Sermon for Epiphany 3, 2022

Text: 1 Kings 5:1-15a

Epiphany 3 – January 23, 2022

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

Naaman was a mighty man of valor. That is, he won many battles as the leader of the Syrian army. It’s no small detail, by the way, that the author of 2 Kings points out that Naaman was given victory over Syria’s enemies by God. Syria, of course, was a pagan nation. They did not worship the one, true God. They worshiped multiple false gods. Yet God is the one who grants Syria victory. We have a tenancy to speak weakly when it comes to the control that God has over that which happens in this world. We like to say that God “allows” things to happen that seem to contradict his will, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. As Job says, “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Evil nations and regimes win sometimes. We’ve seen this throughout history. God is the one who grants them victory even if they are evil. Why? That is not for us to know. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets tell us why. God uses foreign nations who worship false gods to punish his own people for their own disobedience. Here, the Syrian army is carrying out raids on God’s own people of the northern kingdom of Israel. And these raids are successful. Ultimately, in fact, the nation that succeeds the Syrians will completely destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. All of this as tools that God uses to discipline his own people. Even in the New Testament, Jesus speaks of the coming of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Empire for their continued rejection of the Word of God and ultimately the Word made flesh himself, Jesus. God still today grants victory to our enemies, even evil, Pagan ones. Why? While we can’t pinpoint the exact reason (because there isn’t a prophet here to tell us), we know from reading the scriptures that the proper response to such events is repentance. Job tried for quite some time (with “help” from his friends) to figure out what he had done to deserve the misfortune that had come upon him. Finally, the answer comes not from the fruitless discussions that Job has with “friends,” but from Job listening to what God has to say and answering him in chapter 42:

“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 42:1-6

Job repents. That is what we ought to do when we see evil in the world. We examine ourselves, see where our faults lie, and repent. We repent, confidently knowing that all sins are covered in Jesus. We repent knowing that God is showing love to us in disciplining us just as a loving father disciplines his own children.

The three main teachings I want to show you in this healing of Naaman today are this, though:

1. God’s gifts are not for sale.

2. God works for our good not directly, but through means.

3. Faith is passive in the receiving of God’s gifts.

Naaman was, as I said earlier, a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. What a turn that sentence takes! Leprosy can describe any number of skin conditions, most of which we either have medication to deal with today or simply don’t exist anymore. In the ancient world, though, there was no known effective treatment for leprosy. Once contracted, you lived with it. And you usually lived alone. You lived alone and isolated because the last thing that anyone wanted to have happen was for someone else to contract leprosy from you. So Naaman, a highly honored mighty man of valor, was not only looking forward to life filled with pain and discomfort, but a life of isolation from his family and community.

A glimmer of hope presents itself, though. Naaman had carried out several successful raids on Israel. On one of these raids, Naaman brought back a little Israelite girl to Syria where she ends up serving his very own wife in their house. This little girl had faith. Yes, Israel was largely a faithless nation at this point in time, but there were always some who remained faithful to the true God. This little girl trusts in the promises that God makes and trusts the Words spoken by the prophets. So she tells the woman she is in service to, Naaman’s wife, about the man of God in Israel. She tells him that this man of God could potentially heal Naaman of his leprosy. She’s talking about the great prophet Elisha. By this point in time, Elisha had developed a reputation as one who could do miracles. Just a chapter before this, he raised the son of the Shunnamite woman with whom he had been lodging. Naaman’s wife tells Naaman, and he gets permission from the king to travel to Israel to seek healing.

Look how and where he travels, though. He travels with a huge amount of expensive goods – 750 pounds of silver, 1,500 pounds of sliver, and ten changes of clothing. We may chuckle at the ten changes of clothing, but there were plenty valuable. You couldn’t exactly swing into the local Walmart and buy a cheap t-shirt and pair of pants in those days, after. Why all the stuff? He’s bringing it as payment for his healing. That’s how it works, right? You pay the man and he heals you. You buy his favor. He’ll be so impressed with what you have to offer that he’ll give you what you want right there on the spot. He is sent with a letter from his own king to the king of Israel asking that he heal him of his leprosy.

There are two problems with Naaman’s trip so far. First of all, he comes ready to pay for his healing. This is not how the gifts of God work. God does not sell his gifts; he gives his gifts freely. Naaman will soon learn this. Secondly, Naaman is sent to the wrong person. The king of Israel can’t do anything for him. At the same time, the king of Israel’s reaction shows his own lack of faith in God. Had he faith in God and in his Word delivered by Elisha, he would have simply sent Naaman to Elisha straightway, but instead he tears his clothes in distress thinking that the king of Syria was trying to pick a fight with him. It is true that the Syrian king was his enemy, but this was not the reason, as we know, that Naaman is sent to him. It is only after Elisha sends word to the king that Naaman is finally sent to the right place to get the healing he desires.

When Naaman finally gets to Elisha, things don’t go as he had planned. Naaman wanted to actually see the man of God, but all he gets is a messenger sent to the door who tells him to go and dip himself in the Jordan seven times with the promise that if he does, his flesh will be restored and he will be clean. It’s a simple enough thing, obviously, but Naaman isn’t impressed. He wanted a direct encounter with Elisha. He traveled all this way ready for Elisha to come out and say some magic words and wave his hands over him and all he got was an ordinary messenger with an ordinary-sounding message.

We can relate to Naaman. After all, don’t we all want to hear the voice of God directly? Don’t we want him to come and whisper directly into our ear? We, like Naaman, are what the reformers called “enthusiasts.” We want God to appear directly to us and speak directly to us.

This is not, however, what God promises in his Word. This is what it says at the very beginning of the book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” The time for direct revelation is up. That’s because all the prophets had to tell us was about the coming Messiah. We have the Messiah now, so there is no need for direct revelation. We have the full message of God contained for us in God’s Holy Word. We don’t need anything else. Martin Luther further expresses this in the Smalcald Articles, one of the documents in the Book of Concord that we subscribe to as a congregation and that I subscribe to as a pastor in the Lutheran Church:

“In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. It’s venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy, especially that of the papacy and Mohammed. Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any way other than through the spoken Word and Sacraments.”

SA 3, VIII:9-10

Those words may sound shocking and limiting to us, but it’s true. The way that God speaks to us and deals with us is through means. And this is a good thing. You’re not left constantly wondering if God is speaking to you if the thing that you’re hearing is in the Bible. You’re not left wondering if your sins are forgiven because God tells you objectively that they are. The Word and Sacraments of God bring you the forgiveness of sins. They deliver the fruits of the cross—forgiveness, life and salvation—and you know that they do because the Word of God promises. All three Sacraments contain these promises. Naaman was told that dipping in the water of the Jordan would heal his leprosy. You are told that Baptism will forgive your sins? How can water do such great things? It’s not just the water. It’s the Word of God in and with the water. The Word of Absolution is just as valid and certain, even in heaven as if Jesus were standing right here in front of you telling you the same thing. You know this because Jesus gives the power of the keys to his church and, by extension, to pastors. Jesus also says, “whoever hears you hears me” to his apostles. In the Lord’s Supper, how is it that bodily eating and drinking forgive sins? It is not just eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus, but it is faith in the Words given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. See what certain comfort God has for you in his Word and Sacraments! There is no doubt at all that forgiveness is delivered to us through these gifts.

Ultimately, the only way that Naaman finally does make it to the Jordan River is at the insistence of his servants who tell him that he might as well give it a try. What does he have to lose? Behold, Naaman actually does what Elisha told him to do and it works. His flesh becomes like that of a child. So why did it work? Did it work because of Naaman’s faith? Certainly not. Naaman didn’t think it was going to work anyway. What this shows us is that the power of God’s Word and promises don’t depend on man’s faithfulness. God’s Word does what it says it will do because it’s God’s Word. Elisha speaks for God and Elisha’s messenger speaks for Elisha. The water of the Jordan heals Naaman not because of Naaman’s faith, but because God promised that it would. Naaman’s faith is passive here. It is not active. It simply receives the promise given by God.

The same is true of the sacraments for us. Baptism doesn’t benefit us because of our great faith. Absolution isn’t effective because we feel forgiven. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t deliver forgiveness because we eat and drink it in just the right way. No these things all do what they say they do because God’s Word is certain and true. You can count on them. Our faith is passive in the receiving of God’s gifts. The time for active faith shows itself in the Love that we have for our neighbor.

So let us firmly trust the Word and promises of God knowing that he will do what he promises to do.

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

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Sermon for Epiphany 2, 2022

Text: Ephesians 5:22-33

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

God loves marriage. God created marriage. In fact, it’s of utmost importance to recall that God created marriage to be the life-long commitment between one man and one woman even before the fall into sin. This means that it existed before sin existed in the world. You’ll remember that on the sixth day of creation, after God had created Adam and after Adam had named each of the animals that God created, no suitable helper was found for Adam. For this reason Eve, the first woman was created. God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone. He needed a helper suitable for him. So woman was created by God from the side of the man to be that helper suitable for man. Immediately after the creation of the first woman, Adam and Eve were united in marriage and given the command to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.” So marriage solves two problems for man. First, he was lonely and he finds a helper and companion in the woman. Second, in order to “be fruitful and multiply,” he needs woman. Marriage is for companionship and for procreation. The high honor that God has for marriage and his love for its institution is shown by the fact that Jesus chooses a wedding to be the setting for his first miracle.

St. Paul makes it clear that there is more to marriage than meets the eye, though. Yes, anyone can see how wonderful God’s gift of marriage can be for all involved. Husbands and wives benefit from each other’s mutual companionship and support. Children benefit from the love and care of their fathers and mothers. Fathers and mothers benefit from the honor and love shown them by their children throughout their lives. Society as a whole benefits from the godly children raised by godly parents.

More than that, though, St. Paul shows us how marriage is an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. Just as the woman was created from the side of the man at creation, so the Church is created from the side of Christ. When Christ was crucified and died for the sins of the world, the soldiers came and pierced his side to ensure that he was dead. When they pierced his side, blood and water flowed out. This was the birth, the creation of the bride of Christ, the Church. For it is in the water of Holy Baptism that we are re-born and placed into the holy ark that is the holy Christian Church. It is his blood that covers over our sin. It is his blood that fills the chalice from which we drink at the Lord’s Supper that sustains our faith. The water and blood that flow from the side of the crucified Jesus are the means by which the Church is created and sustained.

Now look at how the two relate to one another. Christ, the bridegroom, is the perfect husband for his Church. As a bride is adorned in white as she comes to the altar to be united to her husband in a one flesh union, Jesus has his wife, the Church, presented in white. Is the bride of Christ perfect? Is that why she wears white? Certainly not. We know full well that we, the Church, Christ’s bride, are filled with sin. There is no true redeemable quality in us. We are not faithful to Christ, our bridegroom even in the slightest. But Jesus covers over the sin of his bride. She may not be perfect, but she is presented as perfect because her garments have been washed and have been made white in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

How does the bride of Christ react to that which is done for her by her perfect bridegroom, Jesus? She submits to him. That is, she puts herself under the authority of Jesus and learns to look to him for all that is good. She recognizes that this Jesus has died for her and is her head. Therefore, she reverently submits to him. This relationship between Christ and the Church is what the relationship between husband and wife ought to look like among us, the people of God. This reading from Ephesians 5 makes that clear.

There is no doubt that God’s institution of marriage has fallen on hard times in our world. This is not new. In fact, there was already a breakdown in marriage between Adam and Eve. Look at what happened in Genesis chapter three. The wily serpent approaches Eve and tempts her to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She eats and gives some to her husband who was with her and he also ate. What should have happened? Adam should have stepped in and kept the conversation between Eve and the serpent from ever happening. He was the head of his wife. He should have done anything and everything not only to keep Eve from eating of the tree from which God had told them not to eat. He should have not even allowed the conversation between Eve and the serpent to happen. After the fall, things get worse. Did Adam defend his wife and take responsibility for her actions? No. He should have. Her failure was his fault. He should have kept it from happening. Instead, though, he shifts the blame to his wife. That was wrong, but Eve did no better. Instead of owning up to her sin, she shifts the blame to the serpent. The relationship between Adam and Eve fails to show what God intended marriage to look like as instead of mutual love and submission, there is selfish ambition.

St. Paul’s words to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 show that this is exactly what it is that causes marriages to falter or fail. The problem is that wives don’t submit to their husbands and that husbands do not love their wives as they love themselves. Every single time that a marriage fails, one or both of these things has happened. Marriage is designed by God to take the husband’s and wife’s energy and affection and focus it outside of themselves and onto their spouse.

This is completely against everything that the world tells us about marriage. The world tells us that marriage is all about what’s best for the individual. First, the world tells us that we should delay marriage until we’re older. The reason for this, according to the world, is that we need time for ourselves. We need to establish our career first and enjoy life alone before getting married. It’s completely focused on self rather than on someone else. That’s not just against God’s design for marriage; it’s against God’s design for how Christians ought to live.

The world also teaches us that marriage isn’t necessarily a life-long commitment. This is in spite of the vows that almost every person who’s ever gotten married takes when they get married. It’s as if there’s an asterisk next to the wedding vow that says we’ll remain married as long as we’re still in love. Or we’ll remain married as long as we never argue with each other. Or we’ll remain married as long as we’re happy. The moment that we’re no longer happy, in love, or argue it’s time to call it quits. This is the message of the world. Marriage according to the world has nothing to do with wives submitting to husbands or husbands laying down their lives for their spouses. Instead, it’s all about what’s in it for me.

This selfish line of thinking is what has also led to perversions of God’s plan for marriage such as so-called same-sex marriage. The idea behind this is that marriage is all about whom I love. While this might satisfy the companionship portion of marriage in a twisted way, it makes the procreation part of God’s design for marriage impossible.

We Christians must not look to the world for guidance when it comes to marriage and what it ought to look like. We’ll get all the wrong answers that way. Let us instead look to God’s institution of marriage as a life-long commitment between one man and one woman. Any other quantity or combination of persons is evil. Likewise, let us follow St. Paul and look to the relationship between Christ and the Church. Husbands, see the example that Christ has left for you. Your wife is not perfect, but it is your role as a husband to present her to the world in that way. It is your duty to protect her at every turn from whatever misfortune might come to her. This is what Jesus did for the Church. He even suffered death for his bride. Husbands, you must be willing to do the same. You are the head of your wife. This doesn’t mean that you get to rule over them in a domineering fashion. It means that you love them just as Christ loved the Church. Wives, submit to your husbands. Put yourselves under their authority. Do this not out of fear, but recognizing that God has given you your husband to be head over you for your good. He has given you your husband as one who is willing to lay down his very life for your good. This is how marriage looks according to God’s Word.

There is a word here for the unmarried as well. Those who are not married can also uphold and esteem the sanctity of marriage. They can look to it and extol it as a blessing from God rather than a burden that steals away freedom. They can support and encourage the married to be faithful to their marriage vows. They can encourage the young to do the same.

God loves marriage. God created marriage. Let us all celebrate the blessings that God has given and continues to bring through this institution.

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

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Sermon for Epiphany 2, 2022

Text: Luke 2:41-52

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

In Exodus 23, 34, and Deuteronomy 16, the Lord says that all Jewish males must appear before him three times a year: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths. St. Luke writes in our Gospel reading for today that the holy family did just that. Mary even accompanied Joseph and Jesus even though she wasn’t required to be there. So devout were Mary and Joseph in their faith. For we know that while the Lord made such a requirement for his people in the Law of Moses, rarely was there a time in Israel when the Law was kept by even close to 100% of God’s people. Most of the time Israel lives up to its name, struggling with God the whole way. Mary and Joseph, though, are found among those devoted to the Lord God and desiring to keep his Law. They go to the temple because that is the place where God has said that he will meet them. Why would they not go to the place where the God that created them and continues to sustain them has promised to meet with them?

While Jesus’ family made this trip each year, Luke writes, this year would turn out to be different. We know very well—and Mary and Joseph did, too, for that matter—that Jesus is no ordinary 12-year-old. Jesus is not just like every other preteen boy traveling with his family to Jerusalem and to the temple. Jesus is true God and true man. He’s not half God and half man, though. He is all man and all God. The doctrine of the two natures in Christ, that is, that the fullness of both the divine and the human are contained in Jesus, plays a large part in this reading as we will see as we go on. That, however, is not what makes this trip to Jerusalem different. What makes this trip different is the fact that Jesus doesn’t go with Joseph and Mary when they start to travel back to Nazareth. According to the text, they don’t even realize that Jesus isn’t with them at first. They assume (as is reasonable in their situation), that Jesus is simply with someone else in their traveling group. After all, while it is unlikely that ALL of Israel was obedient to the Law of Moses that required this annual pilgrimage, there were still a number of who would have been observing the Law just as Joseph and his family did. Many of their extended family and others who they knew well would have been making that return trip to Nazareth. They trusted that Jesus was simply with one of them instead. When Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with them, they turn around at once and go back to Jerusalem to try and find him. As it is with everything that is lost, they find Jesus in the last place they look: the temple.

And what is Jesus doing there? He’s sitting among the teachers. He’s listening to them and asking them questions. It would be one thing if this were one adult man discussing theology with other adult men, but this is a young boy talking theology with a group of adult men. This is why we call Epiphany “Epiphany.” During Epiphany Jesus reveals himself. The fact that he is true man is clear for all to see, but his divinity is another matter. No, speaking intelligently about theology is not a divine attribute, but Jesus shows wisdom beyond his years here. It is a wisdom that was given to him by his Father above. While he certainly would have learned plenty as a Jewish boy growing up in a devout Jewish household, the fact is that Jesus, as true God, possesses the full knowledge of God already. It is only because he is in the state of humiliation—that is, he is not always using his divine abilities—that he doesn’t knock the socks off of everyone he meets with his knowledge. On this particular occasion, though, he does just that. The people are amazed at his understanding and his answers. What was he discussing with the men in the temple? While Luke does not tell us, he was almost certainly speaking with them about the promise of the Messiah. He would not yet have revealed himself as the fulfillment of the prophecies of the scriptures, for his time has not yet come, but Jesus always makes it clear that the prophecies of the Old Testament point to the Christ. That is what he will do during the course of his ministry that is yet to come and that is doubtless what he was doing here as well. It’s not obvious them, by any stretch of the imagination, that this young boy who is speaking with such wisdom is the Son of God, but it’s clear that there’s something different about him.

Mary and Joseph are not as impressed with Jesus’ actions in the temple. They’re more concerned about his physical location and the fact that he did not leave the temple when they left the temple. You can certainly understand Mary’s reaction when she finds him. She says, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” While no words of Joseph are recorded here (or anywhere else in scripture, for that matter), he certainly felt the same way. Why does Jesus treat his parents this way?

This is when we must remember that Jesus is not just true man. He is also true God. According to his divine nature, he needn’t submit to anyone. He is true God. No one ranks before him.

The vocations of father and mother are given great honor in the holy scriptures. Parents are God’s representatives on earth given to us for our benefit. The Fourth Commandment teaches us that we are not to despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but we are to love, honor, serve and obey our parents. One might look at Jesus’ actions in the first half of this Gospel reading, it sure looks as if Jesus is angering his parents. He is not where he should be as far as they are concerned. The reason, though, that Jesus is not breaking the Fourth Commandment is because he is obeying his true Father and doing his will.

Notice that Jesus parents searched for him for three days before finding him in the temple. Jesus question to them is a convicting question. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” They could have saved a lot of time and stress if they simply had gone to the most logical place to find him: in his Father’s house. In the temple.

The Father’s house, that is, the Church, is likewise where we go to find Jesus. People waste all kinds of time looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. Yes, Jesus is, in one sense, everywhere. This is what he promised in Matthew 28 when he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus is always with us. But he specifically gives of himself and locates himself in the means of grace. That is, the Holy Spirit, working through God’s Holy Word, delivers to us the gifts that Jesus won on the cross for us. The place where God’s Holy Word is proclaimed and heard is in the Church. We, like Mary and Joseph, will finish our search for Jesus by going to the place where he promises to be: in the Father’s house. Nothing should keep us from being in the Father’s house. Not even the will of Mary and Joseph, his parents on earth, would keep Jesus from being in the Father’s house. For it was the will of the Father that he be in that place at that time. Likewise, let us not allow even family to keep us from the Father’s house. Let us highly treasure the gifts that Christ gives us in this place. Let us exclaim along with Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” For that truly is what this place is. It is the gate to heaven. It is the gate to heaven because just as Jesus was found in the temple by Mary and Joseph after three days, Jesus rose from the dead after three days of being “lost” in the tomb that we who died with him in our baptism, might be raised with him on the Last Day.

According to his divinity, Jesus did not need to submit to Mary and Joseph. That is shown by his staying behind in Jerusalem in this text. But according to his humanity, Jesus did have to submit to Mary and Joseph. And he does just that. He returns to Nazareth with them, puts himself under their authority, and, as Luke writes, he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” Why not just stay in the temple that day and never go back home? Why not just reveal the fullness of his glory in that moment? His time had not yet come. Jesus took on human flesh so that he could live the life that we live. We don’t just flip a switch and suddenly become filled with wisdom and understanding. We learn and grow into full spiritual maturity over time. Jesus does the same. The time will come for him to reveal himself fully as the Son of God, but his hour has not yet come. In the same way, we suffer in this world knowing and anticipating the glory that is in store for us in the life of the world to come.

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

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Sermon for Epiphany, 2022

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

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

In Exodus, the people of Israel were led by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke by day to the Promised Land. They were led out of the slavery they experienced in Egypt to the freedom that God would give them in the land flowing with milk and honey. They would be led to the place where God would dwell among them first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Now, on this night that we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, we celebrate the leading of the gentile magi not by fire and smoke, but by a star as they exit from the slavery of their sin and unbelief to the freedom that will come by the one born in Bethlehem to be the king of the Jews who will die not just to save Israel, but all people.

The English Standard Version of the Bible—the translation that we use in our services and that is used in all of our church’s publications—translates the Greek word for “magi” in Matthew 2 as “wise men.” You might have noticed that I didn’t read it that way. I simply read it as “magi.” That’s because while the magi may have held some sort of worldly knowledge, they are not truly wise. After all, how do you explain the fact that they go to the wrong place looking for the wrong kind of king.

That said, we can’t be too hard on the magi. After all, at least they recognized something that nobody else did. They recognized that a king had been born in Israel and that there was something significant about this particular king. How did they know all of this? They probably learned it from the Jews who had once been exiled in their land. They probably had a copy of, in the very least, the Torah (the books of Moses). They had read the promise of the coming Messiah. The knowledge that they lacked was filled in by the chief priests and the scribes. That is, the location of where the king was to be born was not evident in the information that they had. The full Word of God had to come to them in order to make them wise enough to know where to go to find Jesus. The lesson is this: no one is truly wise apart from the Word of God. We can acquire as much worldly knowledge as possible, but without the Word of God, it’s useless. It will amount to nothing. We need the Word of God to make us wise unto salvation.

The fact is that everyone should have rejoiced at the birth of Jesus—especially the scribes and the chief priests. They were the ones who pointed out to the magi where the King of the Jews was to be born. They should have been thrilled to hear that it had actually happened. They should have set off for Bethlehem with the magi. But they didn’t. They were indifferent to the birth of Jesus. They had the wisdom of God’s Word telling them not only where the Messiah was to be born, but what it meant. They had this additional word from the magi that it had actually happened. Yet they did nothing. They decided to hang back in Jerusalem with the pagan King Herod and wait for the magi to report back.

That is, after all, what Herod told the magi to do. He told them to come back and tell him all about the child that was born. He said he wanted to worship him, too. That’s not true, of course. Herod was a ruthless king who killed whoever got in his way as king. He only wanted to know where Jesus was so that he could eliminate this threat to his throne. He has no intention to bow down and worship the true King of the Jews. He is purely concerned with protecting his position in the Roman Empire.

The magi, however, will never make it back to Jerusalem. They were warned in a dream to go back to their country by a different route rather than reveal the location of the Christ child. That said, where, exactly, was Jesus when the magi visited and worshiped him? We might assume Bethlehem. After all, nothing is said of the holy family moving anywhere until Joseph is told to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Consider, though, that Matthew never specifies in his Gospel where the star leads the magi other than saying that it led to them to where Jesus was. The fact is that Joseph and Mary may very well have already returned to Nazareth by the time the magi visit. That is, it could be that the magi are led by the star to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Regardless of where the magi went, though, the fact remains that they went. They were led by a star to to the Savior of the World. And they were never the same after that. They went home a different way. Yes, they literally traveled a different route to get back to Persia, but as it is with anyone who encounters Jesus, their way, that is, their life was changed. They were no longer pagans walking in darkness, but they were part of the people who once walked in darkness but now have seen the great light. For Jesus is that great light that shines in the darkness. Isaiah writes of him in our Old Testament reading for tonight where he says that glory of the Lord has come. The magi even fulfill the prophecy in their bringing of gold and frankincense to present to Jesus. Now the magi go their way knowing that they have seen with their own eyes the salvation that God promised to all people. They have seen the offspring born of woman that comes to crush the serpents head. They have seen the offspring promised to Abraham that would be a blessing to all nations.

You, too, are part of this chosen race and royal priesthood now. You were made this in your baptism where you first encountered Jesus for yourself as he wrapped you in his robes of righteousness. You have encountered this Savior of all nations in absolution where he declares your sins forgiven and in the Lord’s Supper where he feeds you with his body and blood. Do not take these encounters with Jesus, the great light, for granted! Be not like the scribes and chief priests who indifferently sent the magi on their way. Rather, hasten to the places where Jesus locates himself for the forgiveness of your sins. Come to the altar, pulpit, and font rejoicing with exceedingly great joy. Fall down and worship Jesus Christ, your Savior.

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

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Sermon for Christmas 1, 2021

Text: Luke 2:33-40

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

While the rest of the world goes back to normal after briefly celebrating the birth of the Christ, we, the Church, carry on. That is, we continue to marvel at the birth of Jesus Christ. Or at least we should marvel at the birth of Christ. It can be rather easy to forget the miraculous nature of Christ and who he is. It’s not that any of the facts about Christ and his birth and childhood are new, it’s just that they are, indeed, marvelous. Jesus is born of a virgin. Is that not astounding? This little baby will be the Savior of the world. He is the one who was promised long ago to Eve, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to David, the list goes on and on. Isn’t that something? Again, these are things that we know and have known for years, but they can—and should—continue to cause us to marvel just as Mary and Joseph marveled at what was said of Jesus. Just before our Gospel lesson for this morning, Simeon had just sung the Nunc Dimittis. This song of Simeon affirmed that Jesus was the light to lead the Gentiles and he was the glory of God’s people Israel. That is, Jesus was and is the Savior of the world.

This is not new information for Mary and Joseph. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus who would save people from their sins. Joseph was likewise told to name the baby Jesus for this reason. Elizabeth referred to Mary as “the Mother of her Lord” as John the Baptist leapt in her womb. Mary and Joseph have known for over nine months who Jesus is and why he comes into the world. But they still marvel. It doesn’t get old. Let us never let these things be old to us, either! Let us marvel along with Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna that God has veiled himself in human flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Simeon says that Jesus is appointed for the rise and fall and rising of many in Israel. This thought is echoed well by St. Paul in his letter to the Church at Corinth: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The message of the cross is, without a doubt, the sweetest message of all messages for us Christians. We see, in the death of Jesus Christ, our salvation. But it is not sweet for everyone. As St. Paul wrote, this same message that causes much rejoicing for us as we see it as the source of our salvation causes the Jew to stumble and the Gentiles find it foolish. That is, they reject it. As we well know, those who reject Christ and the message of salvation that he brings are damned.

The fact is, though, that all people fall at the teachings of Christ. For all see in the teachings of Christ and his Word that they have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We see that we have sinned against God in what we say, do, and think. This is what it means for the thoughts of man’s heart to be revealed. It’s not that hard, after all, to keep from committing grossly evil sins. We can hold ourselves back from them. But all along, we harbor such evil, despicable things in our hearts that the world would gasp in horror if they could only see all the filth that is within. The difference for we who believe, though, is that Christ does not leave us in this fallen state, but he stoops down to save us. This is the entirety of Christ’s mission, really. He, the very Son of God, stoops down to earth, descending from his royal throne next to his Father, because in his mercy he desires to raise us up. He desires to be our brother. He desires to suffer and die on our behalf.

This mercy comes at great personal cost to Mary, of course. This is what Simeon means when he says that a sword will pierce through her heart. The fulfillment of this comes when Mary, at the foot of the cross, watches as the Son she conceived miraculously as a virgin is nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers, his side pierced to make sure he was dead, and his cold, lifeless body laid in the tomb. I have no doubt that the sorrow of a mother who loses a son is hardly surpassed by any other sorrow in this world. Simeon’s choice of metaphor is quite appropriate. Of course, couched in this metaphor, as painful as it is, is the fact that this piercing of Mary’s heart, that is, her emotional reaction to the death of Jesus, is not without hope. Likewise, when Good Friday rolls around, we have great sorrow, but it is not a sorrow without hope. It is a sorrow over sin, but the sorrow we have has joy lurking in the background for we know that Christ defeats death in his death and brings life and immortality to light in his resurrection.

After Simeon’s witness of Christ, St. Luke turns his attention to Anna, the prophetess. After 400 years of silence, there is an explosion of prophecy as Jesus, The Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18, has come at last. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist prophecies of how Jesus comes to visit and redeem his people and how his Son will be prophet of the Most High who will prepare his ways. We sing his Benedictus in our Matins services during the week. John the Baptist, of course, will do just what his father said he would do. He will prepare the way for Jesus and will point people to him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Anna here, likewise, prophecies of Christ. That is, she tells whoever she can about Jesus. She tells them that the Messiah has, indeed come. That God has visited his people. While this little passage is all we have when it comes to information about Anna, we can be sure that people listened to her prophecy. Luke says that she was quite old, having been a widow for 84 years. She was always in the temple. She was certainly a woman who was well-regarded as faithful and pious. When she spoke, people likely listened to her. Here she speaks the most marvelous things of all as she bears witness to Christ, who he is, and what he will do.

After everything was fulfilled according to the Law of Moses, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to Nazareth. This may seem, at first glance, to contradict the timeline that we usually picture when it comes to the early life of Christ. This visit to the temple is taking place when Jesus is just 40 days old, for that is the time appointed for baby boys to be presented in the temple. Mary and Joseph made the sacrifice of 2 turtledoves to redeem Jesus because he was the firstborn son of Mary. We know, from Matthew’s Gospel, that the toddler Jesus was taken from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape King Herod’s plot to kill him before returning to Bethlehem for a time before they eventually settled back in Nazareth. Luke’s gospel seems to indicate that the move to Nazareth happened when Jesus was still an infant. Just because Luke leaves out the flight to Egypt doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, though. Luke does not specify how much time elapsed between the time that Jesus was presented at the temple and encountered Simeon and Anna and when his family moved to Nazareth. He simply writes that they did move to Nazareth.

When they did return to Nazareth, Jesus grew strong in the Spirit, full of wisdom, and the grace of God was with him. Jesus, on account of him being true God, was already full of wisdom, but as he grows, the glory of God is revealed more and more in him. We’ll see this as we get into the season of Epiphany. Jesus reveals himself as true God and true man more and more as he performs multiple miracles and shows, through his teaching, the wisdom of God that he has. The birth of Jesus, as marvelous as it was, was just the beginning. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, grows strong in the spirit and reveals himself more and more for us that just as the fullness of God dwelt in him, he might dwell in us.

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

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Sermon for Christmas Day, 2021

Text: John 1:1-14

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

The beginning of John’s Gospel takes us back to the very beginning of all things, that is, to creation. Moses records for us in Genesis 1 that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them out of absolutely nothing. He spoke it into existence. St. John writes that the Word was in the beginning and that the Word was God. How can both of those things be true? How is it that God can both be the one speaking and the Word that is spoken? The answer, of course, is that while there is only one God, there are are three persons. This is one of the many places in the scriptures that we see evidence of the Triune God. It is unmistakable here that the Word is God and that God is the one speaking. There are clearly two persons of the Trinity present in St. John’s Words. Additionally, this makes it clear that Jesus is not a created being, but he is the creator himself.

These may seem like simple truths that we’ve always affirmed, but the fact is that there are many in the history of the Church who’ve claimed to be God-fearing Christians who have rejected these things. Arius was a Fourth Century heretic who denied that Jesus was truly God. Arius claimed that Jesus was God-like, but was not of the same substance as the Father. “There was a time when he, that is, Jesus, was not” according to Arius and his followers. Even though Arius was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Nicaea in 325, his heresy persisted. Today, it manifests itself in the Jehovah’s Witness cult that often looks somewhat Christian, and may claim to be, but denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, and may, therefore, not be considered a Christian group.

While we may not always feel qualified to articulate what the Holy Trinity is, we affirm it as truth because that is the God of the Bible. Yet there are some sects that claim to be Christian even today that reject the doctrine of the Trinity. The most prominent one is the Oneness Pentecostals. They teach that God is not three distinct persons, but that he appears in different modes. They teach this in spite of the obvious example we have at Jesus’ baptism, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all clearly and distinctly present. Also, Jesus speaks individually of the Father and the Holy Spirit as he teaches his disciples and others.

What this shows us is that it remains important for us to care about theology. When we lose a proper theology and teaching of who Jesus is, we lose the central teachings of the Church itself. Let us never shrug such things off as unimportant or become indifferent to them! Instead, let us cling tightly to God’s Word where he reveals himself to us. When we don’t understand it, let us not just throw up our hands and give up, but let us seek greater and greater understanding of God’s Word.

John also makes it clear that the Word was with God in the beginning. I know I’m jumping the gun here, but it will become clear in the rest of the Gospel lesson for today that the Word here is none other than Christ himself. Jesus was with God in the beginning. That is, he was there at the creation. He, like the Father, is eternal. He has no beginning and no end. The pre-incarnate Christ was, in fact, all over the place in the Old Testament scriptures. We’ve already shown that he was there at the creation. He was one of the three visitors that came to Abraham to warn him about the destruction that was to come to Sodom and Gomorrah. When “the angel of the Lord” appears, that’s usually Jesus. He comforted Hagar when she was sent away by Sarai, Abraham’s wife. He spoke to Moses from the burning bush. He blocked the way of Balaam and his donkey when he was trying to go and curse Israel. He called Gideon to be judge for the people of Israel. He spoke to Manoah, Samson’s father, and announced that his barren wife would give birth to Samson who would judge the people of Israel. He fought off the Assyrians who came to attack Israel. These are but a fraction of the examples of places where the second person of the Trinity was active either in speech or action in the Old Testament.

The difference, of course, is that now this Word, this Christ, is no longer hidden from human eyes. He has veiled himself in human flesh, but because the veil is made of human flesh, you can look at him. We learn from the scriptures that no one can see the face of God and live, but Jesus takes on human flesh like ours so that we can see him with our own eyes. Jesus Christ, true God and true man comes to make his dwelling among us. Literally, the text says that Jesus comes to “tabernacle” among us. The use of this word makes us think of how he was present with Israel during their wandering in the wilderness and during the early years of their time in the Promised Land. God had the people build a tabernacle (a tent). He would come and dwell among them by “sitting” on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. Again, though, because he was true God only, no one could see him. The holy of holies, where the ark of the covenant was housed, was strictly off limits, hidden behind two layers of think curtains.

But God does not hide himself behind think curtains now. Make no mistake about it, he is every bit of true God that he was in the Old Testament, but now he dwells among us. Now we see him face to face. This is the significance of the birth of the Christ. Yes, Jesus has always been here. God has always been near. But now he is here, in the flesh, for you. Now he dwells here, among you, in human flesh. The incarnation of Jesus began when he was conceived in the womb of his mother, the Virgin Mary, but it continues even to this day.

You may think that since his ascension he doesn’t dwell here before our eyes anymore, but the fact is that his ascension actually makes it possible for him to be on altars across the world all at once. See there on the altar is another tent. Beneath that tent are the vessels by which Jesus feeds us with his body and blood. 2000 years ago Jesus came into the world as a man. Jesus, the light that the darkness cannot overcome, still shines in the darkness of our world today. I don’t need to prove to you that the world remains a dark place filled with sin and death. But sin and death did not and cannot overcome Jesus, the light of the world. The light still shines today. We have seen his glory and continue to see it as he continues to dwell among us to grant us the forgiveness of sins.

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

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Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2021

Text: Titus 2:11-4

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

St. Paul writes that the “now the grace of God has appeared.” Because it is Christmas, we take this to mean that Jesus, God in the flesh, himself the very personification of the grace of God, has appeared. This is true. The grace of God comes through the appearing of Jesus Christ. As Christians, though, we always have the cross of Jesus Christ in view. That is, we celebrate Christmas and the birth of our Savior with the full knowledge that that baby who is born of the Blessed Virgin Mary and laid in the manger because there was no room for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus anywhere else in Bethlehem that night, that baby who was visited by shepherds who watching over flocks by night when angels appeared to them and told them of the Savior born in Bethlehem, that baby will one day die at the hands of sinful men on behalf of sinful men. He will suffer the wrath of God for us. It is quite true that without his death, the birth of Jesus means absolutely nothing. Without the death of Jesus, the grace of God never appears. For without the death of Jesus we remain at odds with God. His wrath is not satisfied.

For that matter, the death of Jesus is useless if Jesus does not rise from the dead three days later. Without the resurrection of Jesus, the serpent—that is, Satan—crushes the heel of the offspring of the woman, but the head of the serpent remains in tact. But Jesus did rise from the dead. His resurrection shows us that the sacrifice he made for sin was completely accepted by our heavenly Father and that death holds no power over him. It also foreshadows the resurrection on the Last Day. For we who have been baptized into Christ’s death will also be raised from the dead just as he is risen.

After Jesus rose from the dead, he prepared his disciples for his departure, that is, his ascension to be seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus told them that it was to their benefit that he go away from them so that he could send the Holy Spirit who would take all that Jesus won on the cross and deliver it to all people through the preaching of his Word, through baptism, through holy absolution, and through the Lord’s Supper. The grace of God was won by Jesus on the cross. Now the grace of God appears to all all people bringing salvation for all people. This most certainly includes us. The salvation that Christ won for us has appeared to us. We have it even today because we have been made his children in Holy Baptism and he continues to send his Holy Spirit to us to sustain that faith in us throughout our lives. Yes, this baby born to Mary in Bethlehem is not just any baby. Jesus is the personification of the grace of God. The angels sang to the shepherds that night that Jesus would bring peace between God and man. This heavenly peace that we have is a peace that the devil and the world, though they try repeatedly, can never take away.

St. Paul leaves Titus to preach this message of the Gospel to the people of Crete, but he also tells Titus that it’s important that the Cretans learn what it means to live as one who has been redeemed by Jesus Christ. When one becomes a Christian, it is expected that they live like a Christian. In Holy Baptism the grace of God appeared personally to each of us. It was there that we were set apart as his treasured possession. We were set apart, but we remain here. We remain, as St. Paul says, in this present age. It was in our baptism that we renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways. St. Paul uses similar language here as he implores us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.

When we first see that word “ungodliness,” ours minds probably snap to some of the worst, most grotesque ways that one can violate the Law of God. To be sure, our Lord desires that we keep his Law, but that has more to do with the “worldly passions” that St. Paul urges us to renounce. We’ll get to that. Instead, let us look at ungodliness as descriptive of those who think they have no need for God. That is, they figure that they live lives that are good enough on their own. They’ve decided to invent their own ways to be godly. Many of these things may even appear outwardly good, but in reality all they are is inventing works to please God. This is all about “balancing the scales,” if you will. What we do is we try to atone for our own evil deeds by stacking up good works. We figure that if we can just get enough good works in the ledger, we might be able to balance out all the bad in the end. This is godless. It’s godless because it puts the work of salvation in our hands instead of God. The grace of God that has appeared is not something that we have been given because we did something to earn it. That’s actually the opposite of grace. Rather, it is given to us as a free gift won by Christ. Try as we might to outweigh all of our sin with good works, it will never happen. Instead, the grace of God trains us, it teaches us, to renounce ungodliness. That is, we recognize our godlessness and trust in his grace alone for our salvation.

The second thing that St. Paul says that we are to renounce is “worldly passions.” God does not command us us renounce the world and all that it is in it. God created this world so that we might use it for our good and for the good of our neighbor. The problem is that we see these good things that God has given us and instead of using them in their proper way as instruments to love our neighbor as ourselves, we cling to them and uphold them as that which is to be desired and pursued above all things. The grace of God trains us to instead use the gifts that God has given us in the proper way. That is, we see that all has been done in Christ Jesus for our salvation. Because we have this priceless treasure given to us by God, we can be certain that we will have all that we need to support our bodies and lives. There is no need to pursue worldly things relentlessly. As Christ himself says, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.”

Once we have renounced ungodliness and worldly passions, Paul encourages us how we ought to live instead. He says that we are to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. Sobriety here is not only referring to drinking, but it refers to moderation in all things. This includes not just that which we consume, even, but it includes how we conduct our lives as a whole. That said, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, and how we conduct ourselves is all connected. Eating or drinking too much can cause us to lose control of what we do with our bodies. Sleeping too much can lead us to laziness. Sleeping too little can make us ineffective in all aspects of our lives as we won’t be well-rested. What we wear, or how we present ourselves in general, can also affect our behavior and the behavior of those around us. Now, the Word of God does not specifically tell us what we must eat or drink or what we must wear. We have freedom in these matters. Living a sober life, then, does not mean that we must invent new rules that make specific, harsh demands on us and on our fellow man. Rather, living soberly means that we do all things in moderation that we might be disciplined and controlled in how we live our lives as the people of God.

The second thing that Paul urges us to do is to live an upright life. That is, we are to do for our neighbors exactly what we would expect them to do for us and we are to not do any harm to them at the same time. In other words, living a godly life means looking to the needs of our neighbor. We don’t need to constantly invent good works. We don’t need to go to great lengths to travel the world doing mission work or things such as that. Indeed, some are called to that role, but not all are. God gives us plenty to do if we simply look to the needs of those around us. Even the most seemingly menial tasks done in service to our neighbor are pleasing to God and are part of living uprightly.

The third thing that we are to do is to live godly lives. This stands in direct contrast to the ungodliness that we are called upon to renounce. When one lives a Godly life, that means that he puts his fear, love, and trust into God above all things. You’ll recall that the godless person believes that he has no need for God. That is, he puts fear, love and trust into himself and into the things of this world. The Godly person recognizes that these things cannot save him and that he must trust in God alone for all that is good.

All of these things, living soberly, uprightly, and godly, are to be done in this present age. This age began when Jesus ascended into heaven and will end when he returns on the Last Day. We’ve just completed a time of waiting as we’ve waited for Christmas to come. In the larger context of life in this world, though, the Christian’s life is one of constant, patient waiting. We wait knowing that we have been redeemed by the blood of the one born to Mary in Bethlehem that was shed at the cross for us. As we wait, though, we don’t return to the lawlessness of our sinful flesh. Rather we live as those who have been brought out of darkness and into his glorious light and are zealous for good works.

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

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Sermon for Advent 4, 2021

Text: John 1:19-28

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

John the Baptist is a strange character. He dresses in unusual clothing. He wears camel’s skin for clothing. He eats strange food. His diet consists of locusts and wild honey. He is often depicted in artwork as somewhat disheveled with wild hair as if it’s been months since he’s bathed. Besides all of that, though, he was considered strange by the people of his day because of the message that he preaches and because of the fact that he is baptizing people. Ceremonial washings were not unheard of among the Jews, but the manner in which John applies baptism is new. And it’s been years—centuries, in fact—since they’ve heard anyone preach the way John preaches.

So some men sent by the Pharisees are sent to ask him who he is and why he’s doing the things that he does. They simply ask John, “Who are you?” They are not here asking John what is name is or what family he comes from. These are the typical questions of identity that we’re all used to asking. But their question has to do with authority. This becomes completely clear later on in the text, but it’s even clear from the beginning. John knows this. That’s why he gets the most important thing out of the way right off the bat. He immediately denies being the Christ. There is no doubt that many thought that he might be the Messiah. There had been this long gap in the prophetic ministry among the Jews of about 400 years. John’s bold end-times preaching of repentance and his baptizing made people think that perhaps he was the Messiah. While they may have been confused and wrong about many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, they at least knew that the Messiah would come before the end, that is, before God’s eternal kingdom would come. Here’s John saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Maybe he’s the Christ. Of course, he is not, though. For him to claim such an honorable title would be blasphemous. John is not the Christ. He won’t have anyone making that mistake.

There was a belief—and still is a belief—among the Jews that Elijah will come before “the great and awesome day of the Lord” as Malachi writes. Elijah is one of only two people to have been taken into heaven without physically dying first. Enoch was the first one. We hear absolutely nothing about him after his assumption into heaven in Genesis 5. When it comes to Elijah, we have far more, though. Elijah, you’ll remember, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire right before the eyes of his successor, Elisha. To the Jews, when Malachi wrote that Elijah would come before the Christ would come meant that the same Elijah that was taken up into heaven would come back down from heaven. This, of course, was not—and still is not—true. Now, John actually is Elijah in a sense. Jesus himself says that John is “Elijah who is to come,” in fact. John knows this, too. He knows that he is the fulfillment of that particular prophecy of Malachi. But he also knows that that’s not what the Pharisees mean when they ask the question. He is not Elijah. At least not in the sense that the Pharisees think he might be Elijah.

We read from Deuteronomy 18 a few moments ago. Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address, if you will, to the Israelites. He has led the people of Israel from the time that they were in slavery in Egypt, to Mt. Sinai, and through the wilderness. But he will not be the one to lead them into the Promised Land. Moses and the people of Israel are gathered just across the Jordan river from Jericho, just to the northeast of the Dead Sea. That task of leading the people into Canaan and leading them to victory over the people that inhabit the land will fall to Joshua instead. But Moses assures them that one day a prophet “like him” will be raised up among them to lead them who will speak the Word of God to them. He will be a mediator for them between them and God just as Moses was. For the people know that they can’t stand to be in the unmediated presence of God. The people are right and God promises them that he will send one like Moses to them. Well, John is a prophet. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets, in fact. Jesus even called him more than a prophet in our Gospel reading last Sunday. But he is not the prophet that Moses prophesied concerning. Jesus is that “prophet.” Again, the Pharisees here don’t necessarily recognize that the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18 is a Messianic prophecy, but John makes it clear that he is not the prophet that Moses spoke of, even if their definition of who that prophet is (or will be) is wrong.

John is not the Christ. John is not Elijah. John is not the prophet. So who is he? The Pharisees demand to know. For the ones who sent them demand an answer. So John gives them the answer. He is the fulfillment of prophecy given by Isaiah in chapter 40. He is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” He sounds the trumpet that announces the coming of Jesus. Jesus is the bridegroom. He is the one who comes to lay down his life for his bride, the Church. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John, though, is only the best man. The best man is important. He is the one who makes everything ready for the groom. He has special tasks such as making sure that the rings are kept safe and brought to the wedding ceremony. But once the bridegroom arrives on the scene, he gets out of the way. His job is done. Once Jesus’ ministry begins, John’s work is done.

Why does John baptize? To prepare people for the bridegroom. John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. In order for the people to receive the one who comes to forgive sins, their sins must first be revealed. This is John’s work. This is how the path is made straight for the bridegroom. In baptism, the old is washed away in order to make way for the new man.

It is not simply coincidence that John’s encounter with the Pharisees here takes place at Bethany across the Jordan. Yes, John carried out his ministry by the Jordan River, so that’s where the Pharisees would naturally go to find him, but John did his work of preaching and baptizing at the Jordan on purpose. This “Bethany across the Jordan” was, again, where the Israelites were when Moses died, right before they crossed over into the Promised Land and took down Jericho in the first of many military victories that God gave them. Here is where Elijah was taken up into heaven and Elisha was given a double portion of the spirit. Here is where Naaman was cured of his leprosy when he finally heeded the word and promise of God given through Elisha. Here is where Jesus himself will be baptized by John and will sanctify and institute all waters to be a “blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” John’s ministry prepared the Jews for the coming kingdom of heaven in Christ Jesus. It prepared them to cross over from the death of their sins into the eternal life that would be won for them by Jesus in his death and resurrection.

For Jesus is that one who comes after John whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, but he is also the one who was before John. Yes, John was born first. Jesus and John were close in age, but John is older. As far as their existence in human flesh goes, John comes first. But John makes it clear that Jesus comes before him. Jesus comes before him in rank, of course. Jesus is true God in addition to being true man while John is true man only. But Jesus was also begotten of the Father from eternity. For Jesus was there in the beginning at the creation. This St. John the Evangelist makes clear in the opening verses of his Gospel. But it’s not like Jesus was absent in the rest of the history of God’s people. He was there in the burning bush speaking to Moses. He was there in the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke leading Israel through the wilderness. St. Paul writes the rock from which the Israelites received water in the wilderness was Christ. The fourth man in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago was Christ. These are but just a few of the instances where he was present with his people. But John prepares the people of God for something more than this. He is preparing the people of God for the Word made Flesh to make his appearance among them. How should they react when Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven himself, comes among them? They should humble themselves. This is what John does. John will not accept the spotlight, but he will instead shine it on Jesus. Jesus is the one whose sandals he is not even worthy to untie.

May we, likewise, humble ourselves before the throne of God. Hearing the Word of God, our sins are laid bare and we realize that we, too are unworthy sinners. Those who heard the preaching of John were moved to repentance. They saw the need they had for forgiveness. They saw their need for the coming Messiah just as we come to the realization that we need God’s forgiveness. We need what Jesus comes to offer.

And now, just as the Jordan River served as the place where people heard the preaching of repentance by John and received his baptism as a preparation for the coming Jesus, we, the baptized, are called to repentance by the Word of God that we might joyfully receive Jesus with hearts that are ready for his appearing. Jesus comes and dwells among us and does not disappoint. He comes to win the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in his death on the cross and he comes even today to deliver those gifts through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and in the Lord’s Supper. And he will come again to deliver us from this valley of sorrow and bring at last to the joys of eternal life with him in the new creation.

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

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Sermon for Advent 3, 2021

Text: Matthew 11:2-10

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

Why does John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come or if they should be looking for someone else? Did John the Baptist forget who Jesus was. Did he forget that he knew from even before he was born that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? Had he forgotten about the voice from heaven that declared Jesus to be the very Son of God as the Holy Spirit descended on him in form of a dove. Did he forget about the time that he said to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” Wasn’t it John who said that he was not even worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. It seems unlikely. After all, Jesus himself will later on in this same text praise John for his steadfastness. But it’s not impossible for John to have doubts about who Jesus is. John is a man. John is a sinner. It’s possible that being thrown into prison could have cast doubt into John’s mind. Here he is, suffering for telling the truth about King Herod’s sinful actions. It’s also possible that John developed the same misconceptions as the Jews who welcomed Jesus enthusiastically into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and thought that he was there to bring them the political independence that they sought.

It’s also possible, however, that John the Baptist didn’t forget any of these things. It’s possible that he sent his disciples to ask this question of Jesus so that they might have the fact that Jesus is, indeed, the one who is to come cemented in their minds once and for all.

Regardless of which of those scenarios is true, though, the fact is that Jesus’ words to John’s disciples brought certainty to John, John’s disciples, and to anyone who was wondering about who, exactly, Jesus is. The same is true even today. We are reminded, or we learn, through the words—and especially the actions—of Jesus that those words direct us to remember, who he is. In the Old Testament, the prophets said that the Messiah would first present himself as one who performed great miracles. Isaiah writes, “He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:4-6) Jesus is pointing out to John’s disciples that he is doing precisely all of those things. Just a couple of chapters before this reading, in Matthew 9, Jesus healed a paralytic, healed a woman who had been bleeding for years, raised a little girl from the dead, healed two blind men, cast out a demon, and healed several other people who came to him. To these deeds and more Jesus points John’s disciples. He says, “Look here. I’m doing all of these things.” Jesus comes to undo the works of the devil. When we think of the works of the devil, our mind often goes to temptation and sin. And rightfully so. But the fact is that all of the things that Jesus does, that is, all of his healing miracles, are manifestations of sin. We often like to chalk up illness, disease, and death to random chance or perhaps we just look at them as facts of nature. It was not this way in the beginning, though. You’ll remember that sin came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve. Because of their sin, all people born of man since then are infected with original sin. This sin is not just a spiritual reality, though. It is also a physical reality. The fall of man into sin brought about all forms of disease and death with it. When Jesus heals the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and raises the dead, he is removing the effects of sin. These outward healings point to the healing for the soul that he intends to bring. That is ultimately what separates Jesus from the prophets of old. After all, some of them were able to heal. Some of them, like Elijah and Elisha, were even able to raise the dead. But no man could do what Jesus did when it came to healing the body and soul of man. No man could completely take away the effects of sin, death, and the devil. But that is precisely what Jesus came to do.

Today, the outward miracles have stopped, but the healing of the soul still happens. Jesus gave sight to the blind, but now he still shines through the light of his Word that guides us into all truth. Jesus made the lame to walk, but now he guides our feet that we may walk in his commandments. Jesus cleansed the lepers, but now he cleanses us from our sin. Jesus loosened the tongues of the mute and caused the deaf to hear, but now he opens our ears to hear his Word and loosens our tongues that we might sing praise to him proclaim his deeds to all people. While we don’t experience miraculous physical healings every day, Jesus is still at work among us healing our souls and pointing us forward to the new creation where the ailments of our bodies will likewise be no more.

The fact that Jesus directs to the disciples of John to his deeds as evidence for who he was, also shows the importance of our works. Yes, it is important for us to ground our faith and our certainty of salvation in Christ and his Word. Works do not save us. But works are necessary. Works bear witness to the faith that is within us. Jesus said in John 13 that the way that the world will know that you are his disciples is that you will love one another. Jesus exemplifies this love and desires that we emulate him. Jesus did a great deal of preaching during his earthly ministry, but he was not just a preacher. He was also a doer. Faith alone saves us, but faith is never alone. The apostle James writes that faith without works is dead. Works follow and are fruits of that faith. They are the fruits that your neighbor desperately needs as you live out your God-given vocations in your family, church, and community.

Besides his healing miracles, Jesus also points out that good news is preached to the poor. Here Jesus is not speaking of the monetarily poor, but to the spiritually poor. That is, he’s preaching good news—the good news of sins forgiven—to those who need it. Those who are spiritually poor are those who recognize their sinful condition before God. They are those who confess that they are poor miserable sinners. They have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. Those who are poor in spirit recognize that there is absolutely nothing that they can do to escape their sinful condition. They are lost.

This is not a good condition to be in, but it is the reality of who we are. And it is good that that is who we are and that we recognize that fact, because the preaching of the good news belongs to those who are poor in spirit. Jesus says this explicitly here as well as in Matthew 5. Those who were poor in spirit are no longer poor in spirit. They recognized their sin, cried out to God for forgiveness, and now have that forgiveness that Christ won on the cross for them. May we be found among them!

But how could anyone be offended by Jesus? First of all, people are offended by the message of the Gospel because it takes the act of salvation outside of themselves. We are used to a world were everything comes to us because we work for it. We are used to a world where those who do good things are revered and those who do evil things are punished. According to God’s Word, though, all are sinners and all deserve his wrath, but those who have faith in Christ are saved. This means that some people that look good are really evil and some who look evil are really good. Secondly, many are offended by the Word of God in general. The world especially looks at the Word of God with disdain. Basic truths of scripture are laughed off as fanciful nonsense. The miracles of the Bible are scientifically impossible. This can cause Christians to stumble as they’d rather join in with the world’s disdain than stand firmly in the Word of God. Being offended by God’s Word is the same thing as being offended by Jesus. For Jesus is the fulfillment of all the scriptures. Jesus says that all who are not offended by him are blessed. That is, they who believe in him and trust his word unfailing, for they know that God’s Word is not the product of anyone’s imagination, but that men were carried along by the Holy Spirit when they wrote it.

John the Baptist was one of those who trusted the Word of God unfailing. That is why Jesus makes it clear that John was not one who was blown about by the wind. John was in prison for NOT bowing to the culture that opposed the Word of God. Herod had taken his brother’s wife as his own. Adultery in all of its forms is an abomination to God. It is a perversion of his gift of marriage. John surely knew that condemning Herod for his adultery would result in his imprisonment (or worse), but he did it anyway. By extension, John was not one dressed in soft clothing. If he were interested in soft clothing, that is, comfortable living, he would have compromised on the Word of God and simply said and done whatever he could to earn the world’s favor.

In the end, only one like John could be the one to prepare the people for the coming Messiah. John was the messenger who preached repentance. He went before Jesus to warn the people of their sins that their hearts might be ready to receive the good news of salvation that would come with Jesus. He went before Jesus to show the people that they were, indeed, poor in spirit so that they might have the Good News preached to them.

May our hearts likewise be prepared this Advent season for the appearing of Christ Jesus. May we see our poorness of heart and be made ready for the Good News of salvation. For Jesus is coming. And we shall not be disappointed, but shall be filled with rejoicing.

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

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Sermon for Advent 2, 2021

Text: Luke 21:25-36

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

When the end of the world comes, is it a good thing or is it a bad thing? That all depends on who you are. Or, perhaps more accurately put, it all depends on whose you are. It is helpful when thinking about the end times to compare the Second Coming of Jesus and the events that surround it with other acts of redemption that God did for his people.

Take the worldwide flood, for example. Was the flood good or was it bad? Well, for those who were on the ark, it was a good. It may have been fearful at the time, but they were not destroyed by the flood. On top of that, they were delivered from the sinful world which they had lived in and given a fresh start of sorts. For those who perished, obviously the flood was not good. It was, to them, a source of death and destruction.

Perhaps an even greater comparison can be made, though, to the plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians. The Egyptians were filled with fear and dread as God brought each of the plagues upon them. Their water supply was destroyed as the Nile was turned to blood. The stench of death filled their land after the plague of frogs. Gnats and flies came upon them. They saw crops and livestock ruined. They dealt with painful boils that came upon their skin. People and animals died in the worst hailstorm to ever strike Egypt. Any plant that was left alive after the hailstorm was eaten by the locusts that came after that. Finally, the Lord brought about the death of the firstborn of all of Egypt. The plagues were dreadful, terrible thing to the Egyptians. They brought nothing but death and destruction.

The reaction of God’s people Israel to the plagues is completely different, though. For them, the plagues are a source of redemption. Finally, the death of the firstborn, the Passover, marks their escape from under the heavy thumb of Pharaoh. With a mighty hand and a strong arm, God delivers his people Israel from Pharaoh and sets them on a course for the Promised Land – the land flowing with milk and honey.

Christ is our Passover Lamb. No, we don’t take his blood and smear it on doorposts so that the angel of death may pass over us. But we do Eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Lord’s Supper. His blood shed on the cross covers over our sin. Because the blood of Jesus Christ covers us, the end of the world takes on a whole different character for us. The prophet Malachi highlights the difference between how the world looks at the end of the world and how Christians approach the end: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.”

To the world, there is fear and dread at the end of the world. It’s easy to see why. Look at what Jesus prophecies in our Gospel reading from Luke for today. First of all, Luke says that there will be external signs above us, in the sky, that everyone can see, that the end is nigh. There is no doubt that we already see many of these signs. Yes, we have scientific ways of explaining things like eclipses and comets and asteroids and meteors, but the fact is that God is in control of every one of these things. With the eclipses of the moon and the sun, God shows that just as easily as he created these two lights to provide light for us during the day and night, he can just as easily take them away. Comets, meteors, and asteroids all provide us with some form of wonder and amazement, but we forget their destructive power. These things, too, are not simply phenomena that happen by chance. The Lord has control of these as well, and could most certainly use them as tools of destruction if he chose to do so.

The roaring of the sea and the waves hits a little closer to home. We certainly see the destructive forces of nature. Each year, people’s lives and property are devastated by hurricanes, tornados, and other storms. The very things that are there to help provide for our well-being – the changing seasons, the rain, and so forth – are the things that bring such destruction upon us and those we love.

Finally, Jesus speaks of the reaction within people to all of these things. There will be “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Those who have no faith don’t know what to think when they see this stuff happen. Yes, they may try to explain it away with scientific explanations that simply chalk it up to random chance, but those explanations are not satisfying and will not quell anyone’s fears. If anything, they will only enhance their fears as they come to realize that they are completely powerless against the forces of nature.

But while the people of this world are filled with fear and foreboding, Jesus tells us to straighten up and raise our heads because our redemption is drawing near. Noah and his family could face the flood without fear because they knew that God was providing for their deliverance on the ark. The Israelites could observe the plagues that God brought upon the Israelites without fear because they knew that the Lord was using these things to bring them deliverance from their slavery. We can look upon the signs of the end without fear because we know that with the end comes our salvation.

Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to provide further comfort for us. When the trees start to get their leaves, you know that it’s springtime and summer is near. Do the changing seasons bring fear and dread? Of course not! On the contrary, we see God’s continued providence in the changing seasons. We see that he provides seasonal weather that is ideal for the growing of food, for our health, and for the well-being of his creation as a whole. We aren’t chocked by the changing of the seasons. It’s expected. In the same way, we shouldn’t be surprised by the signs of the end. Rather, we should rejoice that God us bringing about the redemption for us that he promised in Christ Jesus. We should see it as perfectly normal and expected because it is perfectly normal and expected.

Just because we have nothing to fear when Christ returns on the Last Day, though, doesn’t give us an excuse to be lazy. This Christ warns us against. He says, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life.” There is great risk in getting too comfortable. That is, we figure that we have nothing to fear when it comes to the return of Christ, therefore, let’s eat, drink, and be merry. This is the attitude of the ancient epicureans that believed that the goal of life was to be as comfortable as possible and to enjoy as many of the pleasures of life as possible. While the Lord does give us many good things in life for which we are thankful, these good things are not the substance of our lives. When the things of this world become the substance of our lives, we become lazy when it comes to being ready for Jesus’ return. All of our time and energy is spent in the pursuit of worldly things rather than in the hearing of the Word of God and in the receiving of the gifts he gives in the Divine Service. This, ultimately, is the only thing that will prepare us for Christ’s coming. Indeed, we have nothing to fear, Christ has defeated sin and death for us. We need not shake in our boots at the thought of his appearing. But let us be in constant prayer that we may stay awake and be ready for his appearing!

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

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