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Jesus, the Greater Jonah

Mark 4:35-41; Jonah 1:1-17
Epiphany 4

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

    Jonah was called by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, to cry out against it because of its wickedness.  But Jonah wanted nothing to do with that.  He found a ship going in the opposite direction and got on it.  Nineveh was to the east.  Tarshish, which is probably the southern part of modern-day Spain, was to the west.  Jonah tried to run from God, to avoid God’s will, to flee from the presence of the Lord.  

    We are not unlike Jonah–in two ways.  First of all, we see the wickedness of the world around us, and we know that we should say something and speak up about it where we are called to in the vocations God has given us.  But that’s a risk we prefer to avoid.  It could affect relationships with family or friends.  There could be financial and job consequences.  Best just to keep our mouths shut, we think, keep our heads down and go with the flow, even though we know deep down that “the flow” is eventually going right over the edge of a cliff.null

    And second of all, we’re like Jonah because just as a general rule, by nature we want to go our own way rather than God’s way.  Our old Adam runs from the presence of the Lord.  Now your running may not be so obvious as Jonah’s.  It’s usually more subtle.  You may not be leaving for a far away place.  You may not be staying away from church–although when you do skip church or don’t go to Bible class, a big part of it is to avoid having to face God and His Word in favor of something of your own choosing, right?  The truth is that we want religion that doesn’t require too much of us, one where we can keep God at a manageable distance and stay one step ahead of him and still be pretty much in charge of our own life.  And when God gets too close, when His Word calls for us to go in a direction we don’t want to go, when it involves changes in our life and the forsaking of our favorite idols, that is when we run.  Whatever it is that you do to avoid your responsibilities, wherever it is that you go to hide out and escape from the stations of life into which God has placed you, whenever you engage in excuse-making for your failure to follow His words and heed His calling, that is when you are being just like Jonah here, stowing away in the belly of some ship.

    Of course, you can’t run from the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.  Jonah’s rebellion against the Lord caused a great storm to rage against the ship he was on.  Nothing that the crew tried could save the ship from certain destruction.  The only thing that finally kept the ship from breaking up was the sacrificing of Jonah.  He was thrown overboard, and the sea stopped its raging.  So it is with us.  Our sin causes God’s wrath to rage against us.  There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  The judgment of the Law is that our eternal death is required.  Only then will the raging cease.

    But then comes the Gospel in which we learn of a new Jonah, one who takes our place under judgment and who saves us from its surging storm.  For here is Jesus in the very same circumstance as Jonah, in the midst of a tempest on the sea.  Just as Jonah was sleeping in the ship, so also here Jesus is sound asleep in the boat despite the commotion of the wind and the waves.  Our Lord was weary and worn out from the day’s work and teaching.  He took on our very flesh and blood and subjected Himself to all of the exhausting effects of sin on our behalf.  

    Jonah’s shipmates awakened him and asked him to call on his God, that they might not perish.  So also the disciples woke Jesus with the prayerful plea, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!”  Jonah’s shipmates cast lots to see for whose cause this trouble had come; and the lot fell on Jonah.  In the same way, the Lord Jesus took our place under the Law.  Though the storm of judgment was brought on by our own doing, Jesus allowed the lot to fall on Him, that He might receive the punishment in our place.  In other words, Christ became as if He were the sinner fleeing from God.  He became Jonah for us, in order that we might be forgiven and brought back to the heavenly Father and restored to fellowship with Him.  

    Jonah was cast overboard, and the storm stopped.  Jesus was cast over to death not on the sea but on the cross.  In view of that impending sacrifice, and with His authority as the Almighty Son of God, Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  Christ is not only true man but also true God.  He is the One through whom all things were created.  By His Word the wind and the waves were called into being in the beginning; and by His Word these fallen elements of creation are subdued and tamed.  “Quiet, be still!”  And there was perfect peace on the water.

    Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish before being vomited onto dry land.  So also our Lord Jesus was three days in the belly of the grave.  Having paid for our sins by the shedding of His blood, Jesus then came forth from the depths of death victorious over the grave, bringing His resurrection life to all who believe in Him.  By the holy cross, the storm of God’s judgment has subsided for you.  Through Jesus there is a great calm, the full forgiveness of your sins.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  In the risen Christ you now have perfect peace and reconciliation with the Father.  

    And that perfect peace is yours in the water.  For it is through holy baptism that you are placed into Christ.  It is by water and the Word that Christ became your refuge, like the great fish was for Jonah.  Most of you know that the fish has long been a  symbol in the church for Jesus–you see it in a couple place in this building.  The Greek word for fish is IXTHUS.  And those letters form an acronym in Greek for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”  So it is that Jesus is our great fish.  He saves us from the watery depths of death by taking us into Himself, protecting us in His body, joining us to His death.  And then He sets us forth on the shores of new and eternal life, joining us also to His resurrection.  

    It is written in Romans 6, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  The old, fleeing Jonah was buried in the water, and a new Jonah came forth whose first destination was Nineveh.  So also the rebellious fallen nature in us was buried at the font, and we came forth from the water as new people with a new direction, ones who share in and who are given to live the very life of Christ Himself.  In fact that is the substance of the Christian life–to drown the sinful nature through repentance, so that the new man, Christ, may daily emerge and arise in us to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

    As we await the day when our old nature will be put off from us forever, there will be times when our faith will be tested.  There will be times when it seems as if the storm of judgment still threatens to do us in.  Sicknesses and pains in our body, sorrows in our hearts, troubles in our family, strained relationships, financial problems all can make us feel as if we’re going to go under and never come up again.  And as this tempest rages around us, it might seem as if our Lord is sleeping, as if He’s paying no attention to us and doesn’t even care.  “Why don’t you do something, God?  Don’t just sit there.  The ship’s about to go down!  Help me, if you care!”  That’s the temptation we face: to doubt God’s goodness toward us in Christ, to fear the things that are going on around us and inside of us rather than revering and trusting in God above all things.  

    Jesus said to His disciples, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”  At least they had little faith and called on His name in their time of need, “Lord, save us!”  If their faith had been greater they would have recognized that the only way they could go down was if Jesus would go down, if the wind and the waves would prove stronger than He who created them.  Jesus was unthreatened by the storm, sleeping soundly, trusting in His Father’s care.  In fact, there was probably no place safer in all of Israel that night than right there on that boat.  For Jesus was on that boat, He who is Creation’s Master, He who is the refuge and the fortress of His people.  

    Remember that when it seems as if the wind and the waves in your life are going to overwhelm you.  Remember who their Master is.  Remember these words of faith from Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”  

    You’re in the same boat with Jesus.  He has received you into the ship of the church.  The only way that you can go down is if He goes down.  And the fact is that He has conquered the storm and every threatening evil by the power of His cross and resurrection.  You are safely sheltered in His holy wounds.  His risen presence surrounds you as an impenetrable stronghold, so that not even death can snatch you out of His hands.  Therefore, cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.  Our Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all things for the sake of the Church.  He has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him, for you who are the called according to His purpose.  He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  He has given you the Sacrament of His body and blood to strengthen you in that confidence, that you might be certain that He truly is with you, that He forgives you, that He loves you.  

    Believe that truth; trust in His Word.  For though this fallen creation may groan all around you, though you may groan inwardly under the power of the curse, yet the Word of Jesus overcomes the wind and the waves and brings calm to your heart.  We are those who live with a sure hope in Christ and a sure destiny in our voyage.  We eagerly await the redemption of our body, the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  And so we boldly confess with St. Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

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

You Can Make Me Clean

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 You may have noticed that the word “clean” comes up a number of times in today’s Scripture readings.  And it’s a word that also shows up in a number of ways in our contemporary culture, too.  You hear, for instance, about the concept of “clean eating,” avoiding overly processed foods, eating organic, pesticide-free, non-GMO.  Eating in this way is intended to make you more clean and healthy.  Or, there are several shows on Netflix and cable that are about cleaning and tidying up your life.  Being disorganized and cluttered gives a sense of uncleanness, and so methods are given (that are sometimes almost spiritual in nature) to put your life in order and make things clean and right again.  Or when it comes to exercise, you’ll commonly hear references to the technique of taking a “cleansing breath.”  As you breathe in and then exhale out your anxiety and stress and negativity, this technique is supposed to help cleanse you in body and in soul.
 Whether people are overtly religious or not, we all have this inherent sense that there is something unclean about us and that we need to be purified.  And so our eating and our exercising and our tidying and our doing of good works and our positive thinking is often an attempt to address that, to cleanse ourselves.  But if we’re honest, we can never completely shake the sense that things still aren’t quite how they should be with us, that what the confession says is true, “we are by nature sinful and unclean.”  We are all in the position of the leper in today’s Gospel reading, who comes before Jesus with the prayer, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”null
 Now usually we think of our need for cleansing from God only in spiritual terms.  But what our Lord gives involves the body, too.  We see that fact with both Namaan in the Old Testament and the leper in the Gospel.  Their being made clean involved their whole being, flesh and spirit.  To be sure, uncleanness is first of all a spiritual matter.  The Bible sometimes calls demons unclean spirits who seek to defile us as well.  Sin and the allurements of the world are described in Scripture as pollutions–you take part in them and you’re left feeling tainted and infected and corrupted.  And then there are also the sins that have been perpetrated on you, against your will, that leave you feeling contaminated.  Verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse can leave a person feeling desecrated and soiled.  We need cleansing from Jesus not only for the sins we’ve committed, but also for those that have been committed against us. 
 But again let’s not lose sight of the fact that the cleansing Jesus gave was also a fleshly cleansing and healing and restoration.  We need our whole selves to be cleansed, soul and body.  This quickly becomes apparent when we’re dealing with physical sicknesses and diseases; the body isn’t naturally sanitary and hygienic.  Doctors and nurses are dealing with wounds that ooze, limbs that swell with fluids, cancer that eats away at healthy tissue, mucous and phlegm that congest, bowels that malfunction.  It’s no wonder that medical personnel are constantly using the hand sanitizer.  They know better than most that what they’re dealing with is uncleanness, viruses and bacteria and disorders that require very tangible, fleshly help to bring about some sense of cleanness and order back to the body.  A hospital patient’s comments about their messed-up hair or lack of make-up or decent clothing are often a commentary on this deeper feeling. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
 What an excellent prayer that is which the leper prays!  He doesn’t presume to tell Jesus what to do but comes before Him humbly.  However, He also expresses full confidence and faith in Jesus, that He surely has the power to help Him if He wants to.  And then what an excellent response our Lord gives to him!  Jesus says, “I do want to."  "I am willing; be cleansed.” (8:3)  Here the Lord’s heart is opened to the leper and to us all, and we see His great desire to make us clean in both soul and body.  This is the very reason why the Son of God was made man, to purify you from all that ails your flesh and spirit.  For notice what Jesus does here.  It says that He put His hand on the leper and touched him.  That’s the last thing you would normally want to do with someone who has a contagious disease, not at least without getting gloved and masked up.  But Jesus makes direct contact with this man in his uncleanness, because, as it is written later in this same chapter, “He Himself took our sicknesses and bore our infirmities” (8:17).  This is your Savior, the One who took into His own flesh all that attacks your flesh.  He knows, He has felt your sickness in the deepest way possible.  In His scourging and on the cross, His body was opened up and laid bare to every pathogen that threatens our life.  He died a bloody, infected, unclean mess.  However, by that very death, He conquered all your sickness and your disease and the grave itself.  For in the body of God made flesh, all corruptions of the flesh met their match and their end.  It is written in Psalm 16 that Jesus’ body did not see decay or corruption in the grave.  By the wounds of Christ you are healed and cleansed.  The One crucified and now risen in the flesh is your cure.
 Believing that doesn’t come naturally to us.  The ways of God often seem insufficient or foolish or strange to our minds.  That’s certainly how it was with Naaman in the Old Testament reading.   Naaman thought He knew the way that God and His prophets should behave.  Naaman was an army man, and so He assumed God would act according to his power thinking.  He traveled all the way from Syria to Israel because he heard that there was a man there who might be able to cure him of his leprosy.  But after making this lengthy trip, things did not go according to his plan.  Elisha, the man of God, didn’t even come out to greet Naaman.  Instead he sent out his servant.  Naaman wouldn’t even be able to meet the prophet whom he had come to see.  He had all this silver and gold and clothing which he thought he could use to secure Elisha’s blessing, but the prophet would have none of it.
 All Naaman got from Elisha was words, words through his servant telling him to go and take seven baths in the Jordan river.  At that, Naaman lost his temper.  “You mean I came all this way and that’s it?!  I thought the prophet would come out and wave his hands around and call on his God and do something spiritual and heal my leprosy.  All I get is a command to bathe?  I could’ve done that at home, and in much clearer water than this measly river.  That’s it, I’m leaving.”
 We too can be tempted to be like Naaman, especially in those times when God isn’t meeting our expectations, when He doesn’t seem to be coming through for us.  “I’ve come all this way, Lord, seeking health and happiness and a successful life in this world.  I’ve tried to jump through all the right hoops, but I am still weighed down with all sorts of problems and troubles.  And all you’re giving me is words and Scriptures from your servant?  Give me some spiritual advice and techniques and power that will work for me right now.  If not, I’ve had enough.  I’m going home.”
 Fortunately for Naaman, he had wise servants.  They said to him, “If the prophet had told you to do some great and difficult thing, you would have done it.  Why not, then, trust in this little thing and do it?”  We’re always more inclined to think that great religious deeds are what really make us holy and bring us closer to God and obtain His blessing.  But the key factor is whether or not God’s creative and healing Word is present, even connected to simple water.
 Naaman did according to the word of God spoken by Elijah, and when he came up out of the water the 7th time, his leprous skin had been healed and cleansed completely, like that of a little child.  You might say that Naaman was born again, freed from his disease to live a new life.  Having washed once for each of the 7 days of creation, Naaman came out of the water a new creation, a new person, through the hidden power of the words connected with the Jordan water.
 That’s how it is also for us.  God heals and cleanses and recreates us not through impressive visible power, but through simple words and promises connected to the baptismal water.  This is what we heard last week in Ephesians 5, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.”  It is written in John 3, “Unless one is born (again) of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  We must turn and become as a little child, Jesus said, (like young Korben today), utterly dependent, forsaking our adult merits and wisdom, completely on the receiving end of God’s gracious giving.  Laying aside any claim to our own worthiness, we stake everything on Christ and His holy Word.  For wherever the Word is, there God is present to cleanse and save.  And the Word is in the water!  Remember that Jesus Himself later entered into these same Jordan waters.  There He was baptized into our sin and death so that through our baptism into Him we might receive His mercy and His life.
 So here’s the point for you to take to heart today: Our Lord has said also to you what He said to the leper, “I am willing; be cleansed.”  At the holy font, He gave you the sure hope that your lowly body will be transformed to be like His glorious body (Philippians 3:21).  In divine service He continues to speak those words in the absolution, words of forgiveness which are life to you and health to all your flesh (Proverbs 4:22).  And here at the altar, you receive the blood of Jesus which cleanses you from all sin (1 John 1:7).  Here for you is the medicine of immortality and the guarantee of health and wholeness that will be yours in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. 
 Jesus can make you clean.  He is willing.  Be cleansed.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

To Fulfill All Righteousness

Matthew 3:13-17
The Baptism of our Lord

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

    We know that Jesus grew up like any other faithful Jewish boy, going to the synagogue weekly, and to the temple for the various feasts.  And so praying and singing the psalms would have been a regular part of His life, all the way to the end even as He prayed from the Psalms on the cross.  But that raises an interesting question: Would Jesus also have also prayed the penitential psalms, those Psalms that ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness?  For instance, could the sinless Son of God pray Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out My transgressions”?  It’s pretty easy for us to picture Jesus praying parts of Psalm 69 to His Father like this, “Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head. . . Because for Your sake I have borne reproach . . . Zeal for Your house has consumed me.”  The New Testament even says that those words apply to Jesus.  But what about verse five of that same Psalm, “O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You”?

    It would be easy to think that Jesus could not possibly have prayed those words.  But I would suggest to you today that one of the things the baptism of our Lord teaches us is that Jesus must have prayed those psalms in their entirety–not because He had any sins of His own to confess, but because He bears our sins in His flesh and makes them His responsibility and confesses them as if He were guilty of every single one of them.null

    It was a strange sight for John the Baptizer, to see the Messiah, the One he had been preparing the way for, stepping down into the water to be baptized.  The people were coming out to John in response to his preaching of repentance confessing their sins.  John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And yet here is Jesus with His feet in the murky Jordan waters asking John to baptize Him.  You can understand why at first John tried to prevent Him and didn’t want to do it.

    We probably would have done just as John did.  For the truth is, we don’t necessarily want Jesus getting down into the mess and the muck of our everyday life in this world.  Better to keep Him at a distance all shiny and clean; better to keep Him here at church unstained by our lives out in the “real” world.  We, too, try to prevent Him, keep Him away from the coarseness of our workplace or the imperfections of our home life.  It bothers us and unsettles us a bit when Jesus gets down into the nitty gritty of our existence.  For then there’s no more hiding the way things are with us.  Jesus’ entry into the water means things are going to be stirred up and changed, everything out in the open.  And that means repentance for us; that’s never easy.

    But it is good.  For Jesus enters the water to take our place.  Jesus said to John, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  In doing this Jesus was fulfilling the Father’s righteous plan to save sinners by trading places with us–the holy for the unholy.  Jesus receives this baptism for sinners in order that He might become the Sinner, the only sinner.  Like a great sponge He absorbs the whole’s world’s sin into Himself, and counts Himself guilty of it all, so that we would be counted righteous in God’s sight.  It is written in 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus takes our curse of death so that through Him we might have the blessing of His divine life.  Here in the water is where it all starts.  Jesus begins His ministry here by accepting and taking this burden on Himself, as John would later say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away, who carries away the sin of the world.”

    You might say that Jesus stole your sins from you; He took them away.  The only way they can damn you now is if you steal them back and insist on continuing in them and keeping them away from Jesus.  Either your sins are on Him or they’re on you.  And Jesus says today, “They’re all on me.  I took them.  Believe that; deal with it. You don’t get to hold on to them any more; you don’t get to keep beating yourself up over them.  I became your pride, your greed, your lust, your immorality, your jealousy, your impatience, your laziness and weakness.  And in turn you have become My righteousness, My holiness, My glory.  Today I begin My sacred journey toward Calvary, bearing and carrying the sin of the world, so that I may destroy it there by My death and the shedding of My blood.”  

    It’s interesting to note that after Jesus persuaded John to baptize Him, it says that John “allowed” Him or permitted Him.  It’s the same word that Jesus Himself later uses when He says, “Let the little children, permit, allow the little children to come to Me.”  That word in Greek is closely related to the word meaning to be forgiven, released, let go of our sins.  The point for us is this: Because Jesus was permitted to be baptized, there is now forgiveness and release for us in the water of baptism.  By the power of His Word and Spirit, all our sins washed away.  They have been taken up by Christ and carried to the cross where they were paid for and destroyed forever.  You are forgiven, pure and holy in Jesus’ name.

    Proof of what Jesus’ began to accomplish in His baptism is shown by the signs that appeared that day.  As soon as Jesus was baptized, the Gospel says behold–pay attention to this–the heavens were opened to Him.  That’s what Jesus accomplishes: He opens the heavens by His taking on and taking away the sin of the world.  Heaven was closed to us fallen creatures.  There was no entrance permitted for us by our own efforts or striving.  But now the heavens are opened to Him, the righteous One, and to all who are baptized into Him and who share in His righteousness by faith.

    Then it is written that “the Spirit of God descended like a dove and alighted upon Him.”  That imagery of the dove is important, particularly as it connects this event to Old Testament events involving water and new life.  In the very beginning we hear that the Holy Spirit was hovering, like a bird gliding over the face of the waters.  The Holy Spirit was there with His creative power to bring life to the world that was being made.  And then we hear of Noah sending out a dove from the ark, hovering over the waters, and then bringing back a freshly plucked olive branch, as a sign of the new creation that Noah and his family would enter after the flood.  The Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove points to Christ as the bringer of the new creation.  It’s all there in Him.  Through our baptism into Christ we receive the same Holy Spirit which He was anointed with.  The Holy Spirit alights upon us to bring us new life, to make us new creatures, and to give us entrance into the new creation to come.

    Finally, it is written that a voice came from heaven, the Father’s voice declaring, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  God the Father was most pleased to see His Son obediently humbling Himself in love like this to save us, beginning His journey to the cross.  Because of what Jesus has done, all the baptized now hear this very same voice of our heavenly Father saying, “You are My beloved Child; in you I am well pleased.  I see no fault, no blemish in you–only my perfect and holy son or daughter.  You may feel like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick, worn down and at the breaking point.  But I will never cast you aside or forsake you; find your rest in My Son.  I have called you by name; you are Mine.  You belong with Me.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from My love.”  

    All three persons of the Trinity are present here at Jesus’ baptism.  That’s why you are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so that you may receive all the mercy that is wrapped up in the Holy Trinity’s saving name.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so your baptism is a cleansing, life-giving flood.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so all your sins are taken away.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so you have a place in the Father’s house forever.

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

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.)

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 ✠