Sermons

Archives - December 2018

The Name of Jesus

December 31, 2018
By Rev. David French

 

In comparison to the multitudes stuffed into stockades for the NYE celebration at Times Square and thousands of other places this night, our little service here doesn’t seem like much. While partiers around the world gear up to greet the new year, or to forget the old, our gathering seems pretty tame and dull by comparison.

But, looks can be deceiving. For while the clock ticks down on another year for planet earth, we Christians are gathered to gain a firmer grip on timeless things: to hear the life-giving Word of God and to receive the holy Sacrament of our Savior’s body and blood—to eat and to drink his bread and cup and so proclaim his death until he comes again. The eternal truth of Christ and his kingdom is what counts in this world and the next.

The days of our lives pass as sands through an hourglass. It’s useless to try to stop the relentless march of time. As the hymn writer for our hymn of the Word, Isaac Watts, put it: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away; we fly forgotten as a dream, dies at the op’ning day.”

But, everything done in the name of Jesus, will last forever. And, the name of Jesus, that’s what brings us here at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019.

Eight days after Jesus was born, he was circumcised, fulfilling the law given under Moses that every male child would receive the mark of the Lord’s covenant. That circumcision marked the beginning of a new life in the kingdom of God—the kingdom that lasts forever. That eighth day was the first day of the new life, the eternal life within the kingdom of God for every circumcised son of Israel.

Count off eight days beginning with December 25, and you arrive at January 1. So it is that while the kingdom of this world observes the beginning of a new solar year in time, we Christians celebrate the circumcision of Jesus. So the first of January becomes for us not just another notch in time, but a genuine link with eternity through the flesh of God’s only begotten Son.

Every son of Israel was given his name at the time of circumcision. So our Lord also was given his name. But his is no ordinary name. His name had literally been given from heaven, announced by an angel to both Mary and Joseph at his conception: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21; Lk 1:31).

And so, this tiny bundle of humanity was given the strong name Jesus: “the LORD saves.” And he grew up to fulfill his name in ways no one could have imagined. All that God’s holy Law demands from you and me, all of them, Jesus did for us perfectly and completely. All that you and I by our sins have deserved, Jesus took upon Himself and suffered patiently and thoroughly. God the Father laid on him the iniquity of us all, and it killed him.

He endured the cross and grave for us. For our salvation, he was crucified, died, and was buried. And for our justification, He was raised from the dead. No wonder the apostle Paul proclaimed, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9–11). The apostles preached that name and when hauled into court because of it, they confessed, “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

We begin the year of our Lord 2019 with mixed emotions. Excitement and anticipation mix with uncertainty and fear within us. There’s so much hate in the world, what will it bring this year? We have our personal fears as well. What about my job, family, health, security? How am I ever going to handle this, that, and the other thing? We wonder.

My friends, we handle whatever we may face in the name of Jesus. That’s how. Now, there’s nothing magical about the name Jesus. But the power of the name of Jesus is the power and authority of Jesus himself. It works this way: When we pray in the name of Jesus, the Father hears our prayer as Jesus’s prayer. When God’s Word is preached in the name of Jesus, it is the authority of Jesus himself that stands behind that Word. When Christians give a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, it is Jesus himself who provides for the physical needs of the deprived neighbor. When we call on the name of Jesus as we prepare to eat, it is Jesus himself who blesses that food to our good and to the glory of God the Father. The truth is, whatever we do, whether in word or in deed, when it is done in the name of the Lord Jesus, we are giving glory to God.

Whenever and wherever we receive the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’s name, our sins are forgiven by the authority and power of God’s own Son, which is why we confess our sins to Him in the first place. By grace, we are forgiven in the name of Jesus. This evening as we leave the Lord’s Table, we will again hear the announcement of our forgiveness in the name of Jesus. Do you remember how the catechism says we should understand these words of forgiveness spoken by the pastor? “We should receive the pastor’s absolution as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”

In the name of Jesus we eat and drink his body and his blood for the forgiveness if offers, the life it strengthens, and salvation delivers. In the name of Jesus we bring this year to a close, and in the name of Jesus we begin the new year. And so, we have nothing to fear. For whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. And so it is, we live and move and have our being all in the name of Jesus. And on a day God has chosen, we will be called to our heavenly home, dying as we have lived; that is, in the name of Jesus our Lord and Savior, our joy and peace, our light in the darkness that will carry us to our eternal home.

Tags: Luke 2:21

Great Expectations

December 30, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

 

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel message, especially where Luke records, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

“Sometimes you go a long way to get a drink of water, and when you get there, it doesn’t taste that good.” That’s one of my dad’s adages which, in particular, has stuck out to me as particularly humorous in both its truth and candor: Sometimes you’ve got preconceived notions of how things are going to go down, and you wait a long time to see things realized, and when the moment finally comes, it’s a letdown. Waiting in great expectations, only to be left with great disappointments. This is something we’ve all experienced at one point or another in our lives, isn’t it? Building up in your mind how great this thing, whatever it is, is going to be as you wait in eager anticipation, only to end up disenchanted as reality hits and you can almost hear the trombone going, “Womp-womp.”

You might expect this to have been what Simeon experienced. This guy spent his days just … waiting. He was waiting, watching, looking because it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Day in, day out, for years, just waiting and watching, with no other indication of what to expect other than, “When you see Him, you’ll know it.” Frankly, that sounds maddening. Who knows how many times Simeon might have gone into the temple without the fulfillment of this expectation? Who knows how many times he may have thought, “Wait, is that Him?” How many times he sighed at day’s end, saying, “Well, it may not have been today, but I’ve got a good feeling about tomorrow!” Great expectations, indeed!

But then … one day … his expectations were realized. We are told that, on this day, he came into the temple – likely similar to what he had done countless times before, and sometime during that day, a man and a teenaged girl walked into the temple courts. They had come for a very specific purpose: to present their firstborn Child before the Lord, to consecrate Him and to do for Him according to the custom of the Law.

BOOM. That’s it. The switch turned on, and Simeon perceived that, at last, at long last … the time had come. The day was here, when the promises given to him – that he would not see death until he saw the Messiah, the One who was going to redeem the cosmos – were finally being fulfilled. Who can say exactly what Simeon was expecting when this moment finally arrived? Was he anticipating a strong, vibrant man who would be another Samson, ready to plow the pagan Romans six feet under? Was he expecting a wise old prophet like Elijah or Isaiah to walk into the temple and proclaim in a loud voice, “Hazeh Hayom YHWH! This is the Day of the LORD!” Was he expecting this Anointed One to come from one of the great Jewish families, high-born, if not royal? Was he expecting a royal procession announcing that the King had returned? Who knows what he was expecting?

We do know that these sentiments existed amongst the Jews of Judea. They thought the Messiah would blow in like a force of nature, cast out the heathens from among them, free Judea from Roman occupation and oppression, and establish God’s kingdom here on earth in their land. Preconceived notions, certainly great expectations.

So, was there a “womp-womp” moment for Simeon? Did he think to himself as he went up to the couple with their newly born Son, “This is it? You gotta be kidding me! This is what I’ve been waiting for all these years?” If he did, Luke certainly doesn’t record it. Instead, it sounds as if this is a pleasant surprise to the man, as he takes the Babe of Bethlehem up in his arms and sings his song of praise, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”

Great expectations and, while they may not have been exactly how Simeon thought it would be (only God and Simeon himself know this), our text seems to indicate that Simeon’s expectations were met, if not exceeded! Like us, he is rejoicing at the birth of this Child because he knows that this Child … is so much more! He recognizes the infant Jesus as the Meshiach, the Messiah, the One Who would fulfill God’s promise in the wake of the Fall. This Child … would crush the head of the serpent. This little Baby … was going to save the world. He had now seen the One Whom God had promised he would see – the Light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory, the culmination of Israel. Thus, Simeon could now die in peace, joyful, knowing that the promises God had made to him had been fulfilled, but more importantly, that God’s plan of redemption was at hand.

This is all we hear of Simeon. We have no idea how old he was at the time of this interaction – often he’s depicted as being elderly, but honestly, Scripture is mum. We have no idea how long he lived after holding the Babe of Bethlehem and singing his prophetic Nunc Dimittis. There are a lot of unknowns about Simeon, but what we do know is that he recognized in Jesus what many Jews and Romans obviously did not, just a few decades later. They did not see Him as the Messiah, the Meshiach, the Savior of the world; rather, they saw Him as a threat. A liability. A highly dangerous Man who threatened nearly every aspect of their lives, as they cried out, “Crucify Him!”

Who knows if Simeon knew that this is exactly how the Savior was going to save the world: by dying on a cross, outside the city walls as the cursed of God? Who knows if Simeon knew that the Babe of Bethlehem that he held in his arms would atone for his sin and the sin of the whole world by becoming sin, killing it in Himself, in His own gruesome death? Whether or not he knew at the time that this is how Jesus would redeem His creation, Simeon certainly knows it now, as do we. The Child born to the virgin God-bearer would endure torments and pain that we will never fully grasp, and this was, in fact, the reason He was born: to die … for you. The little One we were just adoring in the manger took on human flesh to take your sin and die the horrific death that you deserve … because He loves you. Even when you hated Him, He loved you, and loves you still.

But of course, Jesus didn’t just die for you; He also rose from the dead for you! He defeated death, and has given you the promise that, at His return, we will be like Him and be with Him forever. That is what awaits us! That’s what we, like Simeon, are eagerly anticipating! We have great expectations, too – that, at the return of Christ Jesus, our incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Lord and Savior, sin, death, and the devil will be done away with once, for all, and forevermore! Those are our expectations, and while they may not be realized in our lifetimes, we have the promise of the One Who was, and is, and is to come, that He will fulfill them in His time! Great expectations, yes, but not unwarranted! We know that they will be fulfilled, and when they are, they will far surpass anything we could ever possibly hope for! A continued merry Christmas to you all!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 2:22-40

From the Beginning

December 25, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

 

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this glorious Christmas morn is our Gospel lesson, especially, where John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

We’re going back to the beginning. It may seem odd to do so on this blessed Christmas morn, but John does, so we shall do likewise. Nothing existed aside from YHWH, the One Whose very Name means “I Am that I Am.” He Who revealed Himself in the fullness of time to be Three in One and One in Three. There, in the beginning, was the Eternal Logos, the Eternal Word. He was with God, and He was (and is) God, and John tells us that, “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” There is nothing in all creation, visible or invisible, that was not created by this Word, the Eternal Logos. He spoke, and it was, and it is. No living thing that has the breath of life in it received that life from another source. Only He gave it.

That’s right, my friends; though we may not think about it all that often, the pre-incarnate Christ was present in the creation of all things. The Eternal Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was there, admiring and loving the wondrous creation so new and perfect. But as we all know, that perfection was short-lived. In a way mysterious but no less devastating, our first parents, created perfect and the pinnacles of all creation, rebelled. They transgressed. They sinned, and as a result, all of the good creation, which came into existence by the Eternal Logos, was effectively destroyed. Where there had only been life, there was now death. Where there was once trust and obedience, there was now skepticism and sedition. Where there was once love and humble service, there was now hate and pride. And the Eternal Logos was there, when Man failed and caused the great cataclysm known as the Fall. As His good creation fell into ruin and despair, He was there.

He was there as His creation crashed, but even as He spoke the curse over the serpent who brought about all this misery and death and destruction, He also gave the promise: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This promise, that the Seed of Woman would come in the fullness of time to do battle and defeat the ancient foe, was the hope of the People of the Word for centuries, millennia. It was the hope of Adam and Eve, of Enoch, Noah, and Melchizadek. It was the hope of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all his sons. It was the hope of David, Solomon, Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah. It was the hope of the prophets, from Moses to Malachi. The promise of the Eternal Logos to defeat the enemy, to right all wrongs, and to restore His now broken creation was what sustained His people through the eons of suffering and pain, sin and death. They longed for the Meshiach, the Messiah … and what we celebrate this morning is the culmination of that promise. The Logos … became the Meshiach, as He took on human flesh.

That’s what John is talking about on this blessed morn, as we remember when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We know this – we celebrate this wonder in the making every year, but I think the enormity of its occurring is often lost on us. The Babe of Bethlehem, born in the city of David, was born for the purpose of ending the reign of sin, death, and the devil. As the Child wiggled and squirmed as children do in His makeshift cradle, as Mary and Joseph looked on in a sense of awe and wonder you and I can only imagine, He had already begun the process of redeeming the world.

But this redemption would not come painlessly. It would not come with accolades and cheers, as a king returning victorious from battle. No, the Babe of Bethlehem would grow into the Son of Man, coming from Nazareth, where nothing good really comes from, and He would only have glory and victory through gory and bloody death. The Eternal and now Incarnate Logos, Who was present from the beginning, would save the world He created by allowing Himself to be destroyed by His creations. The flesh He assumed would be beaten and broken, scourged and pierced. By the snarling, sneering, jeering people He had come to redeem.

More miraculous than even the incarnation itself is that the Eternal Logos, from eternity, knew this was what would occur, that this was what had to happen. In His infinite wisdom, He knew, before it was even made, that this would be the only way to save His creation … and He did it anyway. Gladly. Joyfully. Because of you. Yes, you, the lousy, rotten, no-good, stinkin’ sinner. The Eternal Logos, begotten of the Father from eternity, took on flesh, knowing full well that it would be broken … and He did it anyway, without giving it a second thought. Because, from eternity, the Eternal Logos knew you, and He loved you, and wanted that you be His own, to live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

The Law may have been given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Eternal Logos, the One Who was, and is, and is to come, crucified and resurrected, ascended and returning! He Who came from eternity to give us life, light, and truth will return that we may be His own forever! A very merry Christmas, and a blessed New Year to you all!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: John 1:1-14

A Special Night

December 24, 2018
By Rev. David French

 

            A special night, that’s what this is, a very special night, and you know it. That’s why you’re here. You just heard the Christmas story again, but that’s not why you came. You knew the story. And it’s not just a thing you do once a year, but you look forward to this service. You can feel the peace even now as you’re sitting here. Not that everything in your life is peaceful, but for reasons that if you don’t understand I’d like to explain, you know as well as I do that right now there is peace.

            You’ve come because on this night what many call the Spirit of Christmas, that mystical reason to show love and kindness to others, was born in the flesh. That’s what the incarnation is. God in His essence taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. For many in the world, that mystery remains. For you and me, however, by God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, that mystery has been revealed. You’re here because while you can’t explain it, you know that on a night like this one, a long time ago, something changed. You can’t explain or prove it, but you know in your heart it’s true. You believe that on this night God’s Son was born of a virgin. And like the shepherds long ago, you’ve come to see the Savior.

            My friends, I have good news for you. He’s here. The shepherds went to see the promised Savior and what they found was a child wrapped in cloths lying in a manger. This evening we find that same Savior not wrapped in clothes or in a manger, but this time we find Him cradled in the Scriptures and wrapped in bread and wine. The truly amazing thing is, as we approach His table, we are seeing what the shepherds saw as they approached the manger. The gift of God in all its fullness given for you.

The shepherds saw God hidden in flesh. We see Him hidden in the Word and Sacraments. But, we both see God as He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. God in His essence is no more flesh and blood than He is bread and wine, but to save you and all on whom His favor rest, He has put Himself in both.

            But, why? Why would God do such things for the likes of you and me? Why? When we know in our hearts that while we gather to marvel at the birth of this child, we often fail to listen to what he says as a man. Can it be that we are here for the wrong reasons? Can it be that like the rest of the world around us we also have turned the birth of Jesus Christ into nothing more than an annual event about us? You and I both know in our hearts that we are all guilty of these and many other sins.

            And yet, even in the midst of what we know in our hearts and what God has always known about us, the gift was given then and continues to be offered now. Christmas is not about a day. Christmas is about our God who loves you with a love we can never fully understand on this side of heaven. Christmas is about the peace that is yours through the real forgiveness of real sins. Christmas is about Christ, who humbled Himself for you and me. It’s about the glimmer of light that has come into our world and into your heart that you might always live with the peace you feel right now.

               I can remember one time, when I was just a boy, going to my grandparents and seeing all the gifts under the tree. It was a very exciting time. A few days after Christmas, we were back at my grandparents and there was still one gift left unopened. I remember during the following summer, I was helping my grandfather with something, and he sent me to get whatever, and there I saw that gift still wrapped tucked in a storage space in the back of the garage behind what I thought was a whole bunch of junk.

            I don’t know what ever became of that gift, and while I don’t remember all the details, one thing I do clearly remember is feeling very sad about that unopened gift. And you know what? I haven’t changed.

            God in His mercy has given to you His only Son. He sent Him to do what you and I can not give or do for ourselves. He paid for our sins. He didn’t use gold or silver the way you or I might, but He paid for our sins with His blood. He looked at you and me, He looked into our hearts, and He laid down His life. I love the words of Christ in John 10, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

You see, Christ didn’t have to die for you and me. He wanted to. He wanted to take all of your sins upon His shoulders to the cross and leave them in the grave. He wanted to bury them, that they might never again torment you.  He wanted you to have the gift of life that He gave to you in your baptism. He wants to feed you that you might grow strong in your faith. He wants you to know that His love for you will never end. Christ said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Don’t settle for one night. What you feel this evening is not the result of a number on a calendar, it is the work of Christ in you.

Come hear what this child has to say to you - for His words deliver what they promise; love, hope, joy, forgiveness, peace. Perhaps on this night the angels said it best: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

In His Name. Amen

Tags: Luke 2:1-20

Questions

December 24, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

 

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this night is from our Gospel text, wherein St. Luke records the events surrounding the birth of our Lord Jesus in Bethlehem. That is the primary focus of our meditation this evening, dear Christian friends…

When a child is born, there are questions we typically ask. Parents ask, “Is he healthy?” “How much does she weigh?” Grandparents ask, “What did you name her?” “Who does he look like?” Nurses and doctors closely examine the child and want to know, “Is he alert?” “Are her lungs clear?” We expect these kinds of questions.

But there are some questions we never expect to hear at the birth of a healthy child. Who would ever ask, “Do you think he’s going to be a drug addict or a wife beater?” Or, “What cemetery do you think she’ll be buried in?” Or, “What will cause his death?” For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, the book of Ecclesiastes says. And the season for asking about a person’s sin and death is usually not at his or her birth.

I bring this up because our last hymn did ask a bit of an odd question about a Child, newly born, in Bethlehem: What Child Is This? If you don’t know the story, it sounds kinda rude, actually. However, upon closer examination, it is a fitting question to ask because this Child is born in a most unusual way. His mother is a virgin. His birth is announced by heavenly hosts praising God. There are signs in the heavens indicating His birth which will, in the course of time, draw Magi from the East. So, What Child Is This? The glorious answer is proclaimed by an angel to shepherds who were watching over their sheep: I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

What Child Is This? This Child is no less than the YHWH Himself, the King of creation, Lord of heaven and earth. He whose voice can destroy the cedars of Lebanon … now coos softly in His mother’s arms. The same Lord who told the shepherd Moses to not come near for His presence was too holy now invites shepherds to draw near to Him as He lies in a manger, a helpless Child. Moses hid his face from the Lord, but now shepherds behold the Lord’s face in the face of a baby. The Unapproachable One is now approachable. The Intimidating One is now inviting.

That certainly is good news. But what makes God’s appearance in human flesh good news of great joy is that He came in order to redeem us. The Lord of creation became part of His creation in order to restore and recreate what man had broken. The Immortal One … was born in a specific time and place to unite Himself forever with His mortal creatures.

The reason why it is good news of great joy is that, at this Child’s birth we do ask a normally unthinkable question, “How will this Child die?” For this Child … was born … to die. This was God’s plan even before the Child was born. This is what the heavenly angels are talking about when they say His birth will bring peace on earth. This Child will die because of us, and He will die for us. “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through; the cross be bourne for me, for you.”

The prophet Isaiah said, “To us a child is born.” The angel said, “Unto you is born this day . . . a Savior.” Unto us, whose worldly passions conceive and give birth to worldly thoughts and ungodly living. Unto us, whose sinful hearts give birth to cruel words and harmful deeds, even against those who love us the most. Unto us, whose very natures hate God. Unto us—poor miserable sinners—this Child is born.

So repent humbly, for your sin and mine is great, and rejoice all the more greatly for His holy birth upon this holy night! Rejoice in His birth, yes, but also rejoice for His holy death. For already at His birth, His cross, death, and burial are foreshadowed.

What Child Is This? This is the Child who had a Mary at His birth and several Marys present at His death.

The Child who had a righteous Joseph at His birth and a righteous Joseph, from Arimathea, help Him carry His cross up Golgotha’s hill.

The Child who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger at His birth and was wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb.

The Child whose birth was honored by wise men bearing myrrh and whose death was honored by faithful women bearing myrrh to His tomb.

This Child is the great light that has shown on us who dwelt in a land of deep darkness.

This is a real human Child who has a real human Body. A Body which was beaten and broken, tortured and mutilated; and when death came, a Body which was wrapped up and laid in a tomb. But on the third day, His real human Body came back to life, the firstfruits of the resurrection of our own human bodies.

“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” in this Child. So let’s do something that is normal at the birth of a child. Let’s examine closely this Babe, the Son of Mary.

The prophet Isaiah said all authority would be upon those little shoulders. This Child used His authority to free you from hell and destruction.

He has the lips of the Wonderful Counselor, comforting your troubled conscience with the most wonderful counsel you could ever hear: “I forgive you all your sins.”

He has the hands of the Mighty God who created heaven and earth. He set aside that power and might to have His hands nailed to a cross, to extend mercy to you through His Holy Meal.

He has the arms of the Everlasting Father, arms that spread out on a cross to draw you to Himself, to wrap His arms around you in Holy Baptism, and to welcome you home as prodigal sons and daughters.

He has the royal head of the Prince of Peace. But His head was crowned with thorns in order to place on your heads the crown of glory.

“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” Today that salvation is again extended to you as a gift from this Child’s altar. It’s Christmas, and Jesus is giving you the best gift—His very Body and Blood, in, under, and with bread and wine, broken and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. It is a gift that renews your zeal for good works and inflames your love for Him and one another. What a wondrous gift of love!

What Child Is This? This is the Lord who has saved you. So, “Haste, haste to bring Him laud,” “Hail, hail the Word made flesh,” “Joy, joy, for Christ is born, The babe, the son of Mary.” Born for me and for you. Merry Christmas.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 2:1-14

Peace on Earth?

December 24, 2018
By Rev. David French

 

Love, a living and breathing love, that’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas isn’t God giving us a definition of love. Christmas isn’t God holding out the possibility of love before our eyes. Christmas isn’t even about God telling us how much He loves us. Christmas is a living and breathing love, God’s love born of flesh and blood. No matter who we are, for anyone who has ever asked the question, “Does anybody really love me?” Christmas answers with an angelic voice, “Yes, God Himself loves you.” He loved you enough to send His only begotten Son to carry the burden of your sin to a cross and there paid the debt you owed with His own precious blood.

In other words, God’s love, from the manger to the cross through this very night, is a love that is both living and active. But this evening we consider just one fruit that springs from the love that God has for you as we focus on just three words from the song the angels sang on the night when Christ was born, the words “peace on earth.”

When God had finished His work of creation on the sixth day, we read in Geneses, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Man was at peace with God, with himself, and with the world around him. But that peace was short lived.

We read in the book of Revelation about that time, “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

But Satan didn’t just leave, he brought his war from heaven to earth with him, to Eden and there our first parents fell into his trap and at that moment, the battle both for and within you and me began.

But as we read, on a night like this one the angels who gathered over the fields of Bethlehem sang of peace. They sang of peace because the child whose birth we celebrate would be our peace.

But what can a helpless baby do? This is an all-out war, and there can only be peace when the enemy is conquered and the stain of our sin is removed. How can one child put an end to a war that had shaken the earth pretty much from its beginning? The answer given by the angel and the reason you‘re here is that this is no ordinary child. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

You see, this child does not just bring us peace. This child is our peace. Paul writes, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Only behind the veil of the law is God seen as a stern and unbending Judge, but in Christ the heart of God is revealed and there we find a loving and merciful Father. To know God as our own heavenly Father - this is the peace that we all need, and this is the peace that all who confess this child as their Lord have been given. It’s true we don’t always use the gifts we’ve been given, but in Christ you have indeed been given the given the gift of peace with God.

And His is a gift that keeps on giving. Because we’re at peace with God, we also find there is peace of mind and peace of the heart. Now, I understand there are many who are on the road to hell who appear to be very happy. Many who are completely satisfied with themselves. Of them the Scriptures say their stomach is there glory and their end is destruction. But there are also those who are desperately searching for some sense of peace in their lives.

My friends, you can look where you will for peace, but in the end, it is in Christ alone that true peace is found. As He comes to us in the means of grace, that is His Word and Sacraments, we receive by the faith His word and sacrament creates and sustains, forgiveness for all of our sins.

In Christ we can look at ourselves, and we don’t have to pretend that we don’t see what we really see. We are sinners, but keep looking, because on this night a light came into the world, and in that light who is Christ, we can see we that while we are indeed sinners we are at the same time His forgiven saints.

All who confess this Child as your Savior have by grace though faith been declared free of all sin and guilt. You have been washed by the blood of the Lamb and you are clean. Certainly, we know who we are, we know we are weak and full of excuses and far from what even we want to be in thought, word, and deed, and yet still God in His mercy washes us clean in the waters of our baptism and makes us a new creation. And so the life you now live, you live in the One into whose name you were baptized; the One who promises He will never leave or forsake you, the One who on this night was born for you.

But again, His is a gift that keeps on giving, so we, all of humanity, are also offered peace with each other. “How can that be?” you might ask, when since the time of Cain and Abel we’ve been killing each other, and in all honesty, it’s not getting worse. It’s been this bad since it started.

I mean, it was less then a hundred years after the angels sang this song that the armies of the Roman emperor, almost within sight of the fields where these angels sang, destroyed the temple of God, looted the holy city of Jerusalem, and filled its streets with blood.

We understand from Scriptures that there will always be wars and rumors of wars until the very end of time. We also understand the reason for our wars is that we do always resist Him and apart from the child born on this night there can be no peace, not with God, not with ourselves, and not with our neighbors.

Now, I know that simply being reminded that all you need is Christ is probably not going to change how you feel inside as you leave here. But then our peace is not a feeling. Our peace is living and active flesh and blood. Our peace is not feeling good about God, being happy with yourself, or pleasant to your neighbor. Our peace is Christ.

As we grow in Him, so grows our peace; and the way we grow in Him is to be in His word, to gather with His people, and to come to His Table. Christ comes to bring peace, but to meet Him, we must go to where He has promised to be.

I understand that when your world feels like its falling apart, to be told that all you need to do is come to church sounds hollow and superficial. But that’s only true if you seek a peace which is nothing more than a feeling.

This evening we gather to celebrate not a feeling, but the birth of a living, breathing child who is Christ the Lord. And so, this evening we sing with the angles, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Dear children of God, be at peace, for God is with you and His favor does rest on you who worship the child born in Bethlehem this night for you.     

In His Name, Amen

Tags: Luke 2:1-20

Never the Same Again

December 23, 2018
By Rev. David French

 

I think most people would understand Joseph’s concern at the beginning of today’s reading in our gospel lesson for this morning. I mean, he really is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s already betrothed to Mary which means he has already made the commitment to care for Mary through thick or thin, that is, for better or worse. The two of them are, according to the customs of that day, already husband and wife. At the same time, however, they had not yet begun living together. That’s what betrothed means … married, but not yet living together. It was the time the husband would go to prepare a place for them to live.

            We’re not told how Mary shared the news of her pregnancy with Joseph, only that she was found to be with child. We do know, however, and Joseph knew that he was not a part of the process. Mary, no doubt, shared with joy that the baby was of the Holy Spirit, that the baby was the fulfillment of the prophesied coming of the Messiah, that she was the virgin Isaiah spoke of. No doubt, her joy faded quickly as Joseph’s mood changed. No doubt, Mary ended up begging him to believe her, that she had not been unfaithful to him, but such words are hard to believe under any circumstances.

You really can’t blame Joseph for assuming her words were the desperate attempt of a compromised woman to excuse the inexcusable. He may have thought the guilt of her unfaithfulness had driven her mad. Could rape be involved, and the trauma was more than Mary could bear? Maybe Mary just wasn’t the girl he thought she was, and she was lying. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Joseph was thinking. It just says that he was struggling with the truth and had come to the decision that the best course of action was a quick, quiet, behind-the-scenes divorce.

Joseph gives a glimpse of his righteousness by doing what every Christian should do as he chooses not to expose the sins of others. In his explanation of the commandment against bearing false witness, Luther says that not only should we avoid lying, but we should also explain things in the kindest way. That is, when we broadcast the misdeeds of others, we bring condemnation upon ourselves. Joseph determined to do what was right in the kindest possible way for Mary.

I can’t even begin to imagine how long and how hard it was for Joseph to fall asleep that night, but mercifully, sleep did come. And as he slept, the Scriptures tell us that he had a dream, and in that dream an angel came to him. The angel told Joseph that Mary was not crazy or lying. The child growing within her was indeed from the Holy Spirit. He was indeed the promised One, the Messiah. The angel even told Joseph to name the child Jesus, a name that means the Lord saves.

The Holy Spirit then inspired Matthew to remind his readers that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that we read in today’s Old Testament reading. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke up, he acted on this new information. He took Mary into his house, but did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born.

The virgin birth is a hardship on everyone involved. The community at large would not understand the working of the Holy Spirit. They would accuse both Mary and Joseph of all kinds of sin. Thirty years later, some of Jesus’s opponents would try to discredit His ministry by claiming that He was illegitimate. The virgin birth, while certainly a unique sign, was also very much a burden.

At the same time, the virgin birth was necessary. It was necessary because the person, Jesus, is both God and man. Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary. If Jesus had been conceived in the normal way, He would be a normal man and nothing more. His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary points to His Divine Father and His human mother. Jesus is one person who truly has both a divine and human nature.

And the divine and human nature of Christ is essential for our salvation. God’s eternal plan of salvation depends on the existence of a human being who could live a life of perfect innocence and holiness in a sinful world. This innocent human being must then endure, as the substitute for all humanity, the punishment that sins of all humanity have earned. There is no normal descendant of Adam and Eve who could fulfill this plan, for all have been born in the image of Adam, that is, the image of a sinner. God Himself had to enter human history to save humanity. You know, it was man who sinned, and so, man who had to pay the debt of sin. But only God could afford the price, and so, God in loving mercy, took on human flesh and blood, that is, He became a man that He might save us. That also means that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would bear the burden of the culture’s unjust condemnation.

Today’s Gospel shows us how God gave Joseph the strength and courage to endure this special burden. God’s Word came to Joseph through the mouth of the angel so that Joseph was now able to take up his special vocation as guardian to Jesus and husband to Mary.

In the creed, we confess, “… conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary ….” Too often, we say those words on autopilot. We don’t think about what these words mean. Lives were turned upside down because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Joseph almost divorced Mary. Both Joseph and Mary had to endure the condemnation of the community. Jesus had to endure accusations that His ministry was null and void because His parentage was questionable.

At the same time, these words are necessary for our salvation. These words tell us that Jesus is both God and man. Because Jesus is both God and man, when Jesus died, God died. Because Jesus is both God and man, His death paid for the sins of the entire world. Because Jesus is both God and man, He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Because Jesus is both God and man, a human being now rules over both heaven and earth. Because Jesus is both God and man, His human body and blood are available on altars everywhere at the same time for us Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. You see, the Son of God took on human flesh so that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom.

As we read today’s Gospel, it is a good thing to study Joseph as an example of the Christian’s struggle to protect the reputation of others. However, the more important teaching of this reading is that Jesus must be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin because He is both God and man. As the only one who is both 100% God and 100% man, He is the only one who is qualified to pay for our sins so that God can declare us righteous for Christ’s sake. This is the gift that Jesus offers to you even now as you listen to Him, who is this word.

In His Name, Amen

Jesus: King of the Low

December 19, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

 

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

David and Mary. Not exactly the highborn of this world. God took David from the filth of the field, from sleeping out with the sheep. Mary was a nobody from Nazareth, a teenager engaged to marry an older man who could at least help her survive. David was the youngest in his family, the bratty little brother. Mary was a youth.

No skill. No money. No power. No reputation. Nothing they had done won them favor in God’s eyes. God is not like us. He makes things out of nothing, ex nihilo. He makes the great out of the low, by grace.

And so it was with David. “You don’t make Me king, David. But I make you one. It is not your heart, your faith, your works that have made Me the Lord, the King of the universe. I am the King, but it is from My heart and by My works that I made you a king—been with you, cut off your enemies from before you, made your name great. I give you rest. And I promise that from your own body, your line, will come a king whose throne will have no end. I chose you, David, by grace.”

Mary, too. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” she asks. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” I chose you, Mary. Not because you are more faithful or more pure—you’re not!—but because I am the King who makes things out of nothing, out of the low, by grace. I am the King who rules by giving, by serving, by acting for the low. I am the King … from beneath … by grace.

It seems backward, doesn’t it? Upside down. Why are you serving us, Lord? Shouldn’t we be serving you? David looks at his magnificent house of cedar, and it bothers him that the Lord is in a tent. I can’t even begin to tell you how Mary felt. The Son of God? I’m going to be the mother of the Son of God? Me? It all seems wrong. Shouldn’t the Most High be given the most honour? Doesn’t He deserve better than this—better than me? God is not like us. He makes things out of nothing, out of the low, by grace.

Isn’t it shocking? This is the plan. This is the sum total of all His saving work in the Old Testament—that He would leave the power and riches of His heavenly throne and come down to earth in human flesh, not for the mighty on their thrones but for the lowly. Not for the winners who have their act together. No, for the losers. The least. The lowest.

His coming makes Him the obedient little boy of this teenage pregnant mother. It makes Him the Son of David, though He is David’s eternal Lord. “I’m going to be part of your family, David. Me. I’m going to join the family tree, as your Son. I will call you grandpa, even while you call Me Lord.” We might not be comfortable with it. It might bother us—a lot—but it doesn’t bother the Lord one bit. This is the plan. This is what He wants to do for you and for me.

Because that’s where He’s headed, isn’t it? At you. And look at you. Not exactly the highborn of this world. Not exactly deserving of such a selfless, loving King. Yet this One, this Most High, sees you down here, and He brings Himself down to you, puts Himself beneath you, takes up His post all around you—that He might serve and protect you. Calm you. Care for you. And gently rule over you with His love and mercy.

No, He’s not your son. But He has made Himself your Brother. Joined you in your situation, even what you face right now—and made you part of His family. Though you may feel like a nobody from nowhere, He has made you a king, an heir of heaven. He’s with you, has cut off all your enemies—yes, your sin, death, the devil. He has joined His name to yours in the waters of Baptism . . . and thus has made it great.

These promises were true for David—we see them fulfilled in the womb of Mary—but they are spoken for you too. For even as Christ was conceived in Mary by the word of the angel, He has been conceived in your heart by the Word of God’s messenger, His preacher. You have found favour with God. You bear Jesus—His name, His righteousness, His rule—poured upon you in the water, sealed upon you by God’s powerful Word. There’s God’s name with you ever more (sign of the cross) on your brow when you awaken. On your brow at work. On your brow at close of day. We might not feel worthy, but that doesn’t bother the Lord. This is the plan. God is not like us. He makes things out of nothing, out of the low, by grace.

So, in good Lutheran fashion, we right ask, what does this mean? It means that when you face trouble tomorrow He will still be in charge. When you fear the division, hatred, and violence in our nation and in others, He is still your King, and His kingdom will have no end. When the disease comes back with a vengeance, He has still given you promises to give you a full and final healing on the Last Day. You don’t have to work harder to reach up to God. No … rather, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time, He may exalt you. You are the servant of the Lord. You can say it with Mary, and believe it all the same: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word.”

I am your servant, Lord. You have said so. Your Word is on me. Over me. In me. For me. I am your servant.

She would later sing, you know. Mary. She would later put your heart’s song to words:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

This is your song. It was Mary’s. It was David’s. And it is yours. Because God is not like us.

This King Makes Things out of Nothing, EX NIHILO, out of the Low, by Grace.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Joy's Leap

December 16, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this day, while also examining our Old Testament reading, is focused on our Gospel lesson, especially where Luke records Elizabeth’s exclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Kings don’t run; they stride. Kings don’t just throw something on; they’re robed. And kings don’t just grab a bite to eat; they dine. Kings are expected to be men of dignity and decorum, of regal behavior and composure. They are, frankly, kingly … resplendent and stately. Thus, kings don’t leap.

But in our Old Testament reading today, a king engages in some not-so-regal behavior. David is leaping. He is leaping because he is so overjoyed. One of his wives is repulsed, thinking this behavior quite undignified. If this is her reaction, it’s likely that others were likewise shocked at the king’s behavior, but frankly, he doesn’t care. He is overjoyed, clicking his heels, because the Ark of the Covenant is entering Jerusalem.

You have heard how the Ark of the Covenant was the set-apart, holy place for God’s presence on earth, a gold-covered box on top of which sat the Mercy Seat. David had attempted to bring the Ark into Jerusalem three months before, but when Uzzah was struck down for just touching the ark, David was (understandably) afraid and left the ark with a man named Obed-edom. Now hearing that Obed-edom had been blessed by God because of the ark, David was again willing to give it a go and try to bring the ark to Jerusalem. As part of the procession, David changed into a priestly garment, sacrificed before the ark, and entered into Jerusalem dancing and leaping for joy before God’s presence. David’s wife Michal, however, was less than pleased with the king’s righteous jocularity; indeed, we’re told that she despised him in her heart. She may not have found his behavior befitting a king, but God did, and in fact God struck Michal with barrenness for the rest of her life because of her hatred and scorn of David’s celebration, his rejoicing, that day.

“Rejoice” is the word that echoes through the Church this week. This is the week we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath and hear Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Why this perpetual rejoicing, according to Paul? The Lord is at hand. That truly is a cause for rejoicing! We don’t have to go up to heaven to search for the Lord and bring Him down to us. No, the Lord comes near to us, even here, today, right now! He comes to us in the waters of baptism, plucking us out of the hate and rage and sorrow of sin and saying instead, “You are Mine, and no one can take you from Me.” He comes to us in the proclamation of His Word, actually using the words you hear echo in this sanctuary to sustain you in the one true faith. He is at hand as we partake of His true Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Supper – imagine: Christ our Lord, the One who suffered for us, actually coming to you as you approach the rail! Such news should make our hearts leap for joy! It comes to us every week!

But maybe that’s part of the problem. The real question is, how often do we actually rejoice in this truth? I’m not just talking about feeling happy, but actually finding joy in the gifts and promises given us? Don’t we take God’s presence among us for granted? Don’t we tend to be blasé and indifferent to His promises and the sheer grandeur of His presence with us, here in this place? Alas, we do, and thus we need reminding. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a certain verbal phrase – “stir up” – in our Collects of the Day. We pray that God would stir up our hearts because they do not respond rightly to His coming. Instead of exploding in joy, our hearts are heavy with longings and desires that have nothing to do with Christ Jesus. “Stir up our hearts, O Lord,” for our hearts are heavy with discontent. We have sunk the roots of our lives into the bitter waters of jealousy, and have borne rotten fruit. We rejoice in things like retirement, sports games, or items on a bucket list. But the drawing near of the Lord? Well, maybe we’ll have more time next year for that. Our lips may acknowledge Him, but our hearts are far from Him. Contrast that with David, a king, who couldn’t care less what others thought of him as he danced for joy in the streets of Jerusalem because God was keeping His promises.

More incredible than this is that God knows about our indifference, our apathy, and still He desires to be with us. In fact, He desires to draw near to all sinful, hateful, spiteful human hearts and incredibly desires to give us a reason to rejoice; thus what we hear in our Gospel reading. Even while still in the womb, John the Baptist knew holiness when he came in close proximity to it; we’re told that, when pregnant Mary visited pregnant Elizabeth, John leapt in joy at hearing the voice of the woman carrying the world’s Savior. That’s right; like David, John knew how to react to God’s fulfilling of His promises before either of them was even born! But in John’s case, something far more wonderful than the Ark of the Covenant had come. Mary carried in her womb nothing less than God’s presence in human flesh, Jesus, Who is the Christ.

But He didn’t come to rule, as many assumed the Christ would. No, Jesus came in the flesh … so that He could be stripped and humiliated for our offenses. He came humbly as a little baby … for the purpose of dying on a cross to atone for our indifference toward Him. Though it may not look like it at first glance, the most joyous sight we could ever see is the promised Son of David drawing near to Jerusalem to die for us. His joy in doing His Father’s will was like King David’s joy; but Jesus’s joy in willingly going to the cross meant our acquittal and our resurrection to an eternal life with Him. The Child who came forth from Mary’s womb would also come forth one day from His tomb, in triumph over sin and death, to reign on the throne of His father David forever.

In about a week, the well-known Christmas hymn will ask the question in our churches, What Child Is This? The answer is enough to make our hearts leap like the unborn John the Baptist leapt. This Child is the same God who drew near to King David, truly present in the Ark of the Covenant and making the king leap for joy. This Child is the same God who drew near to John the Baptist and made him leap for joy. This Child is the world’s Joy-Bringer. Joy in the flesh. The sinner’s delight. He is pure cheer for the heavyhearted and the oppressed. He is the one whose second coming we are longing for.

Until that blessed Day, we rejoice that He is still drawing near to us, every week, here in this place. In His Word and Sacraments. He comes so near that the forgiveness He gives through His word of Gospel drives right into your heart and stirs it up, revives it, and refreshes it, even if you don’t feel it. He comes so near that the Word that made John leap takes residence in your heart, and you can’t help but leap with gladness overflowing in love to others. He comes so near that His Holy Spirit fills your body and your heart and makes you a new creation. He will one day draw near from His eternal throne one final time, and we will be near to Him in the flesh forever. Rejoice, therefore, like David and John the Baptist before you. The Lord draws near; indeed, He is already at hand.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 1:39-45

Jesus: King of Guilt

December 12, 2018
By Rev. David French

 

Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth. You transplanted a vine from Egypt; … it took root and filled the land. Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

It’s a prayer; a prayer of God’s people. They’ve fallen out of favor. They’ve messed up, and they know it. They got caught up in the things of this world and with false gods and became careless with the one true God’s Holy Word. The enemies who surrounded them have defeated them.

Psalm 80 is the prayer of refugees, God’s people of the Northern Kingdom who fled to Jerusalem in the south when the Assyrian army took over the north. Everything they possessed was left behind; their homes, their places of worship, their government. All of it was gone. Everything they had saved or built, all the things they were putting their trust in—every single thing that had distracted them from their heavenly King who gave them all they had, was in a moment taken away.

And so, they ran. They did the only thing you can do when all the structures, all the stable things you rely on, are disintegrating around you like quicksand. They ran home. To Jerusalem. To the temple. There, bearing the weight of their sorrow, they with heavy hearts prayed this psalm; they weep this psalm. “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

It’s a cry for mercy. Come, Lord! Act! Do something about this, we beg you, O Lord. We need you to save us. Please, come and restore us. It’s a cry to their King—and not just some earthly king sitting on a throne of gold, but to heaven’s King, the King of all the universe, the creator who sits upon the mercy seat in the temple being worshipped by cherubim.

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel.” Hear us. Listen to our cry for mercy. No, we don’t deserve it. We took you for granted. We despised your good gifts. We didn’t listen to you. But hear us O Lord because of who You are. Because You are that kind of King. A merciful King. A sparing King. A forgiving King.

Don’t forget, Lord, you’re the only reason we’re a people. You made us, brought us out of Egypt like a choice vine, and planted us in this land. We are your creation, your vineyard—and yet we failed you. We despised your gracious gifts and wise ways. We treated them lightly, ignored them, were distracted from them. We wanted other things instead of them. Coveted what other people have. And now we have what we deserve … nothing. We’re lost. But You Lord have saved us before, and we beg You to save and restore us again.

God’s people called on their King to act. To save them. But nothing could have prepared them for the way their King would come to save them. They did not realize what it would take for Him to answer their cry for mercy. But he did.

The King came to his vineyard. He came to his own. But his own did not receive him. They prayed, “Restore us,” shouted hosanna to Him, but even in salvation they wanted something different from what God would give. No, not that way. Get rid of our enemies. Where’s our kingdom? Aren’t you a king? “Crucify, Crucify.” The King was cut off. Thrown out of the city. This Root of Jesse, this righteous Branch of David, was cut from the vineyard and finally given his crown of guilt and thorns. He was given his throne. Not a top the ark of the covenant but in the depths of our death, our curse, our cross. “Restore us, O God. Let your face shine. Let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

And the truth we rejoice in and live with is that the Father’s face does shines on you but only because it stopped shining on his Son. The Father’s face shines on you because your King took his throne and crown in the darkness. The Father’s face shines on you because your King comes for you. My friends, Christ’s death in the darkness of Calvary is God’s face shining on you.

We also call on our King to act —to save us—to be with us in our daily struggles. We know God is with us but still it’s hard for us to see this King of righteousness wanting to enter into our sin filled hearts and take his seat upon its dark throne. It’s far too polluted, to selfish for such a holy one.

And yet this very night Jesus says to you: “Beloved, I am not afraid of your guilt. I am the King of your guilt. Crowned with your guilt. Enthroned upon the wood you deserve. Your guilt is mine, and my innocence is yours. What you deserve I take; what I deserve I give. I cried out for you, Father forgive them. Forgive them.”

My brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus comes not to burden but to relieve. Not to crush but to lift up. Not to condemn you but to take your guilt away. Christ made it his own, paid for it with his blood and left it in the tomb when He rose …. How completely unworthy I am to stand in the pulpit of this King and you are to sit in the house and court of this King. Surely none of us believe we’re worthy, but that is the kind of King we have. A King in control, not by force but by grace; not by might but by forgiveness and mercy and love. He by grace through faith is our righteousness, our innocence, our blessedness, and our eternal holiness.

The truth is, this whole evening, the Holy Spirit has been working on or preparing our hearts and minds for his second coming. And that because there is only one way to prepare for the Lord: give him your guilt and receive his grace. That is the kind of King he is.

You see it’s not just a prayer, it’s your prayer and my prayer because it is a prayer of the guilty whose confidence is our merciful King. “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

In Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tags: Psalm 80

Hero

December 09, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

 

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

It was an impossible situation. Forty years, Israel had been suffering under the cruel boot of the Philistines, with the Gentile oppressors looting Israelite cities and ravaging the countryside. Severely oppressed and enslaved, Israel was in a dark and hopeless time. So often, though, dark and hopeless times give birth to new or renewed faith in God. God heard the Israelites’ repentant groans and did for them what was humanly impossible: He rescued them from the Philistines.

But His rescue plan did not include military strength or weapons development. It centered on one man, who would single-handedly rescue Israel without touching a conventional weapon of war. It started with circumstances no one was expecting (unless you heard last week’s sermon): an angel speaking to an unnamed barren woman, known only as the wife of Manoah. “Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son,” the angel proclaimed. His name would be Samson.

God’s Spirit gave Samson incredible strength. He single-handedly accomplished jaw-dropping feats (pun definitely intended) that would become the stuff of legend: being attacked by a vicious lion in a vineyard, only to tear the lion to pieces with his bare hands. Absolutely destroying one thousand Philistines with a makeshift weapon—the jawbone of a donkey. Tearing the city gates of Gaza from the walls, and carrying the gates on his back to the top of a hill when the Philistines thought they had him trapped, but it was his final feat that was his greatest. Blind, stripped of his strength, and mocked by his enemies, Samson was placed between two pillars in a large temple where thousands of Philistines were worshipping their god Dagon. Even though it would cause his own death, Samson prayed that God would let him have strength once more to collapse the building on all of the pagan Philistines. Samson pushed his arms outward against the pillars, and three thousand enemies of Israel died through Samson’s final act.

There is no doubt that God’s Spirit did great things through Samson, but his life was supposed to be distinguished not only by his single-handed feats of strength, but also by his single-minded devotion to the Lord. Even before he was conceived, he was set apart to live as a Nazirite – forbidden from eating anything unclean, drinking wine or any strong drink, or cutting his hair. He was to be different, called to be holy, “set apart for God’s purposes.” He was to live a life dedicated to the Lord. But while Samson may have wowed us with his strength, he didn’t wow anyone with his dedication to the Lord; again and again, he failed to live up to his Nazirite calling.

Does that sound familiar? It should because it’s a microcosm of ancient Israel and her pattern of sin, oppression, repentance, redemption, and repeat. It also sounds familiar because, unfortunately, it’s our story as well. In baptism, we, too, have been called to be holy, to think and live differently than the world around us, a world that is spiritually blind, dead, and vehement haters and enemies of God. “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” Peter says in his epistle, but to our shame, we are like Samson—called to holiness, but are anything but; indeed, sometimes outsiders rightly perceive that we are worse than the surrounding culture, hypocrites of the highest caliber. I am the chief of sinners, and so are you. We are undisciplined, self-indulgent, compromisers, too often acting in ways indistinguishable from the rest of the world. We’re more devoted to our sports teams than to the Lord and His Church. We’re more dedicated to our impulses and desires than to the holy habits, like reading the Scriptures and spending quiet time in prayer. Suffice it to say, we’re more committed to our own way than to the Lord’s. Our dedication to living a holy life is hardly praiseworthy, and we stand guilty and damned before Him. It’s an impossible situation we find ourselves in, one which we cannot rescue ourselves from.

But God can. And He has. Our Lord is more dedicated to you than you are to Him – a fact we should rejoice greatly over! He has done for you what you could never do yourself. In the fullness of time, at another time of great oppression, the same God who acted for Israel through Samson acted for the world. For you. With single-minded devotion, He rescued you from your sins and from the devil you chose to obey. He has single-handedly done what is humanly impossible. He has rescued you by the greatest rescue plan. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Six times throughout the Scriptures does God do incredible things through the wombs of unlikely women, but it’s in our Gospel reading for today that He does an even more incredible thing … through the womb of a seventh woman, the most unlikely of all. He speaks His word through the angel Gabriel, and a faithful virgin named Mary conceives the greatest Deliverer. The rescue plan for the world begins to manifest – not through a barren womb, but through a new one. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” the angel said. Mary’s womb would bear, not a sinful child like Samson, but rather the sinless Child—Jesus. Gabriel said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. . . . Of His kingdom there will be no end. . . . The child to be born will be called holy.” This is an understatement! What Child Is This? This Child … is God in the flesh, the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus of Nazareth, Who is called “The Christ!”

This Child was the Greater Samson, Whose life was also set apart. But He did not waver from His calling and the purpose of His life. Also unlike Samson, Jesus’s greatness was not found in His single-handed feats of strength. Instead, His greatness was in setting aside His divine strength to single-handedly do everything necessary for YOU, for your salvation. He had the strength to rip Satan apart, but for your sake, He placed Himself in Satan’s jaws, suffering God’s righteous judgment in your place. He could have torn down all those who rebelled against Him, lied about Him, spat on Him, beat Him, nailed Him to the cross; but instead, He lifted all rebellion onto His back and took it up a hill to pay for it with His life. He could have stretched out His arms and crushed His enemies at any time, but for your sake, He let Himself be stretched out with His limp, dying arms on a cross and let hell’s punishment do its worst against Him so that it could not do so to you.

And yet the greatest act this Child ever did was rise from the dead on the third day. He single-handedly won the ultimate victory for you while bringing eternal judgment on His foes.

From a new womb to a new tomb, this Child’s whole life was dedicated to making you new—a new creation, filled with the same Holy Spirit that empowered Samson. The same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary. You now can say with Mary, “Let it be to me, Lord, according to Your word.” When the Lord sends trials, we can say, “Let it be, Lord; for what You ordain is always good.” If the cancer comes back, still we can say, “Let it be, Lord; for Your will is always best.” In impossible situations, in times of deep discouragement and depression, we can still say, “Let it be, Lord; You know best when to end it.” For our Lord is great. His mercy is great. And His victory is great.

+ In the name of Jesus, our Great Deliverer. + Amen.

Zechariah's Hope

December 02, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert

 

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation comes from our Gospel lesson, specifically where Luke records Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s disbelief, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

This is the only portion of Scripture where we hear anything about this Zechariah, and yet, if this single chapter is representative of his life, we learn how his life was rife with irony. As a priest, Zechariah made his living with his voice. His vocation was to bless, to pray, to teach. And yet, before our text is done, the poor guy can only stand there, voiceless in the temple, unable even to finish his temple service with the customary blessing. Adding insult to injury, Zechariah was a descendant of the priestly family of Aaron, the brother of Moses—you know, the one who was reputed to “speak eloquently” on behalf of God’s servant? Yeah, Zechariah was descended from him, and now, this son of Aaron could not utter even a single word.

How’d we get to this point? We’ve got an angel – Gabriel, by name – who has come to him, proclaiming a seemingly unbelievable proclamation: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

How does Zechariah respond to this incredible announcement? “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” His response is quite similar to that of his forefather from many, many generations prior: at the promise of the birth of Isaac, we’re told Abraham practically rolled on the floor laughing, saying, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” and yet, Isaac was born not long after. This was not an isolated incident; it had happened to Isaac and Rebekah, with Jacob and Rachel, with Elkanah and Hannah. All these examples of God doing the impossible for His hurting people … but Zechariah seems to have forgotten all these. This priest had forgotten just how good God is, and with that lapse in recollection came doubt God’s word.

This doubtfulness is a bit unexpected, since both Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “righteous before God” – that is, their hope was in the Lord and in His promise to act and send the Messiah. Zechariah prayed regularly for this. Yet when the Lord answered his prayer, he doubted the word of the angel and sought a sign. His offense was not in expecting too much from the Lord. It was in expecting too little.

Our God is generous. He gives us exceedingly great and precious promises. He invites us to ask and has promised to answer. He gives us more than we either desire or deserve. He is exceedingly generous. That’s who He is. But we, like Zechariah, so easily forget that. We don’t expect much from Him. That’s who we are.

You, like Zechariah, are priests who easily forget. God’s indescribable goodness has made you His royal priests through Holy Baptism. God, in mercy, has chosen you as His own possession; He has set apart your mouth to do priestly work—praying, teaching, proclaiming His goodness. You have every reason to be bold and confident in your prayers. But instead, you’ve doubted this and have thought, “What good will my prayers do?” I can say that confidently, because I know that I have done it too. We have every reason to be confident in the Lord and His directing of our lives, but we’ve doubted that He knows what He’s doing. We have every reason to live with joy in all circumstances, knowing that we are beggars who have been granted a kingdom; yet we live and think and pray like God is stingy and disinclined to acquiesce to our supplications. You are royal priests of the King of kings. But you insult the King by not expecting much. We often ask as people of little faith. We are like Zechariah, forgetting so easily God’s fatherly goodness.

But God does not forget. God remembers. He does not forget His promises, and He does not forget His priests. He remembered Zechariah’s prayer and acted. God gave Zechariah way more than he expected. Zechariah hoped for the Messiah, and God gave the Messiah within Zechariah’s own generation and extended family. Old Zechariah hoped he might father a child, and God gave him a great child—John, the forerunner of the Greater Child, God in the flesh. There is no better example of God remembering us and His promises than His sending the One to whom John pointed, the One who was the greatest and most faithful Priest ever. He would perfectly remember and trust the Father’s goodness in our place. He would always have a confident hope in God, even in the most hopeless situations. He would do all this so that His faithfulness might be credited to you in your baptism.

God has remembered us, and because of His remembering and honoring of His promises, we have a great high priest, as the Book of Hebrews says. And great He is. He used His voice mightily to bless, to pray, to instruct, and to gather sinners. He was the most faithful Priest, but He chose to be silent before His accusers and go to an unjust death in our place. He would be not only the most holy Priest but also the most holy Sacrifice offered – the Lamb of God sacrificed for you. The Lamb whose blood would atone for all your doubt and mistrust of God, for all your sin, and mine. He was the Greater Aaron, hanging on a cross with arms outstretched like a priest in prayer, uttering an eloquent absolution: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus never lost hope that His Father would raise Him from the dead, as promised. He is your eternal High Priest, seated at the right hand of God as your intercessor and advocate.

God remembered Zechariah and gave him a son to proclaim the Messiah. God remembers you in your need (especially your need for forgiveness) and He acts, providing it for you in Holy Absolution. He remembers your need for holiness and acts, providing it for you in Holy Baptism. He remembers your need for strength and courage to live under the cross with patience and joy and acts, providing it all for you in the Holy Supper. We ask Him to give us a little help in our trials, and He gives us a Kingdom. He may not remove the barrenness, or the illness, or the pain and suffering that we endure here, but we ask for help enduring the disease and pain and death, and He gives us the promise of full and complete healing in the resurrection on the Last Day.

At John’s birth, Zechariah’s voice would again be heard. But at another child’s birth soon thereafter, angels’ voices would be heard on earth. What Child Is This? Jesus Christ, the Savior, Zechariah’s hope, Elizabeth’s hope, John’s hope … and ours.

+ In the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 1:5-25
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