Thursday, December 5, 2013
Theme: "The Origins of Jesus According to the Four Evangelists" - This week, St. Matthew.
Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 1:3-14; Isaiah 60:1-6
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps it strikes you as odd to speak of the origin, or the beginning, of Jesus. It does me. After all, Jesus is the Word and the very Son of God, whom St. John says was with God in the beginning of all things and, in fact, was and is God in human flesh and blood on earth, resurrected and ascended into heaven, and coming again in glory as King on the Last Day. Therefore, how can we speak of the origin of He who is eternal, having no origin but God, who is Himself eternal and without origin?
Here we must take a step back from the bright mystery that is our Holy Triune God and remember that, though Jesus is God, He is not the Father, but He is the Son, distinct from both His Father and the Holy Spirit, yet sharing the fullness of the substance of the Godhead with each of the persons of His Trinity. Further, it is the Son of God alone who became a man, born of the Virgin Mary. And, it is of His humanity that we can rightly say that Jesus had an origin, or a beginning.
In fact, that is precisely the word that St. Matthew uses to begin His Gospel: biblos geneseōs Iēsou Christou – The book of the beginning (origin) of Jesus Christ. The Greek word translated as beginning or origin, geneseōs, is the same word from which we get the name of the first book of the Bible – Genesis. Further, as Genesis is in many ways the story of the beginning of mankind and God’s relationship with mankind, so too Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham.
We might ask, why begin merely with Abraham? Why not Noah, or even Adam? Well, here we get to Matthew’s purpose for writing the Gospel: Matthew wishes to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise made to Abraham: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. […] So shall your offspring be.” Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise for both Jews and Gentiles, indeed, for the entire world. He is the savior of the nations, come. Moreover, Matthew also demonstrates that Jesus is the undisputed royal heir of King David through Joseph, His legal father. However, in God’s divine providence, through St. Luke, we are also provided Jesus’ genealogy through His mother Mary, also of the House of David, going back, not merely to Abraham, but all the way back to Adam, and to God Himself.
Who then is this Jesus? What is His origin? He is man, born of His mother Mary, and He is God, conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. He is the son of King David and the rightful heir to his throne; yet, He is also the Son of God, thus He is both David’s son and David’s Lord. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, thus He is the Messiah of the Jews, their Christ, but He is also for the nations, the Gentiles, for the entire world. He is the true King of prophecy, in contrast to Herod the puppet king, whose kingly reign is one of mercy, forgiveness, humility, sacrifice, and love.
It is arguably this aspect about Jesus, His kingship, which St. Matthew wishes to proclaim above all. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew highlights the kingly reign of Jesus. It is in Matthew’s Gospel that we hear of God’s kingdom no fewer than fifty-four times. In chapter thirteen, Matthew presents seven of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom, each beginning with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like….” In this series of kingdom parables, Jesus describes what it is like to live under the reign of King Jesus: You have to co-exist with unbelievers. While you’re co-existing, keep in mind that Jesus is powerful. While you’re co-existing, keep in mind that you have an incredible treasure in your possession. But in the end, Jesus will glorify you. In conclusion, the kingdom of heaven is about God’s work for you, and God’s work through you for others.
Throughout his Gospel, St. Matthew demonstrates that God is in control, guiding and directing all things in accordance with His will despite the ignorance and sinful rebellion of men. According to human reason and wisdom, Joseph sought to divorce his betrothed Mary quietly; but when God revealed the truth to Joseph, he took her as his wife and become the legal father of the unborn child she carried. According to their own reason and wisdom, the Magi wrongly followed the star to Jerusalem, and would have to Bethlehem, believing that there they would find the King of the Jews; but when God revealed the truth to them, they went instead to Nazareth and they returned home another way, thus thwarting Herod’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus. Once again, Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod is about to search to destroy Jesus, and that he and his family must flee to Egypt until Herod has died. To demonstrate that God is in control, Matthew tells us about the holy family’s flight into Egypt before he tells the account of Herod’s murderous plan. Herod’s plan was foiled before he even conceived of it.
All of this serves to show that Jesus is the Lord of history, that all things serve the purpose of pointing to Him as the climax of history from the beginning. Jesus’ origin and history are man’s origin and history, for He is the fulfilling of all that man was meant to be. This point St. Paul makes in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” And, as the writer to the Hebrews has put it: “In many and various ways, God spoke to His people of old by the prophets. But now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Matthew 21:1-9; Romans 13:8-14; Jeremiah 23:5-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Happy New Year! Yes, today is the beginning of a new church year, another year to live in our Lord’s grace. But, what has changed? Why should we expect that this year will be any different than years past? Don’t all things simply continue as they have, as we get another year older and deeper in debt? In many ways, yes they do. But, take heart, and lift up your heads; your King is coming! Your King is coming to save you! But, hasn’t He come already? Yes, indeed He has. And, doesn’t He come amongst us now through Word and Sacrament? Yes, once again you are correct. Then, what does it mean that our King is coming? Ah, I’m glad that you asked!
Our King is not coming to be crowned the King, for He is already the King, even though much of the world and the men and women who fill it do not know that, do not believe that, or flat out deny that. Nevertheless, it’s true. Our King Jesus broke into this world as King when Gabriel proclaimed God’s Word into Mary’s receptive ear saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy-- the Son of God.” He came in lowliness and humility, in ways that men would never expect, anticipate, desire, or comprehend. Therefore, His coming had to be revealed to men, first to lowly shepherds, then to gentile magi from the east.
Little by little, over months and years, Jesus revealed who He was, the Son of God and the true King over God’s people, not by impressive displays of power and glory but by fulfilling Messianic prophecy and obedience under God’s Law. There were always some whose ears and eyes were opened by the Holy Spirit so see past their expectations that this unassuming Jesus was the answer to their prayers, not necessarily what they thought they wanted, but what God knew that they needed and what He had promised. These were typically the lowly and the humble, the outcast and the disenfranchised, the poor, the lame, the blind, the sinful and unclean, those who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, those who recognized and confessed their need for forgiveness and a savior. Jesus, whose name means God saves, came to save God’s people from their sins and to begin their restoration, making all things new, a work which will be completed in the resurrection on the Last Day when our King returns: “He who began this good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.”
By the time Jesus entered Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday, the day we heard about today in the appointed Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, people were already pretty divided in their opinions of who Jesus was and what He had come to do. The crowds that received Him that day recognized that He fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. He had the pedigree of the legitimate son of David and heir to the great king’s throne, legally, by means of Joseph’s family line, and by blood through Mary’s. He was born in David’s city, Bethlehem, and He lived in Nazareth in Galilee. Even at that moment he rode into the royal city, as did David and so many kings before Him riding upon a donkey. Likewise, the crowds laid down palm branches before Him as they had for so many kings before. And, they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Hosanna is a prayer. It means, “Help us, Lord.” “Save us.” “Intervene now and rescue us.” Who would pray such a prayer as this? Only those in need of saving. Indeed, Jesus came to save sinners, not the righteous. Jesus came to heal the sick, not the healthy. Thus, those who are self-secure and self-righteous are scandalized by Jesus and His ministry. They are offended that He eats and drinks with sinners. They are offended that Jesus would suggest that a widow giving her last coin or a tax collector begging for mercy are doing holier works before God than the Pharisee saying his many and lengthy prayers or giving a tithe so that he may be seen doing so by his peers. And so, the broken receive Him as their King, but the self-righteous and secure, the powerful and the pious reject Him as a liar or a lunatic or worse. If He’s a king, He’s not the king they’re looking for.
By the end of that week in Jerusalem, the powerful and the pious had determined to depose their King. They successfully incited much of the crowds to join them in destroying the Messiah, the Son of God. “It’s better that one man should die for the people,” they reasoned, and they were right. In their ignorance and blindness they couldn’t see that they were ushering their King to His throne, the cross. There, upon the place of a skull, the sentence above His head read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic – indeed, wittingly or unwittingly, all the world confessed Him to be their King. There He was crowned with thorns and His royal, holy, and innocent blood shed for all who pierced Him. This is how King Jesus reigns: in lowliness and humility, selflessness, and sacrificial love. He is the healing of all who are sin-sick unto death. He is the forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation for all who will receive Him.
Happy New Year! Let us make a resolution together to prepare ourselves for the coming of our King. How are we to prepare? What are we to do? Nothing. Nothing but repent, confess, believe, and receive. Our King is coming. Our King has come. And, our King comes to you now. How will you meet Him? He comes to comfort the brokenhearted. He comes fearful sinners to forgive. He comes the burdened by sin and guilt, grief and sorrow to uplift and strengthen. He comes to you, humble, in, with, and under the lowly forms of His Word, water, bread, and wine that you may receive Him as your King, your life, your God and Lord. He comes to you today, at the beginning of this New Year of Grace, just as He has come to you in the past, but with this promise, “Today your salvation is nearer to you than when you first believed.” Hosanna, God save us! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Luke 12:13-21; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Deuteronomy 26:1-11
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Giving thanks is the natural fruit of justification, trust and faith in God for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Thanksgiving blooms naturally from a Christian, the way plump and juicy bunches of grapes burst forth from the vine. Yet, there are many things that will hinder a Christian from giving thanks, amongst them being covetousness and greed.
These are no minor sins. Indeed, God has given no less than two Commandments against covetousness and greed, the Ninth and Tenth – three, if you count the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.” These, like all sins, are ultimately sins against God, a transgression of the First Commandment, as the covetous and the greedy place their fear, love, and trust in some material or worldly created thing over and above the Creator of all things. Thus, in book two of The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, Dante described the covetous and the greedy as being bound and laid face down upon the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts.
We are all susceptible to covetousness and greed. Indeed, these were present and active in the Garden when our First Parents desired what God had forbidden, not only to eat the forbidden fruit, but to be their own gods, producing no fruitful thanksgiving and praise to God their Creator, but only the fruit of sin, which is death. We transgress the Ninth, Tenth, Seventh, and First Commandments, and probably others too, when we are anxious and worried about what we will eat and wear, and when we place our trust in our own works, wealth, and prosperity as did the man in Jesus’ parable this evening.
In answer to two men in the crowd who were disputing over an inheritance, Jesus said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Then He told them a parable about a rich man whose land produced plentiful crops so that his barns were filled and he had no more room to store his grain. After considering, the man decided to tear down his existing barns and build larger ones to store all his grain and his goods. Then the man said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
To our American, independence-idolizing ears, the man’s reasoning likely sounds good, even praiseworthy. After all, it’s his grain, his barns, his land; he should be able to do whatever he likes with what is his. That’s the American dream, right? That’s what we all hope to achieve in our retirement, if not sooner – independence, the freedom to not depend on anyone: parents, children, neighbors, government, God. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry. Sounds good, right? In fact, most of us will be doing just that tomorrow on the day we, as a nation, have designated a Day of National Thanksgiving. But, how many will be giving thanks? What will they be thankful for? And, who will they be thanking? How many will thank no one but themselves?
The rich man who tore down his barns and built bigger ones trusted only in himself. He was pleased with himself and thankful to himself for his own efforts. Was the land really his? No. Did he produce the seed that grew into crops? Did he make the rain to fall and the sun to shine that the seed might grow and be fruitful? No. No, truly, even the man’s life was not his own, just as your life is not your own, and that very night God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Relax, eat, drink, and be merry, for I have ample goods laid up for many years? Today, you are more likely to hear this adaptation: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. For, this is the common tomorrow that all men face, sooner or later. Therefore, since we will not live forever in this life as it is, and we all know that hearses don’t pull U-Hauls – that is to say, “You can’t take it with you.” – the question is, “How, then, shall we live?” However, this isn’t so much a decision that you need to make as it is fruit that you will bear when you have faith and trust in God, the Creator and giver of all things, even your life. Better, then is the way J.R.R. Tolkien put it in The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
St. Paul explains saying, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” For, Paul continues, “[The LORD] has distributed freely, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever. He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” And, the result of this is that “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”
This is to say that your life, possessions, wealth, time, talents, and treasure are all precious gifts to you of God’s most loving grace. He gives them to you to use, for yourself and your family, and He makes you a steward and manager of His gifts to use for others. This is, in part, how you give thanks to God for His love, faithfulness, and providence – by being generous with His gifts, you bear the fruits of faith, which are living proof that you love the Giver more than the gifts. This is your confession in action of your faith in the LORD, who graciously provides you all that you need to sustain your body and life.
No man is an island, but we are all conceived and born into families, communities, villages, and nations. We are our brother’s keepers, and they are ours. Recognition of this fact does not make us socialists, but Christians. The most important fruit that is born of such faith and trust in God is freedom from the slavery of idolatry. Because you are a slave to Christ, you are free to live in His grace and receive His gifts, no strings attached. Therefore, you are free to freely share His gifts and give them to others, knowing that you are losing nothing, for your God who graciously gives you all things will not withhold from you all that is needful and good.
On this National Day of Thanksgiving, we remember the pilgrims who came to the New World with little but the clothing on their backs. After much toil, tribulation, and suffering, they were thankful; they were thankful for the land, for food, for shelter, for friendly neighbors, and for their own lives. They were also thankful for freedom: religious freedom, political freedom, freedom to taxed only with representation, and freedom to a fair trial and justice. Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, because of our prosperity and wealth, we take much for granted and falsely believe that all we have is the fruit of our labors and rightfully ours alone. As a result, we are not thankful, and if we give, we often do so with somewhat less than a cheerful heart.
Well, charity does begin at home, and thanksgiving begins at the altar. We gather here this evening to receive God’s gifts and to offer Him thanks and praise. He graciously forgives our sins, strengthens our faith, and gives us eternal life that we can live and worship and share His gifts without fear of not having enough or running out. He fills you until you are overflowing, then He keeps on pouring and giving that you may be both blessed and a blessing. “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Isaiah 65:17-25
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The coming of God’s kingdom and the kingly reign of God in and through His Son Jesus the Christ are central themes in Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” four times, “the kingdom of heaven” thirty-three times, and “the kingdom” an additional seventeen times – that’s a minimum of fifty-four references to the kingdom of God in Matthew’s Gospel alone! What Matthew is trying to communicate, however, is that God’s kingdom is not a thing or a place so much as it is an action – God’s kinging or reigning activity through the person of His Son Jesus Christ. Because our minds, reason, and wisdom are so very ensnared in sin and our own conceptions of what is glorious, powerful, and good, and because we all but insist on making the abstract to be concrete, our Lord teaches His disciples and all believers about His kingdom by making use of parables, analogies, and metaphors saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like….”
Today, on this Last Sunday of the Church Year, which is also known as the Sunday of the Fulfillment, our Lord teaches us what it will be like when He returns on the Last Day, and what we should be doing, and how we should live our lives, now, as we watch and wait for His coming in hopeful expectation each and every day until that fulfillment arrives. Our Lord says, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
Immediately we are struck by Jesus’ use of unexpected analogy. How, we must ask, is the kingdom of heaven in any way like ten virgins? Well, most likely the virgins themselves and their number, ten, is a figure. Virginity is a figure for purity, innocence, and cleanness; the number ten is a figure for wholeness, or the complete number of those who have been cleansed and made holy in the blood of Jesus – which is everyone – thus, the ten virgins represent all humanity, redeemed in Jesus’ blood. What makes five of them to be wise and five of them to be foolish is not more or less virginity (indeed, that figure excludes such thinking; either one is a virgin, or one is not – there are no degrees of virginity!), but rather it is the oil that they carry in their lamps – do they have enough oil to last through the bridegroom’s delay. Therefore, since it is ultimately the lack of oil that makes five of the virgins to be foolish, we must turn our minds to the question, “What does the oil represent?”
First of all, the oil is essential. It is absolutely necessary if the virgin is to see where she is going in the darkness and, therefore, to see her bridegroom coming to her when He arrives. Without oil, there is no light, but only ignorance and groping around in the darkness. St. Paul uses some terrific imagery about light and darkness in his epistle to the Thessalonians, which you heard this morning, saying “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day.” And, Paul says elsewhere, in his epistle to the Ephesians: “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk, therefore, as children of light.” The meaning here is clear: Once you were in darkness, but now that has changed and you are something different; you are children of light now, walking in light. Therefore, do not return to the darkness. And, what is it that has brought about this change? It is the same thing that brings the light – the oil, that is faith.
What made five of the virgins to be wise and five to be foolish was ultimately faith, in figure, the amount of oil that they had with them. Now, I know that we don’t tend to think of faith as something quantifiable and measurable; in fact, I regularly preach and teach against such an understanding of faith. Even in this parable, I maintain that it is not the amount of faith that matters at all, but simply that you have it. After all, even though the five wise virgins brought extra oil and their lamps were still burning when the bridegroom finally arrived, surely they had little oil left at that time. But, that doesn’t matter, for the important thing is not how much, but that they have it. In contrast, the five foolish virgins had the oil of faith, but they did not have enough for the long haul, to continue to wait and to watch for the bridegroom through his delay. When he finally arrived, not only did they no longer have oil in their lamps, but they were not even near the wedding hall, desperately out searching, in all the wrong places, for a way to rekindle their faith.
To drive this point even further, Jesus says that both the wise and the foolish virgins, all ten of them, fell asleep as they waited. This point is marvelous, for here Jesus levels our reason and our wisdom, our pride and our self-righteousness, our insistence that we cooperate with God in our salvation by our works of piety and charity – for you can do nothing if you are sleeping: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” No, it’s not about what you do, but it’s about what you have, what you have received – faith. This is the Lord’s work by the Holy Spirit, not of your flesh or your will, your reason or wisdom. And, this is really the heart and the root of Jesus’ teaching today about the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven comes now through Jesus. It is received through faith which He has created in you and which He sustains in you through His Word and Holy Sacraments that you might be wise and prepared, whether you are awake or asleep, when He returns on the Last Day. It is all His work, all the time. The wise receive, keep, and treasure this gift as they watch and wait.
And yet, there is still more to Jesus’ parable. Indeed, there is always more with Jesus. The kingdom of heaven, He teaches, is also like a bridegroom coming to marry his virgin bride. How is the kingdom of heaven like a marriage? Actually, this is a common image throughout the Holy Scriptures. Following the creation of our First Parents, Adam and Eve, God joined them in marriage and blessed them that they would be fruitful. God gave us the institution of marriage in the beginning so that, through this selfless and sacrificial union in which a man and a woman become one flesh, we would have a glimpse, a foretaste, and an experience of the kind of love He has for all humanity. God doesn’t want only to be our God, but He wants to be our Husband, and we, the Church, His holy Bride. This truth St. Paul expounds upon in Ephesians chapter five: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery [marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” Our Lord and Husband Jesus laid down His life in selfless, sacrificial death upon the cross for us, His Bride, the Church. When a Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, the Church sprang forth in Holy Blood and Water as a New Eve taken from the side of a New Adam and presented to Him as His Wife and Bride. Now the Church has become the fruitful Mother from which the children of God are born again by the life-giving Seed of the Word and the watery womb of the font. But I digress ;-).
Why is it then, that when the bridegroom finally arrives and the five foolish virgins return and beg to be let in to the feast, the bridegroom answers them saying, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you?” He does not know them because He does not recognize their fruits. They bear, not the fruit of His Vine, but other fruit, bad fruit. Their faith was not sufficient to see them through the time in which He was delayed. They were no longer watching and waiting for His coming in hopeful expectation. They had let their faith grow week and diminish as it was choked out and replaced by cares and anxieties and idolatries of the world and the flesh. They may have thought they were keeping their faith aflame by patronizing other faith dealers – self-help preachers and new-age sorcerers – but they were not feeding their faith, they were not buying oil, and it could not keep them and preserve them in faith over the long haul. Therefore, when the Bridegroom arrived, He did not recognize or know them as His Bride. For, there is only one kind of oil that will preserve you and keep you until He comes; there is only one faith, and only one source of feeding that faith which is recognized by our Lord and Husband – God’s Word and His Holy Sacraments. Remain in these, and He will remain in you, and you will bear much, and the correct and proper fruit.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. All is prepared for you, the Bride of Christ. Though He may tarry, your Bridegroom is coming at a day and an hour you do not know. He says to you, “You believe in God; believe also in Me.” “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.