Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Reflections on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"--New Year's newsletter article

Firstly, I hope everyone had a great celebration of Christmas this year, and that you remembered to be thankful for God’s many gifts as the year 2017 draws to its conclusion, and 2018 is just beginning. This Christmas season I developed a special fascination for the story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. It’s a perennial classic, ever since 1843, when Dicken’s wrote it in a flurry of inspiration, just before Christmas—reviving his slumping writing career and inspiring new attitudes about Christmas even in himself. But I didn’t realize it has been adapted into cartoon or film well over 20 times. Vaguely remembering several versions I’d seen in childhood, and the iconic images of Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserliness and later transformation to hilarious generosity (note—the Greek word for “cheerful giver” is hilarity), I decided to read the original work and watch several of the best rated versions.

I haven’t managed to see the latest film, but presently in theaters is a different twist on the story, titled: “The Man Who Invented Christmas”, which is about the author Dickens and his inspiration to write the story. While the title (and the title of the book it’s based on), make an overly exaggerated claim—apparently Dickens’ novel did have an enormous influence in reviving and expanding the celebration of Christmas. According to one site, for nearly 200 years prior to the 1843 publication, the celebration of Christmas had severely languished in Puritan England, and there was almost no joy or festivity, Christmas carols, and Christmas trees were unknown. (They were however, popular in Germany, which is credited with inventing the Christmas tree—and Luther with first lighting it). However, after the immediate popularity of “A Christmas Carol”, traditions like Christmas trees, roast turkeys, Christmas cards, and even a Christmas carol-writing renaissance all followed in England and also America. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also played a part in reintroducing and re-legitimizing the celebration of Christmas among the English.

Layer upon these facts that Dickens was already acutely aware of the crushing poverty and abuse that existed in London, and was quite vocal about it. He had just given a speech about society’s responsibility to educate and care for the poor, who, in Dickens’ words, were forced to walk a path “of jagged flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance.” Another part of his inspiration is that Dickens spent long hours at night walking the London streets, sometimes as far as 20 miles of walking. In addition to the poor, suffering child Tiny Tim, depicted in the story, there are also two orphans shown to Ebenezer Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Present, who he calls “Ignorance” and “Want.” They are ragged, famished, and “wolfish”, where they should have had their features fill with “graceful youth.”

The story itself is also held together by a strong Christian worldview (even if Dickens was critical of Christians in his other works, as I’ve read), and the idea that the truth and beauty of Jesus’ birth should transform even the stoniest of hearts. Though the references to Scripture and the Gospel are brief, they are crucial to the story, and I’ll list a few examples. Perhaps familiar from most film adaptations, is the appeal of the two gentlemen for a charitable gift from Scrooge for the poor. Scrooge sardonically inquires about the prisons and workhouses and whether they were still in operation. They reply in defense and appeal that these institutions “scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude” and they appeal for charity to buy meat and drink and means of warmth for the poor, because at Christmas “Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” Still, Scrooge is immovable.

Also, the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley relays regrets of countless missed opportunities in life for Christian charity to work “kindly in its little sphere” and lamenting that in life he always walked through “crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise[d] them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode[.] Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” Then Scrooge gets a parting glimpse at miserable ghosts who “sought to interfere for good in human matters, and had lost the power forever.” While the Bible never conceives of or allows for the idea of wandering ghosts, as presented in the story, it’s clear that Dickens’ point is to inspire individual charity, generosity, and general involvement for the good of others while we have opportunity here in this life, and that this is a distinctly Christian spirit to do so.

Though not a direct reference to Scripture, one of the searching moments for Scrooge in the story is when the Spirit of Christmas Past conducts him to the scene of his ex-fiancĂ©e breaking off their engagement because she has witnessed the idol of Gain has consumed and transformed Scrooge, causing all of his “nobler aspirations” to “fall off one by one.” Scrooge’s idolatry of Greed, and the rebuke he receives from her, is also underpinned by a Biblical worldview.

Another tender moment is when Bob Cratchit (Scrooge’s clerk) comes home from church on Christmas Day, carrying Tiny Tim on his church. When asked about how Tiny Tim behaved, Bob replies, “As good as gold”… and then shares how Tim had explained that he “hoped the  people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made the lame beggars walk and blind men see.” This obvious reference to Christ and his miracles also stands out as a powerful statement. The Spirit of Christmas Present also bestows a special blessing so that even and especially the poorest homes, like the Cratchits’, are filled with joy and thankfulness on Christmas. This scene also becomes the moment for the Spirit to quote Scrooge’s heartless words, wishing that the poor would just die and “decrease the surplus population.” Quoting those words back to Scrooge haunts him with his coldness, and he is “overcome with penitence and grief”. The Spirit demands that Scrooge consider What and Where the surplus is, and begs him to consider whether he will indeed decide “what men shall live and what men shall die.”

Later in the story there is a passing mention of being children at Christmas, for “its mighty Founder was a child himself.” And the conclusion of the story wraps up with the remarkable transformation of Scrooge into a generous, compassionate, and caring man, who helps to elevate the status of his employee Bob and the family and shows manifest joy to all around him as he truly learns to “keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” And Dicken’s ends the carol: “May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God Bless Us Every One!”

While the mentions of Christ are subtle, and perhaps the festivities and traditions that were popularized through the book were not all specifically Christian—we do know and can agree with Dickens that the birth of Christ is well celebrated with joy, thankfulness, generosity, and a childlike spirit of humility and faith. It’s an inspiring story of transformation, and as the persistence of Scrooge’s nephew shows, love and good cheer may thaw even the coldest of hearts! May true CHRISTmas joy continued to transform and warm your hearts! 

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, for Christmas Day, "Follow God's Lead"

By God’s grace may I make the Word of God fully known to you, the mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now revealed to his saints…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim! (Colossians 1:25b-26, 27b-28a).
Today we focus on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s gospel always gets all the attention with the shepherds, angels, the birth, and the baby Jesus in the manger. Luke’s gospel certainly inspired far more Christmas carols, with its beauty and poetry. But Matthew’s gospel is no less important, though perhaps it points a little more to the trouble and uncertainty of the time. Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, comes into sharper focus.
Under Jewish law at the time, Joseph was betrothed to Mary, which was the legally binding first step of marriage. A 1 year waiting period normally followed, and it was only after this that they entered the home together and consummated their marriage. During this time, Joseph discovered she was pregnant, and presumed she was unfaithful to him. But still being a compassionate and just man, he sought a quiet, legal exit from the marriage by divorce. It would have been the merciful thing to do had he been right. But God intervened by revealing to Joseph that she had in fact been faithful, but that this was a miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, in the Virgin Mary. What an astonishing revelation and relief, but at the same time such an enormous responsibility! God revealed: “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.” To bear any child is a responsibility that should make any parent tremble—as life so tender and precious is placed in their hands. But to also be the protector of God’s Son, whose very life would come under threat by King Herod, just a short time after His birth! This was a high and weighty duty placed upon Joseph! Joseph had to rise to the task given him.
Just stepping back for a moment, notice that his own human reason and strength perceived the situation wrongly, and it took God’s revelation of the truth, to intervene and steer Joseph’s actions down the right path. And he was greatly blessed by following God’s lead. Think of the other times that this same effect took place around the birth of Jesus. Mary also was puzzled and confused about how this childbirth would happen, without a father, and yet believed and trusted God’s angel, to let it be according to his word. And she and the world are greatly blessed because they followed God’s lead. Wise Men, who will come next in Matthew’s Gospel, had to be directed by not only the star, but also by those who knew the prophecies, to find the right location to worship the baby Jesus. Without taking God’s lead from the Word of Scripture, they would not have found Jesus, and carried that joyous news back to their homeland. The shepherds also, were merely doing their duties in the field and would not have known or come to worship Jesus except angels intervened and told them. If not for God’s revelation and following God’s lead, they wouldn’t have come to Jesus in the manger, and been carried away with joy, telling everyone what they had seen.
In Joseph’s case, and certainly often in our own case as well, we can mistake a situation. He saw a major wrench thrown into his plans, and was set to abandon that course. We face many similar points of doubt and uncertainty in life; and when we do, are we turning to God for guidance and direction? In our sinfulness we may doubt or second guess God’s plans, because our reason and strength are too limited. Things are not always as they seem, but we are always wise to take things to God in prayer, and seek His perspective on life. If we submit our lives to God, as Joseph, Mary, the wise men and shepherds did, we can better follow God’s lead.
But sometimes from our human perspective, I think we second guess God and constantly wonder things how much God has really taken this or that into consideration. “Well what about those who haven’t heard the Gospel? What about the threats and dangers to those who confess Jesus, but live among those who hate His Name?” We trouble ourselves with hypothetical scenarios—some realistic, others not. But we always ignore the same obvious point—that God who is omniscient, who knows all things, has taken all things into consideration. How could we think that God hasn’t taken all things into consideration? God’s good plan, His merciful mission of redemption, His message of joy is going to work exactly what He sends it out to accomplish—obstacles or no. God knows the outcome of all things, so none of it strikes God as a surprise—none of it could leave God reflecting, “I wish I had thought of that.”
Maybe it’s because we so often see our own human plans go awry, and because we’re so familiar with the very obstacles and opposition to the Gospel that Jesus Himself taught about and predicted—that we sometimes become doubters. But we have to know that God really does have the big picture under wraps, and that God has clearly made known to us His will for salvation—His desire that all would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; His provision for that salvation to come only through His Son Jesus; and His command for us to carry that message to every corner of the earth. Are there many “unknowns” to us, about how and where all people will receive this message? Yes. Are they “unknown” to God? Not at all. We can have faith that God has all things in consideration.
If by unbelief we do not believe that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God, born of the Virgin, we will miss the Savior from our sins. If, by unbelief, we do not confess our sins and lay them upon Jesus, we will miss the rescue that God sent down from heaven. If, by unbelief, we keep Jesus from entering our hearts, we will miss the love of the Savior meant to pour through us to everyone in our lives. Unbelief can block the Lord’s way in our hearts, or faith can be the channel through which Jesus enters in to do His work, to save His people from their sins.
Like Joseph and Mary, we only need to be content to do what God directs us to do, and to watch His plan unfold in Christ Jesus. Though their part in the plan came 2,000 years ago, and Jesus walked the earth and died and rose from the dead almost 2,000 years ago, the plan is still unfolding and working, all across the globe as Christians in hundreds of languages and thousands of cities around the globe are celebrating in many tongues the birth of Our Savior this day. Their praise, their carols sung to the Lord of Christmas, are proof that God’s plan of salvation is succeeding and working all over the earth. As a favorite evening hymn sings: “As o’er each continent and island the dawn leads on another day, the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.” (886:3). God’s church never sleeps, as the daylight circles the globe and wakes new Christians to worship, joy, and praising of God—likewise God’s kingdom stands and grows forever till all creation returns to worship Him. God’s salvation plan is coming to success, even when it is partly or even mostly hidden from our eyes.
In any case, without guidance from God, and the illumination of His Word, we would be blind to His coming, and blind as for how to respond. That these human actors in the story surrounding Jesus responded to God’s Word and direction, meant that they became part of the story of salvation, and became witnesses and participants in God’s plan. While human action played a role that was not insignificant—it was God’s action alone that was indispensable. God had led the prophets through the ages to reveal, piece by piece, the clues to His glorious plan of salvation. God had orchestrated the events of history so that the circumstances would be right for His Son’s birth. God had witnessed the bleak sinful condition of humanity and responded to our call for help by formulating a plan that would save the world from our sins while at the same time fully maintaining His justice and mercy. And for all those multitudes of people who were and are blind to the need for a Savior from sin, God sent His Son so meekly, so lowly, and with such tenderness to call all people to repentance and His free gift of salvation.
God is calling us also to be witnesses and participants in God’s plan. He’s not finished writing the story of salvation—not until every last name is written in the Book of Life. God is drawing us to this Son Jesus, who He sent to “save his people from their sins.” We are God’s people, by the waters of Holy Baptism, where He names and claims us as His own. We are God’s children as Jesus shed His blood on the cross to redeem us, to adopt us as sons and daughters of His kingdom. And we are God’s children who have Emmanuel—God with us—as Christ in you is the mystery, hidden for ages, but now revealed to us.

By our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, and sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. Just like God had to intervene in Joseph’s life, to enlighten him to God’s plan of salvation, and his small part in it, so also God preaches His Word into our lives, so that we may know this Jesus as our Lord, so that we may know our small part in God’s plan of salvation. First of all as receivers of a great and worthy gift—the priceless gift of our redemption and rescue from sin and death. But secondly as those who follow God’s lead, trusting in His good plan—even when much of it is unseen to us—but following God’s lead to live out our lives faithfully serving those whom He has given to us. Serving our friends and neighbors, our employers or employees, our community, our family—whomever God has placed in our lives to serve. We follow God’s lead, trusting that He has a good plan, that He has taken all things into consideration, and that above all He sent down to earth Jesus, to save His people from their sins. Covered in the forgiveness of Jesus, robed in His innocence by faith, fed by His body and blood to strengthen and nourish us, we know that life is good, following God’s lead. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 & Hebrews 1:1-6, for Christmas Eve, "Angels Help us to Adore Him"

The Savior is Born! He is born in a manger! As we celebrate Christmas, one of the parts of the story that most captures our attention is the angels. But it’s very important to point out that the angels have a serving role in the story—angels never point or draw attention to themselves, but only to Jesus. One of our hymns sings: “Angels, help us to adore Him; you behold Him face to face.” The word “angel” means “messenger”—and this is just what they do—bring the joyful message(s) of God to us, and help us to worship God—because they see and know God face to face. They know and see more than we do, but they still do not know everything, as only God does. Today, the angels will help us to adore, or worship Jesus, as we listen to them glorify the Son of the Most High, and join in with our songs and praises.
Hebrews 1 was one of our readings today. It says Jesus was blessed by God with a name that is far superior to, and more excellent than the angels. God never said to any of the angels: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” but Psalm 2, God says it about Jesus, His Son. God would be His Father, and He is His Son. The angels are glorious; angel decorations are found everywhere; we sing about “Angels We Have Heard on High” and our kids even dress as angels, to tell the Christmas story. Angels seem glorious to us, and we join them in the joyful duty of telling the Good News about Jesus—but their glory is far lesser than the Son. It is to Him they sing: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” or “Glory to God in the Highest.” The Son has far greater glory, even lying in the humble straw bed of the manger. Even as smelly, lowly shepherds who have tended their flocks all day and night, are the first worshippers to greet His holy birth. However lowly the circumstances of Jesus’ birth—this is hiding the great glory that is visible to God and the angels above.
Interesting that the book of 1 Peter tells us that one of the things that angels didn’t fully know, and neither did the old prophets of Scripture, was the “when” of God’s plan of salvation, and “ who” the Savior would be. The prophets searched the very Scriptures, which by God’s design they had a hand in writing—and the angels also “long[ed] to look” into the good news of salvation (1 Peter 1:10-12). They had a curiosity to discover the who and when of salvation. So it’s no surprise that they burst out singing with joy when Jesus is actually born. The questions were beginning to be answered! The who and when was unfolding! And they share their excitement with the shepherds and point them the right direction to find this “Who” and see the Savior born in the stable.
What do the angels tell us about who Jesus is? Gabriel tells Mary that “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Who is the Most High? None other than God! That Mary’s Son would be called God’s Son had to throw Mary for a loop—but she did not presume that she knew better than God’s plan or design—but instead humbly accepted her calling. It’s a marvel and a mystery, but God joined Himself to human flesh in His Son Jesus. He would conceive this Holy Child in the womb of the Virgin Mary—no man would be His father, but God is His true Father.
Gabriel goes on to tell her that “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Did these words puzzle her, or make sense? They refer back to God’s promises 1,000 years before to King David, that He would establish David’s throne and make His kingdom to last forever. Problem for Israel was, they hadn’t had a king on the throne in 700 years. And the kings of Israel before then, and the kings of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans who ruled over Jerusalem in 700 years since—they both were a long succession of political dysfunction. Or more importantly, unbelief toward God, and the unjust rule that naturally followed after such unbelief. Whether ungodly kings like Ahaz, or no Israelite king at all—whether the semi-just rule of foreign King’s like Cyrus, or the tyranny and bloodshed of Greek and Roman rulers—the Jews knew no rulers whom were godly and just. They had no prospects of the throne of David being restored to them.
But they did have God’s promise. God had said these words to David, and was now repeating them to the humble Virgin Mary. She was not a queen or royalty. No one was looking to her to bear a prince to take the throne. She was just a descendant of David, a peasant girl living a simple life in Nazareth—away from the power centers of Jerusalem. But it was to her, nevertheless, that the angel reaffirmed God’s old promise to King David. Promises of a Son to rule on His throne and establish the kingdom forever—promises now being delivered at long last to Israel. And as she delivered that child Jesus into the world, the earth received its King.
King Jesus is unlike any other king—He didn’t seek traditional forms of power; no armies or even bands of revolutionaries. He did not seek power through political platforms, manipulating crowds or seeking office. He did not even seek power through the traditional religious authorities, such as the Sanhedrin or the High Priest, to gain the backing of the Temple. Rather, Jesus claimed a kingdom, and a base of subjects or citizens, who were “poor in spirit”, who were “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, who were humble like children—for theirs  is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus claimed followers who meekly received the kingdom of God through His Word and teaching, and didn’t require the power, prestige, position and honor of the world, but sought after the higher righteousness of God’s kingdom. And so the “forever kingdom” Jesus came to rule and to establish in the line of David, was no traditional kingdom with flags, thrones, armies, popular movements or territorial boundaries, but a spiritual kingdom that to this day has been spreading all over the earth. This kingdom never ends, but grows until the day when Jesus judges the living and the dead, and unites all power and authority under Himself. His kingdom advances not through traditional methods and forms of power, but through the simplicity of His Word and truth transforming hearts and setting us free from the slavery of sin and lies.
So when some poor and lowly shepherds were minding their own business in the fields at night, it was once again an angel who came to tell them of the arrival of this King and promised Savior. Saying: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, and Micah prophesied it would also be the birthplace of the ruler, the Messiah. And so Jesus was born there, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy. Interestingly, Jesus was not the only one laying claim to the title “Savior” or “Lord” in those days. The very Caesar Augustus mentioned in our reading, who called for the census, also tried to claim the titles of “Savior” and “Lord.” As one of the most powerful emperors on earth, he believed he was a divine ruler, and should be worshipped as a son of the gods. The incredible pride and arrogance of the Roman emperors, with their incredibly rich lifestyles and displays of power, couldn’t show a sharper contrast to Jesus who was born, with the true and rightful claim to those titles “Savior”, “Christ”, and “Lord.” His birth was like an average peasant child. His guests were lowly animals and shepherds. His birth chamber was humbler than any king. But only He had the rightful claim to those titles.
Angels knew it then and there, as they burst out in multitude, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Angels saw the glory of the One and Only, whom God the Father calls “Son.” Angels saw the True Sovereign, the True King of all Creation, laying in humble estate. No such song did they sing for any other human ruler. No such praise did they lavish on any other royalty, but only to the baby whose glory was here disguised to human eyes, but not to theirs. They help us adore Him because they see Him face to face.
The glory of Jesus would remain hidden, peeking out only briefly at various key moments in His life. A glimpse of His childhood genius in understanding the Word of God, at the Temple. A glimpse His divinity at His baptism, God’s voice declaring; “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” A glimpse His radiant glory seen only by 3 select disciples, on the Mount of Transfiguration. Little glimpses of glory through signs and miracles that made crowds marvel and religious leaders puzzle and scratch their heads. But Jesus’ glory would be “kept under wraps” for His most important sign and glorious miracle—His death on the cross for our sins, and His resurrection from the dead. This was His crowning glory. And when Jesus ascended into heaven and was seated at God’s right hand, He is crowned as the Forever King, ruling over the throne of David, now lifted up to the heavens.

The glory hidden at King Jesus’ birth—proclaimed by angels, and seen by those with eyes of faith to see it, is a glory for all Jesus’ subjects and citizens to know and to praise. The exceptional Son of God, far above the angels, far above all earthly powers, but who did not despise the lowly life on the very earth He created. Who did not despise a peasant’s birth in a manger, or to crawl on the dust of the earth as a baby, or to learn His lessons as an ordinary child, or to grow up as a mature man, so He could teach of the Greatest Kingdom that has ever existed and will ever exist—the Kingdom of Heaven, which is already among us by hearing and believing Jesus’ Word. And we see the exceptionalism of King Jesus, who did not despise His death on the cross, but did it to secure His kingdom and our place in it—and while He reigns far above the heavens—He remains near to us as His Word and Promises—near to us as His gifts of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the proclamation of His Word. Near to us as to hear and answer our prayers. We have such a King! Let us gladly bow down to Him and praise Him together with all the angels and the heavenly hosts! Amen. 

Sermon on Psalm 96, for Advent 4 Midweek, "Disbanded Choir"

Sermon by Pastor Paul Roschke, 12-20-17
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday Pastor Schneider’s sermon on Isaiah helped us to watch for ‘doublets’:  “comfort, comfort” and “double for all her sins”.  Tonight we had a triplet:  3 times we read Psalm 96.  The first reading was from 1st Chronicles which included much of Psalm 96.  The second time, a cantor and a pianist helped us sing parts of it, and we just now read it together for a 3rd time.  
But King David, who is believed to be the author of Psalm 96, had a choir of 4,000 Levites to help the Israelites sing.  The first occasion for singing Psalm 96 was reported in the 1st Chronicles passage that we read earlier - when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into a tent in Jerusalem.  And then, after the temple was built by King Solomon, every morning and every evening, a portion of the Levitical choir gathered on the temple steps for the worship service.  The Levitical choir sang Psalm 96, not to God, but to the people.  The message of their song is not in the indicative, but rather in the imperative mood.  The imperative mood forms commands or requests.  Sing (a new song), bless (God’s name), tell (of His salvation), declare (God’s glory), ascribe (glory to God), worship (the Lord).  All are commands.
Luther writes in Reading the Psalms with Luther:  “The 96th psalm is a prophecy of the kingdom of Christ in the world, in which should be nothing but joy and praise.”  Verses 1-9 tell the people to sing a new song that proclaims the Lord’s victory, and the last 4 verses announce and celebrate His coming, his Advent.  
When we read Scripture, we do well to read what is actually written there, not what we imagine or assume.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  It’s not one shepherd and a large flock of sheep, but rather,  one shepherd and one sheep.  One-on-one with a teacher or a shepherd is as good as it gets.  We receive individual attention.  
Or, “he prepares a table before me.”  Normally in the King’s banquet hall, he is seated and his servants would prepare for him.  But in Psalm 23, we sit down and the King waits on us.”  Unexpected.  And it shows how deeply we come under His care and protection.
So, what is it about Psalm 96 that is surprising or unusual or catches our attention?  We miss it because we’re too familiar with it and we don’t see what is unexpected.  (Pause)  In the middle of being told to worship the Lord with singing and celebration, there are not two, but three mentions of God’s judgment – right alongside the joy.  (verses 10 and 13)  
Now if there’s any thought that makes us tremble, it’s the thought of God’s judgment.  Forty pages later from where your finger is in the hymnal, the Litany says:  “Help us, good Lord…. In the hour of death; and in the day of judgment.”  Or, our Lord’s words:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak…” (Matt. 12:36).  Or the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25).  The Goats are condemned entirely for their sins of omission.  That is, the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things done, but on those things that we never did, and maybe never even dreamed of doing.  No one’s conscience escapes.
So, it’s an unexpected surprise when we read (verses 12 and 13):  “… let the field exult, and everything in it!  Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.  How could the psalmist place joy right next to judgment?  
The prophet Joel: “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming” (Joel 2:1 ESV).  How can it be that God’s holy judgment is an occasion for universal rejoicing?
We look for the last judgment on the last day.  And yet, the Last Judgment occurs for us when? – every Sunday.  Each Sunday we come to God the Father, who is the judge of all.  
But He’s a God with a difference.  Because instead of God condemning us, rejecting us because we are sinners, what does He do?  He is the judge that pardons us, forgives us, justifies us.  
That’s why we begin the Divine Service each Sunday with Confession and Absolution.  Page 167 in our hymnal.  The Absolution is the sentence that God gives to us on the Last Day.  And we already anticipate that here and now.
God, the judge, says the following things:  you are guilty, you are condemned to death because you are guilty, but you are pardoned, forgiven.  The verdict is guilty, the sentence is death, but your punishment is life.  You are pardoned for my Son’s sake.
So Jesus says:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (Jn. 5:24 ESV).  St. Paul says “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
End of the World
In a sense, the end of the world comes for us every Sunday.  The last judgment and the final verdict of God comes every Sunday.  We come into the presence of God, the Judge, and He pardons us.  In the Absolution the pastor speaks for God Himself:  “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins.”  This is the pardon that God gives to us on the last day.
We’ve got the Last Day behind us and we have only good things ahead of us.  And not only good things for us.  All through Psalm 96 it speaks of “the nations”, “the peoples.”  The psalmist commissions all of us to invite all the people we know to church next Sunday.  Not to receive the bad part of God’s judgment, but to receive all of the good things.  

2000 years ago, after the Incarnation of the Messiah, the temple was torn down and Christ’s resurrected body replaced it.  The Old Testament Levitical choir was disbanded.  The temple and the singers are gone.  So with God’s judgment already behind us, the church doesn’t sing its own song.  It sings a new song that has been given to it.  It is the song of David, the Psalter.  In few days it will be “Glory to God in the Highest.”  And tonight it is the Magnificat, the song of Mary.  We blend our voices, with our cantor, and with the heavenly cantors (the angels), and with the One in our midst, Jesus the Messiah. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-8, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Double Comfort"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Although 2,700 years is quite a long shot from “forever”—it is still a respectable distance from which we can see and recognize the enduring power and comfort of God’s word, which stands forever. 2,700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words of comfort in Isaiah 40, which still “speak to our heart” today. They speak of a double comfort for all that God’s people have suffered for their sins. The passage also speaks of John the Baptist as the herald who would announce the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord who would traverse the wilderness and reveal His glory to us. The Word of the Lord stands forever, bringing a message of solid comfort and hope, across the centuries, despite all the changes and chances of life while several dozens of generations have flourished and then withered away like the flowers and grasses of the field.
In human life, whenever we extend a gesture of comfort—it logically follows upon some need for encouragement. Someone is facing difficulty or hardship of some sort, and we respond with a hug, a prayer, a sympathy card, a sympathetic ear to listen to their troubles, words of encouragement, or whatever. Small gestures like those are usually warmly received. But we know or can envision situations where a person might refuse them, or gruffly say, “thanks, but no thanks”, or in some other way recoil or signal that they don’t need any help or want anything from us. They may have better or worse reasons for doing that, that we cannot judge, but we all can realize that in order to receive comfort, there has to be an openness, or even an emptiness to take it in. If we are full and need nothing, or perhaps hard and empty, the comfort is meaningless to us.
Sometimes it’s heartbreaking in life when you see someone who objectively needs help, but they stubbornly refuse it. Pride and individualism might carry us a long way in earthly matters, but there’s always a point where it exhausts itself, or proves insufficient for greater things in life, or we find that we are just out of our league with the problems we face. Pride and stubbornness can close the heart to God’s intervention, to God’s work—or alternatively, humility and repentance can acknowledge that we need God to enter in and the way is open.
Isaiah said that this was God’s chosen preaching theme for John the Baptist—the voice in the wilderness crying out: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. He would preach of a stony, rough, crooked, and thirsty desert, and how it needed to be leveled, straightened, smoothed and made ready for the entrance of the Lord. What desert? John wasn’t preparing for earth-moving operations and hiring contractors—he was talking about the condition of our human hearts, and the obstacles to the Lord’s entrance there. In one word: unrepentance. Unrepentance—or unwillingness to turn back to God, is the single unifying obstacle to the Lord entering to bring His comfort, His healing to His people. All our separate sins unify under the devil’s banner of unrepentance, and as long as unrepentance persists—take their stand against God. But if God by His Law hammers on that wall, and breaks through that dam of our damnable sin-pride, then He enters, not as an invading destroyer, but as the One who brings double comfort.
Maybe it helps to realize that Isaiah’s first audience in chapter 40 had already digested the first 39 chapters of the book, which had painted a pretty bleak picture of the fate of Israel. They had been hammered pretty thoroughly. They were going to be judged for their sins and taken into captivity by Babylon, because the message hadn’t gotten through. The prophet Jeremiah had said they were going to get a double measure of punishment and destruction for their wickedness, guilt, and idolatry (Jer. 16:18; 17:18). Things were definitely not looking up for them, and wouldn’t be anytime soon. So Isaiah 40 comes as a major hinge in the book—swinging from grim news of what lay ahead because of their sins, to the bright hope and anticipation that God would eventually relent and bring them a double portion of comfort for their sins. Isaiah 40:1–2 “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Israel had every reason to be humbled, empty, and to hunger and thirst for such comfort.
Do we? Are we laid low by our sins? Does the way to our heart look rough and stony, crooked and overgrown with brambles? Does God need to engage in some road-clearing operations? Does He need to hammer through some pride or sin making is last stand against Him; or is there a straight path for Him to enter in? Are we proud, stubborn, and closed to His entry, or do we survey our life and realize that we’ve reached the limits of our efforts, that our sinful choices are toxic? Do we admit that we are out of our league when it comes to facing the overgrowth our sins, or that the ominous fact of our own mortality is something we’re just not prepared to deal with? How we answer these questions has a lot to do with whether the double comfort of the Lord can enter in and do it’s healing work on us, or whether it will fall on deaf ears, and we persist instead in facing God’s judgment or warnings.
How can God speak comfort to us, and why a double comfort? “Her iniquity is pardoned” the Lord says. Iniquity is the objective guilt or debt of sin. It’s not just feeling guilty—it’s that we objectively are guilty before God. Our iniquity, or guilt, consists of all that we have done wrong, through a lifetime of sins and failures. Whether you own up to it or not, that guilt is still there, and God’s Enduring Word is clear that it has an eternal cost. It’s not a debt that can easily be made up, nor is it a debt that we have the means to repay. But God tells us that it is pardoned. How? “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus, the Lord, the One who traversed the dry deserts of human hearts to reveal His glory, went to an ugly, hideous cross—a place of hatred, shame, and contempt, and died there to pardon our iniquities. He bore in His body all the guilt of our sin so that we could hear that the debt has been paid. We have been pardoned! That we would not be faced with a double measure of destruction, but rather a double comfort!
This doubling of comfort and doubling of good news shows up in a couple of places. Today we sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel": a double invitation to God to come and be with us--and sang in the refrain the double: "Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come to you!" Today is “Gaudete” Sunday, also for “Rejoice!” Our responsive Introit features a double rejoicing! “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!” (Phil.4:4). Isaiah 61:7, speaking of the year of the Lord’s favor when Jesus comes, declares: “Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.” All that they have suffered for their sins will be a distant memory when the double portion of joy and blessing pours down from God! Another reason for double rejoicing! And finally, that prophecy from Zechariah 9:12 that announced Jesus’ coming on the humble donkey to bring righteousness and salvation to Jerusalem; this passage also declares: “return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” God acknowledges the hurt and pain His people have suffered—even if they have suffered it justly for their own faults. He acknowledges it, but even more He sends His Son to bring a double blessing, a double comfort, a double restoration.
And what about the sin that is out of our league to handle? Turn it over to Jesus, who is more than capable to deal with our sin problems—who already paid the price for them, but now also renews and sanctifies your life by dwelling with you. Comfort, comfort my people. That little pronoun “my” speaks volumes of God’s love and care for you. And what about the looming fact of our mortality? The clock is ticking on each one of us—as this very passage reminds us, “all flesh is like grace and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” We’ve talked about this several times in these recent weeks of Advent, that whether it’s our own mortality or the return of the Lord and the signs that anticipate that—Yes, the clock is running—but No it’s not a call for anxiety, fear, or gloom. Because we are secure on the eternal foundation of Jesus and His Word, because His Word endures forever, we look forward to our redemption with joy and hope. The grave does not intimidate us, because our hope is not in our own flesh, but in the Eternal Word of God, and in Jesus, the Risen One who defeated sin and the grave for us.
Are we open and ready for God’s double comfort and healing? You’ve heard and you know how to build the obstacles of unrepentance, pride, and the refusal of help that would prevent it—but you’ve also heard how earnest and loving our God is to enter in, and bring His comfort. This Advent season, as Christ approaches, humble your hearts, prepare the Way of the Lord, and rejoice as He enters in! Don’t just rejoice—rejoice doubly! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice! Rejoice that where sin has left its wake of devastation, no matter how severe, God earnestly desires to follow in and make straight paths to enter and reveal His glory. Jesus comes with His double comfort, to make this groaning creation new again, to replace our shame with a double portion of His blessing, to replace our dishonor with a double portion of His joy. God’s gifts are ready, and He is giving them to you freely and generously. Merry Christmas, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The book of Isaiah was written about 2,700 years ago. Why is its message still timely and comforting for us today? Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25. Meanwhile, what has continually changed throughout those 27 centuries?
  2. What are examples of common comforts given or received, and when is such comfort received or rejected? Why would people reject the comfort of God, or feel no need for it?
  3. What was the theme of John the Baptist’s preaching? Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 3:3-14. What does the crookedness, dryness, roughness, etc of this wilderness represent? How do we prepare and ready our hearts for the Lord’s coming?
  4. Isaiah 1-39 features strong messages of judgment against Israel for their idolatry and wickedness. How does Jeremiah 16:18 and 17:18 similarly describe what is due to them for their sin? How does this relate to the words of Isaiah 40:1-2? How is Isaiah 40 like a “hinge” that swings between the first and second halves of the book (hint: the change in the predominant message).
  5. Are we receptive and ready for the Lord’s coming? Are we humble, or proud and stubborn? If we are proud and stubborn, how do we face the challenges of our own sin and mortality?
  6. How has God objectively pardoned our iniquity? Isaiah 53:5. How does this bring double comfort?
  7. What other examples of doubling joy or comfort do you find in these passages? Isaiah 61:7; Zechariah 9:12; Philippians 4:4. How much do Christ’s gifts cost us? Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sermon on Psalm 24, for Advent Midweek 3, "The King of Glory"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. As we recited Psalm 24, we heard three questions asked, and the last one gets repeated. The first two questions appear together in vs. 3, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?” It’s asking who can approach God and come into His Temple. Not just anyone. Sin bars just anyone from approaching God’s holiness. Even the high priest of Israel was only able to enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement, after sacrifices had first been made for his own sin. The answer to the Psalm’s question of whom may enter is given in the next verse, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” So shall we ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place? Do we meet the test of clean hands, pure heart; not having any falseness in our soul or lies on our lips? And if we start asking, “How pure is pure?” Then we’ve already lost. There’s no amount of impurity or falsity that can survive before God. Sin is like gasoline before the fire of God’s holiness. Pure is pure. By definition pure means no impurities.
But if we don’t dare ascend the hill of the Lord on our own—if as the Bible says, our righteous deeds are like filthy rags, then how can we ever approach God? Fortunately the Psalm answers for us; look at verses 7-10 again. Someone does approach and enter in. Psalm 24:7–8 “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!” To get the poetic imagery of the Psalm, you have to visualize the great and mighty gates of the city walls of Jerusalem, or massive gates to the Temple complex coming alive, like some computer generated imagery (CGI) from the Lord of the Rings movies or something. The gates and doors are personified like some great sleeping giants that need to be wakened and stretched out or enlarged. The Psalm joyfully calls the gates to come alive, to open up, to wake up, to lift up their heads. Never before have these ancient doors welcomed such a royal dignitary. The guest they welcome is no ordinary person. Now they must make room for the King of Glory to enter in.
A few months ago we talked about this word “glory”, and said that glory comes to someone who does what no one else could or would do. The more exclusive or difficult the task, the greater the glory to the person. The King of Glory is an exceptional title, and therefore must be due an exceptional honor. Interestingly, this exact title, “King of Glory” shows up only in this Psalm. But the New Testament variant, “Lord of Glory” shows up in 1 Corinthians 2:8, which says the rulers didn’t understand God’s Wisdom, or else they wouldn’t have crucified the “Lord of Glory”. James 2:1 talks about holding faith in “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” It’s no surprise to you that Jesus is identified as this King or Lord of Glory. But do you know that the Old Testament is also very explicit about whom God shares His glory with?  Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord (YHWH); that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.”, and 48:11, “My glory I will not give to another.”
God does not share His glory with anyone. He possesses it alone—which again tells you that if Jesus possesses God’s glory, then Jesus must of necessity be God. Who is this King of Glory, the Psalm asks twice? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Israelite worshippers might here have remembered the mighty deeds by which God delivered them into the Promised Land. The Red Sea, the conquest of Jericho and the battles in the rest of the land; the defeat of the Philistines and other persistent enemies. God had fought for them in battle, and therefore was deserving of special glory—especially when the victory of His arm was clearly what made them win, and not their own military might.
But then the second time it asks, Who is this King of Glory? the answer changes ever so slightly: The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory.  “Lord of Hosts” is a much more common title for God—242 times in the Bible. In Hebrew “Hosts” is Sabaoth. Not to be confused with Sabbath—the day of rest—Sabaoth is the “heavenly hosts” or the whole company of heaven—the saints and angels who together worship and obey God. Their God—He is the King of Glory. The One leading the whole heavenly host. The Lord God of power and might.
So now that we’ve made all these connections—the King of Glory is our Lord Jesus Christ, and He’s the Lord of all the heavenly host—go back to where we began. Who can ascend the hill of the Lord, or stand in His holy place? Who has clean hands, a pure heart, never lifts His soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully? The Lord of Glory, Jesus Christ, does! He ascends God’s holy hill, He stands in God’s presence without stain of sin or any shame—but as God’s chosen servant, as His very Son who bears His same glory. The exceptional glory for what no one else could or would do—to die on the cross for the sins of the world, and to rise to life again. This King of Glory rode into Jerusalem with the gates open to Him, crowds praising His glory and all His works, and Jesus telling us that even the stones would cry out if His disciples were silenced. Jesus enters rightfully and with honor, to go and win the glory that is due only to Him—the glory that glorifies His Father in heaven.
Jesus ascends into Jerusalem to stand before God for us; but who else gets to enter? Who else follows in His train? Who becomes part of the heavenly hosts of His kingdom?  All who believe in Him, who are the redeemed. All who cry out with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10), and “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). Our cleanliness, our purity of hands and heart, our washing, comes only by the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. That we join the heavenly hosts is by Christ’s redemption. That our souls are cleansed so that we are not combative and deceitful, is because of the life of the Spirit dwelling in us. Christ Jesus has not only entered the gates of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple for us, but He has also entered and enlarged the gates of our hearts, to dwell there also, and make our bodies a temple of the Living God. Christ makes our hearts a fitting dwelling place for Him, so that His clean hands, pure heart, and upright soul would take root in and transform ours to become like His. Redeemer, come and open wide, my heart to Thee; here, Lord, abide! O enter with thy grace divine, Thy face of mercy on me shine. In Advent and Christmas carols we sing this constant invitation for Jesus the King to enter and transform our hearts.
And what are those who are cleansed and forgiven by the Lord of Glory given? Our Psalm says they receive “blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of His salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him”. All who follow Jesus not only ascend God’s holy hill after Him, but they also receive all His blessings and salvation. Truly the King of Glory has earned exceptional honor and exceptional glory, for doing what no one else could do for us! To God alone be praise! For word and deed and grace! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon on Luke 21:25-36, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "Stand Before the Son"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. In today’s Gospel we hear the last words of Jesus’ public teaching, before He goes to celebrate His last Supper with the disciples, and to be betrayed, arrested, and crucified. The topic of Jesus’ last public teaching was the end of the world and His return as the judge of the living and the dead. Jesus says that He, the Son of Man, will return on “a cloud with power and great glory.” It’s an interesting contrast. Jesus uses the title Son of Man to convey His role of suffering and death on the cross. But here, right before all that happens, He shifts to using this title to describe His coming glory from God, for all that He has done for us. The Son of Man turns from His suffering to His glory.
Jesus teaches about His Second Coming and the end of the world so that we would be warned and ready. Jesus knows that people will respond differently—but He wants us to be ready. Today He tells us what posture we should take towards warning signs of the end; He tells us how to avoid the pitfalls of unreadiness; and where to put our trust in the midst of it all. First of all, people respond differently to the promised return of Jesus. Some simply scoff and do not believe it. Other see things slowly coming unraveled, just like Jesus describes—and it fills them with an intense anguish and perplexity. People will feel lost and confused—others fainting from fear. It’s not unique to our times, but you can certainly find plenty of people who are hysterical about the end of the world. There are both religious and secular versions of this hysteria—but are heavily driven by fear. But Jesus calls His followers to a much different posture—not cowering in fear, not oblivious or careless to His coming, but standing tall, heads up, expectant, hopeful.
The reading ends with a similar call: “But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Pray for strength so you can stand before the Son of Man (on the Day of Judgment). To straighten up and stand, is a posture of courage and joy—not of weakness, fear, defeat, or cowardice. But it’s also not the kind of encouragement given if things are just going to coast along easily, peacefully, and smoothly until the end. Jesus reveals that the end times are a time of real testing and hardship. Are you ready? Are you strong and willing to stand, or do you belong to those who are filled with fear and dread? A movie I saw recently, called “Bridge of Spies” had a scene where a captured spy is recounting a difficult scene he saw in childhood. A man was being beaten by Soviet soldiers, but no matter how they kept beating him, he kept standing up again, to their amazement. They finally left him alone because they admired his resilience, and called him stoikiy muzhik—“standing man”.
Jesus’ description of the end times shows that people will faint and fall to the ground with fear. Other’s will hang their heads, but we are to be standing men and standing women. We do not belong to defeat, but to Christ’s victory! There may be plenty of circumstances that bring us to our knees—but Christ teaches that being on our knees can be a position of strength. How so? In that last verse again, Jesus says to pray for strength to escape all these things and to stand before the Son of Man. If we are on our knees, pray for strength to stand. It may seem safer to keep your head down or to fall to the ground. But Jesus calls us to stand  But how and why can disciples of Jesus be composed with such courage and joy?
Jesus says: “because your redemption is drawing near” and a few verses later: “you know that the kingdom of God is drawing near.” Redemption means to buy back—it is a repurchase of something. It can be the repurchase of freedom for a slave. It can be the repurchase of bottles for recycling. In Scripture, it is Jesus’ repurchase of sinners for freedom: “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34b-36). So is “redemption” a present or a future reality? Yes! It is! The Bible speaks of redemption both as a reality now—for example, Ephesians 1:7, “In Him we have (present tense!) redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” But also at the same time Ephesians 4:30 can speak of the future of redemption: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Or Romans 8:23b-24a, “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”. Our present redemption is that forgiveness and freedom are already ours in Christ Jesus. The future redemption of our bodies comes at the resurrection of all flesh, when Jesus returns. So our joy is set to this hope—Jesus is near!
In verse 32-33 we come to the central promise in this section of Jesus’ final teaching: Luke 21:32–33 “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus describes three things—and He uses the words “pass away” three times. First, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. The signs must happen first, but eventually, this generation will pass away. Second—heaven and earth will pass away. All that seems solid and firm as the mountains, or vast and immovable as the oceans, or great and innumerable as the stars in the universe—all of it will pass away. This does have a terrifying description, as 2 Peter 3:10 describes it: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” But amidst all this destruction, the third and final promise is this: “but my words will not pass away.” One thing holds solid and firm—one refuge remains when all else is disintegrating and returning to chaos—it is Jesus’ words. The Word of the Lord Shall Endure Forever. It was one of the mottoes of the Reformation. God’s Word remains unchanging and our great refuge, even in the midst of all the changes and chances of life.
Pressures on many sides would cause us to forsake that firm ground, to leave the refuge of God’s Word, or to trade it away for something newer or better. The first lie of the devil to mankind, is still alive and ill among us: did God really say?—because the devil wants us to abandon God’s Word. But we abandon it at our own peril. God’s Word is the everlasting foundation, greater even then the heavens and the earth. If we are to be “standing men” or people of courage and faith, then the foundation on which we stand must be the Word of Jesus Christ.
How do those pressures hit us? Jesus warns: “watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Pressures to abandon God’s Word, and the fear and foreboding of what the end times will bring, will lead many to be weighed down or burdened in their hearts. One of our hymns sings: save us from deep resignation to the evils we deplore. Don’t be resigned to evil, or assume powerlessness, when we have the power of the Holy Spirit! There will be a heaviness and weakness in the hearts of many that leads them into unreadiness. Dissipation, drunkenness, and cares (or anxieties) of this life. Dissipation is really a rare word, and not too helpful to our understanding—though it means to slowly disintegrate or come apart. The more literal translation from the Greek would be hangovers or headaches from drinking. When the world seems frightening, there is a danger for many, to drown their fears and sorrows in alcohol.
Jesus is saying that the cares and worries of life could overwhelm us; but don’t let that drive us into drinking and despair. We could slowly come “unglued” whether by drinking, substance abuse, or even just by fretfulness that changes nothing. Jesus tells us all this because obviously it will require strength of faith and strength of heart to endure, trusting in Him. We need to be sober and watchful, putting our hope in Jesus. Peter walked on the water in the storm, until he turned his eyes from Jesus, and he began sinking. But with eyes on Jesus, however the storm may rage and seas may crash, we see Christ our calm in the midst of the storm, and our redemption who is drawing near. His hand is extended to ours, pulling us up out of fear, weakness, and anxiety. He can manage all the trouble—He only calls us to trust in Him, and supplies that very faith by which we do trust!
Pray earnestly, urgently to God, for strength. Be watchful and ready, and when the sins of fear and doubt and cowardice weed their way into your mind, pull those weeds and cast those worries and sins back on Jesus, because He cares for you. Lift up your eyes to Him, for He is your redemption, and He is near. And we can earnestly pray for strength because Jesus has promised to supply it! We know He wants to strengthen our faith, and to make us to stand before Him in the day of judgment. Fear not that you are weak—He is strong. Fear not that the world is chaos—He is order and our Rock. Fear not that sin’s power is great—His power and love are infinitely greater. Stand before the Son of Man, who set you on your feet as a forgiven, holy, precious child of God, whom He has redeemed. Pray: “I am yours, save me!” (Psalm 119:94). We know that God wants to strengthen us, and we know that He wants to save us, because He wants us to know that the power is not ours, but is His alone. To the Son of Man be all power and great glory! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 21:25-36 are the last of Jesus’ recorded public teachings before His death on the cross. What was the central topic? What was He getting people ready for, and how?
  2. The title “Son of Man” is usually connected to Jesus’ role in suffering and dying for our sins (see Luke 9:22, 44; 18:31; 24:7). How does this reference in Luke 21:27 & 36 show that He has “turned the corner” from His suffering and death to receiving honor from God?
  3. What examples of unreadiness for Jesus’ return does He describe in this passage? Why should believers respond in such a different way when the signs of the end come? How can we be “standing men” or “standing women?” Where does our courage and strength and joy come from?
  4. Is “redemption” a present or future reality? Luke 21:24; Ephesians 1:7; 4:30; Romans 8:23-24. What is redemption? John 8:34-36.
  5. In Luke 21:32-33 Jesus describes 3 things. Which of  these will pass away, and which will not? Cf. Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25. How can we hold fast to this foundation and refuge? Luke 6:46-49; 8:15.
  6. What original lie of the devil is recycled to us today, to pull us away from that foundation? Genesis 3:1.
  7. What dangers can lead us to unreadiness? Luke 21:34-35; 8:14. What is the dangerous spiritual effect of drunkenness or other substance abuse, or fretfulness? What requires our clear thinking and attention? How is our situation like the one in Matthew 14:27-31?
  8. What does Jesus tell us to pray for in Luke 21:36? Why can we be confident of His answer? Why does God want us to learn to depend on Him? 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. What can we pray, and be confident of His Yes? Psalm 119:94. 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Sermon on Psalm 103, for Advent Midweek 2, "Bless the Lord O My Soul"

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His Holy Name! Last week we spoke, sang, and meditated on a deeply personal Psalm—Psalm 42. It was the cry of a soul in distress, and pointed the soul to hope in God, our salvation. This week Psalm 103 begins with individual praise, the soul blessing God and recounting all His benefits—but then the psalm expands our vision to include the whole community praising God. What begins as a solo turns into a chorus of praise to God. This beloved psalm has been paraphrased several times into hymns, including both of the hymns we sing tonight. As the solo turns to a chorus, the singers of the psalm reflect on our human frailty and sin in comparison to God’s eternity and forgiveness; and finally the psalm soars in a closing doxology that calls all creation to praise God. The closing words bring it full circle: Bless the Lord, O my soul!
The psalm begins and ends in praise, much like we often pray in church: It is truly good, right, and salutary (that is: healthful) for us at all times and in all places to give thanks to you, O Lord. To bless God, to praise and thank Him, is not only good and right, but it’s also healthy. C.S. Lewis, in his reflections on the Psalms, has a short chapter on praise. He described how praise surrounds us in ordinary life, and how much we in fact enjoy doing it, without any special urging. Lovers praise the beauty and the good qualities of their beloved. Sports fans enthusiastically praise their team and it’s victories. Nature lovers praise and glorify the scenery, the sunsets, the mountains and waterfalls. We praise our favorite music and the musicians who create it; or the artists and the artwork that impresses us and touches us. Readers praise their favorite books or poetry, and burn to tell others about them. Today youth and adults use Instagram, and other social media to praise their favorite pics or events.
C.S. Lewis observed that the people who enjoyed life the most and were healthiest of mind seemed also to be the ones who praised the most—while those who he called cranks, malcontents, or snobs, seemed to be the least grateful and praised least. His point was that praise seemed a sign of our inner health. Praise seems wired into our enjoyment of life. (Although we should make a note here that self-praise is usually a warped and unhealthy form of praise).  It is truly, good, right, and salutary for us at all times and in all places to give thanks to you O Lord. While we praise ordinary things readily enough; apparently when it comes to praising God, we often need more urging. Praise of God doesn’t seem to flow so easily as those ordinary examples, even though it is of far greater importance.
Why praise gives us such satisfaction, Lewis ventures to explain that praising something, and telling others about it, completes our enjoyment of something, and that the higher the worth or value of the object or person we are praising, the more our enjoyment increases by praising it. So if we were able to fully delight in, love, and perfectly express our delight in the highest and worthiest object (which, of course, is God)—then our souls would experience supreme beatitude or perfect bliss. Isn’t this what the Psalmist—and really God—is inviting us to do? To join our soul in the praise of God—which both elevates our spirits and turns our eyes from this frail earthly life, to the daily benefits and blessings of God that surround us, and up further to the Divine Hand from which they flow? God’s benefits include forgiveness, healing, redemption, a glorious crown of His mercy and love upon our heads, and renewal of strength like the eagles.
Look at how God regards us in our low estate. God does not trample on us or despise us, but He has compassion on us, as a father to his children. He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. God has not forgotten that He has made us fragile creatures, or that we are mortal. He knows our weakness. But how? Isn’t God infinitely above us, transcendent and immortal, beyond all the lowness and misery of dusty Earth? But God has so intimately entered our human frame and form in the person of Jesus Christ, that He knows our weakness from the inside out. He was born in a humble manger, in real human flesh and blood, and walked this earth in a mortal body, subject to pain, exhaustion, emotions, both joyful and sad, hunger, thirst, and ultimately even death. God knows our frame and remembers that we are dust—so intimately, so truly, because God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. His skin sweated under the Galilean sun. His hands and arms felt the splinters in wood. His heart felt the sorrow of being despised and hated by those He came to save. But as Jesus Christ entered human flesh, this the miracle and mystery of Christmas, He became the fulfilment of all these precious benefits and promises from God, contained in Psalm 103.
If all we knew was that we are dust, that we’re like the grass and flowers, doomed to fade and disappear; if all we knew was the guilt of our sins and the penalty that was justly due for them, then our life would be miserable indeed. Nothing better to do than eat, drink, be merry, and die. If that were all we knew, then there would be no reason to hope this Advent. But because God walked in human flesh, because Jesus’ road traveled to the cross and the empty tomb; the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He forgives us our sins, driving them as far from us as the east is from the west. Our sins are forever parted from us and God does not record them to our account, because Jesus has forgiven them on the cross. God has entered our human condition and responded to all the sin that we use to cause ourselves and others so much grief. At the cross, the Father’s compassionate love for His children is seen, as He bears up all our sins, illness, and weakness, and takes it upon His Son. And Jesus delivers these pains and ills to the grave where they belong.
While our time on the scene may be fleeting, 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 love is eternal and covenantal. While this temporary world passes away, His love for us is eternal—which means that the grave is not the end for us. He forever keeps the soul that blesses Him. He pours all His benefits graciously down on us, through Jesus, who died and rose to deliver on all these benefits for us.
The psalm ends with a fourfold call to bless God—from the highest angels in heaven to all the hosts that surround Him and ministers that do His will—across to every work of His creation, all the things that He has done and made—down to our individual soul. From the height, breadth, length, and depth of creation, let praise echo back to God! It is good, right, and salutary, or healthy, so to do! And while we just get tastes and glimpses of the full joy of heaven through our worship now—C.S. Lewis reminds us that our services are “merely attempts at worship”, to be completed in the perfect worship of heaven; like the tuning up of the orchestra for the future delight of the real performance; or the digging of water channels in a dry and dusty land, in anticipation that when the water comes, we will be ready and see the thirsty land flourish with new life. Or in the words of St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” This present life is but a dim reflection of the full glory we will see in God face to face. Here we feebly struggle, we endure bumps, or bruises, we sing off-key notes, and our clothes are dusty with this earth—but we should never fear that heaven should be a poor continuation of these struggles—but rather confidently believe that in heaven we will fully know God and enjoy Him forever. There we will know God face to face, and the joy of our soul will be complete. Bless the Lord, O my soul! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.