Monday, December 27, 2010

Sermon for December 26, 2010

The Feast of St. Stephen
December 26, 2010
Text: Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60

Dear Friends in Christ,
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen...” We all know the old carol. When did he look out? On the Feast of Stephen - December 26th. It is on this day, the day after we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, that we celebrate the first to be killed for confessing Christ.

There is a strange irony that St. Wenceslas of Bohemia would become connected with the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Wenceslas was the ruler of Bohemia for just 5 years in the 900's. In his own life, he’d have been known as a duke rather than a king. Two things conspired to make his brief reign tragic. First, Bohemia was still divided between Christians and pagans. Wenceslas’ mother and brother were both pagans. But Wenceslas was a devoted Christian, known for his piety and his acts of charity. Bohemia was also at a political crossroads. Should it be part of the Holy Roman Empire or should it be an independent state? Wenceslas realized that they could not resist the empire. He probably also saw this as a way of strengthening Christian presence in Bohemia. Wenceslas was murdered by his pagan brother on the steps of a church. He died a martyr. He died because he embraced Jesus Christ. Ironically, Boleslav, Wenceslas brother was defeated by the Holy Roman Empire and was forced to become a vassal of Emperor Otto I. Nor could Boleslav hold back the growth of Christianity in Bohemia. A bishopric was established in Prague during time of Boleslav’s son.

Stephen was likewise a martyr. He died because he confessed Christ. In fact he is the very first Christian martyr in the proper sense of the word. He bore witness to the world for Christ with his very blood. That is what the word martyr means - to bear witness.

Who was Stephen and why was he singled out for such harsh treatment? The congregation at Jerusalem was organized immediately after Pentecost. In that time widows were often left impoverished. There were no jobs for them. They were not allowed to own property. So the church began to make provision for them. This practice would eventually evolve into what we know as the convent, a few centuries later. This led to the first fight in the church. That first congregation had two factions. They were all Jews but some retained their language and customs. Others had adopted the Greek language and customs. The widows who spoke Greek as their everyday language began to complain that they were being shorted in the distribution of food. The Apostles asked the congregation to suggest seven men who could oversee this work and make certain everyone was treated fairly. So seven deacons or helpers were selected. We read in Acts 6:5-6: “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” If you were to examine these names closely you would find that they are all Greek names. So these would have been Hellenic Jews, that is Greek speaking Jews. This was probably done to show that they were committed to the care of the Greek speaking widows.

The deacons were not pastors. They did not conduct the public services of the church. But they did get involved in evangelism, in addition to their care for the widows. The book of Acts tells us that both Stephen and Philip were heavenly involved with evangelism work. We should note that the Deacon Philip is not the same person as the Apostle Philip.

Stephen got involved with what could be called apologetics ministry. This is the defense of the Christian faith over and against those Jews who had not become Christians. Stephen, it appears, was a good Jew who knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards. In this he is much like St. Paul, who ironically was one his opponents. Stephen would debate with Jewish scholars and they could not refute him. So they took him out and stoned him. Stephen, following the example of Christ, with his dying breath asked that God would forgive his attackers.

The date for the celebration of saints is normally their presumed date of death. So this is thought to have occurred on December 26th of the year 33 A.D. - just months after Jesus death and resurrection. Stephen would be the first to bear witness to Christ with His blood.

It might seem odd in the Christmas season to be celebrating a martyr. But we should not think it odd at all. Christ divides the world. At His coming Herod tried to kill Him. Certainly others, had they known, would have done the same. Perhaps even Caesar Augustus would have sent soldiers after Christ had he known of his birth. Christ later said that He did not come to bring peace but to set one against another. This division happened when some came to faith and others rejected the gifts of God. But didn’t the angels sing of peace on earth? Yet, but it’s not earthly peace. Rather, that the peace of God came into the world and into the hearts of all who believe.

Christ came to divide the world. He would divide it by raising some to life in the waters of baptism. Others would refuse or reject baptism and the new life that Christ offers. Sometimes it is those who have the gifts of Christ and cast them aside who become Christ’s bitterest enemies. Joseph Stalin was once a seminary student, studying to be an Orthodox priest.

This is literally a battle between the living and the dead. Christ raises us to life to life as sons of God - that is as heirs to the entire kingdom of His Father. He makes us princes just as He is the Prince. In raising us to life, Christ takes our sins from us. He makes us to be holy and righteous. His righteousness becomes our righteousness. But for those who reject this, they remain dead. They remain in the grasp of Satan. And often they lash out at the sons of God. It happened from the first.

Today is the feast of Stephen. It is a day to remember that some have given their very lives for the Babe of Bethlehem. There has been a great legion of martyrs. And there will continue to be martyrs for Christ, as the world of the dead hates the living and the One who gives life. Today we remember two of them. There was King Wenceslas killed on the door of the church by his pagan brother. Then there was Stephen, killed for defending Christ among those who did not want to hear the truth of God’s Word. These are just two of the many men and women who have born witness to Christ with their blood.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sermon for December 24, 2010

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2010
Text: Isaiah 7:10-17

Dear Friends in Christ,
Christmas. The word is literally Christ’s Mass. It is the celebration of the incarnation of God the Son. We are celebrating the fact that God became flesh and dwelt among men. December 25th is not Christ’s birthday. We don’t know the day that He was born. The date of someone’s birth was rarely recorded in the ancient world. We only know that Christ was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great, which occurred in March of 4 B.C. Some scholars have suggested late January as the time of Christ’s birth - the time when lambs are born. This would account for the shepherds in the fields. But that is just a guess. December 25th was chosen by the western church in ancient times as the day to celebrate the incarnation of Christ. The Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 6.

There are many prophecies regarding the birth of Christ. Isaiah gives us what is perhaps the most curious. First, it doesn’t even appear to be talking about Christ at all. The prophecy was given in 740 B.C. when Judah was going to war against Israel and Syria. King Ahaz, a faithless man, was preparing the defenses of his kingdom. Isaiah was sent to give King Ahaz a sign to show that he need not fear these enemies. Their power would be broken by the Assyrians. And it would happen in the time it takes for a woman to conceive, bear a son, and that son to be weaned - say about four years. Dr. Luther, in his lectures on Isaiah explains how this prophecy was fulfilled at that time. And this would make a great discussion in a Bible class, but that is of little concern for us today/tonight. For while this prophecy was fulfilled at that time, it also had a second and greater fulfillment, which Dr. Luther was also quick to point out. And how do we know that this is talking about Christ? Because St. Matthew in Chapter 1 of his Gospel tells us that this prophecy points to Christ. As we say, Scripture interprets Scripture.

The ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words would come when Mary conceived apart from the will of a man. Mary, a virgin, was carrying a Son. This is simply not humanly possible. Yet, this is what Isaiah had foretold. And this is what Matthew and Luke tell us happened.

Who were Mary and Joseph, that this should happen to them? They were common people of the age. They were neither rich nor poor. They were young, probably just getting started in life. There was nothing special that they did that caused this to happen. This was all God’s doing. There are two things however, about them that must be considered. The promise of the Messiah was not just given to the world in general. The promise was given to Adam and Eve. Okay, everyone is a descendant of Adam and Eve. That doesn’t narrow it much. The promise was given to Noah. But then we are also all descended from Noah. The promise was given to Abraham. So now we have a narrowing of the promise. It would be fulfilled through the descendants of Abraham. The promise narrowed again when it is given to Jacob’s son Judah. Well, Mary and Joseph were Jews. In the fact the word Jew means of the tribe of Judah. But it was narrowed again. Within the tribe of Judah, the Messiah would be born from the descendants of King David. And Isaiah narrowed it even more. It would be a virgin of the House of David who would bear the Messiah or Christ. And indeed what do we read in the Gospels? Mary and Joseph are both of the House of David. Micah prophesied that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, and Hosea that He would be raised in Nazareth. Daniel prophesied that the Christ would be born in the time the of the Roman empire.

God’s plan was all laid out when the Angel Gabriel appeared to a Virgin in the little Jewish village of Nazareth. She would bear a Son, who would be the Son of God. How do we know? Because she was a virgin. This was no ordinary child. This Child was born of the will of God. God alone is His Father. Luther explained that Mary conceived through her ear. She heard the words of the Angel and it happened just as he had said. One presumes that this is the only child in the history of world conceived through the ear. All other children in the history of the world were conceived through organs a bit lower on the body. But that’s the point. This Child is God. And yes, He was already God in the Virgin’s womb. The ancient Church gave Mary the title of the Blessed Theoktos. That is a Greek word that means the “bearer of God.” Sometimes it is rendered “mother of God”. The Child she carried is God. And how do we know this? Because Mary was virgin. It has only happened once in all of history. It’s bound to be pretty important.

In fact, these events are so important, our eternal fate hangs upon them. God didn’t come into this world show off His power. Look’ee what I can do, I can even make a virgin have a baby. No, no, it’s nothing like that all. God had a far greater and more serious purpose for this. Christ, at the moment of His conception in the womb of the Virgin, became a man. He became one of us. He became a fully, flesh and blood, human being. He didn’t just appear to be man. He was a man. But He’s also still God. He’s still God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. God became one of us. He does this to make peace between God and man. He becomes one of us, so that He can bear our sins and free us from sin and death. He was born without sin, and thus could not die. Yet, He was born to die. He was born to die for our sins upon the cross. This was not an academic exercise. This was real. God really was in the womb of a virgin, for us. He was in that manger, for us. He was on the cross, for us.

God became flesh and dwelt among us? How do we know that this is true? Because He was born of a virgin, as Isaiah had foretold. This is the mystery of the ages. God came down from heaven, to save us sinners. He came to bear our punishment, and our humiliation. He came to give us life, with Him, that would never end. He came to be one of us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sermon for December 22, 2010

Forth Wednesday in Advent
December 22, 2010
Text: Exodus 25:10-22

Dear Friends in Christ,
Any time anyone brings up the Ark of the Covenant, the first thing many people think of is Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry W. “Indiana” Jones and the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. There is actually a lot of good stuff in that movie. What many movie goers didn’t grasp is how much of what is portrayed is based upon the Bible and up on history. Hitler really did collect artifacts and talismans. If he’d have had any inkling of the location of the Ark, he would have sent men to find it. And of course we know from the Bible that opening the Ark is a bad thing. Several people in the Bible died for trying to do that. In fact merely touching the Ark caused death. The Philistines became ill merely having it in their cities. The Ark of the Covenant is one of those items you’re not quite certain you want around.

What was the Ark of the Covenant? It was a box made of acacia wood, covered in hammered gold. It was about a yard long, a half yard wide and a half yard tall. It had a lid also covered in gold. On the lid were statues of two cherubim. Between the cherubim was a seat, called the “Mercy Seat”. The Ark was built at the time of Moses. Inside was placed an urn of manna, the stone tablets, and Aaron’s staff which come to life and blossomed and produced almonds. If the Ark still exists, it is unknown what one would find inside today. Perhaps these items have indeed turned to dust as the movie depicted. Or perhaps they were removed. The Ark itself disappears sometime between 950 B.C. and 680 B.C. It may have been taken to Egypt by the Pharaoh Ramses II, whom the Bible calls Shishak. But, if so, it may have been returned. It appears to still be in the temple into the time of Isaiah. But it does not appear that it was still in the temple when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The last hint of it’s presence would be a hundred years earlier, and even that is not certain. So we don’t know if it was destroyed. We don’t know if it was hidden. It could, in theory, be out there waiting to be found. I’m not certain I want to be the one to find it.

The Ark was placed into the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle. This was the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle. The high priest would go into the Holies only once a year. He would enter on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. He had to take the blood of the goat sacrificed for the sins of the people and pour it out on the Mercy Seat. This continued in the Temple of Solomon. Once the Ark was removed, and throughout the time of the second Temple, the high priest would simply pour out the blood on the spot where the Ark would have sat. According to Jewish tradition, the Ark had been placed in the Holy of Holies of the Temple on the very stone where Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac. For indeed, the temple mount is the very same Mount Moriah, where Abraham and Isaac had went to worship.

How does the Ark of the Covenant point us to Christ? It goes back to what the Ark of the Covenant is. A little study of languages is in order here. In Hebrew, the word covenant is B’reth. Yet, when Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament into Greek they chose an odd word to translate B’reth. They used the Greek word Diatheke. Diatheke means last will and testament. It carries with it the idea of being a solemn gift. God’s Covenant was a gift to His people. He sealed that gift with His own presence. Christ dwelled upon Mount Sinai. We don’t know why. We just know that He did. Moses got, from Christ, the instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, on Mount Sinai. When the Ark was first placed into the completed Tabernacle, the glory cloud that concealed Christ upon the mountain descended and rested upon the Ark. The Ark was Christ is throne among His people. And what did they do with their sins? They poured their sins out upon Christ. Christ would be upon the Mercy Seat when the priest poured out the blood. By this act they were pouring their sins upon Christ. Why? Because Christ was taking their sins upon Himself.

The Ark, in a literal sense was lost. But the true Ark remained. The true Ark is Christ’s throne of grace. The next throne would be the womb of a young virgin. So when Mary comes to Elizabeth, Elizabeth greets the living Ark of the Covenant. The manger would become the next Ark of the Covenant. So the shepherds would come and see Ark of the Covenant with Christ there enthroned, in a stable. And finally, Christ would take His place, enthroned upon the final incarnation of the Ark of the Covenant - the cross of Calvary. The cross too would be Christ’s throne of grace among His people. It was upon that mercy seat that the blood of atonement for our sin would be once and for all poured out.

So yes, the Ark of the Covenant is an object that points us forward to Christ. It is Christ’s throne of grace. It is the mercy seat of God. In that, it was the first in a long line of thrones, from a virgin’s womb, to a manger, and finally the cross. The Ark and the Cross are really the same thing - Christ’s throne of grace, the mercy seat of God. They are both the place where our sins are placed upon Christ and atoned for all eternity.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sermon for December 18-19, 2010

The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18-19, 2010
Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Dear Friends in Christ,
Marriage customs have varied a good deal over the centuries. Today brides wear white. But in the middle ages, white was the color of death, so a bride would never wear white. In our day, marriages are contracted and finalized all at once. But in earlier times, marriage contracts could precede the actual union by several years. Among kings, it was once common for infants be married by proxy. The actually union would not take place until the children were physically mature, say in their teenage years. Think on this, could you image being married as long as you could remember, but not meeting your spouse for several years? Virginity was once considered so important to the marriage contract that brides often wore chastity belts for a period time before the wedding to make certain the contract could not be broken.

Marriage customs at the time of Christ’s birth were much different than they are today. A boy would apprentice into a trade. By about twelve or fourteen, he’d become a journeymen. At this time he’d begin to salt away his money. He might also during this period contract with another man to marry the man’s daughter. He needed to save enough money to support his wife and acquire a home. He’d have to progress in his trade to the point where he was considered a master craftsman, who could operate his own shop. Most frugal and industrious young men would accomplish all this some time between seventeen and twenty-two years of age. Most girls would be entered into marriage contracts shortly after they were physically mature. This would be somewhere between ten and twelve years of age, depending on the girl. The couple would not start their life together until the man had all things in readiness. So it was typically perhaps two years between betrothal and the actual union.

A side note, here. There is a tradition that Joseph was an older widower. We see this in much of the Christmas artwork. But I believe that there is a problem with such a supposition. First, Scripture tell us this no where. Second, a widower, most likely would enter into a marriage contract and immediately take his bride home. All things would already be in readiness. While this does not prove that Joseph was not an older man and a widower, it suggests that it is not likely. I think we are best to take Joseph to be a younger man, between seventeen and twenty-two as I have noted. Mary, as a typical bride, would be between say thirteen and fifteen years of age.

We also know that morals were a little loose in this time. It was not unheard of for a girl to turn up pregnant. Then, as now, no one suspects a virgin birth. Often if a girl didn’t want to marry daddy’s choice, she snuck off with her choice and let nature take its course. Joseph, very likely, presumed that this had been the case with Mary. He may not have known her particularly well. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “just man”. Today, we might say, he was a nice guy. He didn’t want anything bad to happen to Mary. And he really didn’t want to impose himself upon her, if she genuinely didn’t want him. He would privately void the marriage contract so that she would be free to marry the father of the child. While adultery was, in theory, punishable by stoning, this was rarely done in this period. For one thing, King Herod’s government would look badly upon a mob killing someone, no matter what the reason. Just think of the rigamarole that went along with getting Jesus put to death on Good Friday.

Matthew is writing here what may be termed a rabbinic legal brief. He is writing this account in the way you would present it to a Jewish rabbinic court. He’s trying show how this was a proper marriage and that Jesus did not come into this world by a sinful liaison. Joseph is now approached by an angel. We can, with reasonable safety, presume that this is the angel Gabriel, though it is not specifically stated. The angel explains to Joseph that Mary’s child is the creation of God, it is miracle. This child would be truly be the Son of God - that is the second person of Trinity, come into the flesh of a human being. As John would say, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Joseph then fulfills the promise made in his marriage contract, indeed he would have been obligated to do so. But he does not consummate the union while she is carrying the Christ child.

The question is raised as to whether Mary remained a virgin. In a direct sense the Bible is silent on this. Verse 25, the last verse of our text, when read in the Greek, only speaks to what happened before Christ was born. It does not speak to what happened afterwards. Any position taken on this would be a conclusion drawn from indirect evidence. Many Lutherans, including Dr. Luther and Dr. Walther, taught that Mary remained virgin. My professors at seminary were divided. Yet, the simplest reading of several passages would suggest that Mary did not remain a virgin and that her and Joseph had a normal marriage from that point forward. It is a point of teaching where we must let each conscience decide for themselves, and place no imposition upon others.

The virgin conception and birth of Christ has huge implications for us. In Genesis 5:3 we read that Adam’s son Seth was born in Adam’s image. All human beings are born in the image of Adam. Adam is the father of us all. That image is the imprint of sin. We are born sinners. David says in Psalm 51:5 “ sin did my mother conceive me...” We call this original sin. It is the sin we inherit from our fathers. But Jesus is the descendent of the woman mentioned in Genesis 3:15. He is not a son of Adam. He is the Son of God. He is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, apart from the will of a man. Because His Father is God, Christ is born holy and sinless. This is why it is crucial to teach that Christ was born of a virgin.

One who is without sin, cannot die. They are eternal. Death comes from sin. The very fact that we are mortal comes from the fact that we were born in sin. Yet, Christ who was sinless died. So what sin caused His mortality? Our sin. He carried our sins upon Him. He became sin for us. Only One who is both holy and divine could do that. He carried that mission with Him from the moment of His conception. Even before Christ was born, Zechariah, His cousin, was singing of how He would save God’s people from their sins. In order to do this He had to be sinless. To be sinless, Christ had to be born of a virgin, apart from the will of a man.

Christmas, its almost here. Just one more week. This baby was born according to the customs of the time. His birth was acceptable according to rabbinic law, as Matthew demonstrates. Matthew also us tells something else. This Child was born of a virgin. He was truly the Son of God. He was the sinless Son of God come to bear our sins all the way to the cross. He came to pay the price of our redemption so that we would be truly children of God. Amen!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sermon for December 15, 2010

The Third Wednesday in Advent
December 15, 2010
Text: John 3:9-15

Dear Friends in Christ,
The bronze serpent is perhaps the strangest of the prophetic objects of the Old Testament. Its origin is recorded in Numbers, as we read. It was late in the time in the wilderness, perhaps thirty years or more into the forty years of wandering. The people again grumbled against God. They complained about the food, the manna that God was miraculously providing for them every day. I mean how much can you do with manna. Once you tried manna waffles, manna bagels, and ba-manna bread, what’s left? Ironically, there was no reason to get impatient. They knew that God had decreed that they would wander in the desert for forty years, until all the adults who had left Egypt were dead. One generation would leave Egypt, their children and grandchildren would enter the promised land. So their grumbling about how long it was taking to get to the promised land was a rejection of God’s judgement.

God punished the people by sending poisonous snakes among them. The venom of this particular snake caused a painful, lingering death. The people quickly repented and cried out to God for relief. But instead of taking the snakes away, God did something different. He had Moses make a bronze serpent and hang it up on a pole. Anyone who was bitten who looked upon the bronze serpent was healed and did not die. Looking upon the bronze serpent was an act of faith - a mark of trust in God’s promise. The bronze serpent didn’t save, really at all. It was God acting through this object. God had attached His grace to the bronze serpent.

Afterwards, the bronze serpent was placed in the tabernacle and later the temple. There it remained until the time of Hezekiah who became king in 716 B.C. At that time people were worshiping the bronze serpent as if it were an idol. Hezekiah, a man faithful to Yahweh, had the bronze serpent destroyed, so it could no longer be worshiped.

To a Jew, like Nicodemus, the bronze serpent was one the most familiar objects, though it was no longer present. It was, in this way, like the Ark of the Covenant, it was no longer present in the temple. Yet, all Jews considered it an important mark of God’s grace for His people. When the people in the wilderness looked upon it they were healed of the snake bites.

Consider for a moment that a snake as an image of salvation is odd to say the least. The snake is usually associated with Satan. Most people consider it an unattractive animal to say the least.

Christ uses the image of the bronze serpent to describe His own work. He would be lifted up, as the serpent was lifted up. All who would gaze upon Him, would be saved. This object was pointing to Christ’s crucifixion. It places that event in the very center of our faith. We don’t gaze upon an ugly snake. We gaze upon the bloodied, brutalized corpse of Christ. We gaze upon the bloody corpse and we are saved.

Now we don’t have the corpse here, except in imagery. So our crucifix is only an image of the real thing. But it is an important image for us. The use of the crucifix is a mark of faithfulness to the Word of God. Through the Word, we gaze upon our Savior, covered in blood and gore. It is an ugly image. It is the price of our sins. Christ is made ugly on the cross because our sins are that ugly. Christ understood that this was His purpose. He embraced the cross for us. Many Christians don’t want to see the cross, especially at this time of year. We want a Baby. But that Baby, born of the Virgin, came to be lifted up, so that we would be saved. Many would say, well Christ isn’t still on the cross. But all throughout the balance of Scripture, particularly in the Book of Revelation, Christ is always the slain One. So when we look upon the infant Jesus that we find in the Word, we must never forget the dying Jesus, Who was lifted up like the bronze serpent for our salvation. All who look to this Christ, will indeed have forgiveness and life.

We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. We are preparing to focus upon the incarnation - that great miracle of the ages, that God become flesh and dwelt among us. But Christ did not come only to have angels sing about Him and shepherds wonder about Him. He came to die for the sins of the world. He came to be the very Lamb of God. For the manger to be of any value to us, it must sit in the shadow of the cross. Only when we understand that this Child will die for us and our salvation, does His birth become important. Christ is not here to promote world peace or peace in our hearts. He came to create peace between God and man by dying for our sins.

The manger is incredibly beautiful. God was laid in a manger. But what we really need to gaze upon is ugly and brutal. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. He must be lifted up and die, so that we would have forgiveness and life. He is in that manger for us. And He is on the cross for us.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Circuit Pastor's Conference Paper

To Type or Not to Type
A brief look at Isaiah 7:10-17

The debate on the interpretation of Isaiah 7 ranges on, and probably will until the end of time. This is often used as the test case of rectilinear methods versus typical methods. To the extent that it used as a test case it is a poor one. I am not a strict rectilinearist. Christ Himself used typology. Nor do I believe we are limited to just those types and antetypes used in Scripture. But the case has to be clearly made in each instance. The fact that Isaiah 7 remains in play shows that neither side has made a compelling case.

What must be said first is that Matthew 1:22-23 is final fulfillment of this prophecy. For that ultimate purpose was it given. The only question is whether it also has early, pre-fulfillments.

The prophecy of the Virgin Birth is given in about 740 B.C. - just 18 years before the fall of Samaria to Assyria. This is also believed to be the year of King Hezekiah’s birth. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance against Judah. King Ahaz was in the process of preparing the defense of his kingdom. God offers Ahaz a sign which he rejects. Isaiah then gives this curious prophecy.

Possible Interpretations

The strict rectilinearists will say that the giving of the prophecy itself is the sign. Yet, this seems a weak sign to king fearing for his kingdom.

If the rectilinearists are wrong, then there has to be a another baby that fulfills the prophecy. The first thing we must do is study the word Almah, usually translated virgin. But it is not the technical Hebrew word for virgin. Some have suggested that it means a young women from the onset of fertility until the birth of their first child. Yet, in all the Biblical examples where the meaning can be determined it refers to a girl who is in fact a virgin in the technical sense. But then why didn’t Isaiah use the technical word for virgin? If this only refers of Mary who is clearly a virgin in the technical sense, (the NT offers no wiggle room on this) then why does Isaiah use Almah?

There are two possible children that often mentioned. Hezekiah, was likely born around the time of this prophecy. But we don’t know anything about the circumstances of his birth. If this was the fulfillment of prophecy wouldn’t the birth be mentioned? Perhaps not, if Ahaz was already aware of the pregnancy. Thus Isaiah would be saying: “You know that princess that’s about to give birth?....” Yet, this argument is unconvincing. Even if Ahaz clearly saw the fulfillment, it is certainly God’s intent also to be clear to us. So the argumentation then begins to look like this: There is a pre-fulfillment, which Ahaz would have clearly seen, but it doesn’t matter to us, so God didn’t mention it. A further problem is that Hezekiah is a little old. However, Damascus fell in 732 B.C. One presumes that the war was raging a little before that and its outcome already clear. So the war against Syria and Israel would begin when Hezekiah was 6 or 7, still young enough to fit the prophecy, perhaps. So the destruction begins with say 735 B.C. and the final deportation of the Israelites in the 680's B.C. which would be within the 65 year time window that Isaiah gave.

The second child is the son of Isaiah and the prophetess (presumably his wife) born in Isaiah 8:3-4. But this was Isaiah’s second child so his wife would hardly be an Almah by any definition. However v. 4 “for before the boy knows how to cry 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” could be seen as a parallel to 7:15-16 “He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” Another plus to this child being the intended fulfillment, is that he’s a bit younger than Hezekiah. So that would make him more clearly a young child as all this geo-political stuff is developing. Again, however, we must conclude that this not convincing, since it would be nothing approaching a virgin birth.


The obvious one is distraction. The prophecy was given to point us to Christ. While seeing O.T. types is often helpful, in this case it could actually get in the way. Further it has led some to deny the virgin birth of Christ, which we cannot do with out violence to the text of Scripture.

A second danger is present as well. The typological fulfillment is primarily geo-political. It plays into the hands of the dispensationalists and their mis-use of Biblical prophecy. That being said, there is a great deal of geo-political prophecy in salvation history.


We cannot settle this debate. The evidence simply does not exist to conclusively demonstrate the truth or falsehood or one or the other camps. We will have to live with this tension.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sermon for December 12, 2010

The Third Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2010
Text: Matthew 11:2-11
Dear Friends in Christ,
An announcement in a church bulletin said: Tonight we will have our annual hymn sing in the park. Bring a blanket and be prepared to sin.” I suppose there are some who would say my singing is the sin. The bulletin didn’t have it quite right. Often times there are things that aren’t quite right. Another example occurred at a baseball game. A hall of fame baseball player was introduced: “He’s one of the game’s great immoral players.” That may be true, for some of these guys set more records in the hotels than on the ball fields, but I don’t think that’s quite what the speaker had in mind. Of course in recent years we’ve been debating if all the muscles on the ballplayers are real. They used to ask live or Memorex, now they ask weight room or steroids. Somehow all of these seem just a little off the mark.

A lot of people didn’t quite understand who this John was. John the Baptist preached in the wilderness. His ministry spanned about a year, perhaps even a little less. He basically started down by the Dead Sea, worked his way north to Galilee where He baptized Jesus, then went back south. Near the end of his ministry he was baptizing people by some pools in the desert which are about six inches deep. Finally, John went back north into Galilee to confront King Herod Antipas. Antipas had stolen his brother’s wife. Mind you, she was a willing participant, but that doesn’t make it right. John con- fronted Herod with his sin and Herod threw him in jail. Later Herod would execute John. In that brief time of preaching, John attracted a lot of attention. People were certain that he was a prophet. But then they had never seen prophet, nor had their parents or grandparents. It had been four hundred years since there had been a prophet. People didn’t know what to make of John and His ministry. Who was this John?

People didn’t know what to make of Jesus’ ministry either. Who was this upstart who came after John, who may in fact have once been one of John’s disciples? John’s ministry was at a standstill, but now Jesus was preaching to great crowds. So who was this Jesus?

John sent some of His disciples to Jesus. He probably was trying to get them to see that they now needed to follow Jesus. One would presume that John knew who Jesus was. He certainly seemed to know at the time of Christ’s baptism. So this mission was for the benefit of John’s disciples. They came and asked Christ if He were the “Expected One”? Christ gives a curious answer. He quotes Isaiah 35:5-6a to them. Now as good Jews they would have known the Scriptures and they knew immediately that Jesus was quoting the Word of God to them. It’s sort of a “da” moment. You know the signs, do I have to spell it out for you? That’s what Jesus is saying to them. Of course I’m the Messiah, who else could do all these things. I kind of picture Christ speaking to the disciples of John was an amused smirk.

Jesus then used this as an opportunity to speak about John. Again He points people to the Word - specifically Malachi 4:5. This was the prophecy that Elijah would return ahead of the Messiah. Jesus tells them that John is the Elijah that was to come. He speaks of John as the greatest of all the prophets, the greatest man ever born.

The next line is the source of some discussion. Luther thought that Jesus was referring to Himself. Jesus is the servant of all, therefore the least in the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus is saying, according to Luther, that John, as great as he was, was not as great as He, Himself. Jesus is claiming a place above that of John. The Australian theologian Henry Hamann, who taught briefly at Fort Wayne when I was a student, just before he died, suggests a different view. Hamann takes Christ’s words as referring to those who would live to see the coming of the new age, those who would live to see the resurrection and the birth of the Church. In this way, John is like Moses. He sees the promised land that Christ would lead His people into via His death and resurrection, but John himself will not be allowed to enter - at least not upon this earth. There are certainly other views as well. I present both of these interpretations because they are both pious and theologically correct. Neither does violence to the text. We can live with this debate.

How does this apply to us? There are two keys that we should take from this text. First, notice how Jesus pointed the people to the Word of God. I am constantly amazed at how people try to understand things apart from the Word. Now for my niece, who was unfortunately not really raised in the church, this is understandable. But many times we, in the church, seek answers from God apart from the Word. It is in the Word that we find our answers. The Word gives us the most important answer of all. We have a Savior from our sins. He is God and His name is Jesus of Nazareth. We can learn this no where else. This leads us right into the second point. It is important to correctly identify our Savior. John was a great prophet, but He cannot save us. Nor can Moses, Elijah or any of the prophets. God Himself must carry our sin to the cross. God must save us. In the Word we see that Christ has indeed done this.

Jesus here, is trying to show people that they were right to listen to John. John was important. He was a prophet of God. His coming was foretold both by Isaiah and by Malachi. He is the greatest of something old, something that was passing away. He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He is the one Old Testament prophet who intrudes into the New Testament. But John is not the Messiah. Jesus is the one promised from of old, the One who would crush Satan’s head, who would be a blessing to all the world, who would sit on the throne of David forever. Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus is the One who saves all mankind from sin and death.

In Jesus’ day many people had questions about Jesus and John. Then and now the Scriptures teach us that John was the greatest of the prophets, and Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Amen!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sermon for December 8, 2010

The Second Wednesday in Advent
December 8, 2010
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7

Dear Friends in Christ,
One of the images of God’s presence is light. But light is also always connected to the forgiveness of sins. The tabernacle was constructed at the time of Moses. It was to be God’s house in the midst of His people. Central to it was the Ark of the Covenant which would be placed in the Holy of Holies. In front of the Holy of Holies was the Holy Place. This is where the Altar of Incense was located. To the left of the Altar of Incense was the golden lampstand - the Menorah. It had seven branches, each with an oil lamp on the top.

For Jews, the Menorah has a special place. About 150 years or so before the time of Christ, Judea was ruled by the Successor King Antiachus Epiphanies. The Successor Kings are the heirs of Alexander the Great, whose empire was divided between his generals. Antiachus was a militant promoter of Greek culture and religion. He was determined to stamp out the Jewish religion. He set up a statue of Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem and sacrificed, on the altar, 1000 pigs. This led to a revolt led by Judah Macabee. Miraculously, the Jews prevailed though they were greatly outnumbered. At end of the revolt Judah Macabee ordered the restoration of the temple. The rededication lasted for eight days. According to Jewish legend, though they only had oil enough to keep the lamp burning for one day, it burned for eight. This miraculous sign was seen as a mark of God’s approval of their independence movement.

Jewish independence was short lived. About a hundred years later, they came under the control of the Roman empire. The Romans installed their man as king - Herod the Great. This lust for political independence was still fresh in people’s minds at the time of Christ.

For the Jew, the Menorah, the temple lamp, symbolizes Jewish independence. Judah Macabee is considered their greatest hero. I heard this in a Jewish song on the radio. The restoration of the temple is the basis for the celebration of Hanukkah, which will end, for this year, tomorrow.

For the Christian, the Menorah, the temple lamp means something quite different. For us it is about forgiveness. God’s light is not just illumination. It is a light which purifies. It is a light which makes us clean to stand before God. Thus the prophets speak of God’s light coming. Isaiah speaks of the light first appearing in Galilee, in the land were the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali had once lived. This is a reference to the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. But what did Christ do when He started preaching. He forgave sins. In fact Christ made a big deal about forgiving sins. He went out of His way to prove He had the power to forgive sins. Many of His miracles were done to show that He has power over sin and all its effects. This is the light that Isaiah was talking about in our text.

Sin is often illustrated by darkness. We think of nefarious deeds being done in dingy establishments where nice people don’t go. That image can be good and bad. If we think that’s the only place sins are committed, we will fall into self righteousness. But if you think of your sins as figuratively putting you into that dive, you’ve got it. We want to deny our sins. One way to do that is to keep the world dark. We want to keep information private. Politicians have long desired to keep their actions hidden. But today the internet has become like a flashlight beaming into the face of the Washington rats scurrying for cover. But the light of Christ is different. It is light that exposes our sins and removes them. It is a light that makes us able to stand in the light. Christ Himself is that life giving light. His coming was about the forgiveness of sins. That is light indeed.

The Jews idolize the Menorah. They celebrate Judah Macabee and his rebellion in the festival of Hanukkah. In fact they have made this the central fact of Jewish identity. Their light is political victory. But such earth bound things are fleeting as the centuries have shown. The Jewish people have spent far more time in countries that are not their own over the centuries than they have spent in their own country. The true meaning of the Menorah is not found in political victory or in anything earth bound. The Menorah’s light symbolizes for us the forgiveness of our sins. That is the light that would be revealed by the sea and beyond the Jordan. Christ came and brought to us the light of the forgiveness of our sins. That is something far more important to celebrate.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sermon for December 4-5, 2010

The Second Sunday in Advent
December 4-5, 2010
Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Dear Friends in Christ,
On an April night a man rode through the region by horseback shouting a warning. He wanted everyone to hear and take heed. He rode through several villages, yelling at the top of his lungs. The situation was dire. Everyone needed to take action immediately. There was one group of people especially that needed to take action. What was he shouting? “The regulars are out!” Most of us today wonder what that meant. In fact, many have changed what he shouted in the retelling of the events. But he did in fact shout; “The regulars are out.” Soldiers of the regular army had crossed by water from Boston to the Charlestown neck and were marching toward Concord. The militia needed to be prepared. The man’s name? Paul Revere. The next day, the War for American Independence began in one of the villages Revere had warned - Lexington, Massachusetts. When the dust finally settled eight years later, British colonials were Americans.

In the year 29 A.D. in the Roman province of Judea, a man began to proclaim a warning. He was warning people to be prepared for God’s coming among them. He told them that they needed to repent. The man’s name was John the Baptist, or more correctly if we take the Greek, John the Baptizer. He was the second Elijah that had been prophesied by Malachi. He was the forerunner prophesied by Isaiah. He was a wild man of the desert. He was also a Nazarite from birth, like Sampson and Samuel. That meant that he was to never drink alcohol and never cut his hair. He had come to warn people to repent. Preparation was all about repenting of sins.

Who was the target of John’s preaching? The religious people - the church goers. It might even be said that his target was the pastors. What? Why was he targeting these people? Shouldn’t he have been targeting the drunks and the prostitutes. That would seem logical to us. After all who needs to repent? Sinners, right? Pr. Gilbert McDonald was my high school religion instructor. He recently posted this quote on the internet: “It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord - lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness - that you are on the verge of understanding the Gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.” (Timothy Keller) There’s some meat on these bones. What is this quote saying? It’s saying that by nature we want to save ourselves. Just having the Christian label doesn’t change that desire. Yet, this is a path to destruction. It’s self righteousness. There are two things that crush this out of us. Our sins and our good works. Sins crushing our righteousness is rather obvious. If we sin, we are not righteous. But what’s this business about our good works, our moral goodness? Surely this should not be a problem. But it is. It is a problem because it is never good enough. Maybe I did something, but my heart wasn’t in it. Maybe I did it to say look at me and all the good things I do. The good that I do is always coated with the vomit of my sin. It is when we understand this that we begin to understand the Gospel. When we understand our moral goodness as failure and sin, then we understand that we need a Savior. Then we understand that we cannot save ourselves. We need God to save us.

John came to a lot of people who were much like American Christians of today. They thought that they were right with God because they were doing such wonderful things. They were fulfilling the law. They were making all the right sacrifices at the temple. They would read the Scriptures morning and night. They would tie little slips of paper with Bible verses into their clothing. They had Bible verses painted above the doors to their homes. They’d pray in the synagogue every day. They’d give alms to the poor. They were good people and they knew it. What does John say of them? “You brood of vipers!” John speaks as a prophet of God. When John says this it is God calling them a brood of vipers. There own moral goodness had made them poisonous snakes. They failed to see that they were filled with sinful pride and false righteousness.

John was preaching to us, the church goers. My Mother sometimes used to quip after church that the people who weren’t in church needed to hear that sermon. But John wasn’t preaching to the people who weren’t in church. He was preaching to the people who were in church. He was preaching to the good people. There are a number of ways we must examine this. I once had someone leave the congregation I was serving because they didn’t want to hear about sin all the time. We have some within our staunch Lutheran congregations who would have us stop talking about sin. They would have us preach silly self improvement programs instead. After all that’s something we can apply to our daily lives, they will say. But of course we cannot improve ourselves. We need Christ to truly improve us. Such preaching as these people demand of course is nothing other than preaching into hell. But of course we have a whole branches of Christianity in America that no longer talk about sin. Whether its old liberals with their social gospel or Rick Warren with his purpose driven nonsense, its all the same. Its all about not talking about sin and talking about how wonderful we are. I’m so great I’m filled with purpose. I go down to El Salvador and help the poor throw off the shackles of oppressive capitalism. There was a reason why right wing militias used to murder nuns down there. It was this toxic meld of Christianity and Marx called Liberation theology, which was being taught by the nuns. It was just another way people tried to show how good they are and ignore the sin in their hearts.

Repent! Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This is the message that John has for us today. We need to see that it is us, the good people, the church people, who need to see our sins. We need to repent. We need to lay our sins before God. Only when we see our sins do we see that we need a Savior. That was John’s point. The Savior was coming. But the people weren’t ready for their Savior, because they didn’t understand that they were sinners. And so we also need to repent. We need to see that it is only in repenting of our sins that our hearts are ready for our Savior. Certainly, there are others out there who need to repent as well. And there are moments when we are to speak to them. But first, we must repent. We must look to our sins and cling to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who redeems us from sin and death.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Semon for December 1, 2010

The First Wednesday in Advent
December 1, 2010
Text: Exodus 30:1-10

Dear Friends in Christ,
One of the keys to unlocking the whole of Scripture is to focus upon that which seems unimportant. This is particularly true of things that are in the Pentateuch - that is the five books of Moses. Why is there so much detail about the tabernacle and the sacrifices and the incense and the show bread and on and on and on? You might just get the impression that God considers this stuff important. God wants things done in just a certain way. That actually applies to the New Testament Church and things like Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. These things are to be handled in just a certain way.

One of the things that we often miss in the Old Testament is that when God speaks to man, it is always the pre-incarnate Christ. In other words it was Jesus speaking the Ten Commandment from Mount Sinai. And it is Jesus who gives the instructions in our text to Moses.

Christ commanded the Israelites to build an altar for the burning of incense. It was to be placed in the Holy Place, in front of the curtain that divided the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was to be placed. The Ark of the Covenant was God’s throne of grace in the midst of His people. It is likely that the Altar of Incense where Zachariah burned incense in the temple was the third one which was constructed. We don’t know if Solomon had a new one built in his day when they went from the tabernacle to the first temple. However, it seems likely that a new altar of incense was constructed at that time. That altar would have been destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 586 B.C. A third altar would have then been constructed at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the temple was rebuilt. So the altar at the time of Zachariah was not the one built by Moses, but it was probably five hundred years old. It would have been built to the exact specifications laid out in Exodus.

There is a strange instruction at the end of our text. The altar of incensed had to be atoned. To atone for it is pay for it, in the sense of paying for sins. But an altar is an inanimate object. It does not sin. Yet, Jesus told Moses that the altar was to be atoned each year on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. The high priest was to take some of the blood from the goat slaughtered for the sins of the people and put that blood on the horns of the altar. Each corner had a piece that projected up above the body of that altar. These would be the horns. They were covered in gold, as was the whole altar. The blood was brushed on the horns to the altar to pay for the sins of the altar. This is driving at something very profound. The altar itself through the worship of the people, became the bearer of the people’s sins. It had to be cleansed so that the people could again lay their sins before God.

We know that sin can only be atoned by the shedding of blood. Scripture is clear on this point. In fact the first shedding of blood came in the Garden of Eden when God killed animals to provide clothing for Adam and Eve. The clothing symbolized God covering our sins by the shedding of blood. But the blood of animals cannot cover our sins. Nor could the blood of animals purify the altar. All of this was pointing forward to another kind of blood that can genuinely cover sins. It was pointing to another kind of blood that truly could purify the altar. As we sang “Not all the blood beast on Jewish altars slain could give the guilty conscience peace of or wash away the stain.” In just the same way wine cannot take away our sins. But something else was happening here. In that blood of beasts, another blood was present. This was a blood that would be shed in the future. It is the blood of Jesus Christ, which was present in, with, and under the blood of the goat. It was the blood of Christ which made that altar pure - which made it an altar where sins would be removed and God would receive our prayers. Because of the blood of Christ who was yet to come, Zechariah burned incense on behalf of the people and God received their prayers favorably.

That particular day, something more would happen. The wheels began to turn. The time had come for the promises to be fulfilled. An angel appeared and told Zachariah that the hopes and prayers of centuries were now to be fulfilled and he would have a part in it. His son would be the forerunner - the forerunner of the one who redeemed the temple by the shedding of His Holy and innocent blood - the true lamb of God. And so also for us. Our altar is cleansed by the blood of Christ, present here in the Supper. We too are made holy by the blood of Christ. Just as the sacrifices and animals communicated the blood of Christ, so also the Supper delivers to us that very same blood.

In about fourteen hundred B.C. Moses was commanded to build an altar for the burning of incense. It was an altar made holy by blood. But only the blood of Christ would truly make that altar holy. Thus the altar of incense is a prophetic object. It existed to point us to Jesus Christ who was yet to come. It is no accident, that it was before the altar of incense, the altar redeemed by the blood of Christ, that His coming is first announced. For Christ was coming to shed His blood - blood that would cleanse not only the temple, but the entire world.