The Baptism of Our Lord – Matthew 3:13-17

“Who do you think you are?” It’s a rhetorical question. We ask it all the time. If you have children, you’ll ask it more than you care to ask it. If you’ve been wronged in some way, you might ask it to someone’s face. It’s a question usually asked in exasperation. When we ask a child who they think they are, the occasion is when they say or do something that is the last straw. Same for the person who has wronged you. We know who they are. They know who they are? Yet it seems that the other person has lost their identity along the way. Who we thought they were is no longer the case.

Let’s ask the question in the non-rhetorical sense. Who do you think you are? You have a name. When a woman marries a man, the woman usually changes her name to the man’s last name. Some people may not like the name their parents gave them. They go through a legal process to change their name. Even if the name is changed, the person remains the same. It’s not as if they have gone through a change that has made them a completely different person.

Yet because of your baptism you are a completely different person. Once you were in darkness. Now you are a child of the Light from above. Once you were dead. Now you are alive. Once your identity was outside of Christ. Now you are in Christ, and Christ is in you. No one notices the change in identity because you remain the same ol’ you on the outside. Before God, however, you are a different person because you have been incorporated into the Vine of righteousness. You can actually answer the question, “Who do you think you are?” with the answer, “God’s own child, that’s who.”

Who did Jesus think He was when He came to John the Baptist and asked to be baptized? John is right to ask, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? The shoe needs to be on the other foot. John is the sinner. Jesus is the sinless Lamb of God. Jesus should take up baptizing in John’s place with John being the first one in line.

Perhaps you, like John, question our Lord’s request for baptism. It’s nonsense. Submitting to something unnecessary embarrasses both Jesus and John. The scene seems to be made worse when Jesus answers John’s statement with His permission: Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. All righteousness is fulfilled in Christ. He doesn’t need to be baptized. Why doesn’t Jesus choose another way to fulfill righteousness?

It’s as if we don’t want to see our Lord as both divine and human. We’d rather He keep His distance and not come near us sinners. A wave of the hand, maybe a little stage smoke and mirrors, that would be a better way to get the job done. It could look Hollywood enough to sway even the most hard-boiled agnostic.

Jesus doesn’t change form when He is baptized. He’s still the same ol’ Jesus we know and love. There’s no change in Him, for He is holy and perfect. His baptism inaugurates His ministry among us. He was always one of us according to the flesh, yet without sin. Here and now is where our Lord begins His march to declare the world righteous in His innocent suffering and death. All that is ours becomes His as John pours water over His head in the Jordan River. The Father attests that Jesus is His only-begotten Son in the voice from heaven. The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. The Christ comes to bring peace between God and man. He alone is able to do it not for His own sake, but for ours.

In your baptism Christ is put on you, and you are put into Christ. That’s a unique way of putting it, but it’s true. Outside of Jesus you are a dead branch. Yet when He picks you up and grafts you into the Vine of righteousness, you live. You are a rusty can. You aren’t worth much. But to our Savior, you are precious. He takes His trash stick, pokes it right into you, and puts you into His bag. He doesn’t take you to the recycling center for scrap. He keeps you close to Him by applying His Word of life in your ears and feeding you with this Word under bread and wine. All His righteousness is yours, too; every last drop of it.

That blessed day when you were buried in the watery grave of baptism, you arose from the font a new creation. Baptism is a picture of death and resurrection. Now because you are baptized into Christ, you have no fear of death. You have died to sin because Christ has died to sin for your sake. As a new creation, you are reborn in the image of God, zealous to love both God and your neighbor with open hands and hearts. The Spirit descends in the Word of Christ heard in preaching and the sacraments, keeping you close to Jesus in the forgiveness of sins. The Father declares you to be worthy of eternal life because of Jesus.

Who do you think you are? In baptism you are good enough for God because of Jesus’ work upon you. You are put into His blood and His righteousness. His royal robe put on you covers every blemish of sin. You live in the Vine of righteousness, flourishing where He plants you, and given to do the good things He gives you to do in your many callings. Whatever your name, wherever you’re from, whomever you look like, you are a child of paradise because of what was done to you that blessed day when God’s name was poured over you with water and God’s Word. All righteousness is fulfilled in you because Christ fulfilled all righteousness for you. What the prophet Isaiah says about the Christ is also said about you: Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.

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The Epiphany of Our Lord – Matthew 2:1-12

Celebrate early, celebrate often. Although the twelve days of Christmas ended Friday, it’s time to start another Christmas celebration. As a star and an angel choir announced the birth of Jesus according to the flesh to shepherds, so a star now announces the birth of Jesus to Gentile Magi, wise men living east of the holy land. The grace and joy of Christmas first displayed to Jews now is displayed to Gentiles as the Magi leave their home having done their homework.

They saw the star even in the east and have come to worship Him. Our heavenly Father has prepared for this moment for many centuries. The Gentiles have always been included among those who are saved. Consider three of the many Gentiles mentioned in the Old Testament. There’s Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law. He believed in the God Who rescued His people from the Egyptians. There’s Ruth, who believed in the Lord God through the witness of her mother-in-law Naomi. Lest we forget Naaman the Syrian, who was healed of leprosy by a word spoken by Elisha. He, too, forsook pagan gods and turned to the one true God.

Notice that these three Gentiles were drawn to worship the Lord through the words of one of His faithful. Jethro had Moses. Ruth had Naomi. Naaman had Elisha. The Lord works through means. He uses the spoken word to draw all nations to Himself. In the case of the Magi He used a miraculous star and a particular enlightenment that came in their study of wisdom from the known world.

Yet when they arrive in Jerusalem to ask about the newborn King in the house of Herod, king of the Jews, their question is met with perplexed gazes. Saint Matthew says Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. They, too, did their homework and found out that this King the visitors mentioned was born in Bethlehem of Judea, as the prophet Micah foretold. The Magi came so far to meet the newborn King, yet find a discouraging welcome from the one whom they thought would know all about the Christ. When the star reappeared as they drew near to Bethlehem, everything clicked into place.

You can almost imagine in your mind’s eye the joy the Magi had when they found the Christ Child with His parents. If the star brought delight, how much more delight they now have in being able to touch the King of the Jews. The Savior of the Nations did not spurn His mother’s womb. He is not embarrassed to wear swaddling cloths. He was OK resting in a manger. Now, as He grows in years, even as a toddler, He does not cast away these foreign potentates.

He does not cast away you, either. He draws you to Himself with His holy Word. His Word of forgiveness and joy is the star that brings you to His house today. The King of the Jews is also the Savior of the Gentiles. He bids you welcome in His name to His house to feed you with His Word, wash you with the water and blood that flows from His pierced side, and brings delight as His righteousness and holiness is yours in believing that Jesus has trampled down death forever in His resurrection.

No wonder that we, too, adore Him as the Magi do. They do so not as a command, but out of respect for Who He is even in the appearance of a mere boy. This mere boy is also the eternal Son of the eternal Father, being of one substance with the Father. Jesus is very God of very God, begotten, not made. They fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. We give gifts in the same spirit that the Magi give gifts. We rejoice in the gift Jesus brings us: sonship with God in believing we, like Him, die not when we die. Jesus Christ gives us the gift of eternity. All our debt of sin is paid in His perfect offering upon the cross. His blood covers the sins of both Jew and Gentile, just as the Father wants it.

The very audience Jesus to whom Jesus first comes lag behind in believing their promised Savior has arrived. Confusion reigns in King Herod’s court. Even scribes and rabbis have no idea what has happened. When they do realize what has happened, they do whatever they can to aid Herod in wiping out this so-called “pretender” to the throne. Even the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They departed to their own country by another way. Their trip, however, was not in vain. What they had read was true. Their eyes saw their salvation, and the salvation of their race as well as the Jewish people.

The message of Jesus as Lord has not changed through the centuries. Still today the Church proclaims that salvation is near in the person of Jesus Christ. There still is room for all nations in His house. Epiphany is not only the Gentiles’ Christmas; it is also a season where we consider the work of missionaries in our country and around the world.

In a way, all of us are missionaries of a sort. Mothers and fathers confess the Gospel to their children, bringing the Good News of salvation to their lives. We all know people who have either fallen from the Christian faith or have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are called to speak the word of hope to them. It doesn’t take much to be a missionary of a sort. You speak the Word and let that Word take root in them. The Holy Spirit working in that Word will do all the heavy lifting of creating faith when and where He wills.

That’s always the hard part, though, knowing when and where He wills the Word to take root in a person’s life. Rather than worry about it, we let the Spirit does what He does and thank God for the opportunity to speak His Word. Whether the mission takes place in your home or halfway around the world, all will hear the mercy of God in Jesus Christ through the preached Word. Gentiles shall come to the brightness of His light. In His light do we see light, the light that overcomes the shadow of death and delivers the crown of life that never fades away. Now there’s something to celebrate!

First Sunday after Christmas – Luke 2:33-40

It is the sixth (seventh) day of Christmas and we’re still singing Christmas hymns. It’s OK to say “Happy New Year” as much as it is still proper to say “Merry Christmas” or even “Happy Holidays”. These are holy days from now until next weekend. Even when the tree is taken down and all the decorations are put away until next December, we are not able to stop learning the wonders of God’s grace for us in Jesus Christ.

Saint Peter catches this constant marveling at God’s work on our behalf in First Peter chapter one. He writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: The prophets, who prophesied about the grace that has come to you, searched and studied carefully concerning this salvation, trying to find out what person and what time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, when they wrote about these things. These are the things that have now been announced to you by those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even the angels long to look carefully into these things.

That’s why it’s proper to stand before the manger even today full of holy astonishment. What are we looking at when we look at the Christ Child in the manger almost a week after the fact? We’re looking at the great mystery of salvation. The first words of today’s Holy Gospel say that Joseph and Mary marveled at what was said about Him by Simeon. If that is not enough, Anna the prophetess also adds her witness to Simeon’s witness, speaking of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The witness of Simeon and Anna remains in the Church even today. As Saint Paul tells Saint Timothy: Great is the mystery of godliness: He was revealed in flesh, was justified in spirit, was seen by messengers, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. Here is the message of apostolic preaching. We stand before the manger of Jesus seeing with the eyes of faith that He is revealed in flesh. What is more, His preaching continues among the nations and is believed on in the world.

The fact that Gospel preaching remains in the Church is practically a miracle in itself. When family stories are told, it seems that the narrative changes a little bit from generation to generation. Facts about a particular incident change. Maybe they are forgotten. The experience itself might be the only thing that remains true as the stories are told. What wasn’t funny at the time makes us laugh in retrospect.

When the Gospel is proclaimed, no matter the language, the story remains the same. Jesus Christ, long promised by prophets, pitches His tabernacle of flesh and blood among His people. He does not spurn the virgin’s womb. His humiliation in becoming man brings about our salvation. His salvation is for all, both Jew and Gentile. He offers salvation to all, yet so many despise it. They think His work for us is too easy. Worse yet, it might be a tale that has been twisted and perverted through the generations, much like their own family stories. Yet those who cling to His story as it breaks into history are spared everlasting death and given everlasting life as a gift.

The Gospel, though, often hits our ears and heart to find us no longer able to marvel at God becoming man. So many other words cause us to marvel instead of the birth of the Savior in the flesh. We’re stunned to hear the death of a celebrity, or a friend, or even a friend of a friend. We remember what used to be in a building in downtown Kankakee fifty years ago. We recall all the good times we had patronizing the business in that building. We write about it on Facebook groups. When it comes to remembering the Bible stories we learned in Sunday School or when a family member read the Bible to us, our memory has a hard time recalling the story. What should be the most familiar thing to us instead becomes a faint memory.

It’s hard to be astonished at something when you are over-astonished at everything. Then again, maybe we have lost our own story while gaining everyone else’s story as our own. There’s no better time that Christmas time to regain a love for the story that includes you as the object of God’s mercy. Returning to the little cradle of Christ to see Baby Jesus resting with His earthly parents takes us back to those happy days when we first heard His birth story. Perhaps you first heard it in a church building, maybe from a pastor or from a Sunday School teacher. That word of Christ’s birth to bear your sin and be your Savior implanted itself in your life. The seed of faith was planted, watered in baptismal water, fed with the Lord’s Supper and with Gospel preaching.

As you grew in grace and in knowing Jesus as Lord, heartfelt joy came with believing Him as your only hope for eternal life. Faith and joy bring holy reverence, for God has come to His people to save them, especially you. Then came the heartfelt desire to pick up the Scriptures and read His story for yourself. Then came questions about the story. Maybe the pastor had the answer, but maybe he didn’t. Through it all, you wanted to know more about this thing that had happened to you in hearing His Word proclaimed to you.

There’s the start of marveling all over again at the Good News of Jesus Christ for you. If you’ve lost your holy astonishment, start again with the main thing. Jesus Christ is born for you. He becomes man for you. He could have stayed with His Father in heaven and found another way to save you from sin and death. This is the way His Father wanted it. He wanted it this way for you. He gives it to you for free. He even creates a way to have His way with you in order to make you His own.

This is the perfect time to join Mary and Joseph as they marvel at everything that is said about Baby Jesus. God’s favor is upon Him. God’s favor is upon you because of Him. Come again to the manger. See the little Stranger you know so well. He is the Prince of Peace, your peace, the world’s peace, and peace between God and man. Take to heart these words of today’s Chief Hymn: “He is the key and He the door To blessed paradise; The angel bars the way no more. To God our praises rise.” Paradise is yours, free and clear, because of Baby Jesus.

Christmas Day – John 1:1-14

Take a look at the Wordle on the bulletin cover. A Wordle is a word cloud that shows what words are used most in a sentence, or even several paragraphs. The most used words in the first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel are God, Word, made, man, witness, world, Light, and truth. Let’s make it a complete sentence and think about that sentence for a while: The Word of God is made man to witness Light and truth to the world.

Notice what two words are missing in the Wordle: Jesus Christ. John calls Jesus the Word. The Word goes forth from God. God is Spirit. His only-begotten Son becomes flesh. He takes on our skin and bones. He is like us in every way but one. He is sinless. That is why Jesus has no earthly father. Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but Joseph did not help conceive this Child. The Holy Spirit implanted the Word of God in Mary’s womb. No other conception will do for the One Who is the sinless offering for mankind’s sin.

Christ’s witness is Light and truth. Notice there are two lights in John chapter one. One is a lowercase letter “l”. The other is a capital letter “L”. The capital letter “L” in Light tells us this Light comes from above. Jesus is the Light the darkness cannot overcome. He comes into the world according to the flesh to shine the light of truth upon the world. The truth He shines is a word of condemnation and of promise. We must see the way we are. That is why the Light from above exposes our sinful nature. However, that is not the only word the Father wants us to hear. If it was the only word He wants us to hear, we remain condemned. We remain outside His fellowship.

The light that exposes our sinful nature brings us to repent of our sin. Once that word has had its say, the proper word of God may be spoken. The proper word of God is the Light and truth that shines in the manger today. Jesus Christ takes on our sin. He becomes sin. We receive His righteousness in return. We are righteous, holy, and perfect before the face of God because of Jesus, the Word made flesh, the Light of the world from Whom grace and truth comes. As we sung a bit ago: “He makes us children of the light.”

What does it mean to be a child of the light? It means you are free to be who God wants you to be. Our Father in heaven gives you talents to serve Him wearing different hats. Some wear the hat of parent. Others wear the hat of child. Still more wear a hat that says employer or employee. All of His children wear a hat that says “God’s own child.” While being a parent, child, worker, student, family member, friend, or neighbor is a great hat to wear, that last hat is the best hat of all.

Jesus calls you to be His child by shining His light on you and giving you His truth. His truth is a truth that never hurts you. It’s always good to tell the truth, but that truth often comes after lies are told. That truth is sometimes told in a way that hurts our neighbor. When God tells His children the truth, the truth of His Law, it hurts. You deserve to die. Again, that’s not the only word God tells His children. The main word He tells is that Jesus died the death you deserve instead. When He sheds His blood, it covers your sin. Our heavenly Father no more sees your sins. He only sees His Son’s righteousness covering you. He sees you as you were before the fall into sin. He sees you as His own precious child, holy and worthy.

That’s the truth Jesus tells you today in His birth according to the flesh. You are holy and worthy in Him because His Light and truth is poured upon you in your Baptism. You are a part of Him. He is a part of you. Everything He does in His life, He does for you. When you hear or read the Scriptures, you hear or see Jesus doing what He does not merely for the eyewitnesses, but especially for you. That includes what you heard in John chapter one. The Word of God is made man to witness Light and truth to the world. This witness is faithful and true. Jesus is born to die, and yet He lives. In His death you have forgiveness. In His life you have life. This is Christ’s service, Christ’s Mass, for you.

Christmas Midnight – Luke 2:1-20

According to local custom, our “Midnight Mass” is at 6:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. We get sensitive this time of year about people being left on the outside looking in. Salvation Army kettles fill with everything from pennies to gold coins. Less fortunate families who can’t afford a Christmas are adopted and given presents by those who are more fortunate.

Then there are those who are cast from the inn of home and family because of who they are, how they live, or what they believe. We saw this phenomenon ramp up last Christmas after the Presidential election. No matter what side you fell on, people were upset and some were uninvited from Christmas. Bitter feelings may last even this year and for years to come. Christmas seems to bring out the best and the worst in people. We hear many stories about the best. We also hear a few about the worst.

What if we took the Holy Family’s situation into 2017? Here we have a man betrothed, engaged, to a young girl, almost a woman, who is pregnant with a Child whose Father is not her betrothed husband. The Child is miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit; implanted in her womb by the Word spoken to her by the angel of the Lord. The young couple about to become parents must travel a long way from their home to the man’s family’s home town in another region south of their home. There’s a census being taken and the emperor finds this a convenient way to make an accurate head count.

When they make the journey to the greater Jerusalem area, the city of David of whose lineage the man was from, they can’t find a place to stay. You would think the man’s parents would have room for them. You would think another family member of both the man and the woman would have room for them. There is no room for them. Saint Luke never gives a clue why this is. We could only guess why. If you take a look at their situation, you might get a hint of a reason, but even then it’s only a guess.

There is no room for the Son of God to lay His little head when He is born a man. It is just as He said later: Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. The situation remains the same today by many, even by those who consider themselves followers of Jesus Christ. There’s room for everything in our lives except for the Christ Child. He’ll have to go somewhere else. There’s room for my way, but there’s no room for your way. There’s room for people who are just like me, but there’s no room for people who aren’t like me. Oh, and I know God is on my side because I know He isn’t on your side.

When you act, think, and speak like that, God isn’t on your side. God is on the side of the poor in spirit, the lowly, the meek, and the humble. Even if you have all you want, spiritual haughtiness is one place our heavenly Father doesn’t want to be. Rejecting His mercy for sinners in the person of Jesus Christ puts you out of the inn. There is no room for you when no room is made for Christ. He will let you have it the way you want it: your way. Your way is the way of death. His way is the way of life.

So let’s consider Mary and Joseph one more time in the year of our Lord 2017. Does it matter for whom they voted? Does it matter who their friends are? Does it even matter that they prefer to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Or does it matter that there is room for their unborn Child in your inn. The unborn Child Mary carries is the Son of God, Messiah, the Word made flesh Who came upon a midnight clear announced by angels heard from on high. His home is among sinners. His call to repentance and forgiveness is heard by all for whom He calls and gathers to Himself. His call to rejoice in His birth is for you, even if you’d rather hear another call.

Thanks be to God that there is room for you in His inn. He welcomes the worst of sinners, that’s you and me, into His fellowship. There He prepares a place for you to receive His Good News of forgiveness, of everlasting life, of joy, of peace, of hope for a future, and of a good conscience cleansed from guilt and shame in His blood and righteousness. You don’t deserve a place in His inn. You’ve done nothing to earn it. Every attempt you’ve made to get a place with Him has failed. Only He is able to give you a place in His inn. Only He makes you His precious child in baptismal water. Only He feeds you His Body and His Blood for the forgiveness of your sins. Even when you won’t find a place for Him, His Word works to bring repentance and reconciliation between Him as well as your neighbor.

There lies the Christ Child in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Shepherds marvel at His birth. Animals witness what kings, princes, nobles, and the common folk wished they could see. What Child is this? This is Jesus Christ, your Savior. He is born to die for you, and yet to live for you that you live with Him for eternity. Tonight He makes room for you. Tonight He welcomes you to His manger to see this thing that has happened for your salvation.

Fourth Sunday in Advent – John 1:19-28

It’s been eleven years since Christmas fell on Monday. It will happen again, God willing, in 2023, six years from now. Having the Fourth Sunday in Advent fall on Christmas Eve is fun. We get to hear John the Baptist confess he is not the Christ in the morning, then come back tonight to hear Saint Luke’s account of the birth of the Christ according to the flesh. There are always last minute preparations to make for Christmas along the way. While we make those external preparations for the big day, it’s the perfect time to make internal, spiritual preparations as well. It’s time to MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD.

Just as external preparations are necessary, so are internal, spiritual preparations. The Lord Christ will come to us wrapped in skin and bones through the blessed Christmas message proclaimed by angels. You don’t want anything to get in the way of that message. Consider all the work you’ve done so far for the big day Monday. Maybe you’ve not done as much work as in years past, but you’ve done your share. Even if someone else is doing all the work, you still have to make sure everything’s just so.

Is everything just so for you this season? For many, December is the longest month of all. The days grow shorter, and then slowly grow longer again. All the physical darkness gets to a person’s emotions. December reminds us of those we know who are no longer with us, whether they died this year or many years ago. We miss them. We miss being a child and receiving all those gifts from family. Many find their solace in the darkness by turning to the false comfort of alcohol or drugs. Still others take their lives rather than live through the pain of another long December hoping this year will be better than the last.

The biggest hindrance to preparing the way of the Lord, however, isn’t so much physical things as it is spiritual things. We think of the glamour sins of adultery, wrath, greed, and others. What about spiritual conceit? What about pharisaical pride? Preparing the way of the Lord doesn’t mean a celebration of pure doctrine and family values that make America great again. Consider the preaching of John the Baptist. Every hill is laid low and every valley is raised up. Consider what you heard Jesus say last week to John’s disciples about the poor having the Gospel preached to them. There’s no room for secure haughtiness in the waning hours of Advent. There’s no room for thinking you’ve been a big help to God in helping Him save your soul or your neighbor’s soul.

The Lord prepares the way for His arrival according to the flesh by showing you in His Word how much you need a Savior. The whole reason for the Nativity of Our Lord is your sin. Jesus becomes a native, so to speak, among us in order to live the life you are supposed to live but can’t live because of sin. His perfect life is put upon you through faith in Christ. You’re all wet in it, as it were, through your baptism. His nativity is intimately connected to His crucifixion and resurrection, not to mention His ascension. Everything Jesus does for you is of one piece. Everything is imputed to you through believing Jesus does all things necessary for your salvation. Now that’s something worth pushing everything that gets in the way out of the way in order that His way has a straight path to you.

As we sang three weeks ago in the hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come”: “Not by human flesh and blood, By the Spirit of our God, Was the Word of God made flesh, Human offspring pure and fresh.” The Lord prepares His way by not only showing you how you can’t save yourself, but how He saves you. He breaks into physical time and space at just the right time to save both Jew and Gentile from the wrath that is to come.

If Christmas was about how you can save yourself, then it is no wonder that we want to divorce the giving of gifts from the Giver of every good and perfect Gift. Before you wrap the last present of this season, consider how our heavenly Father wraps His love for you and for every human being not in paper, but in a human body born of a virgin mother. He implants the Living Word in her womb by the speaking of the Word of an angel. The message He brings is the fulfillment of a promise made and kept by the God Who always keep His promises. Immanuel, God with us, comes to dwell among us to take away sin and give life.

Once you hear the need for a Savior it is easy to think you are not worthy of such a gift as Jesus. Consider John’s words today about the One Who comes after him, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. John’s confession that he is not the Christ is also a confession of his need for a Savior. John is a sinner just like you and me.

We could have a nice discussion about whether John doubted when he sent his disciples to Jesus in Matthew chapter eleven. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t. It doesn’t matter because Jesus is John’s Savior as much as He is your Savior and my Savior. How do we answer the question put to John, what do you say about yourself? John was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Your voice that cries for mercy is heard by your heavenly Father and answered in the birth of the Savior. Your sin is taken away in the blood of Jesus Christ. Your death is swallowed up in victory in Christ’s resurrection. That’s what is wrapped up in the Gift our heavenly Father gives us at Christmas. You live. You are free from sin and death.

Here comes Christmas. You’re ready even if you aren’t really ready. John has had his say. He is not the Christ. He points to the Christ. His preaching of repentance shows you your sin, but also shows you your Savior. You aren’t worthy to untie the Savior’s sandal strap, yet He makes you worthy to receive eternal life by believing He has done everything to give you life. The Lord is at hand. Believe it for His sake.

 

Third Sunday in Advent – Matthew 11:2-11

A statement of Jesus Christ that surprisingly brings great offense is the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. There are those who seek to use the Savior to gain advantage over others. It is, as if, God is on their side and not yours. When they have enough, they no longer need the Savior. After all, didn’t Saint Paul tell the elders at Ephesus that Jesus said it is more blessed to give than it is to receive? So let’s use Jesus to throw shade on those we don’t like and make them see that they owe the Savior something.

Jesus comes to serve, not to be served. He wants to give, especially to the poor in spirit. They are the first ones mentioned in the Beatitudes. Jesus loves rich and poor in money and possessions alike. When Jesus says He comes to serve, He is speaking about giving to the poor what they are looking for: the riches of everlasting life. The poor have good news preached to them says our Lord to the disciples of John the Baptist. They are to return to him and tell them what they have heard. This news to John brings us comfort as well.

The good news that the poor hear preached to them is not a good news that wears clothes that look like good news but are actually commands and directives to do instead of the blessed news that everything is finished in Christ for your salvation. A so-called good news that is actually more work for you to do teaches what you should and should not do rather than what is done in Jesus. It condemns you because you have not done it and you have not kept it.

Law disguised as Gospel is not easily seen even by those who are trained to distinguish Law and Gospel. Take for example this phrase: “Jesus Christ paid it all. We owe Him everything.” The first sentence is pure Gospel. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. It is our payment that delivers us from the wrath of the devil. Yet the following sentence cancels our joy and replaces it with something that we must do. The second sentence seems to think we will automatically take advantage of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and be a profligate. It seems to deny that the good news changes our hearts from stone into flesh. What seems to be a good and true statement becomes dangerous for our soul. Jesus’ hand goes from a hand of giving into a hand of receiving, perhaps even tapping His feet while He waits for you to pay up your gratitude in some way that you can never repay.

Jesus isn’t tapping His foot waiting for your repayment. He points John, you, and me, to what they hear and see. The blind see. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised up. The poor have good news preached to them. There is no shame in any of these events. All these are evidence that Jesus comes to serve. He has done all things for our salvation. That’s good news! He gives this salvation to you for free by faith that He Himself works through this Gospel. That’s good news!

Although the Gospel is preached through the whole world, those who are rich are not able to comprehend it. Again, by the word rich Jesus is referring to people who are rich in all things except one: poverty of spirit. Spiritually rich people are not able to tear their hearts away from their good works. They seek good news that is clothed in what they must do to help out God. They focus on “We owe Him everything” rather than “Jesus Christ paid it all.” They are never sure Jesus Christ paid it all. So they hedge their bet and believe they must give God a hand in His work of salvation. The good news is far too easy to be true so I’ll make it a cooperative effort so as not to look like I’m taking advantage of God’s goodness.

Those rich in earthly things often cannot tear their hearts away from earthly possessions. This doesn’t mean Christ died only for those poor in earthly things. Christ died for all, regardless of want or plenty. Our Lord cares about the condition of your heart, not how much or how little you have or have not. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The poor in spirit find their heart not on temporal possessions. Let these all be gone. Nothing has been won when you have nothing except the good news of sins paid for in the blood of Jesus Christ. Nothing has been won when you are all wet, so to speak, in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. Your garment of incorruption is wet in baptismal water, where Christ clothes you with His perfect holiness. There Christ takes on your sins and you receive a gracious God. As Mary confesses in the Magnificat in Luke chapter one: he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

It’s a stumbling block for so many to believe that our Lord’s nail-scarred hands seek to give rather than to receive. There’s no agenda behind Christ’s love for sinners. He’s not looking for those who are first righteous enough and holy enough to deserve His good news. The good news is only for sinners; the worst of sinners, the chief of sinners, the better class of losers who have nothing in their hand but simply cling to the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross of Christ they see the Savior stretching His arms and hands wide to welcome them just as they are, not as they ought to be. The Gospel is preached to the poor. Blessed are you who are poor in spirit. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. It is a gift given by the Giver of every good thing.

Second Sunday in Advent – Luke 21:25-36

When will these things that Jesus says to His disciples take place? These things are signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.

When will the end happen? That’s what is on many of our minds when we consider the end times. A date would be nice. We could plan for it. We could get all our ducks in a row. Cancel the cable and internet. Visit all our family and friends one last time. We could even tell those who do not believe in Jesus as Lord that it’s time to repent and believe the Gospel.

That last one is one big reason why Jesus doesn’t give us an exact date of the end. As Christians we live as if Jesus will return at any moment. There are those who are ready and those who aren’t ready. That’s the way it is. When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

The events of the last year or so make us wonder if we are sitting straight with heads raised. There are so many unanswered questions concerning violence. It seems like our nation hasn’t been this divided on political issues since the Watergate affair or even since the days of the Vietnam conflict. Many of you remember those days. Perhaps you hoped you would never have to live through something like that again. Yet here we are, living through uneasy times once again.

Uneasy times never really left us. That’s why Jesus says watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. We get so caught up in cares of this life that we forget the big picture. Everything as we know it has a definite end. Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Our Lord’s kingdom has no end. This world has an end. It is pre-determined by our heavenly Father…and He isn’t telling.

Now that knowing the date of the big event is out of your control, you get to focus on what’s given you to do. Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. Remember that the original language of the New Testament has a couple of different words for “time”. One word is more familiar to us: chronos. You hear the fancy word for a watch in that word: chronograph. Chronos time is clock time. How long will the preacher preach? How many more days until Christmas?

The other word for “time” is kairos. Kairos time is not so much about boundaries as it is about the fullness of something or, to use our Lord’s example, something becoming ripe, like a fig tree. Jesus uses the fig tree, and all trees, to explain kairos time. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. The budding of trees is kairos time. When the weather turns warm and the ground thaws, everything builds toward a tree starting to bud. When the leaves appear, you know it’s time for warm weather. The tree has its kairos.

The heavens and the earth have its kairos. The time is coming, and is becoming full, when everything old becomes new in God. All the signs are there for your observation. The problem is when we don’t want to notice the signs. God fearfully and wonderfully makes everything, especially human beings. Yet we don’t want to see it because we’d rather focus on what we know rather than what we don’t know. We don’t know when Jesus is returning in the flesh. So let’s instead live as if there’s nothing after the end to everything. Someone is going to drop the big bomb or we’re going to find a way to destroy Earth sometime soon. After that, turn out the lights, the party’s over.

For those of us in Christ, however, the party has only started when the powers of the heavens will be shaken. The party will never end. The Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and great glory. For many there will be joy. For others, well, let’s say they will be sorry they didn’t pay attention when it mattered. That is why Jesus tells us to stay awake at all times. The time of which He speaks is kairos time. Pay attention! Look up and lift up your heads! Notice the signs! They have been around you all your life!

Jesus also says to pray that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. Take the Collect for today for instance. We ask our heavenly Father to stir up our hearts “to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son”. How are our hearts stirred up to make ready our Lord’s appearing? They are stirred up not only by the testimony of the heavens and the earth, but chiefly by the testimony of Holy Scripture. Malachi prophecies the day of the Lord is coming. He also prophecies the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist, who prepares the way of Messiah.

Your strength is in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. He prepares you for His coming in the proclamation of His promise to give you everlasting life. He prepares you for His coming by uniting your life with His in your Baptism. He prepares you for His coming by feeding you His true Body and Blood to forgive your sins and keep you steadfast in the true faith to life everlasting.

The Lord has His way with you in these gifts. He prepares you for His ultimate coming, when the dead in Christ shall rise and receive the crown of life that never fades away. Those of us who are alive then will be changed and also receive that crown of life. Thus we shall always be with the Lord, even when fire and smoke destroys this world. These things will take place. You will be safe in Christ when it all goes down. He is your salvation. Believe it for His sake.

First Sunday in Advent – Matthew 21:1-9

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” A new church year arises from the end of an old church year. But nothing has changed. The Lord Jesus Christ remains Lord of His Church. His gifts are given again, just like last week and previous weeks. Yet there is something exhilarating about a new church year.

Perhaps it is because we get to hear the greatest story ever told all over again. My children love to hear the same stories all over again. They beg Becky and me to read them the same library books. We get them different ones every two weeks, yet a couple of months later and those same books reappear in the library bag. We have some of them memorized. We might even be tired of hearing them.

We say the same thing about how we are saved from death and given life and forgiveness of sins in Christ. We get bored with it. After all, I heard it in Sunday School. I heard it from my parents or my grandparent or another family member. I heard it last year. Now I hear it again this year. Why not another story? Aren’t there any other good stories that need to be told? Let’s hear something fresh; something I’ve not heard before.

There are great stories that haven’t been told. This story, your story in Jesus Christ, is the story’s story. It will find a way to be told whether or not you want to hear it. The Gospel finds its own way to speak, especially when you try to silence it. The thing about the Gospel, though, is that, like Jesus, it doesn’t demand to be heard. It doesn’t come banging on your door in the middle of the night expecting you to pay attention. The Gospel of Jesus Christ demands nothing. It offers. The Gospel offers something you can’t get anywhere else.

What is more, the Gospel, like Jesus, comes to you. You don’t get to come to it on your own accord. The Gospel finds you. When the Gospel finds you, it comes to you in a humble way, just like Jesus enters Jerusalem. The way we think, the Gospel needs a fiery chariot with brassy horns announcing its presence. People will pay attention to the Good News if you spiff it up a bit. You gotta let ’em know something special is coming. How will people know the message of Jesus Christ if you don’t show ’em just how important the message is?

The Gospel doesn’t work like that. Jesus Christ doesn’t demand fiery chariots and brassy horns. He has what He has: humility, a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in a humble way, a way that doesn’t befit a king. Yet that’s the way Jesus enters Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.

You have to admit it’s not the strongest of plots from a human standpoint. We might write the story in a different way. Jesus sends ten thousand legions of angels to wipe out the plot against His life. His disciples prepare a throne for Him in the temple. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees finally repent and join everyone else in honoring the King of Kings as He takes His rightful throne in Jerusalem, the center of the everlasting theocracy.

But what about the atonement for sin? What about Isaiah’s Suffering Servant? What about the promise in the Garden to the serpent? What about the ram caught in a thicket as a substitute for Isaac? If we wrote the story, then let these all be gone. We have our King! But we don’t really have our King. We have a king, but not the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus enters Jerusalem to begin, as the chief hymn says, “His heroic course”. The first entrance of His heroic course is that night in Bethlehem when a star announced Christ’s birth to shepherds abiding with their flocks. Even wise men from afar ascertained something special was happening and rode to Jerusalem to see this King promised by prophets.

His heroic course turns to Calvary and the shedding of blood that covers your sin. There will be no fancy throne and no grand theocracy for Jesus Christ. The Lamb of God reigns on a throne made of two pieces of wood crossed to form a torture device. Jesus reigns on the cross to give you forgiveness at the cost of your sin. Jesus is placed in a tomb where He rises victorious over our greatest enemy: death. As He rises, so you, too, shall rise with Him on Judgment Day.

His heroic course continues among us today where His gifts of forgiveness and life are given. He comes among us in the Word, in water, and in bread and wine. Here is where sins are taken away. Here is where life is given. Here is where you hear Christ will come again to raise the dead and usher in the new and everlasting creation.

Jesus’ heroic course begins again today from the end of another round of hearing the old, old story of Jesus and His love for you. His story is one no one minds hearing again. The deeper you study it, the better acquainted you become with it, the more you marvel at God’s love for sinners in His only-begotten Son. The more you may have questions, too. The more you hear, the more you seek for answers. Those answers may not ever come, for some questions have no answers this side of Paradise. Yet in seeking you find your heart’s desire: a clear conscience, a hope for life amid death, and freedom to be who you are given to be and to do what is given you to do in Christ.

Yesterday’s old news is today’s new news, for Jesus comes to you again to save you.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 9:18-26

We’ve come to the end of another church year. Next week, Lord willing, we’ll begin the season of Advent and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child. Before we bid farewell to the old and welcome the new, Jesus shows us that He is with us even to the end. He is with us as He has always been this church year and every church year. Jesus proves Himself as our faithful and merciful Savior.

Jesus never separates Himself from His people. He is there among them. Granted the Twelve were His intimate followers, yet Jesus is always available to help when there is a need. Today a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples.

Note first of all how the ruler greets Jesus. He knelt before him. This man knows that Jesus is more than a man. He is the very Son of God in flesh. He believes Jesus is able to heal his daughter. Elsewhere we see Jesus healing by speaking a word. He need not be bodily present to heal. All it takes is a spoken word. Here, though, our Lord goes with the ruler to heal his daughter.

As Jesus is among the people and is willing to go to the ruler’s house, so He is among us not only in this house in the preached Word and in the gifts of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. He is also among us in our own homes every time we open the Scriptures to read God’s Word. Christ is in every word of Scripture. He is the Living Word made flesh. Every word in Scripture proclaims Jesus for your forgiveness and your eternal life. We, like the ruler in today’s Gospel, greet our Lord with respect fitting the King of Kings. We bow our heads to pray. We focus our ears and eyes to hear His Word proclaimed. We might even make the sign of the cross to remind us of our baptism at appropriate times in the liturgy. Jesus is present among us in His gifts, giving life and bringing joy.

Jesus is among us even when our Bibles are closed and we are living our callings in life. In illness He is our Great Physician. He hears our prayers, consoles us in His Word, and gives patience and hope for healing, even ultimate healing in the resurrection of the body. When loved ones died this past year, Jesus was there to bring comfort and hope. He dries our tears and scares away the horror of death in His sweet consolation. He was with us as we tended to our daily tasks at home, at school, and everywhere.

But do we believe that Jesus has been our faithful and merciful Savior this past church year? There are times when we have been angry with God. His goodness to us sometimes looks like frustration and setbacks. We think He puts roadblocks in our life to punish us. Maybe we think He enjoys watching us suffer. Our tongues are quick to speak evil of Him. We’re convinced He only wants to do us harm and never good.

The woman with a flow of blood for twelve years had every right to think that way. Yet she found a way to approach our Lord for healing. She says to herself, If I only touch his garment, I will be made well. She does, and she receives what she desires, even when our Lord’s back is turned to her.

That’s when Jesus loves to help. With the eyes of faith we see His back turned to us. We think He has no time for us. Still we reach out to Him in prayer. Still we come here to receive His loving care. Jesus doesn’t disappoint. Even when it seems like He is busy with someone else, Jesus has time for us. He turns to us as He did to the woman and says, Take heart; your faith has made you well.

Don’t think for a moment that your faith is your doing. Saint Paul reminds us faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. The Word implanted in you through the preaching of the Gospel creates trust in God for all things. Whether faith is as small as a mustard seed or as tall as a mountain, you have your heart’s desire in Christ. Sin is covered in Christ’s blood. His righteousness is your white garment of holiness and peace. You do not receive what you deserve. You receive instead the best of what God has for you: everlasting life because of Christ’s death and resurrection for you.

Jesus brings the dead back to life. Today we see it in the raising of the ruler’s daughter. The girl is not dead but sleeping. The crowd laughed at Jesus for saying such a foolish thing. Yet Jesus speaks the truth. Death is a nap. Jesus wakes her up from the nap. As He wakes her up, so He will do the same for you on Judgment Day. Your confidence lies in the certain hope that the dead in Christ shall rise, be changed, and live forever before the face of God. Our ultimate confidence lies in that joyful fact. You will live in the presence of God for eternity without sin, without pain, and without death.

The old church year ends and a new church year dawns. As it was in the past, so shall it be again this time. Jesus is with us as our faithful and merciful Savior. His ear is always open to our prayer. His comfort is always near. He’ll be here again next week, Lord willing, to forgive your sin and restore the joy of His salvation. He’ll be with you everywhere you go as His holy angels watch over you, protecting you from the evil foe. You can run, but you can’t hide from God. His love for you in Christ never fails. His forgiveness for you in Christ is always ready. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

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