Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Questions and Answers About the Year to Come

Romans 8:31-39 As 2013 draws to a close and 2014 begins, we have all kind of questions about the year to come.  Will this be a wet year or can we expect another drought?  What will happen in the mid-term elections and what will that mean for our country?  What new conflict or disaster will befall the world?
And we have questions about our own life in the year to come.  Will I hear some terrible news regarding my health?  How will I fare financially?  What will happen in the lives of my family members?
There is much that we do not know about the year to come.  In fact, we really don’t know anything at all.  And that makes us a bit worried and anxious.  But God speaks to us in his Word tonight for the purpose of easing our worries.  He tells us that that in the midst of all the questions we have about the year to come, there are some things that we can know for sure.
In this familiar text, St. Paul asks five questions about the most fundamental parts of our life and our relationship with God and then by the power of the Holy Spirit he answers those questions so that we can be sure that no matter what we face in 2014, nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Paul writes:  If God is for us, who can be against us?
Who can be against us?  Well, let’s see?  Muslim terrorists who want to kill us.  Our own government who wants to take more of our money.  The culture around us who wants to ruin our reputation as Christians.  The devil who wants to destroy us eternally.  I can think of all kinds of people who are against us, and will continue to be against us, in the year to come.
But that’s not really the point that Paul is making at all!  His point is this:  Who are all those enemies (even if they were allied together) who are all these enemies against us compared to God who is for us.
God is for us!  Just think of that!  The living God of the universe who called this world into being, who sustains it moment to moment, who is from everlasting to everlasting, not only knows us and everything about us ( including what the future holds for us)—but he is for us!  God is on our side.  He is our advocate. 
No matter who sits in the opposite corner of this boxing ring called life—God is in our corner and that will make all the difference no matter we face in this new year.
Paul was not fool.  He knew all about enemies who were against him.  His own people, the Jews.  The rulers of the most powerful empire that had ever existed.  False prophets form within the church herself.  He knew that all kinds of people were against him.  But when he measured them against the God who was for him—what were all of them together?!
So it is for us!  In 2014 you can count on the good news that no matter what enemies you face, they are not greater than the God is for you. 
But how can we be certain of that?  How do we know beyond any shadow of a doubt that God is for us?  We find our answer in the same place as the Apostle Paul.  God who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
It is a wonderful and remarkable blessing to know that the one, true and living God of the universe is for us.  We can know this and believe and build our life upon it in the year to come because God has shown his attitude towards us in the gift of his Son. 
And since God has already given this greatest gift of all, can there be any doubt that God will also supply everything else we need.
If we are honest with ourselves, many of the worries and anxieties we have about the year to come—many of the questions that remain unanswered-- concern material and earthly and financial matters.  It seems that our country is teetering on the edge of real financial problems and we wonder how that will affect us.
We don’t know how all of this will work out-- but what we do know is that, having already been given the greatest gift of all in Jesus, our heavenly Father can be counted on to meet all our other needs.
Think about it this way.  All of those material worries that we had as we sat here on this night last year-- are the same ones we have here tonight-- and yet the fact of the matter is that we are sitting here: fed and clothed and sheltered.
The God who is for us—the God who has given his Son—can be trusted to give us everything else that we need for this body and life because he has already taken care of the one thing that really, eternally matters and that is our salvation.  Paul writes:  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Many of the questions and concerns and worries that we have as we face the beginning of the new year are not unique to us all—they are common to all men—but those who do not believe in Jesus do not have the comfort we do because they do not know God-- and they completely blind to the fact that this lack of knowledge about God-- and this missing relationship-- ought to be their chief concern as they face the future because there is not just 2014 to consider—there is eternity.
No matter what happens to a person in the year to come—no matter what enemies they face—nothing could be worse than being a slave in Satan’s kingdom, deaf and blind to the truth about God, and a future inhabitant of hell.  That is where so many are in our world tonight.  But the child of God has nothing to fear on this account.
When we recognize that the fears and anxieties we have about the year to come are really nothing compared to eternally important things—our worries become much smaller.
We are children of God.  He has known us and loved us from before the beginning of time.  He has planned for our salvation and sent his Son Jesus Christ to accomplish.  He has providentially and graciously ordered every moment of our lives so that we would be brought to faith in Jesus and kept in faith until that day we enter our eternal home. 
When it comes to our relationship with God, God himself has declared that we are right in his sight.  That is God’s verdict.  That is God’s judgment.  That is what God himself says about who we are and what our relationship with him is. 
Compared to that, what does it matter what anyone else (be it other people, or the devil, or our own hearts) say about us when God says:  you are my child?  God has declared that we are right in his sight through faith in his Son Jesus.  Paul writes:  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
We began this meditation on God’s Word talking about the trepidation we all naturally have as we begin a new year.  But what God wants us to know is that there is no reason for fears or worries or anxiety. 
We are right in God’s sight and members of his family because the condemnation that we deserve fell upon the crucified body of Christ.  Our sins are forgiven and we are right in God’s sight.
We have nothing to fear even in the face of death because Jesus has conquered the grave for us.  If this year should be our last here on earth we can absolutely confident that there is another life to come in the heavenly home Christ has prepared for us.
And we can face whatever the new year holds because at this moment our living Savior who has loved us at the cost of his own life, rules the world at his Father’s right hand for our sake, constantly lifting up our cares and concerns to his heavenly Father. 
It is with this understanding of who we are in Jesus that Paul asks and answers the most important question of all as we stand at the beginning of a new year:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
            The man who wrote these words was named Paul not Pollyanna.  He had no silly illusions about living a life of undisturbed ease.  In fact, he knew that such a life was an impossibility for the child of God.  Not only do we live in a dark and dangerous world, subject to all of the hardships that befall every person, if we are truly following Christ, the cross will leave its mark on us too.
But Paul faced the future unafraid and unashamed.  He knew that there was nothing and no one in this world more powerful than the love that God has for us in Jesus Christ.  God wants us to know and believe the same as we face this new year and so Paul asks and answers these questions so that we might know that we will be conquerors in the year to come: 
Who can be against us when God is for us?  No one!
Having given us Christ, will God give us what we need?  He will!
Who can lay a charge against those God has justified?  No one!
Can even death condemn us?  Not a chance!
What can separate us from Christ’ love?  Nothing!  Not now!  Not ever!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Birth of Jesus Christ Took Place this Way

Matthew 1:18-25 By the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit St. Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ conception and birth:  Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  You will notice that he did not say:  “Once upon a time in a land far, far away.” 
The story of our Lord’s conception and birth—with all the miracles surrounding it—is not a fairy tale or myth.  It is an objective fact of history—grounded in a particular time and place—as real as the Norman conquest of Britain and the Protestant Reformation and the D- Day invasion.
The Gospel writers knew that the story of our Lord’s birth was miraculous—they knew that it contained details that were far from ordinary—they knew that it would take faith to believe what they said about our Lord’s birth--but they never downplayed those elements or tried to explain them away. 
They simply recorded them.  And the church has confessed them for two thousand years:  I believe in Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  Such is the teaching of the Bible and such is the confession of the church and such is the personal faith of every true Christian. 
Now, we all know that unbelieving world rejects this story out of hand and it has always been that way.  During our Lord’s earthly ministry the Jews called into question his miraculous birth and the ancient and medieval rabbis who followed them said that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier. 
So it continues today—even in the church-- as faithless leaders try to make room for modern skepticism by removing the miraculous from Christianity.  But what is left of Christianity when the miraculous is gone?  Just another man-made religion that finally has no power to change our lives for time and eternity. 
That was not the faith of the apostles.  That was not the faith of the reformers.  That is not the faith of believing Christians today.  We believe what the Holy Spirit inspired and what the writers of the Gospel recorded.  We believe that:  The birth of Jesus took place this way.  The Bible says that: 
When Jesus’ mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
            It’s important to understanding and believing the story of our Lord’s conception and birth that we know a bit about betrothal in the ancient world.  The betrothal was a ceremony where the bride and groom publicly committed themselves to one another as husband and wife in the presence of witnesses—generally their families. 
From that moment on they were married, even though the celebration and their coming together as husband and wife under one roof would follow at a future date.  The Bible says that Mary became pregnant after the betrothal but before they consummated their marriage.
Both Matthew and Luke tell us that this was a miracle.  The child conceived within the womb of the Virgin was not the product of Mary and Joseph’s love for one another.  The child was the not the product of Mary’s sin. 
The child conceived within her was the product of God’s love for the world that moved him to send his Son and the power of the Holy Spirit who accomplished that gift of love within a Virgin’s womb.
Nothing more is said—no other details are given-- except that this child who began his life with the division of cells just as we begin our lives—was there within Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, what else can be said about the greatest miracle of all:  that God took on flesh and entered into human history.
People in the ancient world were absolutely no different than we are—they were just as smart—just as wise in the ways of the world.  They knew how babies were made:  that it takes a husband and a wife and the love they share to create a child.  That is why Joseph reacted as he did.  The Bible says that:  Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put Mary to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
We can imagine what must have been going on in Joseph’s mind:  “I know that I have not been together with her and so she must have sinned”.  Joseph was no fool.  He knew how babies were made and in his mind there was only one possibility.  And so he resolved to divorce Mary.
The Bible says that Joseph was a just man.  Other translations say that he was a righteous man.  What does that mean?  It means that he was a devout believer in one true God and his life reflected that faith in every way.  He could not-and would not-- abide with sin or give it a place in his life or look the other way.  Not even when it cost him so dearly as his own wife. 
His faith and personal holiness were such that it drew the attention of the Gospel writers and he would certainly stand out today.  We live in a time in the church when our confession of faith is often times very different than our life of faith.  People have learned to mouth the right words but the life that is supposed to be a reflection of that faith is not there.
Joseph shows us what a true and living faith looks like:  forgiven of sin, he resolved to have nothing to do with sin even in the smallest way—even at the greatest cost.
There is something else remarkable about Joseph’s faith.  He would not even let sin get close to him- but he dealt gently with Mary when he believed that she had fallen into sin.  He did not want to shame her or ruin her.  A deep personal faith and a life of holiness did not translate into him being holier than thou or self-righteous—it made him compassionate to sinners.
In Joseph’s faith and life—in his holiness and compassion--we see God’s wisdom in entrusting his Son to Joseph’s care—for it was indeed God’s Son, the Savior of the world who would be born of Mary.  The Bible says that:
As Joseph considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
            There was no sin in our Lord’s conception and so there was no shame for Joseph in taking Mary to his home as wife.  The Savior had not come into the world as the result of sin but to save the people from their sins.  That was his mission.
It is important that we know and believe the story of our Lord’s conception and birth that we learn from the Bible.  But the beginning of that story is told so that we can know the end of the story: that the child who is born of Mary is the Savior of the world.  He entered into the world for us and for our salvation. 
He was born a perfect, innocent child so that he could be the perfect, once for all sacrifice on the cross by offering his life in place of our own under God’s wrath. 
It is a beautiful story that we hear at Christmas and it is a lovely scene that is set before our eyes of faith in the story of his birth--but that story and that picture ultimately leads to a rough cross outside of Jerusalem and a crown of thorns and a soldier’s spear.  It’s not an accident that it ends that way.  It was God’s plan from the beginning to save the world through his Son. 
It was the Father’s Son who was born of Mary and he had the right to name him.  Joseph would speak the name “Jesus” but the name itself was given by the heavenly Father to the Son he loved because it perfectly captured what he came to do and that is to save us from our sins just as he had promised.  The Bible says:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
            The real miracle of our Lord’s conception and birth was not just that it was accomplished without the aid of a human father—not just that the baby was born to die.  The real miracle is who it was conceived within the womb of the Virgin:  that he was God.
That is what Immanuel means:  God is with us.  God took upon himself our flesh.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity—the Word who was from the beginning and is God—entered into this world as a bit of flesh, redeeming every moment of our life by his own holy life.
From the very beginning of the story then we know who Mary’s child really is:  God in human flesh come to save us from our sins.  And the Good News for us is that he is still Jesus, our Immanuel: the Savior who is with us.  The power of his saving work continues down to this moment as he speaks to us in his word and makes himself present in the sacrament so that we might receive the blessings of his death and resurrection.
He is the God who is with us—with us through our joys and sorrows—with us as we pass through this life—with us as we die--with us forever into eternity.  Jesus is our Immanuel and like Joseph that calls for our obedience and faith.  The Bible says that:
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
            What we see in Joseph’s life is exactly the response that God is hoping for from all of us:  faith in his Word and obedience to his commands.  There was a cost in this for Joseph as there always is for believers.  Ugly rumors would surround his marriage and family.  Joseph would forgo that part of marriage that was rightfully his so that there could be no doubt that Jesus was God’s Son.  His faith moved him to service and sacrifice.  May God grant us the same faith—the same obedience, and the same willingness to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Be Patient Until the Coming of the Lord!

James 5:7-11 Advent, this season before Christmas, is a waiting time.  All of us, and especially our children, are counting down the days to Christmas.  And because Christmas is still about a week away, there is a lot of waiting to be done.  We wait in line at the store.  We wait for our turn to get into the mall.  We wait for our family and friends from out of town to arrive. 
None of us likes to wait very much.  We hope and pray that the people in line in front of us have picked up an item with a price tag.  We’re outraged when someone cuts in front of us in the line of cars turning into Best Buy.  We beg and plead with mom and dad to open just one present before Christmas.  
We want to be first—first in line, first to check out, first to open presents.  But what is required in these days is patience.  Patience with others in line before us.  Patience with Mom and Dad’s plan to open presents after church on Christmas morning.  Patience as we count down the days to Christmas.
Advent, because it comes before Christmas, is a waiting time in our culture but more importantly Advent is a waiting spiritually.  The focus in Advent is not so much Christmas but the day of our Lord’s return in glory and the blessings he will bring.  That is what Advent looks forward to but still we have to wait for that too.
We have to wait for the end of death.  We have to wait for the judgment of evil.  We have to wait for a new creation.  And we don’t like to wait for those blessings any more than we do Christmas.  We don’t want to say goodbye to loved ones or face our own passing.  We’re grieved that evil seems to flourish.  We know that in the year to come many people will be burdened and broken by the forces of nature hurricanes and tornadoes and floods. 
We’re ready for things to be different-- but what we need is patience to wait for that day.  That is what we hear tonight in God’s Word, a call for patience as we wait for the Lord.  The Bible says:  Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.
None of us are patient by nature because we are sinful by nature and our impatience reveals the truth about the fundamental self-centeredness that all of us are born with.  We want—not only what we want—but when we want it.  Our prayer life is filled with all our wants but also the timetable we expect God to adhere to. 
But God has not only a will for our lives—he has his own time table to accomplish that will.  He will destroy death.  He will wipe every tear from our eye.  He will bless us with every blessing.  But those blessings will be accomplished on his own time table—many of them when Jesus comes again.
The word that is used there for “coming of the Lord’ is the word:  Parousia—and it is always used to describe Christ’s return as King and Judge.  The point is this:  many of the things that we hope for and yearn for in our lives of faith (an end to our sinful flesh and the destruction of evil and the end of the grave) are things we will have to wait for—blessings that will come only when our Lord returns.  And that requires patience.  The Bible says:
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also, be patient.
            Farmers can do a lot to make for a successful, abundant harvest.  They can plant, and cultivate, and fertilize.  They can spray weeds and choose the right seeds.  But there are some things that they simply cannot do:  they cannot cause the rain to fall or the sun to shine.  These are things that only the Creator can do and the farmer knows that and simply has to wait.
So it is for us in this waiting time before our Lord returns.  These words about patient farmers were penned by James, Jesus’ brother but they were inspired by the Holy Spirit and there is a reason why the Spirit chose this example. 
Not only was it familiar to the people of that day who lived in an agrarian society, it perfectly describes what is actually going on as we wait for our Lord’s return:  the living water of the Spirit is falling upon the earth and a harvest is being gathered in. 
We long for and are impatient for the blessings of the Lord’s return-- but the Lord’s saving will extends beyond us and he wants every possible person to be saved. 
And so patience is not only a virtue required of us and spiritual gift given us, it is an attribute of our heavenly Father.  The Bible says that:  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  We wonder why the Lord delays—thinking only of ourselves and what we want—but God lovingly looks at a world full of people who need his blessings just as much as we do.
This helps us to be patient as we wait for the blessings of the Last Day because we know that God is busily accomplishing his saving will so that every possible person can be saved and our Lord’s patient love changes our attitude towards those around us.  The Bible says:
Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
            Much of the time that we spend impatiently waiting, we are stewing about it on the inside.  But there are times when that impatience it spills out onto others:  the checker at Walmart, the car in front of us, our kids or spouse.  God wants us to remember that Jesus can come again at any time and indeed will come at a time when we do not expect him.
The question is this:  Do we want to face the Judge while we are berating the girl at Walmart or yelling at our kids or making a rude gesture to the driver ahead of us?  Of course not!  Do we want Jesus to be impatient with us when we fail him again and again?  No! 
And so rather than being impatient with others during this waiting time we can use this same time to establish our hearts.  The words that are used there mean to strengthen our hearts and learn to stand firm. 
I used to jokingly say that I never prayed for patience because what the Lord gives instead are opportunities to practice patience and that is exactly what I do not want. 
But I do need the practice and you do too.  We are not yet the people that we ought to be and so rather than being impatient with those around us we can consider this waiting time as a day of grace to become better Christians like the faithful who have come before.  The Bible says:
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job,
            I know that this will come as a surprise to all of you but patience does not come easily or naturally to me.  It is a constant struggle and an ongoing source of frustration and spiritual failure and I almost despair of making progress in this part of my faith.
But progress is possible—for me and for you.  The faithful saints of old and many faithful saints of our own day learned patience.  They were born with the same fallen flesh as we have.  They had the same or even greater challenges that we face.  The prophets saw many if not most of their people reject the Lord.  Job lost every earthly blessing.  And yet they remained steadfast and patient in waiting times. 
Patience is not an impossibility or a virtue that others have or a spiritual gift that I have not been given.  All of us can gain and grow in patience.  The Bible says: you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.  Here then is the secret to patience:  a living faith in the Lord who is compassionate and merciful.
Jesus didn’t keep our sins and failures at arm’s length.  He looked upon our lives broken by sin—including that selfish sin of impatience—and was moved with love at our sad condition and had compassion on us.  He took upon himself the frailty of our flesh and became one of us to save us.  The Bible says Jesus:
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
  For all of those times we have been impatient, for all of the times we have lost our temper with others, for all those times we have demanded God’s blessings on our own time table—Christ laid down his life on the cross and paid the penalty for those sins with his own blood.
And then he rose again to give us the power to live a life like his.  A life that puts others first.  A life that bears the burdens of others.  A life that trusts God’s will AND God’s timing.  He is the living source of the power to live a life like his.  The Bible says:  Consider Jesus who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
During these waiting times—whether it is waiting in line at the store or counting down the days to Christmas or waiting for the blessings that will be ours at our Lord’s return, look to Jesus Christ in faith; hear his voice in the Word; learn from the life lessons of the saints; and rejoice that the Lord’s patience means the salvation of others and an opportunity to grow in your own faith.  Amen.