Monday, December 28, 2009

Sermon on Luke 2:22-40, for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, "According to Your Word"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. It was a necessary part of our salvation that Jesus keep the entire law from His birth till His death—because it’s by His innocence according to the law that we’re saved. Here at the Temple in Jerusalem, through His parents Mary and Joseph, Jesus is already passively keeping the law as they perform the sacrifices for the consecration of a firstborn son. And as they make these sacrifices, in keeping of the law, they encounter an aged and faithful believer named Simeon. It’s Simeon’s encounter with the baby Jesus in the Gospel that we focus on today. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Joseph and Mary had no idea that the elderly Simeon had waited his whole life for this very day. They had no idea that the obligatory task of going to the temple for purification after childbirth, would be the occasion for Simeon’s majestic prophecy and song about what their humble infant Jesus would be known for. Parents usually love it when both familiar and unfamiliar people coo and fawn over their newborns. The pride of parents to see their beautiful child, and everyone’s adoration and smiles. To wonder what this little child will grow up to be—a doctor who discovers a cure, an inventor who patents a useful machine, a teacher who inspires children, a concert musician. Or maybe we don’t have such grandiose schemes for our little child prodigies, but a parent wants to know that their child will be loved and valued.

Who knows what hopes and dreams Joseph and Mary had—they knew He was no ordinary child—but what to expect? Surprise seemed to surround Jesus as all sorts of unannounced visitors and strangers praised His birth. So Simeon and later Anna were but the latest pair of unexpected followers of their infant Christ. But Mary and Joseph were amazed—they marveled when Simeon basically gave his deathbed confession of Jesus Christ. What I mean is that Simeon was promised by the Lord that he wouldn’t die before seeing the Lord’s Christ. He wouldn’t die until he’d seen the Christ, God’s promised deliverer and consolation of Israel. And now, in this moment of holding the baby Jesus—he declared that he was now ready to die! He was ready to go home in peace to his Lord because he’d now seen God’s salvation!

It says that Simeon took Jesus and blessed God. At the same time that he blessed God in heaven—he blessed the infant God in his arms. Praising God for allowing him this delight to hold the Messiah, according to God’s Word—His promise to Simeon. It’s admirable that Simeon ended his life this way, and had the confidence that he could depart in peace, according to God’s word. Often at death people are preoccupied with settling old scores, making amends with bad relationships. Hopefully we won’t wait till death to reconcile with people we’ve wronged. People are often preoccupied about who’ll take care of family, or fearful of whether they had lead a life worthy of heaven. But Simeon knew as every believer in Christ knows, that he could never lead a life worthy of heaven. He knew that there wasn’t anything in himself that would get him there—but it was by faith, by trusting in Christ promises, that he could depart in peace. He saw salvation in Jesus with his own eyes, and that was enough. He went to his death in peace.

Just about a week before our dear sister Anne Cassidy died, I took communion to John and her. After we’d finished the Lord’s Supper, as she lay there in bed, weak and near death, we prayed with the words of Simeon’s song. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.” We prayed that the Lord would let her go in peace, according to His word, because she had seen the Lord’s salvation in her own life. She knew that she was a saint—not by her own making, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It was His peace that accompanied her through death. Simeon saw salvation in the baby Jesus. Anne saw salvation in her life through God’s Word and Sacrament richly working grace in her life. We see salvation when we depart in peace from the Lord’s table, as the same Jesus comes to us in body and blood for our salvation. So for centuries Lutherans have sung Simeon’s song after departing from the Lord’s Supper. It’s a song of faith that God will deal with us mercifully according to His Word.

Simeon’s song of blessing over the child declared that this child was for all people. God was preparing salvation in the presence of all peoples—Israel and all the Gentiles. Those near to God and those far. So the message of Christmas, the message of God’s unfolding salvation belongs not to us alone, but all the world. How can we hold back this message that rightfully belongs to all people? We’re obliged to share it because it belongs every bit as much to all friends, neighbors, and strangers afar as it does to us.

But after Simeon’s glowing words over Jesus, there followed a more ominous warning about what heartache and hardship would accompany the life of this young Messiah. “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Even at the birth and infancy of Jesus, He couldn’t escape the cross as the overshadowing purpose of His life and ministry. First the Magi’s gift of myrrh, the bitter perfume that was used in burial, that spoke of the gathering gloom of His death. Then the first shedding of Jesus’ blood on the 8th day for His circumcision and naming. Next the offering of sacrifices for the consecration of the firstborn and purification of the mother—sacrifices that pointed forward to Jesus’ perfect sacrificial death. Finally, after His birth, this prophecy of Simeon to Mary—“a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Mary would share unspeakable pain and grief when she would stand beneath the cross of Jesus, watching the son that she once cradled die a brutal death. She felt the grief of seeing Him opposed and rejected through His ministry—though He was the very promised salvation for His people.

But through His death the thoughts of many hearts are revealed. The last part of Simeon’s prophecy was that Jesus would expose all the thoughts of mankind’s hearts. An author made this comment on the strange way in which all hearts were exposed at the cross:

The disciples believe, but in their fear they run away. Peter makes bold promises but falls into denial. The high priest wants to preserve the sanctity of the temple and keep the Romans from intervention in his sacred space. In the process he participates in the death of an innocent man. The soldiers only obeyed orders, and those orders violated Roman justice. Pilate wanted to keep his job and stay out of trouble…his true nature was exposed by the cross. The thoughts of the hearts of many were revealed by the suffering of the cross, and Mary participated in that suffering. On Golgotha Mary chose to remain to the end and witness the suffering of her son until his death. She was not under arrest and could have walked away. She knew she could not change what was happening before her by arguing with the soldiers or pleading with the high priests. The only decision she was free to make was to choose to remain and enter into Jesus' suffering. Indeed a sword passed through her heart, and in the process, once again, she became a model for Christian discipleship. (Bailey, Jesus through Middle-Eastern Eyes, p. 60-1.)

At the cross all the conflicting thoughts and motivations of sinners are laid bare. All the people that surrounded Jesus that day—friends or enemies—they all became transparent as they faced the confusion of that day. Those who tried to stand by Him found it impossible to stand. Those who stood against Him fell trembling to the ground at His name and at the earthquake that followed His death. Earthly rulers that would try to stand over Him toppled and fell.

The same is true today. We stand or fall with Jesus. If we try to stand for Him on our own goodness, our own strength, our own courage—we’ll prove sinful, weak, or cowardly in the time of testing. If we don’t believe in the Lord Jesus and try to stand against Him, we’ll still fall to our knees before Him one day. If we have positions of power and authority, and think that we stand over the humble story of Jesus, and treat the cross as mere shame—than we’ll be ashamed on the last day when Christ comes back with all power and authority over heaven and earth. While men fall and rise around Jesus and His cross—its only those who stand under His cross and in His suffering that will finally rise in the resurrection of the dead one day. Like Mary freely witnessed the suffering of her Son when she could have turned away. We also stand under the cross, fixing our eyes on Jesus. With our own eyes we look to His salvation, and with our heart we believe what He’s said according to His Word.

We stand under His cross—counting no honor or credit to ourselves—counting only the guilt of our sins that put Him there. Standing there we fall. We fall under the burden of our sin that is too great to lift. Until Jesus, with out-stretched arms embracing the whole burden of the world, lifts the heavy weight of sin from our shoulders, and bears it Himself. There with hearts exposed—with our false motives, hidden agendas and intentions laid bare under the cross, God sees us transparently and with righteous judgment. Yet God also sees the thoughts and intentions of the only pure heart at the cross—the heart of Jesus. Jesus, who alone came with transparent motives and actions, who did precisely what He came for with no boasting or pretensions or hidden agendas. When God looks down from heaven and sees fallen sinners toppled by sin, He also sees the innocent heart of Jesus, pierced by the soldier. Then God in heaven and God dying on the cross, does a miracle. God the Father sees the innocent motives and sacrificial heart of God the Son, and He sees more than enough innocence in His divine Son for all the world. He pronounces forgiveness for all mankind who trust in this Savior on the cross—this sign opposed by the world.

Then we, sinners slain and fallen beneath the cross, rise together with the many of Israel. We rise under the power of the Risen Christ who sends our hearts leaping for joy into the life of His forgiveness. “Hail, the heav’nborn Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth” (LSB 380). Those who stand under His cross rise with Christ. They rise with the healing in His wings, lifted up as a glorious eagle soars to heaven’s heights. We sons of earth are born a second time after our sinful flesh dies with Him at the cross. We’ve participated in the glorious exchange of our guilt for His innocence—of our sinfulness for His holiness.

And finally we can go to our death, whenever it should come, with peace. We can sing on our deathbed—“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your Word. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people!” With Simeon, with Anna, with Mary, with Anne Cassidy and all the saints who’ve gone before us this year and every year before, we can sing that song of Simeon knowing that God will take us home in peace. We live in faith in His Word, knowing His salvation in our lives with our own heart and our own eyes. For we have seen salvation in Jesus Christ, born for us men and for our salvation. In His Name. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.


Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. Why was it essential that Jesus fully keep the Law, even from birth? Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 4:15. What laws of God did Mary and Joseph keep for Him after birth? Genesis 17:9-14; Exodus 13:1-15; Leviticus 12:1-8. How did each law hint at Jesus’ future death?

2. What joy inspired Simeon’s song? What did it tell about the significance that lay ahead in baby Jesus’ life?

3. How was Simeon able to face his death with peace? What gave him the assurance that his salvation was assured? How does God’s Word and Sacrament give us assurance at death?

4. How does Simeon’s song announce that this message belongs to everyone? How can we withhold it from others, since it’s the rightful possession of all mankind?

5. What more ominous note to Mary about Jesus’ future, followed Simeon’s song? How did this relate to the cross?

6. How does the cross expose all hearts and motives? When have we acted with hidden motives and agendas? How often have we been deceptive in our actions? Why is this not fitting of Christians/followers of Christ? 2 Cor. 4:1-3

7. Why is standing under the cross of Jesus in repentance and humility the only way to rise with Him? Luke 2:34-35; Romans 7:24-8:8; Romans 6.

Sermon on John 1:1-14, Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, "The Light no darkness can Overcome"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over. Let Your light scatter the darkness, and illumine Your Church” (LSB 243). These words are the opening responses from the ancient and infrequently used service of Evening Prayer. That service, like our Candelight Service tonight, reflects on how Jesus Christ, the Light of the World drives away the darkness and gives light to men by illumining His Church. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Those ancient responses come in part from John’s telling of the Christmas story, in chapter 1. John wrote: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). When John tells the Christmas story, he refers to the Word that is God and was present at creation. John refers to the True Light coming into the world. He talks about the Word become flesh. It’s not the simple historic narratives we know from Matthew and Luke. John looks at what happened on the first Christmas from the theological angle. So we understand the greater meaning of Jesus’ arrival and birth in Bethlehem.

Christmas was when God in His eternity entered time. God, in the perfection of His Light and Holiness, grabbed a hold of and entered into the fallenness of our darkness and sin. His light scattered the darkness, and no darkness can overcome His light. The heavenly God grasped and filled the earthly and physical form of a human body. We call what happened at Christmas, the Incarnation. God taking on human flesh. These high and lofty ideas that our simple minds strain to grasp, are all part of the miracle and the wonder of Christmas. We sing them in words like these: “Veiled in flesh the God-head see, Hail the Incarnate Deity! Pleased as Man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!” But we don’t need a PhD in theology to understand John’s Gospel, nor do we need it to understand the meaning of Christmas. Because Christmas isn’t about us grasping God or reaching up into heaven to comprehend the eternal, to solve the mysteries of the universe, to bring God down to us by our understanding. No, Christmas is about God reaching down and grasping us, entering our world, and making Himself known to us.

God grasps us at Christmas. There in the humble manger lies Jesus, God veiled or hidden in the most unassuming form. The form of infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a typical Jewish baby from a modest family. Here God first entered personally into the form of mankind that He had so long ago created in the Garden of Eden as the perfect image of Himself. God incarnate is pleased to dwell among us as the Man Jesus. He’s the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. Christmas is about God entering our human story as one of us. This is why Jesus’ birth is the most celebrated birth of all human history. No person ever born has such a celebrated birth, and accompanied by so many signs and wonders. Because God was descending to make Himself known, so that we wouldn’t be blindly reaching and grasping.

When we come back again to John’s account of the Incarnation, or Christmas, we hear these words: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” We celebrate Christmas because it is the arrival of the light that no darkness can overcome. That light still shines even now, and it will never be overcome. Therefore we celebrate Christmas not just because of what God did once some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem—but we celebrate Christmas because of God’s ongoing work that He’ll fully complete one day (Scaer, 35). We celebrate Christmas with light—with our candles tonight, with lighted Christmas trees and houses strung out with beautiful lights and decorations. We try to fill this darkest month of the year with as much light as possible. We remember that light surrounded that first Christmas from the star of Bethlehem that showed the way to the Magi to the glorious company of angels that dazzled the shepherds with their shining glory.

But while we celebrate Christmas with Light—while we celebrate the coming of Jesus who is the Light of the World, we see that darkness still battles on till the end of the world. Not the physical darkness of nighttime or the winter season, but the darkness of sin and its delusions. The spiritual darkness that seeks to delude and discourage mankind ever since the Fall into sin. The heart of that spiritual battle of darkness against light isn’t about whether nativity scenes will appear in public places or not. It isn’t about whether someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The heart of the spiritual battle that goes on between light and darkness is whether we will receive Christ, the True Light, or not. Examples of nativities and holiday greetings are at least superficial evidence that the world does not receive Him—but should that be any surprise? John says as much when he said of Jesus, the True Light: “He was in the world and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.”

The greater surprise is what John says about “His own—His own people.” John says, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Many of God’s own people the Jews, who should’ve been prepared for His coming, ended up rejecting Him. So the heart of the spiritual battle between light and darkness is whether our hearts will accept Him or reject Him. Even people like us who show up for religious services on Christmas—the battle is for our hearts. It is for our hearts that the darkness tugs and pulls—trying to win us to sins’ delusions. Trying to get us to buy into anything that will get us to sell out on God. It should be truly shocking to us that even Christians can find it so easy to go through all the usual Christmas celebrations and festivities, without really celebrating CHRIST! We can get so wrapped up in the shopping and decorating and family preparations, that we leave no time for Christ. And pretty soon we’ve celebrated the birthday without paying attention to the birthday guest of honor.

But the deepest part of our dilemma is that we ourselves cannot pave the way into our heart for Him to come there, anymore than we can reach up into heaven and grasp the light or bring heaven down to earth. But Glory to God in the Highest! Christ is God’s solution to that dilemma. Again, Christmas is God reaching down to us, coming to us and creating for Himself children of God. Now it’s especially important that you pay attention to how these children of God are born. How we as children of God are born. “Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Children of God aren’t born through the flesh and blood union of man and woman. In other words, their birth is spiritual. And they aren’t born of the will of man. The human will is powerless to achieve this birth. If it were possible, then we could strive for this spiritual birth on our own, apart from God. But it’s of God and God alone that we are born children of God.

So Christ was born of God that Christmas night as the Light of God piercing into the world, rescuing us from our darkness and enlightening us. The Light of Deliverance that paved the way into our hearts; the Word of God that entered our hearts through our ears as we hear God’s Word. His Light supplies the faith that we were lacking, and by faith He gives us the right to become children of God. Children of God, children of the Light. And if we’re children of God, we can rejoice this Christmas and for every Christmas to come, that Jesus is the Light that overcomes the darkness. Because even in the Christmas story, already at Jesus’ birth, there are hints of the darkness He came to overcome.

That darkness threatened to overcome the Light when King Herod carried out his brutal deed against the innocent children of Bethlehem. That darkness threatened to overcome the Light when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. That darkness threatened most ominously to overcome the Light when Jesus, the Light, finally hung on the cross—and spiritual darkness met physical darkness as the sun’s light was blotted out. But at the cross—where the Light was most severely tried and tested—the True Light did not fail. The shadow of darkness that hung over His birth and traced a path to His cross, was pierced and scattered when Jesus rose from the empty tomb. Jesus, the True Light was not overcome, but Light pierced forth ever brighter, and that Light still shines.

So celebrate CHRIST this CHRISTmas and celebrate that He is the Light that no darkness can overcome. Celebrate that He grasped us and took hold of us by His Word that creates faith to believe. Celebrate that He has made us to be children of God by His own power, so that we can participate in His victory over darkness. We can live without fear of the darkness because as children of God, the darkness will not overcome us. This Christmas and every Christmas, celebrate the Light that came into the world as the infant Jesus, the light no darkness can overcome! Amen. May the peace of the holy Christ-child rest on you and your family this Christmas and New Year!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sermon on Luke 1:39-45, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Blessed is she who believed!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s reading we have a wonderful example that shows us how we’re spiritual beings already from our conception, even before natural birth. Becoming a spiritual person capable of faith and trust in the Lord is not something that occurs at some undefined point in late childhood, or even in adulthood—but from the very inception of our human life, we were created to be spiritual, believing souls. This passage stresses that faith is above all how we’re blessed by God. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

John the Baptist wasn’t a “late-bloomer” by any stretch of the imagination. He had a commission from God before his birth to be a royal messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. The angel announcing the promise of John’s birth to his father Zechariah, said that John would be “great before the Lord”…and then went on to give the surprising promise that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). This somewhat cryptic promise was fulfilled when John was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb, and began leaping and dancing inside her for joy—at the sound of Mary’s voice. A child leaping in the womb is ordinary; but the timing and the exuberance of John’s excited leaping for joy at the sound of her voice clearly show this was God’s Spirit at work even in the womb.

John wasn’t a late-bloomer, because as a prenatal infant inside the sanctuary of his mother’s womb, he was already giving witness to his younger cousin Jesus’ arrival. The Holy Spirit created faith in his coming Lord Jesus, and he recognized the sound of Mary’s voice, the mother of Jesus. He was a spiritual soul, filled by the Holy Spirit, just like us. We’re created, as the Psalmist writes, to lean on the Lord from before our birth, to trust Him from our youth (Ps. 71:5-6). In a day and age when the sanctity of the womb and the life developing there is so often questioned or even brushed aside, it’s valuable to see how the Scripture acknowledges life and spirituality even since conception. It’s a unique life and soul residing there in the womb.

We should note another example of how Scripture acknowledges life in the womb. The word used in our reading to describe the prenatal child John, is the Greek word “brephos.” Why is that significant? Because the same word “brephos” that describes the unborn John, is the word used to describe the infant Jesus, after His birth. It’s the same word used to describe the little children that Jesus wanted to bless, but His disciples tried to hinder Him. The same word that described how Timothy learned the holy scriptures from his infancy. There is no distinction of value, of personhood, or life between a child still in the womb, a child newly born, or a child in early youth. The word is used interchangeably. There are other word choices that could describe a young child as distinct—but in these examples all are “brephos.” Regardless of whether he’s inside or outside of the womb, he’s a living child, and the size or the location of the child doesn’t change his value. At each and every stage of life, we’re created to be spiritual souls.

Truly Mary and Elizabeth’s wombs were sanctuaries of faith and life, and brought these two women of faith together. Their wombs were a place of safety and the miraculous growth of life for John and Jesus. Two cousins who shared a common ministry in proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, and the baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John to be a forerunner, Jesus to be the promised Savior. John’s birth, teaching ministry, and death all foreshadowed Jesus’ birth, teaching ministry, and death. But the greater One was clearly Jesus.

John later said of Jesus that while He came after John, Jesus was greater than John because He existed before John (John 1:30). There’s a mind-bender! Jesus was born as a human after John, but Jesus pre-existed John from all eternity, as the Son of God. This is reflected in the Old Testament reading where Micah prophesied this One who would come as the Ruler of Israel having an origin from old, from ancient days—literally from days of eternity! (Micah 5:2) Who could exist before His own birth? Only God, born as the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. So Jesus was clearly the greater. But these two miraculous children, Jesus and John, developing as growing embryos in their mother’s wombs, brought Mary and Elizabeth together by faith. Because of John’s witness to his mother, the same Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth as she shouted with inspired joy: “Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Without Mary even telling her that she had divinely conceived Jesus in her womb, Elizabeth already knew it by the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth counted Mary as blessed—blessed because of the child she bore, and blessed because Mary believed that God’s Word spoken to her would be fulfilled. So which of these blessings was greater? For Mary to be the mother of God, Jesus Christ, or for Mary to believe in the promise of God’s Word? Our natural reaction would be to think the greater blessing lay in being the mother of Jesus, who was truly God in her womb. That she would give birth to the singular Savior of the world, a birth unique and unlike any before or after. The women of Jesus time felt the same, as they spoke to Him some 30 years later when He was an adult. One woman said to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” What greater honor for Mary than to be mother of this exceptional Messiah?! But Jesus’ quick reply shows us that the greater blessing for Mary was instead to believe in the promises of God. Jesus answered: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28). Jesus showed that the greater blessing for Mary and for all, is to hear the word of God and keep it! So Elizabeth’s second blessing was greater: “Blessed is she who believed!”

Mary’s greater honor, and the reason for her being chosen to bear the Christ-child was because of her faith and willingness to commit herself to the Lord’s will and service. Being a disciple of her unborn Lord, who was being knitted together in His mother’s womb—being a disciple was the greater honor. And if God so greatly favored and blessed an ordinary, faithful believer like Mary, who was of low estate, how can we expect any less? Why do we doubt that the Lord can use us to great service in His kingdom if we’re willing, and if we’ll believe? Even if the one-time, unrepeatable honor and miracle of being the mother of Jesus has already been given—how can we ignore the greater and infinitely repeatable miracle of being a disciple of Jesus? To which is attached greater blessings?! Discipleship of course. We’ve no idea how the Lord will carry out His work and will in us, if only we’ll become His ready servants like Mary.

Our highest blessing is by being disciples and believing in the Lord's promise, and waiting for its fulfillment. In Advent we’re reminded that sometimes the wait can be quite lengthy for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We hear the promise, but do not yet see the fulfillment. Jesus may not even come in our lifetime, which means we must live on by faith. The Holy Spirit plants the seed of faith in our hearts and nourishes it through His spoken Word. The seed of faith is growing within us, and it will flourish and produce blessing in our lives, so it can be spoken of us: “Blessed is he/she who believed!” We’re blessed to hear God’s word and keep it, by hearing the Good News of what Jesus has done for us, and living lives of repentance and forgiveness for ourselves, and of forgiveness toward others. We’re blessed because we’re living out our created purpose to be spiritual beings from our conception to beyond our death into eternity. We’re blessed in this way because Jesus sanctified or made holy all of human life, from His conception to His death and resurrection. If we don’t believe, we don’t share in that blessing. We don’t share in the joy of knowing our coming Lord.

As we consider what it means to be blessed by the Lord, and to be open to His service—we realize that it doesn’t have anything to do with our own power or status or privilege. We can be the lowliest handmaiden in God’s kingdom, to the president of a nation, and God views us as equals in His sight. He doesn’t need our greatness to accomplish great things through us. The difference that you make in God’s kingdom, as you make yourself available to His service may be something that changes the world—or it may be the immeasurable miracle of changing someone’s life. Perhaps your great service will never be seen or recognized. Perhaps only God will see it—then all the better! For our Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward us (Matt. 6). We don’t need trumpets to announce our good works in this kingdom—we don’t need the credit or admiration of fellow humans. All the reward that’s worth seeking comes from the quiet, humble, faithful, and often un-recognized service in the kingdom of God. A record of service that you don’t even count or keep track of, but simply do out of the faith in God to keep His promises, and the love for what He has done for you.

Maybe your greatest act of service in God’s kingdom this Christmas season will be to do like John the Baptist—to joyfully bear witness to Jesus, our Lord. The simple act of telling another human being that the greatest purpose God has for them is to believe in our Lord Jesus and to know His saving love for us. To let someone know that God created us to be spiritual beings—from our conception onward, we’re capable of faith in God. Too many are missing out on God’s purpose for their lives, and are living with an unfilled hole in their lives and in their soul. And the secular celebration of Christmas is just one example of how we try to fill that hole with all other kinds of things that ultimately won’t satisfy. But having that faith, having the blessing of believing, is a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes by speaking God’s Word. This brings us right back to Jesus’ words: “Blessed is the one who hears the Word of God and keeps it.”

Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist all had this in common—they heard the Word of God and kept it. By faith they made themselves willing servants of the Word of God. Both the Word of God in Scripture that promised their Messiah, and the Word of God that was incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Christ they witnessed the miracle of God’s divinity being joined with humanity from His miraculous conception onward through His life. His life sanctified all of our life, and His death brings us the forgiveness of all sin. There is no greater blessing or honor than to believe in Him and be His willing servants. So we join them in being messengers of the Good News, that this Jesus is God born in human flesh. That He came once to earth to show His love by His remarkable death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. That He Himself is our peace—this Christmas and forevermore. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.


Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. How does this reading from Luke 1:39-35 (see also 1:15) show that we were created to be spiritual beings from our conception? See also Psalm 22:9-10; 51:5; 71:6. What implications does the start of life (and our spirituality) have for baptism? For life issues, like abortion?

2. How can we guard the sanctuary of the womb, to see that it remains a place of safety for a growing child? How can we reach out to women facing the challenge of unplanned pregnancies?

3. It has been said that there are only 4 differences between an unborn baby and a newborn: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Why do none of these change a person’s status as a human being at any stage of life? How does the Bible affirm that life in the womb is same as life outside? Read Luke 1:41, 44; 2:12, 16; 18:15. (the same Greek word “brephos” is used in every instance)

4. What common things did John and Jesus share? How did their growth in their mother’s wombs bring together these women of faith? How was the Holy Spirit at work in John and Elizabeth?

5. What was the greater blessing for Mary: to be mother of Jesus, or to be blessed because she believed in the promise of the Lord? Cf. Luke 11:27-28.

6. What’s the greatest blessing for us? How can we spread that to others, as a gift? How did that blessing come at Christmas?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sermon on Isaiah 52:13-53:12, for Wednesday Advent 3, "The Suffering and Glory of God's Servant"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. During the first two Wednesdays in Advent we saw how Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Isaiah the prophet. How Jesus would be the One to sit on King David’s throne forever, and how He would be the Prince of Peace that established an eternal reign of peace, justice, and righteousness. Today we see that the Glory of this coming King wouldn’t come through earthly honors, but by His suffering and death. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The symbol printed on all of our materials for confirmation class this year is a fitting description of this passage, and indeed the whole picture that the Bible paints of Jesus’ work as our Savior. The symbol is of a person wearing a crown. But rather than sitting on a throne, He is kneeling in service. A Servant-King, just as Jesus knelt to wash the disciples’ feet, though His crown and glory was hidden from their eyes. His character as a Servant is identified all the way back in ancient prophecy. Isaiah begins this chapter with the sentence: “Behold my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” Excellent! We’re ready to hear how this Messianic King will be lifted up and exalted! We’re prepared to find out how this King will win His glory, how He will spread His fame and rule throughout the earth. But what follows is nothing of what we or the Jewish believers would’ve expected of their coming King. His “acting wisely” looks a lot like suffering the most inglorious death imaginable, to human eyes.

But still our finger traces the kingship of our Messiah, though in less majestic terms. We see here even in the description of His suffering, the contrast from an ordinary king, and what it really looks like to see Him as our Servant-King. When kings are in the courts of other kings, there’s always a lot of pomp & circumstance. A lot of royal ceremony and decorum. But when the kings of the earth see Christ our King, it says that they will “close their mouths because of Him.” The sight of Christ the King so marred beyond human recognition, as He hung on the cross, was enough to leave all men astonished and speechless. But on the cross He sprinkled the nations with His cleansing blood and forgiveness. A sacrifice no earthly king could give.

Human kings win their glory during their lifetimes, obviously, since they cannot add to their achievements after death. Even if the greatness of a king or ruler is only fully recognized many years after his death, and his fame comes after death—still his reign is limited by his lifetime. But here we see in Jesus the King who gained His glory in His death and who began His reign after His death! Jesus achieved greatness and glory, not for Himself, but for His Father, through His death on the cross. His fame and glory have multiplied countless times since then, and because of His resurrection from the dead, He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling from heaven for all eternity.

Isaiah writes of the Messiah who grew like a young plant or root from the dry ground. Jesus, the Root of Jesse, the sprout of new growth that grew from the stump that was King David’s royal dynasty, grew up as no ordinary king. He had no royalty, no pampered treatment. He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He wasn’t a king because of His royal bearing or princely charm and handsomeness. He likely had calloused hands from working with His step-father, a carpenter. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He wasn’t the God that some reject because they think He’s “out of touch with my pain.” He knew the sorrows and grief of life, and yet He was still rejected and men hid their faces from Him as they despised Him. Who would look at Him hanging on that cross, without feeling repulsion at the gore that was His body. Marred beyond human recognition. But this shame and dishonor, this abuse and terrible wounding is our healing and our peace. God’s Son was a Servant-King, who took on the crushing burden of our iniquity, our guilt, so that we could be forgiven of that awful load.

Here was a king whose subjects were disloyal and rebellious. Jesus was a King whose closest friends abandoned Him in His greatest need. He was a king whose own subjects did not know Him—they did not own Him as King. Instead of bringing Him tribute, we brought Him our sins; instead of loyalty we all like sheep went astray—each to his own way. Instead of cries of “Long live the King!” He heard shouts of “Crucify Him!” “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” (LSB 370). What King is this who gives no answer in the face of such shocking treatment? What King is this who dies for the disloyal, the rebellious—yes even His enemies? “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”

Though Christ our King was given the death of a condemned criminal, and so His grave was with the wicked—one tiny, royal honor was spared for Him. He was given a grave with the rich man in His death. Joseph of Arimathea, a council member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death, opened his family tomb to the honor of our crucified King. But thanks be to God He only needed the space for three short days! As Isaiah wrote of this suffering Servant-King’s death, he also wrote of His resurrection. After Jesus’ life was made as an offering for our guilt Isaiah says: “He shall see His offspring, he shall prolong His days.” Jesus now lives to see His spiritual offspring, His children by faith. All who trust in Him are now sheltered by His innocence. The offering of Jesus’ life as the sacrifice for our sin and guilt was not a futile offering that ended in death, but rather it was the beginning of His eternal reign and glory.

No earthly king could’ve anticipated the script. No human prophet could have the supernatural foresight to know so many details of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But only by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was the prophet Isaiah able to pen this description of the Son of David who would rule forever as a King on David’s throne. The true Prince of Peace whose rule was nothing like our earthly expectations. A King whose sacrifice and humility would finally gain Him this glory: to be high and lifted up—to be exalted above all men—on the tree of the cross. He brought honor and glory out of humility and shame.

But He did it so that He might bring faithful, obedient, and holy subjects out of the disloyal, rebellious and wicked sinners that we once were. This Servant-King Jesus came into the world to purge us of the sin we had become by becoming sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Our King made these sacrifices so that we would no longer walk in sin, but would be purified by His sacrifice to walk in His paths. And it proved to be worth all the agony of getting there. Out of the anguish of Jesus’ soul, He saw and was satisfied. He knew the satisfaction of a job well-done, of a victory accomplished—for He knew that in His death He had made us, “the many,” righteous. By bearing our sins and transplanting them with His righteousness or innocence, He is satisfied and content. The Bible calls this “justification.” We’re “declared innocent;” accounted righteous in God’s sight. And this all happens by faith. Faith in the Servant-King Jesus. The simple trust in Him as the only One who can erase our slate and give us a clean start through His forgiving death. Truly, the King of kings salvation brings, and it is our joyful privilege to own Him as King and enthrone Him in loving hearts—grateful that our Servant-King served us by His death. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7, for Wednesday Advent 2, "The Lord will Install His King Forever"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we looked at the prophecy from Isaiah 7, given to unfaithful King Ahaz who was shaking with fear of his enemies. The prophecy told that God hadn’t abandoned His people, but would defeat their enemies and provide a miraculous sign of His presence among us—the birth of a child from a virgin. This child’s name was to be Immanuel, God with us. Today, we read in Isaiah 9:1-7 of the description of Immanuel’s birth and His eternal reign. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Where King Ahaz was an unfaithful king who disregarded the Lord and ignored His Word and promises, Isaiah 9 speaks of a coming king who will not only be a faithful and good king, but will in fact be perfect. Yet it speaks of this king as a child! A child who would bear the government on His shoulders. And it’s prophesied that He’ll do remarkable things. This coming king would show none of the weaknesses and frailties of the former kings of Israel, and His reign and His rule would be marked by peace. The majestic poetry of Isaiah describes the scene of this child’s arrival. He comes to a “people who walked in darkness [and] have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”

Truly we were caught in the darkness of sin and error’s ways when the Christ child came. Man without God is clouded in an impenetrable darkness. We don’t see our own way. Our steps are blind and our paths are crooked. There’s much stumbling and falling and injury when we walk in darkness. But death casts the deepest shadow over us, as the misery of lost love ones can burden the gladdest of hearts. Death’s bitterness can turn all our vision black like the night. The decaying effects of sin and death are visible in our bodies, but not so easily recognized on our souls, as we dwell in spiritual darkness. But suddenly into our darkness gleams a piercing radiance, the clear beams of someone penetrating and dissipating the darkness. Light washes over us in a cleansing stream of goodness, life, and vigor. It was the Light of Christ that illumined the world and scattered the darkness. Into the black night of sin, Light entered—by no effort of our own, nothing we produced—and with Christ’s entrance, the day had dawned and the Morning Star risen in our hearts (2 Pet. 1:19).

The arrival of this Light is cause for rejoicing, the kind of rejoicing at the end of a season of hard labor, when the harvest is ready for gathering, and the fruit of your labor is ready for reaping. The kind of rejoicing when all the spoils of warfare are gathered and distributed among those who fought hard in the battle. For believers who’ve worked hard in the harvest, who’ve fought long in the spiritual battle against the powers of darkness, this will be a welcome cause for rejoicing. But the rejoicing over the spoils of warfare will be unlike any of the greedy celebration that happens in earthly warfare. Because with the Advent of Our King, the Christ-child, a new reign of peace comes. Usually a king’s reign involved some use of military force, either to defend or expand the kingdom. But so far from using military force, under His righteous rule, every battle garment stained in blood and the boots of marching soldiers will be burned as fuel for the fire. Earthly warfare has no place in His heavenly kingdom and rule.

His kingdom is a kingdom apart from nations and political rulers. It’s a kingdom that has no borders, and the only citizenship is based on faith in God and Jesus Christ His Son. His kingdom needs only spiritual warriors. Warriors who battle on bended knee before the enemy—in prayer. Warriors who fight with the Word of God as their sword and faith as their shield. Warriors who don’t fight to kill, but to redeem the enslaved soldiers of the enemy the devil. Isaiah says this coming King will break the rod of our oppressor, as in the day of Midian. This refers to the Old Testament battle in the book of Judges, where Gideon led an army of 300 men to defeat a multitude of Midianite soldiers that vastly outnumbered them. Christ is our new and greater Gideon, who leads us to God’s victory—not by our own might or human strength. Rather, all things will be accomplished by the “zeal of the Lord of Hosts.” His zeal, His passionate enthusiasm and vigor for His people will accomplish it. Lord of Hosts literally in Hebrew is “YHWH Sabaoth”—the Lord of the heavenly hosts or armies. He commands an angelic host that fights on our behalf.

So to us this miracle child is born. A child who bears the government on His shoulders, and is given a list of titles that reveal how exceptional His rule will be. His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor—a King unsurpassed in wisdom. Greater in wisdom than King Solomon, wise in bringing about justice for all. Mighty God—because He commands all power and authority in heaven and on earth, and to Him every knee shall one day bow. The winds and the seas, the stars and bodies in the heavens all obey His command. Everlasting Father—because eternity belongs to Him, and He is the spiritual head of all His descendants by faith. Just as we were born from the head of our human race, the first Adam, so by baptism we’re reborn after the head of the new creation—the second Adam who is Jesus Christ. Finally His climactic title is Prince of Peace—the One whose government and whose peace would expand without end, and who needs no earthly warfare or oppression to bring it about.

It’s this last title, Prince of Peace and the description of His forever-reign on David’s throne that catches the most attention. We all long for the ending of war, violence, and bloodshed. And as long as sinners, both Christian and non-Christian sinners, still live in this world, we have no promise that human wars will end. People will still be greedy and have a lust for power and more land, more possessions, and the more we push and pull on each other for that, the more that violence and bloodshed will increase. In fact Jesus even said that wars and rumors of wars will precede His coming kingdom, and will continue as a sign through the end of times. But Jesus’ kingdom comes with an increase both in government and of peace. Now the “increase of his government” has nothing to do with more bureaucracy. Rather, the expansion of Christ’s rule and His kingdom won’t end. His government will extend over more and more people. And Peace will have no end in the kingdom of the Prince of Peace. The Bible says that Jesus Himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14).

Through His death on the cross He made peace between us and God. He destroyed all the hostility that lay between us because of sin, and made peace for us with God. It’s through His death on the cross that He was able to secure the peace and to secure the eternal throne that made it possible for Him to rule on David’s throne forever. By making an eternal peace between God and man, and by transforming the earthly kingdom that David ruled into a heavenly kingdom without end, He would no longer need the tramping boots of soldiers or their battle uniforms. Instead His peace would reign from heaven above, and wouldn’t come to an end. His kingdom will be sustained by the justice and righteousness of God’s forgiving our sins. He maintains peace by forgiving and reconciling sinners and turning their hearts from sin to righteousness by the working of His Holy Spirit. His kingdom works from encouraging obedience through the inward motivation of His love, rather than the external coercion of the law. We can truly bow our heads and our knees in grateful adoration to this child born to us—the true Son of David who heralds peace for us. Our Prince of Peace who has an eternal rule without fear, without bloodshed, and without the darkness of sin that kept our eyes from seeing the light of His glory. In Jesus’ Name. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Luke 7:18-28, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Shall We Look for Another?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we come with the disciples of John the Baptist to ask Jesus an urgent question. While John is languishing in prison, facing what will soon be his death, his disciples come to Jesus with the question: “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Were they just seeking confirmation that He was in fact the Messiah, or did they or John have doubts? Was John, captive in chains, wondering what had become of Jesus’ first sermon, where He said He’d come to “proclaim liberty to the captives?” Where was John’s liberty? What was Jesus doing to show He was the “real deal?” Jesus gives us the answer in the gospel reading, and we find confirmation in the Old Testament reading from Zephaniah, that Jesus fits the bill. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When John’s disciples came to Jesus with this question, they were reporting back to John information about some of Jesus’ recent miracles and the crowd’s reaction. Jesus had been teaching boldly and recently healed a centurion’s servant and raised the dead son of the widow at Nain. Crowds were proclaiming Him as a great prophet among us, and that God had visited His people (Luke 7:16). It would seem this was already the confirmation that John and his disciples needed. But they asked, “Shall we look for another?” Isn’t it a completely human reaction to see all this evidence of God’s work, and yet still ask questions like “Shall we look for another?” This Advent season, are we waiting for another? Is there doubt in our minds whether Jesus is really the King we’re waiting for, or if He’s coming back? Scripture tells that some will consider Jesus’ late return as slowness on God’s part to keep His promises (2 Pet. 3). In contrast to seeing it as God’s patience in waiting for as many as possible to come to repentance, before God judges all people on the acceptance or rejection of His message.

Do we look for another, perhaps hoping for a “better deal?” Maybe this isn’t working out as good as I’d hoped. Maybe the promises of something else sound better—whether that’s another religion, whether it’s the latest trendy preacher or self-help system, whether it’s the unvarnished pursuit of wealth and possessions. Jesus doesn’t seem to offer me a guarantee of all these things I want. He doesn’t seem to fit the picture of what I expected. These idolatrous pursuits of something better than Jesus will only end up in profound disappointment. Sometimes what sounds like a great deal is really a deception. What a person needs to examine is whether their faith is put in something that can really deliver on its promises. Even if some religious movement or program or life pursuit satisfies for this life, in the end, all paths other than Christ lead to destruction. John likely didn’t know that following Jesus could end up costing him his life. We don’t know what paths and turns our lives may take; what challenges may lay ahead. But we don’t travel that path unguided, or as first time explorers. We have a sure-footed guide in Jesus who’ll navigate us through every obstacle, even death that He Himself experienced, and lead us on that narrow path to heaven. We have One who is able to deliver on all His promises.

But to the inquiring disciples of John, Jesus gives the most remarkable answer. When they asked “shall we look for another”—it’s almost like He put their question on hold, and said, “Watch this!” It says, “In that hour”—at the very moment they came to Him seeking proof that He was their Messiah—He put on a flurried show of Messianic activity. In that hour He healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. His miracles and power spoke for themselves. He didn’t even need to answer their question with words, He just showed them. You wanted proof, here it is! So He said to go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

We have no answer from the disciples of John—in all likelihood they left speechless with jaws agape. As Jesus would say elsewhere, if you can’t believe in me because of my words and teaching, then at least believe because of the miracles and works that I do, as proof that I’m from the Father (John 10:22-42). He demonstrated in spades that He was the real deal. In order to do so, He had to fit the pattern of Messianic signs and prophecies to prove that He was in fact the coming one—the one who John prepared the way for as the coming of the Lord. The whole Old Testament provided the pattern or template that He had to fit—the job description, as it were, of the coming Savior. So we can look at a passage like our Old Testament reading from Zephaniah today and see what some of those characteristics were.

Zephaniah, a little-known prophet of the Old Testament, here tells the people of Jerusalem, which was also called Zion, to “sing aloud…shout…rejoice and exult with all you heart!” Why such joy and celebration? Because the LORD had taken away the judgments against them, and cleared away their enemies. This is the same reason for Christian joy—the often inexpressible delight and wonder at what God has done for us. It’s difficult to even imagine what it really means that God has taken away all the judgments against us. That in Christ Jesus God has lifted the penalty of our sin and spared us the eternal destruction we deserved. We really can’t fully appreciate the greatness of that sacrifice—we’ve never even seen what hell is like. We don’t have anything adequate to match it against, in seeing how God spared us from a terrible fate. Sometimes we’ve had a clearer picture of who and what our spiritual enemies are, and endured great pains or sorrows in life, or the heaviness of guilt that can load us down. Though we never felt it like Jesus did, carrying the full load of sin, we’ve all experienced the burden of our sin one way or another, and have some idea of what it means that God clears away our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. We know the relief of being spared the devil’s accusations.

So Christians rejoice, and it’s a spontaneous part of our Christian life. Some of us may rejoice with hands raised and a loud cry of joy. Some may rejoice with a sense of transcendent peace on our face and tears of joy on our face, as we marvel quietly in our hearts at the wonders of God’s love for us. Some may rejoice through giving from their blessing. Your own expression of joy is unique to yourself, but we can always join in the heavenly anthems of celebration that fill our worship services, and we give thanks for what God has done for us. But the most remarkable thing about what Zephaniah prophesies is that the reason Israel can rejoice is because The King of Israel, the LORD is in your midst. In your midst—standing among you—here is the King?!? What’s more remarkable is that it’s clearly no earthly king spoken of, for He’s called the LORD. Not the word lord like we use the title master or duke or governor or senator. This word LORD isn’t a title that means ruler—this is the Divine Name of God, YHWH. The King of Israel, YHWH is standing in your midst! It’s not every day that this happens! It’s not a usual occurrence to have God walking among you. But in case it didn’t grab us the first time, Zephaniah repeats it two verses later with this clarification: “The LORD (YHWH) your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save.”

Here’s the Messiah described loud and bold through prophecy. Zephaniah’s job description for the Messiah is as a King of Israel, one who drives away evil, who keeps His people from fear, who strengthens our weak hands. This Messiah is a mighty one who’ll save—He’s a Savior and a King—and most importantly, He’s God Himself. Who else has the power to deliver us from evil, and to take away our fear? Zephaniah says this guy will be in your midst! The remarkable description of our Messiah and Savior goes on to say that “He will rejoice over [us] with gladness, He will quiet [us] by his love, he will exult over [us] with singing.” The Messiah actually rejoices over us! God sings over us! Have you ever thought of that?! That God sings? What would that sound like? What’s the joyful sound of God rejoicing and breaking into song? A fellow pastor in Hawaii said this passage sounds like a picture of a new dad holding his first child in his hands, rejoicing with gladness at this new life, quieting the crying child with his love, and singing to his child.

So what a marvel to consider that we’re newborns in God’s kingdom because we’ve experienced the rebirth of water and the Spirit in our baptism. The LORD our Messiah rejoices over us, and the heavenly Father has all the joy of a new dad, holding His precious child. Is it any wonder that Jesus delighted in children, and that God pointed to them as the model of faith and trust and humility? God rejoices with the joys of fatherhood, to call us His own to see in us the new life that He has created and sustained. He saved us, lifting us up like helpless babes and cleaning us and providing for us. He has all the joy of a father to care for his children and supply their needs. This is a pale reflection of the rejoicing that our LORD does over us.

In verse 19 it turns to what the Messiah does for His people. He’ll save the lame and gather the outcast, and will change their shame into praise. In that very hour that the disciples of John asked Him, “shall we look for another?”—they witnessed Jesus saving the lame, gathering up the outcast lepers, demoniacs, and those afflicted with disease, and healing them. More than just what Zephaniah described, He not only filled, but exceeded the “job description” of the Messiah. Other prophets spoke of Him opening the ears of the deaf and eyes of the blind (Is. 29:18; 35:5), or delivering the poor and needy (Ps. 72:12-14). But Jesus did more than just fit the minimum requirements. He showed all the characteristics of the Messiah and more.

But the greatest thing Jesus did to show He was the Messiah was the last proof He gave to the disciples of John. He told them “The poor have good news preached to them.” For all the physical miracles and signs that marked Jesus as the promised Messiah, none of them carried the weight and significance of His preaching of the gospel, the good news, to the poor. Here was the heart and center of His ministry—not the flashy works, but the announcement of God’s mercy toward sinners. If it weren’t for the miracles, some of the people might have never paid attention to this central purpose of His ministry. Even when He ascended into heaven, it was the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness—the good news—that He commissioned the apostles to continue. The preaching of Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of our sins was always to remain central. Because ultimately, the Messiah, the LORD your God who is in your midst, is the Mighty One who will save. And it is His salvation—the good news that He came to redeem us sinners, that makes Him the One who we’re to look for.

So don’t look for another. Don’t seek any other Savior or LORD than the Lord Jesus Christ. He has a track record like no one else, and He’s faithful to all His promises. Look for Jesus Christ alone, who was awaited by countless prophets, described by the ancient messengers of God’s Word, and whose arrival was hailed by multitudes of angels, by shepherds, by wise men from afar, by aged and faithful servants of the Word in God’s temple, and even by John the Baptist—a prophet who was the greatest of those born of women. While many didn’t know what to make of Him, and while His shameful death was an offense to many, all things happened for a precise reason in God’s plan. It all led forward to His mighty act of love to save us, so that in Him and in His death and resurrection, we can truly say “blessed is the one who is not offended by [Jesus].” For He’s our blessing and salvation. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. Read Luke 7 from the start of the chapter. What things might John’s disciples have been reporting to him? (v. 18)

2. What are some ways in which we ask the question “Shall we look for another” of Jesus? How do people today express their dissatisfaction with Jesus or His teachings, or His body the church? What substitutes do people look for instead of Jesus?

3. How did Jesus demonstrate that He was the Messiah that they looked for? What are some of the characteristics the Messiah was supposed to fill? (Messiah is the Hebrew word that means “anointed one”—the Greek translation of the same word is Christ). Read Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5, 61:1-7

4. How does the Advent (coming) of our Messianic King spark joy and rejoicing? What is it like to know that God rejoices and sings over us? Zephaniah 3:17

5. How do the verses in Zephaniah 3:15, 17 speak directly of the Messiah? How do they communicate the truth of the name “Immanuel” (see Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23)?

6. What is the most important proof of Jesus as the Messiah? What was the central purpose of His ministry? How does Jesus’ central purpose and central act of ministry bring salvation and blessing to all believers?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sermon on Luke 3:1-14 for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "The Word of God Came"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. As we continue in the season of Advent, we come to John the Baptist, who levels a path in our hearts for the coming of the Lord—whose message was like a refining fire and a fuller’s soap. We turn our attention today to his preaching of the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Please keep both the Old Testament and Gospel readings before you today, as they refer to him. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What would you do if you had a life-saving message that could spare untold numbers of people? Let’s say you were a scientist and knew in advance of a volcanic eruption that was going to happen in a highly populated area. Or an astronomer who knew of a killer asteroid that was headed toward earth. Who would you tell to get the message out to the most people? You might notify a prominent government official, who could initiate some public broadcast of this information. You might contact emergency services or a radio station, to maximize the number of people who could get the warning. I believe it was in Boston recently, that health officials went to the pastors and religious leaders of various inner city churches to get the word out to disadvantaged and low-income people about their higher risk of swine flu. This was a quick way to spread the information among people who might not hear through other channels. But what if you lived in the ancient world, and there were no radio or TV stations to broadcast on, and there was no telephone to spread the message?

Such important information would probably still go to the politicians and religious leaders. They would have the visibility and the platform on which to get this message out quickly to the greatest number of people. But when God had just such an important, life-changing message to bring, He didn’t follow that protocol at all. When Luke begins this chapter, we see how God bypassed all the rich and powerful, from the political leaders to the significant religious leaders of that day. He begins with the biggest chief on the totem pole—the Caesar of all the Roman world, moving down to a state governor, Pontius Pilate, down to the local small-fry governors of Galilee and the surrounding areas. Then he mentions the two high priests of that day, probably somewhere around 28-29 AD. After naming all these prominent individuals, whom the Jewish readers of his day would have recognized, he comes to an unknown figure—John, the son of Zechariah.

The word of God came to none of these high and great ones of the day—not to the political or religious elite. Instead, the word of God came to a man who lived in the wild and probably looked pretty wild. Dressed in coarse animal-skin clothing held together with a leather belt—sporting long hair and a beard, eating grasshoppers and wild honey—he wouldn’t seem a likely candidate for such important news. Certainly not dressed like your typical royal herald who’d announce the arrival of a King, preparing his way. Certainly not the most efficient way to get the news out, choosing a man who lived like a hermit in an unpopulated wilderness. But there it was. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God works in unpredictable and mysterious ways. And the surrounding region of Judea emptied out in droves to see this strange preacher in the wilderness, and the message got out.

When the word of God came to John, he preached it in the message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What better environment for this message than the wilderness of Judea and the region around the Jordan River? This ancient ground was swollen with the significance of years of Israel’s history. The rocks and streams and barren soil cried out the testimony of the ancient Israelites who had treaded that ground some 1,500 years earlier, wandering those desert lands for 40 years, as a trial for their disobedience to God. They bore the consequence of their rebellion and lack of faith by giving up their chance to see the promised land. The rocks and streams would tell of the young generation of children, now faithful to God. Born during that wilderness wandering, their dusty, sandaled feet crossed over the Jordan River on dry ground—not because the streambed was dried up. No, at the peak of the flood stage, when the Jordan was a treacherous river, they crossed on dry ground behind the Ark of the Covenant. God miraculously parted the waters, and they walked safely into the lush green garden of the promised land of Canaan.

The wilderness was a place of isolation. A testing ground of faith and repentance. And people came there to be cleansed and purified of their sins. So also this Advent, we’re called away for a moment from the hustle and bustle of city life—from the crowds and noise, from the glitter and glamour and noise of celebrities, politicians, and religious dignitaries, to go out to the wilderness. To leave behind the frazzled preparations and distraction, and to make preparations for the most important event since Jesus’ death and resurrection nearly 2,000 years ago. That most important event is the return of Jesus Christ. That’s what we prepare for, what we wait for this Advent. In order to prepare, we’re called to the silence and barrenness of the wilderness of repentance. A place where there’s no one else to prove yourself better than, no one else to blame for what you’ve done wrong. There in the quiet of the wilderness we hear his cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We’re called to prepare our hearts in the wilderness of repentance. Prepare them for the coming Lord, just as the crooked, pothole-filled roads were smoothed, straightened and prepared for the coming of an ancient king. But are we ready for the earth moving, the reshaping of our lives that repentance involves? Are we ready for the upheaval and straightening of humbling ourselves before God, and turning away from sin? Or do we come like the curious Pharisees, ready to be baptized and cleansed by John, but trusting in our religious pedigree to put us in God’s favor? Do we come with no intention to have our heart straightened or our priorities reorganized? Then John warns us that God has no regard for whatever religious pedigree we might claim, no regard for the false piety of acting religious while having no faith in the heart. For such a person is a tree that bears no good fruit, and is destined for the fire. True repentance is seen by a change in the fruit we bear—from evil deeds to good.

But John didn’t only speak the humbling, hard-driving message of repentance, he also spoke of the coming salvation of God, and the forgiveness of sins that follows repentance. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Again, what more fitting place than the Jordan River, where in those centuries past the Israelites passed through the waters to enter their promised land. Now with repentant sinners gathering at the banks of that same river, he baptized them with water, showing the way to enter the promised land of the Kingdom of God. For through baptism for the forgiveness of our sins, God will receive us into His heavenly homeland. John pointed forward to the coming Lord, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Now we, having laid aside our sins in repentance, receive the washing of water and God’s Word that pours over us, so that the Lamb of God will take away our sins. And though we’re still in the wilderness of this life, we’re not aimlessly wandering, but we have a goal and direction in life. We know Jesus is the Way to our Promised Land, and we look to His coming as we prepare our hearts.

Having that vital preparation of repentance at work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, we hear the crowds ask “What shall we do?” How should we live now, that we’ve been called to see the salvation of God in Christ Jesus? How should we live now that we’re baptized into His service? John didn’t teach them that service to God was found in a life of isolation in the wild like him. For the people who sought a genuine change in life, he sent them back into the world of their vocations, but with a new attitude and way of life. If they were a tax collector, they were to give up their greediness, and only collect what they were authorized. If they were soldiers, he sent them back to work, but on the pledge that they wouldn’t abuse their power or authority to blackmail or extort, but be satisfied with what they made.

So for us, provided we’re in a legitimate and God-honoring vocation, God sends us to our work with faithfulness and honesty and uprightness. If you’re a business person, to act with integrity in your dealings. To represent things truthfully and to charge an honest price for your goods or services. If you’re a lawyer, to give honest legal representation, and not perjure yourself or your client. If you’re a medical worker, to carry out your work with diligence and protect and defend life, and bring no harm. If you’re a student to study hard, do your own work and avoid all cheating. The policeman to enforce the law with fairness and avoid corruption or taking bribes. The politician and the judge to perform the duties of their office in seeking the common good of all, and to act in openness and conviction.

But our vocations go beyond our employment. They include our callings in life not only in work, but also in family, in church, and in citizenship. For the father and mother they are called to the responsible upbringing of their children and their instruction in God’s Word and worship. For the child, as son or daughter, their duty is to obey their parents and other authorities. In church we may serve on various boards, committees, or volunteer and service posts. In each of these roles we’re to carry out our responsibilities with dedication, with cooperation, and faithfulness to God’s Word. As citizens we exercise our right to vote and to petition our lawmakers to uphold justice and protect life. Wherever we have responsibilities of love and service to our neighbor, this is the arena for the practice of our faith, and bearing the fruits of repentance. Turning away from an old life of sin.

Though the word of God didn’t come to the high and notable people of John’s day, but rather to an unkempt, itinerant, wilderness preacher, that message of deliverance carries on down through the ages. God’s plan of announcing His coming has remarkably gone to all ends of the earth. And it wasn’t to the high and mighty that it came. So also the same word of God comes to us. Calling us to prepare for the Lord by repentance and to carry on our work faithfully in the service of your neighbor as we wait for the day of the Lord’s coming. The word of God that especially comes to children who cherish it with joy, as we saw in our Christmas musical on Friday. And we and they continue to share this word of God with others. John’s message was completed when the Word of God came in human flesh. When Jesus, the Word of God incarnate walked among them and entered the same wilderness of testing and was baptized in the Jordan, John’s work was over. But our time in the wilderness is not yet done, but the promised land is near! As we await Jesus’ return, our work goes on, as we announce His coming and proclaim the Word of God, Jesus Christ. His life, death, and resurrection from the dead are the Way for us to receive all forgiveness, and to enter cleansed into His kingdom. So by His forgiveness, we’re ready for His coming whenever our Lord shall come, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God. In Jesus’ name. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. What was so unlikely about the way that God announced the coming of His Son, the Lord? How would we have done it?

2. What made John the Baptist stand out? Read the prophecies about his coming in Malachi 3:1-7 and Isaiah 40:3-5. What would his coming be like?

3. Why was the wilderness and the region of the Jordan River a significant site for John’s repentance and baptismal preaching? Read Numbers 13-14, Joshua 1-4.

4. How does the wilderness depict our life and spiritual situation? What testing or trials do we face? What promised land do we hope for? What’s our entrance through water into God’s kingdom? 1 Corinthians 10.

5. What’s involved in preparing our hearts for the Lord’s coming? How are a level highway and straight paths made?

6. What are the personal applications of repentance and a changed life in your vocations (callings) in life? See the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism.

7. The word of God came to John the Baptist. How did the Word of God then come? (hint: read John 1). How does the Word of God continue to come to us?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sermon on Isaiah 7:1-17, for Wednesday Advent 1, "The Throne of David"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. During these three weeks of Advent we’ll be looking at three prophecies from the book of Isaiah that point forward to Jesus the Messiah and King. Today we look at the first, from Isaiah 7, the prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This Scripture passage is all about faith. It’s about faith in God’s promise to carry out salvation through His Son, the Virgin-born Messiah. It’s about the having the faith to trust in God and His continuing presence and action in our lives, even when circumstances dictate otherwise. It’s one thing to do whatever is in your ability and trust God to provide a way through challenge and difficulty when the way is uncertain. It’s another thing altogether to disbelieve God and try to engineer your own solution to a problem through dishonorable means.

The reading from Isaiah describes just such a situation. Isaiah came to King Ahaz, the King of Judah, during a crisis point in his young reign. Ahaz became king at only 20 years old, and proved to be a wicked and disobedient king who had no regard for God. The ugly tale of his reign is punctuated by some of the greatest offenses one could commit against God. He built idols to Baal, made offerings to false gods on every hill and under every tree, and worst of all, he offered his own sons in child sacrifice to his pagan gods. He also ended the proper sacrifices to the True God that were offered in the Temple. He sacrificed instead to the gods of his enemies, because after all they seemed to have helped them; he vandalized and destroyed the vessels, basins, and altars used in the Temple, constructed idolatrous altars all throughout Jerusalem, and closed the doors of the Temple. Can you imagine? Desecrating God’s house of worship and shutting the doors sent a message loud and clear—we’ll no longer worship God and we’ll no longer worship here. So that’s a thumbnail sketch of his evil reign.

As for the crisis he faced early in his young reign, two political kingdoms—the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Kingdom of Syria, had allied and were attacking Judah. Though they didn’t yet have the strength to attack him, their threatening was enough to make the heart of Ahaz and his people shake “as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” Whether Ahaz already begun his spree of wickedness or not—God extended an olive branch to him through Isaiah. He told Ahaz not to fear these two nations who were as harmless as two burnt sticks whose embers were smoking and dying out. Isaiah called him to courage and to know that God had already set the date for the downfall of both of these enemies.

But after prophesying their downfall, Isaiah adds: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” So to test Ahaz’ faith in God’s Word, God makes a remarkable offer to him. Ask for a sign—any sign, no matter how great. God not only promised the defeat of his enemies and the safety of Jerusalem, but He even offered any sign Ahaz wished as proof. But Ahaz hid his unbelief behind a mask of piety, saying “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” Except there was no holy regard for God in his answer, only disobedience and the despising of God’s offer. Isaiah had told Ahaz to ask a sign of your God—but with Ahaz’ brazen refusal, now Isaiah’s anger was stirred. Isaiah’s fiery reply was this: “Hear then O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”

Ahaz failed his test of faith miserably. He was not firm in faith, and truly he would not remain firm at all. Rejecting God’s protection and mercy for his kingdom, he instead made earthly alliances with the powerful Assyrian empire, and set out on his course of idol worship and seeking the wisdom of other gods, instead of the true God. So God rejected him, and set in motion the proof of his promise—those nations fell in very short order—and God set forth a future sign and miracle that would astonish even so hardened an unbeliever as Ahaz. A virgin woman, who had known no man, would give birth to a child. Here was a miracle no human could have devised. But this would be the proof of God’s faithfulness to the house of David—even despite the wickedness of some of its kings. This child would be no ordinary babe, but would be named, “Immanuel—which means God with us.”

This child born of the Virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit, is Jesus Christ—the true Son of David who would establish the throne of David’s kingdom forever. He was God in human flesh, proof that God really is with His people. There is a dark irony in the fact that Ahaz, turned to sacrificing his sons to idols, would be given the sign of Immanuel, the True Son of God, who laid down His life in sacrifice for our sins. Jesus was the resolution of Ahaz’ fears of losing the Davidic throne, as He became the Forever King who established and ruled David’s throne. Jesus was the resolution of Ahaz’ desire for direct mediation from God, as Jesus intercedes for us to the Father, and by His death brought reconciliation for our sin. Jesus was the proof that the tiny kingdom of Judah had a real ally who was powerful even over death.

We’ll probably never have such a dramatic test of faith as Ahaz, but our faith will surely be tested. When it is, will we put our confidence in our own efforts, short-cuts, and engineering? Will we see past our present but passing circumstances, and see the spiritual truth that God knows everything and sees through to our end? God hasn’t promised us confirming signs for His will in our lives with the challenges we face. But the confirming sign of Immanuel, born of the virgin, is a sign for us as well. God’s promise now extends to us as well. We’ve been brought under the kingship of Jesus, the Son of David who rules forever and has a throne that is established for eternity. And He is Immanuel, God with us also.

We’re under the kingship of an eternally wise king, who knows all our circumstances, who sees through to the conclusion of all our earthly difficulties, and has a plan for bringing us safely to our destination. We certainly should be wise and prepare and do all that we’re able to, but when difficulties go beyond our earthly strength, we should be firm in faith in the one who has all strength. However God may bring us through difficulties in life to their conclusion, we know for sure that God is with us—He is Immanuel. Jesus came in human flesh to walk with us, to bear our sorrows, and to be tested and tempted as we are. He came offering an olive branch of peace to all who’ve rebelled against God in the stubbornness of our sin. He came to know life in every way that we do—but more than knowing, He came to live His life for us, so that we can have eternal security through His saving death and resurrection. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even until the end of the age, as He is with us by His Word that speaks and brings life, and by His Sacrament that brings His very body and blood for our forgiveness. There is no dark valley, no fearful place where our God will not be with us. Be firm in faith and God will make you firm. Glory to our Immanuel! Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.