Monday, December 31, 2012

Our Dwelling Place in all Generations

Psalm 90 As we end 2012 and begin 2013 the text for our meditation on God’s holy Word is Psalm 90--the psalmody appointed for this day.  I bring you grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.
Our psalmody for this New Year’s Eve begins where, no doubt, many of our hearts and minds are fixed as we consider the new year:  Let the favor of God be upon us and establish the work of our hands.  That’s what we want in the year to come isn’t it:  God’s favor upon our lives and God’s blessings upon the work of our hands?
We want this year to be filled with blessings for us and those we love.  Financial success.  Health.  Protection.  God’s guidance for our plans.  And there is nothing wrong with asking for any of these things in prayer! 
Material blessings—the same as spiritual blessings—are still blessings that only God can give.  Our lives exist from moment by moment only by his loving will.  That we have lived to see this moment is only because God has graciously ordained that it would be so.  That we are fed and clothed and sheltered is only because the blessing of God has rested upon our live in this last year and indeed throughout our lives. 
God is our Father and we are his children and we know that he loves to give gifts to his children and so to turn to him in prayer and ask for the things that we need and want is only natural for the child of God to do.
In fact, it is an act of faith to do so!  We confess and believe that God is our dwelling place in all generations.  In other words, he is the one that we can turn to expecting that we will be received as children coming to their Father’s home, expecting a Father’s welcome. 
Over countless centuries he is the one who has shown himself mighty enough and powerful enough and loving enough and wise enough to provide for our needs-- for not only is he our Father—but he is the Creator of the world who has given us our lives and everything we need to support those lives.  Before the mountains were brought forth, before the earth and world were formed, from everlasting to everlasting he is God. 
When we come to God in prayer, asking for his favor in the year to come, beseeching him to bless the work of our hands—this is the confession that is being made about God our Father:  that he is our Creator who gladly supplies the needs of his creatures.
But confessing that and believing that, we cannot help but see that other things are true as well—that God doesn’t simply exist up in the sky to be a magic genie who exists only to give us what we want—but that his perspective on what is truly important for us to have in this new year is different from ours-- for his perspective is eternal while ours is very much bound up in moments of time like these.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”  For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.  You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:  in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
That we confess God as our Creator and our Father also contains a confession about us:  that we are creatures he called forth from the dust of the earth and that we—no matter how old, no matter how wise in the ways of the world, are still only children.
Of course our first thoughts for the new year are centered on what we want because that is all we know—the immediacy of being whole and healthy and happy.  But God has a perspective that is infinitely greater than ours and a view that is infinitely longer than our own. 
He knows what is truly important and meaningful and lasting—he knows what is best for us-- and that is why as fervently as we pray for God’s blessing to rest upon the work of our hands in this new year we must always add:  Thy will be done!  Thy will be done!
   When we add those important words to the end of our prayers we are acknowledging that as much as we think we know best for our lives—as much as we have expectations for the year to come—our heavenly Father not only knows more—but our heavenly Father knows best. 
He already knows what the future holds because he is the one who holds the future in his almighty hands.  He is the one who knows what will work for our salvation in the year to come.  And he is the one who has promised to work all things for our good. 
When we pray “Thy will be done” we are entrusting our future to the One whose perspective is infinitely greater than our own. 
And that God is our Father and we are children—and that he is our Creator and we his creatures-- also reveals something else about us and God besides the difference in perspective.  It reveals the holiness of God and our own sin.
We are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.  You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.  For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
As we pass from one year to the next our thoughts and prayers naturally turn first to material things for we are fallen people and our thoughts are often fixed only on the things of this world.  But what the passing of one year to the next OUGHT to do is re-focus our attention on spiritual things and our need for forgiveness.
 Our God and Father is not only a God of might and power he is also a God of holiness while we his creatures are anything but that.  As we think back over the last year we see the truth of God’s Word that our iniquities are set before us and even our secret sins are revealed in God’s sight. 
To fix our hearts and minds only on material things is to miss the vital opportunity that this evening presents to repent of our sins of the past year and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to live holier lives in the year to come. 
In fact, we need to do that not only tonight as we begin a new year- but every night of our lives because we do not know which year or even which night will be our last and to face the future unforgiven is to imperil our eternal life.
The psalmist asks:  Who considers the power of God’s anger and your wrath according to the fear of you?  And the answer to that question is:  none of us—not really.  The height of God’s holiness and the depth of our sin has to be revealed to us for it is unknown to our reason. 
The vast majority of men do not even consider this question—rejecting out of hand that there is a God who has holy expectations for their lives. 
And for those remaining few in our world whose consciences still reveal the expectations of God and their own failures, they make every effort to bridge that divide on their own:  elevating their own goodness and lessening God’s expectations.  Even we are tempted to kind of thinking by our flesh.
Only one person really understood the human dilemma of a God who demands that his creatures be holy as he is holy and the failure of those same creatures to meet that standard and that is Jesus Christ.
He came into this world because he knew God’s holiness and he knew God’s wrath over our sin. 
He knew that the righteous demands of the law must be fulfilled and so he lived a holy life for us.  He knew that the wrath of God over our sins must be reconciled and removed and so he offered up his life in our place on the cross, suffering the wrath of God over our sins—in our place. 
Jesus is the reason that the favor of God rests upon us—the reason that we can go to God in prayer—the reason that we can count ourselves children of the heavenly Father—the reason that we know anything at all about what is truly meaningful and lasting. 
Jesus is the reason that our prayers for the new year take on a proper, God-pleasing shape, praying:  teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
When measured against eternity, the days of our life are very brief indeed!  That we would know this and believe it is where our prayers for the new year ought to begin!
And so our prayers for the year to come are not filled, first of all, with the cares and concerns of this world—but are focused on eternal things:  asking that God would grant us wisdom to know Jesus Christ as our Savior—that his Holy Spirit would be at work in our lives not matter what our earthly circumstances—and that we would walk with him in holiness of life. 
This is how we number our days aright.  This is how we gain a heart of wisdom.  This is how we confidently face the future.
May God richly bless you in this year with every good gift of body and soul and may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace!

Luke 2:22-40 During these last few days of the year, it is good for us to remember that each of us will face our last day and moment—heartbeat and breath—on this earth.  The Bible says that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”  All of us will die unless the Lord comes first because “the wages of sin is death.”
How do we cope with our own mortality?  How do we depart this life in peace?  The way that we answer that question-- and the way that we find to deal with the specter of death-- determines not only what happens on that day when we draw our last breath-- but it determines where we will spend eternity—and how we will live your life until that last day. 
God’s answers about our eternal life-- and finding meaning for this earthly life-- and what the day of our death will be like for us-- are found in our text today as we see two faithful people of God—Simeon and Anna—who are at peace with their own mortality because they had seen the salvation of God in Christ.
When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord  (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord")  and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord…" 

            Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were in the temple doing what the law demanded:  offering a sacrifice for Mary’s purification and offering a sacrifice for Jesus as the firstborn Son.  That is what the Law demanded and that is what they did.
The obedience and faithfulness of Mary and Joseph and especially of Jesus would be a recurring theme throughout Jesus’ life as we see him in the Gospels faithfully keeping the demands of the Law—for he was born under its demands just as we were.  The Bible says that,
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” 
It is Good News for us that, from the very beginning of his life—in moments like the one before us today-- and throughout his life, Jesus kept the law perfectly—fulfilling what we are unable to do because of our sinfulness.
When we look back upon our life there are plenty of regrets—plenty of things that we wished we had done differently—but what sustains us day by day as Christians is the knowledge that Christ’s righteousness is ours through faith in him-- and what consoles us in the hour of our death is that our heavenly Father regards Christ’s righteousness as our own-- and counts it in his sight as our salvation. 
Peace with God in this life and peace with God when we depart this life comes from knowing the Good News that the righteousness of Christ is for us.  Simeon knew that salvation had come for him and all people in the birth of the Christ Child.  Taking baby Jesus into his arms he was at peace.  He said:
"Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." 
            We don’t know much else about Simeon other than what we have before us today in Luke’s Gospel.  He was righteous and devout.  He eagerly awaited the coming of the Messiah.  God had blessed him with a special gift of the Holy Spirit and had promised him that before his death he would see the Christ. 
His song of praise—known as the Nunc Dimmittis from the Latin translation of the first two words “Now dismiss”—has been sung in the church for two thousand years. 
            When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple to fulfill the demands of the Law, Simeon recognized by the Holy Spirit that the little baby in their arms was the Christ of the LORD—the promised Messiah who would set the people free from their sin-- and he blessed God for that moment and expressed his readiness to depart this life, for his soul was at peace in the presence of God’s salvation.
That is exactly where we find the peace to deal with our own mortality as well—in the Messiah of God, Jesus Christ.  No less than Simeon have our eyes beheld the salvation of God in Christ. 
In fact, so much of what was still to come (since Jesus was only a little more than a month old) Simeon would not see-- while we have it before our eyes in the pages of the Gospels—Jesus’ miracles, his death, his resurrection and ascension.  And seeing the salvation of God—we have peace with God and peace in our hearts. 
Peace because our sins are forgiven—peace because Jesus is with us as our Immanuel—peace because he has guaranteed another life for us by his resurrection.  Peace in life and peace in death for all people who will receive it in faith from the Christ Child like Simeon did that day.  He said:
"Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed  (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed." 

Simeon knew the peace of God because he saw the salvation of God and believed in him.  He had been waiting and hoping and yearning for the Messiah of God to be revealed because he believed the promises of God. 
This is an important lesson for us in the life of Simeon—the most important lesson of all if we are to know the peace of God in this life and at our death as Simeon did—and that lesson is that the salvation of God in Christ must be believed if we are to receive God’s peace.  But not all do.
Simeon prophesied that Jesus would cause the rise and fall of many—that he would be opposed—and that he would reveal the hearts of many.  That was true from that moment on. 
The wise men believed in Jesus and worshipped him.  Herod tried to put him to death.  Many of the common folk believed in Jesus while many of the religious leaders rejected him.  Some of Jesus’ own people jeered at him and taunted him as he was dying on the cross --while a soldier and a thief came to saving faith that same day.  That division between faith and rejection is the way it has always been.
            Then and now Jesus is the dividing line between those who are rising to heaven and those who are falling to hell—between those who are being saved and those who are being condemned—between those who have forgiveness for their sins and life everlasting and those who stand under God’s judgment in time and eternity.  It all hinges on Jesus. 
Those like Simeon, who by the Holy Spirit recognize and believe in Jesus for who he is, are saved.  Those reject the work of the Holy Spirit on their heart as he calls them to faith in Jesus will be condemned. 
It has always been that way and will always be that way until our Lord’s return in glory.  It was that way for another elderly person in the temple who rejoiced in Christ’s birth along with the Holy Family and Simeon.
There was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.  And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 
            I spend a lot of time in church—but I cannot honestly say about myself that I never leave the church and I can’t honestly say that I worship and pray day and night.  Anna did.
Anna is another person who we don’t know a lot about except for what we have here in Luke’s Gospel.  She was a faithful child of God who was devoted to worshiping God.  She had the spiritual gift of understanding and interpreting and applying God’s Word and her life spent with God in worship was perfect preparation for eternal life.
Like Anna, we can depart this life in peace only when we have come to enjoy the very things that eternity will consist of:  worshiping in the presence of God. 
Worshiping is not first of all about the worship space or the liturgy that is used or the songs that are sung—it is about receiving the gifts of forgiveness and salvation that God gives in his Son and responding with praise and thanksgiving and holy living. 
Anna not only worshiped but she also witnessed to other faithful Israelites who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem—the deliverance of the people of God from sin and death by the blood of the Messiah. 
Worshiping and witnessing—that’s a pretty good summary of the Christian life.  To live like this doesn’t mean that we have to spend every waking moment in church or walking the streets aggravating people with our literature like the cults. 
What it does mean is that “day by day” our hearts are full of thanksgiving and praise for everything that God has done for us in Christ—that our lives are a shining witness of what it means to be the redeemed people of God—and that there is a deep and abiding peace that fills our living and—one day--our dying-- because we have seen and believed the salvation of God that he gives in the Christ Child.  Amen. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Word Was God

John 1:1-18 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  That is the amazing, wonderful, saving story that we hear at Christmas.  Matthew and Luke tell that story with all of the historical particulars:  real people and places and political leaders. 
But John tells us that story is not LIMITED to a particular place and time—it is not just a footnote of history because the story of the Word who becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth stretches back into eternity for he is the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity-- and it stretches forward into eternity for he lives and reigns forever at the Father’s right hand. 
Matthew and Luke reveal the historical particulars about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth-- but it is John who reveals the eternal significance of who it is that is born this day.  St. John the Apostle writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
            Many thousands of years before this moment in history when the Word takes on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth--Moses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote about the beginning of time. 
He said that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, speaking them into existence by his Almighty, powerful word.  Light and life where before there was only darkness and emptiness—brought forth in the beginning, not by an impersonal force—but by a person—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who with the Father and the Holy Spirit was there at the beginning—always existing together as one true God.
            And not only was he the One who brought life and light into being—he himself IS light and life—and everything in all of creation finds its existence and meaning and purpose in him.  PAUSE
            Joseph was told by the angel of heaven that God’s Son would be:  Immanuel.  But it is John who reveals what that means:  that Jesus is physically “God with us”—not some disengaged, impersonal force who merely set things into motion in the beginning—but at his birth:  God in the flesh of a newborn baby. 
That is the cosmic reality behind Jesus’ identity—but the question that must now be answered is:  Why?  Why was it necessary for God himself to enter into human history—why was it necessary for the Creator to become a part of the fabric of creation?
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. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
            Here we have the great tragedy of our human existence:  a world that was created by the Word of God—a universe that was enlightened and enlivened by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—a human race that owes its existence moment by moment to the eternal Word—no longer, by nature knows him.
The very purpose of our lives—our existence—our presence in this world—has been ruined by sin.  We were created by the Word to live with God forever—to bask in his glorious light—to have fellowship with him as his children.  We were called into being by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity for that purpose eternally.
But when Adam and Eve sinned, creation rebelled against her Creator.  It was no longer light in which they lived-- but they tried to hide in darkness.  It was no longer everlasting life they possessed-- but now they would die.  
The light and life that they had been granted by the One who is light and life was lost to them-- and not only was it lost to them but it was lost to all their children—lost to us-- along with the relationship that we were created to have with God.
That is why it was necessary that the Word—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—God’s own Son who is Light and Life --entered into the world.  Because these gifts had originally come from him—he was the only one who could restore them. 
But because the world no longer recognized him—it was necessary for him to be revealed to the world.
That is why John the Baptist came preaching repentance of sins—that is why he pointed to Jesus and proclaimed him to be the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world and re-unite God and man. 
That is what Jesus had come to do—to restore that which he had originally created:  a relationship between us and God which is that of a father with his children.  St. John promises us that:
All who receive him, who believe in his name, Jesus gives the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
            Later on in his ministry Jesus would explain to Nicodemus what he had come to do.  Jesus told him:  Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he see cannot the kingdom of God.  Flesh gives birth to flesh and that which is born of spirit is spirit. 
We must be born again by God to be his children and the new birth that makes us God’s children comes in only one way:  and that is by the power of God working in those who receive Jesus in faith and believe in his name and recognize him as the God who is with us and the God who saves us.  This new birth cannot come to us in any other way but by our heavenly Father’s life-giving Word.
He is the One who claims us for himself in Holy Baptism—uniting us in his Son’s death and resurrection.  It is the powerful voice of the Holy Spirit who works faith in our hearts every time the Good News about Jesus is preached.  It is Jesus who makes himself present in the Sacrament of the Altar, applying the saving benefits of the cross to us personally and individually by giving us his body and blood to eat and drink.
What Jesus created us to be in the beginning (God’s sons and daughters) he has recreated us to be-- so that now, through faith in him, we are restored to the family of God.  St. John writes:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
            In our sermon hymn, we asked the question that is the question of the ages—the question that must be asked and answered if we are to be saved:  What Child is this?  Who is surrounded by livestock?  Who is this worshipped by king and commoner alike?  Who nurses at his mother’s breast?
            It is in these first verses from John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit gives us the answer to that eternally important question:  he is the Word which was from the beginning—he is the Son of the Father—he is Jesus, the Lord who saves—he is Christ the promised Messiah—he is God.
The Bible tells us that in the beginning, God walked with Adam and Eve—he knew them face-to-face and had perfect fellowship with him.  But sin destroyed that relationship and from that moment on sinful man could not bear to look upon the glorious, holy face of God—and in fact, that sight would bring death—for that is the penalty for sin.  Even a man as close to God as Moses could only look upon God from behind as he passed by.
The chasm that lies between our sin and God’s holiness remained an insurmountable barrier until that night two thousands years ago when Jesus was born.  There in Bethlehem, God’s grace reached out across that barrier and made a way for us back to our heavenly Father.  And the glorious face of God that sinful man cannot bear to look upon, was clothed in the precious face of a child that can be loved and cherished and adored.
That is why Jesus came as he did—so that once more we can draw near to God unafraid and unashamed.  God’s unveiled glory that is too much for us to bear-- is now clothed in the flesh of a child who beckons us to come and bask in his presence.
Only one person can reveal God to us in this way—in the way that he desires to be known (as the God of grace and truth and love who wants to be reconciled to his wayward children) and that person is God himself in the person of his Son Jesus who now lives and reigns at the Father’s right hand. 
To know Jesus is to know God-- and to believe in him is to possess all of the gifts and blessings we were created to receive and retain forever:  gifts of life and salvation and forgiveness and fellowship with God.  These are the gifts that the Christ-Child gives and I pray they would be yours in abundance now and forever.  Amen.