Friday, December 25, 2009

Sermon: Christmas Morning

25 December 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:1-18 (Ex 40:17-21, Titus 3:4-7)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

For some reason, people who shun the church love to teach pastors about theology. Often they will instruct me that all religions are equal, that it doesn’t really matter what one believes as long as one is sincere, and that one need not go to church – since God is everywhere.

This latter observation is a most convenient application of the Lord’s omnipresence. Since He is everywhere, the argument goes, I can experience God by sleeping in, playing golf, reading the paper, or doing all sorts of things that are more fun or convenient than going to church.

And while it is true that God is everywhere, that His presence is outside of space and time, that He is not forced into the restraints of creation like us humble creatures – His omnipresence is really is of no comfort. For when God is simply everywhere, He can seem impersonal. When God is so transcendent and otherworldly, I cannot relate to Him. I might as well do what I want on Sunday morning and pretend that it doesn’t matter to God. We might misinterpret God’s vastness as inattentiveness to us.

But on this Christmas morning, we celebrate the True God who allows Himself to be limited in a humble form, taking the flesh of a man – a baby that willingly takes on limitations, being present for us in a miraculous way within space and time. We can look at Him. We can touch Him. We can watch Him grow. He can speak to us personally. He can cast out our demons and heal our infirmities. And He does go to the cross to take away our sins. He does crush the head of the devil. And He does rise from the dead to blaze a trail for us unto everlasting life. And He does all of this while tabernacled in a physical body like ours.

This merciful tabernacling of God is foreshadowed in the Ark of the Covenant being placed in a tabernacle, a tent where the Lord’s Presence, miraculously limited to specific space and time, hovers over the Ark’s lid, known curiously as the mercy seat. And “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Far from taking comfort in the Lord’s omnipresence, the people knew that “throughout their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out.”

It comforted the people of Israel that God was right there with them. And they sought out His Presence, going where He promised to be, following His Presence wherever the Lord wanted them to be. That Presence was not in their beds nor on their fields of play. The Presence was where the Lord chose to be, where His Word was proclaimed, and He called the people to join Him there.

“In the beginning” says the Apostle John, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God the Creator is outside of all creation. And unlimited by time and space, God and His Word are omnipresent. John then tells us about another man named John, a man who is not omnipresent, but living in first century Judea. He came to “bear witness about the light” for “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

The light that tabernacled above the mercy seat is preparing to tabernacle yet again, coming to us in space and time. And “the Word became flesh and dwelt,” – that is, “tabernacled” – among us. And we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Just as the Presence hovered above the mercy seat and led the people, the Presence is once again – in the incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh – self-limited to a specific time and a specific place. This is the miracle of Christmas. God does not relate to us as the infinite, otherworldly, omnipresent Creator, but robes Himself in humble flesh. He comes to us where we can find Him. He appears and speaks where we may see and hear Him. And like the Israelites of old, we take comfort in the fact that God is present, Immanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh who dwells among us, “as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

And just as the Magi traveled far and wide, following the sign of the star, seeking the God who limited Himself to a tabernacled presence, so that they might worship Him – we Christians too can follow the signs, seeking the God who continues to tabernacle with us in His flesh and blood, in His Word, and in His ironclad declaration of Holy Absolution by virtue of the authority delegated to His ministers.

You cannot find that Presence at a party, sports event, movie, or even sleeping in on Sunday. God is everywhere to be sure. But out of love for us, out of our desire to seek Him and be with Him, and out of His desire to be with us, to forgive us, to proclaim the Good News to us, He takes on flesh and dwells with us, present where He promises to dwell.

He becomes the Christ child. He preaches to a world that rejects Him. He tirelessly works miracles. He casts out demons and heals. He takes away the sin of the world. He sacrifices Himself, the perfect Lamb, the immaculate oblation, on the altar of the cross. He bears our sins and crushes the vile serpent’s head. And He rises from the dead. He advocates with His Father on our behalf, making us righteous. He nourishes us with His very body and blood. He purifies us again and again by His absolution. And He proclaims good news to us wherever and whenever the Word is preached and where His sacraments are administered. And this is Good News indeed!

This church, dear brothers and sisters, is a holy place. It is a tabernacle where the presence of the Lord dwells. This baptismal font is indeed a sacred space above which the Holy Spirit hovers like a dove, the Lord and giver of life, who broods over us, calls us, and draws us back to where we find the flesh and blood Presence of God.

And this God incarnate has completed His mission, as St. Paul preaches: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by washing of regeneration.”

This salvation is ours because of Christmas, because God chose to tabernacle with us though we do not deserve it. For we, though spirits, are also bodies. Though we, created to be eternal, dwell in time and space – so too is the gift of the Holy Spirit “poured out on us richly” is given to us in space and time, in the creation we dwell in, “through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

The Lord doesn’t come to us in good feelings, in imaginations and mantras, in clever words or in entertainment, rather He comes to us in the way and in the place that He Himself chose, “so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Dear friends, by virtue of the flesh and blood Christ, through His flesh and blood sacraments, and in His flesh and blood proclamation of the Good News – this Christmas gift is yours. It is the greatest gift of all, for even though it exists in our material world, this gift is eternal. It is a gift that “neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” This gift never goes out of style, becomes boring, or wears out. The Lord’s gift of Himself as the enfleshed Gospel never needs to be exchanged or returned under warrantee.

The gift of our flesh and blood Christ is here in space and time for you, so that you might have eternal life. May the Presence of the tabernacled Lord in the flesh and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ guide each one of you, even as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, in all your travels, now and unto eternity. Amen.

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


BassoonJedi said...

I'm confused... do you believe we are saved by taking communion? A person who partakes and says they have faith in Jesus, but really is hoping that his/her good things they do in life outweigh the bad, then God will forgive him/her... they go to heaven because they took communion? Would not this lead to people who really don't understand the good news, or don't live a life pleasing to God, and are trusting in rituals to save them?

Begging your pardon Father, but... I have to say that I have met very few Lutherans who exhibit any personal knowledge of Jesus, like a relationship with Him. You don't appear to be that way (meaning that you do appear to know Him), and I wonder what makes you different. I also admit that the Lutheran priests I have met don't appear to be filled with grace and spiritual vitality, so I am saying that you seem like an exception to me. As a relevant example, I once dated a guy who was an elder in his Lutheran church and served on the mission board... but he had nothing in his personal life (other than church attendance) which showed any spiritual growth or maturity. You never would have guessed that he was a "Christian." This, sadly, is what I find in many mainline churches. Although I don't like the rigidity and judgmental ways of some Baptist churches, it seems like the people there really know God personally and act upon that knowledge. Is that the only place for me then?

Some people seem to have this spiritual vitality that comes from a personal knowledge of Jesus, as if they really communicate with Him. It seems like you have that. What are your thoughts about how a person can obtain this kind of relationship? Thank you for your answer.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear BassoonJedi:

Excellent question.

First of all, I'm sorry your experience with Lutherans hasn't been great. It's kind of like when Americans go abroad and embarrass the rest of us by being the "ugly American." They don't really represent all Americans. All of us Christians need to be aware that our conduct is a reflection on the entire body of Christ. We all need to do a better job, I think. Lord, have mercy upon us!

Lutheranism is the largest Christian confession apart from Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in the world. You will find both very devout and very lukewarm Christians there. You will find those who take their faith seriously, and you also will find Lutherans in name only - just as you will find in every denomination.

But as to your question about salvation and how it is related to Holy Communion:

We are saved by Jesus dying on the cross for us - not by anything we do. Jesus saves us. He saves us by grace through faith (Eph 2:9). But Jesus uses "means" to give us faith and to transmit the grace to us.

This is why Scripture tells us baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21). Jesus uses the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5) as a means of being "born again by water and the Spirit" (John 3:3-5). Baptism is how we're told to "make disciples" (Matt 28:28). This is not apart from faith (far from it! See Mark 16:16), to the contrary, this is a way in which the Lord gives us faith as a free gift (grace).

The Word of God (Scripture) and preaching of the Gospel are also means to this grace. Preaching doesn't save us in itself, but preaching is a way the Lord delivers His saving Word to us (Romans 10:14). Jesus also gave the authority to His preachers to absolve sins (John 20:23). And He makes Himself available to us in His true body and blood in Holy Communion (Matt 26:26-28) "for the forgiveness of sins." He also preaches that we are given the free gift of salvation when we eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54).

Jesus (the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world - John 1:29) completed the Passover when He became the final Passover Lamb at the Last Supper. Just as the Israelites were saved by the Lamb's blood covering them - not as a reward for doing the ritual, but rather purely by God's grace and mercy by means of God's initiation of the sacrifice and the application of the blood on His people - so too are we saved by Christ's blood applied to us in the Lord's Supper. Not because we do it, but rather because He does it for us.

The patient does not cure himself by receiving the cure. Nor does the recipient of the gift earn the gift by taking the check to the bank. Rather God transmits His gifts to us by His Word and by His sacraments, and we passively receive them!

Again, it's not that we earn God's grace by being baptized, hearing the Word proclaimed and preached, being absolved, or receiving communion. We are saved as a free gift. But that gift is "packaged" in real space and time - even as God allowed Himself to be "packaged" in the body of a Newborn, and in the body of a condemned "Criminal."

Father Hollywood said...

In fact, we call the day to commemorate Jesus' birth "Christmas." We often hear about keeping Christ in Christmas, but the other half of the word is "Mass." Christmas is Christ's Mass (Communion). Just as He became incarnate (located in flesh and blood) at Bethlehem (Hebrew for "House of Bread") and was placed in a manger (a food trough), He, the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 51) is given to us an a fleshly, incarnate way in our space and time through the miracle of the word "is" (This "is" my body, this "is" my blood). The word "is" in the mouth of God (the Great I AM) is powerful. It makes miracles happen. He said "Let there be light" and it happened (Gen 1:3). God created all things by His Word, that is, Jesus (John 1:1-3). This is why Jesus established the Holy Supper - not just a ritual (Jesus is never big on ritual for the sake of symbolism), but rather because, like the miracle of the multiplying loaves and fishes, Jesus makes Himself miraculously present to believers of every time and place.

You even used the expression "as if they really communicate with Him." We really do "communicate" - which is a way of saying "commune" or "take communion." A person who takes Holy Communion is a "communicant." A person who has severed his ties to Jesus is said to be "ex-communicated" - out of communication. To be in communication (communion) with God means o speak to Him (by prayer), but also listening to Him (by Word and sacrament).

Spiritual growth and maturity (the technical term is "sanctification") comes through the Holy Spirit - though our sinful flesh often (and sadly) resists the entreaties of the Spirit. In such cases, we need to confess, be absolved, repent, and bolster our relationship (Greek: "koinonia" - communion or fellowship) with God by communing with Him where he promises to be found.

It's like the prodigal son. He returned to his father contrite and without excuse, and the father received him joyfully. The prodigal son matured and grew in his relationship to his father. The father did not reward the prodigal son with a relationship, but rather loved him unconditionally - though he did not force his love on his son.

And the father threw a feast for the prodigal son.

Holy Communion is the great wedding feast, a merciful taste of heaven on earth, through which we have intimate communion with our Lord. And where Jesus in His flesh and blood and Word are, there is His saving power!

I hope this helps a little. I know different Christians see these things differently, but this is really consistent with how the church of every time and place has understood the Lord's words: "I am with you always" (Matt 28:20) even though we still await His final coming at the end of time. Holy Communion cuts through our separation from God in space and time, and even reaches across the gap we created by our sins - all by grace, through faith, by means of the blood of our Blessed Lord!

BassoonJedi said...

I appreciate your comments.

It seems that you have a focus on communion / the Eucharist as a way to deepen one's relationship to God. I am still wondering if you mean that a person who really doesn't understand the gospel is saved because they have a vague concept of Jesus and His sacrificial, substitutionary death for us, but they are trusting in the elements to have some sort of saving power, or ultimately in their own efforts. I would say that the majority of Americans have heard of Jesus, know that He died on the cross, and think "God just loves everybody, it doesn't matter what I believe or do, He will forgive me when I die and accept me into heaven because I try to be a good person." I don't see this in the Scriptures at all. People may have heard of Jesus but don't trust Him completely for their salvation -- they are trusting "I try to be a good person / do more good things than bad things, and I go to church and do the rituals prescribed by my priest." The Bible says our righteousness is as filthy rags to God, and there is none righteous... only Christ, who was the perfect atoning sacrifice on our behalf.

I fear that many people who hear this kind of emphasis upon the ritual of communion may feel "okay, now I'm good with God because the priest said communion saves me." I have also met many religiously zealous people who have no understanding of what Christ did on the cross, and are merely going through the rituals their particular denomination prescribes. They seem to be very interested in what THEY can do to work their way up to God, but no heart response or change is required.

Are you saying that your personal relationship with Jesus is vibrant and living because you take communion? Forgive me if this question is too personal. I am trying to understand your answer.

I do confess my sins to God (and have also done so before man), and pray, and read the Bible (extensively). I take communion, and I've been baptized as a believing adult upon confession of faith. I just feel like I'm not getting what everybody who is "in love with Jesus" is getting. Praying mostly feels like talking to the air; I don't experience answers to my prayers. My emotional response to God is basically hoping I've been truly, genuinely "repentant enough," that I have REAL saving faith in Jesus and not mere intellectual acknowledgment of theological ideas. I don't feel like I have any growth in my life or fruits. My life is basically the same today as it was ten or fifteen years ago, with perhaps some more introspection -- maybe only as a result of getting older, but not more Christ-like.

I've been taking communion since I was old enough to understand the good news about Jesus... but I don't feel like He's "meeting me" in communion. I don't get warm and fuzzy or jazzed up about God. I try to examine myself, confess sins, and not partake in an unworthy manner with an unrepentant heart. But I don't feel like Jesus is talking to me while I receive the elements, or hugging me, or comforting me, or meeting me. God is omnipresent so I have no doubt He's with me all the time, not just at the communion table. I guess I would say there are two issues in my questions here: 1 - rituals might confuse people who are spiritually lukewarm and 2 - difficulty in feeling that I know a lot ABOUT God but do I KNOW Him? I have such doubt and no zeal, and wonder where you get that from. One might say I'm spiritually lukewarm, but not from lack of interest or effort in pursuing sanctification. I'm trying to figure out what that missing thing is.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. This is a lot to answer so I do understand if you don't have the time to go into it.

Rev. Daniel Robert Skillman said...

Hi, BassoonJedi,

I don't want to offend you by not commenting on all of your questions, or interacting with each of your thought here. They are quite worthy of discussion. I simply do not have the time to give them the attention they deserve.

I couldn't pass by, however, without commenting on this:

"I don't feel like He's "meeting me" in communion."

I'll put this briefly: Whether or not you feel it, it is happening. Rest not on your own feelings. Rest on the objective word of God. He will not lie to you. He is true even when our feelings let us down or tell us something different. First comes understanding. THen comes believing. Then, comes feeling, if not in this world, then in the next where our feelings will be purged of all imperfections and we will feel as we should.

In Christ