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Eve of the Nativity of our Lord

Christmas Eve, 2018
Luke 2:1-20

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

    People sometimes speak of the Christmas service and festivities as a birthday party for Jesus.  And I can understand the desire to try to explain the holy day in a simple way like that to little children.  But that’s not really what’s happening here.  It’s not as if we need to add another candle to the cake for the Eternal Son of God; it’s not as if His humanity ages like ours does as He is seated now at the right hand of the Father.  We are celebrating Jesus’ birth, but birthday parties are for the one who was born, and this celebration is for you.  You’re the one who gets the gifts.  What did the angel say?  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  What causes rejoicing at Christmas is that the birth of the Son of God is for you to save you from your sins and restore you to peace with God.  We’re not here to give anything to Jesus except our praise and thanksgiving.  We’re here to open the empty hands of faith and receive the real Christmas present, the Christ-child Himself, wrapped in swaddling cloths.  We’re not here to wish anyone happy birthday; but the birth of Jesus does bring the greatest happiness and joy.  

    The true meaning of Christmas is that God joined our humanity to His own divine nature in Jesus, and in so doing He sanctified our human nature and made us holy in Christ, the Son of God.  That is the mystery we revel in each year.  God and sinful mankind are reconciled and brought back together, because God and man have literally come together in this Christ-child.   That’s truly a mind-boggling thing to consider.  The One through whom all things were created, Mary’s maker, now willingly lies weak and helpless in her arms.  This Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary.  null

    The theological word we use to describe this is “incarnation.”  In Spanish, the word “carne” means “meat.”  And that helps us to get at what’s going at Christmas.  The Son of God has been “carne-d”; He’s got meat on Him.  He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, enfleshed in her womb and given birth in Bethlehem.  The Son of God took up your flesh and blood so that He might die in the flesh and shed His blood for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  As a true human being like you, He is your substitute under the Law; He can take your place and suffer the judgment against sin on your behalf.  And as true God His sacrificial death will be limitless, sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world–mercy abounding and running over.  This everlasting, divine love is here for you in the flesh.

     Or think of it this way: the incarnation of the Son of God means that He has become your blood brother in the human family, and so your enemies are now His enemies.  By uniting your humanity with His divinity, God has made your cause to be His own in Christ, and He has the power to do something about it.  Whatever the devil did to us, He has now done it to the Son of God, too; and that simply won't stand.  Jesus is your elder Brother who defends you against the bullying of the evil one.  He stands in for you and fights for you so that sin and Satan and the grave are conquered.

    We see already here in the Christmas narrative that the way He will win this victory is not through a glorious flash of power but through humility and lowliness.  And this is revealed  particularly in the location of Jesus’ birth.  Now our English translations can be a little misleading on one key aspect of this.  Most translations say that there was no room for them in the inn.  And so we conjure up in our minds an evil innkeeper who turns away a pregnant mother about to give birth.  But that almost certainly didn’t happen.  Bethlehem was a little village; there wouldn’t have been anything like a hotel there.  Mary and Joseph would have been staying with family along with all the other relatives that were returning to the town of their lineage for the census.  

    The Greek word translated as “inn” simply means a place of lodging and usually referred to an upper guest room in someone’s home.  The exact same word is used to describe the upper room where Jesus observed the Passover and the Last Supper with His disciples before His death.  So a better translation would be that there was no guest room available for them. The place was already full to the brim with other relatives and their little ones who arrived before Joseph and Mary did.  Perhaps some of you can relate to that with family and relatives pushing the limits of the homes that you gather in for the holiday.

    In these first century homes, the sleeping quarters and guest room would usually be upstairs, up some steps or a ladder, and the main living area would be downstairs at ground level, where the cooking and the indoor work would happen.  And toward the back of this main level of the home would be a place to keep animals at night.  It was common practice to bring the important animals indoors into the house and into these pens for protection overnight.

    So consider this scene: in a house filled with sleeping relatives there is a first time mother ready to give birth.  Joseph and Mary likely had their bed set up in the main living area downstairs, where they had been sleeping out of necessity, back near the animal pens.  And the time came for her to be delivered–no real privacy, right in the middle of the clutter and chaos of life.  And she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son, our Lord Jesus, and wrapped Him in strips of cloth as was the custom, and laid Him in the nearby manger, a cattle feeder full of soft hay.  

    What an unexpected way for the King of kings to be born!  But what a marvelous message it sends to us.  For it shows us that our Lord Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us–right in the middle of the ordinariness and messiness of our lives.  He’s not a royal elitist carefully avoiding the life of the common folk.  He doesn’t keep a safe, antiseptic distance from us. He’s with us right in the middle of our untidy existence and our less-than-perfect families and our strained relationships and our anxiety and fear and sin and brokenness.  He humbles Himself to share fully in your human life so that through faith in Him you may share fully in His divine life forever.

    That’s the glory of the incarnation; that’s the heart of Christmas that we celebrate today.  He's the most important one in the house, and yet he takes the lowliest place in order to raise you up to a new life.  Jesus lies with the animals in order to rescue us from our beastly sin and inhumanity, and to make us fully human again in Him.  Among the animals we are now given to see Jesus as the new Adam.  For just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  He is placed in a feeder to be holy food for you, the very Bread of life, even as He is born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread.”

    So hear the message of the angel once more in all its beautiful clarity and take it to heart: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  You will find Him  wrapped no longer in swaddling cloths but in bread and wine, and lying on the altar.  He is humbly mangered for you here to bring you forgiveness and new birth.  Let us with Mary treasure and ponder these holy mysteries in our hearts.  And let us with the shepherds glorify and praise God for all of the things that we have heard and seen, just as it has been told to us.

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

My Soul Magnifies the Lord

Luke 1:39-56

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

    Some of the most important women in the Old Testament are ones who were barren or infertile or beyond the age of childbearing–and yet beyond all expectation, God granted them to be mothers.  Think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, and Hannah.  They are pictures of how our God is One who creates out of nothing.  The closed, infertile womb is the most fertile ground for God’s saving work.  For it shows how God brings His deliverance without our contribution or works or efforts or attributes.  The same God who created out of nothing, also brings salvation out of nothing for us.  These births emphasize that it’s all God’s grace simply to be received in trusting faith.

    And so appropriately on this final Sunday in Advent, on the threshold of the celebration of the gracious birth of Christ, our Gospel tells of the meeting of two women who are remarkably, miraculously pregnant.  One woman is well past the age of bearing children, probably in her sixties; the other is a young virgin, probably no older than sixteen or so.  Elizabeth is six months along with John the Baptizer, the prophet and forerunner of Christ.  Mary has conceived a child in her virginity by the Holy Spirit.  Both of them are pregnant by the power of God’s Word. They are living testimony that “with God nothing is impossible.”null

    The angel Gabriel had told Mary the news concerning Elizabeth, and so Mary hurried off to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin and share in her happiness.  And as soon as Mary’s greeting reached Elizabeth’s ears, the baby jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.  What an amazing thing!  The sound of Mary’s voice caused the unborn baby John to leap with happiness.  Even as a six-month-old fetus in his mother’s womb he is already bearing witness to Christ!  Mary gives voice to the Messiah within her, and the sound of that voice causes John to rejoice.

    Who says that babies can’t believe? And who would dare argue that even unborn children can’t benefit from being in church and hearing the Word? If the sound of Mary’s greeting filled the baby Baptizer with joy, how much more will the sound of the living voice of Christ’s Word bring life and joy to the unborn!  Being in the Liturgy, hearing the Word, eating and drinking the Sacrament is a vital part of every Christian woman’s prenatal care.

    The same holds true for our infants and toddlers and little ones. They need to hear God’s Word even before they know what all the words mean. They need to grow into the vocabulary of forgiveness and eternal life in the divine service. They will have all eternity to master it, but the earlier they start, the better.  Instead of merely soaking in the screen-driven preaching of the world, they need rather to be filled with the sound of God’s Word at home and in church, to know the historic hymns of the faith and the ancient creeds that have been handed down to us.  A child can believe without fully understanding, just like adults do.  A child can respond to God’s Word without having a huge vocabulary.  If you doubt that, just remember John’s leap for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.

    The Gospel also records that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, John’s mother Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And by the Holy Spirit, she says of Mary and her holy Child. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  You may recognize those words.  Together with Gabriel’s earlier greeting, they are the first part of the Ave Maria . “Hail, Mary, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  We Lutherans, who hold to the sacred Scriptures, can agree with those words, at least.

    Though considerably older than Mary, Elizabeth considers it an honor and a gift of God that Mary should come and visit her. She calls her younger relative “the mother of my Lord.”  That’s why the church rightly calls Mary the Theotokos, “the mother of God.”  She is the bearer of the eternal Word, the Son of God.  She is the door through whom God entered our world, the temple in which our Savior chose to dwell as a tiny unborn child.  She is the chosen and honored instrument of the Incarnation of God, through whom the Son of God received His humanity, so that He might offer it for the life of the world.  Mary is truly blessed among women, and every generation of the faithful rightly recognizes this.

    All women, especially younger women, have a great role model in Mary.  She teaches us that the highest honor of women is motherhood.  For every pregnancy and birth is connected to and is an image of the birth of our Savior, who shared in the humanity of every child, born and unborn.  And in our culture that glorifies promiscuous celebrities and makes fun of chastity and virginity, in an age when pre-marital sex is pretty much considered the standard, Mary stands out as a picture of what happens when God’s Word holds sway with someone. She is filled with the Spirit and the Scriptures.  Her psalm of praise, the Magnificat, shows us that this young woman knew the psalms well.  She believed the Word of God that was preached to her by the angel. In that faith she said “yes” to God’s plan that she would be the virgin mother of the world’s Savior.

    We do indeed bless and honor Mary–not because she has some special higher holiness of her own, but because of the Lord’s grace in choosing her.  Who else but Mary is the source of our Lord’s human nature?  Whose womb but hers was His throne room for nine months?  Who else but Mary was He dependent on for nourishment as an infant?  Jesus alone is sinless, but His mother is blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for her by His Word.  To honor her is to honor the incarnation of God, to praise God for taking on human flesh to save us.

    We sometimes have difficulty in blessing and honoring Mary. Perhaps it’s because we have difficulty with anything special and different that God sets apart for His holy purposes.  Our culture has lost the idea of the sacred–sacred time, sacred space, sacred people, sacred things. Everything tends to be ordinary for our culture, the same, generic, interchangeable. Our age wants churches to be “comfortable,” the pastor to be “just a regular guy,” worship to be indistinguishable from the surrounding world, Mary to be just another pregnant teenager.

    But that’s not how it is with the Lord.  And so we treat the church building as a holy space.  We don’t just stomp in here as though we were entering a stadium or an auditorium or a store–or at least we shouldn’t.  This place is set apart.  It isn’t because the carpeting is holy, or the concrete or wood is holy. It’s because of the Word of God that is preached and heard here. The Word makes this space holy and blessed.

    Or consider the bread in the Lord’s Supper.  We don’t throw it away after communion or even put it back with ordinary bread, because it is holy; the Word of God has been added to it which declares it to be and makes it to be body of Christ in the Sacrament.  Likewise the chalice–we treat it as a holy thing; something sacred.  You would be offended if I took it home and used it at my dinner table, not because the chalice is made of silver and gold, but because it is used for something sacred: to distribute the blood of Christ.  The blood of Christ that it holds is what makes it holy.

    And so it is with Mary. She is blessed and holy not of herself but on account of what she holds, on account of the holy Child that was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She is the instrument of our Lord’s incarnation, and for that reason she is to be blessed by all who believe in her Son for their salvation.

    Mary is certainly not to be worshiped or prayed to. That would irritate her. No, her soul magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.  She directs our attention to the same place–to her Child.  Mary teaches us not to take our place with the proud and the powerful, the ruling and the rich of this world.  For the Lord is a toppler of thrones.  He puts the powerful in their place.  He scatters and puts down the self-sufficient and the self-righteous.  There is nothing and no one that can withstand the strength of God’s arm.  He destroys everything that competes for our trust.

    Rather, Mary teaches us to worship God with humility and awe, for “His mercy is on those who fear Him” in reverent faith.  He lifts up those who are humbled and bowed down.  God helps those who cannot help themselves.  “He has shown strength with His arm” especially by extending His arms on the cross for us to crush the power of death and Satan.  His arm reaches out to fill the hungry with good things, even and especially here in the holy Supper.

    Mary teaches us that our God is One who keeps His Word.  He helps His people “in remembrance of His mercy.”  He is faithful to His promises.  Galatians 4 says that in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of Mary, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons.  Just think about what that means for you:  Mary gave birth to Jesus.  And you are members of Jesus’ body.  That means that Mary is your mother in Christ and the mother of all Christians.  

    In this way Mary is a picture of the church and of all believers.  You, too, are virgin pure and holy; for you are washed by the blood of Jesus that has cleansed you from every spot of sin.  The Lord has been conceived and born in your hearts by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word.  He dwells in you through faith.   

    And so you also magnify the Lord with Mary.  For the Mighty One has done great things for you.  He has scattered the pride of your sin, and toppled the old Adam from the throne of your heart so that Christ reigns there as your Savior-King.  God is faithful to you; He will complete what He began in your baptism and bring His promises to their culmination on the day of His return.  Just like Mary, blessed also are you who believe that what the Lord has said to you will be accomplished.

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

(Some of the above was adapted from a sermon by the Rev. William Cwirla, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Hacienda Heights, CA.)

Reading the Signs of Creation

Luke 21:25-36
Advent 2

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

    It’s rather interesting the way Jesus talks about signs in Scripture.  On the one hand, He says that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign.  People that need signs to prove God’s existence or to verify the truth of His Word are only exhibiting their unbelief.  If you insist upon a sign or some special experience, if God has to jump through your hoops before you’ll trust Him or follow Him, that only reveals an absence of faith.  Faith is believing without seeing, knowing that you have a trustworthy Source who is speaking to you.  Sign-seeking is adulterous, going after what fulfills your spiritual lusts and desires.  To those who were seeking a sign, Jesus said that the only one they would be given was the sign of Jonah, a man “buried” in the watery depths but who comes forth to a new life on the third day.  Jonah points us to Jesus, whose death and resurrection is our true and ultimate sign, the sign that our sins have been fully paid for, that He has conquered the power of the grave and brings us resurrection and life immortal.  We need nothing more than that Word of good news, the Gospel, to bring us to faith and save us.

    However, to Jesus’ disciples, to those who believe and don’t require signs, Jesus still actually gives many signs.  Not only did He perform a multitude of miracles in His ministry, signs that proved He truly was the Messiah, not only do we presently see many signs of His loving kindness toward us even in the midst of this fallen and broken world, but He also gives us an abundance of signs of His second coming and the end of this world.null

    In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks in particular about signs in creation, in the sun, moon, and stars, and even climate and weather-related signs.  After mentioning the fig tree and all the trees budding, Jesus speaks of the sea and the waves roaring, nations in distress, and people in perplexity as the powers of creation are shaken.  In other words, nature itself will give us signs that the return of Jesus is almost upon us.

    The problem is that unbelief misreads the signs.  This happens all the time; people see the signs in creation, like earthquakes, like variations in climate and weather, like floods and fires and storms and droughts, and instead of reading these things as a call to repentance and to faithful watching for the Lord of creation to return, they see it as a call to preach the gospel of climate change  and to worship creation itself as their lord.  And so the signs don’t help them.  Signs only help the faithful.

    The world misreads the signs, and so they have the wrong diagnosis of the situation.  They know that there’s a problem, that things aren’t right.  Even unbelievers sense that things are messed up in the world and need to be fixed.  But they misidentify the enemy and the source of the problem.  Virtually every political cause that is out there does this.  For environmentalists, the enemy is fossil fuels and overpopulation.  For feminists, it’s men and the patriarchy.  For socialists, it’s capitalism (and vice versa), for conservatives, it’s progressives (and vice versa), for those feeling oppressed, it’s racial privilege or gender conformity or big corporations or big government.  And the list goes on.  We have this intrinsic spiritual need to set up a system of good and evil that explains why reality is the way it is.  But when we do that apart from God’s Word, we end up with a system that is comprised of half truths (at best), and people end up embracing delusions and lies.  Scripture tells us that the real issue, the real enemies are the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful nature.  But we don’t like that diagnosis.  Because it means that the problem is not just some neatly defined external system or group of people that we can blame.  It’s a deeper, spiritual matter, and it involves a sickness that is actually inside every one of us.  Worldly groups and causes only address symptoms and not the disease.  But Jesus, our coming Lord, gets to the heart of the matter.

    Jesus once commented on people misinterpreting the signs of the times in Luke 12.  He said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

    Christians know that when creation seems to be coming apart, that’s because it’s a fallen creation, in bondage to decay under the curse of sin.  Christians aren’t surprised by the upheavals of creation because they know that this creation is passing away, as Jesus said, “The heavens and the earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”  Just like us, creation is wearing down and wearing out.  It has to die in order to rise again as the new heavens and the new earth, which God is preparing to be our eternal dwelling with Him.  Romans 8 says, “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.”  Creation itself trembles with anticipation of Christ’s return, when the hidden things of our salvation will finally be uncovered and brought to fulfillment, and all things will be made new.  Until that day we cling to Jesus’ words, which endure forever, and which will surely deliver what they say.

    So when we see the signs of the end, our reaction as Christians is different from the unbelieving world.  To the faithless, these signs bring pessimism and panic.  Jesus says here that men’s hearts will fail them from fear.  There will be a sense of retreat, that things are spiraling downward.  Our pop culture reflects this with the incredible number of movies and shows that focus on a dystopian future world, after some apocalypse occurs because of disease or war or climate catastrophe.  Creating these scenarios is almost like therapy to deal with this dread of what’s coming.

    Of course, Jesus also warns against another way that people deal try to with this.  He says, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.”  Some people think to themselves, “Hey, everything’s going downhill; I might as well have some fun while I can.  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  Indulging in food and drink and pleasure, throwing yourself into your work or your hobby helps you to forget about this looming future.

    But our reaction as believers is quite different.  For these signs are not just pointing to the end but to a new beginning.  And above all they are pointing to the return of our Savior.  Whereas the world is weighed down with anxiety as things come apart, Jesus tells you that when you see these signs, “look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”  These signs are actually good news in that they point us to Him.  We can have peace even in the midst of the chaos, because we know what this is all leading to.  We can deny ourselves the sinful pleasures of this world, because we know there is much greater joy and holy delight to come in the presence of our gracious Lord.  Your future is assured in Jesus.  Your merciful Lord is coming.  Your redemption draws near.

    That’s really how we should think of the Last Day, not as doomsday, not only as Judgment day, but as Redemption Day.  For that’s what it is.  It’s a good day that is coming, “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” as Malachi puts it–great for those who are in Christ, dreadful for those who aren’t.  Judgment day has already taken place for us.  For we are baptized into Christ, and He bore all of the judgment against our sin on the cross, on that great and dreadful day, Good Friday.  Remember that there were great signs in creation on that day: the sun was darkened for three hours, and the earth quaked at the death of the Son of God.  For the curse on this old creation was broken, and a new creation was dawning in Christ.  As a result of that, Romans 8 says that we are  “eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  So the punishment and the condemnation is all done for you now.  It’s all taken care of.  You’re redeemed by the blood of Christ.  It’s just a matter of time before your Redeemer returns to reveal that truth before the world, so that you may enjoy it in all its fullness.  

    Jesus urges you today in the Gospel, “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Lift up your heads in watchfulness and prayer, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.  For it is only through Him that you are worthy; it is only through Him that you can stand in the final Judgment without fear.  Psalm 130 prays, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”  Not a single one of us could.  However, the psalm continues, “But with you, Lord, there is forgiveness.  Therefore you are revered.”  Jesus Himself makes you worthy to stand tall in His presence, not in pride because of your merits but because of His cleansing forgiveness, poured out upon you in your baptism.

    So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you today, the holy Sacrament of the Altar.  To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important.  But to you who believe and are baptized, it is a marvelous sign.  For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly on the clouds with power and great glory to deliver you.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

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

Peace in Heaven

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Luke 19:28-40
Advent 1

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

    Psalm 24 says, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?  Or who may stand in His holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  Well that doesn’t sound like very good news, does it?  That description excludes us all.  Whose hands haven’t been stained by selfish actions?  Whose heart hasn’t been polluted by covetous desires?  God’s Word is clear in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one. . . All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt.. .  They use their tongues to deceive.”  You have no righteousness of yourself, in spite of your best efforts.  Isaiah 64 says that even all of our own supposedly “righteous” deeds are like filthy rags before God.  

    How, then, can any of us ever expect to enter into God’s presence?  The answer and the solution to that problem is revealed in today’s OT reading, where Jeremiah prophesies that the coming Messiah, Jesus, will be called “The Lord Our Righteousness.” That’s where your righteousness is to be found, in Jesus alone.  Only He has clean hands and a pure heart.  Only He has the right to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place.  So it is that in today’s Gospel we see Jesus going up to Jerusalem–where He would cleanse the temple, where He would redeem us by His holy cross.  His clean hands and His pure heart were pierced for us to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Trusting in Christ, His righteousness becomes our own.  Romans 4 says that to the one who believes in Him, “his faith is counted as righteousness.”  So, we are able to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place solely by Jesus’ merit.  That’s why we begin nearly every service with confession and absolution.  Holding to Jesus and His mercy, we are purified and accepted into the Father’s presence to worship Him.  For Christ the Lord is our righteousness.null

    Today, at the beginning of a new church year, we celebrate again this holy, Christ-centered truth.  We begin once more to recount the true story of salvation in Jesus.  Rehearsing His life and His teaching is the heartbeat of our life.  It’s the way we grow up into His righteousness and get ready for the life of the world to come.  

    Still, it might seem strange that we start out the Advent season by picking up the salvation story so far into it, at the beginning of Holy Week!  You might expect that we’d start at the beginning of Jesus’ life, with more Christmas-y type readings.  But you actually get very little of that in Advent.  For the way the church recounts this story is not purely chronological.  Advent is primarily a season of penitent preparation for Christ’s coming.  Advent begins the same way Holy Week begins to remind us that you can’t disconnect Jesus’ birth from Jesus’ cross.  His coming into the world is inseparably linked to His dying for the world.  Today’s Gospel reading shows us that our Lord comes in lowliness and humility, whether it’s in a manger or on a beast of burden.  As it is written, “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey.”  

    Notice how your King doesn’t merely do an obligatory gesture from on high as He passes by, waving and keeping a safe distance from you.  Rather it says that He comes to you, right to where you’re at, past all the facades to the way things really are with you.  He comes to you humbly, on your level, even to the point of sharing in your flesh and blood, to give you mercy, to rescue you and deliver you, to be your life and your help.  Since He comes in this lowly way, you are called to do as the people did here and lay your garments on the road before Him, which means to cast off the works of darkness in your life.  Let your sins be cast aside; lay them down so that He may trample them underfoot.  Humble yourself through repentance, and then through faith in Christ put on His armor of light, walking properly as in the day.

    We see in Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative that there is, actually, a very nice connection here to Christmas.  Perhaps you noticed it when the Gospel was being read.  At Jesus’ birth the angels praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”   And here, the multitude of the disciples praise God saying, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!”  The song of heaven becomes the song of earth.  Angels sing of peace on earth; humans sing of peace in heaven.  But that’s really just two sides of the same coin.  For in Jesus heaven and earth are brought together, since He is God and man together Himself.  By becoming man our Lord Jesus brings peace on earth.  Then Christ reconciles us to the Father by offering Himself up as the sacrifice for our sins.  There is literally peace in heaven as the crucified and risen Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, and God and man are reunited eternally through the power of His blood.  This is what brings glory in the highest; this is the glory of God the Father, to give His Son for us that we might live with Him in gladness and peace forever.

    One of the things that stands out in this Gospel reading is the detailed information Jesus gives about getting this donkey colt.  Here our Lord demonstrates not just His omniscience, that He knows all things, but that He has carefully planned and prepared for this day.  Scripture says that the kingdom of God has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world, and here we see the Lord carrying out His mission to save you in precise detail.  

    And in particular, we see how important this specific donkey colt is.  It is a colt on which no one has ever sat.  For not just anyone can accomplish this mission; only Jesus can redeem us.  Only He is worthy to be seated on this beast of burden and to bear the burden of our brokenness all the way to the cross.  This colt is to be unloosed and released and brought to Jesus; for our Lord has come to unloose and release us stubborn donkeys from our bondage to death and the devil, so that we may serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

    What happens in today’s Gospel is in fulfillment of a prophecy that goes all the way back to Genesis 49.  There it says that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah.”  In other words, the Messiah King, Jesus, will come from the tribe of Judah.  And then it says of the Messiah, “Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine and his clothes in the blood of grapes.”  This means that the One who rides this colt does so in order to pour out His blood to atone for the sins of the world.  It is this very blood that is poured out in wine for us in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.  The King is still coming to us humbly in the Lord’s Supper to save us.  And we are still carrying on the hymn of the people outside of Jerusalem as we sing in the communion liturgy, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!

    Jesus rides this new colt on which no one has ever sat, and then He is buried in a new tomb hewn out of the rock in which no one had ever lain before.  For there also He will do what no one else can do and conquer the power of the grave for us by His bodily resurrection.  And it all will begin with Jesus being laid in a manger which had never been used as a cradle before.  For who would put their baby in a cattle feeder?  Only the humble and lowly Jesus would do these things for us and for our salvation.  There is none other like Him.  There is no other Savior.

    Of course, some will not believe this.  Some are looking for a more glorious Lord, one who brings success and prosperity and worldly honor.  The Pharisees here actually tell Jesus to rebuke His disciples who are praising Him.  For these Pharisees simply cannot accept that one so common as Him could be the promised King.  Do not be led astray and deceived by those who think this way, who are scandalized by suffering, who want the crown of gold without the crown of thorns.  Rather, embrace Him who embraced your humanity fully to redeem you, who is at work even in the midst of your lowliness and your suffering to bring you to share in His resurrection glory.

    And finally, remember what Jesus says here, that if the people would have kept silent, the very stones would have cried out in praise of Him!  John the Baptist also had preached that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones.  This is a reminder that all praise truly belongs to the Lord for our salvation.  For we could do nothing to come to Him.  Until He came to us, we were like stones, cold and lifeless under the curse.  But then by His advent He brought us to life and built us into His own special dwelling, His holy church.  Because Jerusalem rejected the Messiah, they would be destroyed by the Romans, and not one stone would be left upon another, Jesus said.  But for us who believe and are baptized, it is written in 1 Peter 2, “Coming to (Jesus) as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  All of you together are the Lord’s holy temple.  You are those who proclaim the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  

    As we enter into this new church year, then, let us continually join in with those who praised Jesus as He entered into Jerusalem.  For your King is coming to you.  He is righteous and having salvation.  “‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

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

Watch and Pray

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

    Most everyone loves a comeback story–somebody really messed up their life, or lost badly in sports, or made a terrible decision, or failed at something.  But then instead of that being the end of the story, they change, they turn things around, they humbly learn from their faults and things are made right and good in the end.  Deep down we believe everyone deserves a second chance–for we know how many times we ourselves have needed second chances.

    And in many ways, that’s very much a Scriptural notion.  We heard in last week’s epistle about how the Lord’s delay in His return is because of His longsuffering patience and His desire that all come to repentance.  He doesn’t want anyone to perish eternally, but for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  We know that parable where even the workers hired at the 11th hour receive the denarius of salvation.  Our God is indeed the God of the second chance, and the third and the fourth and the 490th chance.  He is a God of patience and forgiveness and grace.

    However, there will come a time when 2nd chances will finally run out.  Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins is an example of that.  They only had one opportunity to get it right.  And when the bridegroom comes late, the oil of the foolish has run out, the storekeepers’ shops are closed, and the door to the marriage feast is shut–and there are no do-overs or turning back the clock.null

    This, then, is one of the messages of today’s Gospel.  We dare never presume upon the grace of the Lord.  What a foolish thing it is to say, “I’ll take the things of God more seriously in a few years, later on.  Right now I’ve got to focus on other things.”  Tell me: how do you know you’ve got a few years to work with?  Do you know the day of the Lord’s return or the day of your death?  How can you give so much attention to your worldly loves and assume that the things of the Lord can be taken care of at some point in the future?  It is a foolish notion to think that you can schedule your repentance and put it off for later.  That is perhaps the most silly and dangerous thing of all.  If you are willfully clinging to your sin now, willfully putting off repentance until some nebulous future point, what makes you think your heart will suddenly be repentant later?  Resisting the work of the Holy Spirit is a dangerous game.  It numbs the conscience and deadens faith until finally you no longer feel your need for repentance or forgiveness or Jesus at all.

    Now is the time; now is the day of salvation.  Now is the moment for repentance and  watching and receiving the Lord’s gifts.  Now is the time to be wise in this foolish generation.  

    In the Scriptures, wisdom is not equated with a high IQ or great learning. One may be wise without being academically smart.  Many of you have seen this in folks from generations past, who may not have even finished gradeschool, but who had a humble and insightful wisdom that some with doctorates don’t possess today.  In the Bible real wisdom is seeing things–seeing all of life–from God's perspective, having the mind of Christ as St. Paul puts it.  Our Lord tells the story in Matthew 7 of the wise man who builds his house on the rock. Jesus says, “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.”  In other words, the wise man knows that only a life built on the words of Jesus will endure, for even though the heavens and the earth pass away, His words will never pass away.  It is no wonder, then, that Moses prays in Psalm 90 saying, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Moses’ prayer is not simply that we might be smart, but that we might see our fleeting days from God’s perspective.

    Five of the virgins are wise.  They do not merely live for the moment; they live with their hearts set on this most important wedding event.  They do not know at what hour the bridegroom will come and lead them into the wedding hall.  They do not know when the party would begin.  But they know that the bridegroom is on His way and that they are his invited guests.  So their lives are lived toward that wedding.  Nothing else is as important as that event.  So they are prepared for the wait. They check their lamps. They buy extra oil. Their flasks are full.

    No doubt they seemed a bit foolish carrying around those extra jars of oil.  Perhaps they were told stop burdening themselves, to loosen up and have a good time and not to be so extreme or obsessive.  Nevertheless, these wise women paid attention to the oil; they were prepared for the delay. And when the bridegroom finally arrived, they were ready to take part in the marriage feast.

    For the five foolish virgins it was too late. There was no more opportunity to purchase oil. They were unprepared for the feast and unable to enter into the joy of the celebration. The door was shut, and they were excluded.

    What does this mean for you? Jesus' own explanation of the parable says it all, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”  Watching does not mean that you should be speculating about the day or the hour.  History is full of failed predictions about the end.  All you are given to know is that Jesus’ return will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, like the flood in Noah’s day, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  All you are given to do is to watch, to be ready, to devote yourselves to the worship of Christ and the receiving of His gifts.  

    To watch is to believe and to hope in His promises.  The Word of God is the lamp to our feet and the light to our path.  It is filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit, who makes us wise unto salvation and keeps the flame of faith in Christ burning brightly. To watch is to be vigilant about the things of Christ, the life-giving gifts which He purchased for us with His holy and precious blood.

    A church that ceases to watch will lose the Gospel. A church that becomes lazy or complacent regarding God’s doctrine is in danger of losing the teaching of Christ, falling from faith.  Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes to Pastor Timothy and all pastors: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Tim. 4:16). Our watching is not a gazing up into the heavens, but attentiveness to the voice of our Good Shepherd as He speaks to us in His Word.  We are now living in that evil age which Paul spoke about when he said, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth to wander into myths” (II Tim. 4:3). We are to watch by holding fast God’s Word, hearing it, learning it, and taking it to heart.

    Right now is the evening of the wedding feast. Right now is the time when you still have access to the oil.  It is available to you in overflowing abundance. For the forgiveness of sins purchased by our Savior through His atoning death on the cross is enough for the whole world, for all of you; it covers every single one of your sins–none left out. There is no shortage of supply in His grace and mercy. This oil of the Holy Spirit is distributed now in the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of Jesus’ body and blood in the Holy Supper. The wise cannot get enough of these.  They never say, “Oh, I can skip a couple or three weeks of church.”  For they always desire more of Jesus.  And the more we get of Him, the more ready and eager we are to receive Him when He comes again in glory.  Remember that the One who is coming is your Redeemer.  He is the One who in His first coming willingly suffered for you in weakness to break the power of the curse over you. He is the One who loves you and forgives you.  He is the One who comes not in wrath and judgment for you who believe but to bring you the fullness of joy.

    When all is said and done, when we have properly been shaken down to our souls with the urgency of the call to watch and the finality of what will happen on the Day of Christ’s return, we also then need to take a deep breath and let it out with a joyous laugh.  Because what we are watching for is a celebration.  The unknown day and hour is not a dreadful time for the faithful; it is the ultimate day of happiness that we eagerly seek and look forward to.  It is the ultimate holiday, the holy Day when the Lord, whom we love and trust in, is revealed, and when we get to be with Him and revel in His presence.  If being reunited with loved ones for the holidays and just spending time together can bring great happiness, how much more will that be true of the return of our Savior?  The Lord who is coming is not like that snooty relative who walks around finding all the flaws in your house and who is eager to give advice on how you should do things better.  Rather He is like the uncle who always brings the funniest gifts and tells the best stories and who you just like hanging around with.  Make no mistake, the One who is coming is your God and your Lord to whom you owe the greatest reverence.  But He has also made Himself to be your flesh and blood.  And so we do indeed need to watch for His coming; not as a burden, though, but as a joyful thing.  For we eagerly are looking forward to the merriment of the wedding feast.

    Your Bridegroom says to you, “Assuredly, I do know you in your baptism.  More than you have watched for me, I have watched out for you.  My eyes are on you to save you.  I have redeemed you and claimed you as my own.  You are holy and righteous.  What awaits you is a new heaven and a new earth. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more crying. No more pain. All things made new.  Perfect delight.  The fulfillment of your salvation.”

    This divine service is the Last Day in miniature.  I cry out to you, we all cry out to each other, “Wake, awake!  The Bridegroom is here!  Jesus is coming to you in the Holy Sacrament.  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar.  He comes to you in mercy.  Enter into the joy of the wedding feast.”

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

Golden Calf or Lamb of God?

Exodus 32:1-20
Trinity 25

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

    The people of Israel got impatient waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.  It had been more than a month that he was gone.  They gave up on him even though the Lord had chosen him to lead them.  They decided that the Word of the Lord they had heard wasn’t enough; they wanted to have a god or an image which they could see to go before them, something more like what they were used to from their Egyptian background when they were slaves.  They grew bored with the mighty acts the Lord had done for them in the Passover and the Red Sea.  They wanted something visually stimulating that fit in more with the culture of the day, something that met their needs right now.

    Aaron gave in to the will of the people.  He wasn’t a faithful pastor.  He told them to bring their gold earrings to him, he melted the gold down, and made a golden calf from it.  A golden calf was a sign of fertility, of growth and success.  Then the people said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  This was the kind of worship they liked.null

    Aaron knew deep down, though, that this wasn’t right.  So he tried to make things kosher.  He built an altar before the golden calf and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.”  In other words, he tried mix two things together, using this calf as part of the worship of the Lord.  He had what you might call a blended service.  He wasn’t abandoning the faith, he thought; he was just combining the faith with what was socially acceptable.  His plan was to use the style of the image, but godly substance.  He tried to please the people and to please the Lord at the same time.

    But that didn’t work too well, did it?  It says here that the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.  The “play” that is mentioned is the kind of play you would expect to have in the presence of a fertility god like the golden calf, indulgence leading to immorality.  That’s one way to keep the people happy.

    We are of the same stock as the children of Israel.  We have the same fallen nature that they did.  And so we also can be tempted to grow impatient as we wait for the Lord to come down from heaven, to return for the final judgment on the Last Day.  We too can begin to wonder if it’s ever really going to happen, and in the meantime to grow bored with the mighty acts the Lord has done for us in His death and resurrection and in our baptism.  “Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  Boring.”  The Scriptures urge us to wait on the Lord and to devote ourselves to His teaching and preaching.  But we want something immediately gratifying, that will make us feel the way we want to feel and get us where we want to be in life and meet our needs right now.  We want worship to be what we’re comfortable with and interested in and entertained by.

    And so pastors and congregations can be tempted to try to mix the church and the world in their worship.  But we learn from Aaron’s experience here that even though you call it the worship of the Lord, in the end it turns out to be idolatry.  For instance, mix the teaching of Jesus with political ideology–socialism, captalism, libertarianism, communism, fascism–and you end up with idolatry, where the true God becomes less important than social agendas or national unity or material prosperity.  The Lord isn’t the focus but merely a means to achieve those ends.  Or mix the teaching of Jesus with pop psychology, and you get pastors whose main strength isn’t preaching the truth about sin and the cross but telling humorous stories and delivering sermons about “7 steps toward better relationships” or “Biblical dieting” or “How to be the best version of yourself.”  Again, the Lord isn’t central but just part of the formula for some supposedly greater goal.  Or mix the true worship of the Lord with the ways of cultural media, and you end up with screens in church that inevitably distract from the cross and the altar, with drama performances and singers who give the impression that the front of the church is a stage rather than a holy space where God is truly present in His words and sacraments.  The goal is not communion with the true God, but achieving spiritual and religious “feels.”  That’s really our cultural idol today, anything that gives you all the right feels.  Like the children of Israel, we tend to want what we’re used to in the world, with the emphasis more on visuals than on the Word, on emotion than on truth.  That’s what we’re willing to give up a little gold for.  Go ahead and keep the Lutheran substance, but give me a little worldly style.  The problem is that the worldly style almost always drowns out the Word of truth.

    And I should point out that this works in the opposite direction, too, where we invest worldly things with almost sacred significance.  Sporting events have their own liturgy of when to do what and how to show reverence to the game, and God forbid if anyone messes with it.  Fans engage in the rituals of their team with great fervor, where even Christians are often much more willing to talk about the things of the sport than the things of the Gospel, exhibiting more passion for the events of Sunday afternoon than Sunday morning.  And the same sorts of things can be said about much of our entertainment–concerts and performances and events–where the goal is to create a communal experience that fulfills the need for something mystical and even spiritual.  

    We all would do well to pay attention to what happened when Moses came down from the mountain and saw what was going on.  He became hot with anger, ground the calf which they had made into powder, scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink it.  Their false god was destroyed, and they were forced to drink up and share in that destruction.  So it will be also on the Day of Christ’s return for all those who have turned their hearts away from Him to other things.  They will have to drink the cup of eternal judgment that is fitting for their idolatrous loves.

    Let this portion of the Scriptures, then, be a call to repentance for all of us.  For whether it has to do with worship or other aspects of our lives, we all know the temptation to go along with the crowd like Aaron did, to conform to the world’s ways of thinking and doing things.  Let us rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, setting our hearts on things above where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God.  Let us not simply focus on what is temporary but on what is eternal, what lasts for all times and places and even beyond time.  Seek the treasures of Christ, which cannot be ground to powder or destroyed but which are indestructible and endure forever.

    Those treasures of Christ are the real and proper focus of divine service.  Church is meant to be not like the culture and the world, but like heaven.  Church is where heaven and earth intersect, where Christ Himself is truly present among us in His preaching and body and blood.  That’s why in the liturgy we sing the songs of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  Going into church is to be like stepping into another world.  And that occurs not primarily through what we see but through what we hear, as it is written, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  That Word of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain and raised again, is the constant center of our attention in worship.  

    Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’  For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  Faith isn’t all that impressed with what can be seen with the eyes; faith relies on the ears.  We don’t put our confidence in what is visually appealing, but what appeals to our hearing, the true and pure Word of God.  The kingdom of God is truly in our midst because Christ the King Himself is truly among us right here, even though He remains unseen to ordinary sight.  The kingdom of God is wherever the flesh-and-blood Jesus is–wherever He is speaking His words to His people and giving Himself to them in order that they may have His forgiveness and share in His life.  Being joined to Christ through faith, we have entrance already here on earth into the heavenly kingdom of God.

    Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment for us what Moses did for Israel on the mountain.  Remember that God’s wrath was burning hot against the Israelites because of their idolatry, and He said to Moses that He was going to destroy them all.  But Moses spoke up and interceded for Israel.  He called to mind God’s salvation of Israel and the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses stepped in the way of God’s wrath in order to save Israel.  And the Lord relented from the harm and the disaster He was going to do to His people, and He did not do it.

    Isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done for you?  When God’s wrath was burning hot against you and the whole world because of sin, the Son of God stepped in the way of that wrath and took it all for you in His own body on the cross.  When Jesus was crucified, He suffered hell for you so that you would be spared and set free.  In Jesus God the Father relents from giving you what you deserve and instead gives you forgiveness and life through faith in Him.  

    Even now Jesus is still stepping in and interceding and speaking up in your defense.  He is your greater Moses, pointing to the blood He shed on your behalf that declares you “not guilty,” calling to mind the divine promises that have been applied to you, that the name of the Holy Trinity is upon you, that you believe and are baptized.  It is written in I John, “If anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And Romans 8 says, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

    So let us then wait patiently for the return of Christ, even if it seems like it’s taking forever.  Let us look forward to the Last Day, not dreading it as a day of doom that we need to fear, but as something to look forward to and eagerly desire.  For our judgment day already occurred almost 2000 years ago at Calvary.  God took care of your judgment on the cross.  It’s over and done with.  Believe in that truth.  All that remains for you now is mercy and life.  Jesus tells you to look up and lift up your heads and watch for His return.  For your salvation is nearer now than when you first believed.  You who are baptized are not those of the golden calf; you are those of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

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

The Truth of Christ Defeats the Lie

John 8:31-36
Reformation

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

    Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Truth is powerful.  For it liberates you from the slavery of sin.  It releases you from the ignorance of unbelief.  It protects you from the traps and the schemes of the devil, who is the father of lies.

     However, truth is also dangerous.  For since it is so powerful, evil cannot tolerate it.  Evil wars against the truth, always trying to corrupt it.  Darkness hates the light and can’t exist where it shines brightly.  And so it does everything in its power to snuff it out.  Wherever the truth is spoken, evil is right there to stir up trouble, to fuss and shout and make it seem as if the truth is the problem.  The more clearly the truth is spoken, the louder evil will scream.  The famous author George Orwell once remarked, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  Truth is powerful and good, but there is always warfare against it in this fallen world.null

    And that includes not only the evil that is outside of us in our truth-denying society, but also the evil that is within us, in our old Adam.  We may well nod our head in agreement when we hear “the truth will make you free,” but the closer someone gets to the truth of our sin, the louder we protest and deflect blame, don’t we?  The Psalmist puts it rather clearly when he says, “All mankind are liars.”  We all are skilled at the art of shading and spinning the truth to our advantage, of trying to make our sin seem respectable, of distorting and twisting the truth to justify ourselves and rationalize the way we are.  That’s why an essential element of being a Christian is repentance, coming to terms with the truth and honestly acknowledging that we are by nature enslaved to the Lie, focused on what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.  What we desperately need is to be released from the power of sin and death and the devil.  

    The truth which sets you free is more than just information that is factually correct, that you can just download into your brain in a confirmation class.  Truth is a person, Jesus Himself.  For He said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”  Our Lord Jesus is the embodiment of divine Truth.  He is eternal and ultimate reality, the One in whom this whole universe holds together, as Colossians 1 says.  He is God in the flesh, who has come into the world to destroy the father of lies forever and to rescue you from the deadly power of sin.  When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, He said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.”  And all Pilate could do was to cynically respond, “What is truth?”  Truth incarnate was standing right there before him, but the Lie had a hold of Pilate, who loved his power and position.  On that Good Friday the Truth appeared to be overwhelmed by the Lie; the darkness seemed to have snuffed out the Light.  But as He died, Jesus spoke the truth that not even death nor the devil could conquer.  Jesus said simply and clearly, “It is finished.”  By His suffering and death, all had been fulfilled and completed and accomplished.  Everything necessary to undo the curse and defeat the Lie had been done.  Even though it didn’t seem like it, the Truth had won the day.  Victory was assured.  The resurrection was a foregone conclusion.  For Jesus had crushed the serpent’s head and had taken away your deadly sin.  That is the truth that liberates you and makes you free.  It is finished; it is all accomplished for you in Jesus.

    Mortal combat between the truth of Christ and the lies of the evil one continues still.  And for long periods of time, it may seem as if the Lie is winning.  In the 1400's there was a man named Jan Hus who lived in Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic.  Jan Hus spoke the truth of God’s Word against the false teaching in the church of his day.  At the Council of Constance, he was condemned by the church as a heretic and burned at the stake.  The truth seemed to have lost.  However, before he died, Hus made this prophetic statement.  The name “Hus” means “goose” in the Bohemian language, and he said, “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan to whom you will be forced to listen.”  Almost exactly 100 years later, Martin Luther, the trumpeter swan, posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  

    What is of special note is that one of Jan Hus’s fiercest opponents, a man named Johannes Zacharias, was buried in front of the altar in the Augstinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany.  And it was on that very spot that Martin Luther laid face down as he made his vows as a monk.  How wonderfully ironic that it was on the grave of Jan Hus’s mortal enemy that Luther would begin his journey that led to the Reformation of the church, including some of the very truths that Hus had preached.  Let us be encouraged by this, that the Truth of Christ will always win out.  In spiritually dark times, we may not see or experience that victory.  But it is assured; for the crucified One is risen!  Let us then boldly confess the truth of our Christian faith, regardless of the cost, knowing that it will never be in vain.  The Truth of Christ will always have the last word.

    Martin Luther had no way of knowing whether or not he would end up being executed like Hus.  In 1517 Luther set forth 95 theses for debate which told the truth about the corruption in the Church of his day.  And like any whistleblower working for powerful bosses, his life would be turned upside down after that point.  In 1521 Luther was called before the Emperor himself to recant his teaching or face punishment.  After faltering on the first day of his questioning, Luther returned to make his famous speech in reply, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted.  My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  May God help me.”  And then as the room erupted into noisy jeers and cheers by the gathered crowd, including some shouting “To the fire with him!” Luther spoke these words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”  It was only by the grace of God and the skillful maneuvering of Luther’s prince, Frederick of Saxony, that he was able to escape with his life.  

    The matters in dispute during the Reformation were of the utmost importance.  For they had to do with the nature of the Gospel and God’s grace.  Can the forgiveness of sins be sold as a commodity based on the authority of a pope rather than the Word of God?  Can forgiveness and eternal life be earned by good works?  How does faith fit into the picture?  Is faith a good work which we produce that saves us or is it something that God works in us to receive His saving gifts?  Martin Luther and the other reformers returned simply to telling the truth of Scripture: The Law of God is good, and we must obey His commandments.  But we dare never place our faith in how well we’re keeping the Law, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.  Therefore, our faith is entirely in Jesus and what He has done for us.  We cannot justify ourselves; rather we are justified, declared righteous, freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  We are saved through faith in Him alone, apart from the deeds of the Law.  Salvation cannot be bought, either with money, or even with good deeds and good intentions.  For it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  You have been saved by grace alone.

    In teaching this, the Lutheran reformers were not teaching anything new.  It was all there in Scripture.  And it had been taught by the fathers of the Church throughout the Church’s history.  That’s one of the things Lutherans emphasized over and over again.  They were being the true catholics, for they were simply restoring the teaching of the truth of Christ that had been corrupted and suppressed through the centuries.  They weren’t inventing anything or making stuff up.  That’s why they kept the liturgy and everything else that belonged to the Church that didn’t contradict the Word of God.  The Reformation was about a return to the eternal truth of Holy Scripture.  The truth can be denied and suppressed, but in the end it is unconquerable.

    That’s the beautiful thing about the truth.  Unlike a lie, you don’t have to invent it, and you don’t have to “manage” it.  It just is.  Once you know the truth, you simply repeat it and proclaim it and say “Amen” to it.  By contrast, the lie requires a good memory to recall what you made up.  And it requires an army of lies to back up the original lie.  Eventually, the tangled web ensnares the liar, and he is caught.  So it is that Satan was trapped in his own deceit and ensnared by the death he brought into the world.  For through the death of Jesus, the deceiver was undone and his work destroyed.  The lie cannot suppress the truth forever.  For Truth in the flesh is risen from the dead.

    This is why Reformation Day is a great celebration for us, for it is centered in this unconquerable and everlasting truth of Jesus.  Our Lutheran ancestors in the faith courageously spoke the truth to power.  And as a result, many things changed.  The authority of God’s Word was restored to its rightful place, being heard in the language of the people, and the preaching of the pure Gospel rang out again as the delivery of God’s free grace in Christ.  Even in churches that rejected Luther’s reforms there was some change for the better.  Roman Catholic churches have acknowledged that Luther was right about several things and are different today as a result, though sadly the same underlying poison of false teaching remains in place.  In my recent visit to Italy it became clear that the same structure of indulgences and rewards for good works and superstition about saints was still alive and well and being practiced.

    So as much as there for us to celebrate this day, the Reformation must continue if it is to mean anything–and that must continue to happen within Lutheranism, too.  For much of Lutheranism today is a sad parody of what Luther taught.  Lutheran churches don’t always speak the truth confidently and boldly before the world but are too often conformed to the lies of this world.  And so the best and greatest thing that Lutherans can do still to this day is to stubbornly cling to the truth, to preach the fullness of God’s Law that exposes our fallen condition, to announce with gladness that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), to proclaim without fear that He is the exclusive Truth, the only way to the Father and to eternal life, that by His wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5).  We have no new truths to offer; for the truth of Christ is both ancient and eternal.  We cling to the promise of God that the Church, in her confession of this truth, will even withstand the gates of hell.  It is as we just sang regarding the devil, “One little Word can fell him,” namely the Word of Jesus.

    So hear again what Jesus says, and take it to heart this Reformation weekend, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

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

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