this, sitting among the disciples of John.

Those who teach that Jesus is just a man or that Scripture never calls Jesus God, are simply displaying their ignorance. Here is one of many texts that clearly is stating that Jesus is God. If you are the greatest of the prophets, and man is already above the angels, as Scripture states, there isn’t much above you. The only thing above the greatest of the prophets is God Himself, the One who sends the prophets.

But for God to be present is not, in itself, a good thing. God is present everywhere in the sense that He knows all and sees all. But His direct presence is a different thing altogether. There are consequences to His presence. Christ was directly present in Sodom and Gomorrah. Christ was directly present in the flood. Christ was directly present in the plagues sent upon Egypt. His presence brought destruction. Here also is John’s warning. Christ is here and His presence will bring destruction upon those who reject Him. But John’s warning does not tell the whole story. Christ was present in grace. That was why He was shrouded in human flesh. That is why He was hidden. He had not come to earth to destroy, though some would be destroyed by His coming. He had come to save. He was establishing His presence, according His Name, in grace. He was there among them to be a saving presence. So John’s message is one of warning, but also anticipation. For those who see God among them, this would be a time of great joy. All the Scriptures were coming to fruition in that age. All the promises of grace were being fulfilled.

John the Baptist was the set up man for Jesus Christ. As such, he is considered the greatest of the prophets. Christ in fact calls him this. John clearly confessed that he was not the Christ. But he pointed hearers forward. He told them that God was already among them. They needed to prepare their hearts to receive Him. And so also do we need to prepare our hearts. Christ is present here, according to the flesh. Why? Because He has placed His Name upon this place, and upon us His people. He comes to us daily in our baptism. He comes to us in the Body and Blood. He comes to us in His Word. For all this we need to be constantly preparing our hearts by examination of our lives before the commandments and by repentance. For our God is among us. He is among us to save. No we are not worthy. We are far less worthy than John. But He saves us, nonetheless. And that makes preparing our hearts a joy. It is a joy because we know that we have forgiveness and life in our Lord Jesus who is among us.

Sermon for December 9-10

The Second Midweek in Advent
December 9-10
Text: Exodus 20:7

Dear Friends in Christ,
Modern Americans have a hard time with concepts like sacredness. We tend to be iconoclastic. We like to tare down false traditions - things like the privileges of being born part of the nobility. About the closest we often come to holding something sacred is personal nostalgia. But even that is not really very sacred as we hear in the old John Denver song... “it’d hold eight kids, two hound dogs, and a pig we’d stole from the shed. We didn’t get sleep but we had a lot of fun on grandma’s feather bed.” Now this is not all bad. Some things that come down to us are indeed false and deserve to be cast aside. But there are some things which should indeed be held as sacred. Our founders understood this and often used the word sacred. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes and the sacred honor.

What does it mean that something is sacred? It meas it is set aside for some special purpose or use. It is not common. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we use a cup that is only used for the Lord’s Supper. We would not use that cup for a party. It has been set aside. It is sacred.

Scripture teaches us the nothing is more sacred than the name of God. What is the name of God? That’s a good question. God is not God’s name. That is a description of who He is. It’s rather like saying man, or dog, or cat. By using the term God, we saying that this is what He is. But it is rather generic. It does not in and of itself, tell who it is that we are calling God. The Old Testament name for God is Yahweh, which means “I AM that I AM”. It became custom among the Jews, for fear of misusing the Holy Name, to never say Yahweh. They would substitute “adonai,” which means simply “Lord.” This then became the custom among Christians as well. Most translations simply use “Lord” in place of Yahweh. Occasionally, Yahweh, is brought into English as Jehovah. But this is an English word that was accidentally created by combining the Hebrew consonants in Yahweh, with the Hebrew vowels for Adonai. And so while most people recognize Jehovah as a name for God, it is getting somewhat distant from the text of Scripture. The Old Testament used other names for God. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is Yahweh Shabbaot, that is the I AM Power and Might. He is the Ancient of Days, Son of Man, Immanuel, and numerous names. The Trinitarian name for God would be revealed in the New Testament - that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Names associated with individual persons of the Trinity would become more common, Christ, Jesus, Savior, Lamb of God, Comforter, Paraclete, and so forth. All these are the name of God.

God uses His name in a very special way. God’s name is what establishes His presence. Thus Christ says, that wherever God has gathered two or three people together in His name, He is there with them. Now God places His name in strange places, sometimes even hidden or private places. We might think of a church building or the ancient temple. That would be true. God has established His presence in buildings and such. But He has also established His presence with people. In the Old Testament the rite of Circumcision was associated with both God’s name and the naming of the child. They would often be interwoven in the name of the child. Common names usually had some Godly meaning such as Joshua - Yahweh Saves. So now God is present, by placing His name upon His people. And each day, the person would be reminded that God’s name was placed upon them as they used those parts. Sometimes I think that God has a perverse sense of humor. But there is a problem with circumcision in that it is was only done for males. There is no female circumcision in Scripture. In the New Testament, circumcision was replaced with Baptism. Now God’s name is placed upon all believers, male and female alike. Where is God’s name placed? Right here, on our forehead.

God’s name is sacred, because this is the means that He uses to establishes His presence with us, in grace. God places His name to save. So we are to hold His name as something set aside. It is not a common thing. But it is also a violation of the Second Commandment whenever we sin. Our sins desecrate the Name of God that has been placed upon us in our baptism. In this way all our sins are a violation of the First and Second Commandments.

The point that must not be lost however is that it is by God’s name that He saves. In placing His name upon us, God is claiming us as His own. We are His property. This is why Christ, God the Son, came to earth. He came to establish the presence of His name among us. Where the name of God is properly used, it is a saving name. And so we must hold this name as sacred and use it only as God commands - in prayer, praise, teaching for righteousness, and the like. We must not ever use the name of God for our earthbound purposes. That is how we desecrate the holy name. Yet, we must rejoice in this name for it is a name that gives life.

Sermon for December 6-7

The Second Sunday in Advent
December 6-7, 2008
Text: Mark 1:1-8

Dear Friends in Christ,
The Christian Church, almost from day one, was racked with numerous errors. Most of these have not gone away. But the New Testament writers addressed most of the common errors on many occasions. One of the common errors is to divide the Old and New Testaments as though they were telling two different stories. Some would go so far as to say that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament. We see this still today with those who try to say that it was the Father who appears in the Old Testament, but the Son in the New Testament. But a careful study of Scripture shows that it is always God the Son who appears to man. Christ Himself would say that no one has seen the Father, except Him who comes from the Father. Already in the Old Testament idea of God as Trinity it present, though not as clearly presented as we see in the New Testament. But clearly there is a distinction between God the Father and God the Son. In Daniel 7 we see God the Father presented as the “Ancient of Days” and God the Son presented as the “Son of Man”. In this chapter we see that the Father has given the Son authority to act in the world.

Scripture is set up to tie the Old and New Testament together. There would be a bridge that would connect two. There were numerous prophecies about the this bridge person. In fact the very last words of the Old Testament speak of this person. They call this bridge person Elijah the Prophet. But we know from the words of Scripture itself that this prophet was not the old Elijah come back to earth, but a new prophet who would preach with the power and spirit of Elijah, calling people to repentance. This bridge person is John the Baptist. He is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. But he appears in the New Testament. He is calling people to repentance and baptizing them. His preaching is still the same, Old Testament message - the Messiah is coming. But in baptism, John hearkens forward to the One who blesses the waters and make them a washing of regeneration.

Mark is trying to make this point in his opening words. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then what does Mark immediately do? He quotes the Old Testament. The beginning is not John’s preaching. Rather the beginning of the Gospel is the entire Old Testament, which John now concludes. John would be the end of the beginning.

Now one of the points that Dr. Voelz, my Greek professor, impressed upon us is the importance of participles. An awful lot of the verbs used in the New Testament are in fact the equivalent of the English participle. What this means is that they denote continuous action, that does not end. If something begins, it also continues. If the Old Testament was the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then that same Gospel continues.

This connecting of the Old and New Testaments is hardly a new concept. The ancient fathers were quick to jump on this idea. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in the fourth century: “With baptism the old covenant ends and the new begins. This is in the fact that inaugurator of the New Testament is John the Baptist... He is the crown of the prophetic tradition: For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.”

One must wonder what sort of stir the appearance of John caused. There had been no prophets for four hundred year. The last prophetic words of Malachi warned people to look for the appearance of a new Elijah. Then after four hundred years John appeared in the wilderness. Many wondered what this man was. The ancient father Tertullian says that some thought that John was an angel. In the sense that he was God’s messenger, this is true, for that is what the word angel means - messenger. Eusebius likewise notes that many thought that John was more than a man. But John clearly tells us in his own words that he is indeed just a man, in spite of his strange appearance and thunderous preaching. John only baptized with water. He had no supernatural power of his own.

What was John? He was the forerunner - the one to point people to the reality that the Messiah had come. He was there to prepare people’s hearts to receive their Savior. For it is a fearsome thing to be visited by God. John warned people to repent of their sins. In one of the other gospels, John even warns that the Messiah would bring judgement against those who rejected God’s Word. John was telling people that they were at the crossroads of time. They had one chance to get it right. How did they do that? By repenting of their sins and seeking God’s forgiveness. The problem with this message is that one must first see that they have sin of which they must repent. Many in John’s day, and even today, refuse to see their own sin. Those who see themselves as without sin, likewise will see no need for a savior from sin. The corruption of man’s mind is so sever that we can delude ourselves in this way. But we need only look at the daily news reports to see that mankind is filled with sin and evil. We only need to look into the mirror of the Ten Commandments to see our own sins. Yet, how often do we hear the delusion that mankind is basically good? Where has this basic goodness ever come out in practice? Far from seeing good we see greed and vice of every sort, including sadly, a return of pagan misogyny. As Dr. Alvin Schmidt has explained in his book “Under the Influence”, it is where we see Christ that we see men doing good. Even unbelievers often do good because they are influenced by Christian thought. This all brings us back to John’s call for repentance. We prepare our hearts by examining them in the light of God’s law. We prepare our hearts by laying our sins before the cross of Jesus Christ. For while we are welcoming our King, we are also welcoming our Savior - the One who died for our sins so that we would have forgiveness and life.

John the Baptist is the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He is an Old Testament prophet who appears in the New Testament. He called people to repentance, even as he continues to call us to repentance today. He baptized people as a mark of their repentance. Yet, he was just the forerunner. He was the warm up act. The One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit was already among them, though not yet revealed. That One, Jesus Christ, would be the main event. John called for people to repent of their sins. Jesus would take those sins from us and carry them to the cross. For without forgiveness, what point is there to repentance? Like people of all ages, we need to be constantly reexamining ourselves, our own lives and our own hearts. John calls upon us to do so. We do this so that we are prepared to receive our King and Savior when He appears. For Christ appears to us in many ways everyday. He comes to us in His Word. But we also we know that Christ will come at the end of time. So for each of these appearances of Christ, our hearts must be ready. And so for us preparation is just as John said. We repent and return each day to our baptism for the forgiveness of our sins. For indeed we were not baptized with just water. We were baptized with the Holy Spirit, in, with, and under the water. And so we prepare to receive our Lord, by returning each day to those holy waters.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sermon for December 2-3

The First Midweek in Advent
December 2-3, 2008
Text: Exodus 20:1-6

Dear Friends in Christ,
Events of the last couple years have convinced me that we living at a time when the most important and fundamental ideas are in flux. As a society, we no longer know right from wrong. I can’t catechize the world. But I have an obligation to catechize you. For this reason, we are doing an extended series on the Ten Commandments that will cover the mid weeks in Advent and Lent. The world may not know what right and wrong are. We had better know. Why should we know? Because God has revealed this to us. The world only has natural knowledge of God’s law. The world might work out part of it by reason. But there is no guarantee that the world will get it right. Further, man’s mind and heart is corrupted and blinded by sin. Man, clouded by sin will say that wrong is right and right is wrong. The Nazi’s argued that they were making the world a better place. The Mumbai terrorists, I am certain, believe that they were acting in righteousness. This is what sin does to the human mind. But we have no excuse. God has given us His law. We can just open the Bible or the catechism and read it. We therefore should know God’s law.

The law is what we are to do and not to do. The law is the basis of God’s justice. As such it condemns us all. None of us can live up to it. The law is the basis for civil government, as a sword to restrain evil in the world. We call this first use of the law. It is for this purpose that God establishes civil government among men. It should be noted that in carrying out the first use of the law, God uses the believer and the unbeliever alike. Likewise, the civil law that God has established applies to all. The law also serves as a mirror to show us our sin. This is perhaps its most important function for Christians. In the law we see how our lives have failed to live up to God’s objective standard. Finally, the law is a guide for how God intends us to live our lives. In this sense, the law is rather like a UL warning on an appliance. Drop this in the water and something bad will happen. Violate God’s law and your life will be less peaceful. We call this third use of the law. But we must always beware of the third use of the law. It must never be used independent of the second use of the law. Unless we first see our sin, the third use of the law will lead us into sins of self righteousness.

The first commandment, as it appears in Scripture is out entire text, from Exodus 20. It starts with the assertion that the one speaking to the Israelites is indeed God. It includes in it the prohibition on making graven images. A graven image is an image made to represent God, by which He has not revealed Himself. A statue of Christ or a crucifix is not a graven image since, in Christ, God revealed Himself as a man. If on the other hand if we set up a golden bull calf and said this is Christ, it would be a graven image, since He had not revealed Himself as a golden bull calf. It should be noted that this is precisely what the Israelites did. The golden bull calf that appears on a number of occasions throughout the Old Testament was always intended to represent the true God. But it was, nevertheless, a forbidden graven image and God did not bless such worship.

That brings us to the first commandment itself: You shall have no other gods. In the Hebrew it is literally, you shall have no other gods before My face. It is first and foremost a liturgical command. You shall not mix the worship of the true God with false forms of worship or with the worship of false gods. The First Commandment does forbids us from praying together with Muslims, Hindus, or Jews, for example. There might be a circumstance when one attends their place of service as a guest and observer and vice versa. But we are not to participate with them in their worship. So for example, some Hindu groups in Minnesota are organizing an interfaith service to commemorate the dead of Mumbai. We would not participate with them in such a thing. It would be a sin to do so. But of course we certainly include those affected by this tragedy in our prayers to the true God.

Some might object by saying, doesn’t everyone really worship the same god? No. That’s the simple straight forward answer. Such thinking is just irrational sentiment. If one were to study the teachings of the different religions, one must conclude that they teach radically different things. Often they teach opposite things. If a religion teaches that something is black and another religion teaches that the same thing is white, they are not teaching the same thing. Further, it follows that one is right and the other is wrong. This is just basic logic. In addition to this, there is one thing that only the true God teaches. Only the words of the true God are ever called Gospel or Good News. Gospel is the opposite of the Law. The law is what we to do and not to do. The Gospel is what God, in Christ Jesus, has done for us. No other religion has a god who does things for His people as pure gift, reflecting His love. Only in the true God, Jesus Christ, do we find forgiveness for our sins. Only the true God, Jesus Christ, has died for us. This makes the true God quite unique. It also makes the true God a God of hope. The law still applies to us. But Christ has fulfilled in our place. He has fulfilled all the law, for us who could not, including the First Commandment. You cannot say that of any other god.

Sermon for November 29-30

The First Sunday in Advent
November 29-30
Text: Mark 11: 1-10

Dear Friends in Christ,
Happy New Year! Yes, today we begin a new church year. We also begin the festival half of the church year. We begin, as we do each year, with a season of preparation. Advent means “coming”. Christ is coming. He is coming at the end of time. He is coming to us in Word and Sacrament. He is coming to us in the absolution - that is the forgiveness of our sins. He is coming. Are we ready? All of this, of course, is to prepare us to celebrate the coming Christ in the flesh - that is Christ’s incarnation. Christmas is not Christ’s birthday, as such. The date of his birth was not recorded. But rather it is a celebration of Christ, who in coming to us as a man, became for us the light of the world. The date was originally chosen because December 25 was the winter solstice. Over the centuries the solstice has moved a few days, as it will continue to do. Some claimed that Christians chose this date to celebrate Christ’s birth in order to keep Christians away from a pagan festival. But recent scholarship suggests that the pagans began to celebrate the feast of Sol Invictus, to keep the pagans from joining the Christians in celebrating Christ’s birth.

What a place to begin! We begin with Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Now before you wonder whether or not the lectionary committee was smoking some wacky tobacco in their pipes, consider this. Until the mid 1960's we used a one year lectionary that had not been significantly changed in more than 500 years. The Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent is from Matthew 21 - Christ’s entry in to Jerusalem. In the mid 1960's we began to introduce the three year lectionary. There is still some debate whether this is good or bad. It has be pretty fluid, with frequent adjustments. But here, we hearken back to the old one year lectionary and began, as we did for 500 years with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

Christ is coming. Are you prepared? That certainly must have been the question many were asking on that Sunday - March 29, 33 A.D. Christ made His entrance as a king. Christ reenacted Solomon’s coronation entrance. Solomon had entered Jerusalem riding on his father’s donkey after he was anointed king by Zadok, the high priest, on the Mount of Olives. The people recognized what Christ was doing and they responded in celebration. They threw their coats and palm branches before him. They cheered Him with cries of Hosanna - that is Lord Save us. They praised the “Son of David”. Yet, were they really prepared? Did they understand the King that was before them. One suspects that they did not.

Who is this Christ who comes to us? The promised one. The Messiah. The Son of David. But does that really tell us who He is. This, I think, is the hardest concept for Christians to grasp. Yet, grasp it we must. For if we don’t understand who Christ is, everything about the Christian faith falls apart. So who is Christ? He is God the Son. He is the Second Person of the Trinity. He is the Angel of the Lord. He is Immanuel - that is God with us. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. He is the God who appeared throughout the Old Testament. He is God who deals with man. In entering Jerusalem to be our king, Christ was not elevating Himself. He was humbling Himself. He was condescending to be our King of grace. As St. Augustin said: “The master of humility is Christ, who humbled Himself and became obedient even to death, even death on the cross. Thus He does not lose His divinity when He teaches us humility...What great thing was it to the king of the ages to become the king of humanity? For Christ was not the king of Israel so that He might exact a tax or equip an army with weaponry and visibly vanquish an enemy. He was the king of Israel in that He rules minds, in that He gives counsel for eternity, in that He leads into the kingdom of heaven for those who believe, hope, and love. It is a condescension, not an advancement for one who is the Son of God, equal the Father, the Word through Whom all things were made, to become king of Israel. It is an indication of pity, not an increase in power.” St. Augustin is here reminding us that the One Who comes to us is fully God. He is not grasping some higher thing. Rather, Christ is lowering Himself down to us, to bring forgiveness to us. He is reducing Himself to bring peace between God and man.

This teaching is more important than ever in a world that constantly wants to say that Christ was just a man. He was true man. Indeed, were He not, He could not save us. But Christ is not just true man. He is also true God from all eternity. He is the eternal Son of God. He came down into our broken world, into the stinking muck of our sin, breathed our poisoned air, so that He could save us from sin and death. For Christ’s coming is always connected to His cross. He lowered Himself into our world, in order to lower Himself even further, that is to death. Understand something, since Christ is without sin, He cannot die. It is not possible. Yet, He took our sins upon Himself and died the death of a sinner. He did this out of His great love for us. And what is Christ’s great reward for this? He gains us. He becomes our King. Consider again the strangeness of this. He is King, just because of Who He is. But He comes down and makes Himself King again in a new way by dying on the cross for our sins. So then His reward is us - us stinking, filthy, miserable sinners. If we consider this judgement on the nature of mankind, too harsh, consider what happened in New York on Friday. Shoppers trampled a man because they were in a hurry to get a bargain. One must ask here is God insane? For indeed, who would die for mankind? Are we worth it? I cannot imagine a man reckoning mankind as so valuable. Yet, Christ considered us of sufficient value to die for us. Christ turns everything upside down.

Christ is coming. Are you ready? Have you prepared your heart? Have you confessed your sins? Have you sought to amend your life? Have you studied and learned, so that you understand Who this is that is coming to You? Do you understand that this is God coming to you to forgive your sins? Do you understand that God is coming out of pity for our sinful condition? Do you understand that Christ has become our King by becoming our servant? All these things are important to preparing our hearts. This is why we take four weeks to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming. There is much to do before we are ready. Yet, for us, this preparation is a joy. We know that our King comes not to exact revenge, but to save. We rejoice at His coming because we know that He brings peace between God and man.