Wednesday, December 26, 2012

You Are Not the Christ

Fourth Sunday in Advent - Rorate Coeli - December 23rd, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches - Sidney and Fairview, MT
John 1:19-28 - You Are Not the Christ But You Confess the One Who Is  
Vicar Jason Toombs

“Are you the Christ?”  “Well, are you?”  “Who are you?”  This was the question that the religious leaders, the priests and the Levites, asked of John the Baptist.  This is also the question for you.  Are you the Christ?

“Are you the [Christ] the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  This was the question that John the Baptist wanted to know of Jesus.  This is also the question for you.  Are you the Christ?

If you are the Christ, show me that you are.  Do something miraculous.  Raise the dead.  Give life to the lifeless.  Do something. ...  Did you just do something? ... Did you shake your head no?  You did shake your head no.  You are not the Christ but you confess the one who is.

John the Baptist made the same confession.  He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”  He confessed that the greater one was in their midst.  John knows himself and knows who he is.  He knows he is the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  He knows he is the forerunner preparing the way of the Lord.  He knows he is not the Christ.  He didn’t think he is Elijah nor the Prophet.  He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”  He was the forerunner preparing the way for Jesus.  Even while preaching the imminent kingdom of God, even while baptizing for repentance and forgiveness, John clearly confessed: I am not the Christ. 

You are not the Christ.  You could not be the Christ.  The Christ was sent to redeem all Israel, all the people of God.  Were you sent to redeem others?  No.  You cannot even redeem yourself.  Nor would you want to be the Christ.  The Christ was sent to suffer and die.  You suffer throughout your life but it is nothing compared to Christ’s suffering.  On the cross Christ suffered the full weight of God’s wrath.  You are not the Christ.

John the Baptist is not the Christ.  Only Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.  The Christ was promised to redeem all Israel.  His task is to redeem, purchase, God’s chosen people from Satan.  Jesus came to redeem not just Israel but all people.  He came to redeem you.  He purchases you back from the grasp of the devil.  He comes to save you.

He did all of this for you.  And you confess Him as your Lord and Savior.  You confess that He was born of the Virgin Mary.  And you celebrate this fact on Tuesday.  As the rest of the world wakes up on Christmas morning to presents left by Santa Claus you celebrate your Lord’s incarnation, His coming in the flesh.  As the world wishes everyone “Happy Holidays!” you say “Merry Christmas!”  You say “Merry Christmas” because you know the reason for the season.  You know that your Lord and Savior was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem and this you confess.

You also confess that your Lord and Savior went to the cross to take away your sin, and not just your sin but the sin of the whole world.  You celebrate this fact on Good Friday but you also celebrate every day.  Every day you sin and this weighs you down.  You become burdened with the cares of this world.  Did I get the cards in the mail soon enough?  Are the presents going to arrive?  Did I invite everyone to the Christmas dinner?  Is the goose cooked?  As the world worries over these things, your eyes are drawn to the cross. 

The world looks at the cross and mocks you.  Your Lord died.  How can God die?  The world sees it as foolishness but you see something great there.  You see where your Lord became sin for you.  He took your sin upon Himself and gives you His holiness.  The sweet swap, the blessed exchange, where Jesus takes your sinfulness and gives you His holiness.  Foolish says the world, “nobody can die for another person. You have to pay your own way. There’s no such thing as a ‘free lunch.’”  But that’s what happened.  It had to happen because you and I could never pay our own way.  We owe too much to God.  We owe Him for every single sin that we have ever committed.  To pay for them we have to die.  Jesus steps in and does this for you.  Only Jesus could pay for the sins of others.  And on the cross Jesus paid for all sins.

And Jesus died for you.  He died in your place.  He paid the ultimate price.  He gave up His life for you.  And He invites you to walk along the way that leads to heaven.  And you rejoice in Him.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”  You rejoice in the fact that your Lord and Savior died for your sake.  You rejoice and confess that Jesus died for the sin of the world.

And you also confess that He didn’t stay dead.  He died on the cross and was buried in the tomb but it doesn’t end there.  He also rose victorious on the third day.  In His rising again He showed that death and the grave had no power over Him.  He has conquered them in fight, He has brought us life and light.  He has defeated death and the grave. 

It shouldn’t alarm us when a loved one dies.  It is sad when they die but it is no case for alarm.  You know that everyone who lives will one day die.  They are all infected with the sin of Adam, the sin which first brought death into the world.  Americans also know this from Ben Franklin, “in the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”  But it is alarming and saddening when a loved one dies.  We are alarmed, shocked, when they die.  We always thought there would be a little more time.  And we are sad; sad that they won’t be with us to celebrate the holidays.  We won’t see them across the dinner table on Christmas, they won’t be there at Easter.  This is especially true if they don’t know Christ.  We are saddened when we realize they won’t be with us in heaven.

But you have already died.  You have died to this world and its king, King Satan.  You have died and been brought to a new life, a better life.  You have been born again, born from above, with a new king, the King of Creation as your Father. 

You have Jesus as the one who gives this to you.  In your baptism you are buried with Christ and raised with Him.  You are raised to a new life, a triumphant life.  You live this new life with God as your King.  The Heavenly Father is your Father.  And He gives you life and light through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ.  Though the days are dark and dreary in Advent, the light is about to dawn.  Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come to be your light, come to be your Savior, come to be your all. 

God sent His Son Jesus Christ to earth to fulfill what He spoke to Moses.  Moses prophesied, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers--it is to him you shall listen.”  Jesus Christ is the Prophet, the greater one than Moses and John the Baptist.  Jesus Christ is God of God, Light of Light.  Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, born of the virgin Mary.  He is true-God and true-Man.  He is Emmanuel, the Wisdom from on high, the Lord of might, the Branch of Jesse’s tree, the Key of David, the Dayspring from on high, the Desire of the nations as we just sang.  He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One who came to redeem His people.  He came to redeem you.

You confess all of this about Jesus.  You rejoice in all that He has done for you.  Through prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving you let your requests be made known to God through Jesus.  You pray the prayer that He handed over to you.  You call God, Our Father.  You pray that His will be done.  You don’t pray for this little thing or to ask that He just does that thing.  We ask Him to do all things for our good.  We don’t just want one thing, and just need another, and just another.    No.  We need Him to work all things for our good.  His kingdom come, His will be done.  We need Him to give us everything that we need for this body and life.  And we need Him to give us everything for the life to come.  We need Him to bring us to Himself in heaven.

You confess that you are not the Christ but you boldly confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  You confess and rejoice that He is your Lord and Savior.  You confess that the babe born of Mary, laid in a manger, is your Lord.  You confess that Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and buried is your Lord.  You confess the risen Jesus as your Savior.  You confess and rejoice that you have a Lord and Savior that cares for you.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Doubting Christmas

The Third Sunday in Advent, December 16th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Doubting Christmas - Matthew 11:2-11

     John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas.  What about you? 

     John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas.  That is to say, this wild preacher with the watery pulpit, now dry-rotting in Herod’s jail, is doubting the Incarnation, which is a theological term you really want to know, because it means Christmas.   I remember it because I know ‘chili con carne’ is Spanish for chili with meat.  Other people remember it because in biology class they learned ‘carnivore’ means meat-eater.  Either way, the connection to meat is this: Incarnation means ‘en-flesh-ment,’ as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Incarnation refers to the fact that the eternal Son of God took on human flesh, being conceived in and born of the Virgin Mary.  So, in effect, Incarnation means Christmas. 

     But John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas, of the Incarnation.  John was not the first public preacher to proclaim that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God; angels, shepherds, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, quite a few people let the cat out of the bag before John.  Really good news is a hard thing to keep secret.  But decades had passed since Jesus’ birth, and He was unknown, again.  So God appointed John as the official herald, the forerunner, sent to prepare the people for and announce the arrival of God in the flesh, the Almighty, walking in our midst, Jesus of Nazareth, the long awaited Christ.  Indeed, as we do every Lord’s Supper, we’ll sing a paraphrase of the Baptizer’s most famous line in a few minutes:  O Christ Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world.  John said it first, pointing his bony finger at Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  Yes, John is a Christmas Evangelist, for the Good News of Christmas is that God’s Son has taken on human flesh, in order to take away the sin of us all.  John the Baptist was God’s chosen herald to announce the beginning of Jesus’ great work. 

     But now that Jesus has begun His work, John is doubting that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God.  Hearing reports of the deeds of Jesus, John sends a delegation of his disciples to ask:  "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?"  Despite his divine calling to announce that Jesus is the One who is to come, the Christ of God, John is now doubting the Good News of the Incarnation, doubting the Good News of Christmas.  What about you? 

     John has, at least in my way of thinking, some pretty good reasons to doubt the Good News of Christmas.  First of all, John is in prison, arrested by King Herod for insulting Herod’s wife, by condemning the royal couple’s adultery.  John had the temerity to point out they were living in sexual sin, because Herod had stolen his wife from his brother.  John can probably guess what his fate will be.    He will die for his unflinching condemnation of sin, die for not worrying who takes offense at the truth.  If I were John, called from before birth to be the of forerunner to God’s Savior, and then I was thrown into prison for being faithful to the Word of that same God, I might be bitter.  This is the thanks I get?  I might well doubt that this Jesus really is who I had said He was.   

     But this doesn’t seem to be John’s issue.  No, Matthew tells us John heard of the deeds of Jesus, and they prompted his question:  Are you the One, or not?  Apparently, something Jesus has been doing is confusing John.  What has Jesus been doing?  Well, immediately prior to our reading, Matthew reports how Jesus chose the twelve, and sent them out to preach.  Jesus seems to be building the foundation for a church, training His Apostles for ministry.  Maybe this confused John the Baptist.  If John expects the Kingdom of God is coming to its consummation and revelation right now, then why would Jesus start building a church?  What need does the Christ have for more preachers, if the new heavens and new earth are about to happen? 

     Jesus may have confused John’s expectations in other ways.  Since their last encounter, when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, Jesus has been teaching, and healing, doing many miracles, doing the kinds of things Jesus refers to in the answer He sends back to John:  Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." 

     John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas, that Jesus, Son of Mary, is also the Christ, the Son of God.  Perhaps John’s doubt, perhaps the budding offense that John is feeling has to do with his expectation that Jesus should be preaching hell-fire and damnation, wiping out the wicked, bringing the wrath of God, right now.  Instead, Jesus is just teaching, and helping people, people John full well knows don’t deserve the mercy they are receiving.  John might be doubting Christmas, because he expects the Christ to bring condemnation into the world. 

     Are you doubting the Good News of Christmas?  Perhaps you are not sure in your gut that this Christmas is going to be good.  The horrible murders in New Town Connecticut give me doubts.  I want to see God do something, to unleash His wrath against this wickedness, because we certainly need help.  We all feel a frustrated horror at the savagery committed at that school on Friday, and a longing for justice, even though we know justice will not bring back the dead.   

     Maybe there’s someone in your life whom you think God should punish, someone on whom you’d enjoy seeing some condemnation fall.  That certainly can ruin Christmas, whether your anger is just, or not.  If your anger is just, if you are truly suffering unjustly from a wicked person, without any guilt of your own in this matter, then indeed, like perhaps John the Baptist, you might be troubled, because Christmas seems to come for the wicked, just as much or more as for the good.  If, on the other hand, your anger is not so pure, then you’re really in a mess.  No doubt you see true wickedness in your enemy, but you also know the guilt and wickedness in yourself.  If you are caught up in a selfish squabble between two sinners, if your life is consumed with bitterness and anger, then no amount of Christmas tinsel is going to make your season bright. 

     I pray that your life is not consumed by anger and strife, for the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God.  But, while John was in a literal prison, there are many other prisons which might cause you to doubt the Good News of Christmas. 

     You might be trapped in your own selfishness and greed.  Maybe for you Christmas is all about you.  Maybe you’re held captive by material things, and you doubt that your family and friends will be giving you good enough gifts this year.  Or, you might be caught up in that hellish lie that says the main thing about Christmas is to give great gifts, extravagant toys.  Maybe you’ve fallen into the trap of trying to buy the love of your kids, family and friends, by maxing out your credit limit.  If Christmas creates a prison of debt you will have to spend all next year paying your way out of, all the while still wishing your family loved you more, well, then the Good News of Christmas may not be very believable to you. 

     We’ve had a little bit of sunshine recently, but the season of light might be a bad joke to you, if the physical darkness of December is your jail, all those short, cold, gray days driving you into depression.  Or the season of joy may seem just a big lie, if diseases like cancer, diabetes, arthritis, or simply the ravages of old age, fill your days and nights with pain.  Perhaps you’re a caregiver for someone, a loved one, whose body is failing.  Their decline saps your strength, and, (dare we say it out loud?), makes you doubt the goodness of God.  Another pre-Christmas prison.  Another reason to doubt the Good News of Christmas. 

     John is doubting the Good News of Christmas, the Good News of the Incarnation.  You too, perhaps, doubt the Good News of Christmas.  What’s the solution for our doubt?  The Word of Jesus, of course, for only He can drive out our doubts.  Jesus sends back a message to John in prison, a message that comes from the prophet Isaiah, who centuries before foretold that the Messiah, the Christ of God, would come and give sight to the blind, healing to the leper and the cripple, life to the dead, and would preach good news to the poor.  And, Jesus reminds us, the Christ is also the one at whom we may take offense. 

     Jesus offends, because He doesn’t meet any of our expectations.  But our expectations are wrong, wrong because we are all sinners, wrong because we suffer in this fallen world.  When John, suffering in prison, asked his question, Jesus was just about to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, the new heavens and the new earth.  He was just about to unleash the wrath of God on earth, destroying all the wickedness of man.  And He was just about to preach Good News to all people.  But the way Jesus did all of these, all at once, gives great offense.  His greatest work, His greatest miracle offends our sinful pride.  It is so offensive that we are always trying to remove it from the Christmas story. 

     The offense of Christmas is always the thing we are trying to remove, whether that is by replacing Jesus Christ with Kris Kringle, or replacing Church with family gatherings, or replacing our need to simply repent and confess our sins with promises that next year I’m going to be a better person.  And sometimes we avoid the offense of Christmas by removing the middle stanza of “What Child Is This?”  But this common omission  does help us clearly understand exactly what the offense of Christmas is.  

     More often than not, hymnals and recordings skip over the offensive middle stanza of our Hymn of the Day, because who wants to deal with nails and spears and crosses, at Christmas time?  In the first stanza we sing of a miraculous birth, and the joy of the angels and shepherds, nothing offensive in those.  From the third stanza we hear a call to bring Him gifts, like the Magi did.  Are we offended by this origin of our Christmas giving?  Not at all.  This little child brings salvation?  O.k., whatever that means, fine.  And of course, Mary sings a lullaby, how sweet. 

     But that second stanza:  Good Christian fear, because the newborn, silent Word of God made flesh is lying in a cattle feed trough, pleading for sinners.  Nails, spear, cross, such is the future of this little baby.  Do we really have to sing that, at Christmas?  Why? 

     Because the Cross is the Good News of Christmas.  Without the offense of the Cross, where Jesus died for you and me, to take away our sins, without this particular offense, Christmas is just an empty spectacle, a midwinter excuse to eat and drink and pretend that there isn’t anything terribly wrong in our lives. 

     But with the Cross, Christmas is Good News indeed, for in it we discover the Incarnation is everything.  All our prison walls are blown apart, for the wrath of God has fallen, but not on us.  We deserve it, but by God’s mercy, the wrath of God has fallen upon the flesh of Jesus, where it has been swallowed up, and extinguished.  For all those covered by His forgiving blood, God now has only love and blessing. 

     Pain and sickness and anger and sin still plague our earthly bodies, still plague our minds and souls, but in the flesh of Christ, the new heavens and the new earth are already complete, and are beginning to be revealed, to the eyes of faith.  The Cross of Christ always brings the Resurrection, and in the Resurrected Christ we see what we will become, when our lowly, sickly, dying bodies are transformed to be like His heavenly body.  Good News, indeed. 

      Violent men still kill innocent people, but for all who trust in Jesus, not even death can rob our joy, our victory.  We may be offended that a baby was born to die, but thanks to Jesus, death has been swallowed up in victory.  Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death, and all the sufferings, of His saints, of His people, declared to be holy by the forgiveness of sins.  For the sufferings and death of Christians show their fellowship with Jesus, and the Lord promises to bring you and all who trust in Him through all suffering and death, into His eternal health and joy. 

     Through the Word of God, sent to John in prison, sent to you today, Christ speaks words of comfort, comfort enough for all people.  Through the Word of Christ, sent to your ears, and sent even to your mouth, at this altar, the flesh and blood Jesus, the Incarnate Christ, comes to you, forgiving you, restoring you, and reminding you that He has made you a child of heaven. 

     Good News, Christmas is coming.  Joy to the world, and joy to you, in Christ Jesus, your Incarnate Savior, today, and forever and ever, Amen.