Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon on Luke 2:22-40, for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, "Sustained in the Faith for Life"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Eight days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph did according to the law, and brought Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised and named Jesus. As this young family embarks on a new journey of parenthood and unexpected wonder, with the baby Jesus, they meet two elderly believers in the Temple—Simeon, and Anna. If we step back from these people in the reading today, we can see that they are examples to us of how faith in God is a lifetime commitment. It’s not like renewing your driver’s license or passport every 10 years, or receiving a marriage certificate once upon a time. Faith is about a living commitment and relationship, a daily walk of trust in the Lord. And as much as it is a lifelong commitment, it is also a commitment that is renewed day by day. Simeon and Anna show a beautiful picture of faith enduring to life’s natural end.
Too often in society, the elderly are neglected or forgotten. But Scripture teaches and shows us how to respect all life, from its natural beginning in the womb, to its natural end. Simeon and Anna stand out among all the unnamed other elders who lived back then, both for their steadfast faith through years of long waiting, and also because they were privileged to see the Christ child, and God’s promises fulfilled. The book of Hebrews, in the great “Hall of Faith” chapter 11, describes many of the faithful: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). The author of the Hebrews is making the point that its very ordinary to die in faith, not having received the things promised. Waiting, even dying while waiting, does not negate the promises of God. But he’s also making the point that they were still filled with hope and expectation in their waiting, greeting the promises from afar. This is the posture of faith we see in Simeon and Anna. Greeting God’s promises from afar, and waiting in patient expectation.
Their faith was sustained by steadfast attention to worship and prayer in the house of the Lord, and living in the promises of God’s Word. It’s not hard to conceive of the promise growing dim, and maybe soon forgotten if they had not paid faithful attention to God’s Word, and been nourished in His Temple by worship and prayer. Our faith can easily grow weary or dim through neglect. Waiting without sustaining our faith on God’s Word and promises, can wear down one’s faith. Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins, who have or do not have extra oil for their lamps, for a prolonged wait. The problem was not the availability of oil, it was a problem of having enough oil to be prepared for the long haul. Likewise there’s no problem of availability of God’s Word and sustaining gifts—from generation to generation, these are given out in God’s house, for free. But that lifelong commitment of faith needs attention.
It really shouldn’t be a surprising discovery—any more than our relationships need the regular attention of communication and love to remain strong; or that cars need regular maintenance to run smoothly and reliably, or bodies need daily food and nutrition to stay healthy. There are plenty of analogies to everyday life, of seemingly mundane routines, that must be repeated over and over, throughout our lifetime for things to be sustained. But the reward of following through with those routines is that we benefit from better relationships, working cars, and healthy bodies. Simeon and Anna had a great “spiritual fitness” routine that kept their faith sustained, healthy, and robust for the long haul. There’s no special secret to having a strong faith—it’s just a matter of the dedicated routine of coming to God’s house and being strengthened and nourished by His gifts.
Customs of the law and rituals from the Old Testament to the New Testament have changed, because the baby Jesus that first entered the Temple, was arriving to be the fulfillment of everything that the Old Testament law and ritual pointed to. God’s promises of long ago were starting to reach their fulfillment in Him. As these faded from shadow to reality in Christ Jesus, Christ instituted new rituals or means for God to grant us His grace. Baptism—a washing of water together with God’s Word: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There God places His Name on us, mark of ownership, protection, and promise. Marks us as heirs of Jesus’ Christ, and the promised inheritance of salvation. We are baptized once for the forgiveness of sins, but it’s not just a date to register in our book, but the beginning of a living relationship with God. Baptism joins us to Christ Jesus and the daily struggle of dying to sin, and rising to life anew with Him. Baptism joins us to Christ’s saving work for us.
And the Lord’s Supper. At His last Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus instituted this new meal, the new covenant, He calls it. New Covenant in His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Under the forms of bread and wine, Jesus offers us, “Take eat, this is my body; take drink, this is my blood of the new covenant.” Covenants were always made with blood (the sacrifice of an animal) in the Old Testament. Same here, but Jesus is the sacrifice, and this new covenant is enduring and unbroken, from God to us. It’s a covenant that depends not on repeated sacrifices of animals, that can’t take away sin, but on the one completed sacrifice of Jesus that takes away all sin. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. So we are shown that the Lord’s Supper is about the past, present, and future. The past, in bringing the saving benefits of Jesus’ death forward to us—the present, in that we commune and receive it now, when our sins and consciences need release; and the future, in that we anticipate Jesus’ return.
Simeon and Anna were sustained in the Old Testament worship of the Temple, and Jesus has provided for our faith to be sustained in the New Testament worship life of the church. Hebrews tells us we should not forsake meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another more and more as Christ’s return draws near (Hebrews 10:25). That dimension of our faith as a community of believers, and not just isolated individuals is also endangered today. We have all the makings of a perfectly individualized society—at least in the sense of having everything you could want personalized to your own tastes, entertainment or news preferences, clothing styles, foods, you name it. Our lives are often so individualized that we have little in common anymore; fewer and fewer shared experiences. Christian community builds a shared experience that is not for convenience or mere socializing, but it draws us into life together around God’s Word and promises. From all our diverse interests, opinions and tastes, we come together to be blessed by God’s gifts, sustained in our faith, and to build up, encourage, and serve one another. We learn to love more than just what matches or looks like, acts most like us. We pray for one another and hear, discuss, and learn the Word together, as God intended in Christian community.
No single individual gets to see all of God’s promises come through to perfect fulfillment in their own lifetime. Simeon was uniquely promised that he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Christ. Anna hung on to her faith despite the bitter loss of her husband in youth, and she too was rewarded to see the Christ. But they would not live to see His adult ministry and so many other promises of old beautifully fulfilled. But it was enough for them to greet the promises of God from afar. To rejoice that they saw a chapter or verse of God’s unfolding salvation story be told, and that they were included in it.
Our faith was not meant to be disconnected from the community of believers, but to be found in it. To be found in God’s story of salvation, in this time that He has chosen for us, in our chapter and verse. Not in the pages of Scripture, but living in the promises of God, according to His Word. Living in the days from Christ’s ascension till His promised return, watching signs and prophecies He made unfold, and greeting the promises of God from afar. As the generation before us, our elders, share how God has kept faith with them in life, so also our role in the community of faith is to pass that message down to the youth. That young families beginning their walk in faith together, perhaps at the birth or baptism of a new child, may follow in the same lifetime commitment of faith, but also the daily, weekly renewal of that faith in God’s house.
Their eyes all turned to Jesus, this child of wonder. Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna. They beheld God’s promise, in the person of Jesus, and they did the most sensible thing! They worshipped and praise God, marveling at the future that was in store for this little baby. Great things were foretold for Him, and also great difficulty—foreshadowing the cross, but God had shown these four adults the light of His salvation for the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel. The plan of salvation was in His infancy, but they greeted the promise from afar.
May we this Christmas, do the sensible thing when we see the light of salvation—no longer in His infancy, but in all the fullness and glory of His salvation, through all that we are told and know in His Gospel—may we bow down in humble worship and adoration, and leap up with a joyful song of praise to God. For all of God’s promises are true in Christ Jesus, and they invite us to worship. And worshipping Him, we find that we too can depart in peace, according to God’s Word. We find peace in being in a harmonious relationship with God—fed by His Word, sustained by His promises, and forgiven of all our sin by Jesus, the light of salvation. We find peace in God’s house, surrounded and renewed by His faith-sustaining gifts, and encouraged by fellow believers. Come and worship, come and worship! Worship Christ the Newborn King! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Luke 2:22-40. How are Simeon and Anna a wonderful model and example of lifelong faith? What is the nature of a “living faith?” What sustains a living faith, for a lifelong commitment?
  2. How does our society sometimes neglect or forget or undervalue the elderly? What lessons can we learn from the treatment of the aged in the Bible?
  3. What happened to many who lived in faith, but didn’t receive God’s promises? Hebrews 11:13. How does this inform a lifetime of waiting and expectation? What was their attitude despite their wait? How is this exemplified by Simeon and Anna?
  4. What happens when faith is neglected, and the worship of God’s house is forgotten? How does waiting affect faith that is not strengthened and renewed? Hebrews 10:25; Matthew 25:1-13.
  5. What are you doing to maintain your “spiritual fitness?” God is the supplier of all that we need for spiritual fitness, but we must not neglect prayer and His Word. What are small ways you can make it more intentional in your life?
  6. How does God provide, in His house, for the continuing strengthening of our faith? Through Baptism? The Lord’s Supper? The encouragement of the community of faith?
  7. How does the church provide an antidote to the individualism and disconnection of today’s society?
  8. What is our part in God’s salvation story? What promises do we wait to see fulfilled? What is the sensible thing to do when we see the salvation which God has prepared in the sight of every people?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Sermon on Matthew 1:12-25, Christmas Eve, "The Gift of Two Names"

Who is Jesus? That’s the most important question that we can ever ask, and should be asking this Christmas. We’ll find the answer in reflecting on God’s Christmas gift to us tonight: the Gift of Two Names—Jesus and Immanuel. Those two names will help tell us Who is Jesus?
Matthew 1 is Jesus’ genealogy. His earthly family tree. A genealogy has a rather monotonous rhythm: “so and so the father of so and so the father of so and so…” and so on, down through all the names. But there are a couple of key places where the cadence is broken, like this one: “Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.  The cadence doesn’t end with the predictable “Joseph, the father of Jesus”—because Jesus is not the son of Joseph, but as the angel told them, He would be the Son of God. The Virgin birth! Jesus the Son of God, the Son of Mary. Joseph, her betrothed (legal) husband is only Jesus’ adoptive father, not his natural father; the relationship had not yet been consummated. So this break in the cadence focuses on Jesus’ miraculous birth. And the other amazing fact revealed by this human genealogy of Jesus is that He is the son of sinners! Everyone in His human tree was a sinner. God came so close to us in the incarnation of Jesus, that He became human flesh and blood—like us in every way, except without sin (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15). If Jesus had been a sinner, He would have been no help us. But because He is sinless, He is able to save us from sin. So Who is Jesus? He is Son of the Virgin Mary, and Son of sinners, yet born without sin, conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew’s Christmas story continues with the naming of Jesus, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). “Jesus” is English for the Hebrew name, “Yeshua.” It means “Yahweh (the LORD) saves.” The child’s name is Yeshua—or Jesus—because this Son will save his people from their sins. Jesus will forgive all sin—and Oh do we need it! Oh God, do we need it! We are so incomplete without forgiveness! We have economic, political, relationship or family problems, health problems, financial problems—and yet if all these problems vanished today, our lives still wouldn’t be perfect. Even if we were healthy, wealthy and wise and at peace, the biggest piece of our life is missing if we don’t know God and have His forgiveness. When we realize that Jesus is the Son of sinners, we must also realize our first and foremost need is to be saved from our sin problem.
Sin is not just an accidental byproduct of our existence. It’s not just a “bum fact of life.” Sin is the insidious, piercing reality that ruins our lives and ultimately leads every person inevitably to their grave. It’s the selfishness, the arrogance, the jealousy, the anger and greed and spoils our life and relationships. And there is no cure for sin, except in Jesus, the Son of Mary, Son of sinners—the One whose name teaches us: “He will save His people from their sins.”  It’s a lesson we often would rather not learn! We don’t need any special invitation to participate in the Christmas beauty and decorations and songs, gifts, and fun—we are naturally drawn to all those shiny things. But we do need the repeated special invitation to celebrate CHRIST at the center of CHRISTmas, and the reminder that Christmas is about God sending us a Savior from sin. God sending us Jesus, who saves us from our sin, should inspire our joy, our music, and celebration. It should be the main deal—not a side melody. Without Jesus, all the trappings of Christmas are empty. Without the reason for the season. Without the miracle of God sent for our rescue. A lesson we often hide from, to focus on lighter things.
There’s an old Pogo cartoon that hits the nail on the head. “I have met the enemy and he is me!” Every political, social, or psychological problem is the result of our fallen sinful condition. That’s why Jesus didn’t come as an economist, a sociologist, or as a family therapist, life coach, or any of the other versions we might prefer instead. A fake Jesus of these varieties is much easier to set aside, ignore, or marginalize. But the real Jesus of Scripture is compelling and unavoidable. He cannot be pushed aside, as every human heart cries out to know God, and can only find God truly in Him. Jesus identifies the sin problem in us, and tells us He’s done something about it!
His name says it all: He is Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.” I experience joy and peace when I recognize that I can’t bring my life to a successful conclusion. I just can’t. And I’ve tried. God, I’ve tried! My biggest problem is me, and so I need a Savior to rescue me from my sins. If we come to Jesus for any other reason—maybe hoping for success or popularity or wealth or a better job or better health—we will be disappointed. Jesus has more important problems to solve than our unpopularity or our failures. Those are just symptoms. Jesus lays down his life to save us from the sin alienating us from God and from each other and threatening to destroy us. He fixes our sin problem.
The first Christmas gift is the Name Jesus. Now on to the second Christmas gift, the Name Immanuel!  Matthew’s Gospel continues: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Is 7:14]: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’” (Mt 1:22–23). “God with us” is what Matthew’s Gospel is all about. It appears here, in the beginning. Then in the middle, “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am in their midst” (Mt 18:20). And then in Matthew’s last verse. Jesus says in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Beginning, middle , and end, Matthew’s Gospel echoes this chord: “God with us!” If the name of Jesus—“He will save them from their sins” is the first Christmas gift in Matthew’s Gospel, then the name Immanuel—“God with us” is the second Christmas gift in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus, the Son of Mary, is not only our Savior from sin. Jesus, the Son of Mary, is Immanuel God with us—up close and personal. The famous St. Patrick, the real one, from history—the Christian missionary to the Irish—has a hymn or poem that is attributed to him. And one of the verses goes like this:
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 don’t think we often think of “God with us” in such an all-encompassing way as St. Patrick puts it here. But Immanuel is God with us—up close and personal—entering our muck and mire, our chaos and our deep confusion. Even when we are forgetful of His presence, He is faithful at our side, in quiet or in danger, in the hearts of all who love me, in the mouth of friend and stranger.
But if at our best we have been forgetful of God’s presence, we must not forget that at our worst, on the day of deepest darkness in human history, we tried to push God’s presence completely away. On that day we all grabbed hold of Immanuel, nailed him to a cross and cried out, “Leave us alone! Leave us alone!” How often we fail to realize that unconfessed, unrepented sin, is a cry for God to leave us alone. And our every sin demands just that—for us to be left alone by God, forever. What a terrible thought!  But on the other side of Good Friday, Immanuel lives! Immanuel’s journey was from the cradle to the cross, and through and out of the empty tomb! Jesus is God with us to save us from our sins, not to leave us in our lost and sinful state, pushing God away. He is God with us to give His true love to us, and pull us close to Him.
Jesus the Son of sinners came to destroy the power of sin, by obeying God’s commandments to the letter and in the Spirit. He came to destroy the power of sin by the power of obedient love. He came to reverse the curse of sin by crushing the serpent’s head; and dying from his poisonous bite—but showing forth God’s power and life by rising from the dead. Through and through, Jesus has destroyed the power of sin, so that His risen life might be ours. That we could know the goodness and truth of life in Him. So that our identity could be transformed from sons and daughters of sinners, to sons and daughters of God. So that our identity could be transformed from the broken, guilty, and shameful humanity held under the power of sin, to servants of the Most High God, dressed in garments of wholeness, innocence, and honor. Dressed in the righteous robes of Jesus, given to us by faith. Beginning, middle, and end, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” to complete this transformation in us.
Christmas marks God’s will to stake out His claim for fallen humanity, by sending His Son to be joined to us—the Son of Sinners. But for Immanuel, God with us, to redeem that claim, He went all the way to the cross and empty tomb for us. So that our two Christmas gifts would be Jesus—He will save His people from their sins, and Immanuel—God with us. This is the Christmas answer to our most important question: Who is Jesus? In His beloved Name, Amen!

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30, for Christmas Day, "Father-Revealer"

P: The Savior is Born! C: He is born in a manger!
Several weeks ago, my children and I had a very interesting conversation, about how confusing it is that God reveals Himself as the Trinity—3 in 1. Their little minds were grappling with the cosmic mystery of how 1 God can be 3 persons, and not 3 gods. How Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other, and are One God. How Jesus can pray to the Father—isn’t that God praying to Himself?
God made a mathematical universe, but Math cannot explain it. God has ordered His creation according to relentlessly predictable laws; but the laws of nature cannot explain it either. God has created us with our reason and all our senses—but even these cannot explain the eternal, unfathomable mystery of the Godhead—the Three in One.
I related to my children the analogy of trying to empty out the ocean, or to scoop up the whole ocean in our beach buckets. Impossible! The ocean seems infinite compared to our buckets. And many have compared God’s infinity and transcendence to the ocean, and our minds to those beach buckets. We just don’t have the mental capacity to comprehend the fullness of God; and that’s not saying we aren’t intelligent human beings. But God has condescended to reveal Himself to us. That’s a key part of Christmas. We could not comprehend God in all His vast greatness and glory, but He has condescended to our level, humbling Himself to be born on earth, in human flesh and blood. He came down to our size and perception.
Our Gospel reading from Matthew is not a traditional Christmas reading, and you probably know it more for the part about being weary and heavy laden, or Jesus’s yoke being easy and light. But today I want to focus on the Christmas theme in the first few verses: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children;  yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Wise and understanding minds could not search out and understand all the mystery of the Gospel, but God has revealed it to little children. It’s not PhD’s that will make sense of it all, but by God revealing it to us. And God wants humility from all.
And slow it down to hear this—no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. So reflect on what this means. Only the Father and Son know each other. And the only way to know God the Father is through Jesus His Son. And only those whom Jesus has chosen to reveal it, can know the Father! So that means that there is no outside track, no backdoor to knowing God outside of Jesus—no self-chosen way of us finding God, but only the Son-chosen way of Him revealing, uncovering the Father to us. Only Jesus gives us true knowledge of Him. Like Father, like Son, they say; especially true in the Trinity. Later, before His death, in John 14, the disciple Philip asked just a teensy little favor from Jesus “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Not like he was James and John, asking to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand forever! Philip just wanted to see the Father!
Perhaps Jesus sighed before answering Philip: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:8-10). Seeing Jesus is seeing and knowing the Father. There is no other way to the Father.
So what does that mean for Christmas? Or for the whole of Scripture? It means that Jesus has the job description of Father-Revealer. He came to earth so we might know and see the true face of our heavenly Father. Hebrews 1:3 says: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. We don’t have to wonder about what is the nature of God, we only need to see and read about it in Christ’s own sacrificial life, death, and resurrection. Colossians 1:15 adds, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We cannot see God, the invisible God, except in Jesus Christ. On the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds first beheld God, swaddling in baby clothes, lying in a manger. They saw God in perfect, tiny human form—LIFE…every bit like ours, yet without sin. Life with all the potential for growth, for goodness, for greatness. And yet His life was also marked with certain potential for sorrow and grief and loss. Not His fault, but through the weight of sin that was thrust upon Him. Through the fact that He was born under the Law to redeem us from under the law (Galatians 4:4-5).
So the miracle of Christmas is the incomprehensible God comes down in familiar, recognizable, tangible, touchable human form. A baby needing love, care, and protection. An innocent life, thrust into a world of sin. But unlike any other ordinary child, Jesus would not add sin and wrongdoing to His potential, but follow a straight path toward the good. Unlike any other ordinary child, this Jesus would not add to the debt of sin—rather He came to pay it. God needed knowing—or rather, we needed to know Him—so He makes Himself available, accessible, and understandable to us in the person of Jesus. In Jesus we can see God’s love lived out and exemplified. In Jesus’ we see God’s rebuke for hypocrisy, pride, and unrepentant sin, but His compassion for the downtrodden, the weak, and the suffering. In Jesus we see God’s justice and mercy, like Father, like Son. And we’re not getting a close replica, or a variation, but the exact imprint, the image of the invisible God.
So instead of grappling with the mysteries of the invisible, and trying to peer behind God’s unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16), we come to the visible and approachable flesh and blood Jesus. We come as the shepherds first came, to find understanding in the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. A mystery that calls more for worship and adoration, less for dissection and analysis. Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the Newborn King! In Jesus we find God dwelling in all His fullness (Col. 1:19). It doesn’t lessen the puzzle of the Trinity for my children, it doesn’t make God fit into the “little buckets” of our understanding—but it gives us a way to access God’s mystery. Hidden from the wise and understanding, but revealed to little children—it takes the simple wonder and awe of a child to recognize God’s gift. Jesus says this is the Father’s gracious will.
Jesus said no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. It’s Jesus’ choice to whom He will reveal the Father. Our ability to believe, to know God, is Jesus’ choice! Jesus says in the Gospel of John to His disciples, You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16). How do we know if we are chosen by Jesus to believe in God? A few simple questions: do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God? If so, then together with Peter, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you!...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven!” (Matthew 16:16-17).  Another question, do you believe that you are a sinner, in need of Christ’s forgiveness, and that Christ has forgiven your sin? If yes, then know that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).
If your answers are ‘No’, and you do not yet know Christ, or know Him as your Savior, only listen to His Word and believe! Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17), and God uses His Word to call us into faith and knowledge of Him.
Christmas shows to those who will receive it, that God is not the distant God, or an uncaring God, or the unknowable God, but He is the God who is near to us, who cares for us, and who is known to us in Jesus Christ. We don’t have to wrap our head around an enormous mystery, only bow down in worship before a humble mystery, God’s gift of salvation wrapped up and laid for us in the manger. He continues to wrap up and give to us this gift of salvation in the pages of Scripture, His Word, where we find Jesus. Today we come to His Table to receive Jesus’ body and blood, wrapped in the humble packaging of bread and wine, but still God’s true gift for us, for the forgiveness of our sins. Blessed are we to know the Father through the Son!
P: The Savior is Born! C: He is born in a manger! Amen!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Shepherd-King"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we listened to the words of the prophet Zephaniah, who spoke about God’s joy and how He sings over His redeemed. Today, we rewind the clock even further, another 100-150 years at least, to the words of the prophet Micah, who anticipates the birth of the promised Savior. All the prophets “sang in harmony,” pointing to the Messiah or Christ, along with their various individual concerns. For most of them, the threat of surrounding superpowers like Assyria and Babylon, and the invasion of Israel loomed large. No less for Micah. Micah lived alongside Isaiah, the greatest of the writing prophets. Together, Micah and Isaiah gave great witness to the coming birth of the Savior. Some of Isaiah’s most famous prophecies are of the Virgin Birth (7:14), and the child born to be the Prince of Peace (9:6). This passage in Micah 5, echoes many words of Isaiah.
God’s Old Testament people longed for a Savior, a Deliverer. Not always with equal enthusiasm or attention, but the promises God made were there all along, back to Adam and Eve. Listen to Micah 5:2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Bethlehem means “house of bread” and is the birthplace of both David and Jesus—both shepherd-kings of Israel. Ephrathah is the name of a clan of Judah, and sets this Bethlehem apart from another Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun.
But notice the status of Bethlehem: you “are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. The prophet knows this little backwater town is going to be the birthplace of a great ruler. But it sounds like no one else would guess it, from the insignificance of Bethlehem. All through the Bible we find God working mighty things from “underdogs.” By the underestimated, the outnumbered, the insignificant, God proves that it is His power and His might that saves, not human strength or power. Let’s run through a few examples: there’s Gideon’s 300 unarmed men, who by God’s power defeat an overwhelming army of the Midianites. There’s the anointing of David as king, when the prophet Samuel called his father Jesse to line up all his sons, no one thought to include David, the “runt of the litter”—the youngest. But nevertheless, God chose him to be king. And guess where David was born? Bethlehem! A shepherd king!
Then there’s David and Goliath, and Naaman the Syrian, who despises the washing of water in the Jordan, to be cleansed of leprosy—but who eventually is healed when he humbles himself and obeys. And the same pattern continues in the life of Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, but raised in Nazareth, another backwater town, the villagers of Nazareth scoffed that Jesus, the son of the carpenter could be a great miracle worker and teacher. Nathaniel, when first called to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Or the 5 loaves and 2 fishes which were scorned as too small to feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children.
Again and again as St. Paul tell us, God was pleased to choose “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:27–31). God has this thing against human boasting. He won’t have it! So God chooses a little town of Bethlehem, or 300 unarmed men, or the youngest son of the brood, or the humble washing of water, or a prophet raised in Nazareth, to dumbfound and put to shame our man-made wisdom and boasting. He chooses the low and despised to bring to nothing the things that are.
None of the scorning, scoffing, or overlooking in anyway hindered God’s plan. Bethlehem was not only the birthplace of one great shepherd-king, David—it was the birthplace of two—Jesus, the Son of David, whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. These words of Micah hint at what Jesus said (John 8:58), “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus speaks of His ancient origin, of His preexisting Abraham. This blankly declares that Jesus is more than mere human. And to declare I AM was to directly identify Himself with God, which is why they picked up stones to stone Jesus, but He escaped. Micah clues us in on the eternity of the Messiah.
Vs.  3 continues: “Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” A chapter before, Micah 4:9-10, we read that while Israel waits for her deliverer, she would be delivered up into the hand of her enemies. She would “groan…like a woman in labor”. Like a woman in labor pains, they would suffer. From the time of Micah till the time of Jesus, there would be much groaning from the Israelites, under the heavy hand and burden of foreign domination. “Until the time when she who is in labor has given birth,” he continues in chapter 3. The image of Israel groaning in labor seems to blend with the literal birth of the Messiah, Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. Israel’s figurative birth pains, from enemy oppression, would be relieved in the literal birth of Jesus of Bethlehem.
And vs. 3 also describes “the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” Who are “the rest of his brothers?” Two other verses—one Old Testament, the other in the New—come to mind. The Old Testament one is Isaiah 49:6. If the people of Israel thought Bethlehem was too little to be of any significance, then God thinks that it’s too light a thing for His chosen servant, the Messiah, to only rescue the tribes of Jacob and the preserved of Israel. God says this is too light a thing—so “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” So Jesus is commissioned by God to shine the light of His salvation to the ends of the earth, rescuing Jew and Gentile. The New Testament verse that comes to mind is when Jesus the Good Shepherd says that He has “other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). God’s glory would not be shortened by a small redemption, but Jesus would  make disciples of all nations. God magnified and increased His glory thru Jesus, and enlarged His salvation to the grandest scope.
Micah 5:4-5 describes Jesus, this second Shepherd-King of Bethlehem: “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5 And he shall be their peace.” Many prophecies describe the Messiah as a shepherd, and God’s people like sheep that had been abused, mistreated, and led astray. God Himself will step in to shepherd the people, the prophets warn. God will deal with the wicked shepherds, the leaders of Israel who were not faithful to their duty. So Micah describes Jesus coming to shepherd in the strength of the Lord and the majesty of the name of God. Again, not by human might, but by the Lord’s strength and the power of His Name, so that we would have no reason for boasting, except in the Lord.
And He shall be great to the ends of the earth. How would it come about that a ruler born from a town of no account in a tiny land that’s no bigger than the total land area of Hawaii, would become renowned and known to all the ends of the earth? Fame of that kind usually comes by great empire expansions, like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, or the longevity of  great dynasties like the Chinese, or the great monuments of the Egyptians or Romans or Incans. But all of these powers and rulers have risen and fallen, and most of their rulers names are lost to the dust of time. And none equals the fame or greatness of the Shepherd-King Jesus. With no earthly empire, no monuments, no armies or wars to His name, He has followers who worship and praise His name in every nation on earth. Jesus’ “kingdom still stands and grows forever” (LSB 886:5). New disciples are added to His kingdom every day, all around the globe. It was once said the sun never set on the British Empire—because it circled the globe. But now that is only true of Jesus’ kingdom, the church, which day or night is always at prayer or worshipping His great name. What a marvelous fulfillment of the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah!
Two hanging phrases remain: they shall dwell secure…and he shall be their peace. Peace and security are found in this Shepherd King. Not an Enforcer, with a sword to slaughter His enemies, but the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. As God ever confounds the wisdom of the world by reversing things from the weak and lowly to confound the strong and mighty, so God did in the death of Jesus, the Good Shepherd King. No mere earthly peace that can be won by the sword of an enforcer, but He speaks peace, as the prophet Zechariah adds: 9:10 “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” The Word of Jesus is the weapon that brings about peace, because it slays the evil in men’s hearts, and turns them to God. His Truth is more powerful than any sword, as it brings the light of salvation to men’s hearts, and turns them from evil to good. He shall be their peace.
For those who cling to Jesus, our Shepherd-King, no sword can steal our peace or security. Our security is knowing that not even death can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. We are guarded by His Shepherd staff;  the One who laid down His life for us, that we might rise to life forever with Him, where there is no enemy to destroy or thief to break in and steal. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
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  1. Read Micah 5:2-5a. What sort of skepticism attaches to the town of Bethlehem? What other examples of such skepticism are found for those of lowly status or lacking earthly might?  Judges 7; 1 Samuel 16-17; 2 Kings 5; Mark 6:1-6; John 1:45-46; 6:9. Why does God so often choose to work through and among such lowly and despised people and things? 1 Corinthians 1:27-31.
  2. What does Micah 5:2 imply about Jesus, the Messiah’s, origin? Cf. John 8:58. What did Jesus directly state about His existence?
  3. Micah 5:3 uses the image of a woman in labor to describe the duration of the time that Israel would be given up to the hand of their enemies. Compare to ch. 4:9-10 and surrounding verses. How does this metaphor of suffering translate into the actual birth of a child to deliver them from their enemies? Isaiah 7:14; 9:1-6.
  4. Who are the “rest of his brothers” that the Messiah will return to Israel? Cf. Isaiah 49:6; 2:2; 25:6-7. John 10:16; Matthew 28:19-20.
  5. Look at the passages that prophesy the Messiah as being a shepherd: Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34; cf. Zechariah 10:2 & ch. 11. By whose might would this Shepherd-King rule? Micah 5:4
  6. What is the greatness and fame of Jesus? Why would the little town of Bethlehem and the small nation of Israel become world-renowned? How far does His kingdom extend? By what power does it spread?
  7. How do we have peace and security in Jesus? How does He bring peace differently than an “enforcer” or “warrior”? What is the origin of His peace? Zechariah 9:10; Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 2:11-16.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "The John 3:16 of the Old Testament"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The book of Zephaniah is not the most frequently read book of the Bible. You might not know anything about Zephaniah; he’s obscure enough to slip under the radar. But our reading today is one of the most remarkable verses in the Old Testament, if not in the whole Bible: vs. 17, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” Before prepping this sermon, I didn’t know of any other verse in the Bible that directly describes God Himself singing. Turns out there are more in the Psalms that speak prophetically about Jesus singing and leading our song to God—and Jesus sang hymns with His disciples on the night of His betrayal, and no doubt all through His life in the worship at God’s Temple and synagogues. Still, this verse stands apart, because song and music usually flow to God, not from Him. The surprise in this passage, is that when God calls on us to sing and exult we find that He is actually singing and exulting too! One writer has suggested that this verse is like the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.
But to fully appreciate the significance of this passage and verse, you have to step back and understand a little about Zephaniah’s situation, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem who first heard this Word from God. It’s the 600’s BC, and here’s a thumbnail sketch of that time in Israel’s history. Of the two kingdoms that made up Israel, only the Southern Kingdom Judah, and its capital Jerusalem, were still standing. About 100 years before, the ten Northern Tribes of Israel had fallen to the invading armies of Assyria—God’s judgment on generations of idolatry and wickedness. A long line of prophets after warned Judah to turn back to the Lord before it is too late. The Kingdom of Judah is just a couple of generations behind the doom of their northern brothers. Soon after the death of King Josiah in 609, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon are going to start chipping away at the tiny kingdom of Judah. By 586 BC, just a few decades after Zephaniah’s prophecy, Jerusalem is going to be utterly destroyed, and all of Judah with it. In short, these are not good days to be an inhabitant of Jerusalem. King Josiah was a good reformer, and had cleansed the Temple and restored proper worship of God, but his reforms wouldn’t last. His father King Amon and grandfather King Manasseh had been two of the most wicked kings of Judah, who had reintroduced detestable Canaanite idol worship and child sacrifice, banned long ago by God. Josiah had put on the brakes, but the kingdom of Judah was still skidding toward an inevitable and painful crash. God’s grace to Josiah was that he wouldn’t see this destruction in his own lifetime, but Judah’s fate was still sealed. After his death, Judah relapsed into old sins familiar from the days of Josiah’s father and grandfather, instead of following the Lord with their whole heart.
So Zephaniah was a bearer of bad news: unflinching judgment to Judah and Jerusalem; the repayment of all their evil, injustice, and corruption. And the heat doesn’t relent until chapter 3:8. Then our reading picks up in vs. 14. So the sunburst of joy that is Zephaniah 3:14-20, comes after chapters of turbulent storm clouds and gloomy judgment. Zephaniah’s original audience are the generation who will see all this destruction befall Jerusalem. Their road ahead is filled with sorrows. I tell you this so you know that God did not speak these words in a happy-go-lucky vacuum. That’s important, because when God calls us to rejoice, and gives reasons for our rejoicing, we’re not often in a happy-go-lucky vacuum ourselves. I certainly hope and pray that your lives are “shalom” or peaceful and whole. But even and especially if they are not, know that God is the restorer in our midst, and that God did not send a doctor for the healthy, but for the sick. Not to the righteous that God sends a Savior, but to the sick and the sinners. Zephaniah’s words of hope are a turn from the Law to the Gospel, from the bad news of sin and God’s judgment, to the Good News of God’s rescue and redemption.
How do you respond to these invitations: “Sing aloud….shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart…”? Lord willing, for most of us, we can answer with a joyful song of praise! But I also especially want to speak today to those whose hearts might be heavy, like Zephaniah’s original hearers. God invites you too to rejoice. In the Bible God often calls His people to rejoice; at a festival, or in the goodness of the Lord, or the greatness of His salvation. But sometimes we feel like the Psalmist in Psalm 42, who recalls days of rejoicing in his past, but at present was downcast and troubled in soul. Life in the spin cycle, like a drowning man getting pounded under huge and relentless waves. But in Psalm 42, he expresses these words, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 42:5). Because his hope is set on God, He sees future days of praising awaiting him. He knows this present suffering will pass. Whether Psalm 42, or in Zephaniah, or for us, God establishes us on God’s hope and salvation. God stands us on His promises for our days of trial, difficulty, and suffering. He doesn’t tell us how long those days will last, but we know God’s promises and faithfulness never fail even when life seems dashed against the rocks.
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. A long list of judgments piled up against Judah. I would not dare to ask or see the list of judgments that were to pile up against me, or you, or anyone else. From my own depth of sin I know enough to give thanks with the Psalmist; “If you O, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” (Psalm 130:3-4). And Zephaniah says that God has cleared away both their judgments and their enemies. 2,600 years after Zephaniah, we know how and why. God nailed the record of accusations that stood against us to the cross of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:14), so there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1)! The incomprehensibly vast record of debt and accusations that marked us all for judgment and death, is nailed to the cross of Jesus. Taken away.
Zephaniah goes on to describe the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. Jesus was the child born to be King. The Truest King of Israel. Not a partial success, or a temporary reformer. Not a king to be succeeded by a scurrilous son who would reverse His good deeds. But the King who would not be overthrown by His enemies, the King who would not be succeeded by another; the King who would be crushed for the sins of His people, but would rise gloriously from the dead to see all His future offspring. Jerusalem shall not fear evil because Jesus is the Forever King who is in the midst of His people, His children. He stands in our midst and leads us in the song of His salvation, in praise to God! (Hebrews 2:12; Ps. 22:22; Romans 15:9; Ps. 18:49). If God is for us, who can stand against? V. 16 says, “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.” No hand-wringing or helplessness or hesitation, but jump to the task of living and serving God. We are free from fear!
And then that marvelous vs. 17: “The Lord your God is in your midst a mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” What a description of God and His love! A mighty One who will save--God is a warrior or hero, who rescues us from enemies, who is strong and undefeated. And you—you His redeemed people, are the object of His joy and His singing! God celebrates you! He rejoices at having you back as His own. I believe this is what Hebrews 12:2 means when it describes the joy set before Him that made Jesus endure the suffering of the cross. The joy of having His children back as His own.
He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love. I can’t help but picture a parent holding their frightened and trembling child close in their arms, quieting their fears. Or Jesus describing God’s love like a good shepherd who hunts for one lost sheep, and when He finds the sheep, carries it home on His shoulders, rejoicing! He will quiet you by His love. Do we ever need to become like a child again, and climb into our Heavenly Father’s lap, and be embraced and quieted by His love? Absolutely! Isaiah 40:11 “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” God’s caring arms are open in Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
And He will exult over you with loud singing. How often do you have someone sing loudly over you? Maybe only on your birthday! And for some, even that’s too embarrassing! But God exults over you with loud singing. Earlier I said suffering or grief often make it hard for us to rejoice and exult in the Lord, or to sing aloud. But here God leads us in very thing He calls us to do! He rejoices and exults over us! God is so full of joy that He celebrates you, a poor, miserable sinner, are forgiven, redeemed, and washed clean by His blood. That you are His comforted and beloved child, quieted in His love, held in His arms. God sings loudly over you! And I especially want those to hear this…those who might question or wonder—surely not me? It can’t be me also, that he’s talking about? Not with my sin, with my life the way it is and has been. Not with all the judgments that stand against me?
But sing aloud and rejoice and exult with all your heart, because the Lord has taken away the judgments against you! The John 3:16 of the New Testament assures me that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, just as this “John 3:16 of the Old Testament” assures us that God sings over His redeemed people. And I know that you are in this world that God so loved! God’s promises of salvation, God’s joy is surely meant for you—Yes you! He sings over you, as surely as all heaven sings with Him when one lost sinner is saved!
Zephaniah ends with God’s assurance that He will gather those who mourn, and those who have suffered shame. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord. Jesus leads our song of praise in the great reversal of our fortunes, from shame and defeat, from injury and exclusion, to a song of praise and renown in all the earth. Jesus reversed our fortunes when He took our sins upon Himself on the cross, and He removed the judgments against us. He forgives us our sins and gives life and honor in the place of shame and death. It’s our praise and renown to bear the name of Jesus, and be called sons and daughters of God. An honor that cannot be taken away by any enemy. An honor we never deserved, but He grants freely by His grace. We have more than enough reason to rejoice this Advent and Christmas season, as we praise the Mighty One who saves us! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at

  1. Zephaniah 3:14-20 is not only a surprisingly joyful section in the prophet Zephaniah (contrast to the strong judgment language of Zeph. 3:1-8), but it is also uniquely joyful in all the Old Testament, as a description of God’s joy over His people. How does Zephaniah call them to respond to God’s salvation? 3:14.
  2. Read 2 Kings 22-23 about the reign of Josiah, who was king while Zephaniah prophesied. What reforms did he put in place, and how did God show favor to him as a result? How was the fate of Judah nevertheless sealed? 2 Kings 18:18-20; 23:25-27.
  3. Read all three short chapters of Zephaniah, and note the heavy tone of judgment and wrath all the way up to 3:8. Note the hopeful turn in vs. 3:9ff, and how great the contrast in 3:14-20 is to the rest of the book. This hope doesn’t come in a “vacuum.” How are our lives often also filled with sorrow and crosses? How does God’s hope set us on a firm foundation to endure all these?
  4. For those who struggle to find joy or hope, read Psalm 42 and reflect on how God’s promises endure, and our song of praise will return.
  5. How has God “taken away the judgments against us”? Psalm 130:3-4; Colossians 2:14; Romans 8:1.
  6. Look at the remarkable passage Zephaniah 3:17. Who is the object of God’s loud singing, and why? Hebrews 12:2. What picture do you see of God “quieting you by His love?” cf. Luke 15:3-7; Isaiah 40:11.
  7. How can we be sure that God sings over you? John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4. How does that make you feel?
  8. Zephaniah 3:18-20 speaks of God’s great reversal of our fortunes, from evil and shame to goodness and honor. Jesus’ cross is at the center of this great reversal. Sing a new song and rejoice!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon on Luke 3:1-14, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (3 YR lectionary), "Picture the Kingdom, See His Salvation"

** a little side note for those who pay attention to these things...I've moved back to the 3 year lectionary of readings. **
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. John the Baptist is our familiar Advent messenger, hailing the coming of Jesus. John preached a fiery message in the wilderness, calling people to repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Crowds of people turned out to hear him, but he rebuked them as a “brood of vipers…fleeing the wrath to come.” If John the Baptist were a visiting preacher at ELC, how would we respond to his sharp call to repentance? Pride or defensiveness? Close our ears or turn away? Alternatively, we could respond like some did to John, with the question, “Teacher, what shall we do?” A very good question. How do we respond to the call of repentance? What is repentance, and how do we bear fruits in keeping with repentance?
Metanoia is the Greek word for repentance here. It  means to “change your mind”. Changing our mind from evil to good. How hard is it to change your mind? Some of us are so stubborn that almost nothing can change our mind; others are so fickle that our minds are never made up. But repentance is the Spirit’s work in us, to change our hearts and minds and turn them back to God. It’s not man’s work, or our work, but a divine change God works in our hearts and minds. It shows us our sin is unacceptable to God. In repentance we cut off the excuse making, the rationalizing of our wrongs; the defensiveness or pride that tries to say that our sin is ok. Repentance is a change of mind (and heart) from evil to good.
How does God work such a change of mind in us, to create true repentance? The preaching of God's Law is the primary tool of the Holy Spirit. God’s Law shows us our sins, and the Spirit convicts our heart and conscience that we have sinned against God, and that sin is wrong. God clears the way in our hearts for His coming. Flattening mountains, filling in valleys, leveling and straightening out bumpy roads and crooked paths. God bulldozes our sin and pride, and levels our defensiveness against God’s Word. God crushes and shatters the rationalizations and self-justifications, with the hammer of His Law. Have no doubt that God’s will is certainly going to prevail over our will, and its best for us to yield to His way, rather than putting up futile resistance, and losing in the end anyway. Don’t be the one who dares to take your stand on the walls of Jericho, against God. Those walls are going to come tumbling down.
John calls all people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. Changing our mind should also change our actions. Don’t continue in sin, once you know it’s wrong. It damages your conscience and grieves the Holy Spirit. Our spirit and flesh are always in a tug of war. The flesh always pulling us to evil, but the spirit striving toward the ways of God. When John shows us what the fruits of repentance look like, we get a picture of life in God’s kingdom. A picture of what our new life can look like in the Holy Spirit.  What then shall we do?
John’s answers all show at least one thing in common. Be less attached to the things of this world. Power, possessions, money, influence. In a life of repentance, these things should yield to generosity, mercy, charity, just dealings with each other, integrity and honesty in our work, and contentment. Our change of mind should be toward God’s priorities and values. No longer on greed or power grabs, or lording our authority over others. Living in Christ’s kingdom means bearing fruits worthy of repentance.
Grab that picture for a moment; consider the difference in life when we bear fruits of repentance. John pictures us sharing our excess food and clothing with those who don’t have enough. Charitable giving grows greatly around the holidays, but is a year-round need. Voluntarily giving and sharing with others is a reward all in itself; the joy of helping others. John commends tax collectors and soldiers to do their jobs with faithfulness and integrity. Taxes are rightfully due to government, for the services they provide, but John warned against collecting more than they were authorized. This applies to more than just the IRS. Consider how accountability and transparency improves trust and support of business and of government, compared to when those are missing. Suspicion and anger increases when trust is lost. But our entire trust for each other in society is improved when no one is trying to cheat others or be greedy, when our dealings are open, just, and fair.
Working with the military now, I notice how John returned the soldiers to their line of work with this remark: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” He didn’t tell them that they couldn’t continue as soldiers, but he pledged them to use their position for good, and not to abuse their power or authority for money and personal gain. Soldiers doing their duty for good, are a great blessing for the peacefulness and stability of society, against enemies. But soldiers abusing their power, can be a great trouble to society. He says contentment should rule their lives, and to be satisfied with their pay. Same is true for us. Contentment helps us to appreciate what we have and to be thankful for what others have as well. It’s the absence of jealousy and greed. Sadly, contentment is in short supply in our world, and advertisers urge all the nice things of this world upon us, and create a lack of contentment in us. We are rarely satisfied with what we have.
Life in God’s kingdom unfolds from living God’s way. We bear the fruits of repentance when we examine our lives for sin and every evil, and strive by the Holy Spirit to walk in newness of life. Not attached to the things of this world, but attached to the higher things of God. Motivated by the love of God to use our earthly possessions, our earthly power and influence, for the good of others. So it is good that we ask ourselves how unrepentance rears its ugly head in our lives. What are the sins that we make excuses for, or are protected by our personal pride or defensiveness? What sins find their way through the weak points in our armor? These need to be confessed to God, and laid before Him for forgiveness and help to amend our lives. These are the hills, ravines, crooked and rough roads that need to be leveled and straightened in our hearts, for the coming of the Lord. What does our life look like in the kingdom of God? How is God making us new, fruitful branches?
None of this comes to us apart from Christ. Jesus said: John 15:4–5 “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from Jesus, we can bear no fruits of repentance. This is God’s work in us. We become living, fruit bearing branches, by being in Christ Jesus, just as a garden hose only has water when it’s connected to the spigot and the water is turned on. Bearing fruit comes from being in the Living Vine Jesus. As our last verse of the epistle reading says, Philippians 1:11, we are “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” From Jesus we are living branches, fruit-bearing branches. From ourselves we are dead wood, ready to be cut off the tree and fuel for the fire. Living branches must remain in the Vine, that is Christ Jesus.
When John quotes the prophet Isaiah, to describe his mission of preparing the way of the Lord, he ends by saying “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The salvation of God came in that singular person, our singular Savior, Jesus Christ. Aged Simeon confessed it when he sang over baby Jesus, held in his arms: “my own eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:30-31). Even those who were unwilling to see this salvation, in the person of Jesus Christ, trembled at the sight when the Son of God died on the cross for our sins. To see such an awesome sight, and even begin to comprehend the love of God, even for such “haters”, was enough to put the fear of God in many a heart.
Today we “see the salvation of God” through the eyes of the many eyewitnesses who faithfully put these things down in Scripture. We see with eyes of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, we may have life in His Name. Our eyes, like theirs, are opened by God’s Word, when His Law breaks down our defenses, exposes our sin and self-deceptions. Our eyes are opened when we realize that God fully knows each one of us, down to the very thoughts of our heart. And nevertheless, God loves us for the sake of His Son Jesus. And here the Gospel rays of light shine down on our opened eyes, as we too see the salvation of God. We see God gave us His Son, so that we might have life in His kingdom. Beginning here and now on earth, washed in the waters of baptism, and set on a new course of life with Him. We have a picture of what life can be like here and now, in the beginning of His kingdom, living by repentance, baptism, and forgiveness. But our life in His kingdom also points beyond this earthly struggle. We have been called by Jesus to “be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He has risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true” Amen. (The Small Catechism, explanation of the 2nd Article of the Creed).

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  1. How does Luke 3:1-2 firmly locate these events in a historical setting? Looking at the list of names, what progression of importance do you notice? What is significant about the fact that the word of the Lord came to John, instead of these others? Cf. Luke 1:51-52.
  2. John’s baptism was about 1) repentance and 2) forgiveness. Define these two Biblical terms. What does it mean to repent of sin, and what are the signs or fruits (3:8) of repentance?
  3. How does humbling ourselves before God, and turning back to God “prepare the way” for the coming of the Lord?
  4. In Luke 3:6, what does it mean to “see the salvation of God?”  cf. Isaiah 40:5; 52:10; Luke 2:30; Titus 2:11.
  5. When John calls people to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8), people ask what this should look like. Review John’s examples in Luke 3:10-14. Give some examples that would match your own life.
  6. Notice that this is a picture of what life should be like in the kingdom of God. How is life on earth changed for the better when we live with mercy, cheerful giving, honesty and integrity in our work, just dealings with others and contentment with our wages? Add to this list as you picture the kingdom of God taking shape on earth through our lives of repentance and good fruit.
  7. What must first be true, if a believer is to bear good fruit? John 15:4-6. So where does our good fruit come from? Philippians 1:11.