Sunday, December 29, 2013

The First Born

First Sunday after Christmas, December 29th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John  and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The First Born – Luke 2:22-40 and Exodus 13

     Sitting around after dinner the other night, we were discussing the life and progress of various kids with whom Jeremy and Madeline went to school.  Concerning one schoolmate, Madeline remarked how she needed to get over her “youngest child” personality…  “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”  As the youngest of five siblings in my family, I took offense at Madeline’s suggestion that there’s something generally flawed or difficult about the personality of youngest children.  “And don’t forget you’re a youngest child too, Madeline” I added.  Shelee remarked that it didn’t count if there’s only two kids.  At the time, I thought Shelee was trying to smooth things over, but since she is an oldest child, also with a brother as the youngest in her family, I’m just now beginning to realize that she might have been adding a dig at youngest children, for my benefit.  I can’t win.    

     Well, I’m only too happy to defend the cause of misunderstood youngest children everywhere, but there are probably some traits that show up more often in children based on their order of birth.  However that may be, in Biblical terms, it is the first born, not the last born, that garner the most attention.  You and I can protest all we want about the equality of children, male or female, oldest, middle or youngest, but in the Bible there does seems to be something special and important about first-born sons.     

     Our Gospel reading this morning takes us to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after the birth of Jesus, as Mary and Joseph fulfill the Law of Moses by bringing the appropriate sacrifice to redeem Mary’s first born son.  The story of Jesus quickly moves from the glorious and idyllic Bethlehem scene to topics serious and opaque.  Just about everything in the sacrificial system of Israel would be very strange to us today, and surely this requirement to redeem first born sons, to buy them back from the Lord, is very difficult to understand.  This sacrifice to redeem children isn’t required for second born sons, or for daughters at all.  Why is that?  Indeed, when God gave Moses this command, He foresaw the questions it would generate, going so far as to tell Israelite parents how to explain this law to their children when they inevitably ask: What does this mean?      

     The root of this command is found in the Passover, that awful and awesome night, when the Lord’s Angel of Death struck down all the first-born sons of Egypt, the final plague, required by Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, the final blow that caused the Egyptian king to let God’s people go, to allow the Israelites, whom he had enslaved, to go free, to leave Egypt and return to their Promised Land.  Every first-born male, of man and beast, died that night, unless the doorway of the household was marked with blood from a sacrificial lamb, sacrificed and eaten according to the Lord’s instructions.  When he saw the blood of the lamb, the Angel of Death passed over that house, sparing the first born.  But for the unmarked houses, a tragic night.  Truly, the death of all the first born of Egypt is a terrible story, a frightening act, from which springs the freedom of God’s people.  Freedom from bondage to Pharaoh came at a price. 

     So, to remember what the Lord did to free His people, Moses commanded the redemption of first born males, because the first born, God declared, is Mine.  The Almighty, the One who put men and women on this earth to fill it with babies, announces a special claim on first born sons.  They are Mine.  Of course, everything belongs to the Lord, the earth, the heavens, and all who dwell therein, but God exercises a special prerogative, a special concern for first born sons. 

     Following the night of the Passover, and even before, first born sons have also been especially important to many people.  Rightly or wrongly, fathers seem to quite naturally look to their first son as their heir.  Patterns change from time to time and culture to culture, but in general, this preference for first born sons holds true.  However, Biblically, concerning the human families that God chose to work through, the pattern is inconsistent, and offers a caution that we ought not invest too much in the special status and privilege of our first born.  After all, the sons that the Lord chose to work through as He executed His plan of salvation were often not the first born.  Cain was a disappointment, while younger brother Abel was favored.  Jacob was chosen over his older twin Esau.  Judah was prophesied to rule over Israel, not Reuben.  And of course, there’s my favorite, little David, forgotten little David, out tending the flock, the 8th and youngest son of Jesse, chosen by the Lord to be King of Israel, a man after the Lord’s own heart.  And then, of course, if you consider which people were most faithful, most of them are women, like Ruth, and Hannah, like Elizabeth, and Mary. 

     So, as you and I go about our earthly lives, we’d probably be best served if we don’t try to impose rules about first born sons and such, but rather love all our children and help them all grow into faithful adults.  But, there definitely does seem to something about the first born with God.  Or maybe it would be better to say that there is something about the first born,  within God. 

     New parents feel a special, unique bond with their firstborn child, because at that moment, the first born is the only born.  Until there is a second child, all the parental love gets to be poured out on just the one child, the first and only born, at least for now.  Well, the same goes for God, not temporarily, but eternally.  Of course, the proper verb is not ‘born’, but ‘begotten.’  That is, forever and ever there has been a first Son of God the Father, the only begotten Son, the eternal Son of the Eternal Father, who, with the Holy Spirit, is the One True God.   

     Like every other good thing in our lives, all of our family relationships are derivative, reflecting in their rightness some facet of God’s goodness.  All of our family relationships reflect some fraction of the image of God, the image in which we were created, the image that was once unbroken.  You and I have never experienced the unbroken image of God, but we are nevertheless properly said to made in it.  And even though it is ruined by our sin, there remains some good that we can see and strive toward, even if imperfectly.  And so what we know as good about the love between husband and wife, or between parent and child, or between brothers and sisters, all of these are good because originally they were gifted to us as part of our image of God inheritance.  We are made for relationship, we are made in families, because God is a relationship.  The Father and the Only Son, along with the Holy Spirit, this is like a Divine Family relationship, from which every human family relationship springs.   

     And, at Christmas, we celebrate the remarkable good news that the Only Begotten Son of the Father has also become a first born son, the first born son of Mary, the first, and only time, that God became a man, the first child born without the sin that our first parents brought into our relationship with God, the Only Begotten and now also First Born Son, come to give new birth to dying sinners.   

     Indeed, Jesus is the First Born, come to save the ill born, come to die in our place, that our deaths might not be eternal.  Jesus is the First Born, in His grace and mercy joining us in every stage of our lives, from baby in the womb to new born to child to adult to dying man, joining us in every stage of life, in order to redeem every stage of our lives. 

     Jesus is the First Born, the good Big Brother, taking full responsibility for His brothers and sisters, taking the blame for our messes, cleaning up and fixing all that we have ruined.  Jesus is the First Born, giving up all His big brother privileges, giving up His pride of place and the favor of His Father, His, giving it all up, even for brothers and sisters who wanted nothing to do with Him. 

     Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of God become the First Born Son of the Virgin Mary, comes, paying what the law demands, even though He alone among all humanity could honestly claim an exemption from the rules.  No special treatment requested, no requirement overlooked, the infant Jesus goes to His own temple, as His adopted father pays the redemption price for the first born male to open the womb.  The Lord of eternity comes to His own altar, an altar that served to foreshadow the  ultimate place of sacrifice, the Cross.  The First Born would go even to that altar, the altar of eternity, to pay the full redemption price, not for Himself, but for all His brothers and sisters.  Jesus called down the Angel of Death on Himself, the First Born suffering unthinkable wrath on that cross-shaped altar, a frightening act, from which springs the eternal freedom of God’s people.  Indeed, the redemption of God’s people from their bondage to sin came at a price.    

     That price, the price of your freedom, has been paid in full.  You are redeemed.  And even more, new life is yours.  For now, Jesus, risen from the dead, the conqueror of sin and death, is in another way the First Born, the First Born from the Dead, leading the way to heaven for all who trust in Him alone.  Jesus gives new life, a new inheritance, a new name and the promise of the Resurrection, to all His newborn brothers and sisters, giving these gifts by the power of His Word and Spirit.  Jesus gives these gifts by the new birth of Baptism, where the blood of the Lamb first marked you, where the Father declared you to be His Son and heir, by your union to Christ.  Jesus feeds His brothers and sisters at the family dinner table that is the Lord’s Supper.  Here the children of God are fed with His Body and Blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all our sins, a reminder to you that you are bought and paid for.  In all these gracious things, the Lord declares over you:  “This one is Mine.”

     Because of the way we sin against each other, the idea of the First Born, or anyone else in the family being favored is perhaps hard for us to take.  Anytime a sinner receives a special status, we all know that the abuse of that status is not long in coming.  Such is the way of this fallen world, a way we do our best to resist, but cannot escape.  But however a brother or sister or parent or husband or wife may have failed you, or however you may have failed those you are called to love most, whatever family failures you know,  do not deny the special status of the First Born, that is, the Only Begotten and First Born Son of God.  For in Him, in Christ Jesus the First Born, we have all received the adoption as sons.  In Christ you are sons and daughters of the King.  All the privileges of being a favorite child of God are yours, forever and ever, Amen.  

Monday, December 23, 2013

War and Peace

Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22nd, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
War and  Peace – Philippians 4:4-7

War and Peace.  I’ve titled this sermon War and Peace.  Sounds like it could be a long one. 

     Why I’ve chosen ‘peace’ is fairly easy to understand, as we heard a very well used passage from Paul this morning:  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Peace from God, which surpasses all understanding, this is most worthy of our consideration every morning, and especially this morning, as we are just a few days from the song of the angels, sung on the night of Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”  Peace from God in the birth of Jesus, the peace that passes all understanding, which will even guard you.  Nice.

     Peace is an easy choice for a theme this morning.  But why choose ‘War?’  What kind of a theme is that, for this time of year?  What reasons might I have, or you have, to consider war, on this last Sunday before Christmas? 

     Well, we would maybe like to forget it, but our country is still involved in a shooting war, in  Afghanistan, a perpetually war-torn place, a place where it is dangerous simply to be a Christian.  We are indeed blessed not to live in such a place, of which there are far too many around the globe.  But nevertheless, many people deal daily with the worries of having a son or daughter or husband or father in a war zone. 

     And then there’s our culture war, skirmishes blowing up into battles this time of year, such as the current Duck Dynasty kerfuffle.   You have probably heard about Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family, and the histrionic reaction Hollywood and the media gave to his very honest response to a question about his Christian faith.  Phil spoke plainly and directly and perhaps a little coarsely, although he did stick to proper anatomical terms.  Nevertheless, the unabashed condemnation of sin by this long-bearded duck call maker caused a firestorm in Hollywood and the media.  Phil has never hidden his Christian faith, and much of what he said was simply a quote from the Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians.  But there’s a battle raging, and soon Phil’s employer, A&E television, suspended him.  The family responded by plainly stating none of them could do the show, the most popular show on cable, without their patriarch.  Culture war. 

     Less noticed in the news, but much closer to home for us, there has been a bit of a dust-up these past few days as local Thrivent Chapters in Minnesota, North and South Dakota approved Thrivent Choice benevolence dollars to be directed to Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion business in America.  In case you don’t know, Thrivent Financial just recently changed their name from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which was formed from the merger of two other insurance companies, Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood.  Thrivent has dropped the Lutheran designation, but still claims to be an organization dedicated to serving the financial needs of Christians.  And last week they decided to allow some of their profits to go to pay for abortions. 

     This cuts pretty close to home, because all of us were in the womb once.  Most of us have also had significant dealings with Thrivent or its preceding companies.  My baptismal pin, that I wear all the time, was a gift from Lutheran Brotherhood.  Many of us have investments or insurance with Thrivent.  Many of you have served on various local member committees.  And now they want to take the profits they make with member’s money and allow some of it to go towards killing unborn children. 

     Well, along with people from Synod in St. Louis, President Forke, and a number of other district pastors and laypeople, picked up the phone to find out what was going on.  Sensing a problem, the national office convinced the local chapter to rescind their Planned Parenthood approval.  But they also decided to suspend all giving to both pro-choice and pro-life organizations, since the issue is so divisive.  In an open letter to Thrivent, Synodical President Harrison on Friday noted that the LCMS itself is a pro-life non-profit, so I doubt that Thrivent’s attempt to smooth over the controversy has succeeded.  Indeed, I ordered myself a new generic 2014 Calendar from Amazon on Friday.  Ever since seminary I have relied on the pastor’s desk calendar Thrivent has given out each year.  But I don’t have the stomach to advertise for them anymore, at least not until the people there figure out that God loves life, from womb to tomb, so much so, that the Son of God became an embryo.

     There is indeed a war in our culture, a war largely driven by those who reject the Bible and want to curtail, limit, and silence Christians, and even force us to do things against our confession, to force us to obey men, rather than God. 

     But these are hardly the only wars we face, maybe not even the wars that you fear most.  There are the wars that we fight with the people we love the most, strife in marriages, and between parents and children, and between brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors.  There are the wars we fight with ourselves, wars against substance abuse and depression and pornography and gambling, and the worship of material wealth, wars that all too often seem to turn for the worst during this season that is supposed to be most joyful.

     Doesn’t seem very Christmasy, does it?  It all makes it pretty hard to take seriously what Paul tells us to do:  Rejoice always.  Doesn’t Paul know how hard so many things are?  It makes me think of that sad line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Christmas Bells, written in 1863, during the Civil War, a poem now better known as the Christmas Carol, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  Longfellow, despairing at the wounding of his son, and the death of his wife, and the destruction of that terrible war, sank very low that Christmas, and he wrote these lines: 
            And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said;
            "For hate is strong, And mocks the song, Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

     There is a war on.  It seems there always is.  What are we to do?  Shall we fight?  Certainly I was glad for the quick response of Presidents Forke and Harrison to the actions of Thrivent, which at least have made everyone aware of the issue.  And the internet uprising in support of the Duck Dynasty star seems good, too.  What’s more, in last week’s sermon I spoke of the trend of stealing baby Jesus figures from Nativity scenes, and then yesterday I learned a company in D.C. is giving away GPS trackers to churches, to help them protect their displays from theft, by letting them know if Baby Jesus suddenly starts to move. 

     Certainly there seems to be a place for fighting back.  And yet, that doesn’t seem very promising, as if we are going to win the fight against the way of the world.  Certainly the cultural trends seem to all be against traditional Christianity.  If you study history, you’ll find they almost always are.  And fighting is hardly what you and I want to be doing as we gather with family and Church at Christmas.     

     Perhaps we should withdraw, retreat from the world and just try to maintain a way of life for ourselves, separate and insulated.  Could we find peace there?  Well, besides the historical note that both Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood were founded somewhat along this line of thinking, there are at least two other problems with this idea. 

     The first problem is that God has not called us to withdraw from the world.  Christians are not to be of the world, that is, we are called to live differently, to build our lives around God’s Word.  But we are also to be in the world, for the sake of the world, for the sake of preaching the Gospel.  Remember, God in Christ crucified has loved the world, not just the Church, and we are called to proclaim that message, because God through the message preached seeks to convert, to save, more and more sinners. 

     The second problem with withdrawing to try to find peace is that we will bring the war with us.  We can rail and complain about how the world is always working against God and His Church.  But each one of us Christians in this world is still a sinner, still resisting God’s Way, even as we seek His Way, still causing strife and discord, even as we seek to live as we are called.  Most of the problems faced by the Church and Christians are not caused by enemies on the outside, but rather by sin on the inside.  So withdrawing to find peace is both contrary to God’s Mission, and also will not work. 

     No, our most important response to the wars we face is not to be found in fighting, or in withdrawing, but rather, the answer is in the Lord.   Paul’s call to rejoice is not some formless, wishful thinking kind of exhortation, not some Biblical “Don’t worry, be happy.”  No, Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  Rejoice in the Lord, that is to say, dig deeply into the wonder of the Lord who came to save, who comes to forgive, who became a human in order to give His life for the peace of the world.  And not just for the peace of the world, Jesus gave His life AS the peace of the world.  For the forgiveness of sins and the peace that only forgiveness can bring are literally found in the flesh and blood Jesus.  He is our peace.

     All the culture wars, all the shooting wars, all the personal wars every family faces, all of these things are but symptoms of the real war, the fundamental problem that is at the root of every other problem we face:  mankind, every man, woman and child descended from Adam, is by nature at war with God, and He with us.  The whole point of Christmas is God’s Son coming to bring an end to that war, the eternally losing war that mankind declares against God every time we sin.  Christ did not end that war by calling a ceasefire, but rather by calling down all the firepower of God, against Himself, on the Cross.  All of God’s wrath against sin has been expended, on Jesus, so all those who are by faith joined to Him are forgiven, counted righteous and holy, because of Jesus.  He is our peace.     

     This is why the readings of Advent take us so far from Bethlehem.  The best way to prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ is to understand exactly who He is, God in the flesh, and why He came, to save us from our sins.  And so in the weeks prior to Christmas we hear from Moses, and John the Baptist, and we hear of Christ coming again, to put a final end to all wars, forever.  Rejoicing at Christmas does not depend on lights or trees or toys or great food; these are but adornments to true joy.  For true rejoicing that brings lasting peace depends on hearing and believing who Jesus is, and receiving the gifts He has won for you, forgiveness, life and salvation, delivered to you through Word, Water, Wheat and Wine.     

Longfellow reached a deep, dark place in his Christmas Bells poem, but he ends on peace. 
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."

     I wish he would have said a little more.  Longfellow is right, and his words are filled with hope, if you know how to fill in the blanks.  But the world, and each one of us, needs to hear the blanks filled in.  The deeper pealing of the Christmas bells is very specific.  Wrong fails in what appears to be its greatest victory, the death of Jesus.  And Right prevails in His resurrection.  This is the promise of Christmas, and this is the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, and will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  A Merry Christmas, indeed, Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fear and Rage, or Wonder and Rejoicing?

The Third Sunday in Advent, December 15th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana

Fear and rage, or wonder and rejoicing? 

     ‘Baby Jesuses Stolen from Manger Scenes’  In standard sensationalist Drudge Report style, the headline on my computer intended to provoke a reaction.  I felt discomfort with the awkward word that results when we try to make a plural out of ‘Jesus.’ Nevertheless, the desired reaction was achieve;  I clicked to see the report of this most recent assault on Christmas.  But I never got to the tab the article opened in, other Advent busy-ness drawing me away.  Still, the headline stuck in my memory.  So, even though it had dropped off into the oblivion of yesterday’s shocking news, I googled ‘Baby Jesuses Stolen’ to find the article.  A click of my mouse revealed that stealing Baby Jesuses from manger scenes is not really news.  Two different homes in the Pittsburgh area did have their Baby Jesus figures stolen from their Nativity scenes last week, but as I glanced through the first page of the 285 million results Google found, I realized that Baby Jesus gets stolen every year. 

     I don’t know why.  Perhaps drunkenness and being a moron motivates some Baby Jesus thieves.  Mindless, pseudo-rebellious cruelty and destructiveness certainly are a recurring bane of young male adulthood in America.  Or maybe it is what Drudge wants to suggest, spiteful hatred of Christianity.  Certainly of all the symbolic displays of Christianity in the world today, manger scenes are high on the list of most controversial.  Crosses are the stuff of tattoos and extravagant jewelry worn to the wildest parties.  The meaning of historic symbols for the Holy Trinity or the names of God, like those on the Chrismons on our Christmas Tree, are lost on most Church-goers, let alone the general public.  I wear my baptismal pin almost every day, and most people think I have a dime magically clinging to my shirt.  But put a manger scene in the wrong place, and lawyers-united-for-a-godless-holiday will descend with howls, celebrity spokesmen in tow, threatening to sue the stuffing out of anyone with the temerity to “force their religion down our throats.” 

     Unbelievers seem particularly offended, scandalized even, by depictions of angels and shepherds and a young mother, worshipfully kneeling around Baby Jesus in the manger.  The story of Bethlehem creates wonder and joy in you, but the world rages, and seems afraid, like somehow the Nativity Scene might reach out and attack them.    
     And yet, sometimes I think the unbelievers get it, better than many Christians.  I think sometimes  unbelievers are scandalized by manger scenes because they understand precisely what they are, declarations that a baby born in Bethlehem two millennia ago was and is the Lord God Almighty, entered into human flesh in order to be the crucified Savior of sinners.  Behold your God, proclaims the manger.  I think sometimes that unbelievers resist public displays of Mary, Joseph and the Baby so strenuously because they are truly offended by these confessions of the Incarnation, these confessions of God in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, which are a judgment on their unbelief. 

     When unbelievers take this kind of offense at the Baby Jesus, they are, in the midst of their fear and rage, at least understanding what the true Church says about Christmas.  Indeed, they are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven, because Jesus must offend you, and judge you, if you are to be saved. 

     Jesus is always a judgment.  The infant Jesus is of course a judgment on those who claim a woman has a right to abort her child at any time during pregnancy.  For if God became an embryo, and the manger scene, along with the rest of Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives, loudly declare that He did, then God becoming an embryo declares that certainly life begins at conception, and is to be highly, highly valued.  I mean, what more importance could God give to the unborn, than to join them in the womb?  So Jesus in the manger is a judgment on the lies of the abortion industry, as well as the lies of those who find abortion distasteful, but support it because they really just want a license to be promiscuous, to sleep with whomever they want, whenever they want.  Abortion is, supposedly, a way to have sex without any of the consequences.  That’s pretty funny, imagining that we can avoid the consequences God has attached to abusing His gift, the gift God gave for the purposes of filling the earth with babies.  It doesn’t work, God’s consequences can’t be avoided.  And the consequences of abortion are profound, and heartbreaking, but people like to pretend.    

      But Baby Jesus is not just a judgment on the pro-abortion crowd.  He judges all of us, does He not?  Nails, spears, shall pierce Him through, the Cross, be borne for me, for you.  Beautiful verse, seen through the joy of the Resurrection, but a judgment too.  This Baby was born to die, in my place, for my sins.  Because I am guilty. 

     Jesus is always a judgment.  Even Miracle Worker Jesus, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, giving strength and vitality to the legs of the crippled, He too, judges.  Miracle Worker Jesus makes a delayed judgment, because all those people He healed got sick again.  For all the joy of healing, death and decay still surround us.  Just go ask the folks over at Extended Care, if you dare.  The frequency of faith is quite high in those rooms, but so is the bitter struggle of sickness and age, and the knowledge that no one escapes from the death which is part of God’s judgment on human sin.

     Among those born of women there has arisen no one with a clearer understanding of God’s righteous judgment than John the Baptist.  John came to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus, God in the flesh, born of Mary, come to fulfill God‘s judgment.  John as the Lord’s prophet understands sin, and God’s just wrath against sin.  “You brood of vipers,” John preached, “who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”  John is a preacher of forgiveness ultimately, but he expects wrath first, and so Jesus, miracle-working Jesus, good news-preaching Jesus, confuses him.  From prison John sends a question:  “Are you the One, the Coming One, the Lord coming to judge and bring in the new Kingdom of God?  Or should we look for another, since you don’t really seem to be very much of a judge?” 

     John the Baptist understands the rage and anger of the world against the Lord and His prophets.  This fear driven anger and hatred toward God and His way is what has landed John in prison, and will eventually cost him his head.  So, now that the Lord has come into human flesh, John fully expects Him to return rage for rage, to fulfill the fear of the wicked, to finally, once and for all, pour out His judgment on sinful humanity.  But as he hears of Jesus healing the sick and preaching good news, bringing wonder and joy to the downtrodden, John doubts. 

     Jesus reassures John, in the best way possible, by preaching the Gospel, preaching good news to him.  You remember, don’t you John, what Isaiah said about the Messiah, the Christ of God,?  “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."   Don’t be offended, John, don’t be scandalized by what you see as a lack of judgment.  All things, in due time.  I, the Lord, am judge, of all, and judgment will come.  Trust me. 

     John was the greatest ever born of women, but the least of those in the kingdom of heaven are greater than John.  That is to say, of those born on earth, descendents of Adam and Even, born under the law, bound by their sin to dread the judgment of God, no one understood it better, no one preached it more clearly, than John.  But the very least of those born from above, the very least of those made new by faith and the Holy Spirit and Holy Baptism, they are greater than John born of a woman, for all those born from above are set free from sin, and the law, and judgment. 

    And so, we rejoice.  We rejoice, because, like Paul, now, after the Cross and Resurrection, now we understand how it can be the very best news that “the Lord is my judge.”   “No one on earth can judge me, I don’t even judge myself, and no earthly judging matters,” rejoices Paul, “because the Lord is my judge.”  That is to say, the Lord, Jesus Christ came to Paul on the road to Damascus, displaying His victorious, glorious, dazzling, scar-bearing body, and suddenly Paul understood what John could not quite yet understand from prison.  Jesus is our judge, and since He has borne our judgment in His own body, His verdict on you is “Not guilty.”  Innocent.  Pure.  Just, righteous, holy.  However you want to describe it, Jesus, for the joy of having you for His very own, has done the work and paid the price and endured the agony, of your judgment.  Judgment was indeed coming, as John doubted in prison and Jesus wandered the countryside, healing and evangelizing, comforting and restoring.  Judgment was coming, for nails and spear would pierce Him through, the Cross be borne for me for you.  Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe the Son of Mary.  Rejoice, for He is your judge, the greatest and mightiest wonder of all.

     Confess your sins.  Confess your guilt.  Do not try to hang on to your own righteousness, because the life and deeds we naturally think are righteous are not.  Whatever you have done or failed to do, confess your personal unrighteousness, and rejoice in wonderment, that God in Christ would exchange your guilt for Jesus’ righteousness, God taking your sins away, and giving you Jesus in return.  No matter that you are sinful from conception and so have lived under God’s judgment from your very beginning.  No matter that your sinfulness has been manifest in so many failures.  Sins large and small, from laziness to abortion and adultery, drug abuse, cruelty, greed, even self-righteous pride, all of these should disqualify you and me from the Kingdom of Heaven, and apart from Jesus they will.  But the Lord Jesus is our judge, the only judge who can declare us not guilty.  And He has.  And He does, again today, gathering us together to forgive us again, even feeding us with His righteousness, given through the Body and the Blood. 

     The world will always rage and fear over manger scenes.  The likelihood is great that our freedom to display them in America will continue to erode.  But in whatever ways the Lord allows us, through Nativity Scenes and church services, through sermons, or conversations with a neighbor, or bedtime stories with a child, however we are able, let us pray the Lord to give us the boldness to proclaim Jesus, God in the flesh, knowing full well the reaction we will get.  We can handle the world’s angry judgment, because the wonderful truth is the Lord Jesus is our judge, and nothing else matters. 

     And also remember this:  In His timing, in the midst of the rage and fear, the Lord will be opening eyes and hearts, creating faith and turning enemies into new brothers and sisters in Christ.  Rejoice in this too, for there is nothing better on this earth than to be present at the new birth of a new child of God. 

      God in the Babe of Bethlehem reveals His judgment, of forgiveness and life, and we rejoice in wonder.  A Merry Christmas indeed.  Amen.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christian Education – Educating for What?

Second Sunday in Advent, Mission Sunday, December 8th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Christian Education – Educating for What? 
     This morning we, both St. John and Trinity, are celebrating Mission Sundays, considering the Word of God before us with particular Christian Education efforts in mind, for St. John, Martin Luther School of Bismarck, and for Trinity, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  So we are covering each chronological end of the educational spectrum, from kindergarten and elementary school, the beginning of formal education, through Seminary, where men are taught towards serving in the Office of the Ministry.  Both of these educational institutions are committed to working within a Lutheran ethos, God’s Law and Gospel, His Holy Word, reigning supreme in what they say and do.  These are both worthy causes for us to be supporting. 

     But as we support Christian Education with our money and prayers, it would be a good thing to know the purpose of Christian Education, why we do it, and what we should expect from it.  Knowing the purpose is good for us, as we consider our own Christian Education efforts, and our personal involvement, as well as for considering what schools we should support, and how we might hold them accountable. 

     It’s always good to consider the why of education, Christian or otherwise, so that we can then take a look at how it’s going.  Why do we  teach anybody anything?  Why do we teach a baby to eat with a fork, and teach toddlers to share?  Why do our public schools exist, and what should their goals be?  What is the goal for parents when they choose to home school?  What are the goals of our educational efforts, and the measurements for their success?  Who has the authority to determine these things?       You might think the answers are obvious, but these days the why and what of public education is highly controversial.  Thankfully, that’s not our question this morning.  But we will consider the goals and means and measurement of Christian Education. 

     Now to be sure, Christian Education has some earthly elements mixed in.  If you want to study the Word of God, which was recorded in Hebrew and Greek, then to do your best you will eventually need to consult some worldly scholars.  God has chosen to use earthly languages to communicate with us, and of course the Church speaks in the languages of the world, because Christians do, and also because the Church is always seeking to speak her message to the world.  So, there is no purely spiritual, Biblical education, without any interaction with the world.  And very much today, both in the Lutheran day school and in our seminaries, the concerns of worldly education are heard and felt.  Our schools must meet laws and regulations.  Lutheran schools seek to be accredited, by secular accreditation boards.  It can get a little messy, trying to sort it all out. 

      It was probably less confusing in the past, because not so many centuries ago, virtually all education was done by and through the Church.  But no more today.  In our context, every Christian school must also meet government standards, which may have nothing to do with the faith, and often may be at odds.       Again, we won’t try to answer all these questions.  Rather, I bring them up to point out how easily we might get distracted, pursuing as of first importance any number of concerns, which may not have anything to do with the real purpose of Christian Education.  

     So, what is the primary purpose, and the proper goals, of Christian Education?  With this question in mind, it strikes me that we have a very helpful bunch of readings before us on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, readings focused, as we always do for at least one week in Advent, on Christ’s return in glory, coming to judge the living and the dead. 

     So with the Return of Christ in mind, let me ask a question:  Is Christian Education for making better people?   Is its goal that we live happy lives?  Be successful?  Is Christian Education primarily about this life, or about the world to come?  I submit to you this morning, that while a concern for this life is not contrary to Christian Education, and indeed is a part of what Christ has to teach us, this life and how we live it is not the proper primary focus. Teaching children, or adults, to be good people and live a good life is not the first goal of Christian Education. 

     This is, I think, pretty much the goal of secular, worldly education, to enable people to live good, productive lives, contributing to the republic and the society, and enjoying themselves along the way.     There’s much good, and nothing necessarily wrong about such education.  But we should be careful not to let this become the primary goal of Christian Education.  Because doing so is eternally dangerous.  I recently read a compelling article about how to raise a pagan in a Christian home.  The upshot of the article is that if Christian parents make learning to be good people their primary goal for their children’s involvement in Church, the probability those children will grow up and leave the Church is very great.  You see, the problem is the teachings of Christ don’t necessarily, actually don’t normally translate directly to worldly success.  So kids, taught by their parents that living a good life is the most important thing, end up doubting or dismissing the value of Christ. 

     Christ and His Apostles do teach us to love our neighbor, for example this morning Paul exhorting us to please our neighbor, and build him up, to live in harmony and welcome one another.  These teachings are fairly well accepted by the world, in theory at least.  But the Lord also teaches us that the world hates Him and will hate His followers.  Jesus and His Apostles teach us to flee from sin, and give us very specific lists of sins, many of which the world doesn’t consider problematic at all.  For example, professing God’s teaching about sexual purity and the sanctity of human life from conception will today get you labeled a religious nut, or a bigot, or, strangely, a woman-hater.  But the Savior teaches us to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular.  The Lord teaches us to trust in Him and His Word, and not in the promises of earthly power and wisdom, so much so that He says gathering with believers in Church, hearing the Word, and receiving the Sacraments, is more important than making money, or having fun, or anything else.  None of these teachings will necessarily lead to a successful life in the world, and in fact often work against it. 

     Besides, if a good life on earth is the goal, there are better places to learn those lessons than in the Church.  Hockey or gymnastics or football or academic Olympics or just focusing on grades at school, all of these are arguably better teachers of the life lessons kids need to succeed in the world.  Sending kids to Church just to learn to be nice people is unnecessary, and kind of inconvenient.  God’s goal in sending out His Word is eternal life for sinners.  If parents instead teach their kids that the most important goal is learning to live a good life, kids will soon learn to consider the Church unnecessary, or perhaps even foolish, something to be cast off as soon as possible.  And they do, in droves.        

     So, as we consider Christian Education, we need to be careful to keep God’s goals in mind.  And in very real terms, the End is His goal.  That is, readiness for the return of Christ is the goal of Christian Education.  This is really the same as saying repentance for sins and faith in the forgiveness offered by God for Christ’s sake are the proper goals, because readiness for Christ’s return depends entirely on forgiveness, and on faith which receives forgiveness, and on the grace of God, which readily forgives repenting sinners, freely, for Jesus’ sake.  Being a nice person cannot be the primary goal of Christian Education because we can never be nice enough to earn God’s favor, and so we can never by our own goodness make ourselves ready for the End.  Only by clinging as a forgiven sinner to the promises of Christ can anyone be ready to stand before God.   

     We can only be ready for Christ’s Return by hearing the truth, about our sin, and God’s grace.  Worldly wisdom may help you die with a big bank account, but only the Wisdom of the Cross gives eternal life.  The world likes to say “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and we truly live in a hygiene-focused culture.  But the only bath that makes one clean enough for the Last Day is the washing of Water and the Word in Holy Baptism.  It is a blessing to earn enough to buy food, and an even greater blessing to have someone in your household who knows how to cook it well.  But the only meal on earth that prepares us for the End is the Meal that Jesus serves, His Body and Blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. 

     Now, readiness for Jesus’ Second Coming, and readiness to live a good life are not opposed.  Indeed, they are closely related.  Certainly Jesus taught a great deal about living a good life, that is, a life of love toward God and love toward the neighbor.  Christian Education will be concerned with how we live, but we need to be careful to understand the relationship between a good life, and being ready to stand before the Son of Man.  For there is no true good life, for sinners like you and me, apart from the grace of God in Christ.  Apart from Jesus, we might live good lives in earthly terms, certainly, but not in heavenly terms.  We are all sinful by nature and incapable of pleasing God with our works.  If we ever unlearn this most unpleasant teaching of Scripture, then we will be in danger of making our works the main thing, and this would be setting ourselves up for the sharpest fall imaginable, when the End comes, and God judges us based on our works, and our works are found lacking.  What an eternally bitter moment, to realize too late that all our efforts to make ourselves good people have fallen short. 

     Apart from repentance for sin and faith in Christ crucified and resurrected, the best we can hope for is a good earthly life, in human terms, but a life that ends in eternal disappointment, terrible, suffering-filled disappointment.  But true Christian Education teaches of a new hope, a better hope, a hope that is as sure as the blood of Jesus, shed for you.  God, not willing to miss out on having a holy people for Himself, sent His Son to teach us the way of holiness, the way of truth, the truth of the Law, revealing our sins, and the truth of forgiveness, for all who trust in Jesus alone.  For to all who trust not in themselves but in Christ, God grants forgiveness, and even gives us credit for all the good works Jesus did in His life of service.    

     Even more, after teaching you to know and trust that in Christ you are ready to face the End, God then works another miracle, producing in you the good works that He has planned for you.  Jesus tells us that as we see the leaves on the fig tree and know that summer is coming; so also, we should see the signs and know that He is coming, soon.  We also know that, just as the leaves on the fig tree tell us the fruit will soon be coming, so also resting in the promises of Christ will lead to fruit in our lives, the fruit of faith that clings to God’s Word, and rejoices in serving the neighbor. 

     God grant that Martin Luther School, and Concordia Seminary, and all our Christian Education efforts teach us to rely on Christ alone, for eternal readiness, and for love today, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why the Donkey?

The First Sunday in Advent, December 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Why the Donkey?  Matthew 21:1-9

     A conversation, on a particular Sunday evening, during the spring of a particular year, in a village a short distance outside Jerusalem. 

     Say, Bartholomew,” Thomas asks as the evening light fails, “Why did Jesus have us go get those donkeys for Him to ride as He came into the city this morning?  I mean, I have some ideas, but I doubt I’m right.  You always paid more attention in Synagogue.  Help me out here, would you?” 

     Grinning in the darkness, Bartholomew quips, “Well, I think the Master wanted the mama donkey along so that the colt would be calm and let Him ride it.  Nobody wants to get bucked off, you know… not even the Son of Man.”

     “Knock it off, Bart,”  Thomas snapped back, “I know plenty about donkeys.  And you know that’s not what I’m getting at.  I’m trying to sort out what it all means.  It makes me think of a bunch of stories from the Book, like Zechariah’s promise of Zion’s king coming to her on a colt of a donkey.  And of course the people were shouting Hosanna to the King of David, so they were thinking the same.  But which of Zion’s stories apply to today?  The whole Scripture can’t all be connected to this morning, can it?” 

     “Can’t it?  Why not?” asks Bartholomew.  “Come on Tom, you can’t always be doubting God’s Word.  If there’s one thing Jesus has been teaching us for the last three years, it’s that all of it, Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, all of it is about Him.” 

     Matthew, drifting off in the corner of the house in Bethany, tries to rouse himself from sleep.  “This should be interesting,” he thinks.  “I should take some notes, so I have this stuff when I write my biography of Jesus.  There could be some great details.”  Matthew lifts himself up on one elbow to listen.     
     “O.k., Tom,” says Bartholomew, engaging his friend, “Let’s work through it.  Which stories from Scripture are you thinking of?” 

     “Well, there  are lots of donkey stories, I guess the first one is Abraham and Isaac heading up Mount Moriah, a donkey carrying the wood for the sacrificial fire.  But that doesn’t seem to fit.”

     James, John’s brother, jumps into the conversation: “I hope it isn’t connected.  This is going to be a bad week if Jesus is fulfilling what almost happened then, the sacrifice of the only son, the son of the promise.  Of course, Mt. Moriah is where Jerusalem is built, and Jesus did say that He is coming here to be arrested and killed.  I was hoping He didn’t mean it.  That can’t be what Abraham meant when he said, ‘The Lord will provide the sacrifice,’ can it?” 

     James, the other James, the son of Alphaeus, speaks up:  “Back to the whole donkey-colt thing.  I know the mother donkey’s presence would calm the colt, but did anyone else expect that to go very badly?  First rider on its back, and the colt lets Him sit there, like he knew his Rider.  I guess Balaam’s donkey isn’t the only donkey who’s smarter than he looks.  Still, I wish the colt could speak, to tell us what he was thinking, like God let Balaam’s donkey do.”

     “The animals recognize the presence of the Lord and His angels better than we,” offers Bartholomew, “so why should we be surprised that the One who can walk on water can also calm an unbroken colt?  And since the people today recognized Jesus as the Son of David, we should remember how King David rode a mule.”

     “Say, Bart, I’m a fisherman, I get confused with all this animal husbandry stuff.  What’s the difference between a donkey and a mule?”  No one says it out loud, but Peter’s bad jokes always make them wonder why Jesus singled him out as a leader amongst them. 

     “Well, donkey or mule,” Bartholomew continue, trying to ignore Peter, “the prophet Zechariah was certainly referring back to Solomon, the son of King David, whom David put on his own mule and had him ride into Jerusalem, to let everyone know who the true king was.  Certainly Jesus must have been trying to make that point about Himself today.  That is at least what the crowds understood, when they hailed Him as the Son of David.”    

     “Then the Master is trying to get Himself killed,” says Thomas grimly.  “The Romans are not going to like hearing about all this, and you can be sure the priests will let them know…”   

     “Another Scripture comes to mind,” adds Bartholomew.  “Did you notice that we entered the city from the east, from the Mount of Olives?  And then Jesus, making the Pharisees crazy, allows the people to worship Him, acknowledging that the proper place of worship is at His feet?”

     “Yes, just like the blind men in Jericho.”  “And the  Canaanite woman.”  “Don’t forget the Samaritan leper.”  “Or Peter, in the boat, at the great catch of fish.”  Simon Peter has no joke to reply to this memory. 

     “Well,” continues Bartholomew, “I’m remembering how the prophet Ezekiel tells of the departure of the Lord from the Temple, out the East gate, departing to the Mount of Olives.  And then Ezekiel later promises that the Glory of the Lord will return to the Temple, from the East, from the Mount of Olives.  And after his donkey ride, entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, what did Jesus do?  He went straight to the Temple and cleansed it.”

     “Again,” says Thomas, “trying to get Himself killed.”

     “I don’t know about that,” said Bartholomew, finishing his thought, “but if Jesus is the Son of God, like Peter said, didn’t He just fulfill this morning the prophecy of Ezekiel, the Lord returning to His Temple from the east?”    

     “But if Jesus is the new King David, why isn’t He gathering an army?  Simon, the other Simon, the zealot, joins the conversation.  “Instead, He goes around unarmed, unprotected, and taking such risks, always challenging the Pharisees, and the Priests, giving them plenty of ammunition to accuse Him to the Romans.”  Simon cannot put together the idea of a kingdom and Jesus’ apparently deliberate attempts to anger the powers that be, but without building an army.  Neither can any of the rest.  Not yet. 

    The Church has historically opened the season of Advent with the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Crucifixion.  We quite rightly think of Advent as the season leading up to Christmas, to our celebration of Jesus’ coming into our world as the Babe of Bethlehem.  So this fast-forward to Holy Week seems odd, out of sequence, at least to our one-thing-after-the-next way of thinking and living.  But God is not bound by time, and all of His comings have similarities, like the dread His holiness brings to sinners, and the subsequent joy God’s coming brings to those who hear of and believe in His forgiving love.  The advents of God throughout Scripture have similarities, like the interweaving of prophecy, kingship and priestly sacrifice Jesus achieves in His Palm Sunday entrance.  Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of all the Old Testament. 

     The Advents of Christ, in the Old Testament, at His conception, at His birth, and His entrance into ministry, all of these have similarities, like the call to repent and believe that the Spirit of Christ is always making.  In every Biblical account, the Spirit calls us to repent of our sins, including our sinful way of thinking about how God should come to us.  The Spirit calls us to repent of our sinful thoughts, words and deeds, repent, and believe, even though we cannot fully understand, even though we can’t completely connect all the dots. 

     We believe because we know at the center of every Biblical story is a connection to the Cross, from Mount Moriah where Abraham went to sacrifice his son, to the manger, where the True Sacrifice lay; from Balaam’s donkey, who spoke the truth of God, to the angels sent to the shepherds, bringing good news to all God’s flock.  We enter Advent anticipating the celebration that the coming of Jesus brings, long ago in Bethlehem, and on Palm Sunday, headed to be the Sacrifice, today as He comes in Word and Supper, and someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a long time, but someday,  when He will come fully revealed in glory, to bring His faithful into His everlasting, perfect, joyful, glorious kingdom. 

     I, of course, have imagined this conversation of the Apostles that evening after the original Palm Sunday.  But the connections to God’s Word are true, and they are only part of the story.  This Advent and Christmas, God grant us to grow more and more in our understanding of Jesus, of His Coming, of His Purpose, and of His forgiving love.  He is our coming King, coming with healing, mercy, peace and joy, for you, and all people, the true gifts of Christmas, yours already today. 

     “Say,” murmurs Thomas, just as everyone is drifting off to sleep, “Do you suppose Mary, when she was pregnant with Jesus, do you suppose she rode a donkey into Bethlehem, or when they fled from Herod to Egypt?  Somebody should remember to ask her, and write it down.  That would be a pretty cool.”  But nobody heard Thomas, and so we are left to wonder whether Joseph really found a donkey for her.  Scripture doesn’t tell us this detail, but we do know all the important parts of the story, and so we wait with confidence and peace, knowing we can ask the Lord ourselves, someday, face to face, when He comes again.                         

Come Lord Jesus, come, Amen.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Joyful Reveille

Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 24th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Joyful Reveille - Matthew 25:1-

Wake Awake, For Night is Flying, Philipp Nicolai, LSB Hymn 516  (public domain)
   Stanza 1
Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
Awake, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
Oh, where are ye, ye virgins, wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake;
Your lamps with gladness take;
Alleluia! With bridal care yourselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom, who is near.

     I thought about playing my cornet.  With the sermon theme “The Joyful Reveille,” and a desire to interject some music into this sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, I thought, for a moment, that I should play my cornet like a bugle and actually blow reveille to start the sermon.  But reveille, that traditional military wake up bugle call, is not very joyful, is it?  Reveille, blasted on a bugle, is jarring and annoying.  That’s the whole point of blowing reveille, to awake someone who needs to be get up, but persists in dozing, please, just five more minutes.  Your reveilles may have been your mother, yelling up the stairs that you’d better get moving or you’ll miss the bus.  Or perhaps your drill instructor threw an empty metal garbage can down the middle of the squad bay, followed by playing the lid with a baseball bat, greeting you into another fine military morning.  Or maybe your reveille still comes, at three in the morning, when the impending pressures of life and work and finances and worries about kids make you suddenly wide awake, bolt upright in bed, exhausted, but now you’ll never get back to sleep. 

       We don’t like to be rudely awakened.  We don’t like reveille.  So perhaps it’s hard to take the parable of the ten virgins as good news, even if you believe in Jesus.  Somehow, our hymnwriter Philipp Nicolai found great joy in this parable, but do you?  Aren’t we more like the Foolish Virgins?  When are we ever bursting with joy to be awakened at O-dark-thirty in the morning? 

     Well, what about Christmas morning?  Oh yes, as a child, and, truth be told, even as a parent, the prospect of the joy of opening all the presents under the tree made me only too ready to jump out of bed and race downstairs, the earlier the better.  And there’s another event that can spring us joyfully from bed, an unexpected homecoming.  Homecomings, and the separations that cause them, have been only too common through the 10+ years of overseas war our military has endured, so we’ve all seen it.  But military or not, if your beloved, your wife or husband, or fiancé, has been gone for a long time, and then suddenly arrives home unexpectedly, even if at 2:00 a.m., you can get up for that, because your beloved, the one you have been missing, the one who makes you whole, is home.  

     Christmas morning and the return of your beloved, these two earthly examples do a nice job of capturing the kind of joy the Scriptures describe at the return of Christ, since Jesus is the real gift of Christmas, the gift of the Bridegroom, the Son of God made flesh, come into the world to rescue and save His beloved bride, the Church, the assembly of all the believers. 

Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her Star is ris’n, her Light is come.
Now come, Thou blessèd One, Lord Jesus, God’s own Son,
Hail! Hosanna! We enter all, the wedding hall
To eat the Supper at Thy call.

     Why is Zion gloomy?  Philipp Nicolai suggests that the rising of the Virgins is a departure from gloom, and it is, for Jesus is teaching us about His Return, on the Last Day.  He is coming to deliver us from this vale of tears, to eternal joy with Him, in heaven.  But does this note clang a bit for you?  Don’t we love our lives?  You and I live pretty well, for the most part.  Indeed, one of the central teachings of this parable is a warning against complacency, a warning not to forget that Jesus is returning, a warning that is of particular importance for you and me, for we live in an age of remarkable comfort and bounty. 

     The poorest Americans enjoy luxuries and technological marvels that kings and queens could not even imagine one hundred years ago.  God has showered many great and wonderful earthly blessings upon us, but satan is trying with all his trickery to get us to make these gifts and the comforts they offer our highest good, so that we forget about the Good Giver.  Almighty God is the One who delivers them all to us.  Faith created by the Word of God is what we need to be ready for the return of Christ, but if we just doze comfortably through our lives, never refilling our lamps, we will forget what light we were following when the End comes, be that the Last Day, or our personal end, our physical death.  Faith lives from the Word of Christ, and so it is strong and enduring.  But if we starve it long enough, faith can die. 

     We live very comfortably, but our wealth and technology haven’t really changed our biggest problems.  We are remarkably blessed, and the pleasure of material things and the marvels of the digital age are alluring.  But no amount of riches or technology can take away the sadness of being unloved.  No material thing can truly ease the pain of being abandoned or betrayed by someone you love.  No bank account or oil well or fancy electronic device can forgive your sins, or take away the guilt that hounds you.  The healthcare system may or may not get fixed in America, but even if it does, people will still get sick, and die. 

     Philipp Nicolai is right, still today, five centuries after he penned this hymn.  The good things of this world do not help us fundamentally with the bad things we suffer.  No amount of man-made light can dispel the gloom of human existence, because the darkness flows from our sins, and our sinfulness.  And against these, earthly goods have no potency. 

     But, the Bridegroom is omnipotent, all powerful, against every trouble we face, because He has solved our central problem, sin, by the blood of His Cross, which purchased our forgiveness.  The Bridegroom for whom the Church awaits is Jesus Christ, who has risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven, His victory for us complete.  The Bridegroom is our solution, and He is coming.  Arise, sing, rejoice, the table is set, and Jesus is holding our seats for us.        

Now let all the heavens adore Thee,
Let saints and angels sing before Thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone;
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where joining with the choir immortal
We gather round Thy radiant throne.
No eye has seen the light, No ear has heard the might
Of Thy glory; Therefore will we eternally
Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee!

     By the gracious will and working of God, we will sing hymns of praise and joy to Christ, who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever, Amen.  And also, by the gracious will and working of God, we do sing hymns of praise and joy to Christ, right now.  And as we sing, God will be working through our praises and joy to continue to expand His Church. 

     I come here on Sunday mornings, in part, because if I don’t, you won’t pay me.  But even more, I come here and gather with you around God’s Word and Sacraments because I need Christ’s grace and mercy.  I need forgiveness.  I suspect that motives for gathering together here vary across the room, and from moment to moment, for each one of us.  Obligation, socializing, compulsion by parent or spouse, all of us no doubt sometimes come here for reasons that do not shine like the stars in heaven.  But you also come for forgiveness.  You also come craving God’s Word, and the mercy and peace it gives you.  Also the joy of knowing that God has promised to meet us here, to be truly present, in the Word,  in the Wine and Bread, truly present to bless  us and strengthen our faith, for another day, another week, until Jesus comes back, all these beautiful promises also draw us together.  And in every case, when and where and how He wills, the Holy Spirit works on us, and in us, and through us, shaping us by His Word to the form of Christ, and sending us back into the world to live our lives as Christians, to do our regular work, but with an exceptional difference, the difference of Christ and His Spirit, the difference of knowing that the future for His Bride the Church is brighter than any of us can yet imagine. 

     As God works on us, He also works through us, causing us to speak joyfully of our faith, of our life in Christ, of our congregation, God’s family gathered around this altar.  God works to show how the forgiveness and new life we have in Jesus changes everything.  And that is what people need.  That is what God longs to give.  And so God grows His Church, and will continue to grow, until that Day when Christ returns, and we will be free from every sin, free from every need, free to rejoice and sing, with every saint and angel, of all time.  Wake, Awake!  The Joyful Reveille. 

Come Lord Jesus, Come, Amen.