Sermons

RSS Feed

Peace Be With You

Audio Player

John 20:19-31
Easter 1

    ✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    It was the evening of that first Easter day.  The disciples were all together in one place, all of them except Thomas.  The doors were shut and locked.  They were paralyzed, not knowing what to do.  They had failed Jesus miserably days before.  They saw Him die a bloody death that was manipulated by the Jewish authorities and carried out with precise Roman cruelty.  Now the women were telling them stories of angels and that Jesus was alive again.  What were they to make of that?  The tomb was empty; that was true enough.  Still the disciples were afraid to believe the full truth, afraid for their future, and especially afraid that those who had killed Jesus would surely come for them, now that the rumors of His resurrection were beginning to circulate.

    What is it that you fear, that leaves you paralyzed and uncertain?  What keeps you locked up, bolted in?  We, too, have failed our Lord like the disciples. We may mean well.  We desire to be people of great character and faithfulness, of great study of the Word of God and prayer.  But when confronted with the realities of life, Jesus is generally left standing alone in Gethsemane while we flee in fear.  Even now when we’ve heard of His resurrection, we’re not always sure what to make of it, what it means for us.  We still fear to believe the full truth because other concerns seem to loom larger.  We fear what might happen to us if people find out what our connections to Jesus really are and what we believe; or we fear financial troubles, losing a job, losing a relationship; or we fear ill health or violence or death.  And so we lock ourselves into our own little safe zones–in work, in TV and social media and video games, in drinking and comfort foods, in our hobbies and constant need for entertainment and activity–wherever it is that you go or whatever it is that you do to hide from your fears, from the world, and especially from God.null

    But Jesus breaks through such artificial barriers.  The crucified One comes to the disciples in their locked room.  His risen body now shares fully in the glory of His divine nature, all-powerful, omnipresent.  And so locked doors are no barrier to Him.  Remember the stone was rolled away from the tomb not to let Jesus out but to let the witnesses of the resurrection in.  Jesus doesn’t need to knock–they wouldn’t have opened the door anyway.  He simply appears, as though He was there all along though not seen–just as He is with us, here and now.  You can’t see Him, but His presence is very tangible and real, in that little room and in this one, and wherever two or three are gathered in His Name.  

    And the very first words Jesus speaks to them after His resurrection are not words that berate them for their unbelief; they are gentle words of absolution.  “Peace be with you.” That’s not just some generic greeting.  Jesus’ words give what they say: calm, wholeness, forgiveness.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  Jesus is saying to them and to you, “It’s going to be OK.  I am not here to give you vengeance but mercy.  I do not hold your sins against you.  They have all been paid for and answered for and put away forever.  Everything is as it should be.  I have reconciled you to the Father.  All is well.  Do not fear.  Be at peace.”

    With Jesus’ words come also His wounds, the nail marks in His hands and feet, the spear wound in His side.  But why the wounds?  The rest of His body had been restored and glorified; why keep these wounds after the resurrection?  Firstly, they mark Him as the crucified One. Had Jesus appeared without wounds, there might have been doubt that it really was Jesus.  Maybe it was an impostor.  The wounds mark Him for certain. That’s what Thomas wanted to see. “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Pretty strong statement, but then, dead men don’t ordinarily rise, so we probably shouldn’t point fingers at doubting Thomas.

    But Jesus’ wounds are more than proof that He’s actually risen, they are the source of the peace Jesus spoke of.  Jesus’ peace is not some hollow, religious wish, but peace with God who has reconciled the world to Himself precisely in the death of His Son.  From those wounds alone come our forgiveness, our life, our salvation.  It is written in Isaiah, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds we are healed.”  Jesus retains the scars from His wounds, then, because that’s how we recognize Him for who He is, that’s how we know Him to be the Savior, whose glory it is to lay down His life in love for us, whose “rich wounds yet visible above” are our peace.  It’s only when the disciples saw the wounds of Jesus that they knew gladness and joy.

    Once more Jesus says, “Peace to you.”  With His first word of peace Jesus absolved His disciples and took away their fear.  Now with His second word of peace He sends them to absolve others and take away their fears.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  As Jesus was sent from the Father to speak on the Father’s behalf, so now Jesus was sending His apostles to speak on His behalf and to give out the gifts that He had just won.

    And how will this group of fearful disciples manage this task? What will propel them out the door into the world?  It is written, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus’ breath is the Spirit which delivers His Word.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Church that speaks the Word of Christ. You know how it is when you are out of breath.  You can’t talk. You can barely get the words out. Words are pushed by air, breath. The Church’s breath is not her own but Christ’s, the wind of God that blows from the mouth of risen Jesus. He resuscitates His fearful disciples with the Spirit who renews and gives life to the dry bones of sinners.  He breathes upon His Church as He did here, and as He did in a big way at Pentecost. This one is a little Pentecost, for His disciples, the eyewitnesses of His resurrection. Fifty days later, Jesus would breathe out again over His church, this time bringing 3000 people to Baptism where they too received the Holy Spirit.

    “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” Jesus’ words and breath deliver forgiveness.  You don’t have to search for forgiveness from God. You don’t have to look to heaven, or in your heart. Look for the mouth of the minister and listen with your ears. Forgiveness is something spoken and heard. In the liturgy of personal confession, the pastor asks, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” My forgiveness of itself is not going to do you a bit of eternal good. It may make peace between us, but not between you and God.  Only God’s forgiveness can do that. It comes to you from Christ through His called servant, whomever that man may be.  And that man will always be a sinner in need of the peace of Christ no less than those gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening.

    So when the absolution is spoken to you, think of it as a resurrection appearance of Jesus to you.  For that’s what it is.  Through those whom He has sent to speak in His name, Jesus Himself is speaking to you, “Peace be with you.”  “I forgive you all your sins. . .”

    Of course, the opposite is also true. Jesus says to the apostles, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a gift freely given by grace and freely received through faith in Jesus. But there is no neutral, middle ground between forgiveness and unforgiveness, as there is no middle ground between faith and unbelief. God forces His forgiveness on no one.  If someone refuses it through unrepentance, forgiveness is withheld, and it is the church’s and the pastor’s right and duty to declare that to be so and even to withhold entrance to the Lord’s Supper from such a person, until they come to repentance, which is the Lord’s desire.

    All of this is what we just spoke from the Small Catechism, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

    God’s forgiveness is never something just sort of floating about in the air. It is a concrete, real, earthy thing. Words going from a mouth to an ear by the breath and words of the Son of God, who gave His life and rose again so that we would receive the forgiveness of all of our sins and live in the confident freedom of God’s baptized children.

    One last point–a lot of us can identify with Thomas in this narrative, with our doubts and our questions, especially in this supposedly scientific age where we want everything to be proven before we’ll accept it.  A lot of us would like to have the chance to be able to do what he did, actually see Jesus and touch His hands and side and see that it’s all real.  There’s two things I believe we can learn from Thomas.  The first is, don’t stop assembling yourself with the other followers of Jesus, even when  it sometimes starts to feel pointless.  For it’s in this gathered group where Jesus comes to be present, here in divine service where His special work happens–sometimes in ways you realize, often in ways you don’t.  Thomas didn’t know until after he had already missed out.  Skipping church or Bible class means missing out on those gifts of Christ, the gifts you may especially need that week.

    The second thing to learn from Thomas is that, in fact, you do get to do what he did.  You do get to touch Jesus’ hands and side.  Isn’t that happens when you come to the Sacrament?  You touch the nail marks by receiving the body of Jesus, wounded for your salvation, risen from the dead and fed into you to give you unconquerable life.  You touch Jesus’ side by grasping the cup which contains the very blood which flowed from His side which cleanses you of all sin.  Before you come forward for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus presents His wounds to you as the host and cup are lifted high and the words are spoken, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  The same risen Jesus is here with His words and His wounds, so that you might confess of Him with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

    Blessed, then, are you who have not seen and yet have believed.  For by believing you have life in Jesus’ name.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for some of the above.)

Risen Indeed

Audio Player

Luke 24:1-12; I Corinthians 15:12-26

    The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

    That is our glad confession of faith this day.  The Lord is truly, literally risen.  But there are many who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  They love that today is April fool’s day, because they think that it’s stupid and irrational to believe in such fairy tale nonsense.  At best, they see Easter as a pious myth that has only spiritual, symbolic meaning that isn’t meant to be taken literally.  Christians are the fools.  

    And besides, the world would say, what good is a fleshly resurrection anyway?  In good new age fashion, they believe that the body and material things are lower level stuff, even evil, and our spiritual existence is where it’s really at.  Our culture tends to look at the body as little more than a container, and all that truly counts is the inner, spiritual aspects of who we are.  Your outward gender and sex are supposedly irrelevant to who you truly are.  Reincarnation is based on this faulty thinking.  You supposedly keep coming back in a different body, until finally you get it right, and then you are able to escape the body and leave it behind permanently and join the one spirit of the universe.  null

    Even many Christians are tempted to think this way about the body.  They think that the goal is for the soul to go to heaven, and the body then is pretty much out of the picture.  A recent survey revealed that only about half of the Christians questioned said that they believed in the resurrection of the body.  That’s horrible!  For we confess the resurrection of the body here every week.  We believe in the God who is the Creator of this material world and of our bodies.  It is true that God’s physical creation has been corrupted because of sin.  But the problem is sin, not God’s bodily creation.  The goal of salvation is the restoration of God’s creation and the redemption of our bodies together with our souls.

    In today’s Epistle St. Paul speaks of the marvelous reality of the resurrection, the actual, literal raising of the dead body of Jesus to life again, a body that still bore the glorious marks of His sacrifice on the cross.  Easter is not just about Jesus living on in our memories or being alive in our hearts.  It’s about the truth that He who was indisputably dead, speared in the side and into the heart just to be sure, is risen in glorified flesh–touchable, tangible, and real.

    Today the church proclaims that it is a fact of history that Jesus the crucified One lives.  Earlier in I Corinthians 15 Paul laid out the evidence and eyewitness testimony for Jesus’ resurrection.  The Lord Jesus appeared risen from the dead to Mary Magdalene, to the apostles, to those on the road to Emmaus, and to more than 500 others–men who were still alive when Paul wrote these words, who could be asked and who did verify these claims, that the same Jesus who was nailed to a cross, was seen and heard and touched by them, raised from the dead.  

    And remember this, too.  If there had been a dead body to produce, the Roman and Jewish authorities would have produced it, and put it on public display, like our government sometimes has done to prove a terrorist has been killed.  They had every reason politically to do everything they could to silence these rumors of resurrection.  That was the point of having Jesus’ tomb securely guarded in the first place. 

    And if you think about it, why would the disciples want to make this up, anyway, and risk punishment and crucifixion themselves?  They’d be next on the arrest list.  The disciples showed clearly they weren’t exactly a bold and faithful bunch when threatened with suffering.  And yet after Easter, when faced with persecution, they consistently preached the risen Jesus and the church grew through much affliction.  Several other supposed messiahs had appeared on the scene and faded away.  But not Jesus.  His bodily resurrection isn’t a myth; it is a matter of history, a matter of fact.

    Now imagine for a moment if the resurrection were not true.  What then?  That’s the terrible question that St. Paul raises in the Epistle for the sake of argument.  Suppose that there is no resurrection of the dead.  Suppose that dead bodies do not rise from the grave.  What would that mean for our faith and our life?

    Well, if Christ is not raised, then my preaching is empty and your faith is empty, Paul says. Then it really is an April fools, and you and I are wasting our time here this morning.  For then that would mean that Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t really do the job on sin.  The curse of death would still remain on us.

    If there is no resurrection of the body, then all those who claim to be Christian but go to church only rarely are right on in their thinking.  After all, it’s only what’s inside that counts, right?  If there is no resurrection, then there is no real need for Baptism, or Absolution, or the Lord’s Supper, or preaching.  Those are all things that go on with the body–with the ears and the mouth and butts in the pew.  If there is no resurrection, then we can have a spiritual life apart from our bodily life.  All this stuff at Church, it’s just outward stuff.  Some of you who skip divine service most weeks have been infected with that worldly false teaching and are being lured to trust in something inside of yourself rather than outside of yourself in Jesus.  You’re being tempted to change the 3rd Commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day whenever there isn’t something else you want to do.”  One of the best tests of faith in the resurrection is what happens the Sunday after Easter.

    If soul and body are not intrinsically connected, then what goes on with our bodies has very little to do with our faith.  You can be a Christian on the inside and live and dress and act however you please on the outside.  You can talk about the faith that you have in your heart and then conduct your physical life no differently than the unbelieving culture.  It doesn’t matter, if there is no resurrection of the body.

    But of course that way of thinking is pure foolishness; and those who live believing that they can separate body and spirit are deceived.  For it is written, “Honor God with your body.”  On the Last Day all the dead will rise, some to everlasting life and joy, others to everlasting death and torment.  Let each of us, then, repent this day of our sin and false belief, and let us cling to the truth of the living Jesus, our Savior.  

    For Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. As the angels announced at the tomb, “He is not here, He has risen!”  Jesus Himself said it on Easter evening, “Why are you troubled? . . . Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”  Jesus’ rising from the dead is our deliverance from the powers of darkness.  It is the Father’s seal of approval on the work of His Son.  By raising Him from the dead, God showed that He was pleased with the death of His Son, that He accepts it as the redemption price for the world, that your sins are covered and forgiven by His blood.  You are now reconciled to God in Christ.  Nothing in all creation can undo what Jesus has done.  You who trust in Christ are fully redeemed.  You have new life in Him.

    Jesus is the first-fruits of the dead, which means that He is the beginning of the harvest, the first of many more to rise through Him.  That’s why Easter is such a big deal–it’s not only His victory, it is also your victory, too.  Jesus is the source and spring of our bodily resurrection.  For the Scriptures say that those who believe and are baptized are members of His body.  And where the head goes, the body must surely follow.  Jesus’ resurrection stands at the beginning of this New Testament age, ours comes at the close of the age.  But through our baptismal union with Him they are inseparably connected.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  

    Jesus alone can be trusted with our death, for it is written, “Death no longer has mastery over Him.” And death therefore no longer has mastery over anyone who is in Him by faith.  Jesus’ death is our death to sin. His life is our life before God the Father. The preaching of His death and resurrection is not some pious hope or merely some inspiring religious message, but it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

    Christ has glorified your bodies.  For not only did He purify you by taking on your very flesh and blood in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not only did He bear your sins in His body on the tree, but He has broken the curse of death by rising in the flesh on the third day.  And now He baptizes your bodies into His death and life.  He speaks His Word of forgiveness into them.  He feeds your bodies with His own life-giving Body and Blood.  God claims your bodies as His temple.  He honors them with His presence and works through them to bless others.  And though these bodies will one day die and decay, God has promised to raise them and glorify them at Christ’s return.  He will change our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.

    So do not be led astray by all of the real April fools who would try to get you to doubt the Word of Christ and His resurrection.  The devil will continue flinging such excrement until the day of Judgment.  If there is no resurrection, if the body isn’t saved, then neither is the soul.  And so St. Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”  If Christianity is only good for this life, if all Jesus is good for is to help us feel good about ourselves, cope with life, give our kids a little morality, then we are of all people the most pitiful.

    But Christ is risen from the dead.  Your greatest enemy has been defeated by the cross.  What’s the worst that can happen to you?  What is there left to be afraid of in this world if death is defeated and all sin is forgiven?  What do you have to fear of poverty, sickness, violence, cancer, hunger, persecution?  Christ has conquered and overcome it all for you.

    There is now great meaning to your life because Christ is risen.  There is meaning even in suffering and sorrow and affliction. And because of what we celebrate this day, your future is bright in Christ; it is brimming with promise.  Suffering will give way to resurrection.  Jesus Christ is risen today.  He is alive and among us to give Himself to us, even from this very altar.  He is our meat and drink indeed.  Faith lives upon no other.  Truly, this is the day which the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  

    The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

You Have Kept the Good Wine Until Now

Audio Player

John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    The Apostle John writes his Gospel in such a way that there is often a twofold meaning in his words. On the one hand, John will narrate the true, literal words and actions of Jesus. But on the other hand, he will often do this in such a way as to emphasize a deeper point about Christ and His redeeming work. That is the case with today’s Gospel.  There is the straightforward, explicit meaning; but there is also a deeper, implicit meaning which shows us the ongoing significance of Christ’s miracle and how it still continues in the church.

    We know the story well, how the wine ran out at this wedding feast, how at His mother’s prodding, Jesus was moved to help out, how the servants filled six stone jars with water which Jesus then miraculously changed to wine, how when the new wine was taken to the master of the feast, he was pleased but also bothered that it wasn’t served first; for it was better than any of the other wines.

    So, what are we supposed to learn from this?  Well clearly we learn that Jesus is truly God. For no mere man can change one substance into another without doing something to it along the way.  Water gets turned into wine every year in vineyards and wineries throughout the world, as rainwater produces grapes and juice and fermentation makes the wine.  But here Jesus compresses all of that power of His creation into this one moment.  It is as we sang a moment ago: Jesus is “God in flesh made manifest.” This miracle reveals Jesus to be the divine Lord of the elements of creation, who cares even about the little things, like beverages at weddings feasts.

    We also clearly learn in this Gospel that Christ approves of marriage and honors it. For if He didn’t uphold marriage, He wouldn’t have sanctioned it here with His presence.  Especially in our current cultural context–where marriage is being redefined into nothingness, where people behave as if they’re free to join themselves together sexually without God first giving them to each other, where people cast marriage aside when it no longer fits their plans for self-fulfillment–with the casualties of the sexual revolution piling up all around us, we must constantly be reminded that matrimony is a holy thing, established by God Himself before sin ever entered the world. The Lord is the One who joins together a man and a woman and makes them to be husband and wife. Therefore, the marriage relationship should be held in the highest regard.

    Consider, after all, how the Lord has given two commandments that uphold this holy estate. In the 6th Commandment, the Lord seeks to protect marriage from adultery and to maintain the faithful unity of husband and wife. And in the 4th Commandment, He establishes the marital relationship as the foundation of the family and commands that the husband and wife be honored by their children.  We must learn, then, from our Lord’s presence at the wedding feast of Cana how He fully approves of married life.  Those who are single should honor God and this institution by remaining chaste. And those who are married should treat their spouse as a gift from the Lord Himself.

    And last of all, we clearly see from this Gospel that alcohol is not inherently sinful.  Alcohol can definitely be misused for self-indulgent purposes that unleash the sinful nature; drunkenness is clearly a sin.  Nevertheless, all of those who would call the good gifts of God’s creation evil must reckon with the fact that Jesus here produced about 150 gallons, the equivalent of more than 700 bottles, of vintage wine for the people to enjoy. We do better simply to follow the words of St. Paul in I Timothy: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because the word of God and prayer make it holy.”

    All of this is the straightforward meaning of today’s Gospel. And yet John clues us in that there is still much more for the church to grasp in this account.  For John calls this miracle a “sign.” And signs point beyond themselves to something else, to a larger reality. This changing of water into wine, then, is a sign of something much greater.

    We begin to perceive what that something greater is in the very opening words of this passage: “on the third day.”  In this way the believer is told right from the start that the events at Cana are directly connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus, who rose from the grave “on the third day.” This sign points us to Christ’s greater work of overcoming the consuming power of the grave and restoring all of creation to its original newness and abundance.

    When Jesus was told by His mother that the wine ran out at the wedding banquet, Jesus responded to her with these strange words: “What does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” When Jesus refers to His “hour” in John’s Gospel, it is always a reference to His impending crucifixion. So why would Jesus make that connection?  What would running out of wine have to do with the cross?

    Part of the connection is revealed in the word used here to say that the wine failed and ran short.  It’s the very same word in Greek that is used in Romans 3, where St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The reason that the things of this creation fail us and run short is because we ourselves have failed and come up short in keeping God’s Law and living according to it. This has not only brought mortal judgment on us; it has brought a curse on all things. Even the blessings of God’s good creation are temporary.  Sooner or later all of our stuff will fail us.  The Scriptures say that the world in its present form is in bondage to decay and is passing away.

    So, when the wine ran out, that drew attention to the hour of Christ’s suffering and dying in order to redeem His sapped and fallen creation. Jesus reminds His mother that if she is going to appeal to him for a miracle, she must also deal with the cross, where He will break the curse of decay and death forever. Already here, then, Jesus was beginning to bring about the redemption of creation, which would come to fulfillment on Good Friday and Easter. For He was reversing the draining force of sin so that there was bounty and joy once again.

    In order for this creation to be made new again, the curse on it had to be removed.  And that curse was broken through the flesh of Christ sacrificed on Calvary.  Galatians 3 declares, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”  Jesus took the curse into Himself so that by His death sin’s draining domination over us and over creation would be undone.  All that saps the life out of this fallen world He has subdued and destroyed by His holy cross.

    The fact that this miracle occurs on the third day not only points forward to the resurrection, but also points back to the 3rd day of creation when God brought forth the fruit-bearing plants from the earth.  Jesus performs this sign with the fruit of the vine in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah’s kingdom.  It is written in Amos, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when . . . sweet wine will drip from the mountains and flow from the hills.” No running short there! And Isaiah foretold a day when the Lord would swallow up death forever. Of that day he said this, “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.” In this miracle, then, we begin to see the very kingdom of God and the new creation breaking in, which will be revealed in all its glory on the Last Day.

    The six water pots were filled to the brim. For the fullness of time has come.  Jesus fulfills all that was written in Moses and the Prophets.  Out of the water of the Old Testament promises we draw the finest wine of Jesus Himself.  The number six points us to the day of man’s creation in the beginning.  And it points us to the day of our recreation on the sixth day, Good Friday.  The water and the wine in this miracle, then, are signs of the water and the blood which flowed from Jesus’ side and which flow to us now in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  The six jars were used for ritual washing.  Likewise, the Scriptures say that Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration, and that the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin.  Our Lord renewed the gifts of creation at Cana’s wedding feast, and now He renews us through His sacramental gifts in water and wine, so that we might be restored to the sweetness of life with God.  

    You must learn to see and believe, then, that the miracle of Cana still goes on; the wedding banquet continues.  The heavenly groom, Jesus Christ, comes in the Divine Service to His churchly bride to comfort you with His love.  By water and the Word He has made you His own.  And in Holy Communion you become one with Christ as He gives you His life and all that He is.  He who showed Himself to be Lord of the elements at Cana now shows Himself to be Lord of the elements on the altar.  He causes His blood and body to be present under the wine and the bread, and through this miracle He recreates you in Himself.  These elements of creation won’t fail you; for they deliver to you the Lord Himself who will never fail you or leave you.  His grace doesn’t run out; there is always enough and more.  That is why the Scriptures say, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

    Know, then, that the Lord here is giving you a vintage sign:  at Cana, at Calvary, and on the altar–a sign of His glory, glory revealed in His love for you.  As always, He has saved the choice wine for last.  He has given His best; and it is all for you.  Come, then, in faith to His table, that you may partake in the great wedding feast when He returns.  For it is written in Revelation 19, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

This is Jesus, the King of the Jews

Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player Audio Player

Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Sometimes you’ll hear detractors of Christianity say that Christians merely took over a pagan winter solstice holiday when they established Christmas.  These detractors will suggest that the older and more authentic religion is the pagan one, and Christians are just copycats who made stuff up about Jesus.  But that is most certainly not the case.  

    In the days of the early church it was a common belief that great people died on the same date that they had been conceived in the womb and given life.  Most believed that Jesus died on March 25th, the date of the Passover of that year.  And so if that’s his conception date, then his birthday would be December 25th.  And thus we have the date of Christmas.  

    However, there were some who believed that the date of the Passover was April 6th the year that Jesus died.  9 months after that would place His birth on January 6th.  To this day Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate their Christmas on what we observe as Epiphany [or sometimes on January 7].  And so we have the 12 days of Christmas, stretching between these dates.  And in a very real sense, even in our tradition, January 6th is the Gentile Christmas.  For it is the first time that non-Jews are given to see the Messiah Jesus, who is their Savior and our Savior, too.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask.  It’s important to note that these Wise Men, these Magi, were almost certainly not worshipers of the true God prior to this time.  They weren’t kings themselves, despite what the old hymn says.  They were likely assistants to a king, counselors, advisers.  And their title as Magi would suggest that the “wisdom” they offered to the king came at least in part from occult magic, astrology, the seeking of power and knowledge from various sources other than the Word of God–“reading the tea leaves” so to speak, reading the stars, and other pagan things.

    Of course, they would have had written wisdom, too, and among that wisdom was probably some portions of the Old Testament Scriptures.  For remember where these Magi came from, from the East, from Babylon and Persia east of Israel–the place where the Israelites had been carried away captive as exiles centuries earlier.  Several of those Israelite captives became counselors to the king, Wise Men of sorts–people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who wouldn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, or Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den for continuing to pray to the Lord against the official edict.  And those Jewish Wise Men would certainly have brought with them not only the practice of their faith but scrolls containing the words of Moses and the prophets.  

    The Jews returned to Israel a few decades later.  But the Gentile Magi surely would have retained copies of those words over the years, such as this prophecy in Numbers 24, “A Star shall come out of Jacob, a [royal] Scepter shall rise out of Israel...”  Now the Magi probably only understood that to be about the birth of an important earthly king.  But when the special star or heavenly body appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, God by His grace still used their imperfect and muddled wisdom to lead them to seek out Him who is Wisdom in the flesh, the King of the Jews, Christ our Lord.  

    And that’s one of the first points that we should take out of this Gospel today–by the grace of God, He draws even people like this to Himself: semi-pagan astrologers and Magi, people who are enmeshed in false belief and false religion, and He calls them away from that to the Truth.  He draws Gentiles like us who fall so easily into superstitious thinking, who are more enthralled with the notion of ghosts and aliens than with divine service–we who are tempted to look for guidance and happiness in all sorts of things other than God’s words revealed and given to us in Scripture, who love to get enmeshed in mystical and spiritual speculation, who wonder if there really is something to fortune tellers and palm readers and those people who claim to channel deceased loved ones.  Even people like us, with our muddled hearts and brains, God yet draws to Himself through His Word, in spite of ourselves, because of His grace and mercy, the very grace and mercy that caused the Lord to become flesh in the first place to redeem and save us, to lead us into all truth.  This manifestation, this epiphany of Jesus to the Wise Men, then, is good news for us, for it shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of Simeon’s words, “a Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the Glory of God’s people Israel.”

    You can tell that the Magi were thinking in terms of an earthly king, because the first place they go in Israel is to the capital city, to Jerusalem.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That’s where they expect to find Him.  But the Messiah King is not one who comes surrounded by the finery and the glories of the capital.  He comes rather in the lowliness of the humble village of Bethlehem, the “house of bread.”  For Jesus has come to be for us the Bread of Life.

    Our fallen nature thinks God is to be found in places of power, that true religion is about that which brings health and wealth and success and happy feelings.  But that’s not where Jesus is at.  Herod has all that.  Jesus, on the other hand, ends up having to flee from Herod’s murderous scheme, carted by Joseph and Mary to exile in Egypt for a time, living an ordinary and common life for us.  The life of the true King is marked from the beginning by suffering and the cross.  That’s where Jesus is, not surrounded by earthly glory, but robed in humility for us.  True religion in this world is also marked by this humility of Jesus.

    Now it’s interesting to note in this story the difference between the Gentile wise men and the Jewish priests and scribes.  On the one hand, the Jews who possessed the Scriptures in their fullness and knew the prophecies of the Messiah were greatly troubled at the thought that the Messiah was born.  It says here that King Herod and all Jerusalem were shaken by this news.  Why would that be?  You would think they might be glad, joyful.  You would think that they would want to personally escort the wise men to Bethlehem so that they could see for themselves.  Instead, they’re more concerned about how this might upset their lives and the political structure.  Instead, they quote the Scripture they know so well and stay home.  

    In many ways, they represent a good chunk of American Christianity.  Some of the most “spiritual” people I know are ones who love to go off on this or that religious or moral topic, but who rarely if ever see the need to come to divine service.  Far too many people think that if you just learn enough facts of the Bible, or learn enough morality from the Bible, then you will have God as well.  You can stay at home with your private spirituality and forsake the presence of Christ in the flesh in His gathered Church.  But such people are sorely deceived.  They are not Christian.  We, too, must guard against priding ourselves on our Bible knowledge and instruction rather than glorying in the One whom the Bible is all about, our Savior Jesus.  We must be careful not to let the Word of God simply become window-dressing in our lives lest we stop praying and meditating upon it.  

    The Magi are our example here.  They receive the Word of God properly, in such a way that they are moved to seek out Christ in the flesh.  The Magi rely on the written Word, but they are not content with the Bible for its own sake.  They cling to it for the sake of Christ to whom it leads them.  That is always the purpose of the Word, to lead us to the Word made flesh, Jesus.  He is there for us, too, concretely and tangibly in the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, no less so than He was for these Wise Men.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That title, “the King of the Jews” might well spark some connections and meditation in your hearts and minds.  It’s actually a title that only shows up in two places in the Gospel–here at the beginning of Jesus’ life, and later at the end of Jesus’ life.  The two situations are parallel.  King Herod was envious and tried to protect His power when Jesus was born, seeking to have Him killed; He ordered the deaths of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem.  So also in the Passion narrative we hear of how the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate knew that the Jews had handed Jesus over to him because of envy.  They, too, wanted to protect their position and power.  In both cases it’s the Gentiles who see Jesus more clearly as He is.  Pilate finds no fault in Him, and Pilate’s wife even calls Jesus a just Man.  But in the end, Pilate caves to the pressure, and in fulfillment of God’s will, perhaps to mock the Jewish leaders, He places over our Lord’s head the inscription “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  

    So near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we are given a crystal clear answer to the Magi’s question near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  He is there, the humble Child, God in the flesh, the light of God's love broken into the darkness of our sinful world, revealed in lowliness for us.  And above all, He is there on the cross, with the inscription over his head declaring, “This is Jesus, the King of Jews.”  He is the King who is given gold for His royal nature but who chooses to wear the crown of thorns.  He is the King who is given incense, used at the time of prayer and sacrifice, who answers our prayers by being the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  He is the King who is given myrrh, a spice used for Jesus’ burial in the grave, which He would conquer in His victorious resurrection.  This Jesus, the King of the Jews, has come to redeem all people–wise men from the east, Roman conquerors from the west, Jew and Gentile, you and me.  Behold your King.

    God grant that His Word would continually accomplish its purpose of leading you to the Word made flesh, that with the Magi we might come and kneel before Jesus week by week as he gives His gifts to us, His true body and blood offered up for the forgiveness of our sins.  For just as the Wise Men returned home by a different path, walking along a new way, so God gives you also to return to your heavenly home by a different path than the old ways of this world.  We return home by Christ Himself, who is the Way.  Arise and shine, for your light has come.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Thomas the Twin

Eve of St. Thomas
December 20

John 11:1-16
John 14:1-16

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    If Advent is the pregnancy before the delivery at Christmas, then we’ve just about come full term.  In only a few days the celebration of our Lord’s birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary will take place.  In talking about our Lord’s nativity, it would be blasphemous, of course, for me to say that Jesus had a twin.  For Jesus alone is the holy Son of God who took on our flesh and blood to redeem us from sin and death.  There is none other like Jesus.  And yet, on this Eve of St. Thomas, I would suggest to you that there is a sense in which we can speak of our Lord having a twin.  The life of Thomas teaches us of that.

    Most of us know St. Thomas only as doubting Thomas.  He was the one who wouldn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus was raised from the dead.  He said the only way he would believe was if he touched the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and put his hand to Jesus’ side where the spear had pierced Him.  He just wasn’t going to be hurt further after he had seen his Lord dead by believing what he thought was some desperate tale about a resurrection.

    And so we usually think of Thomas only as a skeptic and a doubter.  But the fact of the matter is that he could also show great loyalty and devotion.  We heard an example of that in today’s first reading.  Word had just come to Jesus that one His friends, Lazarus, was deathly ill in Bethany.  In the course of events Jesus told His disciples that they were going to Bethany to see Lazarus.

    But the disciples balked at this idea.  For Bethany was in Judea, and it was only a short time before that the religious leaders in Judea had tried to stone Jesus and kill him.  Jesus had made the claim to them not only that He existed before Abraham but that He Himself was the Lord God, the great I AM.  The Jews took this to be blasphemy and desired to stone Him.  But He hid Himself from them and eluded them.  Therefore, to go back to Judea would be to risk life and limb, both for Jesus and His disciples.

    But after their discussion, Thomas said these words, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”  Despite the risk, Thomas was willing to go with Jesus.  Even in the face of death, Thomas did not want to depart from Jesus’ side.  Though Thomas, like the rest of the disciples, would not be so bold later on, His courage and faithfulness here is to be praised.

    The name Thomas literally means “twin.”  In fact sometimes he was called “Didymus” which is the Greek word for “twin.”  This is a good name for him to have.  For it is a fitting description of all who would be disciples of Jesus.  Remember, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”  This is precisely what Jesus calls us to do, to be like Him and to have twin lives that look just like His, dying with Him in order that we may live with Him.  Jesus said, “If any one would come after Me, He must deny himself and take up His cross and follow Me.”  To be a Christian is to be Christ’s twin, to be crucified with Him, which means to drown the old Adam with all sins and evil lusts, to repent.  It is to lay down your life for others in your daily callings and to be willing to suffer.

    However, you are also given to be Christ’s twin not only in His death but also in His resurrection.  For through your baptism into His body and your faith in His name, you now share in His risen identity.  You are little Christ’s before the throne of heaven, brothers and sisters of Christ bearing His very image before the Father.  You are as pure and holy as Jesus Himself by His grace.  Sharing His identity and image, you also share in His life.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  Jesus is the firstborn twin who leads the way for you second born twins out of the womb of death into new and everlasting life.

    This is the way about which Thomas asked in the second reading.  Jesus said,  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”  Jesus has prepared a place for you in the Father’s house by His cross and empty tomb.  And Jesus alone is the doorway into that house.  Participating in His cross and empty tomb by faith, counting yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, you are given entry to your heavenly home.  

    Thomas would certainly participate in Jesus’ cross.  According to tradition Thomas went on a missionary journey to preach the Gospel in India.  There is to this day a Christian community in India that claims descent from Christians first converted by the preaching of Thomas.  

    The tradition states that Thomas suffered a martyr’s death, and that he was speared to death for what he preached.  What a wonderful irony that is!  For even as Thomas wouldn’t believe until he had touched the spear mark in Jesus’ side, so it was a spear that Thomas would take in His own body for the name of Jesus.  Because of His faith in Christ the very symbol that is now identified with Thomas is a spear.  He truly was Christ’s twin.  He shared in Christ’s death, and He will also share in Christ’s resurrection, even as He now dwells according to his soul with Christ His Savior in heaven.

    So it is also for you.  Like Thomas, you have been marked as Christ’s twin.  You have received the sign of the holy cross both on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.  Wearing the sign of His death, you shall also wear the crown of life which He has won for you.

    This is the sure hope that Christmas brings to you.  God has come in the flesh for you.  And as Thomas would later see and believe, God is raised in the flesh for you. Our Lord became just like you, so that you might become just like Him.  Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have believed.  

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

St. Lucia Points Us to Christ

Revelation 7:9-17                                                    
Matthew 19:23-30

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    St. Lucia was born in Sicily in the year 283 A.D. to rich parents, members of the nobility.  However, her father died when she was still very small, and so she and her mother Eutychia were left alone.  Eutychia taught and raised her in the faith, and Lucia was a very devout and pious young woman.  In fact even though they still had much wealth, she desired to devote all her worldly goods to the service of the poor.  Her mother, though, did not permit her to do this.  

    But then something occurred that changed her mother’s mind.  Eutychia had been suffering for several years from a hemorrhage, a chronic flow of blood.  Lucia prayed for her mother’s healing.  Evidently, her prayer was answered.  Her mother was restored to health; the hemorrhage stopped.  In response to this wonderful gift of healing from God, Eutychia allowed Lucia to have her wish and to distribute the vast majority of her share of the family wealth to the poor.null

    There was just one problem.  Lucia had been betrothed to a deceitful young man who was not a Christian.  He loved Lucia’s riches more than her.  When she gave away her wealth, he was furious.  His greediness moved him to get revenge.  He went to the governor of Sicily and  exposed the fact to him that Lucia was a Christian.  This was during the year 303 when Christianity was still illegal and Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the church was taking place.  All that someone had to do was denounce a person publicly to the authorities, and that person would be arrested.  If they didn’t deny or recant their faith by cursing Christ and offering incense to Caesar, then they could be killed.

    Lucia did not recant or deny her faith in Christ even under this threat.  As a result she was tortured, her eyes were put out, and she was executed, perhaps having been burned at the stake.  Her martyr’s death immediately made her famous in Sicily, and the story of her life and death, with some embellishments, lives on to this day.  

    Particularly in Sweden, Lucia is remembered on December 13th by having one of the daughters of the house dress in a white robe with a crown of lighted candles and go singing from room to room early in the morning while it is still dark to awaken the other family members and to offer them cakes of saffron bread.  There are several reasons for this tradition.  First of all, Lucia is said to have once brought bread to needy people who were living in a cave.  This gift also reminds us of Lucia’s faith that Jesus is the Bread of Life.

    The other aspects of this tradition are also important.  The white robe is a reminder of the holiness of the saints who have died in Christ, and indeed of all those buried with Christ in baptism.  It is written of Christians in the book of Revelation, “These are they who come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” Jesus Christ.  St. Lucia’s holiness arose not from her own goodness or her virginity but from the cleansing forgiveness of Christ.  

    The crown of candles is also significant for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it indicates that even when Lucia no longer had her eyes, she still had the light of Christ to walk by.  She could yet “see” by faith, far better than any of her persecutors could ever see.  Though physically blind, she had better vision than any unbeliever.  For she was enlightened with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as we say in the catechism.  Furthermore, the fact that these candles are worn as a crown is a reminder of the crown of glory that all believers shall inherit through Christ in heaven.  Though her life in this world ended in darkness and death, her eternal existence is one of light and life, even as it is for all the faithful.  Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.  He who follows me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.”  

    Jesus entered our world of darkness by literally becoming one of us.  He was born at midnight in the cold that He might warm us with the light of His presence.  It is fitting that Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25th when the days are just beginning to grow lighter again. For He is the Light who wins out over the powers of darkness.  Though Jesus suffered on the cross under a dark shroud as the sacrifice for our sin, on the third day He came forth from the gloom of death in resurrection light.  He is the Sun of righteousness who has risen with healing in His wings, as we heard this past Sunday, and through faith in Him, Romans 8 says, we too are conquerors, victors over death and the devil.  

    St. Lucia bore witness to that fact in her life and in her death.  In fact the word “martyr” literally means “witness.”  In giving away much of her goods and wealth to help the poor, she bore witness to the love of Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich.  She bore witness to a belief in God as the Creator who can and will provide for all of our daily needs.  And in death she bore witness to God as the Recreator, who is more powerful than death.  She testified that she loved the Lord and His salvation even more than life itself in this world.  Like Abraham, she was looking for a better country, a heavenly one.  She knew that the only way to have life in the world to come is to lay down your life in the world that is.

    So it is also for you, especially in this Advent tide as you set your hearts on the coming of the Lord.  You may not be called to be a martyr, but you are given to testify to Christ in word and deed and to take up your cross and follow Him.  Jesus said, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Baptized into Christ, you are given to live the pattern of His life–humility before glory, death before resurrection, crucifying your old Adam that Christ may be pre-eminent and that His life may show forth in and through you.  

    This life of repentance and faith is not easy.  It is truly a narrow road on which you are called to run.  But along this road, Hebrews says, you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses–Abraham and Joseph and Moses, Gideon and David and Samuel, prophets and apostles, saints and martyrs like Lucia.  And above all, you are upheld by Him who laid this path and ran it for you, Jesus.  Consider Him, Hebrews says, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Your road will end up where Christ’s ended up, for you are in Him.  What is now only a candle in the darkness will soon be the dawning of the everlasting Day of resurrection at Jesus’ return.  Let that joy set before you give you endurance in the faith.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

St. Nicholas Points Us to Christ

St. Nicholas Day
December 6, 2017
1 John 4:7-14
Luke 18:15-17

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    One of the complaints that Christians often voice at this time of year is that Christmas has become too commercialized and too secularized.  It’s actually become a big deal just for a public official or business to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.”  Far too many people observe the holy day of the Christ mass without any acknowledgment of the Christ at all.  Everything’s about parties and presents and family time without any meditation on the main focus of Christmas, namely, the incarnation of our Lord, His taking on of our flesh to save us.  Santa Claus gets more attention than Jesus.

    Perhaps, however, this problem can begin to be corrected by understanding where the legend of Santa Claus comes from and the actual historical basis of who he is.  Most of us have heard of Santa Claus referred to as St. Nick or St. Nicholas.  And in fact that’s where the name comes from–Santa is the word for Saint and Claus is a shortened form in Dutch of the word Nicholas.  Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.

     Now Santa Claus has become the stuff of fairy tales and has been influenced in many ways by pagan notions.  (And I think we devote way too much effort trying to convince the children that the fairy tale is real.)  But St. Nicholas was an actual person who lived in the early 300's A.D.  Since December 6th is the day on which Nicholas is recognized in the church, we will focus a bit on his life this evening and meditate on what it has to teach us about Christ and Christmas.null

    Nicholas was born into a wealthy family in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey.  Having become a Christian, Nicholas chose not to pursue a life of riches but instead devoted himself to the church.  He eventually became bishop of a city called Myra.  Myra was a decadent and corrupt city, and Nicholas became well known for transforming it by his pious hard work and preaching of the Word of Christ.  

    St. Nicholas was also known for his love for those in need, such as poor widows and orphaned children.  As bishop he saw to it that the church worked to care for the needy.  Perhaps his giving of gifts, especially to impoverished children, is part of what formed the Santa Claus tradition.

    And there is one story in particular about Nicholas that stands out above the rest and is the most famous.  There was a very poor man in the city of Myra who had three daughters.  This man did not have any money to provide his daughters with suitable dowries necessary for them to get married.  Without being able to marry, it was likely that their aging father would not be able to keep them from being sold into slavery or prostitution.  Nicholas was deeply troubled about this, and he decided to help.  But he chose to do so in a way that wouldn’t draw attention to himself.  Evidently taking from his own resources, Nicholas prepared three bags of gold.  On three successive nights St. Nicholas went to this man’s house and threw a bag of gold into one of the open windows–one bag of gold each night for each of the three daughters, sufficient to provide each of them with the necessary dowry.  Later on when this story was told in colder regions, Nicholas was portrayed dropping the bags of gold down the chimney.  Still to this day three golden bags or golden spheres are the sign of a pawnbroker, in remembrance of how Nicholas bought these three daughters out of hock, you might say, redeeming and rescuing them from the fate that awaited them.

    There are many more accounts of Nicholas helping others, too.  For instance, once there were three men who were falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to death.  But Nicholas stepped in and spoke in their defense and was able to secure their release and give them their lives back.  

    It’s interesting that in all the stories of St. Nicholas that I’ve seen, the number three keeps popping up–three daughters without dowries, three falsely accused men, three sailors whom he rescued from drowning.  And this is fitting.  For Nicholas was one who was a defender of the Trinitarian faith, someone who proclaimed belief in the one and only true God who is threefold, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

    In fact, it is almost certain that St. Nicholas was one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicea which defended and confirmed the teaching that Jesus is both true God and true man.  It is from this council in 325 A.D. that we get the Nicene Creed which we confess here each week.  A certain false preacher named Arius was teaching that Jesus was not of the same substance as the Father, that the Son of God was a created being, god-like but not true God.  The Council of Nicea roundly rejected that heresy and reaffirmed the Scriptural position that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human in one undivided person, true God from all eternity.  In fact, there is a story that at the Nicene Council Nicholas became so upset with Arius’s heresy that he slapped him in the face.  The main way to get on the naughty list with St. Nicholas, it seems, is to believe or proclaim false teaching.

    This is how we should remember St. Nicholas, as a defender of the Christian faith, faith in Christ the Son of God as the only Savior from sin and death and the devil.  Nicholas preached Jesus, baptized people into Jesus’ body, absolved people of their sins in Jesus’ name, fed them with the life-giving body and blood of Jesus.  That’s the real St. Nicholas.  He wasn’t a Santa Claus taking attention away from Jesus.  He was a preacher drawing everyone’s attention to Jesus.  He wasn’t one making a list and checking it twice to see who was naughty and who was nice.  For he knew that his people were both sinners and saints at the same time and that all desperately needed Christ’s forgiveness and mercy.  

    By God’s grace the love of Christ was shown forth both in St. Nicholas’ preaching and also in his life.  We give attention to the generous deeds of Nicholas because that ultimately draws our attention to the infinitely generous love that he himself first received from God.  It was that love of God that was working through Nicholas in his life.  

    After all, just consider his deeds.  Nicholas sacrifices and gives of his own resources to save the three daughters.  Is that not what Jesus did for us?  He sacrificed and gave Himself for us to rescue us from being eternally violated by death and the devil.  He redeemed us not with bags of gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  So it is that we are now worthy and prepared to be His holy bride.

    Likewise, Nicholas stood in to defend those facing death, risking his own name and reputation.  Is that not what Jesus did and still does for us?  He stood between us and eternal death on the cross and thereby kept us from having to suffer that most capital of all punishments.  Furthermore, the Scriptures say that even now Jesus is standing before the Father as our advocate, speaking in our defense, responding to every charge laid against us with the merits of His own blood and righteousness.  Through Him we are set free to be people of God.

    The same love of Christ that was at work in St. Nicholas is at work also in you.  For in your baptism you were crucified with Christ; and you no longer live, but Christ lives in you and through you.  The Lord is working in you so that His boundless love which has been shown to you might spill over to others, in the giving of yourself, in the giving of gifts–not so that you can feel good about yourself or draw attention to yourself, but giving that is anonymous and entirely for the good of others, like a bag of gold through an open window at night.  That’s why I think it is a fine tradition for someone who gives an anonymous gift to say that it’s from Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.  For such a gift is given in a spirit that reflects the love of Christ as Nicholas did, and ultimately it seeks to give glory not to ourselves but to God who is the true Giver of every good and perfect gift.  

    Indeed every present that we give is a sign of that Greatest Gift of all, the Christ child in the manger–given to us almost anonymously, noticed only by shepherds on that night, recognized and received only by few throughout His life.  But hidden within the wrapping of His lowly humanity dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily full of grace and mercy.  Jesus is Love in the flesh for you.  There is no greater present than that.  That is the ultimate gift St. Nicholas sought to give.

    So is there such a person as Santa Claus?  Of course there is.  If you don’t believe in the existence of St. Nicholas, you might as well not believe in the existence of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or the wise men.  Sure you’re not going to find him sliding down your chimney.  But he is with us whenever we gather for divine service.  For in Christ’s presence dwell angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all the saints and believers who have gone before us.  Thank God that St. Nicholas lives.  He lives forever because, just like you, he was baptized and believed in Jesus, who was born, and died, and rose for us all.  

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Posts