Monday, December 22, 2008

Ponder Anew What the Almighty Can Do

It strikes me that there is always the danger that the story of Jesus’ birth can become commonplace for people, especially adults. We remember dozens of Christmases past, perhaps quite fondly for some—associating it with good memories with family or friends, beloved traditions, moments of unexpected generosity. Or perhaps some don’t have such fond memories about Christmas. Maybe family were never very close, or quarrels broke out with the holiday stress, or maybe a loved one passed away, as often seems to happen around the holidays. For some Christmas means it’s time for the obligatory worship service, perhaps so as not to lose the sense of reminiscing that surrounds this holy day.

But regardless of how intensively or extensively we celebrate Christmas, and whatever our Christmas traditions may be, it is all too easy to overlook the significance of Jesus’ birth. All too easily does it become sentimentalized as a cozy, dreamlike story that serves merely to reawaken nostalgia and holiday generosity. Or we’ve heard the story so many times, that the lines draw yawns as it seems so familiar as to have lost its surprise.

But I urge you to take this Christmas, and every Christmas forward in your future, to hear the story afresh, as with new eyes and ears. Behold it like you did when you first remember hearing it as a child, or as an adult. In the words of the hymn-writer, “Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, as with His love He befriends you” (Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. LSB 790). Ponder or consider again what the wonders of God’s salvation through that holy birth mean for you.

Long had the paths of human life and holiness strayed apart from each other, as mankind has walked in sin from the time of our earthly father Adam. And sin bore evil fruit in the lives of all, as idolatry, abuse of God’s name, failure to worship God, disobedience to parents and authorities, hatred, murder, lust, adultery, theft, lies, jealousy and coveting followed. All of creation was wracked in sin when Jesus came.

But in the miracle of His birth from the Virgin Mary, God’s own Son pierced the darkness of the sinful world, invading the corrupt creation with the light of His coming. And for the first time since Adam and Eve, the paths of human life and holiness intersected again, and there was born one who would walk perfectly in the path of God’s commandments. The intersection of human life and holiness took place in the conception, pregnancy, and birth of Jesus Christ. Whenever a new child is conceived or born, or when we see a pregnant mother, let it remind us of the Christmas Joy of the most Holy God, who graciously condescended to be conceived by the promised Word of God (Luke 1:31) and born a human child. That born in humble human flesh, God would be worshipped and adored by hosts of angels, that lowly shepherds would witness the nativity of their Savior, who is Christ the Lord. That wise sages from distant lands would hail and worship His coming as the dawning of a new Kingdom for humanity (Matt. 2).

So with renewed wonder this Christmas, let us come and worship Him who is Christ the Lord. “All that has life and breath, come now with praises before Him! Let the Amen, sound from His people again; gladly forever adore Him!” (LSB 790). What better response to the mystery of His birth than to forever-praise Him, who with His love has befriended us? Merry Christmas!

Sermon on Luke 1:26-38, for the 4th Sunday in Advent. "Jesus: the Forever-King"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. I want to draw your attention to a common theme between our Old Testament and Gospel readings today. The theme of God’s promise to establish a “house” for David. In order to make the connection more clear, I’m going to read the few verses that were left out, 2 Samuel 7:11-16:

“I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

The sermon is based on this reading, and the Gospel from Luke 1, Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to a Son. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Samuel 7 describes King David after God had given peace from his enemies. David was settled and secure in a palace of cedar, Israel was at peace, and he desired to build a house, a temple for the Lord—to replace the tabernacle, or tent of worship that had been used for about 400 years since the Exodus. God denied David’s request to build a house for the Lord. But He did say that after his death, God would establish a house for David. God was going to raise up one of David’s own physical descendants to not only build a house for the Lord’s name, like David wanted, but also to establish his “house” forever. As you can probably tell, the word “house” is being used in more than one sense here. David wanted to build a physical house, a temple, for the Lord. And his son Solomon eventually would build a physical temple for the Lord in Jerusalem.

But this wasn’t the house that God was promising to David. God was promising him that his own offspring would be established to rule on his throne forever. The word “house” was now being used in a figurative sense, to speak of the dynasty of David’s family. The family lineage that would rule on his throne. God promised that David’s house and his kingdom would endure forever before God, and his throne would be established forever. But how could an earthly kingdom and dynasty be established forever? Was God promising an eternal political rule for David’s family? Did He just mean a really, really long time? No, God said that it would be “forever before me.” The problem is that earthly kings always die, and political kingdoms don’t last. So how could even a family lineage be preserved forever? Even the political nation-state of Israel that exists today, can’t claim to be the succession of David’s throne. As a recent theologian wisely observed, “You can’t have a forever-kingdom, unless you’re a forever-person.”

And further, the house that God was establishing for David, wasn’t just for him, but it was to be a house for the name of the Lord. So when we fast-forward 1,000 years after David, to the Galilean countryside, in a tiny, despised town called Nazareth, we can begin to appreciate the significance of the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary. The angel Gabriel came to a godly young virgin, pledged to be married to an honest carpenter, both who were descended of the great family of David. But 1,000 years after the Golden Age of David and Solomon’s reign, there was no descendant of David ruling on the throne, and they were certainly not living in cedar palaces. And what does the angel Gabriel promise to this young virgin Mary, but that she’ll conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, and give birth to a son named Jesus, listen carefully—who the Lord God will give the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. She was to be the mother of the One through whom all of God’s promises to David would be kept. She carried those promises in her womb. She was to be the mother of the “forever-person” who’d be able to rule the “forever-kingdom” from the throne of His father David.

She wasn’t a queen or princess, or living in royal palaces, but to her, a humble virgin, would be given the high favor and honor of the Lord, to be mother to Jesus, the King who would take the throne of David. The significance of Gabriel’s message, was that God was fulfilling His promise to David, to establish his house forever, and to make it a house for the Lord’s name. Further, God was fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would conceive and give birth as a sign to the house of David. By choosing a descendant of David, God kept His promise that it’d be one of David’s own physical offspring that would rise to the throne. By performing the miracle of Jesus being divinely conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, God entered Himself into human flesh—a true forever-person, who could reign and establish David’s throne forever. And not just for David himself, but for the name of the Lord.

But Jesus, though presented with gifts for a King at His birth, didn’t become a political king, as so many anticipated. Nor did He grow up in wealthy palaces. He wasn’t placed on the throne by the loyal subjects of David, realizing that David’s heir had come to claim His throne. No, Jesus first had to pass through the ordeal of His arrest and mistreatment by the Jews and Roman authorities. He faced the scorn of His own people, His own subjects. He was rejected as a king, but mockingly given a crown of thorns, a reed for a scepter, and a purple robe. Flogged and bloody, He stood before the people while Pontius Pilate cried: “Behold, your King!” They shouted for His crucifixion. Pilate asked if he should crucify their king, and they said, “We have no king but Caesar.” A King whose subjects disowned Him, He was unceremoniously enthroned on a crude wooden cross; a sign affixed above His head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

It was through this ordeal that Jesus would rise to His father David’s throne, because He bore this chastisement, this punishment, for the iniquity, the guilt of the people. He was truly called Great, and Son of the Most High, for this king bore the judgment of His own people. He took our scorn and guilt, so that He might be vindicated in His resurrection from the dead. Conquering such an evil death, He was exalted to the Highest Place, so that He’ll reign forever. His resurrection from the dead proved that He was a forever-person, that death had no hold on Him. So He’s worthy to be the Forever-King to rule on David’s throne. And of course if His throne is forever, that has implications for all of us. So why should it matter to us, what promises God made about establishing the house and throne of David, over 3,000 years ago? For one, Jesus’ rule as the Forever-King extends over us as well, and all humans are under His authority. And secondly, He invites us to become part of His “house,” members of the house of David, accepting by faith His reign over us, and obeying Him.

Jesus’ kingdom, as He told Pilate, wasn’t of this world. It was a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly or political kingdom. And His rule extends over all, so that at His coming, every knee shall bow. In our epistle reading this theme of eternal kingship comes out too, as Paul spoke of the gospel being proclaimed so that all nations might believe and obey him (Rom. 16:26). How is Jesus’ kingship and reign spread among us and throughout the world? It’s not by political force. It’s not by advancing armies of Christians into pagan lands and converting people at the point of the sword. It’s not by secluding ourselves from the outside world and forming insulated Christian communities that are protected from outside influence. It’s not by becoming Christian chameleons and blending into the surrounding culture. No, the kingdom of Jesus’ reign, the Son of the Most High, is advanced by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where it’s received in our hearts by faith. The Holy Spirit works the spread of this kingdom, within people’s hearts.

Here we see and follow the example of the virgin Mary, who upon hearing Gabriel’s great message of blessing, responded in faith: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” She expressed that she was a willing and loyal subject of the Lord, prepared to do His will. May we respond to Jesus’ reign in the same way. May we stand together as Christians, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Knowing that whatever God has planned for our lives, it’ll work together for our good. Mary was given stunning news, that would seem inexplicable to many or all who heard it. She was asked to carry out a hard task, that involved self-sacrifice. But she willingly trusted herself to the reign of the King who would be born from her womb. She trusted the Son of the Most High, the King of a Forever-Kingdom. She accepted the difficulties of her task with the words: “May it be to me as you have said.”

God often calls us to difficult tasks and places. Life as a family provider isn’t easy in these economic times, trying to make ends meet. Life as person of responsibility over a school, preschool, church, business, or community group may present unique challenges, tests of character, stands of conviction, and honesty. Life as a student or youth isn’t easy in a time when authority isn’t respected, when pleasure and money seem more desirable than self-control and wisdom and education, and your character will be tested. Each of us have unique callings in life that present us with the chance to be a servant of the Lord, and to act with integrity and obedience to Him. To seek to follow His ways, trust His reign over us, and to be able to repent and seek His forgiveness when we know we’ve failed. May we accept the difficulties of our task with the faith-filled statement: “May it be to me as you have said.”

To speak those words isn’t just to accept the hardship of life, but it’s also to receive His blessing, just as for Mary. For as she accepted the Lord’s will for her to bear the Son of the Most High, the Forever-King Jesus, she also received the Forever-Kingdom that He was bringing into the world. By faith, she became part of God’s working of salvation, to bring the reign of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, and rest from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. So when we speak those words: “May it be to me as you have said”—we’re acknowledging Jesus’ kingdom coming among us, with His same forgiveness and salvation. He works for our good, because He’s a just and merciful King. For us who stand in His kingdom, who’re members of His house, we are truly “highly favored,” by the grace of God. And we can wait in confidence and joyful expectation for His Second Advent, and the full realization of His reign over the New Heavens and Earth of His Forever-Kingdom. 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:
1. How did Jesus rise to the glory of His eternal throne?
2. How are we part of the “house of David?”
3. What was the only way that God’s promise to establish a forever kingdom could be fulfilled?
4. How is Jesus’ reign exhibited in your life?
5. In what ways is His reign tested in your life?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Podcasting Sermons Experiment Part Deux

Hello all,
I've switched to Podbean for my pocasting service, which was the one originally recommended to me. It seems to have a clean format and easy to use. I gave up on GCast after many failed attempts to get my files on the site. Feedback is always welcome!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11, 2nd Sunday in Advent, "The Word of the Lord Endures Forever"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Isaiah 40:1-11, beginning with the words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The prophet Isaiah carries this message to a people harassed by warfare with enemies, laboring in the darkness of uncertainty, mourning underneath their sorrows’ load. They were a people living with the guilt of their sin and disobedience to God, facing the punishment and penalty of their sin. Whether they lived before, during, or after the captivity in Babylon, or under the harsh rule of the Romans, many things conspired to quench the hope of God’s people. God’s people were waiting—they were waiting for the Advent, or coming of the Lord, who’d comfort them in their cheerless circumstances. This season of Advent, we wait with them, saints of the Old Testament. But now we’re waiting for the second Advent or coming of our Lord, and sharing in His same message of comfort, even as we’ve circumstances that would try to quench our hope. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

God gives poetic words to the prophet to describe humanity, in their life, trials, and death. He says: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Is. 40:6-8)..God pictures mankind as fleeting, transient. Our lives bloom quickly and have the beauty or glory of the flowers. But they wither and fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on us. As much as modern medicine and cosmetic surgery and diet and exercise plans try to capture our human beauty and strength at their peak, and try to freeze the effects of time, the grass still withers, and the flower falls. Our beauty and strength too must fade, as we age and time takes its toll. And death would seem the inevitable victor.

The Psalmist again captures this poetry of life, with these words: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it’s gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Ps. 103:14-18). Both of these passages describe our days like the grass and the flowers, all too short in life, and too quickly passed and forgotten. I suppose one could react negatively to these comparisons, and see them as depressing. Or someone might try to deny the reality of our fragile nature, and try to fight against aging and death with every tool in our powerfully equipped medical arsenal. But if we see them as depressing, or as a hopeless view of our mortality, we are missing what God is telling us in Isaiah and the Psalms.

Isaiah wrote: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” In contrast to the fleeting days of our lives, to the constant change and upheaval of our short existence, God’s Word stands forever. His Word remains unchanged. And Psalm 103 tells us that God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” God knows our frailty since He made mankind from dust, and even more so since God Himself became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and lived and died and rose as a human being. He literally knows our frame inside out. And the Psalmist adds: “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” God’s steadfast love is eternal for those who fear and obey Him. God isn’t shifting or changing like so much in life, but is eternally dependable. But the fact that the Word of our God endures forever, isn’t just a contrast to our frail and changing state—it’s the very cure for our deficiency!

Rather than despair of the seeming futility and impermanence of life, in God’s Word we have the eternal anchor for our soul. People and generations will pass away, troubles and hardships will come and go, as times of prosperity will also, but the word our God stands forever. The comfort of His good news outlasts all. It’s the eternal word of comfort, peace, and hope. What stands forever today?....It’s certainly not our financial security, our job security, our health security, or even architecture. We have no guarantees, especially in these troubled times, whether our savings or investments will hold out, whether our jobs will remain, whether our health holds out. All these and other concerns cloud over people’s horizons. But even these are mere distractions from our real problem, which is sin and death. The devil would be pleased to have us worrying about symptoms while the real malady of our sin remains untreated and unattended. So we worry about all sorts of things outside our control, that Jesus told us not to worry about. But trust not in hopes to build a wall of security around yourself. Rather trust in the comfort of God’s eternal word, the Gospel that stands forever, and know that it’s larger than our circumstances; larger than our worries and problems that are here today, gone tomorrow.

1 Peter quotes this verse from Isaiah, as “the Word of the Lord endures forever;” and goes on to explain what this “word” is—it’s the “good news that was preached to you.” It’s God’s message of comfort and love, the proclamation given to Isaiah and the prophets to comfort God’s people in distress. But this message of comfort, the good news, isn’t just warm words or holiday cheer. It’s not empty promises to the downtrodden or fearful. It’s not what some skeptics accuse Christianity of being: namely escapism or a “crutch for the weak.” Rather the good news of God’s Word is founded on Jesus’ coming into the world, His birth that we anticipate this Advent. His coming as the promised Good Shepherd we hear about in Isaiah today. God’s real and personal entrance into history as a human being, to tenderly lead His people.

Jesus’ Advent was the coming of the promised comfort for God’s people. The aged Simeon, who waited in the Temple for the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, cried for joy when he saw the baby Jesus. It says that he was waiting for the “consolation of Israel” and that God had promised he wouldn’t die until he saw the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:25-26). Jesus was indeed the consolation, the comfort for Israel, as His coming marked the revealing of God’s glory for all mankind to see. Among us, He grew up like the grass and flowers of the field, but with “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). He came the King, in pauper’s clothing; the Lord in the form of a servant. Yet it was for Him that messengers would “Go tell it on the mountain.” For Him that good tidings came to Jerusalem, and preachers would lift up their voice in a shout to say: “Here is your God!”

And He who grew up like the grass and flowers, also withered and fell among us. Jesus, God in flesh, joined Himself so intimately to our frail nature, that He suffered and died among us. The breath of the Lord blew on Him, and He died the fateful death on the cross, taking our human frailty to His grave. That there in death He might lie for three days, that at His resurrection the cry might again go out: “lift up your voice…do not be afraid!...Here is your God! See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and His arm rules for Him. See, His reward is with Him, and His recompense accompanies Him.” We see how great a comfort it is for God’s people that “the word of the Lord endures forever!” Not just a contrast between our momentary lives with God’s eternity. Rather it shows us how Jesus, the Word made flesh, joined Himself to our dying human race, that through His death He would conquer death. He comes forth from His grave with power, the power to rule the nations by His arm! The reward He brings for those who fear Him is forgiveness and eternal life. He’s the cure for our frail and fleeting lives, marked by sin for death. Trusting and hoping on the Lord Jesus, we share in His resurrection, so that death will not be the victor. By faith we’re attached to the Word of the Lord that endures forever. Through Him, we’ve the comfort that goes beyond mere words, but is The Word!

Here’s the comfort that speaks to our heart, God’s Word of forgiveness and everlasting life, a proclamation of Good News from Jesus, His Son. The Christian faith is far from promising an escape from difficult circumstances, or a denial of the reality around us. Christians too, suffer the effects of a sinful and broken world. We bleed the same, face the same health concerns, feel the same effects of an ailing economy and the fear of joblessness. We too wither and fall like the grass and flowers. The difference isn’t in what we endure in this life, and it’s not a matter of fleeing from trials, or denying death. Rather, the difference between the Christian and the unbeliever, is that we have these words of comfort, the word of our God that stands forever.

In a sea of change and transience, where so much is uncertain, we have the eternal anchor for our soul—God’s Word. The difference is between a life of empty pursuit of money and pleasure like there’s no tomorrow, blissfully unaware; or worse, the potential despair at the meaningless of existence. In contrast the Christian life is one of taking up our cross, and walking after our Lord Jesus by faith, knowing the comfort of His Word, having the good tidings of His Gospel. Though sin and death might conspire to quench our hope, we have the Eternal Word of comfort, that our sins have been paid for, and that Christ’s coming will bring an end to our hard service. For the Eternal Word has joined Himself to our mortality, that though we may wither and fade, there’s promised for us the resurrection of the body. There’s nothing I would prefer to anchor my life to than God’s Word; nothing else that can give the security, the comfort, and strength, than the Word of the Lord that endures forever. 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:
1.What in your life brings home the often sad reality that “surely the people are grass; the grass withers and the flowers fall?”
2.What specific comforts are you brought by the truth that “The Word of the Lord endures forever?”
3.Did you know that “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever” (1 Pet. 1:25) became a slogan of the 16th Century Lutheran Reformation, as they upheld Scripture alone? The Latin translation Verbum Dominum Manet Aeternum, abbreviated VDMA is still imprinted on some Lutheran books, letters, etc.
4.What are the differences between the comforts and distractions of the world, and the comforts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
5.In what way(s) is Jesus like a shepherd?