Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23, for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, "Not in vain"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. It’s often said that the holidays are often marked by sharp contrasts in emotions. For some Christians, Christmas is the peak of joy and anticipation for the year, with Easter as well. And rightly so. These two Christian feasts are meant for celebration—and we aren’t going to stop celebrating Christmas yet! We can continue to revel in the joy of Christ’s birth for us, and stretch out our celebration while the world moves on and tunes out. But just as quickly as we’ve heard the marvelous Christmas gospel, we’re hit with Jesus’ narrow escape from death at the hand of Herod’s soldiers, and the brutal massacre of Bethlehem’s innocent sons. And it’s not an accident of the calendar of readings, but how Matthew himself finishes the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood. Why such a swing from amazing good news to such a grim story? Couldn’t we keep this story in the shadows, and just stick to the joyful Christmas message? I understand this impulse, and feel it in my own sinful flesh.
But I have a feeling that way of thinking leads to similar questions like: “Can’t we just keep those who are suffering in the shadows? The depressed, the ill, the aging or dying? Those with some unspoken shame or guilt? Those who might be weeping instead of singing on Christmas? Can’t we just quietly hide them away where we can’t see them or be disturbed by their unrest, their grief, or their loss?” But the answer is “No, we must not!” Why is it our Christian duty to do things like “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ?” (Gal. 6:2). Why has God so composed the body of Christ that we are not divided but care for each other so that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV)?
We do so because Christ came to do so for us. Matthew chapters 1-2, read in their entirety, show that Jesus came into a world of darkness, unrest, and uncertainty. Even as the glorious Star of Jacob shown down over Bethlehem, leading the Magi to Jesus, just outside that glorious light was the shadow of darkness and death. And that darkness and evil pursued even the infant Jesus’ life. Jesus came to a world of suffering, to suffer with it and for it. But as we’ll see, His suffering was not in vain—however much we at times may be struck by the futility and cruelty of life. Christ came to bring good news to those dwelling in deep darkness, and in the shadow of death, and we as Christians are privileged to bear that same good news to others! And this is not a “shallow” good news of cheer that only comforts when things are already pretty good, but its the good news that’s “worth its salt” and is rich and deep enough to scatter the darkness and break the gloom. It’s the good news that shines for us in the worst distresses and tragedies—whether of Bethlehem, or Newtown, or Aurora. And it’s a message that needs to be heard. That Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and to rescue us from our self-made darkness. It’s this deep and rich Gospel that needs to be heard in all the shadowy places where people sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death. The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But if the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem was good news for the shepherds, Magi, Mary and Joseph, and indeed all the world—was it not bitter news for the bereaved parents of Bethlehem? Where was the good news for those mothers, whom Jeremiah’s prophecy calls “Rachel weeping for her children, she [refuses] to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15). Here in the story of Jesus’ escape, Rachel represents the bereaved mothers. Those who have experienced such piercing grief know what it means in the midst of a great loss to refuse comfort. When the pain is still so fresh and raw, it may seem inconsolable. So what good news was there for those whose children died while Jesus and His family escaped to safety?
Jeremiah’s prophecy gives the first clue. Jeremiah 31:15, reads as follows: “Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” But if you read the next two verses, is says, “Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” God promises a reward for their work, that they would come back from the land of enemy to their own country, and that there is hope for their future! How could there be such a hope for the mothers of Bethlehem? Nothing could replace their loss, and certainly there’s no possible  way to make sense of Herod’s evil. The plain unfairness and injustice of the death of the innocent is a terrible reminder that this world is dreadfully lost and broken through sin. No parent should have to witness the death of their child.
But that very statement brings us to the very heart of God, who Himself endured Jesus’ death for our sins. That is the very reason Jesus needed to survive that awful night in Bethlehem. Because God had to preserve Him for the day when He would die on the cross to destroy sin and death. But Jesus’ death on the cross was not a tragedy, which is by definition vain and untimely. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross was purposeful, it was saving, and it was in God’s appointed time. In a way like the world had never seen before, Jesus’ death was not in vain. It was purposeful and saving, because Jesus went there to carry all our sins away. He came to exhaust the powers of evil against Himself, and to rise up to life again in conquering victory.
Its only through this “anti-tragedy” of Jesus’ cross, that there’s hope for the future of those bereaved mothers, even if they didn’t know it yet. And it was only through the death and resurrection of Jesus that their children might one day “come back to their own country” and return from the enemy. Because Jesus holds the power over death, and only through His resurrection can the dead be raised in Him! Jesus’ cross is our hope and future as well. In Jesus’ cross we find the good news for all the “Rachels” who weep in the shadows, who refuse to be comforted, or who bear some great grief or suffering. Only in the cross of Jesus we find God’s final answer to evil—where Jesus took on the powers of darkness and won. Only in the cross of Jesus do we find God’s answer to the evil within ourselves—where God redeems us from our own sin—from which we are not the victims, but the perpetrators. It is our Christian faith that this is the Great Reversal that Jesus accomplished for all mankind.
So does the death of one man who did not die in vain, relieve the injustices of all the “innocents” who have died, or do anything in the face of the bloodshed, war, and brutality of human history? The skeptic finds this preposterous. Yet as incredible as it may seem, the Christian answers “Yes, Jesus’ death does matter, and it does make an eternal difference.” Consider for a moment, on a much smaller, human scale: do we ever think that one human death can bring some small good out of a tragic situation? Or that there can be some redeeming good out of evil circumstances? How about the fireman who gives his life to rescue a child from a burning building? Or the soldier who gives his life to spare his friend’s in the thick of the battle? Or the person who dies in the car accident, yet donates their organs to save the life of another? Do we count all these death’s to be futile, or in vain?
Don’t we praise them as acts of self-sacrifice, of loyal love and friendship, or of heroism? Don’t we feel that in some small way, these acts have defied evil, disease, or loss in some meaningful way, even if the “hero” lost their life? But the skeptic may answer that because worldwide scale of human tragedy is infinitely greater. Sure, heroism might save a few or rarely, even many lives. But the scale of human tragedy and death is immeasurable. It’s cosmic! It covers the whole created world. To defy evil, disease and death on a cosmic scale would require an equally cosmic “hero” and an equally cosmic act of redemption. Just so! We agree! Jesus is just such a “cosmic hero”, though the more Biblical term is, “Savior.”
Only the death of an infinite worth and eternal purpose, outweighs, reverses, defies the evil in the universe. Only the death that makes eternal life possible, and promises hope for our future. Jesus’ death is the ultimate victory over evil and senseless tragedy because it was the ultimate failure of death and evil to win over Jesus. And Jesus freely gives that life and that hope to all who look to His Light in their darkness. Jesus is the only hope for those bereaved parents, and because He survived that awful night, He lived to give all of us a hope and a future that can’t be wrenched away. Jesus is the hope for those whose lives are beset with suffering, grief, or guilt. This is the reason He had to survive His childhood—so that as an adult He might die. But His death was not in vain. Rather, eternal goods—forgiveness, life, and salvation flow forth from Jesus’ death. And if His death was not in vain, that’s the best news in the face of even the darkest hour. Even in the face of death—because we know that by faith in Jesus Christ, our eternal life is beyond death’s cruel reach. So reflect on that deep Gospel, that rich good news that is yours in Christ Jesus. And may it always be our Light in the darkness, and our joy to share. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen to audio at:

1.      In Matthew 2:13-23, Matthew recounts several prophecies that were fulfilled in these early events in Jesus’ life. Read v. 15 and Hosea 11:1. How was the Exodus in Israel’s history a foreshadowing of Jesus’ life and work of redemption? See also Exodus 4:22 and Luke 9:31, and note that in Luke, the word “departure” is exodus in Greek. To where would Jesus lead His people, after God called Him out of Egypt?
2.      Herod’s insane jealousy for his throne made him one of the most feared tyrants of the ancient world. History records that he killed three of his sons and one wife for the suspicion that they were plotting his overthrow. His murder of the “Holy Innocents” in Bethlehem was consistent with his murderous character. How does Revelation 12:1-6 hint at greater forces of evil at work behind Herod’s rage?
3.      The tragic fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:17 joins another Old Testament reality (the exile of Israel) with a New Testament parallel. Though the mothers of Bethlehem wept with inconsolable grief for their lost sons, what hope does the prophet offer in Jeremiah 31:16-18. What does this say about God’s nearness to the victims of tragedy?
4.      What greater good prevailed out of the tragedy of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem? For what purpose was Jesus’ life preserved? Why was Jesus’ death neither futile nor untimely? John 10:11, 15; 17:1; Matthew 16:21.
5.      What eternal goods are given to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection? Matthew 6:19-21, 33; Mark 10:45; John 3:16. How does the cross and resurrection give the Christian worldview the hope and confidence to face a world filled with the darkness of sin and evil? When is the promised defeat of death? 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

Note: Though it’s unclear which particular prophecy is meant in Matthew 2:23,  a couple of possibilities: 1) it’s a play on words for the Hebrew word “nezer” or “root”, as in Isaiah 11:1 where Jesus is prophesied as the “root of Jesse”—i.e. in the kingly lineage of David, or 2) the attitude toward Nazareth (John 1:46) associated Jesus’ hometown with lowly or “backwater” origins. 

Sermon on John 1:1-14 for Christmas Day, "Tabernacled among us"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Christmas is here! Today we celebrate Jesus’ birth. The Bible tells about Jesus’ birth from several different angles. Matthew’s Gospel tells of Mary and Joseph, the promise of the Virgin birth, the visit of the Wise Men and the terror of King Herod. Luke’s Gospel, which you likely heard last night, tells of the census, Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels, and Jesus laid in the manger. The Gospel of John also tells the Christmas story, but in a very different way. He focuses not so much on the human participants and the locations, as on the grand themes of what God was at work doing, and the coming of Jesus into the world. John 1 is the Christmas’ story told from God’s perspective, showing Jesus’ relationship to God and His incarnation, His coming into human flesh right here in the world. All this unfolded in the midst of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men’s lives, but John tells how it fits in the grand scheme of salvation. Jesus, the Light of all men, coming into the darkness of this world to give us His Light. Jesus, the eternal Word of God, at the creation of the world, and now enters creation. And in one forceful little statement, John captures the miraculous conception, pregnancy, and birth of Jesus into the world: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
John 1:1-14 speaks of two major ways God has revealed Himself to humankind, and draws a line joining them together. God first revealed Himself to us through creation. God as the Creator of all things is one of the first ways we know and understand who God is. Probably the first way of explaining to your child who God is, is by explaining that He is the One who made everything. It is the first, basic way in which we grasp who God is. He made the earth, sun, moon, and stars; He created the plants, animals, and most of all, humans, as His special creation. Like a painting implies an artist, so also creation implies a Creator. However, we don’t expect to find the artist themselves in the painting itself. In rare cases, a painter might hide a portrait of themselves in a painting, but they are not truly “in” the painting, just a copy is. So do we expect to find God in the creation itself? The Bible does tell us that He left at least one “portrait” of Himself in creation: “in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them.” But since God Himself is invisible, and He is not part of the creation itself—is there any other way that God shows Himself in the creation? This question leads us into the second way God has revealed Himself to humankind.
John draw a connecting line between these two major revelations of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then jumping to the last verse, v. 14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” First revealed in creation, the same Word of God now became flesh and “dwelt among us,” showing God’s glory. God comes and appears Himself, in the creation!
When you read those words, “dwelt among us” it sounds pretty vanilla—like someone living in our neighborhood might “dwell among us”. But this “dwell” is a “loaded word.” When you find a “loaded word” in the Bible, it’s like a gold prospector finding a vein of gold running through his mine, and you follow that vein to great riches. In the same way, when you study the Bible and discover a loaded word, it leads to a richness of meaning and a golden vein that connects ideas in Scripture together. With a little deeper digging in the original language, we find that this word “dwelt” actually carries the meaning “tabernacled among us.”
Tabernacle? What’s that? In the Old Testament, this was the Tent of Worship that the Israelites carried with them on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was a Tent that was designed according to God’s instructions, and most significantly, God’s visible presence in the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night dwelt in the Tabernacle. In other words, the Tabernacle was God with them. It was where they knew they could find and worship God. It was where God distributed mercy to them through the sacrificial system. It was the proof of God’s presence among them.
God’s “located-ness” is so important to understanding the Bible. Yes, God is everywhere, but the more important question is where can I find Him? How can I receive His mercy? God locates Himself and tells us where He will be, and makes Himself accessible through His Word and Promises. This was just was God did for Israel in the Old Testament. He located Himself, and His Name, in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
So with all that rich baggage in hand, we go back to John 1:14 and find that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” This is John’s way of describing that Jesus came down to earth, and replaced the Tabernacle, and that His body, His flesh, became the physical “tent” or dwelling place for God with man. The book of Hebrews, chapter 9, also talks about this, saying that the Tabernacle and its furnishings in the Old Testament were “copies of the heavenly things” (9:23), but that Jesus came through the “greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (9:11). The tabernacle was a “copy” of the greater and more perfect tent of Jesus’ body, God’s own miracle, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. In this body Jesus secured our eternal redemption by means of His own blood (9:12).
So now we can better answer our question, does God the Creator show up inside His creation? At first we said there was the portrait or image of Himself in mankind, at the creation, now we’ve also said that the Old Testament featured certain “copies of the heavenly things”—but now we can see that in Jesus, the Creator of all things, the Great Artist of all creation, also stepped down into His own work. He located Himself, revealed Himself. But we must not forget why He came down to creation or how things stood when He arrived. Jesus did not arrive on the scene to find God’s amazing work of art intact, whole, and pristine, just as He made it. Rather, He came to His creation that had been marred, vandalized, defaced, and was in disarray.  
Perhaps an artist can best understand the grief this caused God, to see the effects of sin, death, and disease on His creation. Far worse than graffiti on a piece of artwork, a shattered stained glass window, or some other precious, but impersonal objects, sin does its damage in human lives. Tearing at relationships, corrupting character, spreading disease, polluting our thoughts, and not only human lives are affected, but also every other part of the world gone awry from its original goodness, design, and purity. At Christmas, we reflect on the greatness of God’s Divine Love that moved Him to visit and redeem His fallen creation. To show Himself, to become flesh and “tabernacle” among us, so He could restore His broken creation to Himself.
Jesus is God with us, Emmanuel. He is the “located” presence of God for us. Where we find and worship God. Christmas is where we find God born in the manger. Through Him we receive grace and mercy through His sacrifice for us on the cross. Jesus is where God’ pours out His gifts of forgiveness, life, and healing. If we want to be part of God’s new creation, we need Jesus to come near to us, and begin His restoration on us. Jesus is the “proof” of God’s presence among us. There was proof in His restoring miracles that healed and made new what was broken through disease, injury, and the works of evil. But the greatest proof that Jesus was God among us was in His death and resurrection, showing His power over things that no mere man had.
Yet Jesus’ coming to restore creation was not without opposition and resistance. John tells us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” and “the true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The darkness—even a spiritual darkness of evil, was present in the world, but the good news is that the coming of Jesus, the Light, drives back the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome the light. Jesus brings illumination and enlightenment, to see and know that He is God. But the world doesn’t know Him, even though He created it.
Even His own people, the people who had the “copies of the heavenly things”—who should have known what to expect, still missed it. They did not receive Him. But then we learn that to receive Jesus’ coming, to be in on His restoration work, isn’t something that depends on our own powers after all. It’s not a matter of our own will, but a matter of being born of God. Since its our very heart and will that contains the “corrupted files”—the sin-corrupted programming, that are responsible for the fallen and decaying state of creation—God has to give us His new birth. We must be born of God, to see and believe in Jesus. Our heart and will are “bent” on the ways of sin and self-destruction. But only God can “rewrite” the “programming” or “unbend” our will to believe in Jesus Christ and accept His coming. But being born again, God makes us into children of God.

God “tabernacles” in Jesus Christ for just this purpose, to bring grace and truth to us, and to turn the hearts and wills of men to Him. By entering creation, Jesus, has located Himself as God for us. God’s own best gift for us this Christmas is Himself. For knowing and believing in Him, we are born of God as the children of His new creation. So come, we have found the Christ child, born for us in the manger, born to bring God’s mercy to us! May Jesus, God’s gift to us, fill your heart with joy, light, and God’s life this Christmas season! In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "God with us"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. What does “Emmanuel” mean? It’s the name of our church, and the title given to Christ in our Gospel reading. It means “God with us.” But in what sense? God with us could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. People are often quite content to speak about God being with them in the beauty of nature, in the whisper of the breeze, or in the bliss of a memorable moment. But is that what “Emmanuel” means in the Bible? Far from it. While we might be able to admire the beauty of God’s handiwork in nature, or sense peace or joy from certain restful or happy moments, that fleeting experience is not what God’s presence means. Neither is this the presence of the God who speaks to us. So where do we find the God who speaks to us? Or what happens when we are faced with the ugliness or brutality of life, in the cancer ward, or in the dangerous part of town? What about when sorrow wrenches all our joy and peace away? Is God still with us? Is God even to be found?
The incarnation—that is the coming of God’s Son into human flesh in the person of Jesus—is the answer to that question. It’s the presence of God with us, not in an abstract, intangible, fleeting way, or in a way that depends on our emotional state of mind or the beauty and goodness of external circumstances. The incarnation is about the God who does speak to us, and the God who stays with us even in the darkest pit of fear or despair. God concretely became man, and we find God with us first of all, in the straw cradle prepared by the Virgin Mary. God wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Here is the concrete, flesh and blood presence of God with us. And it came about in the most miraculous way.
Mary was a virgin, betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal requires a little explanation, because unlike a modern engagement which is not legally binding, a betrothal was. However, they were not permitted to live together or consummate the relationship until after the wedding ceremony. So Joseph’s distress was natural, in that he felt betrayed by Mary. In the passage, Mary and Joseph are already referred to as “husband” and “wife”, and in order to end this relationship, Joseph had to undertake a legal divorce, even if he could do so privately, in order to spare her further disgrace. It was in the midst of this precarious relationship, tilting toward an early divorce, that God’s Son ultimately came into the world, to be with us.  A situation that would have amounted to no small social discomfort for both Joseph and Mary. And in a larger sense, the world of Mary and Joseph was not much more peaceful, with the heavy hand of Roman soldiers and taxation being felt in the land. Does this sound like the God who flees in our times of trouble, or when lives get messy with sin? Does it sound like God needed to wait for a tranquil scene in order to arrive? Or are we hearing the story of the God who comes to save us from our sins, and to comfort us in our distress? Listen on.
While Joseph was weighing his options and nursing his heart, an angel came to tell him, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” It took faith for Joseph to believe the angel’s words, and act accordingly, but that is just what he did. Joseph may even have recalled the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, that Matthew quotes for us, “The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.” Did Joseph believe merely on the angel’s words alone? Or was he stunned with the realization that the ancient prophecy was coming true in his own family? Many in Israel longed for the Promised One, and doubtless this passage had been the cause of much wonder and speculation. But in any case, Joseph accepted the angel’s word that cleared Mary of any guilt or unfaithfulness to him, and Joseph accepted that this change in plans was part of a higher purpose and plan that God had for his family—to welcome Jesus into the world, who would save His people from their sins.
And there you have the reason for why God comes on the scene in the first place. Not just for a social call, for a passing visit that would be followed by a long absence. What brought Jesus to earth was God’s will and intention to save His people from their sins. A God-sized problem required a God-sized intervention. Our problem is we’re so good at minimizing or reducing the size of our sin, that we can hardly accept the fact that God needed to intervene at all, let alone send Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. If sin is so small it doesn’t need a Savior, then all we need Jesus to do is take His place in the nativity scene and keep the warm feelings going. But if the problem of sin is indeed large—if it indeed required God’s own intervention—then we need Jesus to be born in the manger so that one day He might die on the cross for our sins. And then God be praised because Salvation unto us has come!
You see, if we treat Christmas as the climax of the salvation story, we miss the bigger picture that it is one of many great and wonderful climactic moments in the salvation story, mounting toward the death of Jesus to save His people from their sins, and His resurrection from the dead showing that the victory was in the bag! Christmas is the entrance of God on the scene, so that Jesus could come and take care of sin once for all at the cross. It doesn’t matter that we don’t want to look past the beauty and glow of the manger to the painful, adult realities of what Jesus came to do. It doesn’t matter that I might wish to keep my babies cute and small and cuddly for the rest of their lives so I can enjoy that adorable stage of their lives. Despite me, they will grow up, and despite us, Jesus grew up to be a man who faced an awesome and breath-taking task. The miraculous signs surrounding this birth pointed to the greatness of this child, and the greatness of what He came to do, even as He came in lowly estate.
So while we cannot suspend Jesus’ life forever at the Christmas scene, we can marvel at the way in which God came to us. Coming to a troubled and uneasy young man named Joseph, and a virtuous country girl named Mary, who shared this in common—a great faith in God and His promises, and a willingness to follow and obey God’s command and be brought into God’s purposes. We can marvel that just as Matthew’s Gospel begins Jesus’ life describing Him as “God with us”, Emmanuel, so also Jesus’ final words to us in the Gospel of Matthew are, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus is saying, I am always Emmanuel. Which tells us that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven are not a departure of God’s presence among us, or even Jesus’ prolonged absence. Rather, it tells us that Jesus’ presence is abiding, continuing, and near. He is still Emmanuel, “God with us,” and in no less concrete ways.
Jesus taught in His ministry that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). Jesus is present among the community of believers. Right here at Emmanuel! When we abide in Jesus’ Word and in His name, He is among us. He taught, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:26, ESV) When we serve and follow Jesus, we are with Him. He does not abandon us when we commit to His will, any more than He abandoned Joseph and Mary. Rather He saw them through much danger, as we’ll see after the visit of the wise men. And He will see us through the often difficult task of committing to obedience to Him, whatever the cost.
Jesus taught that while He was no longer visibly present among them, “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26, ESV) Jesus’ presence with His church is not without the Spirit’s continual speaking of His Word. We don’t have to sit and wonder, guess, or dream what Jesus would say, we have His Word written in the Holy Scripture and this is continually preached and taught to us in the office of the Holy Ministry, led by the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus also taught that we would find Him in acts of Christian charity: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40b, ESV) Serving the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned, are all ways in which we serve Christ among us. And Jesus gave His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, as a lasting covenant of His presence among believers, saying, “Take eat, this is my body...drink of it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, ESV). Jesus is present every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in His body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins.
In short, Jesus has established His presence among us, not in abstract and mystical ways, but in concrete and external ways, through His Word, through His love enacted, through Christian brothers and sisters, through the needy, and through His own body and blood. Of course it is by faith we recognize God with us in all of these things, but we can also see that because of God’s love and behind-the-scenes action, His presence fills ordinary life with the love of God, and transforms even simple acts into acts of thankful and loving obedience to God.
Remove God from the equation, and we’re left with just our sin and our human will. And no matter how much we try to minimize our sin or our need for a Savior, that equation can’t stay balanced long, and life quickly unravels into the disordered chaos of sin, jealousy, and selfishness. Sin magnifies itself pretty well on its own. But this is the very mess Jesus’ came to save us from, and where sin increased, grace increased all the more (Rom. 5:20). That Jesus would save us from our sins looks forward past His birth to the looming cross of Jesus, looming even larger than our sins—yet not casting a shadow, but shining through the gloomy world to point us to Jesus. Jesus, who entered the world on a scene of uncertainty, danger, and fear, to rescue us. But that fear, our fear, is always driven back by Jesus’ advance, and the proclaiming angels kept that fear at bay by announcing His coming. But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel! (LSB 361:3-4). Sin and disorder have had their day for too long! O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and deliver us from our sins! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1.      The title “Emmanuel” comes from Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, the prophecy of the virgin birth, and means “God with us.” How do people sometimes misconstrue the idea of God’s presence, and make it something very much smaller and uncertain than what Jesus’ title actually means? How do we correct that to the fuller, larger understanding of what “Emmanuel” means?
2.      Mary and Joseph’s betrothal was already legally binding, though they had not consummated the relationship (vs. 18, 20, 25). How does the Bible passage show the legal bond and what Joseph was contemplating to break it? (vs. 19-20). What negative impact were they both facing from this unexpected pregnancy?
3.      How is fear and disorder common to our human experience? Does this prevent God’s coming to us? Is God with us only in times of tranquility?
4.      What great acts of obedience and faith were required of Joseph and Mary? What gave them the strength to do so? Vs. 20-23; Luke 1:26-38. What is the means by which God brings about the “obedience of faith” in us? Romans 1:5-6
5.      What was the purpose of God’s arrival on the scene of human history? v. 21; Galatians 4:4-5. Even before Jesus’ birth, the purpose of His life is laid out. Why is it important that we remember this greater purpose, even at Christmastime?
6.      How is Jesus always Emmanuel, not just during the years of His life on earth? Matthew 28:20. How is He still present among His people? Matthew 18:20; 25:40; 26:26-28; John 12:26; 14:26.
7.      How does the greatness of Christ’s salvation far exceed the evil and trouble of our sin? Romans 5:20. What confidence does this give us for God’ help, comfort, and aid? Why can we be assured that God wants to come to us, and be with us for the purpose of rescuing us from our sins?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sermon on Psalm 136 for Advent Midweek 3, "God's Never-ending Story"

*Note: this sermon is my own composition, but the idea and a couple of borrowed phrases come from the preaching series we used this year for Advent, which was from Concordia Seminary St. Louis, called "Beautiful Savior" and based on themes in the Psalms. 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our sermon is based on Psalm 136, a song of praise to God, with the constant refrain that “His steadfast love endures forever.” The Psalm begins by recounting God’s goodness and His superiority over all other gods and lords, and quickly moves to the wonder of God’s creation. It continues by recounting God’s wonders in redeeming His people Israel from Egypt and settling them in their land, and finally the psalm concludes by remembering how God provides for and remembers us, and finally feeds us and all living things. In proclaiming repeatedly that “His steadfast love endures forever”—and also in ending “at the dinner table” so to speak, saying “He who gives food to all flesh”—the Psalm itself seems to suggest that the story of God’s steadfast love is not over. That it continues even today, and that when this Psalm was first written, there were a great many more chapters and verses of God’s salvation story to be written. With each new chapter, God’s unfailing love would be displayed once again.
Kind of reminds me of a childhood movie I used to watch, call “The Never-ending Story.” Without recalling too many details, the basic idea was that a young boy becomes part of a fascinating story by reading it, and that the story was never quite finished, because whenever someone else picked up the story and began to read it, they too would become part of the story. In a way, it’s a fitting comparison to the way that we become part of the story of salvation history when we read the Bible, believe, and become part of the story where God has brought about redemption for us. The difference, is of course that the Bible is not fiction, and that new chapters and books of the Bible are no longer being written—they are all complete. But God’s salvation still unfolds today, and wraps us up into the story, as our lives become living examples of God’s faithfulness shown to a new generation. We too can sing new lines of the great deeds God has done for us, and how they show His steadfast love endures forever.
As we enter our final days of preparation for Christmas, how shall we prepare for the coming of Christ? In previous Sunday sermons, we have talked about the importance of repentance and faith, to greet Christ in His coming kingdom. To that, we might also add the preparation of thankfulness. The gratitude that praises God for what He has done. How does gratitude prepare us?
Gratitude, or thankfulness,  is the Bible’s prescribed antidote against discontentment, complaining, and worry. And that thankfulness is not just ambiguous thanks sent in no particular direction, but as the Psalm shows by example, it is thanks given to God. Christian thankfulness always recognizes God as Giver. And even just in this act, we see how thankfulness turns us away from discontent, complaints, and worry—because it turns our attention away from ourselves toward God! Always looking inward to ourselves, we should not be surprised to be stuck in jealousy, greed, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. But by looking always to God, and praising His goodness, we also lift our eyes from our own circumstances and up to Him in trust and confidence. Directing our eyes to God, we contemplate our blessings, instead of our wishes.
It reminds me of another childhood book, “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.” In the book, someone observes that everyone is always looking down, and never lift their eyes up to the sky, or the chimneys, and that the whole world could pass them by and they wouldn’t notice. Updating it for today, we might say our eyes are never (or rarely) lifted from our phones, computers, or TVs to much the same result. In the same way, if our eyes are always downcast or distracted, we’ll pay little notice to God’s salvation and gifts as they unfold. In many ways they come quietly, without the world taking much notice. You don’t read in the weekly headlines or hear announced on the evening news that sins are being forgiven and weary and troubled consciences comforted at church on Sunday. But it’s God’s good news for sure, and if we don’t pay attention we will miss it too. Simple words and washing with water claims a new child of God in Baptism. Simple bread and wine give Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The Word of Good News points us to Jesus and His cross, rescuing us from sin week after week. But it doesn’t feature in the headlines, and it doesn’t “go viral” on YouTube.
But if our eyes are turned upward, if we see God’s hand in the giving, if we recognize the greatness of the gift wrapped in humble boxes, we will indeed have contentment, reasons for joy and praise, and cause for courage and steadfastness ourselves. We’ve been written into God’s story as Jesus came into the world to redeem us, and wrote our names in His book of life.
If you go back to Psalm 136, and consider it as the prescription the doctor ordered for Israel of old, who were particularly prone to complaining and dissatisfaction, you see how it lifts their eyes to their blessings. As the Psalm tells us the story of creation, then of Israel’s redemption, it has this strange and steady “interruption” to the story, by having us say continually “for His steadfast love endures forever.” But instead of being an “interruption”—it rather pulls us into the story as witnesses of God’s wonder, who watch the story unfold and continue to praise God for what He has done. Then in the final verses, the Psalm takes on a more personal note, as if gradually zooming in from the perspective of all creation down to the people of God. And v. 23 says, “It is He who remembered us in our low estate, for His steadfast love endures forever; and rescued us from our foes, for His steadfast love endures forever, he gives food to all flesh, for His steadfast love endures forever.”
What does this conclusion tell us? It tells us that the great deeds of salvation that God has worked in the past are not to be left in the dust heap and forgotten, but continually called to memory as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and love. But even more than that, it tells us that God’s steadfast love has not run out or ceased, but together with the last meal that we just finished, or with the next celebration of Christmas that we mark, and the first time a child hears and believes in the Gospel story, that God is at work, keeping His steadfast love for us. We can sing of God’s love for our church here on Maui, for our school, for our families, our jobs, and homes, and realize that God’s strong hand and outstretched arm has reached us also. His providing hands have reached our tables, our homes, and our church.
His redeeming love stretched down from heaven and became incarnate—took on human flesh—in the person of Jesus Christ, and remembered us in our sin and rescued us from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. God has remembered us. Just ponder for a moment—we, you and I—are not forgotten. Our God’s view of creation is not from 30,000 feet, with billions of faceless, anonymous humans hidden from sight below. But God’s view of creation “zoomed in” to “eye level”, when the baby Jesus first looked up at His loving mother Mary, and Joseph, her husband. From the cross Jesus saw the lost world He came to save, up close and personal. And Jesus has not retreated from this “close view” of us, but tells us that God always knows even the number of hairs on our head, and therefore intimately and personally knows His creation. And God wants that to be more than a supernatural observation, more than just His knowledge of us and all our doings—but He also wants to open up our knowledge of Him. For us to look back up to Him, recognize His gracious presence and steadfast love, and to “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever.” God wants us to enter into relationship with Him.
God is always at work—His steadfast love endures forever. He’s always at work giving and providing for His creation, opening our eyes to see our relationship as Recipients to the Giver. He’s always at work redeeming His people, rescuing them from their sins and enemies, opening our eyes to see our relationship as the Redeemed to the Redeemer. And He’s always at work making His people holy, setting our lives back on track when we go astray, opening our eyes to see our relationship as Saints to the Sanctifier. God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is tirelessly at work for us, and as we approach this Christmas, may our eyes more clearly see what He is doing for us and our salvation. His steadfast love endures forever! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-15 for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Doubts and Expectations"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our Gospel reading shows a surprising show of doubt or uncertainty, from one we might expect to be above such things—John the Baptist, the greatest prophet and greatest among men. As someone who experienced direct revelation from God, shouldn’t he have been immune to doubts? Don’t we often imagine that would be the sure ticket to certainty of faith for us? But John sends his disciples with a message to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Of course it’s not hard to guess why John might have experienced doubts. He was in prison for teaching the word of God, unwilling to back down from a tyrant like Herod Antipas. In prison for that? He might have expected. But did he expect something more, or different from Jesus? What made John ask? While I thank God that none of you are locked up in prison for your faith, or for your confession of Jesus Christ—does that mean that the old sinner in us doesn’t still produce the same doubts and puzzled expectations about Jesus?
What are our expectations? Are we holding out for something better? Are we looking for another? Does what Jesus offers seem like something we would want to pass up? Doesn’t meet our felt needs? Are we uncomfortable with the people whom Jesus associated with and welcomed into His kingdom? Do we take offense at His bold denunciations of sin and hypocrisy, because we too are wounded in our pride? We can come up with plenty of reasons why we might doubt, or our faith would waver. And most of them would be just as old as the excuses that troubled the faithful that died and went before us.
Jesus’ response is just as timely today as then—go and tell the good news to every anxious heart, and show them Christ. The signs and miracles, were almost all right out of the prophet Isaiah, as he described the Promised One. Healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and preaching good news to the poor. All right out of Isaiah chapters 29, 35, and 61. But there was more! Unless I’ve missed it, there was no prophecy that promised the Christ would cleanse the lepers or raise the dead (although both of these signs Jesus performed were foreshadowed by the prophets Elijah and Elisha). So Jesus shows Himself to be the promised One and more.
No doubt Jesus’ message came back to John. Did he welcome Jesus’ answer, and the signs that pointed to Jesus, rejoicing to hear the familiar words of Isaiah 61, that the Christ would come preaching good news to the poor? Most likely. But would he also have winced when he noticed the rest of the verse was left unmentioned? Perhaps the very part that John himself longed most to hear? Isaiah 61:1 reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Was John aching in chains, aware that Jesus was bringing good news to the poor and binding up the brokenhearted, but aching to hear the rest of those words spoken to him? To know his day of release would be near?
What was implicit in the silence? Not now? Not yet? Other words echoed back above the doubts. Take up your cross, and follow me. John indeed carried a heavy cross to follow Jesus—the cross of his own arrest and later beheading. John didn’t see liberty again in his earthly life. But by faith he was already on the way of the ransomed, prophesied in Isaiah 35, our OT reading. His liberty, the opening of his prison, would be when he stepped into the heavenly Zion. There the tension of an anxious heart living in the now-but-not-yet of the present world, dissolved into the joy of God’s promise revealed.
Like John, aren’t we often stuck in the tension of the now, but not yet, and feel as though some, but not all of God’s promises have been realized for us? What words of God’s promise do we long to have fulfilled for us? When do we ache in the silence, with that old sinner in us doubting? And when the words of Christ, to “take up your cross and follow me” echo back into our mind, do we bow our heads in weak resignation, or do we lift them up with courage and resolution? And words of the prophet Isaiah resound louder as God urges us to courage: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious hear, ‘fear not!’” God will strengthen us for whatever is ahead on the road.
But only on the other side of fulfillment, when the full grand scope of God’s plan is revealed, will we see the victory and vindication of faith in Jesus. Only then will all the waiting have seemed like a light, momentary affliction, in comparison with the eternal weight of glory. Key to Jesus’ response—key to the courage He sent back to John, was the word, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus knew that not everyone would receive Him. Why? His kingdom is marked by values that are reverse from the world. Do we take offense at Him? Do we miss His kingdom’s goal? Are we ready to help and serve the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor as valued and treasured members of Christ’s kingdom? While we cannot heal them, as Christ did, we can certainly proclaim the good news as He did. And are we ready to abandon the world’s values, that glorify celebrity, fine fashion, and royalty as the tokens of greatness, but are blind to the greatness of a simple, roughly dressed, plain-spoken prophet of the truth like John the Baptist? A world that values popularity and fame over truth? The world still can’t see or grasp his greatness, because he doesn’t qualify in any way for the “in-crowd”. John remains an “outsider” today—but he got the highest commendation that anyone could be given—that of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he was great not for his own sake, but for Jesus’, whose way he prepared.
To see and recognize the greatness of Jesus Christ, and to have confidence in His coming kingdom, is to get in on the blessings of His kingdom. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” Jesus said. The word in Greek for “offended” is scandalidzo—where we get the word “scandalized”. It can refer to something that causes a person to stumble, figuratively, or to take offense. The NT also tells us that Jesus’ kingdom was a scandal or offense because of the cross of Jesus Christ, which seemed inexplicable to the Jews. People also took offense at the attention that Jesus gave to the needy and the outcasts, to even prostitutes and sinners, who didn’t seem to belong in the kingdom. God’s lavish mercy is an affront to some, who think that some are undeserving—forgetting that in truth we all are undeserving.
But what are the blessings of receiving the kingdom and not being offended by Jesus? Some are obvious right from the passage from Isaiah—Jesus leads the redeemed to walk on the Way of Holiness, where there is a stream of ransomed people flooding home to Zion, the heavenly city, and everlasting joy is upon their heads. This path leads to gladness and joy, while sorrow and sighing flee away. Their path, their course, is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life—and He leads us in the direction of joy and gladness—while sorrow and sighing are hurrying away in the other direction. 
But Jesus first came to us on our way of sadness, bent down by cares and sighing, and He carried all our sins and griefs to His cross. He came to paths made straight by the preaching of repentance, and He opened to us this new Way of Holiness. The path of following Him. And as His death on the cross sent our sins and sorrows one way, His risen and glorified hands lead us the other way, on the way to forgiveness and life. And so the paths of gladness and joy and sorrow and sighing diverge. For this life they continue close by for a while, so that we sometimes doubt when instead we should set our confidence on Jesus, the Promised One. But Christ sends to us His Word that preaches faith into our anxious hearts and strength into our drooping hands and weak knees. And His Word sets the expectations for what the kingdom of Christ will bring. Still in time, we wait for its fulfillment, but the nearer we approach that heavenly glory in Zion, the more the singing and joy will resound and echo back and forth over the ransomed of the Lord, who truly are blessed to take no offense at Jesus!
Who are we who travel with You? On our way through life to death? Women, men, the young, the aging, wakened by the Spirit’s breath! At the font You claim and name us, born of water and the Word; At the table still You feed us, Host us as our risen Lord! LSB 476:4.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1.      What might have been the reason for John’s questioning whether Jesus was “the one who is to come?” Matthew 11:2. How might his circumstances have tested his faith? What prophecy about the Christ might he particularly be hoping would be fulfilled, but Jesus did not mention? Isaiah 61:1.

2.      When do we similarly face circumstances that cause us to question or doubt? How did Jesus prove He is the Christ, the promised one, to John’s disciples (and us)? What signs of prophecy did He fulfill? Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1. In addition to those signs that were definitely prophesied, what additional miracles of Jesus were named here?

3.      What about Jesus’ life and ministry would have caused offense to some? Matthew 11:6, 18-19; 12:9-14; 12:22-24, 33-37. What is the blessing in not being offended by Jesus’, but believing Him? Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

4.      Jesus speaks of John’s role as prophet and the greatest of prophets because he prepared the way of the Lord. Compare very carefully the quotations of the prophecies in Matthew 3:3 and 11:10, and the original words in the Old Testament (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1). Who is the highway for in Isaiah 40? Whose way is being prepared in Malachi 3? What does this say about who Jesus is?

5.      If measuring greatness among men, why does John rank as the greatest? Why is this human greatness still far short of the lowest place a person can occupy in heaven? Psalm 84. How does God’s order of salvation reverse the values of this world? Luke 1:46-55

Monday, December 09, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "Wouldn't be the same..."

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Each year as we reach the season of Advent, John the Baptist greets us as a familiar figure in the readings. He is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” Besides having a full beard, he probably has nothing in common with Santa Claus. And he gets far less notice. But in the Christian church, John teaches us far more about the proper celebration of Advent and Christmas than does Santa Claus. But we often need reminders that the Christmas celebrated by the world can so easily distract from and obscure how Christ is the heart and reason for the season. Are we aware of what makes Christmas distinctively Christian, or do we secretly prefer the version that is all about over-spending, self-indulgence, and all the holiday trappings, but is devoid of Jesus?
            We all grew up with various memories and associations of what makes the holidays nostalgic for us—whether that be certain traditions we keep, concerning our trees, or decorations, or if the Christmases we remembered were green in Hawaii or white with snow. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without _____.” And many of these nostalgic traditions are harmless and good. Nor should our celebration be free of festivity. But I’ve never heard: “Advent just wouldn’t be the same without John the Baptist.” Nor are we often eager to hear his message of repentance, with its strong dose of law and judgment. So what place does John and his message of repentance find in our celebration of Advent, in preparation and expectation for Christmas? Would Christmas be the same without repentance? Or could repentance possibly be the beginnings of a deeper and more profound joy?
            Back 2,000 years ago, when John the Baptist came preaching, he charged the atmosphere with expectation, wonder, and anticipation. It is right for our celebration of Christmas to be filled with the same. But why? For them, it was because for about 400 years, the people in the land of Israel were enduring a famine. Not a shortage of bread or water, but a famine of God’s Word, with no prophet of God appearing in Israel for some 400 years. And then out in the wilderness of Judea, outside of the urban centers and away from the Temple in Jerusalem, comes this man dressed like Elijah, the prophet of old. All of a sudden word gets out—people pour out of the cities and villages, and ears perk up to hear what this first prophet on the scene for 400 years, has to say. They had lived through a time of foreign oppression, wars and rebellions, and worst of all—silence from God. But now they were listening.
            John’s message revealed that momentous things were underway. The kingdom of heaven was at hand, and they were to prepare the way of the Lord. God was on His way. And the way to be ready was to repent. To turn away from sin, and be upright and ready for the long-expected Messiah or Christ. What would the coming of the Christ be like? First of all, He would be greater than John, and John was quick to remind that he was just a herald, a forerunner, a messenger whose role it was to step out of the way once the One of far greater honor arrived. Once Jesus came on scene, John declared, “He must increase, I must decrease.” Jesus’ greater honor consisted in that He was God in human flesh
            But John also warned that the coming of Jesus would involve judgment. That the unfruitful trees would be thrown into the fire, and that Jesus would sort between the righteous and the unrighteous—the wheat being gathered into His barn, and the chaff being thrown into the fire. Taken together with Jesus’ later teaching in the parables, this seems to be referring to Jesus’ final judgment at the end of times.
            Today, do we suffer so much from a famine of God’ Word, or rather that it’s available in abundance, but people neglect to listen? Are we entertained and preoccupied to the point of total distraction, where having hearts made ready for Christ is the last thing on our “to do list,” if it’s on there at all? So John again comes on the scene this Advent, not to steal the spotlight from Jesus, but to shine it on Him, and to prepare us by repentance for His coming. The way we prepare for Christ’s coming is by repenting from our sins, and watching eagerly for His coming.
            Was John’s first audience ready for Christ’s coming? Apparently the religious leaders assumed they were, but John called out their hypocrisy and called them to live lives that matched their words, and not to count on their ancestry putting them into God’s good favor. Do we secretly want to avoid John’s rebuke, because we come half-heartedly to Christ? Are our hearts longing for His kingdom? Or are we unwilling to confront the hypocrisy in our own lives? The apostle Peter tells us, “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2). Thirst for the spiritual milk and growth into salvation!
            While no one but Christ can be truly free of any shades of hypocrisy, that is no excuse for indulging, ignoring, or permitting it. Hypocrisy is always unbecoming of Christians, as we are called to the pureness of life in Christ. So repentance is the order of the day, and the order of the season, for that matter. John the Baptist shows up, not to spoil our Christmas celebrations and ruin the holiday cheer, but to cut through the trappings and expose what’s in our hearts, so that we may be ready for Jesus’ coming kingdom. Ready for the kingdom of light that drives back the works of darkness—even from us. Ready for the kingdom that has no room for hypocrisy and malice, but the kingdom in which we are called to sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8).
            Key to John’s message was that we “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The mark of the sincere Christian life is that it strives to bear good fruit. Deed follows word. But how is this possible? How does the Christian who has repented and turned from their hypocrisy, or who has put away their former life, get a fruit-bearing life? One thing is clear, that our own efforts continually fail us. But Jesus taught where true fruit comes from. He teaches that He is the Vine, and we are the branches, and the branches that remain in Him bear much fruit. “Apart from me”, Jesus says, “you can do nothing.” In Christ the Vine, we will bear fruit. If we remove ourselves from the Vine, we’ll be like a garden hose unscrewed from the faucet, that quickly runs out of water. Fruit-bearing comes from remaining in Christ and His Word and Sacraments, and experiencing the constant pruning and growth of repentance and forgiveness.
            Yes, because the reason we prepare for Christ’s coming by repentance, is because His is a kingdom of forgiveness. As John would later say of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John the Baptist is a timely figure for our season because he reminds us that Jesus came into the world to bear our sins. The Christmas season is filled with many sentiments of warmth, peace, love—and these are indeed proper to welcome the Christ-child. But Advent and Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without repentance. For without this, we miss the real reason Jesus came into the world. As the book of Galatians tells us, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
            Without repentance, we would stand in the company of those whom John called to “bear fruits of repentance,” and be called to examine our hearts. With repentance, we can come with those who confessing their sins in baptism, looked expectantly to their future place in Jesus’ kingdom. For them, and for we who have repented and believed, the future coming of Christ in judgment is not something we fear, but rather we wait for it with joy. When Christ comes with His winnowing fork to gather the wheat into His barn and throw the chaff into the fire, we place all our confidence in Him who redeemed us from under the law and gave us the adoption as sons in His kingdom. Because His kingdom is a kingdom of repentance and forgiveness, and no one who comes to Him in repentance will be turned away.
            Gathered as wheat into His barn. At Jesus’ second coming, He will not come as a child, but as the King of Kings, coming to bring us to the place that He has prepared for us. He will take us there as wheat gathered into His barn, with our sins left far behind at His cross. While you are making your holiday preparations this season, make sure that above all else your heart is ready by repentance for Christ’s forgiveness. You’ll survive the season even with some unfinished items on your “to-do list”—but repentance is something we can never put off or postpone for later. But with a repentant heart and a joyful expectation, we will indeed be ready to celebrate the festival with sincerity and truth. Jesus’ kingdom is among us now, in His Word and Sacraments, but it is also ever nearer to the day when He will come in all His glory. So come, let us worship and receive the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and may we become fruitful branches of His Living Vine! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

  1. Who was John the Baptist, and what was his role? Read the prophecies about his coming in Malachi 3:1-7 and Isaiah 40:3-5. What would his coming be like?

  1. Why did John’s preaching move the people to repentance and to confess their sins? In preparation for what? Why was the wilderness and the region of the Jordan River a significant site for this baptismal preaching? Read Numbers 13-14, Joshua 1-4. How had these sites played into Israel’s redemption history? What promised land do we hope for? How do we enter through water into God’s kingdom? 1 Corinthians 10.

  1. What sort of hypocrisy did John encounter in those who came to be baptized? What did he call them to do, to correct this? Why was their ancestry no defense or assurance? John 8:31-59; Galatians 3:7-9. What must we do when we are caught in hypocrisy? 1 Peter 2:1-2. How can one become a “fruitful tree?” John 15:1-11

  1. What sort of new life does baptism move us toward and equip us for? How does it equip us for this new life? Luke 3:10-14; Colossians 3:1-17.

  1. Jesus’ baptism, which replaced John’s, insured the gift of the Holy Spirit. John gives way to Jesus, who must become greater (John 3:30). How does Jesus’ ministry create “wheat” to be saved, and “chaff” to perish in unquenchable fire? Luke 8:4-15; John 3:16-21.