Sunday, December 21, 2014

Homily for Sunday School Lessons and Carols - Rorate Coeli - The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Advent 4)

Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7; Luke 1:26-35, 38; Luke 2:1, 3-7; Luke 2:8-16; John 1:1-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Of the many good, wonderful, and miraculous things we celebrate at Christmas – the Incarnation of God and the Virgin Birth, Peace between God and man, a spirit of reconciliation, peace, joy, and good will between men and women of every creed, race, and clan – one good, wonderful, and miraculous thing that often gets overlooked is God’s Divine Providence, His guiding and directing of all things toward His own holy, good, and wise ends.
For example, consider only the events of which you have heard this morning from God’s Holy Word. First, there was Isaiah’s prophecy, spoken to the people of Judah nearly seven-hundred years before Jesus’ birth. Isaiah prophesied to a people who were continually vacillating between faithfulness and idolatry. Isaiah warned that God’s holiness could not bear with sin and that His righteousness could not permit sin to go unpunished, therefore His judgment was coming. But, Isaiah also showered Judah with the beautiful and comforting Gospel of God’s compassion, mercy, and love, foreshadowing His sending of the Messiah born of a virgin who would be a Light to those walking in the darkness of sin and death, a Great Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.
Then you heard of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, nearly seven-hundred years later, in the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to a young Judean virgin named Mary. Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, and that He would be given the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob forever, just as Isaiah had prophesied.
Luke’s Gospel also records for us how God utilizes even earthly governments and human laws, institutions, and machinations, both good and bad, to accomplish His good and holy will. This time, through the Prophet Micah who prophesied, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” In fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, Joseph and Mary, great with child, found themselves in Bethlehem for a census ordered by Caesar. The fact that the city was crowded with people from all over Judea registering for the census made it so that Mary delivered her son in lowly and humble conditions, likely in a common room in the home of Joseph and Mary's kinfolk, laying Him in a  manger, a feeding trough for animals. In God’s wisdom and providence, even these seemingly insignificant elements were in fulfillment of prophecy of the kind of King His Son would be: mild, humble, selfless, and sacrificial.
In like manner, the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy was proclaimed first, not to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin, the religious leadership of Israel, not to Herod or Pilate or Caesar, and not to those of wealth, power, or great reputation, but the proclamation of the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy, the proclamation of the Gospel, was given first to those of low estate, to poor and humble shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Even still today, the chief responsibility of Christ’s undershepherds, His pastors, is to proclaim the Gospel and to guard and keep His sheep in the darkness of this world’s night of sin and death.
And then, in our final reading from the Gospel of John, you hear that this was God’s will and design before man’s fall into sin, before the creation of man, indeed, before the foundation of the world. John’s Words “In the beginning…” take you back, well, to the beginning of God’s revealed Word, to Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” John proclaims to you that the Word of God was with God in the beginning, and that, in fact, the Word of God was God, and that all things that God has made have been made by the speaking of His life-giving and creative Word. What we celebrate at Christmas, especially, is what John proclaims in the last verse of today’s reading: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
At Christmas, we must remember that, though we may see darkness and sin and suffering and death all around us, though wars and rumors of wars dominate the headlines, though natural disasters destroy lives, homes, and livelihoods, though diseases take the lives of those we love, and though even children are not spared the horror of evil at the hands of broken, corrupted, and sinful men, we must remember that God is in control, before sin, before man, before the foundation of the world, and that He has worked, and He is working, and will continue to work all things, even the bad things, the horrible things, and the evil things, for the good of those who love Him, whom He has called in His Son, His Messiah, our Savior, His Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
At Christmas, we remember that God did not turn a cold shoulder in judgment against His rebellious creation, but He did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the impossible, and the miraculous – He penetrated His fallen and broken creation and became one of His creatures, being born of the flesh of a woman in weakness, lowliness, and poverty that He might be everything His holiness and righteousness required for you, in your place, as your substitute, that He might bear in His own flesh the necessary wage of sin, death, and shed His own holy and innocent blood to wash away your guilt, that He might be at peace with you, and you with Him, and live in His holy and righteous presence in holy communion with Him – flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone – evermore and evermore. This Peace is God’s gift to you at Christmas, and every day of the year, every day and year of your lives. Remember and treasure His Word, His Gift, and enjoy His Peace and live His Love, every day of the year.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Homily for Rorate Coeli - The Fourth Sunday In Advent (Advent 4)

John 1:19-28; Philippians 4:4-7; Deuteronomy 18:15-19

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you.” “The Lord is at hand.” “Among you stands one you do not know.” “The LORD is near to all who call on Him.” Do you notice how the unseen, real, and true presence of our Lord now permeates our liturgy this day? For the past several weeks you have been exhorted to prepare for His coming. Now, it would seem, you are to contemplate that, not only has He come, but that the Lord is amongst you right now. So, I ask you, do you see Him? Do you hear Him? Do you recognize His presence? If not, then perhaps we should extend Advent a few more weeks. For, indeed, tantamount to your being prepared for His coming on the Last Day is that you recognize and receive Him while He is present among you right now.
The priests and the Levites who were sent to question John had been waiting, watching, and seeking the coming of the Lord for centuries. They searched the Scriptures and they trusted in the Word of the Lord proclaimed by the Prophets that God would raise up a prophet like Moses and that He would send forth Elijah before the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. They had good reason to believe that John might be the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet, for he lived in the stark, ascetic manner of the prophets and he spoke with an authoritative word in accord with the Word of God. But, when they asked him if he was the Christ, he said “No.”  And when they asked him if he was Elijah, he said “No.” And when they asked him if he was the Prophet, again John replied “No.” Indeed, all that John would confess concerning himself was that he was a voice.
Israel had not heard the voice of God for four hundred years. Though they had returned to the Promised Land following captivity in Babylon and had rebuilt the temple and reinstated the priesthood and the sacrificial system, the hearts of the people were far from the Lord, the priests did not teach the people the ways of the Lord, and they did not honor God with their lives, words, and deeds. The last prophetic utterance was given by Malachi who prophesied, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Then there was silence for four hundred years, until the coming of John the Baptist. During this time the people of Israel were hardened and Judaism became more rigid and legalistic under the Pharisees and more liberal and politically driven under the Sadducees. By the time John appeared, the hearts and minds of the people could not imagine a Messiah who would come in humility and lowliness to suffer and die as a sacrifice for the people’s sins.
Part of John’s role in preparing the way for the coming of Jesus was to break up the hardened hearts of God’s people that they might be turned in repentance to receive the one who was coming, not in power, great might, and glory, but from amongst them, as their brother, in lowliness and humility. John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” as the Prophet Isaiah had said. John carried out his task by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins and by baptizing with water, a visible sign of the spiritual change affected in a person by the workings of the Holy Spirit. God was about to visit His people, but He was not going to appear to them as He did on Mount Sinai, striking terror of death into the hearts of His people, but He would come in the manner of Moses, Elijah, and the Prophets, as one of His own, amongst His own, for the sake of His own.
Our God has always been a God who is present in the midst of His people. He walked with our First Parents in Eden. He visited Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He called to Moses from the burning bush and encamped in the tabernacle in the Holy of Holies amongst His people. Then, in Jesus, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. And so, He is not a God who is far off, but He is a God who is near – very near, in fact, come into our own flesh and blood, conceived and born of a woman like all men, so that He is our brother, one of us, knowing in His flesh our joys and sorrows, our pain and tears, the torture of our temptations, but humbly and obediently and selflessly resisting these by faith.
Though He comes to us in such familiar ways, men are scandalized by the incarnation of Jesus. Thus it was necessary that John direct our attention to Him and call us to repentance that we might see in Him God’s presence and our salvation from our sins. The very next day after the priests and the Levites questioned him, John pointed to Jesus and proclaimed “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There He is, God’s sacrifice, Isaac’s substitute, the true Passover Lamb who’s blood will mark the doorposts of your heart that the Angel of Death might pass over. Who? The carpenter’s son from Nazareth? Who? That lowly rabbi with His band of misfit disciples? Who? The itinerant preacher who hangs about tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers? Yeah, that’s the one. That’s the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah. Yeah, that’s Him, the Word of God made flesh, abiding in your presence as one of you, as your brother, just as the prophets said.
So, I ask you, do you see Him? Do you hear Him? Do you recognize His presence? If not, well, it’s still Advent for a few more days. Indeed, it is Advent until He comes on the Last Day, and today your salvation is nearer to you than when you first believed. For, indeed, tantamount to your being prepared for His coming on the Last Day is that you recognize and receive Him while He is present among you right now. He is present for you now in His forgiving and life-giving Word. He is present for you now in Holy Absolution. He is present for you now in Holy baptismal regeneration. And He is present for you now in His holy body and precious blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins that the Angel of Death might pass over you.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer - Wednesday in Gaudete (Advent 3)

Luke 1:57-80; Isaiah 35:3-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The name John means “God is gracious.” Truly, God’s grace abounds in both the birth narratives of John the Baptist, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose way he was sent to prepare. As we have heard in past weeks, both conceptions and births were miraculous in several ways, not least of all in the fact that both mothers, Elizabeth and Zechariah respectively, were known to be unable to conceive, as Elizabeth was aged and barren, and Mary was but a young, unmarried virgin maiden. And yet, God was gracious and merciful, and, as He is want to do, He made something out of nothing, He brought life out of death, and both Elizabeth and Mary conceived and bore sons.
On the eighth day after his birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth and all their relatives gathered to circumcise the child according to the Law. They were prepared to name the boy Zechariah, after his father, but his mother Elizabeth answered, “No; he shall be called John.” They were greatly surprised because there was no one in the family named John. Thus, they sought to confirm with Zechariah concerning this name. However, because Zechariah did not believe the Word of the LORD, that his wife would conceive and bear a son, he was stricken mute as a sign that the LORD would keep His promise despite Zechariah’s unbelief. So, they gave him a writing tablet and he wrote, “His name is John.” Zechariah no longer disbelieved. He gave his son the name the angel Gabriel had proclaimed nine months earlier. He believed and he knew without a doubt that God is gracious, and that nothing will be impossible with God.
And, the sign being fulfilled, immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. What Zechariah spoke was actually a prophecy about both his son John and God’s Son Jesus. His words are cherished by the Christian Church and are still sung daily as part of the liturgy of Matins or Morning Prayer under the title “Benedictus,” which means blessed.
The Benedictus is a hymn of praise to God for His grace and mercy visited upon Israel. In the first part of the Benedictus, Zechariah prophesies of Jesus, the Son of God. Zechariah recognized that the greatest gift of God’s grace was not his own son John, but the Son of God, Jesus, whose way John was to prepare. Filled with the Holy Spirit, with not a hint of unbelief, Zechariah spoke of God’s promises as being already fulfilled even in the incarnation of His Son saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”
But, then, Zechariah’ prophecy tenderly turned to his own son John, even addressing the child directly saying: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
God is gracious. That is what the name John means. In the conception and birth of John and Jesus, the grace and mercy of God has been revealed. From the barrenness of mankind’s sin and death, God brings forth new life. Once again, into virgin soil, God has planted His Word and brought forth new and everlasting life. The eyes of the blind are opened. The ears of the deaf are unstopped. The lame leap like a deer and the tongues of the mute sing for joy. Waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. For, nothing is impossible with God.
God is gracious. Therefore, we have hope. God has visited and redeemed His people. It is finished. All we are waiting for is the revelation of His glory, the unveiling of His already present reign and glory. Though His first coming was in lowliness and humility so that many did not see because they did not hear, when He comes again in power and great might, the veil will be removed and every eye will see Him, and every tongue will confess Him to be the Lord, and God the Father will be glorified.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Homily for Gaudete - The Third Sunday In Advent (Advent 3)

Matthew 11:2-11; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Isaiah 40:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
That’s but a snippet of a sermon by John the Baptist. It’s fair to say that John was a preacher of the Law – all fire and brimstone and the like. He puts Jonathan Edwards to shame. He would have him hanging like a spider from a thread over a burning flame. But, it was John’s prophetic calling to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching the Law of God to hardened hearts in this way that they might be turned in repentance. However, to those hearts that were crushed by the Law and were terrified of their sins, that is, to the repentant, John immediately and graciously pointed them to the Good News, to the Gospel. John pointed the broken and the repentant to Jesus saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
That’s what the preaching of the Law does – it breaks up the hardened soil of our hearts so that we might receive the life-giving Gospel. John’s preaching prepared the way for the coming of the Gospel, the coming of Jesus Christ, by making the crooked ways of our sinful hearts straight, by leveling the mountains of our prideful self-righteousness and by filling in the valleys of our despair and hopelessness, that Jesus might have a clear and level path to enter therein.
Now, the preaching of the Law is not always received well. The Law is a bright shining light and mirror upon our sinfulness, and those who are secure and comfortable in their sin typically don’t appreciate being exposed. When the light of God’s holy and righteous Law shines upon them and exposes their sin, they flee for darkness like cockroaches, or they turn and fight like a cornered beast. The latter is precisely what happened to John the Baptist. In his zeal for preaching the Law of the LORD he exposed the unrepented sins of one particular beast, King Herod. John had exposed King Herod’s adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip. For that, Herod had John arrested and thrown in prison, an imprisonment that would ultimately end with John’s execution and his head upon a platter.
And so, there is John, sitting in prison, most certainly aware that he would never get out and would most likely die. John was a prophet, and that is the way it is with the prophets of the LORD. Prophets were charged with being a mouthpiece for the LORD to bring His word of Law and Gospel to His people in season and out of season, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Nearly all the LORD’s prophets met with a time when the Word they were sent to proclaim was not received well, and they were executed in various and horrible ways. The same is true today for the LORD’s prophets and pastors, and for you His people. As your Lord Jesus teaches, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” and “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
Now, to address the question that inevitably arises when today’s Gospel is heard in contemporary times: Did John doubt? In the last two hundred years or so, this question has been hotly debated amongst Bible scholars and theologians. I confess to having flip-flopped on the matter a couple times. However, through the Reformation this was not so. It was the nearly unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers, and even Luther, that John did not doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but that he sent his disciples to question Jesus so that they might hear with their own ears the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and believe. This was because John knew his role and vocation. John was the last of the prophets, the promised “Elijah” who was to come “before the great and awesome day of the LORD.” He was the forerunner of the Messiah, whose job it was to prepare the way for His coming. That work was complete and the Messiah, Jesus, had come. Now, it was John’s role to decrease that Jesus might increase. He was going to die, and so John sent his disciples to Jesus that they might become His disciples. John had been a good and faithful servant, he had preached the Law of the LORD to His people and prepared their hearts for the coming of Jesus. Now, John preached the Gospel by pointing and by directing those broken and crushed by the Law to Jesus, the Lamb of God’s offering who takes away the sins of the world.
No, John did not doubt. I am now fully convinced of that. Why? Well, what does Jesus say about John? “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Further, John heard the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” and he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and remain with Him. John repeatedly pointed to Jesus and proclaimed unequivocally who He was and what He came to do: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And then, there is the great cloud of witnesses, the Fathers and pastors of the Church throughout the ages who attest to John’s faith and selfless vocation as the forerunner of Jesus. Indeed, it is only since the rise of rationalism in the seventeenth century that the faith of the “greatest among those born of women” is routinely called into question. Let us abstain from such foolishness, which is more likely the deceit of the Enemy than the fruit of true wisdom.
What then did John do by sending his disciples to Jesus? He did what all faithful prophets and pastors do, he followed the preaching of the Law by the proclamation of the Gospel. In this case, John sent his disciples to the Gospel incarnate, to Jesus Himself. Jesus had been bringing the kingdom of God into this world by His preaching and teaching and by His miracles of healing and restoration and release accompanying the forgiveness of sins. He had been fulfilling the Messianic prophecies, particularly of Isaiah, by making the blind to see and the lame to walk, by cleansing lepers and opening the ears of the deaf, by raising the dead and by comforting the poor and the distressed. And, when they got to Jesus and asked their question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus answered them by quoting the Prophet Isaiah, just as He had done in His first sermon in Nazareth, and with the same implication: “This saying is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Then Jesus added the words, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” For, Jesus did not appear to the eyes, or sound to the ears, the way they had come to expect that the Messiah would appear or sound. Jesus did not come with the power and majesty of worldly kings and lords. He did not have the traditional authority of the priests, Pharisees, and scribes. But, He was a humble man of the people, a carpenter’s son from backwater Nazareth. Nevertheless, His authority was in His Words for those who had ears to hear. They received also eyes to see that Jesus was the Son of God and the Lamb of God’s self-offering for the sins of the world. Truly there is blessedness in receiving Him as the gift that He is, God’s gift of mercy and love, no strings attached.
For, Jesus is the Gospel, the free gift of God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness that is given to all hearts broken by the Law in repentance who will receive Him. Jesus is the comfort God showers upon His people, and He is the tender Word spoken to Jerusalem that her warfare with God is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, and that the LORD intends to give her double in blessing for all her sins.
The mystery of the Gospel is that things are not as they appear. Though he lived in the desert wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts, though he was imprisoned by Herod and was beheaded, John was “the Prophet of the Most High” sent to “go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” Likewise, Jesus was humble and mild, having “no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” Yet, He was, and He is the Lord, the very Son of God, Emmanuel, God with us, the Lamb of God offered up for the sins of the world.
Still, John goes before Him to prepare His way by preaching the Law unto repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And, to the brokenhearted, to the weary and those burdened by their sins, to those who plead for mercy and forgiveness, He directs you to the Gospel, to Jesus, that you may have peace with God. What did you come to church to see? A charismatic preacher with eloquent and inspiring words, a magnificent building overflowing with people, and money, with a café and family recreational center? What did you come to church to see? A life coach full of practical advice for how to live the best life now? What did you come to church to see or hear or do? I tell you, you did not come for any of these things. But, you have come to receive. For, the one who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, the lame to walk and lepers to be cleansed, that one, Jesus the Lord and Christ, is here to comfort you and to heal you in the forgiveness of your sins. Do not judge by what your fleshly ears hear and by what your fleshly eyes see, for the day is coming when the Lord will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then, you who appear foolish, will receive your commendation from God. Yet, even now, He is your light in darkness, your peace in trial and tribulation, and your life in death. Come, receive the free gifts of the Lord and live, now and forever

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.