Saturday, February 1, 2020

We Preach Christ Crucified


1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Not too long after I began my ministry, the father of one of my members passed away.  He was a fairly well-known man in the community and along with a many members of my congregation I attended his funeral in another Christian church in town.
As I listened to the service and the prayers and the hymns—and especially as I listened to the sermon—it occurred to me that I had not heard about Jesus.  I had not even heard his name mentioned—to say nothing of his death and resurrection. 
The “sermon” was well-delivered—there were witty illustrations.  There was lots of generic “god-talk”—lots of “Father God” in the prayers—but not a word about how it is that we can call God our Father in the first place by trusting in Jesus.  That funeral was one of the saddest things I had ever witnessed in a Christian church.
As we exited the building, one of my members came up to me and said, “Pastor, wasn’t that a wonderful message?”  And I took a deep breath and counted to ten and said, “Well no, it wasn’t” and I asked her if she had heard anything about Jesus—anything about forgiveness through his shed blood on the cross—anything about our hope in his resurrection. 
Well, she was kind of taken aback—and she thought for a minute—and had to admit that she hadn’t heard about Jesus either.  I said, “Let’s talk about it on Sunday”.
Because so many of my members had been at that service, we did talk about it in our Bible class—a great teaching moment about what we ought to be hearing preached in the church—that if a sermon could just as easily be preached in a synagogue or mosque—we haven’t actually heard a Christian sermon no matter where it is preached. 
I don’t know how many folks I convinced—but I convinced her.  From then on, whenever we were at another Christian church for a wedding or a funeral—whenever we heard a prayer at some public function-she always sought me out afterward and said, “Pastor, I heard it!”  Or “Pastor I didn’t hear it!” 
That whole experience made a profound impact on me and I’ll never forget that lesson:  that what we almost take for granted as members of the Lutheran Church (that Christ and his saving works will be preached whenever we assemble for worship) that very thing that is missing in so many parts of the world and even within the church.
That is one reason why we support Lutheran Hour Ministries—so that as many people as possible can hear the word of the cross and be saved.  The Bible says that:
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
That the living God of the universe has taken on human flesh in the person of a peasant baby, was crucified on a cross, and raised from the dead—thus accomplishing the redemption of the world from sin, death, and the power of the devil—this word of the cross is folly—foolishness—to everyone—by nature.
And yet here we are --sitting here in Church today-- believing this very thing.  Our lives are built on this foundation of Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  His cross and resurrection is our hope for time and eternity.  And so we want everyone in the world to know “the word of the cross”. 
How did this come to be—that we believe the folly of the cross?  It is because the foolishness of the cross is the POWER of God.  And there is the greatest possible comfort in that promise:  that there is life-changing power in the Gospel.
It is so easy to become discouraged in our witness to Jesus.  We miss opportunities.  We say the wrong thing.  We don’t know what to say.  All of this besides the fact that we live in a world that not only does not want to hear us—but is more and more outright antagonistic to the Gospel. 
But the message of the cross IS the power of God that converted Paul—that converted the Roman Empire—that converted the German tribes—that converted you and me—from enemies of God who knew nothing of his goodness and mercy-- to children of God whose hope and peace and life are based upon the word of the cross.
That is why it is so important that the powerful, life-changing message of the cross goes out to as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible because we know that message is the only message that saves sinners and that even the gates of hell cannot stand against it.  The Bible says that:
It is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 
            Mankind’s unregenerate intellect and reason cannot be reformed—it has to be destroyed-- and that is exactly what God promised to do --and did. 
But it was not an act of divine violence that destroyed its hold on us—it was an act of love in the birth of a child who was the wisdom of God personified.  This virgin-born life is how God broke into human history to destroy the hold that so-called wisdom and intellect has on us whose minds are-by nature-are hostile to God.
The greatest intellects of human history—the most powerful men who have ever lived—the greatest leaders the world has ever seen—stand in the shadow of God’s wisdom found in a baby lying in a manger—a man nailed to a cross. 
Jesus what mankind, in our wisdom and intellect and strength, could not—our salvation—and he continues to accomplish salvation in those who hear the Gospel preached—be it through a Lutheran Hours Ministries radio broadcast or Internet program or a Sunday morning service.  The Bible says:
Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what WE preach to save those who believe. 
The Bible says that “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ”.  The Augsburg Confession days that faith is obtained though the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments…
No one comes to faith in any other way than by hearing the Good News of Jesus, crucified and raised for the sons of the world.  Faith comes by hearing the Gospel!
In these latter days Almighty God has allowed technology to have a place in this critical work of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus so that preaching is not confined to one man in one place like we are experiencing with now, but through technology the Gospel can be heard throughout the world--for the sake of the world’s salvation. 
St. Paul says that this way that God has of saving the world—through the preaching of the cross—PLEASES him.  It has PLEASED God, through the folly of what we preach, to save those who believe. 
Never forget that!  God himself has placed his seal of approval on the preaching of the Gospel and so when we support preaching here in this place and throughout the world in ministries like the Lutheran Hour, God himself is pleased. 
We need to be reminded of that divine blessing and promise that rests upon the preaching of the cross again and again because the opposition of the world to the Gospel- is still a painful reality.  The Bible says that:
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.
It is remarkable how little things have changed over the last two thousand years when it comes to the enemies of the cross.  No longer is it Jews and Greeks—but the challenges are the same from those who oppose the work of the church in preaching the Gospel.   
There is incredible pressure on the church to accommodate herself and her message to the prevailing culture as a sign that we really do love all people.  There are those who insist that the church would serve the world better by being nothing more than another human care agency. 
These challenges to the preaching of the cross are constant- and opposition to the word of the cross will only grow more virulent.  But Christ is the power and wisdom of God and for the sake of the world’s salvation he must be preached.
That is why it is such an incredible comfort to hear the promise of God that concludes our text today.  The Bible says that:
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The “foolishness of God” that is wiser than men and the “weakness of God” that is stronger than men is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross for the sins of the world—risen from the grave to give life to all—the living source of our own spiritual life and the sustaining strength of our mission as the Church. 
He is with us—and his saving purpose will prevail through us and our support of the preaching of the cross.  In his strength and wisdom, let us resolve here today that we will always be counted among those whose prayers and gifts support those who preach Christ crucified!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Repent and Follow Me!


Matthew 4:12-25 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,   so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned." 
            Despite being promised by God, it is difficult to convey how absolutely unexpected these events were for the Jews of that day who were looking for the Messiah (that he would come to Galilee) because Jewish tradition promised something else. 
The Jewish tradition was that the Messiah would conduct his ministry in Jerusalem.  That is where the temple was!  That was the heart of the Israelite religion!  It was the center of the universe for God’s people. 
Why on earth would the Messiah go out to the boondocks of Zebulun and Naphtali?!  Why would he go to the hinterlands of Galilee?  These were the people he had destroyed at the hands of the Assyrians 700 years before.  The place was now overrun with pagan Gentiles-- and the Jews that remained there had long since “given up and given in” to the ways of the unbelieving world around them.
But God had made a promise—that in the midst of great darkness-- an even greater light would shine on those who dwelt there.  And so at the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the light of the word, went to Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles—to a people living in the darkness of sin and unbelief and false worship. 
Now maybe this all seems like ancient and even more ancient history—after all, Jesus went to Galilee two thousand years ago and the Assyrians conquered Galilee 700 years before that.  But it’s not just ancient history at all!  It is the story of God’s love!
We live in a time and place very much like the residents of Zebulun and Naphtali did.  Whether scholars ever come to a consensus about whether or not the United States was, at some point in its history, a Christian nation, we can all look back with longing to a day when sexual immorality and violence and materialism and vulgarity were not central to our national identity as they are today. 
We know that something is wrong in our nation when mindless consumerism brings us to the point of economic collapse; when millions of babies are killed on the altar of convenience; when billions of dollars are spent on filth that is called entertainment; when so many of our leaders are the worst kind of people.
And if the truth is known, all of us, to one degree or the other, like the Galileans of Zebulun and Naphtali, have made our own uneasy peace with it.  We accommodate ourselves to the current, pressing realities of the culture-- all the time assuring ourselves that we are still faithful to the Lord—and yet, living, to one degree or the other, in the spiritual darkness of the world around us. 
I think we want it to be different—but the tide of history seems so strong and the forces of the culture so insurmountable that there seems to be little hope in these dark days of returning to the Lord and walking with him in faithfulness as his disciples.
But there is hope for us in Jesus, the Light of the World, who comes to shine the light of his life upon all of the dark places of our hearts and souls and lives.  And he comes to us today with the same message of hope that he brought to the Galileans:  "Repent."   Now maybe you say to yourselves:  that sure doesn’t sound like a message of hope.  Oh but dear friends in Christ, it is!
That message of repentance means that there is still time for us to shake off the tentacles of a godless culture that threaten to strangle our faith.  It means that there is still time for us to see the world around us as God sees it—that despite its prosperity and despite its technological marvels and despites its artistic achievements, where the Lord does not reign supreme-- it is a place of darkness.  That message of repentance means that there is still time for us to take a good hard look at our own lives and honestly evaluate how many comprises we have made with the ways and thinking of the world—how often we have gone along to get along—and then to repent of the whole sorry mess. 
There was no hope for those left on the outside of the ark when the door went up who had not heeded Noah’s message of repentance and there will be no hope for those who have not come to repentance and faith in the Lord at his return—but for us here today—in this moment-- there is hope. 
And the message of hope is:  repent!  Repent of our sin--our compromises with the world—our lack of faithfulness—to repent of it all and be done with it and then to turn Jesus for forgiveness and new life.  That was the second part of Jesus’ message that brings light and hope to those living in darkness and despair:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  
To repent, not only means to turn away from something, but to turn to something and that “something” is the Good News of Jesus and life in his kingdom--a life of discipleship, walking in his footsteps and learning from him to live a life that is pleasing to the Father--just like that day in Galilee.  The Bible says that:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 
            When Jesus called the disciples that day by the Sea of Galilee to come and follow him, he was offering them nothing less than a new life.  They were leaving behind an old way of life and an old way of thinking and an old way of looking at the world-- for the light of the Gospel and life in the Kingdom.
The Lord still calls some into the full-time ministry, but he calls every person who follows him into full-time discipleship.  There are no part-time disciples of the Lord!  Following the Lord involves every facet of our life, every hour of the day. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on these verses in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” wrote that when Christ bids a man come to him, he bids him come and die—to turn over our entire life to Christ.
And that’s true.  When we become Christ’s disciples our old way of life does come to an end.  I just wish that Bonhoeffer had gone on to say, “When Christ bids a man comes to him, he bids him come and die—and live again” for that is whole truth of the Christian life. 
Not only does our old way of life come to an end when we follow Jesus Christ as his disciples, but a brand-new way of life in the Spirit takes its place—in fact, the only life worthy of the name “life” becomes our own-- through faith in Jesus.
That dying and rising that is the heart of Christian discipleship is ultimately rooted in Christ’s own dying and rising for us.  It is his death on the cross that forgives our sins and it is his glorious resurrection that gives eternal life in the kingdom and it is only because of his dying and rising into which we have been baptized that we can die to sin and rise to newness of life.
When we answer Jesus’ call to discipleship with the Spirit-given “yes” of faith, we are lifted up above our circumstances.  Yes, we are still affected by the same hardships and difficulties as the unbelievers around us—just like the disciples still had to live in Galilee along-side those who opposed and oppressed them. 
But walking in Christ’s life and living out his kingdom’s values, we see our struggles in a brand new way:  not as darkness and despair-- but as moments to trust God.  We see them as the Father’s chastening and discipline that make us stronger.  We see them as opportunities to serve others in their needs and especially do we see them as opportunities to call them to trust in Christ and receive the blessings of life in his kingdom--just like the people of Galilee did.  The Bible tells us that:
Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.   So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
            God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah was that, upon those living in darkness, a great light would shine—and that’s exactly what happened. 
For those living in the darkness of disease and demonic possession the powerful, healing Light of the World shone into their lives bringing them healing and hope.  Each victory over the devil and his angels was an unmistakable sign that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of heaven had come to that place.  Each healing miracle was an unmistakable sign of a new day when Christ will come again with the fullness of a kingdom in which there will be no more sorrow or suffering.
            That day is a day of hope for us-- but it is just as certain as that day in Galilee-- for it has been promised by the God of kept promises.  And even though we live in a dark world until that day-- we do not live in darkness, for the light and the life of Jesus Christ has shown into our lives.  Amen. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Light for the Nations


Isaiah 49:1-7 On the cover of the Isaiah commentary that I used in my studies for this sermon there is a picture of Jesus Christ dying upon a cross.  And that is exactly right.  Luther said that “From this 49th chapter to the end of Isaiah, there is nothing but Christ.”  And he was exactly right.  These verses that we have before us for our meditation speak of Christ.
Cyrus would be God’s anointed instrument to set Judah free from exile in Babylon.  The Israelites would do their part in carrying forth the worship and knowledge of the true God and especially the promise of a Savior to come. 
But the Servant of God who speaks-- and is spoken of-- in these final chapters of Isaiah’s book is none other than Jesus Christ who was stricken, smitten and afflicted for our transgressions and by whose wounds we are healed.
In the text for our meditation today we hear the incredible Good News that the saving work of Jesus Christ, God’s son and servant, would not just be for the Jews but it would be for all people, including us here today.  The Messiah says:  Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. 
            Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus would speak in the same, powerful way:  “Truly, truly I say to you”.  “I tell you the truth”.  “Whoever hears my words and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life”.  “My word is truth”. 
In these verses from Isaiah the Servant of God has something to say and he wants everyone near and far to listen to it!
These words are not just for God’s ancient people but for us and all people--for they speak of a salvation and deliverance that extends not just to a few, but to all who will hear and believe that the Lord—who promised that the Seed of a Woman would destroy Satan-- has chosen a Savior who will be for all people.  God’s servant says:  The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 
When John begins his Gospel he says that the one who was in the beginning, the one through whom all things were made, the one who was God-- became flesh and dwelt among us. 
A promise made to Adam and Eve thousands of years earlier—that the Seed of a Woman would be the destruction of the devil--a promise that was renewed and expanded from one prophet to another--became flesh in the womb of his blessed virgin mother.
Isaiah had prophesied of this miraculous birth:  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call him Immanuel.  Isaiah promised more:  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.  And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, prince of Peace.
And so it was that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled as the Virgin Mary conceived a son with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took on flesh and was called forth from the womb and became part of humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. 
At the angel’s command Mary and Joseph named him Jesus because he is the God who saves us.  They called him Immanuel because he is the God who is with us.  And the angel choirs sang the birth song of the Prince of Peace—just as Isaiah promised.
700 years before these events of the very first Christmas, the Spirit of Christ who inspired all the Old Testament prophets, inspired the prophet Isaiah to give voice to the Messiah, God’s chosen servant and his very own son.  Jesus said about his Father:
He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.  And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 
            All Jewish rabbis-- and many modern bible scholars-- reject the idea that this is the Messiah speaking because he is specifically called “Israel”.  But the nation of Israel cannot be the servant spoken of here because they were not their own savior (to say nothing of their being the salvation of the Gentile nations).
No, this could only be the voice of the Messiah, the chosen Servant of God and the true Israel whose words are like a sharp sword. 
In Hebrews, the Bible says that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  And in Revelation Jesus is portrayed this way:  In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
It is this sword of the Spirit which is the word of God that comes forth from the mouth of the Messiah that provides our redemption and rescue- with- one- little- word.
And so what is that one little word?  Luther speaks of it in the third stanza of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.  He writes:  Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us—we tremble not, we fear no ill—they shall not overpower us—this world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will—he can harm us none—he’s judged the deed is done—one little word can fell him. 
That one little word spoken by God’s own Son, his chosen servant—that one little word that is our redemption and rescue is the word:  tetelestai.  Tetelestai spoken by our crucified Savior who was pierced for our transgression and wounded for our iniquities and by whose stripes we are healed.  Three words in English:  “It is finished”. 
It is finished!  The most important word ever spoken for it tells of a ransom that has been paid to set us free from sin and death.  It tells of an atoning sacrifice that has been made, reconciling God and man.  It tells of a peace treaty that has been signed between us and God in the shed blood of his Son Jesus Christ. 
Tetelestai!  It is finished!  A shout of victory spoken by a holy man dying a criminal’s death, abandoned by friends, mocked by enemies, forsaken by God—a humble man who just a few hours before had begged his Father to let the cup of wrath pass by him.  God’s Servant says:
“I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” 
            In these words of the Messiah we have some of the deepest mysteries of our salvation.  Here we have the mystery of the incarnation that Jesus of Nazareth, God’s chosen servant, God in human flesh, was like us in every way except sin. 
He grew tired and hungry and thirsty.  He sighed at the lack of faith of his disciples.  He wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  He was heartbroken over the rejection of his kinsman and said “Jerusalem, Jerusalem how I longed to gather you to myself but you were not willing.”
He begged his heavenly Father to not drink the cup of his wrath on the cross but submitted himself to his will.  And he cried out as he died “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”
And yet, despite his sorrow over what sin and death has done to us, despite his yearning for a people who would in large measure reject him, despite his real fear at the horror of the cross and the wrath of his Father over our sins--he knew that he had become the source of eternal salvation to all who believe in him.  His heavenly Father said about him:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
            God loved his ancient people, Israel.  He would raise up a deliverer named Cyrus to bring them home and restore their fortunes.  But God wanted to bless them with more than just a land and a temple and a city.  He wanted to bless them eternally with salvation and forgiveness and peace and he wanted to do that for all the people of the world as well.
To do that God would need a different kind of deliverer than a king who could win a military victory. 
He would need a servant who would lay down his life for the world.  He would need his Son who would be holy and righteous in his sight.  He would need a sacrifice whose life and death would bring a world full of people back to God.
That is why Jesus Christ came into the world—to call God’s ancient people back to their rightful place in God’s family-- but also to be a light for the nations so that people throughout the world could also take their place in God’s family, including us here today.
God wants the Good News of salvation he provided in his servant Son to reach the end of the earth.  That is why we give to the work of the church—so that all people might hear of God’s salvation.  That is why we are willing to step out of our comfort zone and share the reason for our hope with those in our community who have no hope.
The salvation that is for the world-- and the hope that is for our community-- is not found in some tract or in some long, dry theological treatise. 
Salvation for the world and hope for our community is found in one little word:  tetelestai.  It is finished.  One little word that speaks forgiveness and peace and hope to a world in need.
My God grant us the courage to speak that one little word that has changed our lives for time and eternity.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Saturday, January 11, 2020

We Choose Life!


Deuteronomy 30:15-20 The words of our text were spoken by Moses to the children of the Israelites who came out of slavery in Egypt.  Their parents refused to believe that God would lead them into the Promised Land and so the older generation died in the wilderness. 
But now their children were poised to enter into the Promised Land and there was a choice before them just as there was before their parents.  Would they follow in the faithless footsteps of their parents- or- would they trust God and walk in his ways?  Moses said to them:  “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.
            On January 22nd, 1973 our nation and its highest court faced much the same kind of choice that the Israelites faced standing on the banks of the Jordan River.  Would they believe in the God of creation who gives life and walk in his ways- or would they deny him and go their own way?
They made their choice.  In a 7 to 2 majority vote, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the:  "right of privacy...is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” thereby legalizing abortion—choosing death and evil- over- life and good.
So that we understand what that “choice” really entailed, 650,000 abortions are performed each year in the United States---about fifty million aborted children since that fateful day forty-seven years ago. 
From this decision to choose “death and evil” over “life and good” has come a culture of death that embraces more and more people than just the unborn.  Those who are ill—those who are disabled—those who are elderly—those whose mere existence is an imposition to the lifestyle of others-- are increasingly looked upon as inconveniences to be gotten rid of by those more powerful than themselves. 
Just as the Israelites faced a choice as they entered into the Promised Land- and just as our nation faced a choice in 1973- we too face the same choice between “life and good” and “death and evil.”  Moses said:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
            It is important to remember that the choice before the Israelites was not whether or not to be saved-- or whether or not to be a part of God’s people—they were saved and they were God’s people.  God had chosen them to be his own.
So it is with us.  We have been saved by Jesus Christ.  We are God’s people.  God has chosen us in Christ to be his own precious possession.  The choice before us then, is the same as it was for the children of Israel:  What will our identity as God’s people mean for us in how we live our lives?  You see… 
There is an inseparable connection between:  believing in God—and how we live our lives.  Jesus said:  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  John said:  This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. 
The choice that was before the Israelites is exactly the choice that is before us:  Will we show that our faith and trust in God is real and living- by loving him and walking in his ways and keeping his commandments? 
To encourage us to make the right decision, Moses promises us that there are blessings that come from obedience. 
For the Israelites, these were blessings tied to the covenant that God made with them as a people at Sinai, blessings that were unique to them as a people—but are there are blessings for us too that come from walking in God’s ways. 
When we follow God’s counsel about marrying a fellow believer it adds a vital building block for a strong marriage.  When we follow God’s counsel and abstain from sexual sins we don’t have to worry about damaging our health.  When we follow God’s counsel and dress modestly people won’t get the wrong idea about us.
There are blessings that come from walking in God’s ways.  But the opposite is also true, that a life of disobedience leads to curse and death.  Moses said:
But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
            Just as there were specific covenant blessings if the Israelites followed in God’s ways-- so there were specific covenant curses for disobedience. 
The same principle applies to our nation too.  Having chosen death, there are curses.  Can anyone honestly say:  that we are a better people for having legalized abortion?  That we are more caring for those around us?  That life has become more precious?  That the moral fabric of our nation is stronger?  The fact of the matter is…
Just the opposite has happened!  In the last forty-seven years, the number of broken homes has risen dramatically.  Sexually transmitted diseases are epidemic.  Pornography is everywhere. 
And how can it not be so when a nation enshrines death in its laws as a moral right and legitimate good?
The same thing can happen in our personal life—there are unintended but real consequences to our sinful choices:  relationships are broken—opportunities are limited—life with God is undermined—for the truth of the matter is that when we go away from the Lord, we are moving towards a false god.
The Israelites were drawn to worship the Canaanite gods, which involved child sacrifice and sexual immorality as a part of their worship.  The idols in our day of autonomy and convenience and self lead to exactly the same sins of sexual immorality and the death of children in abortion. 
And because these idols appeal to our flesh too, we have to be on guard against them and walk in God’s ways of service and sacrifice to others, choosing life. 
There is a clearly seen division between those who love God and follow him and take upon themselves his values-- and those who worship and serve the false gods of this age—a clear division between life and blessing, death and curse.  Moses said:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.
            Over the last forty-seven years, 50 million children in this country have been legally killed by abortion.  We dare not, as Christian citizens of the United States, turn a blind eye to the destruction of life that has taken place in our nation.  We are not permitted to ignore it or pretend it is not happening.  You know it and so do I.
Heaven and earth bear witness to this tragedy and so must we.  We must make a solemn resolution that we will have no part in this culture of death—that we will choose life—not only for our sake-- but for the sake of those who follow us.  Moses said:
I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,
            One of the most painful things for us to realize is that there are consequences for the sinful choices we make, not only for ourselves but for the generation that follows us—consequences for our children.  That is certainly true when it comes to abortion. 
84 percent of women who get abortions are single.  In other words, they and their partners have engaged in sexual immorality and a child is conceived and then aborted in the name of convenience and freedom. 
Death is always the direction of sin unless there is a return to the Lord.  The Good News for us today is that we can return to the Lord—even those who have chosen the way of curse and death for themselves and their children.  Moses said:
Love the LORD your God, obey his voice and hold fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
God made an enduring promise to the children of Israel beginning with the Patriarchs:  that he would be their God and they would be his people and he would bring them into the Promised Land.  God kept that promise as he always does.
But there was even more to his promise.  He promised that he would send a Savior for all people—a deliverer who would change the direction of the world from death back to life --like God intended for all of us in the beginning.
Jesus Christ accomplished by his death and resurrection.  His shed blood paid for the sins of the world—all sins—including the sins of sexual immorality and abortion.  He took upon himself our broken lives to give us wholeness and peace.  And his resurrection from the dead is God’s guarantee that death will not be the last word about us--but life and blessing can come from even the darkest of days—for he himself is our life.
We are called by God to choose life and blessing over death and curse—to walk in his ways and be obedient to his commands.  We are called by God to take a stand against evil in this dark and dying world.
We are also called by God to make his voice heard—to let people around us know that they do not have to choose death and curse—but that there is a God who loves them with an everlasting love-- who holds out to them life and blessing in his Son Jesus Christ if they will only receive it in faith.
When we support Lutherans for Life- and when we are merciful to those who have sinned- and when we are welcoming to those who are struggling with critical life issues and need our support and encouragement—we show, in a powerful way, that we have in the LORD, a God who can be trusted to give life and blessing.  That is why we choose life!  Amen.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Jesus in His Father's House


Luke 2:40-52 The message of Christmas is that Jesus is Immanuel—God with us—and we say:  Of course!  We picture the baby Jesus lying in his manger, with a halo around his head and a kind of golden glow in the background and we wonder to ourselves why everyone doesn’t believe in Jesus.  But of course, that’s not how it was at all! 
Mary and Joseph were just two regular people-- and Jesus looked like every other boy born in that day.  It took the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the parents and the shepherds and the wise men to bring them to faith—just as it takes the same work of the Holy Spirit to bring us to faith.  After the angel choirs went back into heaven and the Wise Men returned to the east, things went back to normal for Mary and Joseph --and Jesus grew up just like every other boy his age. 
Except of course, he wasn’t like every other boy his age—he was God.  That is the witness of Holy Scripture.  That is the confession of the Church.  And that is what we believe.  But it is still a mystery that can only be known by faith.  Part of that mystery is laid bare before our eyes today as we see Jesus in the temple at the age of twelve—already at that young age doing his Father’s business.  Luke writes that:
The child [Jesus] grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 
            Mary and Joseph were pious and devout.  The regular cycle of synagogue and temple worship—of Sabbaths and festivals-- was faithfully observed.  This was certainly nothing extraordinary among believers of that day-- and it is only unusual to us because of the large number of people today who consider themselves believers and yet never really make worship a priority.  But Mary and Joseph were ordinary, pious believers.
            From the Baby of Bethlehem, Jesus grew into a young man of twelve.  Working in Joseph’s carpentry shop had made him strong and fit.  But Luke also says something remarkable:  that already at age twelve he was filled with wisdom.  I remember being twelve years old.  I was a pretty good kid and did well in school but I was certainly not wise.  Jesus was--and not just because he was smarter or more intuitive than other boys his age—but because the favor of God rested upon him.   
The hand of the Lord’s blessing was upon Jesus in a special and mighty way.  In many ways Jesus at twelve was ordinary—but he was also extraordinary. 
Children then were no different than children today.  Even good kids talked back every now and then or at least grumbled beneath their breath.  Even good kids had to be told twice to do something.  Even good kids did dumb things.  Jesus didn’t.  Ever!
When we consider the sins of our youth it is a comfort to know that Jesus’ perfect life as a child—perfectly avails in God’s sight as our own righteousness—in place of the mistakes of our younger days.
The Lord’s hand of favor and blessing rested upon him and he was already recognized as being wise at this young age.  This is important for us to remember as we hear what happens next.  Luke writes that:
When the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 
            It was customary in that day for religious pilgrims to travel together for safety and fellowship.  And so when the Passover was complete and Mary and Joseph were heading out of Jerusalem with their friends and family, if they saw Jesus head back into the crowd of pilgrims-- they would not have give it a second thought.
And when they stopped for that night-- they would have thought that he was with Aunt Elizabeth or Uncle Zechariah or playing with Cousin John. But when they couldn’t find him—well you can imagine how they must have felt.  As a parent I have a great deal of sympathy for Mary and Joseph.  But it’s not as if they had not been warned.  Simeon warned Mary that she would have heartache as the Messiah’s mother even if she did not expect it this soon. 
Twelve uneventful years passed between that prophecy and her frantic search.  Mary and Joseph hadn’t had forgotten about Jesus’ miraculous birth or angelic announcers or the visit from the wise men—but things had settled down to normal. 
And that’s Good News for us!  Jesus lived through and redeemed each part of our lives!  From his conception within the Virgin Mary to each stage of prenatal development—from his birth and childhood—to his death on the cross—Jesus lived each part of our human life—for us—perfectly re-making what sin has destroyed. 
The failures of our childhood—the burdens of family life—the monotony of day to day work—Jesus lived and redeemed by his perfect righteousness and obedience—the new Adam who got right-- what we so often get wrong.
At the beginning of the sermon we talked about how difficult it was for the people of Jesus’ day to see the extraordinary in his very ordinary life—how it took a Spirit-worked faith for them to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior just like it does for us.  That was even true for Mary and Joseph who were eyewitnesses to it all.  Luke writes that:
After three days they found Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 
            I can picture Mary recounting these events to Luke with a look of chagrin on her face.  “Three days!  What was I thinking?  We should have known where that boy was!  Where else would Jesus be BUT in the temple?  That is where he had to be!”
450 years before, Malachi closed out the Old Testament by promising that God himself would come to his temple.  And you can imagine what the people of Israel were expecting!  The Glory of the Lord—Mt. Sinai—Thunder and Lightening! 
But what they saw when God came to his temple was a baby being circumcised-- and a twelve year old boy asking and answering questions.  And yet Malachi was exactly right in his prophecy!  God was in his temple!  You see, that tension between what is seen and what has to be revealed is the mystery of the incarnation and it elicits amazement then and now.
The scene in the temple is ordinary.  This dialogue between rabbis and students is still a common feature of Jewish life.  But what is amazing, is the answers Jesus gave- and the questions he asked-- and the insights he had.  Wisdom from above! 
The Word which was from the beginning, the Word through which the world was created, the Word who spoke by the prophets-- had taken on flesh and blood and come to his temple to instruct those whose job it was to bear witness to him.  It was the beginning of Jesus being about his Father’s business.  Luke writes that: 
When his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress."  And he said to them, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"  And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 
            These are Jesus’ first recorded words.  His last recorded Words were:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” and these verbal bookends capture the whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry:  to do his Father’s will—to speak his father’s Words—to accomplish his Father’s saving mission.  Already at twelve, that single-minded, saving purpose is clearly seen in Jesus’ life and even if other had forgotten--he had not.
When Mary and Joseph caught up with Jesus they were astonished rather than angry and I think that moment was like a lightening bolt from heaven-- reminding Mary and Joseph as to who Jesus really was and what he had come to do.  We can see them in our mind’s eye watching from behind one of the pillars as the truth slowly sinks in.  Mary says, “Son, don’t you know how worried your father and I were”?  And Jesus answers her kindly but pointedly:  “I am here to do my Father’s business and you should know that.”
That single-minded devotion to our salvation was seen throughout his life.  It was there at his birth in the name he was given—Jesus—the Lord saves.  It was there at his circumcision where he fulfilled the law and shed his blood.  It was there at his baptism when he was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Savior.  It was there throughout his ministry as he healed the sick and raised the dead and set his face towards Jerusalem—to a rocky hill and cold tomb where our salvation would be won. 
This is the last biblical picture we have of our Lord’s life until he is baptized by John.  But we know what his life was like in the mean-time.  Luke writes that Jesus:
…went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
            Next Sunday we will see that the One who steps into the waters of the Jordan River to be anointed with the Spirit for his work as Messiah is no usurper of a position not his.  He is the Savior of the world and the only way that we can be reconciled to God. 
Mary knew that day what all the prophecies had meant—what Jesus had come to do—and she treasured it up in her heart.  The next time we hear from her will be at the wedding at Cana where she points the people to her Son and says:  Listen to him and do what he says!  I pray that God would grant us the same obedience of faith!  Amen.

The Word of the Lord Remains Forever