Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sermon on Exodus 33:12-23, for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, "Favor in God's Sight"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The book of Hebrews says this about the prophet Moses: “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son.” Today in our Old Testament reading, we see Moses interceding for God’s people in a Christ-like way, but also throwing himself completely upon God’s mercy and help. He models Christ, our mediator between God and man, but also models a persistent faith that hangs onto God and seeks His favor and promises.
Why was Moses so earnestly seeking assurances of God’s help? This was just after a serious crisis. A short timeline: Moses had given the 10 Commandments to the people at Mt. Sinai. After that, he went up to the mountain to continue to receive God’s Law. Then, in chapter 32, while Moses was up on the mountain, the whole terrible incident of the golden calf took place. The Israelites fell into gross worship of an idol and sinful revelry, and when Moses came down and saw how they had so quickly abandoned God, who delivered them out of Egypt, he smashed the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments in his anger. But then Moses threw Himself upon God’s mercy and sought forgiveness for them. But at the start of chapter 33, where our reading is found, God swears that He will still keep His promise to bring them into the land He promised to Abraham and their fathers, but God refuses to go with them personally. He refuses because He does not want to destroy them on the way, because of their stubbornness. The next verse says, “when the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned…” (33:4).
It was disastrous to think that the God who had been their deliverer from Egypt, would not go with them to the Promised Land. God did promise to send an angel with them to drive out the nations before them, but He would not personally accompany them. This was a devastating rejection, and while all Israel mourned and repented, it struck Moses the deepest. Our reading begins with Moses begging God to reverse His decision, and amazingly, by the end of the reading, he has been successful! Moses appeals to God’s mercy, and overcomes God’s fully deserved righteous anger.
Would you envy Moses his job of leading the Israelites, who, through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, would repeatedly disobey, rebel, and complain against him and against the Lord? Do you envy either our outgoing or incoming presidents, in their jobs of leading a divided and conflicted nation? Moses was not only the chief civil leader of Israel, but he was their spiritual leader as well, and coming off the mess of the golden calf incident, he was sure he couldn’t face this job without God’s help! Even the Israelites realized it would be disastrous to not have God with them. Would that all of our leaders would seek God’s help as earnestly as Moses! Would that we were as earnest in prayer and faith as Moses, to seek after God’s favor and blessings! Would that we would recognize how disastrous it is to face life without God’s presence and favor!
Moses, appealing to God, says, “Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 5 times we hear the phrase, “found favor in your sight.” Moses needs, he insists, on reassurance that he has found favor in God’s sight. Favor describes God’s attitude or disposition towards someone; it’s how He looks upon us—which is why it says this favor is found in God’s eyes. Favor is to be pleased with someone, or to show kindness or mercy toward them. The opposite would be to be displeased, unfavorable, or angry with someone—which is the very thing God had felt towards the idol-worshipping Israelites when they flaunted His first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me.
We too seek after God’s favor, for God to be gracious to us, to look upon us with His favor, and give us His peace. We seek God’s favor because we know that we have sinned, and surely deserve His present and eternal punishment. We should not ask the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but rather should ponder, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Namely, why would God show mercy and kindness to us sinners, who daily forget or worse, ignore and flaunt His commandments? Why would God show favor? In Christ Jesus we know the answer, and that is for the sake of His Son Jesus. Because Jesus came and interceded for our sins, just as Moses interceded for his people. Because Jesus came and sacrificed Himself as the payment for all of our guilt before God. Because Jesus sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to produce fruits in keeping with repentance—a genuine sorrow over our sins, a faith that seeks His mercy, and the beginnings of a new life that turns away from sin. God shows favor, even to notorious sinners, because they turn to God our Savior and find that He forgives.
Moses humbled himself and asked for assurance of God’s favor. But also notice that he asks if he has found favor, that God would “please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.” A deepening of his relationship and understanding of God and His ways. To know God better. Psalm 25 prays the same; for God to show us His ways and His paths, for God is the God of salvation and forgiveness. The Psalmist sings that God teaches the humble, He shows His steadfastness or loyalty to those who keep His covenant and testimonies, and that God forgives and befriends those who fear Him. Moses was asking for just this, and he received it! The same prayers should be on our lips, to deepen our relationship with God, for us to lead and teach us in the ways of His salvation. That we would learn His just laws, and with a humble and repentant heart that we would seek forgiveness and friendship from God.
The first wonderful turn of events in Moses’ conversation with God is that God agrees with Moses’ request and says Yes, He will send His presence with Moses, and give him rest. Moses successfully prayed for God to reverse His decision, not to go with the Israelites. In several places in the Old Testament where God “changes His mind” like this, it is from judgment towards grace. This shows that at the heart of God, grace takes priority. God does not eagerly desire to judge or punish, but in response to sin, He often must. But when people turn their hearts to God in repentance, God shows many times that He is eager to show mercy. He even says this is part of His very character, in Joel 2:13, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” God willingly relented because Moses and the Israelites repented, and sought His favor. God would now go with them!
We must likewise take our own sin seriously as we seek to know God’s ways, to understand both His will and commands, but also His mercy and love. Humble yourselves and return to the Lord, and seek God’s presence with the earnestness of Moses. And take comfort in knowing that just as God promised His presence with Moses and the Israelites, so also has Jesus given His disciples this baptismal promise: surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age. We have been called into the waters of baptism and Jesus tells us to learn everything He has commanded. We stand in the favor of God because of the forgiveness of our sins, and because we are known by God (Gal. 4:9).
After two successful requests for God’s presence and favor with His people, Moses makes an even bolder request from God—“Please show me your glory.” Moses learns that God cannot completely fulfill this request—because “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” The unsettling truth is that our sins are deadly baggage before God’s holiness. Hebrews 12:14 tells us that without holiness, no one will see the Lord, and later, that we should worship God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (vs. 28-29). Standing before God with our sins is something like approaching a fire when your clothes and skin are soaked with gasoline. The holiness of God is something too awesome for us to grasp, but it describes His total purity and separation from sin. His total goodness. With our sins, we would perish in God’s presence. Knowing this, for Moses’ own good, God did not grant the request.
But this is what God did allow—He showed Moses His goodness, proclaimed His Name, “The LORD”—which in Hebrew is Yahweh—the Name God revealed Himself by in the burning bush; and God declares to Moses that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Finally, God places Moses in a cleft, or small space in a rock, shields him with His hand, and God’s glory passes him by. Moses gets as close to God’s glory as God can safely allow, and as He is walking away from Moses, God removes His hand, so Moses can glimpse the back side of God’s glory, but not His face. Here it becomes clear that Moses is seeing God’s glory in the form of a person. Who is that person? He is the One whom St. John calls the Word became flesh, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known (John 1:17-18).
Jesus is the revealer of God, He is full of God’s glory as the only Son. He is the One who became man so that we can see God’s glory, that we can know God. Jesus is the One who teaches us God’s ways and His paths. Jesus is the One who reveals God’s grace and truth. Just as Moses so earnestly sought to find favor in God’s eyes, for himself and for God’s people, so Jesus has sought and brought God’s favor to us. Not only is He appealing God’s mercy, but He Himself accomplished it for us, by His death on the cross and resurrection. He delivers His salvation to you by faith, through channels of His Gospel proclaimed and believed, through the death and resurrection of baptism into Him, and through His body and blood given and shed for you. God accompanies us, His people, He places His Name upon us and promises His favor to us, as we press on to the promised land of heaven. For all of our sins and failures, for all of the times we have needed the earnest, faithful pleadings of Jesus for our sins, God has answered us faithfully and He is present with His people. Go with Him bold in faith to know that He is with us always, and that in Him we find favor in God’s eyes. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen at:

  1. What major sin crisis had unfolded with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, in Exodus 32? Fresh after this terrible event, God declares His anger with them and His unwillingness to go with them, in Exodus 33:1-5. In our reading, 33:12-23, how does Moses appeal to reverse God’s decision?
  2. Five times in the reading, it refers to finding favor in God’s sight. Cf. Genesis 6:5. Explain what God’s favor is. Why is it found “in God’s eyes” or “in His sight?” What is the contrasting attitude that God can have toward sinners or the unrepentant?
  3. Read Exodus 33:13 carefully, and examine Moses’ request from God. What did he desire to learn about God, and why? Why is this a model request for us to pray and seek after God? What does it mean for us to learn God’s ways? Psalm 25:4-14.
  4. Moses seeks God’s mercy not only for Himself, but also the nation of Israel, and assurance that God will really be with them. How will this show that Israel was set apart from the other nations? Exodus 33:16; Numbers 14:13-14; Exodus 19:5-6; Psalm 147:19-20.
  5. How has God extended His grace to all nations, and for what reason? Isaiah 49:5-6; Romans 1:16.
  6. After two affirmative answers from God for his requests, Moses makes a third, even bolder request, to see God’s glory. How does this illustrate the boldness of faith? 2 Timothy 1:7. Why should we be bold to make our requests before God? James 1:5-6; Mark 11:24
  7. God shows Moses the “back” of His glory, as He passes by Moses, hiding him in the cleft of the rock. Read and meditate on the hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (LSB 761) and reflect on how it uses the imagery of Moses seeing God’s glory, to our relationship to Jesus.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon on John 1:14, for Christmas Day, "John's Christmas Verse"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Good Christian friends, we have waited and worshipped these weeks of Advent, we have yielded to the call of the messenger crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord”, we have followed Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds all the way to Bethlehem, to the manger, to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as the angels told. Baby Jesus nestled in a lowly manger, bringing Joy to the World and Peace on Earth.
But the Gospel of John describes Jesus’ birth with a different phrase. No mention of Mary, mangers, Bethlehem, or shepherds. It’s John’s Christmas Verse: John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” What a deep and wonderful phrase: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the Christmas mystery; a deep and profound truth that does not cease to be a mystery once you know it, but becomes even more mysterious (Kleinig). It’s like the mystery of love, or life—experiencing them does not make them any less wondrous, but more.
Became flesh is plain enough to understand. We all became flesh when we were conceived in the womb of our mother. A new and perfectly unique combination, a singular you, yet inseparably connected with the rest of the human race. Heart, brain, lungs, eyes. Jesus too became flesh, inseparably connected to the rest of the human race. Born of the same genetic material as His mother, the Virgin Mary. But the Virgin mother! No human father conceived Him, but as the angel told Mary, she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This past Wednesday we listened as the angel confirmed the same truth to Joseph, who became Jesus’ adoptive, earthly father. When Jesus became flesh, it was as the only-begotten of the Father—God’s own Son, but conceived in Mary’s womb, of Mary’s flesh also. His true Father was God.
The Word became flesh, in the shortest way possible, communicates that Jesus was human and divine, at the same time. He is God—He did not leave that behind, surrender it, or become some demigod or angel. But at the same time that He is God, He is also man—conceived and born with real human flesh and blood. Back up to John 1:1 for a moment, and look back at who this “Word” is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word was God, and the next verse goes on to say that He made all things. So weigh in another profound truth—the Creative Word of God, is now the Incarnate Word, or the Word made flesh. The powerful God who created the universe, was gently grasping the fingers of Joseph and Mary, with infant hands.
But why do this? Why would God personally become a living man, part of His creation? Why come to His own people, whom He had made, only to be rejected by them, to be treated as unwelcome—no, worse, to be treated as a blasphemer, who must be killed? The second verse of our sermon carol, “What Child is This?” answers our question:
Why lies he in such mean estate,  Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here  The silent Word is pleading:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,  The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,  The babe, the Son of Mary!
The Word made flesh came to bear the cross for us—to plead before God for us sinners.
Here is more mystery—God has, throughout human history, experienced all the outrageous sins of the human race—sins against Him. All ten of His commandments that have habitually broken, worshipping other gods, taking God’s Name in vain, neglecting His day of worship and rest, dishonoring parents, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting what belongs to our neighbors. In every way that we are sinners, God is rightly angered and displeased that we have not cared for one another as His commandments show. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not worshipped Him purely and kept His Name holy.
But the mystery, is that God came and occupied the lowly manger, a food trough for animals. He endured the nails and spear that pierced Him through, and bore the cross. This, to redeem us. To pay off the cursed debt of sin, so that we could be pardoned, so that He could make us children of God and heirs of His promises. For the thankless task of bearing the cross and the sin of the world, for enduring the selfish treatment of human beings rejecting their own Maker—for this we are called to “Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary.” Hail Him, bring Him your highest praises and loudest songs. Bow your head in humility before your King, who stooped so low to serve you, to travel from manger, to cross, to empty tomb. For no thanks and praise can ever repay Him—but He demands no payment—only that we receive Him, that we believe in His Name, and thereby become His children. Not by our will or by human flesh, but born of God, in second birth, by the Holy Spirit. The new birth of baptism: water and Spirit.
So far, the Word became flesh. But what mystery is hidden in the phrase, Dwelt among us? Dwelt could ordinarily mean to take up residence somewhere. To live together with us. Yes, Jesus shared an address with humans on earth. First in Bethlehem, then Egypt for a while, then Nazareth, then as an adult various places throughout Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea. But John means much more than just that Jesus took up His residence with us. His word, for dwelt, is actually to pitch a tent. It’s a word that his readers were sure to notice, and recall another time when God dwelt with His people in a pitched tent.
 The assigned Old Testament reading for Christmas Day is a description of the tabernacle, or tent of worship that Moses was instructed by God to build in the wilderness. The Tabernacle would be the movable worship space while the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land, and for the 40 years of wandering, while they were prevented from entering because of their sin. For generations afterward, over 400 years, till the time of King Solomon, this tent of animal skins and fine cloths and embroidery remained the central worship site for the Israelites. When the original tabernacle was completed, and later when Solomon completed the first Temple, and prayed for God to dwell there—on both occasions, God visibly “moved in”, by the glorious cloud of His presence. He showed through the miraculous cloud of His glory, that He was taking up residence there among His people.
Now why would that old history matter to John’s audience, and to us? What’s the significance of having God dwell with us in the flesh? First of all, we should note that this is not a “temporary” presence. In the Old Testament, when His people introduced idolatry and abominations into His Temple, God withdrew His presence. He wasn’t going to be bound to this spot if they dishonored Him and sought Him no longer. And Jesus “pitching His tent” or “tabernacling among us”, by becoming flesh, was not like a short vacation in a borrowed or rented tent. Jesus didn’t return or surrender His human flesh, His body, when He died, nor when He rose from the grave, nor when He ascended into heaven. Jesus eternally remains the Word made flesh. Not God dwelling at an address, a tent in a certain city of Judea, or in the Temple in Jerusalem, but God dwelling among us in the person of His Son.
Secondly, the tabernacle or Temple was where the priests would intercede to God for sinners. Where they would offer up sacrifices, according to command, to atone for the sins of the people. It was where they sought God’s mercy. But there is no longer a tabernacle or Temple for us to seek intercession with God, through a priest. Rather, we have Jesus, our Great High Priest, the Silent Word who pleads for our sins, and whose body will become, as you can read in John 2, His body becomes the New Temple of God. All of the intercession, prayer, sacrifice, and presence of God dwelling with His people, are fulfilled, perfected, and realized in Jesus. It is now, and forever that we find God’s mercy in Jesus.
And this means, that to seek God’s mercy for our sins, to seek God’s atonement for our sins, to seek God’s gracious presence for us, there is only one place to find it. In the person of Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Seeing the glory of God this Christmas, and every year that we recall the miracle of Jesus’ birth, there is more than enough profound mystery and joy to keep us pondering the depths of God’s love forever. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 4:2-7, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "The Lord is our Supreme Joy!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Though on Maui it might be a stretch—I want you to imagine two people huddled outside in the cold snow, perhaps under a dark shelter—but they are shivering, freezing. Then the sun breaks through the clouds with brilliant force, casting warm beams to the earth. But hidden under the shelter, the two are still frozen cold. Then one enters the sunlight, and suddenly feels the warmth soaking into all their body, face, fingertips, and toes. The other is still miserable, shivering cold in the dark. If the first simply says, “hey, quit shivering, just warm up!” but doesn’t bring them out into the sunshine, it does the person no good—they’ll still be frozen. Their words are empty sentiment. But if they’re brought into the warmth of the sunlight, they will immediately feel the chill and the cold fading away.

Another example. In James 2:14-17, James describes a faith without works. He says what if a person was hungry and lacking proper clothes, and you just said, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, but gave nothing they needed for the body—this would do them no good. Faith without works is dead. You need to actually feed or clothe them to do good.

I often wonder how you hear or even say those words in today’s reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!” Do you hear them like the person still huddled in the freezing dark, angry as though someone were mocking our suffering? Or like the hungry person who is told to be filled, but is given nothing to eat? In other words, are we encircled by some sorrow or suffering, so that we hear these words as being empty of comfort? Perhaps, but only if we miss the heart and center of words.  

You see, when St. Paul writes these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!”, the joy and comfort all flow from the Lord. The point is, the Lord is our Supreme Joy! To use our examples, Jesus is the radiant sunlight that dawns upon us, giving warmth and light, as we have long been in the cold darkness and winter of our sins. The prophet Malachi told of Jesus’ coming, that the “sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Joy comes from the radiant warmth and light of the Lord, and all His gifts. And to give someone joy, we must give them the Lord! To know joy ourselves, we must know the Lord! It’s not insignificant that Jesus also teaches us that we are the light of the world, and that our good deeds give glory to the Father. We transmit and reflect the light of Jesus when we show kindness and do good for others—showing His care, love, and forgiveness.

I included some extra verses in our reading from Philippians, to show that Paul understood that joy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, or only when life is all coasting along easily. Verse 2 Paul appeals for two Christian women to resolve their conflicts by agreeing in the Lord. This is followed by the command to rejoice in the Lord always, and a reminder to be reasonable to everyone. The thoughts are obviously linked, as being UNreasonable or stubborn, makes it almost impossible to resolve conflict. But sandwiched between is the command to rejoice. And joy is an honest result of people making amends—coming together by agreement in the Lord, and putting hurts, wrongs, and disagreements behind them. Conflict and division, especially in a church, are sure to rob us of joy—but seeking agreement in the Lord and finding unity, is a sure way to restore joy!

Paul gives one person specific instructions on this in verse 3. It may be the pastor or a significant leader in the Philippian church. Paul says, “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life”. There are many interesting things about this verse. Four times in the Greek, he use the prefix “with” on several words. He’s appealing for unity, based on “agreement in the Lord” from the verse before. The first word, translated “true companion” is more literally, “true yoke-fellow”. Paul is writing to a friend, who has labored alongside him in the gospel, like two oxen, or two cattle, pulling a yoke together. A yoke, if you don’t know, is a heavy wooden bar that rests over the back of an ox pulling a plow or cart. It symbolizes teamwork, combined effort, and that pulling in the same direction is the only way to get the job done! In their conflict, Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche, the two women, to “agree in the Lord”. This is their Christian duty, and it’s the way they’re going to “pull together in the same direction” and get the job done!

Paul calls his “yoke-fellow”, his trusted laborer, to come alongside them and help them do this. These women were precious to Paul also, as he remembers how each of them had previously labored side by side with him in the gospel. He knew their Christian character and heart from their service with him in the Gospel. He therefore knew that it was not impossible to overcome their conflict, but that they had to refocus on the Lord—agree in the Lord!—to overcome it. Isn’t that just like life in our Christian congregation, or among our Christian friends? How easy is it for little matters to separate, divide, create conflict or disagreement. It robs us of joy. But like Paul, we should know the heart and love for Christian service in our brothers and sisters, and seek to bring resolution, agreement in the Lord, wherever possible.

And certain of this outcome, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand”. Joy comes from the Lord. It comes from realigning our thoughts and hearts to His Word, His gracious will—which creates agreement, unity, the ability to work together and accomplish much for the gospel, and this is joy! The Lord is at hand, is a reminder not to delay. We also should not miss that this letter of joy that Paul penned to the Philippians, was written while he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel! Paul was no stranger to suffering, and he certainly doesn’t imagine that we can only know joy when life is all easy.

And of course, life is not easy for many. While we may celebrate Christmas in comfort and safety, there are people locally who are homeless or jobless. Internationally many are refugees from war, persecution, or famine this Christmas season. There are people whose families are not intact, or may have deep divisions. It’s well-known that for these and many other reasons, including health issues, that many people experience the “holiday blues.” Or might we better say, that we suffer under the “winter of our sins?” All the effects of sin, our own, and the sins of others, casts a frozen chill on life. But listen to these words of an ancient Easter hymn: “Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst His prison, and from three days’ sleep in death, as a sun has risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying, from His light to whom is giv’n laud and praise undying” (LSB 487:2).

Jesus is the radiant sun who shines down on our sin-darkened lives, frozen with the chill of our meanness, unreasonableness, selfishness, and coldness to each other. The joy that Paul knew, and that we’re invited to know, is “joy in the Lord.” His resurrection is the crowning victory over sin and death, and the warming light that thaws and chases away the long and dark winter of our sins. Where the light of Jesus Christ is shed, where the gifts of His Word, Truth, forgiveness and love are flowing down on us, there the warmth and joy of the Lord is spread and known. To call others to share in and experience that joy of the Lord, we must bring them to the radiant beams of His light. Or we must reflect that light of the Lord to them, by acts of goodness, kindness, and love, so that they are drawn into the light. The joy of the Lord is shining and giving us light, more surely than the rising of the sun each morning. To quote another scripture, written in the depths of darkness and grief, Lamentations, the prophet, saw suffering all around him, but remembers this hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23-23).

Since the Lord’s steadfast love never ceases, His mercies never end, we can rejoice in Him always. Later in the Philippians 4 Paul joins this theme of joy to contentment—in all circumstances, plenty or hunger, abundance or need—I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Joy and contentment are not about having everything we think we need, or being happy, healthy, and without problems—joy and contentment are seeing that the Lord, the Son of righteousness, is still shining in all His faithfulness and mercy. It is seeing that the Lord shines still in His resurrection victory that is the greatest victory of all. With sin, death, and the devil defeated, we can endure the lesser ups and downs, victories and defeats of this life, confident that all is not lost, but rather all has been gained in Christ Jesus. In fact, earlier in this same letter, Paul confesses, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” for then he would be with the Lord. The point of it is that the Christian has a unique and incomparable source of joy in the Lord, because the death and resurrection of Jesus means that whatever life brings, we have a “win-win” situation, because we have been forgiven and redeemed by the Lord. God’s Son is ever shining.

You can’t get warmed by hiding in the darkness, or staying in the cold. You must come into the sunshine of the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Come into the sunshine of the Lord’s gifts—receive His Word with joy, receive His coming this Christmas with joy, receive His forgiveness in body and blood with joy, because Jesus has redeemed us from all the winter of our sins! If the cold and chill of sorrows and sins still lingers, continue to come again and again into His gracious presence! Repeat as often as needed! And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Sermon Talking Points

Read sermons at:

Listen at:

  1. In Philippians 4:2-7, Paul urges us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” When is it particularly difficult for us to rejoice, or find joy? Where is the joy Paul talks about centered or found?
  2. Read James 2:14-17. How does the Christian truly bless a person who is hungry or lacking clothes? In a parallel way, how does a Christian bless someone who is suffering or lacking joy? Where does it come from, and how can we help deliver it?
  3. What challenging situation was Paul addressing in Philippians 4:2-3? What makes conflicts especially hard to resolve (contrast to vs. 7)? What is the key for finding agreement? (vs. 2).
  4. How can we come alongside or help other Christians who may be stuck in a conflict or disagreement? Philippians 4:3. What shared experiences and affection moved Paul and his companion to work for this unity? How is joy a product of true unity in the Lord?
  5. Paul knew joy, even as he wrote the letter. Where was he writing from? What circumstances? Philippians 1:7. What troubles us or steals our joy?
  6. The Easter hymn “Come You Faithful, Raise the Strain” (LSB 487:2) contains this verse: Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst His prison, and from three days’ sleep in death, as a sun has risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying, from His light to whom is giv’n laud and praise undying. Explain what it means for us that Jesus has risen from death.
  7. Read Lamentations 3:19-24, especially vss. 22-23. How does he find hope in the midst of despair? Why do Christians face a “win-win situation” no matter what? Philippians 1:22.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-10, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Blessed to take no offense at Jesus"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Jesus and John the Baptist are talking through messengers in our reading. John, like many others in history, “played second fiddle” to someone more famous, namely Jesus. But John took pains to show that he was content with this role—he wasn’t seeking attention for himself. His proper focus was on elevating Jesus. As Jesus first publicly took the scene, John announced: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).
But even though John knew his secondary role—Jesus shows how great this role was. John was more than a prophet, he is the very messenger prophesied seven centuries earlier by Isaiah and four centuries earlier by Malachi. The one to “prepare the way of the Lord”. Just think that faithful Israelites had been anticipating John’s coming for 7 centuries! That’s more than twice the history of the USA! And by waiting for his coming, they were ultimately waiting for the Messiah whom he would announce. The prophecies showed that John would usher in the coming of the Lord. He’s the best man to Jesus, the groom.
But now to our reading…the “best man” John, is locked up in prison. And he’s anxious to know if he was really right about Jesus. When John baptized Him he proclaimed Jesus to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But now he’s sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?
What was behind John’s question? We can only guess—it could have been doubt—was he really right about Jesus’ identity? It could have been impatience or urgency—“I’m pretty sure you are the Messiah, but where is the kingdom you are bringing in”? Or it could have just been confusion—maybe he thought the kingdom would come with more judgment and more power? Whatever the trouble, we can understand John’s concern, because he was locked up in prison for preaching the good news, and for opposing the adulterous and incestuous union of the powerful Herod Antipas. To say John was in hot water would be a gross understatement. Not long after, John would be beheaded at the whim of Herodias. John must have been wondering, “Is this how the kingdom of God is going to come? Am I going to get out?”
Whatever doubts or uncertainty played on John’s mind, reappear later in the worries and concerns of Jesus’ other disciples. Right down to Peter’s abandonment of Jesus, or the disciples hiding in fear after His death and even Resurrection. Or the Emmaus disciples puzzling over how the kingdom of God, that seemed to be coming through Jesus, could go down in shame and death on the cross. In various ways, Jesus’ disciples took offense throughout His ministry. Why should Jesus’ kingdom be marked by such suffering and shame, and finally death? Wouldn’t more power be in order?
Outside of His circle of disciples, there was even harsher criticism of Jesus’ actions. Others were offended that Jesus would eat with sinners—associating at the homes of tax collectors, or welcoming prostitutes who sought to hear Him. Healing the sick and the lame on the Sabbath day of rest. Not only did He ignore the customs of the Pharisees, but He was even sharply critical of them! And finally, for the Gentiles, all non-Jewish foreigners like the Romans and Greeks, (or even us Americans!), the thought that Jesus would die on the cross, was utter foolishness and contempt. They could see nothing honorable in the most demeaning criminal’s death. From John’s yearning questions, to the skeptics who were most offended by Jesus, many were offended by Jesus’ coming, and didn’t know how to receive it.
Yes, when Jesus answered back to John’s messengers, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me”—these were and are tough words to swallow. Pundits and observers of Jesus’ kingdom felt they had plenty to criticize and dispute. Many scratched their heads or waved their hands in dismissal. And so it is today. Some find the greatest offense in Jesus’ words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” His exclusive claim of salvation. Others find the miracles, and especially the resurrection of Jesus impossible to believe. People still take offense at Jesus. But blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus. How do we receive His kingdom, and that blessing? How do we not take offense at Jesus? First we must hear and take His Word to heart.
Let’s rewind just a half sentence before Jesus’ blessing. Jesus says, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. This may be the most significant of the signs Jesus names, proving who He was. Who are these poor, and what good news was coming their way? It echoes Jesus’ opening words of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poor in spirit means to be humbled and empty before God. A complete dependence on Him. It’s to such people, poor in spirit, that Jesus brings the kingdom. Jesus’ good news comes to the poor. Jesus’ kingdom won’t find a place among the proud and scornful—among those who imagine they have spiritual riches of their own, and aren’t beggars awaiting God’s help. If we come before God puffed up with our own knowledge or pride, and think we don’t need to receive anything from God—the kingdom of Christ won’t come our way. Not until our lofty pride and presumption is brought low. Not until we set aside our offenses, and listen humbly to His Word. Not until we are poor in spirit, are we ready to have the good news preached to us.
On a purely practical level, that means we know and realize that we are sinners. Not just a generic “Oh well, nobody’s perfect”—but admitting that we have rebelled against God in thought, word, and deed. Realizing we aren’t dressed in fine robes of our good works, ready and presentable to God—but that we are dressed in the tattered and filthy rags of our sin—needing a bath and a change of clothes. John knew about this spiritual poverty—he prepped people for it—confessing their sins, stripping off those rags, and washing in the baptism of repentance and forgiveness. He helped them empty themselves of the pride of false works.
Jesus later made this command, that we Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you. Jesus prescribed that cleansing wash of baptism for all of us, that we’d all be washed and made clean. And St. Paul explains further that in baptism we are clothed with Christ, dressed newly in His righteousness. To get the kingdom, we have to be emptied of ourselves, to receive the fullness of Christ’s gifts—forgiveness, eternal life, the gifts of the Spirit, Jesus’ righteousness. To those humbled, those so emptied in spirit, who are not offended by Jesus—this good news is preached! The poor hear good news, and are blessed. The Gospel kingdom makes its way into poor hearts, and we begin to overflow with the spiritual richness and blessings of Jesus Christ.  
Even John, the great forerunner of Jesus, His “best man”, had to be reminded to humble himself and not take offense at Jesus’ kingdom as it came. Jesus’ kingdom came in lowliness and grace and suffering. But it also came with these proofs that He was the right One, the “Coming One” whom John correctly expected. Jesus told John, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus laid down a full hand of cards and more, that showed that John was right to expect Jesus as the promised Messiah. He correctly understood that the prophecies pointed to Jesus; his ministry had not been in vain. John must have felt reassured, even if his fate was still gloomy. Jesus’ miracles, and most of all His preaching the Good News, confirmed that God’s kingdom had truly come.
Jesus brings His kingdom to us that we might be blessed, and not for us to take offense. When we see His destination of the cross, nailed there for the forgiveness of sins, we must not be offended that we need a Savior from our sin, but rather be humbled and poor in spirit, to hear that Good News. God changes our hearts, He prepares His way in our heart, through preachers like John the Baptist, and through all the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross confronts us with that offense, what St. Paul calls a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles. But hidden in the cross of Christ is the mighty power and wisdom of God to save us. The earthly eye, the eye of our sinful flesh, can’t see it. But the Spirit of God teaches us these things. Jesus patiently taught them to troubled John, and He patiently teaches them to us.
In your heart, in my heart, there are certainly sinful obstacles to receiving Christ’s kingdom. It could be pride, or doubt, or anxiety. It might be unrest with the troubles and sufferings you endure in life, and wondering where Jesus is in it all. It could be distraction from hearing and listening to His Word—too occupied by the busyness and cares of life. Whatever the obstacles, this Advent season pray that God continue to clear His way into our hearts through faithfully hearing His Word, as our Lord comes our way. Listen with the poor, to the Good News preached by Jesus. Listen with John to the reminder, Blessed is the one who is not offended by me. The Lord Jesus is coming—this is His kingdom—hearts are made open to be blessed and receive His grace! Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen at:

  1. Read Matthew 5:3, the first Beatitude opening Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Read Matthew 11:2-6. How was Jesus bringing His kingdom to the “poor in spirit?”
  2. Read Isaiah 61:1. When John heard this verse quoted by Jesus, how might he have been encouraged? What might he have hoped to hear from Jesus, that is mentioned in the rest of the verse? What was he facing soon? Matthew 14:1-12; see also Matthew 5:10-12.
  3. John asks Jesus if He is “the coming one”. Who were the Old Testament believers expecting? Deuteronomy 18:15, 18. What signs of prophecy did He fulfill? Isaiah 29:18; 35:5-6; 61:1. In addition to those signs that were definitely prophesied, what additional miracles of Jesus were named here?
  4. What actions and words of Jesus’ life and ministry caused offense to some? Matthew 11:18-19; 12:9-14; 12:22-24, 33-37. What is the blessing in not being offended by Jesus’, but believing Him? Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
  5. How did Jesus’ actions convey that His first coming was to usher in a kingdom of grace, not judgement? At His second coming there will be judgment, but what promise do those who believe in Him have? John 3:16-21; 5:22-24.