Sunday, December 25, 2005

Sermon: Christmas

25 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:1-14

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

John opens his Gospel using the very same words Moses uses to begin the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” He takes us back to the beginning of everything – of time and space itself. And notice that during this, the very first nanosecond of everything, we find that something was already in existence: the Word. Before the beginning of time and space, the Word existed with God, and the Word was God.

Isn’t this a great way to begin a Gospel? Instead of starting with Jesus’ genealogy, or the Christmas story, St. John talks in riddles.

But this is so important, because John is telling us about Jesus. Jesus existed before Jesus. Jesus existed before existence. Jesus is eternal, and not bound by time. In other words, Jesus is God. This is important because it sets up the wonder of Christmas! Jesus is not a created being, and yet when he was born, he took on created flesh. Jesus transcends all time and space, and yet he was born on a specific date at a specific time, and he occupied a tiny area contained within the skin of an infant. Jesus is almighty, and yet became all-helpless. Jesus is all glorious, and yet veiled his glory to the point of wearing diapers.

Why does God do this? This, dear friends, is the great question. The world gets it wrong. Time and Newsweek get it wrong. Sadly, a lot of Christian churches get it wrong. Jesus didn’t come to give us the law – Moses already did that. Jesus didn’t come to teach us morality, we all know right from wrong. Jesus didn’t come to be only a teacher – the world has seen thousands of great teachers before and after Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to advocate a political position, to advance a social agenda, or to tell us what kind of vehicle to drive.

God becomes one with his creation, he breaks into space and time, because there is a plan. There is a real and profound need for him to be here. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

Theologians argue about whether or not God would have taken flesh even if we had not fallen into sin. Who can say one way or the other? But this much we know for sure: “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… born of God.” He was “born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.”

And what is the connection between the baby lying in a manger and our being born again? How are we born again? Notice what our Gospel text says: “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Our being born again is a lot like Jesus’ birth: it is supernatural, it is divine, it is mysterious. Our being born again, becoming children of God, is not a “human decision.” Nobody decides to follow Jesus or makes a decision to accept Jesus as savior. Rather we are “born of God.” It happens to us without our will, even in spite of our will!

Our epistle text speaks of how Christmas is tied to being born again: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

We are born again not by our willpower, not by our good deeds, not by our decision to accept Jesus, not by some waterless baptism of the Holy Spirit championed by certain sects – but by a “washing of rebirth.” We are washed clean by water and the Word! This baptismal font is where the Holy Spirit hovers – just as surely as the glory of the Lord appeared as a pillar of fire and as a cloud over the children of Israel. When the water was poured on us with the Lord’s words, the Holy Spirit was placed on us, and we were indeed, in the very words of Jesus, “born again… born of water and the Spirit.”

So, the Word took on flesh, Jesus was born, so that we might be born anew. Through the washing of rebirth, Jesus saves us. And this is for no other reason than that God is merciful and he loves his whole creation.

John describes this incarnation of God as life and light. These are the opposites of death and darkness. The old priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied in words we still sing in the liturgy: “Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Apart from Jesus, we sit in the dark, and wait to die. There is no hope, and no direction, no guidance. But with the coming of Jesus, the Dayspring, who has come to us on a mission of mercy, he brings us light and guides our feet. Jesus is the fulfillment of the psalmists’ prophecy: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The Word, dear Christian friends, is Jesus. The Word isn’t information recorded in a book – the Word is the living, breathing Christ, God in the flesh, who has snatched us from darkness and death, whose light guides us to eternal life.

“The true light that gives light to every man was coming in the world.” Notice that John says the light is given to all men. And yet, not all men want it! It is as though a winning lottery ticket were distributed to every person, but most people decided they didn’t need it – some politely, others violently. The twisted response of the world to the coming of Jesus is testimony to the wretchedness of man. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” The world rejects Jesus, rejects the Church, rejects the Scriptures, rejects the sacraments, and rejects eternal life itself. The world embraces the culture of darkness and death.

But thanks be to God that we baptized, reborn children of God have seen the light, and have received the gift of eternal life! “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Thanks be to God St. John has written a new account of “in the beginning,” that the fall of Genesis was conquered by the rising of Jesus. The degradation of human flesh by sin into the stuff of corruption and death has been checked and turned around by the One who has taken on our flesh, and yet who is incorruptible, and who has conquered death for all time.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In six days, he created all things, and on the seventh day, he rested. But there has followed an Eighth Day, the first day in a new age of creation. That new creation has begun, dear friends. On the Eighth Day, the Creator became one with his creation. We are in the last days as we move ever closer to the end of the Book of Revelation, in which all darkness, misery, suffering, and death are conquered and overthrown.

For the baby Jesus, God in the flesh, was born in a manger – a food trough. He was born in a place called Bethlehem – literally, the House of Bread. He is the true bread from heaven, the new manna, which he bids us to eat. His blood is the blood of the new passover, the new testament, which he bids us to drink. His divine body and blood are melded with ours, raising us to himself.

This, all ye faithful, is the meaning of Christmas. The birth of Jesus, the Son in flesh appearing, has heralded a new age, the beginning of the end of time, the beginning of the end of death. God and man are one in flesh and in eternity. We are claimed as his own by holy baptism, and nourished by holy communion and holy absolution. The Word made flesh is a lamp to our feet as he proclaims his Gospel to us. Sin, death, and the devil have been conquered. The new heaven and the new earth are now under construction, and we are citizens of this heaven above.

“Glory to God in the highest! Oh come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sermon: Christmas Eve

24 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: various

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

All of history is divided into before Christmas and after Christmas. We use the terms BC and AD to indicate whether a year is Before Christ, or Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord). Even in non-Christian countries this convention is followed. In places that are outright hostile to the Christian faith, the same numbers for years are used – history is still divided between before Christmas and after Christmas, yet the artificial terms Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) are used. They think they’re being clever in removing Jesus from the very reason we divide history this way.

But the joke is on them. For there is some divine truth in their terminology! On the first Christmas, at the birth of our Lord, when God took on human flesh – this is indeed the beginning of the “common era.” For now, God and man have something in common that they did not have in the BC era – humanity. Human flesh. For almighty God “put our human vesture on and came to us as Mary’s Son.”

This commonality, this communion between God and man, between God and us, is especially remarkable because we had rejected God. Eve gave in to the serpent’s temptation while Adam watched and later participated. Adam and Eve wanted something that was not theirs: commonality with God. They wanted to bridge the gap between the almighty Lord and lowly humanity by their own deceitful act. They wanted commonality on their own terms. And since that day, we have been a fallen race, “banished children,” people sitting in darkness, cursed, and mortal.

And how does God react? In the fullness of time, in the reign of Herod in Bethlehem, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” He, the “Savior of our fallen race,” the “brightness of the Father’s face.” And thanks to that light, we no longer sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. We, “the people that in darkness sat, a glorious light have seen, the light has shined on them who long in shades of death have been.”

Instead of destroying us “poor miserable sinners,” God became one of us, taking the name “Jesus” – “because he will save his people from their sins.” By our sins, we have made ourselves enemies of God. And the “stump of Jesse,” the one born in royal David’s city, has come to crush the head of his enemy. But he has not come to crush us! For we are no longer his enemies – because we have commonality, we have communion, we share our flesh with Immanuel – “God with us.” He has come to make peace with us, and to make war against the devil. He has come to crush the serpent’s head, and to undo the curse of darkness mankind had been under those many millennia before Christ, before the common era, before God took flesh to become our savior.

Dear Christian brothers and sisters: this is why we celebrate Christmas! This is why the devil seeks to destroy Christmas! The incarnation of God into human flesh is the greatest event in history – it separates every human endeavor into two halves – and it made commonality, union, communion with God possible – on his terms, not on ours.

In ancient prayer books, four words in the Nicene Creed were printed in capital letters: “And was made man.” For centuries, Christians around the world would kneel for these four words. “And was made man” is the greatest of all mysteries. This divine commonality that unites God and man to where they can never be separated again. And we continue to kneel before the Lord as did the magi presenting gifts, only we, dear friends, kneel before the Lord to receive his gifts – the gifts of his very flesh and blood, the gift of his humanity we take into our own bodies. God not only became human, but man became divine.

So celebrate the mystery with joy, feasting, worship, commonality with those with whom you share flesh and blood. And remember that you not only share flesh and blood with your kith and kin, but also with God himself, whose very flesh and blood becomes your flesh and blood today and every day when the divine commonality of God and man is celebrated through a holy and mysterious communion. Jesus is still incarnate, still among us, and still saves us from our sin and darkness, from our separation from God, and from death itself.

“Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe the Son of Mary.” We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sermon: Advent 3 (Gaudete)

11 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel deals with a man who is typically treated as a minor character in Scripture. Indeed, if the Bible were only literature, John the Baptist wouldn’t be very important – given that he’s killed off very early in the story. And yet, notice what Jesus says about him: “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus submitted to John and was willing to be baptized by him. Jesus’ words about his courageous cousin are not merely polite commentary given at a retirement banquet. Indeed, this is very high praise coming from God himself.

But notice the circumstances. John has been put in jail, and he hears “about the works of Christ.” Instead of rejoicing, John – this greatest of all men, this bold preacher who took on the political establishment of his day – begins to wonder if he’s made a mistake. “Are You the coming one, or do we look for another?” Jesus, are you really the Christ, or are you yet one more prophet making promises. I heard about your works, Jesus, and that’s not quite what we all had in mind of our Messiah. So what’s the deal?

It seems like everyone misunderstood Jesus. Many Jews were looking for a political king to overthrow the Roman government. Herod certainly was. Certainly nobody expected the Messiah to be put on trial by Herod and executed by the Roman government.

So John is in doubt. How does Jesus reassure him? Notice he doesn’t go to John himself, but sends men, messengers, under the orders: “go and tell.” We sometimes describe ordination into the preaching office as “holy orders.” In order to comfort John, to assure him of his own work, Jesus sent two preachers.

And notice these preachers are told exactly what to say. They aren’t instructed to make small talk, crack a few jokes, and make up something to make John feel better. No, these disciples of Jesus are sent with a specific message. And that message points to Jesus.

Notice the increasing order of importance. They say: “Look, John, look at what Jesus is doing: he’s healing sick people, he’s even raising the dead, but there’s something even greater: he is preaching the Gospel!”

They are telling John that Jesus is fulfilling John’s own preaching: “Behold, the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world!” This preaching unto the forgiveness of sins is the Gospel. And of all the miracles of our Lord, this is the greatest. It not only restores the flesh, but takes away the sin that places the flesh on a collision course with death! The miraculous preaching of the Gospel, and the offering of himself as the Lamb of God, that we eat in the Church’s weekly passover, is what Jesus presents to John to bring him comfort.

Our reading from Isaiah includes this word “comfort.” “Comfort, yes, comfort my people! Says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The very next line in this reading is a direct prophecy of John the Baptist: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Notice how the word “comfort” is used here. It doesn’t refer to air conditioning, heated leather seats, power steering and a built-in DVD player. Rather it is used as forgiveness and pardon. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “comfort” literally means sorrow and repentance.

So Jesus doesn’t remove John’s suffering to comfort him. He doesn’t save him from his upcoming death any more than he would later save himself from his cross in response to his mockers. He doesn’t send John blankets and pillows. No, to bring him comfort, he sends him preachers armed with the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God – with the Gospel. In fact, the Greek name for the Holy Spirit is: the Paraclete, literally, the Comforter.

And notice Jesus’ final word sent to John: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” Time and again in the Gospels we find people taking offense, being scandalized, by Jesus. How relevant this is today! Every Christmas it seems we re-fight the battle over “Merry Christmas,” Christmas carols, and the “inappropriate” displays of Jesus in “Holiday” decorations. The world is still offended by Jesus. Our flesh is still offended by Jesus. This is why Jesus is a scandal – the word translated as “offended” is literally “to scandalize.”

Christianity is scandalous. It always has been, and always will be. Why? Because our sinful flesh hates the Gospel. We’re proud. We don’t want charity and handouts. We want to be self-sufficient – so we can continue to hold ourselves higher than welfare-recipients and folks we consider to be moochers. We want to earn our salvation – or at least have a hand in it.

Also, like the Jews, we want a powerful, swaggering, “cool” Jesus. We want a wise-cracking macho Jesus like Will Smith or Bruce Willis. We don’t want a weak Jesus who goes silently to the slaughter. We don’t want a crucified Jesus. The cross is offensive and scandalous – Paul tells us so in these very words: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block (literally: scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” The last thing you will ever see in a megachurch that has theater seating and cup-holders is a crucifix. This is because preachers in these so-called churches misunderstand the command of our Lord to his preachers to give comfort to his people. They don’t know what the word means. They think the word “comfort” has something to do with wearing khakis and golf shirts and sipping on a Starbuck’s during worship.

Dear friends, there is no greater comfort than to have the crucifix before our eyes at all times. Every room in our homes should have one on the wall – for it is the most powerful reminder of the Gospel, of our comfort. And yet, it is a scandal to those who don’t believe. Those who seek a different Gospel, a different Jesus, will always turn up their noses and roll their eyes at Christ crucified.

Now, after Jesus sent his preachers to see John, Jesus addresses the crowds. He confronts them with their motives for coming to hear John preach. “So, what did you people make the long trip into the dessert to see? Grass being blown around? A big-shot in a nice suit? Some kind of entertainment? No, you came to see a prophet, a preacher of the Word of God.”

Just as Jesus sent his preachers to bring comfort to John, God had sent his prophet John to fulfill our Old Testament lesson to bring comfort, that is, the refreshment of repentance, to his people. Jesus later sent out more preachers two by two. And just before he ascended, he placed the Eleven under holy orders, breathing the Holy Spirit, the Comforter on them, ordering them to fan out into the world spreading comfort, making disciples by baptizing and teaching. In turn, these apostles ordained future ministers to administer sacraments and preach and teach.

And so on it goes, and will go until the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world returns to be our Judge. This is what Paul speaks of in our epistle text when he tells God’s people to regard their pastors as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” That is to say, pastors are under orders to their master Jesus and are charged with serving, dishing out, the mysteries of God, that is, the sacraments.

So, dear friends, as we gather around the mysteries of God this Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing within this penitential season of Advent, what did you come here to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft garments? No, you came to hear a preacher proclaim comfort. You came to have the mysteries served to you. You came to hear Jesus himself speak his words, words of comfort, the Gospel, through his messengers. And as great as St. John the Baptist is, our Lord reminds us that paradoxically, in God’s Kingdom, the first are last and the last first. All of us who are the least in God’s Kingdom, are even greater than John. Our Lord sees us as, and holds us with the same high regard, as he does his servant John the Baptist who was faithful unto death. St. John the Baptist is no minor character, and neither are you, O baptized saints of God!

“Behold your God! Behold, the Lord, God shall come with a strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him, behold his reward is with him, and his work before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”

O Salem, your warfare is ended, your iniquity is pardoned:

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sermon: Advent 2 (Populus Zion)

4 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 21:25-36 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

On this the 21st shopping day until Christmas, the secular world is beautifully decorated with happy and gentle images of smiling snowmen, winking Santas, joyful music, and beautiful decorations. There are songs of peace on earth and even shocking displays of the baby Jesus in places where at other times of the year this would be forbidden.

But what do we find in this church on the second week of Advent? What do our readings say? Well, in the Old Testament lesson, we have people burning in an oven, described as ashes under the soles of our feet, the coming great and dreadful day of the Lord, striking the earth with a curse. The Gospel reading is rather horrifying: signs in the sky, distress and perplexity among nations, roaring waves, heart failure due to fear, and the powers of heaven itself being shaken.


And then we have this epistle reading in which Paul uses words like comfort, hope, joy, and peace.

Advent is a confusing time in many ways. We speak of the anticipation of our Lord’s coming – but which coming? We reflect back in time on the Incarnation, that greatest of all miracles in which God Almighty wriggled helplessly as a gentle newborn in a swaddle-blanket being tenderly nursed by his virginal mother. We also look forward to the Lord’s triumphal second coming amidst chaos and suffering, trial and tribulation, and the physical persecution of the Church. This coming will bring history to a close, will result in the destruction of the world, and a new creation. And in the present, we reflect on our Lord’s coming here and now, in his Word and Sacraments.

All three of these advents of Jesus are physical. In the Lord’s first advent, he came to offer salvation to the world. In his ongoing eucharistic advent, he delivers salvation to those who believe. But his final advent will not be to offer his gifts, nor to nourish his Church through her earthly sojourn. No, indeed, the Lord’s second coming will be one of judgment, of separating sheep from goat, of eternal life for the Church, and eternal damnation for those who reject him.

The world revels in the imagery of a gentle baby as God (as do we). The world takes comfort in a helpless God who can be carried about (as do we). But is there comfort in Jesus the Great Judge, whose coming will be amid the descent of our world into total devastation?

That depends.

The world deals with our Lord’s preaching about judgment and hell with mocking and disbelief. They are in denial that the same gentle meek and mild baby Jesus would preach what he preaches to us today. But we dare not do this. In fact, the Church needs to listen to her master – especially in these days of increasing natural disasters, strife around the world, and a descent of humanity into a universal culture of death and evil. It should not surprise Christians when abortion is treated as a virtue. Or when even Christian judges and politicians do nothing while a handicapped woman is starved to death by court order. Or when homosexuality has been normalized to the point where “conservative” churches are now in various states of approval of this abomination. We ought not be shocked to learn that Christians are being persecuted around the globe, that magnificent and ancient cathedrals in Europe are empty today. Or that the Scriptures are being distorted by so-called Christian churches to the point where women dress up as pastors and mock the Lord’s office of the keys in repeating Eve’s sin of wanting something off-limits to her.

And, dear friends, there’s no reason to believe things won’t get worse. But what does our Lord say? “Now.” Notice, he begins this sentence with “Now.” “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” The worse things get, the more chaos spreads, we are to look to heaven, to look up in hope and expectation. For our Redeemer lives, and he is coming, and he’s coming not to destroy us, but to redeem us!

No matter what passes away – our life, goods, fame, child and wife. No matter if we lose our homes, our treasures, our family pictures, our heirlooms, our health, our mental capacities, and even our lives – there is something that will never pass away. Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” The Word of the Lord – the saving, life-giving, redeeming Word of the Lord is eternal. This is why we need to lift up our heads. This is why we ponder the Lord’s return on the great and terrible day surrounded by the color blue, the color of hope.

The Church pauses these few weeks to consider the end of the ages and the return of our Lord as a warning. Our Lord says: Take heed to yourselves.” He says: “Don’t get careless. Stay awake and watch. Abide in my Word!” We must not let sin drive a wedge between us and our lifeline – we must not let the “cares of this life” take precedence over being immersed in the Word of God. We are in the last days, brothers and sisters! When the time is expiring in a hockey game, the side that is behind pulls its goalie in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When a football team is down and the time is running out, the team runs quickly without a huddle. When a category 5 hurricane is bearing down on us, we do something extraordinary out of caution. We heed the warning!

Jesus is telling us to heed his warning. We must not get so bogged down by the “cares of this life” shopping for Christmas presents that we neglect the only eternal Christmas present! It is our Lord’s prayer that we be counted worthy to escape all these things and stand before the Son of man.

This word translated as “to be counted worthy” is not used often in Scripture. It’s used in Matthew 16 when Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. And notice the context: this is right after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, and right before Jesus entrusts him with the office of the keys.

You, dear friends, are counted worthy – for you confess Jesus as the Son of God, as your Redeemer, and your confession, your faith is nourished by the office of the keys – the pastors of the Church. You are indeed counted worthy when you remain in his Word, when that Word is preached to you, when that Word is pronounced over you in absolution, when that Word is added to water and poured on you, and when that Word is given to you to eat and drink.

The Lord’s Word endures forever! Take heed, and remain in his Word, for that Word in Scripture is indeed for patience and comfort and hope. By that Word we are of one mind and one mouth as we confess that Word. By that Word we receive each other, and we too are received into the Kingdom. By that Word we Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

So hold your heads up, dear brothers and sisters! “Now... now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.