Sunday, January 23, 2022

Sermon: Epiphany 3 – 2022


23 January 2022

Text: Matt 8:1-13

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” said the Roman army officer, “but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

Jesus is amazed at the faith of this Gentile.  In fact, St. Matthew  says that Jesus “marveled” and said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”  What is so marvelous about the centurion’s faith expressed in this little exchange with Jesus?

Well, what happens is that Jesus comes into the city of Capernaum, and a centurion, that is, a captain of a hundred men, a Gentile army officer in the service of Caesar Augustus, comes to Jesus asking for help.  “Lord,” he addresses Jesus, “my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  Jesus has compassion and agrees to come to the man’s house.  “But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed.” 

In the culture of that time and place, the soldier is living and working among Jews, and Jesus, as a rabbi, is expected to avoid Gentile homes, as Gentiles are unclean.  Of course, Jesus breaks all of these rules, but the centurion has such respect for Jesus that He doesn’t want Jesus to ceremonially defile Himself.  The centurion explains why He trusts that Jesus can heal his servant even without coming to the house: “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

For this is how army authority works, dear friends.  It is delegated.  General officers command the field grade officers, who command the company grade officers, who command the non-commissioned officers, who command the private soldiers.  An officer expects to give an order to his subordinates, and it is obeyed.

This centurion serves Caesar Augustus, who was the adopted son of Julius Caesar.  After his death, Julius Caesar was voted by the Senate to be a god.  Augustus was his son, so Augustus was called “Filius Dei,” the “son of god.”  But this army officer knows who the true Son of God is, calling Him “Lord,” and expressing faith in the true Son of God’s authority even over sickness and death.  The officer understands that Jesus, by only saying the word, can cure his servant.  He believes this, and He trusts the Word of Jesus to make it happen – because He has faith.  “Only say the word…” 

Unlike Caesar, Jesus is truly God.  He is the Word Made Flesh. He is the Word who is God and who was with God “in the beginning.”  And “by Him,” by the Word, “all things were made.”  The centurion believes this, and he confesses this.  He puts his trust in Jesus, and His authority.  Such faith, dear friends!  No wonder Jesus marvels!

And Jesus indeed is also a “man under authority,” as our Lord Himself reveals to the apostles in John’s Gospel.  For after His resurrection, He took the eleven aside and said, “‘As the Father has sent me, even so, I am sending you.’  And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’”  Jesus places men under authority in the office of the Holy Ministry, delegating the authority to them that He received from the Father by means of the Holy Spirit.  And He tells His ministers, “Go.”  For they go with the authority of the Word.  Matthew’s Gospel reports Jesus telling the eleven, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them” and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.” 

On this day, with this Roman centurion, Jesus puts him under orders.  For Jesus answers the centurion’s prayer, and our Lord (who is the centurion’s Lord, the true Filius Dei) orders him: “Go.”  Just as the centurion tells the soldiers under his authority to “Go, and he goes,” Jesus tells the centurion: “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.”  And St. Matthew reports: “the servant was healed at that very moment.”

The centurion understood that Jesus has authority over life and death, and that His Word was enough to believe that the order will be carried out.  For Jesus is no fake son of god, a politician who is obeyed based only on the thuggery of armed soldiers enforcing his commands, rather Jesus is the true Son of God, who is armed with the power of the Word, the Word that said, “Let there be light” and there was light.  Jesus is the Word who says, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed.”  Jesus is the Word who says to this very day, through His men under authority: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus says, “I forgive you all your sins.”  Jesus says, “This is My body…. This is My blood…. For the forgiveness of sins.”

Dear friends, may our faith be like this most unlikely of all believers, a Gentile, a man under authority to a false god, the Roman Caesar.  Let our faith be like the centurion who knows how authority works, who believes in the divine chain of command, who trusts that Jesus hears our prayers and will keep His Word even when we cannot see it.  Let us believe like this man, and let our faith be just as firm.

It is indeed a traditional prayer of the church, for both pastors and laity, that when we receive the elements of Holy Communion, we repeat the Centurion’s prayer and confession of faith, that we are not worthy for the Lord to come to where we are, to be “under our roof.”  But nevertheless, we ask anyway.  And we ask in faith, knowing that though we cannot see the mystery, we believe the Word.  And so we pray to Jesus, “only say the Word” and we know that we will receive healing.

So no matter what befalls us: loss, pain, suffering, abandonment of friends and loved ones, loss of job, madness in the world, sickness, and even death itself – all Jesus has to do is “say the Word” and all of these things are instantly fixed, even as we are “healed.”  Jesus simply said the word, speaking the name of Lazarus, and ordering Him to “come out,” and Lazarus rose from death and walked out of his own tomb.  And Jesus took the hand of the little girl who had died, and He commanded her “arise,” and she opened her eyes and sat up.  So too will Jesus “say the word,” and our bodies will rise from death, and we will be “healed” in the fullness of time, on the orders of our Lord. 

Meanwhile, let us believe and let us pray like the centurion, receiving the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation when we partake of the Lord’s Supper.  Let us pray to the true Filius Dei, our Lord under whose orders we joyfully serve in the kingdom, and as we receive His body and blood, let us pray:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.  But only say the Word, and Your servant will be healed.”

Amen.

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

Saturday, January 22, 2022

A Tale of Two Statues

When Robert E. Lee died in 1870, a memorial association was formed in the City of New Orleans.  After six years had passed, the association raised an amazing $36,400 - during the throes of Reconstruction - to construct a monument.  The world-famous New York-based sculptor Alexander Doyle (who studied in Bergamo, Rome, and Florence) was commissioned, and it was installed at Tivoli Circle - renamed Lee Circle - in 1884.  The statue was placed atop a granite pedestal consisting of a 60 foot column.  The statue itself is 16.5 feet high and made of bronze.  Attendees at the dedication included Jefferson Davis, two daughters of General Lee, and former Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard.

Monuments such as these also memorialized the many common soldiers whose bodies were never recovered for burial, or who lie strewn across battlefields in unknown, unmarked, or even mass graves.  The postwar monuments provided solace for survivors and healing between the regions as monuments to the dead of both sides in the war were erected as the veterans were dying off.  The Lee statue was a rare early monument erected during the post-war federal occupation of Louisiana.

In time, Lee Circle and the monument became an important landmark and meeting point for locals, especially for Mardi Gras parades.  The Circle stands at basically the intersection of the Garden District, the French Quarter, and the Central Business District.  The statue became iconic to the landscape of the city.  The monument made the National Register in 1991, and in 2011, New Orleans Magazine declared it one of the most important statues in the city (along with another striking Doyle piece, the equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard).

Six years later, after 133 years, the monument was declared "racist" and removed, being placed in a shed in a city junkyard where it remains - along with three other historical monuments (including Doyle's Beauregard) hidden to this day.

The column remains in place with nothing on it.

On January 22, 2022, a new statue was erected at the ground level of the pedestal where it will remain for several months.  It was executed by another New York sculptor named Simone Leigh.  The statue is entitled "Sentinel (Mami Wata)" and it "takes the diversity of African cultures in New Orleans as a starting point, evoking African folklore and spiritualities."  The statue is supposedly an African idol, described as a "water spirit or deity."  The deity is sometimes associated with lust and prostitution.  This representation is a nude female form wrapped by a snake with the unique and unusual element of having a head shaped like a spoon.  

Yes, a spoon: 

"The ceremonial spoon form of the sculpture references a symbol of status in Zulu culture, so honored in New Orleans," according to the exhibition. "Leigh’s sculpture holds forms of knowledge that have been passed down through spiritual and masking traditions of the city and beyond, wherein masking signifies transformation, not simply concealment."

Rather than locate it on the top of the sixty foot pedestal, it sits on the ground.  It is claimed that this was intentional:

"Not looming over people but rather emerging from among us," the exhibition statement said. "This constellation de-centers whiteness and the legacies of colonialism, renewing access to knowledge and culture that has been suppressed by the falsehoods of white supremacy."  

Of course, that may just be a flowery way of saying that they lacked the know-how and the money to hoist it to the top of the six-story column.

At any rate, this is a fitting symbol of New New Orleans: a crime-ridden, violent, impoverished, drug-invested, culturally-debased, infrastructure-ruined, politically-destroyed and corrupted city, a shell of its former historical greatness.  The naked woman with the head of a spoon is wrapped by a serpent, calling to mind Eve and the original sin of mankind, a primitive hot-mess of a superstitious idol, representing the decay of civilization, culture, art, history, and craftsmanship.

This is a fitting display of public art that fits in with the city's other offerings, such as electrical boxes painted in what appears to be finger paint, often with depictions that look like stick figures, or a large scrap-heap of junk bicycles painted white and piled on one another, and murals that are indistinguishable from the seedy graffiti and rat-infested blight that dot the landscape where majestic statues once stood in manicured public spaces.

And like most displays of inferior-quality "modern art," people will stare at it, rub their chins, and applaud, like the townspeople in The Emperor's New Clothes, wanting not only to appear sophisticated, but in today's reality, to prove their politically-correct bona fides by pretending that this somehow represents an improvement instead of decay.


Sermon: Funeral of Mary Ryan

22 January 2022

Text: Luke 2: 25-38 (Rev 21:1-7, 1 Cor 15:51-57)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Dear Jerry, Tracy, Tammy, family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and honored guests: “Peace be with you.” 

We gathered here in this very sanctuary ten years ago, and we celebrated Holy Communion with the same hymns that we will sing today, and two of the three same readings from Scripture.  For we are confessing the same Good News that we celebrated when Mary’s beloved husband John was brought here after he was called home a decade ago.  It seems strange to talk of “Good News” on such a sad day, but today is only sad for us, dear friends.  It is not sad for Mary.  It is not sad for John.  And though we are grieved and truly mourn at losing Mary, we are filled with joy knowing that we will see her again, in the flesh, and we will be separated no more for all eternity.

So we join St. Paul in asking, with snark and sarcasm: “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  We taunt death because Jesus died and rose again, promising eternal life to those who are baptized and who believe in Him, those who put their trust in His Word, in His promise.  For indeed, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  And that victory is Mary’s victory, it is John’s victory, and it is our victory, dear brothers and sisters.

John and Mary were a unique couple.  For decades, Mary followed Jesus, and John did not.  I had the joy to baptize John when he was approaching seventy years of age.  I also had the joy to visit him with Holy Communion when he would call me up and ask to receive the Sacrament.  I also enjoyed friendship with John, and a few Coronas, or should I say, Coronitas?  Many times we would enjoy dinner with the Ryans, and Mary joined us in the Coronitas, but she was more partial to Chardonnay.  We thoroughly enjoyed our visits – and all the more because we would share another food and drink with John and Mary: the Lord’s body and blood.  For the last years of John’s life, Mary was able to share in receiving Holy Communion with John in their home, even as Mary was able to attend church, while physical infirmity kept John away.  He only made it into this sanctuary once, after he had been called to his heavenly home, when we sang about Holy Baptism, the joy of the blessed ones, the love of our King, and the mystery of the resurrection – just as we are doing today.

Once again, we reflect on the promises made to John and Mary at their baptisms, promises they affirmed every time they ate the body of Christ and drank the blood of Christ, every time they confessed their sins and received Holy Absolution, every time they heard the preaching of the Good News from Scripture that Jesus died on the cross so that we might live, that His blood atones for all of our sins, and we have the promise of everlasting life because of the gift He gives to us!

We hear the promise in Scripture of what John and Mary await together, and what we await as well where we are on this side of glory: the new heaven, the new earth, a resurrected body freed from age and aches and pains and mortality, a new existence in a perfect paradise, never more to be separated.  For God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

This promise revealed by Jesus to the apostle John in the Revelation is shown to us in St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth as well: “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”  And when this remarkable restoration happens, “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying” that we considered earlier: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  The victory over death is Christ’s victory, dear friends, and that is why we mourn on Good Friday and we rejoice on Easter Sunday – and that victory has been given to John, to Mary, and to each one of us who have been baptized and believe on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Gospel reading that we heard is different than what we heard ten years ago.  For the child Jesus being brought to the temple for His presentation is a feast that the church will celebrate in just a couple weeks.  And today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke is that account.  And in this narrative, we meet two elderly people: Simeon and Anna.  And though Simeon was advanced in years, he was not yet ready to die – that is until he encountered Jesus.  Then, he would be prepared to “depart in peace, according to [God’s] Word.”  For his eyes finally saw salvation, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory for [God’s] people Israel.”  Only when St. Simeon fulfilled his life’s greatest meaning in encountering the Christ and confessing him would the Lord see fit to call him home. 

St. Simeon’s story is John Ryan’s story, dear friends.  It is Mary’s story too.  And it is our story.  And every time Mary came to church for Divine Service, and every time I came to their house so that John could commune, we sang those very words after receiving the Lord’s body and blood – just as we will again today, dear friends: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word.”  For our eyes have seen His salvation.  This is the church’s song, dear friends – both our song in the Church Militant, and John and Mary’s song in the Church Triumphant.

Our Gospel reading also spoke of an elderly woman, a widow named Anna.  She was a “prophetess,” which is to say, she was familiar with the Word of God.  And she lived a long time with her husband before he preceded her in death.  She was in her eighties.  And as a widow, “she did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.”  And she would tell everyone about her hope of “redemption” in Christ.  And like Simeon, Anna had the joy of encountering Jesus in His very flesh and blood. 

Mary is very much like Anna, today being with the Lord in heaven, having become a widow and being inseparable from worshiping her Lord in the sanctuary.  This was certainly Mary, not only as a widow, but the entire time that I knew her.  She not only regularly attended Divine Service, but also Bible class, and our Matins service before Bible class.  She attended our Saturday Night classes when they were offered, and was always eager to learn God’s Word.  She knew that none of this earned her salvation, because that is purely a gift of God.

And like St. Anna, Mary could articulate the Gospel of Jesus, putting her trust in Him alone for her life and salvation.

And so, dear friends, when we gather for the Sunday Mass, knowing that Jesus is with us, we know that John and Mary are together and they are also with Jesus.  And because of that, they are with us every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  They pray with us, and they pray for us.  And they, from their side of the veil, and we from our side, share in our life in Christ, looking forward to the day with there will be no more veil to separate us, for our Lord Jesus Christ, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, says: “Behold, I am making all things new.” 

That is the peace that we speak of so often in the Divine Service, the peace that I greeted you with, the very first word Jesus spoke to His disciples after His resurrection: “Peace be with you.” 

Amen.

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

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Sermon: The Baptism of our Lord – 2022

12 January 2022

Text: Matt 3:13-17 (Isa 42:1-7, 1 Cor 1:26-31)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

The Baptism of our Lord is a study in the unlikely, the surprising, the twist in the plot in the history of the world, a history written by the hand of God Himself. 

For we hear anew the prophecy revealed to Isaiah seven hundred years before the coming of Jesus into the world, in which God refers to the coming Messiah as “My Servant.”  He refers to this Chosen One upon whom God has “put [His] Spirit.”  We see the Holy Trinity at work, with the Father and the Spirit conspiring to send the Son into the world, a coequal member of the Godhead, who is at the same time, the Father’s “servant.”  And though He is God, though He is the Word by whom all things were made, He will “not cry aloud or lift up His voice” even as He is being crucified.  He “will bring forth justice to the nations” even as He suffers injustice at the hands of two nations: the Jewish nation and the Roman Empire.  He brings the “law” to the “coastlands,” but He will send forth the Gospel into all the earth.

It is He who “gives breath to the people” on earth, but He will be killed by those very same people, yielding up His own breath, His own Spirit, in the fullness of time on the cross.  Jesus takes us by the hand to lead us to life, even as His hands were nailed to the cross to lead Him to death.

Indeed, this is not the stuff of a saga of heroes or a mythical legend.  This is the stuff of a mystery novel that makes no sense until the last page – and yet it is nonfictional history.

And look at the church, dear friends.  Look at whom Jesus calls as His redeemed, and look whom He calls to be heralds of this remarkable and unlikely story: “Not many of you were wise,” notes St. Paul, “not many were powerful, not many of noble birth.”  The world considers us ignorant rabble, unwashed lepers, fools who are beneath their dignity.  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;” choosing the weak to show up the strong, calling forth the unlikely way things are to upend the likely way that things are not. 

And this ironic, unlikely turn of events is also how Jesus initiates His ministry, revealing who He is, and unveiling the work of the Holy Trinity – using what is despised and weak in the eyes of the world to accomplish the most mighty work in history: the recreation and reclamation of the world!

John is called to be a prophet – after four hundred years of no such prophets in the land of Israel.  Not one Word of God spoken, no prophetic voices ringing from preachers and scribes.  But now, here comes John, a child born miraculously to old Zechariah and barren Elizabeth.  John is called to preach the coming of the kingdom, calling sinners to repentance, and offering them a baptism of repentance – ironically giving away life in the dead of the desert.

And who comes to John to partake of this baptism of repentance but the one person in the history of the world who doesn’t need to repent?  None other than God in the flesh: the one about whom John is preaching!

John recognizes this twist in the plot: “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” asks John, incredulously.  But this is the divine irony, the stunning and unlikely turn of events that calls us to pay attention, for God is moving in the world in a way that nobody can claim is a coincidence. 

“Let it be so now,” replies our Lord, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” 

And the precedent-shattering narrative continues even as Jesus is baptized.  For “immediately” says St. Matthew, “He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’”

So we have the Holy Spirit, who has no material existence, taking on the bodily form of a dove.  We have the Father who likewise has no material existence, causing words to issue forth through the physical world as though He had lungs and voice-box and mouth. We have the two persons of the Trinity, who are not physical, being manifested in the physical to validate and confirm the physical Jesus, who is God eternal, who predates all that is physical.

Dear friends, this is remarkable stuff!  Nobody could make this up!

The voice of God reveals our Lord’s Sonship and His divinity.  The action of the Father and the Holy Spirit confirm the Sonship of Jesus.  And this revelation is accomplished by water and the Word – the living, breathing Word of God embedded in space and time.

And Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, will die in His flesh, only to rise again in the flesh, and appear to fleshly men whom He will send out as apostles, calling them to give new, eternal, spiritual life to human beings by means of their physical bodies, using water and the Word to accomplish His mission of renewal.

And the world is clueless about what happens at a baptism, dear friends.  Typically, we baptize babies: the weakest of our race.  By water and the Word we empower these little ones, arming them with power to fight the devil, to resist the world, and to even defeat death.  But the world mocks, only seeing the weakness of a child, and the powerlessness of three scoops of ordinary water. 

But this, dear friends, is exactly how Jesus says disciples are made.  We baptize even as Jesus was baptized, but we baptize in the name of the Trinity – whose actions we see in Jesus’ baptism. 

The unlikely story continues as the devil, the world, and our sinful nature are all put to shame by the weakness of water and the Word.  For as Christians, we are endowed with “wisdom” and “righteousness” and “sanctification” and “redemption” – endowed by our Creator as recipients of a free gift!  We Christians do not look to our own character, strength, goodness, or will power.  Instead, we look to Christ – to the one whose baptism we remember today, and whose baptism we partake in going back to the moment the Spirit descended on us, when the Father declared us to be pleasing in His sight, and when the blood of Christ was applied to us in our flesh to cleanse us from all impurity and infirmity – all by three scoops of water and the Name of the Most Holy Trinity – spoken by a mortal human being.

So while the world laughs in mockery, we laugh in joy, dear friends.  While the world refuses to believe the Good News because it is so unlikely, we join the church father Tertullian whose famous quip is paraphrased as “Credo quia absurdum” – it is so absurd that I have to believe it.  Nobody would make up such a religion filled with such irony.  The only explanation is that it is true. 

But what is even greater than the fact that it is true, dear friends, is that the truth of this Good News means we have everlasting life in His name.  It means that our own baptisms count, and the three scoops of water and the spoken works shatter sin, destroy death, and depose the devil.  And when we are held out to be foolish for believing this, we are joyfully reminded of St. Paul’s observation: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”

Dear brothers and sisters, let us remember our own baptism with joyful reverence, empowered to live in the kingdom, and always led to Jesus, whose baptism fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf.

Amen.

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

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Sermon: Wittenberg Academy - Jan 11

11 January 2022

Text: Rom 3:1-18

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

St. Paul explains what it means to be a Jew in the New Covenant.  First of all, the Jews, as a nation, were chosen by God to be the Old Testament Church.  The promise was made to Abraham and his Seed – through his son Isaac, and through his son Jacob.  Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and the Israelites became a great nation, chosen by God to bring salvation to the world through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who is both King of the Jews, and Lord of the Universe. 

As St. Paul, himself a Jew, points out, “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God,” that is, the revelation and the preservation of the Holy Scriptures.  The fact that they are sinners who often violated the covenant does not “nullify the faithfulness of God.”  And in a strange kind of way, their acceptance by God in spite of their unfaithfulness is evidence of God’s grace and mercy, that is “the righteousness of God” which is a free gift.

And the same is true for us, dear friends.

But this is not to say that we should “do evil that good may come.”  This is a slander that people have said about the Church and the Gospel since the beginning.  It is to misunderstand and show contempt for God and His mercy to mankind, to the Jew first, and then to the Greek.

But at the same time, St. Paul dispels the notion that in the New Covenant, Jews are “better off” than Gentiles, as if their nationality were a shield that protects them from their need for forgiveness and grace through the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.  For as the Hebrew Scriptures themselves proclaim: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”

So all of us are in need of a Savior – a Savior who has come as the Seed of Abraham, as the descendant of Israel, as the Son of King David, as the Redeemer of the world: to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.  He saves us by means of His blood, which we receive in faith – no matter what our nationality or ancestry is.

Thanks be to God, now and even unto eternity!

Amen.

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

Friday, December 24, 2021

Sermon: Christmas Eve - 2021

24 December 2021

Text: John 1:1-14 (Isa 7:10-14, Mic 5:2-4, Isa 9:2-7, Matt 1:18-25, Matt 2:1-12)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

The wonder of Christmas is God breaking into time and space. 

Time is a funny thing in how we perceive it.  When we’re children, waiting for Christmas seems like forever.  When we grow up, we scratch our heads thinking that just yesterday it was July 4th.

God’s people of the Old Testament waited for hundreds of years for God to break into space and time.  Our reading from Isaiah as written seven hundred years before Christ: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name ‘Immanuel.’”  “Immanuel” is Hebrew for “God with Us.”  For in Christ, God is with us in space and time. 

And this was prophesied even earlier than the days of Isaiah.  Back in the Garden of Eden, after man’s fall into sin, God made the devil an offer that he couldn’t refuse.  He said that the “Seed of the woman” as coming to destroy him.  The “Seed of the woman” is a strange thing to say.  For women produce eggs, not seed.  Isaiah’s prophecy makes it clear: the Savior would come without a human father.  And when the centuries of waiting had passed, when the fullness of time had come, “the angel Gabriel from heaven came” to our “most highly favored lady.”   

Our God breaks into time, where we dwell.  Or more accurately, “when” we dwell.

But He also comes to us in space, dear friends.  The prophet Micah was preaching about the same time as Isaiah.  And God revealed to him here the Christ would come: Bethlehem.  The “little town of Bethlehem” – “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.”  And this “ruler” (the “Seed of the woman”) “shall be great to the ends of the earth.  And He shall be their peace.” 

Unlike the other religions of the world, Jesus is God in the flesh, He comes in time and in space, Bethlehem being a real place in the world: a world in need of redemption and peace.  For it is there and then that He comes to us and abides with us: “Our Lord Immanuel.”

Isaiah has more to say about the Christ – again seven centuries back in time.  For darkness will be removed by the “great light” that the prophet points out has come to “the people who walked in darkness.”  At the darkest time of the year, in the dark of the night, when life as at its gloomiest, darkest, and coldest – it is then when “the world in solemn stillness lay” that we “hear the angels sing.”

And their song is “Peace on the earth, goodwill to all, from heaven’s gracious King.”  The darkness of our waiting was broken by the angel hosts singing from the “cloven skies” – the heavens themselves torn in to like the veil of the temple will be after the baby in the manger becomes the King on the cross.  “For to us,” to us, dear friends, “for to us a child is born.  To us a son is given.”  And “His word of peace shall to the earth God’s ancient promise bring.”

And this King, the Creator of the universe, does not come down to us brandishing a sword or riding on a stallion.  Indeed, he comes “away in a manger, no crib for a bed.”  For just as the prophets of old hd been saying for hundreds of years, “Mary as found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  And the angel told Joseph, Mary’s fiancĂ©, “She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”  The name “Jesus” means “God saves.”  Jesus is the Savior.  He is God with us, in the flesh, in space and time.  He is the fulfillment of hundreds, even thousands of years of prophecy and waiting.  And like when a woman is ready to give birth, no force can stop it.  And as our Lord was coming into space and time, men and demons conspired to snuff out His life, to extinguish the light, but their conspiracy as all in vain. 

And the plotting of evil men as foiled by a child, a helpless baby and a very ordinary couple – whose life was anything but ordinary. 

And so all the world – friend and foe alike, ask the great question: “what child is this?”  There have been billions of children born.  But who is this one?  Who is He “whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping?”  We ill learn more when the “wise men from the east” will come to Jerusalem in search of this child, this “Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing,” and they will “haste to bring Him laud, the babe the Son of Mary.”

And they will offer this king their treasures: “gold and frankincense and myrrh.”  And we join their praises and their worship, singing: “Joy, joy, for Christ is born, the babe, the Son of Mary.”

And lest we forget who He is, lest we be fooled by His coming as a little child, Scripture reminds us that He is “the Word.”  He is the voice and mind that brought all creation into being.  Jesus has taken on flesh, but He is eternal.  Jesus has joined creation in space and time, but He is no creature; He is the Creator.  He was “of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be.”  He is the “Alpha and Omega” and He is from evermore to evermore.

Jesus was there “in the beginning.”  He was “with God” and at the same time “was God.”  And He is indeed the Light in the darkness,” the “true light, which enlightens everyone” has indeed come “into the world.” 

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

And so on this Christmas Eve, we sing with not only the Church around the world, in every time and place, but also “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.” Singing:

Christ to Thee, with God the Father,
And O Holy Ghost to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.

Amen.

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

 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Sermon: Rorate Coeli (Advent 4) - 2021

19 December 2021

Text: John 1:19-28 (Deut 18:15-19, Phil 4:4-7)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

John the Baptist is a preacher of the Gospel because he is a preacher of Jesus.  When he as causing a stir while calling multitudes of people to repent and be baptized, “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

This is a funny question.  For what they are really asking is this: “Are you the Messiah?”  John had a large following.  A lot of people were wondering the same thing.  He could have taken the glory for himself, but instead, “he confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’”

They also asked him if he were Elijah come back to earth.  “No.”  How about the Prophet spoken of by Moses in Deuteronomy?  “No.”  And so they ask him again, “Who are you?”  And here is where John reveals both his mission and who he is according to the Old Testament: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 

At this point, the Pharisees who are conducting this interrogation should have figured out that John is the forerunner to the Christ.  But they are still fixated on John.  “Why are you baptizing?” they ask him. 

And here, John confesses not only who he isn’t, but also who Jesus is: “I baptize with water,” he says, “but among you stands one you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 

They are perplexed by John, but there’s more where that came from.  As much grief as John is giving them, they haven’t seen anything yet.  The one who is coming after John, the one about whom John cries out: “Make straight the way of the Lord,” John’s cousin Jesus, whom John will baptize and about whom he will hear the voice of the Father and see a miracle of the Holy Spirit – this Jesus will confound the Pharisees, the priests, the Levites, the Sadducees, the scribes, and the lawyers.  He will berate them, mock them, call them to repent, challenge them, and perform miracles on the Sabbath Day right in front of them, because He knows that this is their hobby horse.  They are more concerned about rules – rules that they made up in the first place – than they are about loving God and serving their neighbors. 

They’re already terrified of John, and they have no idea what’s coming.

While the world ponders chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a reindeer with a red nose, and “happy holidays,” the church winds down Advent and prepares for Christmas by meditating on John the Baptist’s message to the ones who will ultimately conspire to crucify the Christ child thirty years after the first Christmas.

John’s message is that Jesus is coming.  And for the Pharisees and those who are obsessed with the law, this is a terrifying prospect.  For Jesus will knock them off of their self-made pedestals, but will forgive tax collectors and prostitutes.  In the words of our Lord’s mother – which we sing to this day – “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly.”

Jesus comes to put the proud in their place, but to raise those who have been beaten down: by the devil, by the world, and by our own sinful nature.  To the Pharisees, Jesus is a menace and a challenge to their power. But to us “poor, miserable sinners,” Jesus is our Savior.  They see a dangerous man who must be put to death for His supposed sins; we see a righteous man who is put to death for our sins. 

As we approach the remembrance of our Lord’s birth, we allow John, the prophets, the apostles, the entirety of Scripture, and preachers of every age to point us to Jesus, to the cross, and to the manger.  We meditate on what it means that God has come to earth in the form of a baby, in the form of a man who was baptized in the Jordan, in the form of a preacher who puts the Pharisees in their place, a man who is convicted of terrorism and publicly tortured and executed – and a man who walks out of His own tomb to the consternation of not only the Jews, but also the Romans – and at first, even the disciples themselves.

And this is why Christmas brings Christians such joy, dear friends.  It goes far beyond family get-togethers and parties and children opening gifts.  Our joy transcends trees and decorations and festive lights.  The real joy of Christmas is in the Christ, the Messiah, the Prophet spoken of by Moses, the one Elijah and Moses will speak with on top of the Mountain of Transfiguration, the one John baptized with water, the one who comes to baptize us not only with water but into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We Christians cannot contain our joy because God has come to earth to save us, and He comes to us as one of us: as a baby, as a man who suffers, but also as a mighty king, as God in the flesh, as the one who deals the death-blow to Satan and who rises from death to destroy death.

All of this joy is pent up in us as we count down the days until our Lord’s birth – even as we bubble over in the joy that we know He is coming again to save us, to raise the dead, and to re-create the world anew.  Jesus will come again to liberate us from today’s Pharisees: unbelievers, scoffers, those who lord over us, those who are hell-bent to destroy civilization and turn the world upside-down, to call evil good and good evil, and to serve the cause of Satan.

In spite of it all, we look to the manger and we rejoice.  We rejoice with the angels and the shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, with the animals and all of creation – and eventually with the wise men who will come and bring the good news back to the Gentiles.  We rejoice with the Lord’s followers who rejoiced at His resurrection. We rejoice because He is coming again.  We rejoice with St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Amen.

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Sermon: Wittenberg Academy - Dec 14


14 December 2021

Text: Rev 2:1-29

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

In today’s reading, we hear four of the seven letters of Jesus to the churches delivered by John the apostle.  There is a pattern that should cause us in our modern churches to take notice.  Our Lord judges the churches based on two things: their doctrine and their works – which our Lord often speaks of as love.

For indeed, there are two ditches into which we Christians and our congregations can fall.  The first is to be doctrinally pure, but lacking in love and good works.  This is an easy trap to fall into dear friends.  We can reduce the faith to abstracts, to logical deductions, to memorized proof texts from the Scriptures, and to nothing more than dogmatic rightness – while overlooking actual righteousness. 

Our Lord praises the Church of Ephesus for their fidelity to the apostolic doctrine and in their condemnation of the Nicolaitan heresy.  But He warns them to “repent” as they have “abandoned the love [they] had at first.”  And “if not,” He will “come to [them] and remove [their] lampstand from its place.”

The other extreme is to focus on good works, but to be doctrinally unfaithful.  This is a cross for many of our modern churches that are more concerned with “niceness” and image than fidelity to the Scriptures.  Our Lord warns the Church of Pergamum, who “held fast [His] name, and [they] did not deny [His] faith” even under persecution “where Satan dwells.”  However, unlike the Ephesians, the Christians at Pergamum tolerated the Nicolaitans.  Jesus commands them to “repent.”  And “if not, [He] will come to [them] soon and war against them with the sword of [His] mouth.

Similarly, our Lord praises the Church of Thyatira for their “works, [their] love and faith and service and patient endurance.”  However, they are tolerant of a certain woman in the congregation who claims to be a “prophetess” who is committing the same errors as the Nicolaitans: sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols.  However, our Lord also encourages those who rejected this so-called prophetess and her teachings to “hold fast… until I come.”

The Smyrnaeans are given a different kind of letter – one that warns them of persecution to come and encouragement to “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life,” says our Lord.

 

The Christian life is both doctrine and practice, both confession of the truth and living a life of love.  We must not neglect love in pursuit of doctrine.  We must not neglect doctrine in pursuit of love.  We are called to hold both, even as our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us in purity and loves us.  And we must also take our Lord’s encouragement to heart concerning times of persecution and tribulation.  For “the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”   

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Amen.

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