Monday, January 29, 2018

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5, for Septuagesima ("Seventy") (1 Yr Lectionary), "Finish with Christ"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today in 1 Corinthians, in two pictures, Paul shows us how to finish the Christian life with Christ—first, a runner competing to win a race, and second, the journey of Israel through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Both picture the dangers and challenges of not finishing that race or journey—but they also point us to the imperishable crown of eternal life that we find only in Christ Jesus, our Spiritual Rock. Each picture has something to teach us about our Christian life, so let’s look at each in turn.
First, Paul uses the picture of a runner trying to finish the race. Next month’s Winter Olympics help us remember that it takes dedication and hard work to compete at the highest levels. As he wrote this, Paul might have been remembering the Isthmian Games, which were held in off-years between the ancient Greek Olympics, near Corinth. Ten months of training was required for each athlete, and they competed for a “perishable wreath”—of olive branches, pine, or withered celery (yuck?), that crowned the winner. They didn’t care what the crown was made of.  They cared about the glory, fame, prestige, and even money that came with it. They gave up everything—subjected their bodies to intense training and strict diet, to deny themselves all kinds of pleasures to stay powerfully focused on the goal of winning. Only one claims the prize.
Paul shows us this kind of self-control, discipline, and intent focus, should describe our Christian lives. “Run that you may obtain it”. We’re competing for the infinitely more valuable “wreath”—the crown of eternal life. Christ says, Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Paul says the mark of an athlete is their self-control. If an athlete loses self-control, or fails to discipline their body by hard training, they lose their competitive edge, they can become soft or weak, lose focus, or even be disqualified.
Self-control is one of the key Christian virtues, and it’s a muscle every Christian athlete needs to exercise and train. To lose or lack self-control can take many forms. Indulgent—if we cannot restrain our desires and are constantly caving into our weaknesses and pleasures, and can’t show moderation. Reckless or impulsive—if we have loads of energy, speed, strength, or enthusiasm, but can’t direct them in productive ways. Temperamental—if the struggles of competition and life get us so angry or emotional, that our failures and obstacles derail us or unsettle us. Exercising our “self-control muscle” means disciplining our body and keeping it under control, like Paul. To learn how, for example, to use our tongue wisely, with love, to build each other up—not to condemn, tear down, slander or gossip. Or to control our emotions, by striving to be objective and impartial, and handling situations with calm and patience, being ready to listen, to help. Or learning to master our passions—not letting greed, lust, rivalry, resentment, or other vices turn us to sin, but to turn our desires to the good.
Paul says all this hard effort is because we’re not running aimlessly—we’re not boxing the air, with no purpose, but we’re striving for that imperishable crown. Now a word about how we receive it—so far it all sounds like it’s our effort and striving that gets us there. The finish line is the end of this race called life, and the crowning of eternal life. Some of us are well past the days of physical fitness. Others, even in youth, may not be the most athletic in their class. But is this a competition only for the fit, the strong, the beautiful? Are we lone competitors, in rivalry with each other? Not at all! This is a spiritual race, with our strength, our beginning, middle, and ending, all belonging to the power of God working in us. He has given us a “spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). We Christians are one body; a team effort, with all the members sharing together in hardship and in blessing. Hebrews tells us we have a cloud of witnesses cheering us on to finish the race, which we run with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2). To Finish with Christ is not something begun in the Spirit, but finished by our strength—we begin, continue, and complete in the Spirit. That’s why self-control, along with faith, hope, love, etc, are called “fruits of the Spirit!” This is His work in you! Paul urges us to stay focused—see the reward that is before you!
Second to the race image, Paul parallels our Christian life, marked by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, with the Israelites who were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the Spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Those OT believers also underwent a baptism and ate bread from heaven, like us!
Their journey through the wilderness was not mere history, but also a foreshadowing of our discipleship in Christ Jesus. And their story is filled with lessons and warnings for us. What are the dangers and hindrances? Our Old Testament reading gave one example. God had just miraculously delivered them from Pharaoh’s army, leading them across the Red Sea on dry ground—but almost immediately they fell back into faithless doubting and complaining, that there was nothing to drink and God was going to let them all die. Yes, they actually thought that God would rescue them by a miracle, only to let them die a week or two later! Sometimes our faith is so short-sighted and weak, it would be laughable, if it weren’t so serious. I fear we’re often no better. But God instructed Moses to strike a rock, and water poured out and nourished them.
So one lesson is not to fall into doubting and complaining. A few verses further in Corinthians, and he uses them to warn us against idolatry and sexual immorality—both led them astray. Then comes some well-known verses “let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:12-13). In other words, no one should presume they are immune from danger, from falling, or giving into temptation. We’re tempted by idols of our own making today, or sexual temptations, or just plain grumbling and thanklessness, just as they were. But know that God is faithful to give a way of escape, and He strengthens us against temptation. We need His strength against our stubborn sinful flesh.
The Christian life is surrounded on many sides by dangers! But “fight the good fight with all your might; Christ is your strength, and Christ your right”…and “faint not nor fear, His arms are near; He changes not who holds you dear.” (LSB 664:1,4). Surrender is easy. Losing self-control is easy. Fighting and finishing is hard. Self-control and discipline is hard! But Christ is our Strength! His arms uphold us! He disciplines us in love. And moreover, He has won the battle for us, finished the race before us, to secure that crown of everlasting life.
Take a look again at the verse: “they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Notice, it’s not the physical rock, but the spiritual rock that followed them. Moses didn’t hit Christ, and Christ wasn’t a granite boulder—the physical rock. But Christ is the spiritual Rock. What does this mean? Rocks obviously don’t produce water when you hit them, and they are inanimate objects that cannot follow a crowd of Israelites through the wilderness. But Christ, God’s chosen Son, in invisible form, did accompany and follow the Israelites through the wilderness. Whether at a rock that miraculously produced water, or feeding them with bread from heaven, the manna, that foreshadows the Lord’s Supper—Christ was with them all through the journey. Though they only heard the words of Moses and saw the miracles at the Red Sea, the manna, and the rock, it was Christ’s work being displayed.
And it says He followed them. At first that surprised me. I kept expecting it to say He led them. But when I went back and looked in Exodus, Christ did lead them by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night—but also, at least one occasion, at the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud/fire moved behind them. Why was that? Christ moved behind them to defend them against their enemies, so they could safely cross—every man, woman, and child, while Christ blocked their enemies from behind, and threw them into confusion. A baptismal hymn written by the famous St. Patrick has this line: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger” (I Bind Unto Myself Today). Christ behind me, Christ before me. We are surrounded on every side by the presence and the protection of Christ Jesus. We are baptized into Him, and Christ is bound to us by His own Word and Promises. Christ leads us on this journey, Christ feeds and nourishes us on this journey, and Christ follows us, picking us up and carrying us when we grow weak and faint. It’s only in Christ that we finish the race.
And for the weak, for the stumbling; for those who have thought to surrender many times, who have felt their will break and falter, there are words to comfort us. Words that lift us up and set us back on the journey again. Words that St. Paul called “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance”, because they give us strength for the journey and grant us to Finish with Christ: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:15-17).

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5, Paul uses two pictures to speak of the Christian life—one is a metaphor, the other a historical example from the Bible. What are these two pictures? In each case, what do they risk losing? How was the life of Israel more than just history? What does it point to?
  2. 1 Cor. 9:25—why is “self-control” such an essential virtue for the athlete? Describe what self-control is, and come up with some words or descriptions of what it would mean to lack self-control. What are specific weaknesses or temptations to your sinful flesh, that require you to “exercise” that “muscle” of self-control?
  3. How did Paul discipline himself/his body to maintain self-control? 1 Cor. 9:26-27. What did he fear might happen if he didn’t do this?
  4. How did the Israelites have a parallel experience to our baptism and communion? 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. How was Israel’s experience history, but also more than history? What did these events each point to?
  5. Paul does not say that the physical rock that followed them was Christ, but the _____ Rock. What does this word tell us about the food, the drink, and the rock, and how these nourished Israel?
  6. Explain individually how baptism, communion, and Christ are the key to us “running the race” to overcome, and finishing so that we are not “disqualified” or lose the blessing. Why do we need these spiritual gifts to complete the race of the Christian life?
  7. The spiritual rock “followed them” according to Paul (1 Cor. 10:4), and according to Moses the pillar of cloud/fire usually led them, but in the crossing of the Red Sea stood behind them to defend them. Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-20, 24-25. Why did God take up such a position relative to the people? How does God go “before us and behind us” in life?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sermon on Psalm 84:1-2a, 4, 10-11; 77:18b (Introit), for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (1 YR Lectionary), "How Lovely is it to be with God's Beloved Son"

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord... For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” In just a few words, when Peter says to Jesus, at His Transfiguration: “It’s good Lord to be here” and offers to build dwellings for Jesus and the rest of them to stay there; Peter is echoing the thoughts of Psalm 84, our Introit. Like Peter marveling about the glory of being in Jesus’ presence, so the Psalm speaks of the delight of being together with God in His dwelling place, His courts; how his soul thirsts to stay with the living God forever. At the Transfiguration, when the Father speaks from the heavens, He does not answer Peter’s suggestion, but calls him to silence and to listen to Jesus. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” As God’s courts and dwelling place are lovely to the people, so God’s Son Jesus is lovely to the Father. Dear to both God’s heart and ours, is Jesus. Jesus is God with us, Emmanuel, and He is the focus both of God’s gift to us and our responding worship. There is harmony and blessing in loving and being delighted in the same things that are beloved and pleasing to God.
What is the difference between something being beautiful, and lovely? Beauty can be appreciated objectively or at a distance. Even with a certain amount of detachment, like a person can admire artwork or a beautiful person, even without knowing them. But to be lovely, or to be “beloved” means that the object or person stirs your love, your affection. They are dear to your heart. And so the Psalmist sings about God’s dwelling place, the courts of His Temple, the place of worshipping Him. It is not just a physical beauty, but a stirring of his heart’s emotion, a dearness, a loveliness, that God’s house inspires in Him. And it is God’s presence that makes it so. It’s the presence of God that makes His house of worship lovely and dear. God the Father speaks of His Son with this same dear affection and tenderness. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” Beloved—God’s treasured and only Son. Beloved—you disciples now briefly glimpse His hidden glory. Beloved—He remains my beloved all through the suffering, agony, and death of the cross, to bring my presence to you—so that you also may be the beloved of my heart.
God calls you in Christ to become His beloved—His dear children, through the washing of forgiveness, through the baptism of death to sin and life to Christ Jesus, through the feeding of His precious body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. God has sent Jesus His beloved Son into the world, so that He now also has you as His beloved. Beloved—confess your sins to God—He knows them well. Beloved—see His beloved Son—Listen to Him! Beloved—let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone that loveth, is born of God and knoweth God.
Peter wants to prolong the glory experience, but this request is denied. Last week I preached about how the goodness and glory of Jesus did not remain hidden, but peeked out in the miracle at Cana. But while the glory of Jesus was hidden again from the disciples after the Transfiguration, the goodness and the presence of Jesus is never taken away from the disciples or us. Jesus’ goodness and presence remain where He has promised—in the gifts of the Lord’s house—His Holy Word and Blessed Sacraments. God’s goodness and presence is not hidden from us, but revealed and continued in these promises. When the Psalmist prays in 5 different Psalms for God not to hide His face, he’s praying out of loneliness, distress, or affliction. In times like those, we beg God not to hide His goodness and presence from us. But in Psalm 51, he prays for God to hide His face from my sins. So the only time when we want God to “hide His face” from us is for Him to turn away from our sins. And He does this only for the sake of His beloved Son. So when we repent to God for our sins, He welcomes us into the goodness of His mercy and presence. We stand joyfully in His courts, and are blessed through His forgiveness.
In Christ, we find the peaceful dwelling place with the Lord, that the Psalmist yearns for, saying: “my soul longs, yes faints for the courts of the Lord” or  “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”  This yearning for the place of worship, unfortunately may be unfamiliar to some. How often do the green fields or blue waves or soft beds and pillows or high definition flat screens or dining tables of Sunday morning inspire more yearning in us than worship, if we admit it? Do we run to the “courts of the Lord” with joy to sing His praise, or is our desire placed somewhere else? And even if we can chuckle a little at ourselves, why doesn’t our desire so often match the Psalmist’s, or Peter’s? They were longing for the God of highest peace and beauty, and even just a seat in the doorway would be enough.
That’s the kind of longing, when I was a young hockey fan, without enough money in my pockets, where I would have jumped at the chance to even get a standing room spot, even by the stairwells, at a Red Wings’ playoff game. Can you resonate with that, with your favorite sport’s team? Or to get a ticket at a concert for your favorite pop artist? For our youth, how many of you would jump at the chance for tickets for your favorite concert? Among our adult members, I’m not sure what inspires the same passion or excitement in you. But reflect on this: what does it tell us is missing from our spirituality—not that we like those things, but that we lack the same passion for God’s presence? It’s not that we aren’t meant to enjoy the good things of life, in healthy moderation—like sports and fitness, music and entertainment, nature and the outdoors—they are good gifts of God, after all—but they are precisely that—gifts of God. And how mistaken it is to love the gifts more than the Giver!
With what kind of love do these things, mere possessions, mere earthly things, entertainments, or awards and praises of humans—with what love do they call to you? Can they fill us? Can they love us? Are they anything in comparison with the love of God? I hope that none of you love your wedding rings more than your spouse, or your new toys and Christmas gifts more than your parents, or your gift cards than the people who cared enough about you to give them! That would be a topsy-turvy way of living—but I think we all recognize how much the incredible overabundance of our modern life inclines us toward this. When I say incredible, I mean the astonishing variety of food, luxury, travel, entertainment, information, and etc etc that is available to almost all of us, and even 100 years ago was not even available to the mega-wealthy. We can be so enamored with ‘things,’ idols, that our hearts feel little delight for God.
But return to the Psalm. Return to the longing that moved him, as he was, for some unknown reason, separated from the courts of the Lord, the Temple, and longed to return. What does it take to fill our hearts with such longing, and to replace the empty desires of things that only take our minds off life for a while, or numb our pain or boredom for a while, or fill our stomachs for but a while, or cheer our hearts for but a while? What it takes to fill our hearts with such longing and desire, is nothing other than realizing that God always has been the greatest gift He can give to us. The Lord who strengthens us, who hears our prayers, who is our sun and our shield, shining in the darkness of our life and shielding us from danger. The God who bestows favor and honor. Who comes to us in Jesus, His favored, beloved, precious Son, with whom He is well-pleased. In Him, we have adoption as sons and daughters of God. And yes, that comes with gifts! But greater is the Giver than the gifts! We get to know and be His—to belong to Him.
Whether false alarms or true alarms, we are Christ’s, and He is ours. This is the precious truth that filled the Psalmist with such yearning, and I believe it’s the same thought that moved Peter in amazement and awe to blurt out, “It’s good Lord to be here!” There is something unmistakably good about God’s presence—better even than poor words can express. But to know and taste that bit of the eternal, and to long for God’s promised peace and rest, brings us here again and again, to the presence of Jesus, to His gifts of Word and Sacrament freely given out, to prayers and songs rising with glad notes of joy. To taste that goodness is to know and be with God’s beloved Son, and to listen to Him. For God alone can satisfy and fill our longing—not just for a little while, but for time and eternity beyond.
When the Psalmist says one day in God’s courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, it also makes an interesting thought about time. C.S. Lewis comments on this verse by saying that we touch upon the eternal in worship. And to touch on the eternal is necessarily something we can describes by our poor grasp of time. He says we long and hope to someday be free from the constraints and limits of time, and to enter the eternal. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has “put eternity into man’s heart” (3:20). So Lewis suggest it is because we are destined one day to move beyond this present limitation of time, that we continually marvel about time as though it were something strange to us—like when we say, “How he’s grown!” or “how time flies!” So better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere—is an expression of the timeless goodness of being in God’s presence. We yearn together with the Psalmist for the eternal delight and rest of God’s presence—a day of rest when no time is counted, but joy will be endless, filled with God’s perfect goodness. And we, with Peter and all the disciples, find that the loveliness of God’s presence in God’s beloved Son Jesus. Listen to Him! In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Psalm 84, and reflect on the parallels with Peter’s remark “It’s good Lord to be here!” Why is there such joy and delight in God’s presence? How was God’s presence with His people found in the Old Testament?
  2. How is God’s presence personalized and localized in the New Testament? John 1:14. How did Peter, James and John witness this, uniquely in Matthew 17:1-9?
  3. What is the difference between something being “beautiful” and “lovely”? How does the Psalmist use the adjective “lovely?” How does God describe Jesus, when He speaks from the cloud? Matthew 17:5
  4. Though the “glory” of Jesus was hidden again, what remains for Peter and for us? Read Psalm 13:1; 44:24; 88:14; 102:2 and 104:29. What does the Psalmist not want God to hide from him, and why? In Psalm 51:9, by contrast, what does the Psalmist want God to hide, and why?
  5. In Psalm 84:10, what modest place is the Psalmist content to have? How can we compare this to our individual longings? Does our passion for God match the Psalmist’s, or Peter’s? Why or why not? What passions threaten to displace God from our center of attention, and love for worship?
  6. How is God far greater than His gifts, and all the things we can enjoy in this life? How does it teach us greater contentment and satisfaction, to have God as our highest love?
  7. Why is Jesus the center of God’s gift to us, and the focus of His love? How are we blessed when we love the things that God loves?
  8. How does Psalm 84:10 hint at time and eternity?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sermon on John 2:1-11, for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (1 YR lectionary), "Jesus' Goodness did not remain hidden"

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). In 1 Timothy 5:24–25, it says: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” This tells us that sometimes, when a good work is done, it’s not obvious or noticed. But even so, it can’t remain hidden. Jesus’ miracle at the wedding at Cana was this way. He worked behind the scenes, as secretly as could be done—with only His mother and disciples and the servants aware that He had miraculously changed water into wine. Jesus didn’t announce His good deed; He didn’t step in to take credit when the master of the banquet praised the groom for the excellence of the wine, and the surprise of saving it for last. Jesus quietly did a miracle that returned a great unexpected and undeserved blessing on the guests of the wedding, and most especially the hosts—the young married couple.
Just pause and consider the goodness of Jesus, as He exemplifies His own Sermon on the Mount. Good works, or serving others should not be done for attention, praise, or reward. So if we do a kindness, if we serve someone, and our good work is not “conspicuous”—but they are blessed by it—we should rejoice! Christians should delight in doing things that bless others without them knowing it. And even good works that are “inconspicuous” cannot remain hidden. When we do notice, we should give thanks and rejoice. But God rewards those who do good, even when no one notices. And things do often have a way of being found out—but the point is that we aren’t to go around trumpeting our own good works, or doing them for our own attention. Jesus shows His goodness by helping quietly, and not for His own reward. The young couple are blessed on their wedding day by an unexpected abundance of rich wine from the hand of God, and the joy grew greatly on that special day.
But at first, we notice that Jesus is reluctant to get involved. And we should pay attention why: “My hour is not yet come,” Jesus says. This special choice of words echoes all through the Gospel of John, where either Jesus or John talks about the coming “hour” of Jesus. It’s not talking about 60 minutes, but about the climax of Jesus being revealed as the Son of God. The true goodness of Jesus was to be revealed most completely and most purposefully at this coming hour. Everything built up to this “hour” which was central to Jesus’ ministry. We know this, because later in the Gospel, in chapter 12, when Jesus is about to be crucified, He announces that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” and “now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Jesus was waiting in anticipation for that “hour” when He could fully glorify God the Father, by His death on the cross. All miracles and signs prior to this, were not to steal that glory, but to be in service to that climactic moment shining out Jesus’ goodness.
But even though that hour was still far off, Jesus agrees to get involved at Mary’s request, and grants His blessing, with an overabundance of wine. With 20-30 gallons per jar, and 6 jars, this was 120-180 gallons of top quality wine! One owner of a vineyard calculated that this could serve over 2,000 guests! It must have been quite a crowd, or a lot leftover! But more than just showing God’s generosity, this is a sign of the richness of God’s kingdom, and the age of the Messiah. Old Testament prophets described the age of the Messiah overflowing with rich wine. The prophet Amos (9:13-14) describes the day when God restores the fortunes of Israel, as a day when the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills flow with it, and all the people shall drink of the wine of their fruitful vineyards. An overflowing cup of wine and blessing was a sign that the Messiah was here. And wine from water—a miracle that only God could perform.
The master of the feast rejoices about the excellent wine he’s tasted, praising the newlywed groom for it. But because of Jesus’ inconspicuous deed, the master praised the “wrong groom.” Jesus actually calls Himself the “groom” in the Gospels, and so does John the Baptist, just a chapter after this. Jesus is the heavenly groom who weds the church. So when the master of the feast says “you have kept the good wine until now” it is really Jesus, the groom, who has kept the best wine for last. And more than just part of the story, this is also true of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. He saves the best wine till last—and this first of His signs, was just a preliminary miracle, aiming the first arrow shot toward His cross. At the cross, Jesus took His last taste of sour wine vinegar while pouring out His lifeblood for the life of the world. He poured out His precious blood for all our sins, to redeem us. His lifeblood; the best wine, He  also pours out for us to drink in His supper. The wine poured out for Christ’s bride, the church to drink, is His blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ best wine was not the earthly miracle, but the wine of His blood, that forgives, renews, and strengthens us.
Yet even this meal, is but a “foretaste of the feast to come”. The whole imagery of abundant wine, and a wedding banquet, foreshadows heaven. It’s no accident that Jesus performed His first miracle at a wedding, as Jesus again and again describes the heavenly joy of God with His people, in terms of a grand wedding banquet with rich food and wine. Christ, our heavenly groom, truly saves the best for last, and that is a joy to anticipate, but also to experience and share here and now, in this foretaste of the feast to come.
The main purpose of this miracle, was to reveal Jesus. The reading ends by saying it “manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.” To manifest or reveal, is to shine forth, or make something that is hidden, to be seen. Bit by bit, Jesus was made known to His disciples, His goodness and His glory shone out to all who would see it and believe it, as not just the ordinary rabbi, not just the carpenter’s son, not just the cleverest of teachers. But rather He was made known as the One with divine power at His command—power to turn water into wine, to multiply loaves of bread to feed a multitude, to raise a dead man to life again. The church season of Epiphany focuses all around these miracles, these manifestations, where Jesus shines forth as God in man for all men to see and believe. This is why we proclaim Christ, the mystery hidden for generations, but now revealed to you, the saints of God, that you might believe.
Because to believe in Jesus is to be joined to the joy of His kingdom, it is to walk with and be united to the One that God sent into the world out of such great love for us. And God pictures that steadfast love for His people all throughout the Bible as a marriage covenant—God faithfully loving and giving Himself to an undeserving people. To believe in Jesus is to be guided and taught by the One who has so thoroughly committed Himself to us, that He gave His life up for us. This is what our epistle reading talks about: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”…and “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ 32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Earthly marriage is a picture of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love for the church.
As Christ blessed the Wedding at Cana with His presence, so also at Lutheran weddings, we always pray that Jesus would in the same way bless the man and woman who are united with Jesus as their “welcome guest.” We ask, not only on the wedding day, but all throughout the highs and lows of marriage, through the “for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse” that Jesus would preserve them in their vows, to deepen and strengthen their love for each other. In ways that are hidden, or inconspicuous, and in ways that are more obvious, Jesus does bless us with His goodness in marriages. Some ways we notice, many we are unaware of.
 A wedding hymn based on this miracle also prays for God to daily show His mercies and to destroy all threats of harm, while doubling their joy. It is all too obvious in daily life how temptations, frustrations, and struggles, threaten to harm marriages—not just other people’s, but Christian marriages also. The devil especially desires to sow disagreement, disunity, and disharmony in marriages and family. But we pray and earnestly seek from Jesus, the faithful Husband of the church, to destroy those threats of harm, and produce a lasting peace and faithfulness in this marriage and this life. God can tackle those problems that are “God-sized” and “outsize” us. Christ is in you, the hope of glory.
Mary trusted in Jesus to take care of the situation, even though she didn’t know how. She commanded the servants, “do whatever He tells you”. So also we can trust in Jesus to care for us as He knows best. In God’s own timing, we wait for His care and blessing to be revealed. And meanwhile, you, His servants, are called to “do whatever He tells you”. We listen to His voice in the Word, and we follow as He calls. And we can joyfully submit to His lead, to His instruction, because we know the faithfulness of Jesus’ love for us. It never wavers or fails, but He gives Himself, heart, body, and soul for us. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read 1 Timothy 5:24-25. Was Jesus’ miracle/good deed “conspicuous” or not? How did it nevertheless become known? Why did Jesus do it in this way? Who initially received the praise and recognition (even though undeservedly)? Why is this a pattern to follow when we do good works?
  2. If we do good, and no one notices, but people are blessed by it, how should we feel? Matthew 6:1; 5:16. Even though good deeds have a way of being “found out” (1 Timothy 5:25), why should we ourselves not be the ones to “trumpet it” or make them known?
  3. This miracle is the first of the “signs” of Jesus in the Gospel of John. 7 miracles can be counted in the Gospel of John, chs. 2-11, ending with the raising of Lazarus. What is the 8th and greatest miracle that John records, revealing who Jesus is? Ch. 20.
  4. Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears only here and in 19:26 in the gospel of John. This connection, and the fact that she is addressed the same way, and Jesus’ reference to His hour all point to the crucifixion as a climactic event. How was that moment Jesus’ true “hour”? John 12:23-28.
  5. How is wine a picture of the abundance of the heavenly kingdom and the age of the Messiah? Psalm 104:14-15; Genesis 49:11-12; Isaiah 25:6; Amos 9:13-14. If each jar contained 20-30 gallons, what volume of wine did Jesus create in this miracle?
  6. What was the main purpose and benefit of this miracle? John 2:11. What secondary blessings and benefits occurred to those at the wedding and to the hosts? John 2:10.
  7. What “best wine” did Jesus save for last, and pour out for the life of the world? John 19:28-30, 34. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Sermon on Joshua 3:1-17, for the Baptism of Our Lord, "Deliverance in the Waters"

            God speaks tenderly to His people in Isaiah 43:1b–2a,  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. God redeems His people and carries them safely through the waters. Redemption through waters is a running theme all throughout the Bible. Noah’s Flood, the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan River, Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, and Jesus’ command to Go and make disciples of all nations—baptizing them. Waters of judgment against sin and enemies, and waters of deliverance washing over His people—God is with them as they pass through the waters. And when Jesus stands in those same waters at His baptism, we know how true those words are: I will be with you. In the waters of baptism He calls us by name: ______, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. And called by name, you were also given God’s Name, placed on you in ownership: I have called you by name, you are mine.
            A good 1,400 years before Jesus waded into the waters of the Jordan with John the Baptist, He was with His people in the waters in a different way. Levite priests carrying the holy ark of the covenant, stepped down the river banks, till their feet touched the water. A multitude of Israelites watched from a great distance. The ark was “the visible location of God’s otherwise invisible presence” with them. Wherever the ark of the covenant moved, God had assured them that He was with them. Every time they picked up camp, or set down to camp throughout their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses even called out “Arise O Lord” and “Return O Lord”. The movement of the ark was the movement of the Lord with them. Later this would lead them to the mistaken idea that they could wield the ark like a good luck charm or magical vehicle, to guarantee success against enemies—but they were badly mistaken when they tried to “reverse the controls” of God’s chosen instrument of mercy and presence among them.
            But on this day, with eyes focused on the Lord’s presence in the ark, they awaited a miracle God was preparing for them. A miracle to show that He was truly with their new leader Joshua, and that He was also still with them. God had arranged the last three days for them to prepare for this. This was the day. The ending of 40 years of wandering in the desert. A punishment their parent’s generation had earned for grumbling and doubting God could bring them into the promised land. An entire generation of God’s people lived and died in the wilderness, instead of enjoying the fruits of the promised land, because they didn’t trust God. God’s promises had been postponed for 40 years, and now, they, the new generation, were ready to enter into the land at last. Even Moses, their old leader, would not enter with them. He had died, and now Joshua, already advanced in years, would lead them in. This miracle would confirm that God was with Joshua just as He had been with Moses.
            The name “Joshua” or “Yeshua” in Hebrew, means: “The Lord is salvation.” You may also know that Yeshua is the Hebrew version of the name Jesus, which the angel told He should be named, “because He will save His people from their sins. Joshua prefigured, or showed a picture in advance, of who Jesus, his namesake, would later be. Joshua lead his people through water into the Promised Land, as Jesus now leads His church through baptismal waters to the eternal Promised Land. The example of Israel in the wilderness is given to teach us not to fall into the same evil desires, sexual immorality, and grumbling that they did (1 Corinthians 10). We’re to learn by their negative example that we are not to follow in their mistakes. But after all their wanderings, God finally did deliver them through the waters, into the promised land, by the hand of Joshua.
            The crossing of the Jordan also unmistakably echoes the crossing of the Red Sea 40 years earlier. At least one major difference though, was that at the Red Sea, their enemies were behind them, in hot pursuit, and they were cornered and afraid that God couldn’t deliver them. Now, after 40 years, the children of Israel were preparing to cross another body of water—but this time the enemies lay in front of them, on the other side of the Jordan. This would require faith that God could deliver them—now they were marching to face their enemies. To give such faith, God would miraculously cut off the surging waters of the Jordan, which was at flood stage, to show that He also would cut off all their enemies before them. They would cross through the river on dry ground—it would not overwhelm them. Neither would their enemies, whom they would soon face, overwhelm them. The God who holds the raging waters at His command fought for them.
            We began by saying that Jesus entered the waters of baptism for and with us. First by His baptism in the Jordan, making all waters holy for us, to be a cleansing flood to wash away our sin. But also when you were baptized, Jesus enters the waters with you. It’s baptism into Him—into His death and resurrection. Luther used to say that when we baptized a child, we didn’t do them any favors, because it makes the devil our lifelong enemy. But better to have the devil as your enemy than have him as your friend and God as your enemy. The children of Israel crossed the Jordan to face the enemies that God promised to defeat for them. You baptized children of God, enter those waters facing a different set of enemies—not the Canaanites, but the devil, the sinful world, and your own sinful flesh. As 40 years in the wilderness taught them, and also teaches us—our enemies are persistent. If you want evidence, look only to our own grumbling and complaining and doubts—and be sure that the devil wants to rob us of the Promised Land just as them. But you march against those enemies with God fighting for you, and you only need to follow Him and His promise that He will defeat these enemies for you. With Jesus as our friend and companion in the waters, we fear not—because He has redeemed us, and called us by name. We are His!
            Joined to Jesus in baptism, we have this washing miracle, that we are now dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. He has created and given us a new, living identity in Him. He has made us heirs of His promises, and children who delight to receive His gifts. Like the Israelites, we simply have faith—we believe—and watch God deliver on His promises. We follow where He leads, eyes focused on His presence. God’s constant visible presence with His people was marked by the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle back in the days of Joshua. Now in our days, Jesus is God’s presence with His people. And Jesus promised His continuing presence with the words: Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. In baptism, He is with us, in the waters. In worship, He calls us like He called Israel: “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God.” Your God. God invites you near, because He has redeemed you, you are His.
            In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is with us, feeding us with His body and blood, to show us that He is the Living God, who died and rose for us. God has never left His people, but is with them in all these means and ways that He has promised. And these are our strength and confidence to face our enemy the devil. This is our strength to abandon the ways of sin and unbelief—not by our own resolve, by God’s promised deliverance. We do not surrender or give up in the face of the enemies of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh—even when we are discouraged or face setbacks—because God is with us and it will be His victory, by His might.
            At this New Year, some people are in the habit of making resolutions. And we all know how that usually goes. But here, we see God making a resolution—Jesus, with resolve, promising to be with His people forever. When God resolves to protect, defend, and deliver His people, we need never fear that He will break His resolve. God will save, without fail. “The Lord is salvation.” Our sins which daily weigh us down, the temptations that linger around us—we turn these enemies over to God’s power, to cut them off before us. We face the promised land, trusting that He alone can grant us entrance, and drive away our enemies before us.
            When the day for that miracle finally arrived, God made the waters of the Jordan pile up in a great heap, and the waters were completely cut off, so that every last Israelite could cross over—firmly walking on dry ground. The whole community of Israel witnessed a miracle for all the senses, a miracle that would be a lasting memory for them and generations after, that God is mighty and that we would fear Him forever. Now today, that memory and witness of the miracle lives on in us, teaching us to also fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We too are baptized into His waters, and have our feet firmly set on dry ground, with God our constant companion and deliverer.
            As we observe the Baptism of our Lord today, may that be a living remembrance, year after year, of your baptism, and how God resolves to guide and lead you through life with His Word, His presence, and His deliverance. And we can answer His tender call with words of faith: I am not afraid, you have redeemed me, I am yours! You are with me in the waters, they shall not overwhelm me—in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Isaiah 43:1-2. How do these verses echo the might of God with Israel at the Jordan, and the redemption we also have by water and the Word? Ephesians 5:26.
  2. Read Joshua 3:5, 7. Why was God going to do a miracle for the Israelites in the Jordan? What was it going to show about Joshua’s leadership? The name “Joshua” (Hebrew: Yeshua)  means: “The Lord (Yah) is salvation”, and is the Hebrew form of the name Jesus. How did Joshua “prefigure” Jesus, in what he did for his people? Hebrews 4:8ff.
  3. Read Joshua 3:9-10. Why could they have such “nearness” to this all-powerful God? What additional truth would He demonstrate to them? Compare the crossing of the river Jordan with the very similar crossing of the Red Sea. At the Red Sea, where were their enemies, before they crossed? At the Jordan, where were their enemies before they crossed? What would this knowledge test or require of them?
  4. The ark of the covenant was central to this miracle, and showed visibly where God’s presence was with them. Read Numbers 10:35-36. What words did Moses speak during the wilderness wanderings, to show that the movement of the ark was the movement of the Lord with them? John 1:14 echoes language of the tabernacle (tent of worship) that housed the ark of the covenant, in order to teach a new amazing truth about how God is “tabernacling”(dwelling) with His people. What is the new “tent” that houses God’s presence with His people?
  5. When Jesus entered the waters of baptism for us, Matthew 3:13-17, how does that add vividness to those words of Isaiah 43:1-2, for us? 

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Sermon on Luke 2:33-40, 1st Sunday after Christmas (1 Yr lectionary), "Blessings on the Christ Child"

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).
In today’s Gospel Joseph and Mary are finishing their first visit with baby Jesus to the Temple, and performing the duties required by the Law. For those who keep track of dates and time, today we observe the 7th day of Christmas, and tomorrow would be the 8th—the day we remember Jesus’ circumcision and naming. The parting gift Joseph and Mary receive is the marvelous words and blessings of Simeon and Anna, two elderly believers who honor the infant Jesus and bless Joseph and Mary in their new responsibility of parenting Jesus.
Age and youth are beautifully positioned side by side here, with aged Simeon and Anna as models of faith and hope in the promised Savior, and how they joyfully received the baby Jesus and thanked and praised God for Him. Both old age and early youth are fragile years, but the Bible celebrates all ages and stages of life, from conception to death as blessed and valuable. In this day and age do we struggle to value all ages and stages of life, or do we favor some ages and stages over others? Do we ignore the lessons of age, and dishonor the aged? Do we despise children or those who are still growing in maturity?  Scripture gives us many helpful examples to avoid both errors and extremes. Passages such as this remind us to show respect to the aged, to joyfully receive the little children, and to value both alike.
Most of Simeon’s blessing on Jesus comes before our reading, but today, let’s examine more carefully his last short prophecy to Mary: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” This was an accurate yey mysterious prophecy about the coming life of Jesus. With baby Jesus in arms, Simeon charts out the importance of Jesus’ life. Working from the easiest points toward the harder, let’s explain Simeon’s words.
First of all, in the middle of the prophecy he adds a line directed to Mary—a sword will pierce through your own soul also. In other words, Mary would come to experience some deep grief in her soul, related to Jesus. A heavy burden to lay on a young mother, but words that were uniquely true for Mary. No doubt she experienced the greatest grief of her motherhood at the cross of her Son, watching Him bleed and die for the redemption of Jerusalem. There He gasped out instructions for His disciple John to take care of her. What greater grief could she know, what sharper sword to pierce her soul, than to see the Son whom she loved so dearly from infancy, to be hated, rejected, tortured, and put to death on the cross. But 3 days of grief and pain would be overcome by the joy and delight of Jesus’ resurrection! Her wounds of soul would be mercifully healed by that Good News as Her Son triumphed over death.
Next, the last line of Simeon’s prophecy was that Jesus would be a sign that is opposed, so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed. To reveal the thoughts and hearts of men is a truly god-like thing. It’s also a bit unnerving. We’ve talked about this earlier this year, about Jesus’ ability to penetrate right to the private thoughts and motivations of peoples’ hearts. The thoughts of our hearts are normally guarded private territory (unless we’re particularly free about spilling our every thought on social media). Normally those who are closest to us—a spouse, a family member, or friend—might have the best window into the thoughts of our hearts. But Jesus uniquely reveals the hearts of many. He makes our hearts and thoughts transparent. Scripture describes all creatures as lying “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account”,  and that nothing is hidden from His sight (Hebrews 4:13).
That God reads our hearts and minds like an open book, is not probably surprising—but it can be unnerving because of what He might find. Why does God have an interest in the thoughts of our hearts? Jesus said out of the heart flows every kind of sin and evil. We often measure evil by its final advanced forms—violence, adultery, crime, etc. But each sin also begins as a bad seed—a rising thought of anger, that takes root as hatred. A rising thought of lust, that takes root as coveting and lingers near temptation. A rising thought of greed, that searches for opportunity to do wrong. Jesus reveals our thoughts, because they’re at the root and center of who we are. He turns on the floodlights and lays bare our motives for sin, that we might begin to see them ourselves, and repent of them. It’s not only to Himself that our thoughts are revealed, but His Word helps us to see our own hearts and thoughts better. It’s amazing how often we act reflexively, or instinctively, or simply out of deep passion, but are unaware of the sinful thoughts or motives in our hearts. But God has made us higher than the animals, and we uniquely have the ability to reflect on our actions and motives, if we stop to do so, and learn self-control.
The Good News, is that Jesus reveals the thoughts of our hearts so that He can direct them to Him. Jesus speaks the Truth to us, to set us free, and give us adoption into Him. He teaches us the Truth so that our hearts might be oriented to Him. It’s not an overnight change, but a lifetime of being transformed by the renewing of our minds, and separating ourselves from conformity to the world. The end result will be that our hearts are truly set on God—more and more that we are drawn to Him. And also lives that are filled with the joy of God’s promises, as Simeon and Anna lived in that same joy.
These two parts of Simeon’s prophecy, about Mary’s grief, and the thoughts of our hearts, might help us better understand the remaining line we haven’t explained: this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel. On the surface, it’s obviously saying that people will divide around Jesus. But the words also connect to an old prophecy from Isaiah—a prophecy that Jesus and His disciples used many times to describe and define His ministry. In Isaiah 8:14-15,  God says that “he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” Some will stumble and fall against this “stone of offense” or “rock of stumbling” as Jesus was described in prophecy. His crucifixion was a stumbling block to the Jews, and we see how many are divided over it. But he would also be a sanctuary to some—a place of refuge, safety, worship, and God dwelling with His people. A sanctuary is a place of peace and nearness to God. There would be a twofold response to Jesus—those who reject Him and fall, and those who stand with Him, and are secure. Those who found Him an obstacle, and those who found Him a refuge.
Isaiah 28:16 echoes this, and “thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold I am the one who has laid as a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: who believes will not be in haste.” Here, the stone imagery is changed from the negative, stone of stumbling and rock of offense, to the positive, precious cornerstone and foundation. Jesus described His ministry with both of these rock images from prophecy. Jesus was appointed for this—set up by God for the fall and rising of many in Israel. Those who believe in Him, not only stand upon a sure foundation, but they will also be raised with Jesus on the Last Day. Jesus is truly a dividing point, for better or for worse, for those who receive Him or reject Him.
While we have the specific words of Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus, from Anna the prophetess we only have the topic—that she gave thanks to God and told all the faithful in Jerusalem about the One who had come for their redemption. But we should also note her remarkable example of faithfulness. Few people notice or show special appreciation for those who are constantly faithful in worship and prayer. And that may be just as well, since worship and prayer are to be done for God’s eyes, not for the approval and praise of men. But Anna was one such faithful worshipper. She had been widowed at a very young age—losing her husband after only seven years of marriage. But she then dedicated the rest of her life to faithful service and prayer in God’s Temple—and now she was 84! We only know this very little about her life, that she worshipped, fasted, and prayed every day in the Temple, and was waiting for the promised Savior. As she longed for the Savior, no doubt many of her prayers were filled with longing for God’s salvation to come down and be shown. And she was rewarded by seeing the baby Jesus with her own eyes. She is a model prayer warrior to us—lifting up her intercessions to God and for all people night and day. She is a living example of Romans 12:12 “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Jesus was just 8 days old when aged Simeon and Anna spoke these blessings over Him. He would be a full grown man by the time the prophecies reached their fruition. Simeon and Anna joyfully spread the word to others about the arrival of the Savior. They wouldn’t live to see Jesus’ adulthood and ministry, but they overflowed with thankfulness nevertheless. They’re examples to us of believers filled with a lifetime of faith and hope that patiently waits for what God has promised. Joyful in hope, patient in tribulation, and constant in prayer. Jesus would grow in strength, wisdom, and favor first as a child, and then as a man. He would fill out the shape of these solemn prophecies, and become the Savior Simeon and Anna had waited for. He would be the rock against whom many would fall, and on whom many would stand and rise. He would be the dividing point over which mankind would be sorted—as our thoughts and hearts were laid bare before Him. And He would be the crucified Savior over whom His mother and many others would grieve, until He rose from the dead, giving last joy to all. Reflecting back on these prophecies given at Jesus’ birth, we can remark how “every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5). God confirms that it is His plan by telling us beforehand, and then follows through with every detail. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What was the reason for Joseph and Mary’s marveling? Luke 2:25-32.

  1. In Luke 2:34-35 Simeon gives Mary a prophecy about Jesus, with another directed to her within it. Explain in your own words what he was saying about both, and what Mary would experience. Isaiah 8:14-15; 28:16. Acts 28:22; John 19:25-27.

  1. What remarkable, and perhaps largely unappreciated act of devotion had Anna the prophetess performed for about 70 years? Luke 2:37; 1 Timothy 5:5. How was she rewarded for her faithful prayer? What then was her response? V. 38. How can we be “prayer warriors” like Anna today?

  1. Why was it necessary that Jesus keep all God’s Law, even from birth? Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 4:15; Luke 2:39.

  1. Jesus grew as an ordinary boy, Luke 2:40, but also one who was uniquely blessed by God. What does it mean to have the “favor of God upon Him?” How do we seek and receive His favor?