Sunday, December 28, 2014

Church, Mission and Christmas

1st Sunday after Christmas, Year B, 
Dec 28, 2014, Trinity Lutheran Church, Miles City, MT
Isaiah 61:10- 62:3, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40

The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations,
     and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things! 
     His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
     he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. 
     All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

     The right hand of Almighty God, His all-powerful arm, ready to achieve in time the salvation of our God, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, a 40 day old infant, held in the arms of a faithful old man named Simeon.  This tiny but mighty arm of the Lord is also the Silent Word, the
Unspeaking Subject of the irrepressible telling that comes from the mouth of an ancient widow named Anna.  Righteousness has come down from above, and so praise breaks forth from God’s people, and before the nations, as the love of God beams forth from the face of a little child. 

     Merry Christmas.  It is an extra Christmas blessing to be with you here today, to gather around Christ’s gifts, and to tell you about the adventure my wife Shelee and I are entering, as I have accepted a call from the Mission Board to be a Missionary, a Church Planter, in Seville, Spain.  
     I pray that your week has been filled with the Good Tidings of great joy that Christ is born for you today.  I also pray that your week has been filled with joyful gatherings of family and friends, times of remembrance of joyful days gone by, and the making of memories for the future.  This is how we best love Christmas, when it is filled with homecomings, reunions with our loved ones.  Shelee and I were particularly blessed in just this way, as our son Jeremy came to Billings from Fargo, bringing both his sister Madeline, and his fiancée Teresa.  It was a bit crowded in our temporary apartment home in Billings, but we had a grand time, a Merry Christmas indeed. 

     It is, of course, always a little risky for a preacher to talk about what a great Christmas he has enjoyed, because some of you may not have experienced the same.  Perhaps your Christmas has not been quite so fine, because this is the first one spent without someone very special to you.  Or perhaps the hoped for joy of a family reunion did not materialize.  Perhaps travel plans did not work out, or they did, but tension and anxiety and simmering conflicts stole away the joy you hoped for.  Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year, and it can also be the most difficult.  The devil works overtime to make fully visible the sin that infects our world and each one of us, as he seeks to spoil our celebration Jesus’ birth.  I dare say all of us over the age of 25 and most of us under the age of 25 have experienced our share of strife and sadness during the season of joy.  I hope this has not been the case for you, but I know that it is for some.  

     If your Christmas has not been all you hoped for, do not despair.  And, if your Christmas has been wonderful, be sure to still remember the True Center of the Holy Day.  For your best homecoming, best this side of eternity at least, is happening right now, right here, as the Holy Spirit has gathered us once again to receive God’s love.  The Lord knows how difficult life in this world can be, and so He is always working to gather us and bless us again, to have His herald announce to all, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which are for all people, for born to you in the city of David is a Savior, Christ, the Lord.  God’s desire today is to give you the confident faith and praise-filled peace that Simeon and Anna received, when they were gathered into the presence of the infant Jesus.  

     Christmas has always been a time of homecomings, of family reunions, from the house of David in Bethlehem at the command of a Roman emperor, to our houses today, filled with favorite foods and football games.  Security and love within the bonds of family are precious gifts from God, and vital for our lives, vital for us, and also for Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus, huddled in a stable, borrowing furniture from the animals. 

     And yet God’s Arm has been revealed in that Manger, and so we move quickly from home to the mission field, from gathering as the people of God in this place, to sprouting up before the nations, bearing the righteousness of Christ and singing His praises, by which the nations also come to hear of the Salvation that extends to all.  This movement of God’s people, gathering together to receive His Word and Gifts, leads to the movement of God’s salvation, the sprouting up of righteousness before all the nations.  Gathering and going, to and from the Christ Child. 

     It is quite simple, but the Church is filled with foolish sinners.  We are so prone to infection by worldly ideas.  We should learn almost all we need to know about Church and Mission from the Christmas stories, from the Shepherds and the Wise Men and from Simeon and Anna.  From them we learn of gathering around the Christ Child, in order to be sent out singing His praise and telling His story, gathering and going, each in the vocations and stations of life that God has given.  Gathering and sending, sending both near and far, sending as royal priests and as called ministers, each with a unique role to play in God’s plan - this is God’s unending pattern of mission.  

     Gathering and sending are mutually supportive, but too often we Christians resort to pitting these two movements against each other.  Simply “being in Church,” being the family of God, secure, receiving, protecting, enjoying, is too often pitted against “being in mission,” out before the world, risking, telling, seeking.  Our sin-limited minds think one is more important than the other, or that we can’t do both.  There are layers of error in this thinking, errors which satan uses to discourage and confuse and wear us down.  One mistake is thinking we are the ones really doing things.  Another is thinking that gathering and reaching out are opposed, rather than understanding they are the breathing in and the breathing out of the Body of Christ.  Another error is assuming a plan that does not fit earthly models can’t work.  Remember, God’s mission is exactly that, God’s mission.  The Mission of the Church belongs to God.  He is the one who planned it, who energizes it and who moves it.  We are useful and involved in God’s Mission only as He moves and leads us.  As we heard from Isaiah, “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.”

     God does mission precisely this way:  First He gathers, in order to then reach out, that yet more may gather.  The Herald of God’s people cries out in service to God’s gathered people.  Again from Isaiah, “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet.”  The herald preaches for the sake of God’s people, to increase their faith and steadfastness, to see them grow in Christ.  And through this pastoral care for His people, God causes the nations to see and hear, both by leading her to send missionaries near and far, and also by acting through the daily lives of each Christian.  And so Isaiah concludes His discussion of Church and Mission.  The herald keeps proclaiming, “until [Zion’s] righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.  The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory. 

     Christ is the burning torch of salvation, the light which enlightens the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people.  Today, the light of Christ shows forth when His people gather to hear the glorious story of God’s grace and mercy.  Christ first, in the fullness of time, and Christ still today, working through the words and actions of His people to reach yet more people. 

     Christ first.  You see, long before any Christian sprang up to praise Him before the Nations, Christ Himself sprang up.  The Son of God became infinitesimally tiny in the womb of Mary, a helpless baby in the arms of Simeon, a young boy growing strong in the Lord, at just the right time.  The willingness of Jesus to set aside His heavenly glory and pass through all the stages of human growth is a marvel of humble love, love for His Father, and love for you. 

     But the incarnation and growth of God’s Son born of Mary is only the first light of His Love.  Starting on His eighth day, continuing in our Gospel this morning, and each day of His thirty some years walking on this earth, Jesus perfectly fulfilled every demand of God’s Law, not for Himself, (it is His own Law, after all), but for you, and me, and everyone.  And then even more, much, much more, Jesus, who loved most of all doing His Father’s will, suffered in our place. 

     Dreading the pain to come, the One who was held by Simeon in the Temple knelt in the Garden,

and prayed.  Jesus, on the night when He was betrayed, prayed Abba, Father, if it is possible, let this cup of suffering pass from me.  But not my will, but Thy will be done, Abba Father.  The Father’s will was done, and so, out of Jesus’ love for His Father, and out of His love for you, your sins have been taken away.  You and I and every other sinner on this globe were under the Law, under its condemnation, for we are sinners.  But now, the Law is fulfilled for you, by the life of Jesus, and your sins against God’s Law are forgiven, washed away in the blood of Jesus.  Your eternal peace and glory are guaranteed, in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. 

     The will of God, His great desire, is to rescue you from sin and death, and God’s will has been done.  So now we, who in our baptisms have been clothed in His garments of righteousness, are thus privileged to add our joyful Abbas to the Gethsemane prayer of Jesus.  Because Jesus fulfilled His Abba Father’s will, you can call His Father your Father, your Abba, your God.  Your Savior has taught you to pray with Him to His Father, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven,’ so that daily you might be reminded who your true Abba Father is, through the grace of Christ. 

     If that is not enough of a Christmas present, just wait, there’s more.  Even when you fail, even when you turn your back on God by falling, yet again, into sin, still God pursues His will to have you with Himself in glory forever.  You have been clothed in garments of righteousness, the pure white robes of Christ’s righteousness given to you in your Baptism, where God covered all your sins, and called you by a new name, calling you His beloved and forgiven child.  When you sin, when I sin, we soil the garments Christ won for us.  When we Christians defile the perfect gift we’ve received from our Father, any reasonable person would be done with us,   

     But not your Father in Heaven.  Even when you fall into sin, God is not done with you.  The Baptized ought never sin, but we do.  To our great shame, we who know Christ as Savior still fail to live as God’s children should.  And yet, despite what you deserve for your sins, the Lord is pleased to wash your garments clean again, to remove the stain of sin with His Word of Forgiveness, to purify you inside and out through His Holy Supper.  Great are the mercies that our Lord God has drawn us to, once again here, today, blessings for you, the people of God, and also a blessing for the nations.  This is why, as we leave Christ’s table, we sing with Simeon, Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, for your Word has been fulfilled.  

     And still God is not finished.  Christ first, and Christ still today.  This inward movement, the gathering by the Holy Spirit of God’s people around the Word and Signs of Christ, is exactly the beginning point of God’s plan to reach out to the nations.  God drew Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, bearing Christ, in order that the angels could herald his birth, drawing the Shepherds in to worship, and then sending them out to tell their neighbors all they had heard and seen.  God drew the Wise Men by the star to the home of Jesus, so that He could send them back out to the nations, carrying this good news that a new king has been born for all people.   God drew Simeon and Anna to the Christ, to reveal the Savior to them, and immediately their voices broke forth in praise, announcing to the nations that this Child is for them, too.    

     My wife Shelee and I are being sent to Spain, to an historically Roman Catholic place, where Mary is firmly in the center of their faith.  And yet, most Spaniards are Roman Catholic in name only, almost never gathering for services.  Worse still, in Spain more and more young people are denying Christianity altogether.  Spain is a wonderful place, but the missionary task will not be easy.  So, we are thankful to be gathered here with you this morning, to be strengthened for the work ahead.  Because of our shared confession of Christ, we are bold to ask you to support us.  Please support us with your prayers.  Know what to pray for by signing up to receive our newsletter.  And also, please go to your Abba Father in prayer, and ask Him how He might have you support our mission financially, both as individuals, and as a congregation.  

     Remember us, and also remember, God sends you, too.  Whether you are a banker or a rancher or a grade school student, whether you are a parent, grandparent, brother, sister or child, whether you are eloquent or shy, God sends you into your daily callings, and He goes with you.  He is not calling you to preach on the street corner, but rather to love your neighbor, and to be ready to give the reason for the hope that you have.  If you’re not sure how to best live out your role in God’s Mission, if you’re nervous about giving the reason for the hope you have, there is a simple solution.  To be better prepared for your tasks in God’s Mission, you can simply gather more, study more, hear more, and receive more.  Be filled up with Gods’ pure Gospel, and the Holy Spirit, working through the Word and the Supper, working through the instruction and wisdom of your pastor, will prepare you to fill just the role God has in mind for you.  

     Merry Christmas.  God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is thrilled to reunite again with you today, thrilled to take your sins and give you His garments of righteousness, thrilled to love you and give you peace.  Here your eyes see the salvation, which the Lord has prepared before the face of all people, a light, to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people, the New Israel, the Church of Christ.  Go forth in His peace, singing His praise, Amen.