Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jesus Is Anointed to Bring Good News

Isaiah 16:1-4, 8-11 After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove and his heavenly Father said:  You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased. 
The Bible says that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit and was led by that same Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil for forty days, defeating Satan each step of the way.
Then the Bible says that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and traveled to his home town of Nazareth where he attended worship services on the Sabbath Day in his home town synagogue.  While he was there, the ruler of the synagogue handed him the scroll of Isaiah and Jesus read these verses:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
            After reading these verses he hand the scroll back to the attendant and he sat down and began to teach the people saying:  Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
All of us know that it is one thing to talk a good talk and something altogether different to walk the walk.  The people in the synagogue that day knew the same.  They said:  Isn’t this Joseph’s son? 
In other words:  “We know this man.  We watched him grow up.  He took our orders in his Father’s carpentry shop.  How is it possible that this Jesus of Nazareth is the one Isaiah was speaking of all those years ago?  What is the evidence?”
In the presences and by the power of Jesus the blind received their sight.  The lame were made to walk.  Those imprisoned under the power of the devil were set free.  The dead were raised and the sick were healed.  The poor and the outcast were welcomed and befriended.  And all of those who were bowed down under grief and sorrow and loss were filled with joy and peace and hope for the future.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news.  It would be the worst kind of religious deception to claim these words for yourself—unless it were true.  The words and deeds of Jesus show that he was no liar, no lunatic—but that he was the Lord who fulfilled these words.  He was sent by God:
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
            In the worship life of the Israelites, there were a number of different God-given occasions for worship.  The Sabbath was observed each week.  There were harvest festivals.  The Passover and the Day of Atonement were observed each year.
But once every fifty years there was to be a Year of Jubilee—a year of the Lord’s favor.  During this year, ancestral land that had been sold was returned to its original owner.  Debts were wiped away.  And all those who had fallen on such hard times that they had to sell themselves into slavery, were be set free.
In other words, this Jubilee year, this year of the Lord’s favor would once again make Israel what God intended it to be—a land of free and happy people, each with their own part in the Holy Land, each of them blessed with their own share of God’s abundant goodness. 
What a blessing from God this year was!  What an occasion for joy!  The loss and pain and poverty of the past was taken away by a gracious God who wanted to bless his people from the least to the greatest. 
That is exactly what Jesus came to do-- not just for the Israelites-- but for all people.  The Year of Jubilee—that year of the Lord’s favor—was a sign pointing to the saving, renewing work of the Messiah.  It is what Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to do.
He paid our sin debt by his death on the cross.  He defeated our enemies of death and the devil by rising from the dead.  He opened heaven to us and promised that he would prepare a place for each of us in that everlasting Promised Land. 
All that we, by our sins and Satan’s work have lost, has been restored to us by a gracious Savior so that all of God’s children may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. 
            The Israelites knew what it meant to live in a broken world.  Over their history they were tossed back and forth by some of the greatest earthly empires that ever existed.  They suffered from devastating natural disasters.  They were all too aware of their own sinful disobedience that led to God’s judgment.  Their own prophets told them that their earthly lives were like grass that withers and dies.
And yet the Lord called them “oaks of righteousness”—sturdy and lasting, strong and enduring—not because of what they had done, not because of who they were—but because of his glorious work in their lives.
            So it is for us.  The Bible says that our lives are like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  And yet God has planned for us to live with him forever.  He has sown the seed of his eternal Word in our lives.  He has caused us to be born again by the power of that same Word.  He is the one who will cause us to stand the test of time and endure unto the end and be saved so that it may be clearly seen that he alone is God and he alone receives the glory in the lives of his people.  Isaiah says that God’s people:
shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. . . .For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense,
            As we have talked about in our previous midweek services, the prophet Isaiah spoke these words in the midst of very dark days for the people of God.  The great empires of Assyria and Babylon would overtake Israel and destroy the temple and take the people away into exile.
It seemed that their life as a people was over—that like so many others they would lost to the pages of history—and how could it not be?!  What were they compared to the might of empires many times their size? 
And that is true—except for just one thing:  they were the Lord’s people, they belonged to him, and he would set them free and bring them home and restore what they had lost.  And so he did.  That story is told in the Bible.  It is the story of…
How God raised up a deliverer who set them free and paid the price from his own treasury for the temple to be rebuilt.  How they returned to the Promised Land to rebuild everything that their enemies had been destroyed.  How they would carry forth the worship and knowledge of the true God and bear witness to the true Messiah to come.
The story of the return of the Israelites from exile is something that a Hollywood writer could never have conceived and yet it was promised by a gracious God who always comes to the aid of his people and always keeps his promises.  The Lord said: 
I will make an everlasting covenant with them.  Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed. 
The Lord did make an everlasting covenant with his people—a promise that from them another deliverer would come—one who would accomplish the salvation of the world—one who pay the price to set us free from our enemies and bring us to our heavenly home.
The return of the exiles from Babylon is a sign of that promise which was kept in Jesus Christ.  He has done for us what we were powerless to do.  He has freed us from our captivity to sin and death.  He has paid the price in his own blood to rebuild what sin has destroyed.  And he has promised to lead us to heaven.  For that mighty work of salvation we serve and praise God:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;  he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.
            By the power of the Holy Spirit, God has clothed us with salvation, bringing us to faith in Jesus Christ and covered us with the righteousness of that is his.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord God has caused a people to come forth where before there were only slaves.  It is by the gracious work of the Triune God that we can count ourselves as God’s people.
But that identity gives a direction and purpose to our lives.  The Bible says that we are
a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people of God’s own possessions that we may declare the glory of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. 
The return of the people of Israel from exile and the rebuilding of the temple was a witness to the world that they served the true God. 
So it is for us as we gather for worship and do good work in our vocations and act with love towards our neighbor and tell forth the goodness of the Lord to those who don’t know him.  Our work and our words and our witness serve God’s mission to make righteousness and praise sprout up in all nations as they come to Jesus Christ who was anointed by the Spirit to speak good news.
May that same Spirit fill our hearts with joy and empower our lives to bear true witness to our Savior.  Amen.   

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Witness to the Light

John 1:6-8, 19-28 The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  What that means is that God has ordered our salvation in such a way that it is absolutely necessary for us to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ if we are to be saved.  No one will be saved if they have not heard the Gospel.
The Bible says that of his own will our heavenly Father has brought us forth by the word of truth.  The Bible says that we have been born again, not of perishable seed, but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. 
That you are a child of God and heir of eternal life is because someone spoke the powerful, life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ to you.  That was the mission of John the Baptist, to bear witness to Jesus.  The Bible says that:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 
            Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, light is used to identify Jesus.  A special star shone on the birthplace of Jesus so that the wise men could follow it.  When Jesus was transfigured, the glorious light of Almighty God shone from his human flesh.  The sun refused to shine as Jesus died.  Jesus said of himself that he is the light of the world.
John the Baptist came to bear witness to that light—to speak of it and explain it and point to it in Jesus of Nazareth—so that all might believe in the light through his witness.  And his sermon was simplicity in itself:  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
That was his witness, his proclamation:  that Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins to the cross where his sacrifice would make us right with God by the shedding of his blood.  Then and now, no one can be saved by any other means than believing the message of John the Baptist.
But as important as John was, he was still only a servant whose job it was to bear witness to another.  The Bible says that:
He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.  And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”  He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
John’s mission was not to convert anyone—only the Holy Spirit can do that.  His mission was simply to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus and the Holy Spirit would do the rest.
God promised that the word that goes out from his mouth will not return to him empty but will accomplish the saving purpose for which he sends it.  The Bible says that:  the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. 
That must have been a great comfort for John to know that God would do his saving work through him—that he wasn’t responsible saving anyone but for simply telling the truth of salvation in Jesus. 
So it is for us.  Too often our voices of witness are silenced because we are afraid that we have to argue or reason or convince people into heaven.  But that is not our job.  Our job is to bear witness to what we know about Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit to do his work through our message just like he did for John.
We know from the Bible how faithful his witness was and how powerfully God acted through John’s message because all of Judah came out to hear him.
They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
Moses had promised that after him would come another prophet much greater than himself.  Malachi promised that before the Messiah came, God would send a forerunner, someone like Elijah who would preach a message of repentance and reconciliation.  The people knew these prophecies about the coming Savior.
And when they heard John’s message and when they viewed his life that stood in such stark contrast to their own, they wanted to know:  was John the great prophet to come?  Was he Elijah raised from the dead?  Who are you?
What about us?  We know who John the Baptist was, the forerunner of Jesus.  We recognize the one he pointed to.  We believe his message that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 
But has that knowledge and that faith transformed us into people like John who stand in such stark contrast to the unbelieving world around us that people want to know about us because they see something different in us?
The Bible says that we are to be salt and light in a dark and dying world—that we are to live our lives in such a way that people will ask us about for the reason for the hope we have—that our good deeds would shame anyone who would speak a word against us. 
Like John the Baptist, our witness to Jesus Christ, both in the words we speak and the life we live, is intended by God to have such a compelling effect on those around us that they are drawn to us so that we can tell them about Jesus as John did:
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 
            The truth kept John from claiming to be the great prophet promised by Moses.  That would be Jesus.  Humility kept him from claiming the mantle of Elijah (though Jesus would say that was exactly who he was.) 
But John would gladly tell the truth about himself because it served his mission.  He was the one Isaiah promised—the one who would go before the Lord to prepare his way by calling the people to repent of their sins and flee from the wrath to come.
That message was no more popular then, than it is today-- but neither is it any less necessary. 
We may not live in a physical wilderness like John but more and more we live in a cultural wilderness.  The bulwarks of civilization are crumbling all around us.  Decency and honesty and justice are increasingly rare.  Violence and filthiness are on the rise.
The faithful child of God more and more feels like a small oasis of Christian civilization in a wilderness of paganism and what makes our lives as witnesses so difficult is that we have a message that the world does not want to hear:  that a complete change of heart and mind and spirit is what is needed.
No one wants to hear that message.  To be told that you are on the wrong path in life—that the decisions you have made are misguided—that the best you can do is not good enough—that message is no more popular now than it was then but it is a message that must be spoken so that people can know and understand their need for salvation.
Then and now it takes courage to speak that message because people reject the idea that we have a right and responsibility to speak to them about things that matter eternally.
They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
            “Who do you think you are?”  “What gives you the right to say these things to me?”  Those were the kinds of questions that John faced.  If he wasn’t the Messiah and he wasn’t the great prophet promised by Moses and if he wasn’t Elijah raised from the dead, what gave him the right to tell people that they were sinners and that they needed a Savior?
            Now, John had a special responsibility and commission from God for his mission that went all the way back to the prophets who told of the coming of the Messiah’s forerunner.  But the answer he gave to this question about his right to speak the truth applies to all of us:
John answered them, “I baptize with water, 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.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
            Here is the reason for John’s witness.  Here is the reason for our witness.  Because in the very midst of the people who need him the most, Jesus is unknown. 
When John the Evangelist begins his Gospel he says that the world was made by Jesus and yet the world did not know him—that he came to his own people but they did not receive him.
That is why John the Baptist came as a witness to the Light—that is why John faced the opposition of religious leaders—that is what John lived a life of courage and sacrifice—because there was an entire world full of people who desperately needed the one thing that they did not know- and could not know- apart from his testimony and that is a life with God through faith in Jesus.
Standing in their very midst was their Savior from sin and death and their sin-darkened eyes were blind to the truth of the Light of the World. 
John the Baptist could not remain silent in the face of that spiritual darkness.  His father, Zechariah, prophesied that John would give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and so he did by bearing witness to the Light of the World. 
Dear friends in Christ, the world has not changed in the last two thousand years.  If anything the spiritual darkness that encompasses the world and burdens human souls has only gotten deeper and more profound. 
What is still needed—now more than ever—are those who will bear witness to the Light of the World and say of him:  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  Amen.

Advent 3b General Prayer

Gracious heavenly Father, You have done great things for us and holy is Your name.  For the sake of Your Son Jesus, hear our prayers:

Because You love justice and hate wrong-doing send Your blessing upon all those who serve our nation.  Make our court system a place where wisdom and justice prevails.  Empower law enforcement officers to act with wisdom and compassion.  Watch over our military men and women and protect them from danger.  Renew in all our fellow citizens a commitment to good citizenship.

Heavenly Father, You anointed Your Son Jesus Christ to bring good news to all those in need.  According to Your promise bind up the brokenhearted and comfort those who mourn and grant liberty to those imprisoned in addictions.  Heal those who are ill and meet the needs of those who do not possess the necessities of life.

We thank You that in the everlasting covenant You have made with us in the blood of Your Son Jesus Christ You have clothed us with the garments of salvation and covered us with the robe of His righteousness.  Grant that that this would also be true of our offspring and of the generations who follow us.  Especially do we pray for Paeton as he celebrates a birthday, that You would grant him every blessing of body and soul.

Fill us with Your Holy Spirit so that we would rejoice always and pray without ceasing and be thankful in every circumstance for we know that this is Your will for us.  Make us discerning in what we see and hear and read so that we would hold to what is good and reject what is evil.

Empower the witness of Your church on earth so that we would always be witnesses to Your Son Jesus Christ, that others might believe through us.  Support missionaries throughout the world and grant them success in their labors.  Encourage all those who are persecuted for their faith and turn the hearts of their enemies. 

And now O Lord we pray that You would sanctify us completely so that our whole spirit and soul and body would be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in whose faithful name we pray.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Comfort for God's People

Isaiah 40:1-11 After years of disobedience and generations of faithlessness, God had enough.  He would exercise judgment on his people at the hands of their enemies.  Homes would be lost.  The temple would be destroyed.  And the Israelites would go into exile. 
Again and again we must learn from their experience that the Lord is a God of holiness who will not abide with sin in the life of his people.  We must never forget that the Lord is a God of power and righteousness who exercises judgment in time and eternity.
But we are also reminded tonight that he is God of mercy who loves his people with an everlasting love and provides a way for us to return to him when all seems lost.  Isaiah prophesied:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. 
            As dark as those days were for Israel (with the people of God at the mercy of their enemies on account of their sins) there was still hope because they had in the Lord a God who forgives an undeserving people.
The northern kingdom would fall to the Assyrians and the southern kingdom would fall to the Babylonians.  The tribes in the north would be lost to history and the southern tribes would go into exile.  But there was a loving God who was still in charge of the lives of his people.
No matter how great and powerful were their enemies, God was greater.  He would set a limit on what they had to endure and would deliver them from exile and bring them the end.  This promise comforted them in the difficult days to come.
So it is for us.  We have a heavenly Father who still disciplines his children in love.  We live in this world as exiles.  We face real enemies who want to harm us in time and eternity.  And yet the hardships and difficulties of life that God allows are not without end.  There is comfort for us too.
God has sent his Son to conquer our enemies of sin and death and the devil.  Jesus has pardoned our iniquities by his shed blood on the cross.  Rather than giving us what our sins deserves, God has made a place for us in his family and given us a share in eternal life.
What a comfort to know that God’s mercy and love are accomplished facts of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!
But there is spiritual work that must be done in us if we are to receive those blessings in faith.  Isaiah prophesied of that work:
A voice cries:  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 
            When the Israelites were carried into exile in Babylon, they labored up every mountain and they scraped their way down every valley road and they trudged over every desert mile.  Each footstep was a testimony to how far they had fallen—the desert a great barrier that kept them from home. 
But Isaiah promised them that it wouldn’t last forever—that God himself would come for them—that these barriers and impediments, as great and lasting as the foundations of the earth, would be removed so that they could make their way home.
These are the words that the Holy Spirit inspired St. Mark to use to describe the work of John the Baptist as he prepared the world to receive their Savior.  Mountain tops of pride would have to be made low and valleys of despair would have to be raised up so that we can be made ready to receive our deliverer who will bring us home.  Isaiah promised that:
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 
            In 539 B.C. God raised up Cyrus the Persian who, in one of the greatest battles in the ancient history, defeated the Babylonian Empire and made the way for the Israelites to go home.  He is the only non-Jew that the Bible ever calls a Messiah—an anointed deliverer of God’s people.  God had promised that he would set his people free and by the hand of Cyrus, his chosen servant, God did exactly that.
But the true fulfillment of these words was found in another deliverer.  You see, the story of the sinfulness of the Jews and their exile in slavery and their deliverance and journey home is not just ancient history but it is a universal story that explains our human condition:  our sin and our exile from God and a deliverer that God has raised up to bring us home.
That anointed servant is Jesus Christ.  God promised that he would raise up a Savior who would defeat our enemies and bring us to our heavenly home and he kept that promise in the birth of his Son.  Jesus is the glory of God in human flesh, the world’s Redeemer who came to do for us what we cannot do because of our frailty and weakness.  Isaiah said:
A voice says, “Cry!”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 
            From slavery in Egypt to destruction by Assyria to exile in Babylon the Israelites knew the truth of these words:  that people are like grass.  We live for a brief time and then pass away as if we had never existed at all.
But the Israelites also knew the truth of these words:  that the word of our God will stand forever. 
Throughout salvation history, the one constant in the life of God’s people is the existence of our God from generation to generation and his faithfulness in speaking to his people and calling us back to himself. 
God is faithful and his word can be trusted.  When he speaks words of judgment—it comes to pass.  When he speak words of deliverance—they too come to pass. 
Compared to ten thousand years of human history our lives of 70 or 80 or even 90 years are incredibly brief to say nothing of comparing our lives to eternity.  Because of the brevity of life, there is only one way to gain a perspective on what truly matters—on what will truly stand the test of time and eternity-- and that is by reading and hearing and studying the Word of God.
Just think of the empires that have come and gone since the words of Genesis were written!  Just think of all the scientific theories that have been hailed as great advancements only to be disproved by the generations that followed!  Just think of all the technology that was considered cutting edge but is now rubbish!
What has endured the test of time and comforted God’s people in every generation is God’s Word.  That is why we must not stand in judgment over God’s Word or discard some part of God’s Word or adapt some part of God’s Word to an ever changing world. 
Instead, God’s Word—both the law that convicts our sin and the Gospel that comforts our troubled consciences--must be believed by us and shared with the world.  Isaiah prophesied:
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
            The message of God through the prophet Isaiah—a message of conviction and comfort—what not intended by God for just a few people.  Rather, he wanted his word shared so that all people could take comfort in his promise to deliver them and bring them home.
It was not just Isaiah who was to take this message of comfort to the people—but all who heard it and believed it were charged by God to share it.
So it still is today.  Pastors have a special responsibility to speak forth God’s word and to do that faithfully—warning their flocks when they are in spiritual danger- and comforting them when they are in need- and instructing them in the ways of the Lord.
But once God’s people have heard the word—once they have learned what God requires of them and the forgiveness he gives them when they fail--then each and every member of God’s church has that same responsibility to lift up our voices and bear witness to Jesus.
Each and every one of us are heralds of Good News, chosen and loved by God and given the task to point those in our workplace and schools and neighborhoods to Jesus Christ and say:  behold, your God so that they too might take their place in the flock of the Good Shepherd.  Isaiah prophesied:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
The Israelites were exiled in Babylon for seventy years.  Those were difficult days.  Daniel faced the lion’s den.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Adednego faced a fiery furnace.  But during God’s people were comforted by his promise to care for them and lead them home—and he did. 
But his love and goodness was not just for a select few, but for all people in every place and time.  God’s deliverance and the return of his people was a sign pointing to what he himself would accomplish in his Son Jesus Christ. 
With the birth of Jesus, our Immanuel, the God who is with us—God himself entered into our world bringing gifts of hope and peace and forgiveness not just for a few-- but for all people.  He is the Good Shepherd who gathers us into his flock where he cares for us.
And he will come again to bring us out of exile and lead us to our heavenly home.  May God grant it to us all for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.