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Archives - December 2019

New Year's Promise

December 31, 2019
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 for this New Year’s Eve comes from our Old Testament text, where YHWH tells Isaiah, And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever. For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord… Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Do you have your New Year’s resolutions plotted out yet? Quit smoking, lose weight and get fit, get more sleep, attend worship more frequently, spend more time with family, get out of debt? All admirable, all more or less attainable, but if you’re anything like me (and I’d wager you are), some of these goals will fall by the wayside within the first couple of weeks of Anno Domine 2020. Something will happen, you’ll get side-tracked, and boom, you’ve slid back to where you were in 2019 and are often worse for the wear because now you’re discouraged by your steps back. I don’t say this to discourage you from making such resolutions and striving to attain them – indeed, I encourage you to do so – but I felt it needed to be said because, like it or not, it is the truth.

That’s the thing about the truth: sometimes it’s welcome, but often it’s disquieting, uncomfortable, even offensive. It’s disquieting to hear about all the violent and lawless deeds that have been going on throughout our country. It’s uncomfortable to hear about all the violent and senseless crime that we’ve seen here in our community over the past few days. It’s the truth of what’s been going on, but Lord knows it’s disturbing. Sometimes, people would rather live in ignorance, to bury their heads in the sand and pretend things are perfectly fine, and we are not exempt from this. The history of God’s people throughout time has been a history of people not wanting to hear the truth, and we see it very clearly tonight in our Old Testament text.

The people of Judah, like their northern kingdom counterparts, had been called by God to live in a manner reflective of their special designation as the Messianic people. The Savior of the whole world would come from them and that meant they needed to live differently than the peoples around them. Needless to say, they did not. To quote one of Isaiah’s contemporaries, Amos, Judah had rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray, those after which their fathers walked. These were a people who had abandoned the true God for a lie, who preferred to be kept comfortable in their sin rather than be convicted and repent. YHWH describes them vividly to Isaiah, saying that they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” They were a people who despised God’s Word. They sought political alliances with enemy nations, thinking this would save them. They relied on themselves, on their own reason and power, not on their God.

You can see that this is not going to end well for Judah. Isaiah delivers to them this Word from YHWH, Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter's vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern. Judah’s destruction for her unrepentant ways was assured, and no foreign nation would be able to save them from the coming wrath.

I know this is sort of a disquieting text for New Year’s and the Christmas season – it’s not exactly joyful or hopeful in its content or tone. But it is the truth, and the truth is that God cannot abide sin, especially not among His people. Sin needs atoning for, and without that atonement, there can be no peace between God and His sinful people – and that does include us. We are no better than the sinful Judahites to whom Isaiah first wrote; any sin that’s named among them, we are equally guilty of, even despising God’s Word. This pronouncement of judgment upon faithless Israel and Judah could certainly be spoken over us. For our faithless thoughts, words, and deeds, we deserve nothing less than total annihilation. That is the truth.

That’s what we deserve, but thankfully, the truth is that it’s not what we get. YHWH is not like other gods (who aren’t actually gods at all). Even when He disciplined Judah for her sin, He was also willing to show mercy. Isaiah concludes this word from YHWH by saying to faithless Judah, Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. Damnation is what they and we deserve, but God shows us mercy. He takes no pleasure in the destruction and death of any sinner, but desires that all would turn and live. He wants to show mercy in the midst of His justice, which makes what we celebrated a week ago all the more profound. In sending of His only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior, God showed that He would spare no expense to secure for us the forgiveness of our sins. Paul says it well in his letter to the Roman Christians, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. YHWH our God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

That was always God’s plan: to be the One who pays sin’s penalty. Even as Judah wallowed in sinful self-assurance and the arrogance of self-dependence, YHWH knew how He would right their wrongs … and ours. Jesus paid the penalty for your sin and mine; because of His death, your sins are forgiven and you have peace with God, and because He rose again, we have the promise of eternal life with Him. That is the truth, my friends – not a New Year’s resolution, but a New Year’s promise, from God to His faithful people. The truth of this promise has sustained God’s people since the Fall. It sustained us through Anno Domine 2019, and it will certainly see us through 2020. A continued merry Christmas, and a blessed New Year to you all.

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

Fulfilled

December 29, 2019
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 for this first weekend after Christmas comes from our Gospel text, where Luke records, And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

During these Advent and Christmas seasons, we’ve talked quite a bit about fulfillment, specifically about the fulfillment of prophecies found throughout the Old Testament. By way of example, Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem is the fulfillment of what Micah wrote in his prophecy, But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. See? Fits Jesus’s birth to a “T,” doesn’t it? This, of course, is by no means the only fulfillment found surrounding the birth of our incarnate Lord. In our Gospel text, we see a rather profound fulfillment of God’s Word of promise … though it may not be the one you’re thinking of.

The more obvious fulfillment is found with Simeon, as he sings his Nunc Dimittis. The Holy Spirit had promised that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And as he raises the holy child up in his arms, praising God for allowing His servant to now depart in peace because he has seen God’s salvation, we see the fulfillment of that promise. Simeon has now seen the Lord’s Christ, and now he can rest in peace – whenever the Lord calls him to such rest.

As I said, that’s the more obvious fulfillment, but not the one we’ll focus on today. There’s another, but no, I’m not talking about the prophetess Anna, either. Scant information as there is on Simeon, there’s even less on Anna; we’re only told that she’s the daughter of Phanuel, that she’s from the tribe of Asher, that she’s been a widow most of her life, that she’s at least 84 years old, and that she spends her days and nights in the temple of God, worshipping with fasting and prayer. We’re not even told of any specific word of promise to be fulfilled to her, other than the overarching promise of the Messiah to come, and we do see her clearly perceiving that this promise has been made manifest in the presentation of this child 40 days after His birth.

Again, though, this is still not the fulfillment that we’re focusing on today. No, we will focus on the fulfillment that we see right away at the beginning of our text. Before Anna comes up to the temple and begins to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, before Simeon takes the infant Jesus up in his arms and blesses the Lord, we see the fulfillment found in the intent and actions of Mary and Joseph. By the time of our text, Jesus is 40 days old, nearly six weeks, and the law required that His parents bring Him to the temple to fulfill the requirements prescribed by YHWH.

What requirements were those? Well first, there is the terse but nonetheless binding clause found in Exodus 13. In the wake of the first Passover and Pharaoh’s release of the Hebrews from bondage, YHWH tells Moses, Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine. In the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, YHWH preserved the firstborn of Israel. Thus, they would essentially be a firstfruit offering to God, and this would be a binding tradition upon all future generations of Israel.

That was what Mary and Joseph were called to do as Jesus’s parents – consecrate Him to YHWH as holy. Only problem was, Mary could not approach the temple because of the requirements of the Law found in Leviticus 12. There, YHWH tells Moses, Speak to the people of Israel, saying, “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. … And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

To us, I’m sure this seems like a bit much, but to Israel, to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at this time, it was the given obligation, based upon God’s Word. They had to wait the 40 days for Mary to go to the temple, and since they were poor, they had to give the poor-man’s sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. Once that was done, I’m sure, the plan was to have their now-circumcised firstborn son consecrated to the Lord as a holy firstfruit offering, because He was the one that opened Mary’s virgin womb. They wanted to fulfill what the Law of God required of them and their firstborn son …. Well, that was the plan anyway.

This is where Simeon’s and Anna’s proclamations come into play. They recognize more clearly that this child is the only firstborn son who actually was holy to the Lord. Countless firstborn sons had come before Him from the tribes of Israel, and while many were undoubtedly consecrated to YHWH as holy and set apart, it’s highly dubious that any of them actually lived up to that standard. Every one of them, in spite of their consecrated status, would fail and sin in spectacular fashion – some in more dastardly ways than others. All were consecrated as holy, but none were holy … not so with Jesus. In Him, by virtue of His very nature as both God and man, we actually see the fulfillment of God’s promise that this firstborn son would be holy, set apart for God, for His purposes.

Even as Mary offers up the two turtledoves or pigeons (we don’t know which were used) because she and Joseph were too poor to offer up a lamb as well, Simeon and Anna recognize that they actually bear the Lamb, the Lamb of God, who would make atonement for the entire world. Unbeknownst to His parents, Jesus was set apart to make atonement in a way none of the prescribed sacrifices could: by offering Himself, as a holy, innocent victim, upon the cross of Calvary nearly 33 years after His presentation at the temple. By shedding His own innocent blood upon the ground of Golgotha, He would make atonement not only for Mary, not even for all women after they gave birth, but for the sins of the whole world, throughout time and space. Only God could make such atonement, and only the blood of God could pay the cost.

The presentation of Jesus at the temple is far more than the hopeful and comforting words of a dying man and an aged prophetess. Here, there are foreshadows of the work that this child, only 40 days old was going to do. Holy even before He was consecrated there that day, He would take the place of the sacrifices Mary and Joseph had gone to make. He is making all things new through His atoning sacrifice on the cross, and that includes you and me. Gaze at the Babe of Bethlehem and marvel as Simeon sings and lifts Him high. Sing God’s praises with Anna. What you are seeing in this holy child, who destined to die… is the fulfillment of God’s promise of atonement for sin – yours, and mine. A continued merry Christmastide to you all!

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

Tags: Luke 2:22-40

Peace?

December 25, 2019
By Rev. David French

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Last night these words of Scripture were heard throughout our community, our nation, and our world. I’d like to think that people heard this Gospel truth because they were in church, where it is being rightly proclaimed and celebrated, but a recent Pew Research poll reports that only 51% of all adults will do anything religious for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, which means that roughly 49% of American adults may not hear this Good News. But, fear not! There’s always the Charlie Brown Christmas special watched by millions, where these same words are spoken at the very end of the show. 

But, that does bring up a familiar question about this angelic Gospel message of peace on earth, that is, what does this mean? How is it that the birth of Jesus over two thousand years ago equates to joy and peace for anyone today? You’ve heard the news, and there’s not a whole lot of peace out there right now. And understand, I’m not simply referring to riots or terrorism or even the “trial.” That’s what we usually think about when we speak of peace – chaos in the world. I’m talking about being a Christian in 21st century America, where there is, for the most part, peace in our land, but less in our homes. 

Dysfunctional families and divorce are now considered to be normal in our communities. There’s certainly nothing peaceful about those things. Infidelity, promiscuity, mistrust, betrayal, deceit … these aren’t just words that describe the scripted plots of soap operas. These are words that describe the chaotic and sinful world we live in and are a part of. 

What about you? Are you at peace? Most of us will say, “yes.” It’s just that, sometimes, life gets in the way of peace with the never-ending stresses of work and family life.

For some, there can be no peace because a spouse or child is so far away from home or a loved one is sick and lying in the hospital. Some people, and you may be one of them, especially at this time of year, feel the loss of a loved one: a spouse, a parent, a child.

Peace? Good cheer? Joy? In our busy lives we’re just don’t have time for any of those words to have any real meaning, so we paint on a smile, grab a cup of coffee, and get through another day. Sound familiar?  Well, ‘tis the season!  Question: Why did Jesus come into world?  Answer: He came to live in our place and die for our sins. That alone is the reason for the celebration of this or any season. 

The truth that we live with is Jesus did not come into our world to make you independently wealthy or healthy or free of trouble in your life. Jesus came for one reason that is to fulfill the law for you and pay the debt you owe for each and every one of your sins.

You see, in Christ, God himself was physically doing something to bring sinners like you and me the peace which He promises. On Christmas day, God was born into this corrupt and broken world to free us from our slavery to sin and the death it brings, using His own Son as payment for our souls.

Close your eyes and look in the manger set in a tiny stable in the far away town of Bethlehem. Now, what do you see? Isn’t it a beautiful little baby, a newborn staring up at you? What else do you see? Do you see, in that manger, God’s unconditional gift of love? Do you see, in that five or six pound bundle of joy, God’s plan to save you? You do, don’t you. That’s because of the faith God created in you when you were baptized and has been feeding and nurturing each time you gather around His Word and Supper. But seeing that the child in that cradle is the Son of God is only part of His gift to you.

The history of Jesus, or God’s plan to save you, doesn’t end with the birth of that child, it begins. God’s gift of love in a manger. He has a very specific purpose and mission. God’s word made flesh indeed begins His life at Bethlehem, but, by design, it will end on a cross at Calvary. 

On that day, God’s gift of love was no longer a beautiful little baby, but a grown man, or more accurately, a beaten and bloodied mass of lifeless flesh hanging on a cross. 

My friends, to be sure, our salvation begins in the manger, but it is on the cross that our sin was paid for, and we, by God’s grace, were saved. Remember the words “It is finished” are spoken from the cross, not from the manger. 

And, Christ on the cross is, for sinners, the very definition of peace. But, not just any peace. This is the peace that surpasses all human understanding, which brings us to back to the question: Can we, who daily struggle with sin and its sorrows that, by nature, are a part of all of our lives, really ... on this side of heaven ... truly know the peace which God promises, the peace of Christ in our daily lives? 

Dear children of the one true God, the reason we celebrate this morning isn’t just the birth of this child. The reason we gather is because it doesn’t matter what the world, the devil, or your own sinful nature brings your way. You have the peace Christ promised, because in Him you have been forgiven all your sin. 

None of the sinful realities any of us live with change what God has done for you and me and is still doing for us through His Holy Word and Sacraments. That’s what makes our celebration so different. We don’t celebrate God’s peace as having no trials or tribulations. We celebrate in the midst of our trials and tribulations. We celebrate the truth that we belong to Christ and that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from His love for us. 

We aren’t just celebrating the birth of a child. What we celebrate this morning is the big picture, the truth that God Himself came down from heaven and took on human flesh so that we and all of humanity might be redeemed and, by grace, be restored to a right and holy relationship with our Creator. 

To be sure, God’s unsearchable and eternal plan of salvation included a virgin’s womb and the flesh and blood of the child she bore, but as He taught throughout His ministry, He came to offer that flesh and blood to His heavenly Father as the payment for the debt of sin that we owe. And, on the cross, that is what He did.

And so, it’s only through the lens of the cross that we can truly see and begin to understand the great joy and true peace of Christmas angels. For truly, the blessings of Christmas have everything to do with God’s unconditional gift to us, the giving of His only begotten son, Jesus, as the full and final payment of the sins of people who have nothing to offer in return, nothing but our humble thanks and praise. 

To Him be the glory forever and ever, Amen.

Tags: John 1:1-14

Simple Joys

December 24, 2019
By Rev. David French

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” At least that’s what the song says. Now don’t get me wrong. We Christians have the only reason in the world to celebrate. Yes, we do all the shopping and baking, the coming and going, all the traditional things, but in our hearts, we get it. We know that Jesus is all we truly need. But, being people, we have a way of making the simple complicated, especially at this time of the year. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the purchasing and giving of gifts or family get-togethers or office parties or decorating the tree or putting up lights or sending out Christmas gifts or cards. 

It’s kinda sad, but some people can’t wait for “the most wonderful time of the year” to be over, and that includes pastors. Worship services at this time of the year can also be more complicated, with the extra people and moving parts, if you will. And then there are the often unrealistic expectations that we, who lead the services, put on ourselves. You see, Pastor Heckert and I both want this to be our best sermon, one that makes you feel like Jesus is just wrapping His arms around you. And being Christmas Eve, we want you to enjoy the richness of the gifts God gives to His children used in worship to glorify His Son as we gather in His name on this holy night. And, that’s a good thing.

A lot of people have put in a lot of time and effort so you might know the joy of hearing the message in word and song of the one thing needful, that is, the simple message that the forgiveness earned by Jesus is daily offered to you as a gift. And while we don’t always have all the bells and whistles that are a part of our worship this evening, you will always find the simple truth of Jesus and the forgiveness He earned and offers to you.

So this evening, like every other time I step in this pulpit, you’re probably not going to hear the best sermon you’ve ever heard. I’m not going to try and “wow” you with my insight, and I doubt you’ll hear anything you haven’t heard before. It is, after all, Christmas Eve. No, this evening I’m going to keep things simple, back-to-basics if you will, uncomplicated. This evening, we’re going to ignore the wisdom of man and stay inside the box.

I assume you’re familiar with the idea found in some of the largest companies in the country. You know the one ... if you want to be successful in our day and age, if you want to make the biggest splash with people ... you need to think “outside the box.” That it is working in the world simply can’t be denied, but does the wisdom of the world add to or take away from the life of the Church?

It seems to me that if we were to get outside the proverbial Christian Christmas box for our celebration, we wouldn’t have very much to celebrate. We certainly wouldn’t have Christ in our Christmas celebration. That would mean we’d have to ignore the reason this truly is the most wonderful time of the year. My friends, if we get outside the Christmas box we have no reason to be here. I mean, the reason you and I are here are the words of an angel, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And what that means is that Christ is our heavenly Father’s plan to save humanity ... through the forgiveness of sins, freely offered to all. This is found in one very well-defined and easy to locate place. Simply put, in the person of Jesus Christ.

God’s Word never points us anywhere but to Christ for our salvation. He didn’t direct the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night to the highest mountain tops, the most prestigious universities, or the most ornate and grand palaces. When the angel sent them to see the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah, He simply sent them to Jesus, the Christ of God, who began His earthly life’s mission of saving mankind as an infant lying in a box among the livestock in a lowly stable in the city of Bethlehem.

Luther once said, “… we show love to one another with our words or with a hug or a kiss, but God shows His eternal and unconditional love to us by hanging flesh on a cross.” Dear children of the one true God, the birth of this child who will one day offer Himself to be sacrificed for our sins, that flesh hanging on a cross, is the essence of our celebration this evening. 

We aren’t here to celebrate the fact that a cute and cuddly little baby was born, as wonderful as that is. No, what we celebrate and are humbled by is the fact that our Creator himself came down from heaven and took on human flesh so that He could save human flesh by paying the debt of sin we owe to Him with His own holy blood, and so, bring us back into a right and everlasting relationship with himself. That is, God kept it really simple and uncomplicated by doing it all himself and having it written down so that all people could see and hear and, by grace, believe that He actually lived and died for us.

It’s true God in His wisdom chose to dwell within a virgin, the simple box, if you will, that is the human body; a simple box containing the Son of God in the flesh and blood of a simple baby – a baby who grew to be a man with the sole purpose of offering His sinless flesh and blood on the cross of Calvary to be sacrificed as a peace offering for your sin and mine, the payment demanded by His and our heavenly Father. A payment that His resurrection proves has been accepted.

You see, to understand the true meaning of Christmas, you have to also know the pain and suffering of Good Friday and the joy of an empty tomb on Easter morning. It all fits together as one simple plan. God’s plan of salvation was at work during the entire life of Jesus, from womb to resurrection, and for all of eternity. And the good news is, nothing has changed, which means He is still calling and pointing us to Jesus and to Him alone. 

You see, our salvation is still firmly rooted in the simple “box” who is Jesus the Christ. He continues to come to us bringing gifts of forgiveness and life in simple yet still well-defined places. He points us to the simple “boxes” of His Holy Word and Sacraments.

Dear children of God, do you want to see what God’s almighty and unfailing plan of salvation looks like? Do you want to share this wonderful Gospel message of eternal life and forgiveness with others? It’s so easy even the youngest of children believe it. Simply look inside the box that God Himself points us to. Look to God’s immeasurable gifts that are contained in the simple “box” of God’s Word made flesh. This evening, as we celebrate the birth of Christ, keep it simple. Look no further than the simplicity of the manger, the simple box of hay that cradled the Savior of the Nations who is our Lord and our Savior. He is Jesus, the son of God and son of man and the Savior of us all. 

In His name, Amen.

Just the Beginning

December 24, 2019
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 for this blessed Christmas night comes from our Gospel reading, where Luke records, And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

“Clothes make the man.” I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before. It’s certainly a phrase you want to remember when you have an important meeting of some sort. You dress to impress, right? Put on your best duds, shine up your shoes or heels, fix up your hair, make yourself look better than presentable – you want to make yourself look good. Whether it’s for a job interview, meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time, or dressing up for such an occasion as tonight – coming before the Lord in His house to receive His gifts, you want to look your best. You want to dress to impress.

But the way we look … doesn’t always reflect who we are. You may look good as you are dressed to the nines … but know the ugliness in your heart, knowing that you should show your family more love than you do. You could paint your face in beautiful and majestic fashion … but all the mascara and eye liner in the world cannot hide the depression and sadness that hide behind such lovely painted eyes. Power suit, power tie, power steering … and yet you feel weak and abjectly powerless as your life crashes down around you. Sure, dress to impress, but we know that more often than not, what we wear and how we look is literally and figuratively a façade.

That’s definitely the case here tonight, as we consider this newborn child in our Gospel text. From the looks of him, He doesn’t look like anything special. Yeah, newborn babies are adorable, but you see them often enough. If anything, based on looks, you might feel pity for this child: a newborn, wrapped up in some makeshift swaddling clothes, lying in a food trough because that’s the best that His destitute parents could provide for Him. There was no other place to lay this little one, because they were in an enclosure usually reserved for a family’s livestock, and the animals are present. From all appearances, this child looks like just another unfortunate wretch, born to unremarkable parents. There’s nothing special about how He looks. But looks can be deceiving, as we all know to be true. Because this night is not like any other, and this child, however modest and humble He may look in that moment, is anything but ordinary. What we are seeing this night, in this text, is the beginning of the end.

Let’s face it, this world is broken. It has been ever since Adam and Eve, at the urging of the devil disguised as a snake, broke the singular law God had given them in primordial Eden. In the wake of the cataclysm that followed, remarkably, there was a word of hope, a promise given in the midst of the devastation. Presumably within earshot of the now-fallen Man and Woman, God tells the deceiving serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 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.

Somewhere further down the timeline, a descendant of Adam and Eve was also given a promise. At 75 years old, Abram and his wife Sarai had never had children (not for lack of trying or hoping), and yet the LORD tells him, Go from your country, and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Even further downstream, we hear prophets proclaiming promises about this offspring of woman who will crush the serpent’s head and bless all families of the earth. Nathan spoke God’s Word to King David, saying, When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. Isaiah says how this offspring of David will be born from a virgin, how His name will be “Immanuel” (meaning God with us), how He will be a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse (David’s father). Jeremiah prophesied something similar, how God would raise up for David a righteous branch, a King who will reign and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. … And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Micah mentions the specific city where this offspring of David would be born – there, in the same little town of Bethlehem from our Gospel text!

This ordinary-looking child, squirming and wiggling as little ones do in His makeshift cradle, is the fulfillment of all these promises, and others, from across the centuries. All appearances aside, this unassuming newborn holds within His tiny heart the blood that will be used to save us.

That’s something we often forget in the joy of Christmas. As we look into the stall, into the face of Mary’s firstborn son, we forget that this night … is only the beginning. As the shepherds return to their flocks in the field, praising God after seeing everything the angel told them to be true, life went on. This child, Jesus, grew up just like all children do, becoming a man. His words caused people to marvel at His wisdom; and the miracles He performed seemed to undo, in part, the curse of sin, but He didn’t look like anything special – certainly not like the regal son and heir of David’s throne. In fact, there were many who hated Him… despised Him … wanted to kill Him.

Tonight is the beginning, my friends, but it is only the beginning. Tonight, we see Mary’s little boy, freshly born, laying in the manger. With the shepherds who hurried to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord had made known unto them, we coo and fawn over this unassuming little one, not because of how He looks, but because of what He has come to do. We forget Jesus was born at Christmas for a reason: to save all of humanity from the curse of sin, to be the fulfillment of all those prophets’ holy words … to die for us. These tiny hands grasping for Mary’s and Joseph’s touch ... would be pierced through. His precious brow, which His parents kissed innumerable times … would bear a crown of thorns. His tiny, pulsating heart … would spill His blood out onto the ground through innumerable cuts and wounds in order to atone for, make payment for, your sins, my sins, the sins of the whole world. This is only the beginning, my friends, of a love for us wretched sinners that is so deep, so holy, so divine, that we cannot help but marvel. Unassuming as this night may seem, it is the night that the Creator of the universe was born in His creation … and was the beginning of His saving work for us.

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

Tags: Luke 2:1-20

Rejoice

December 22, 2019
By Rev. David French

In today’s Gospel reading we find Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth who Luke earlier described as well along in years, and the angel Gabriel had said was in her 6th month. We’re not really told why she went. I imagine it was to see if what she had been told was true, to see this sign from God that would also validate her faith in the words the angel spoke to her. Certainly, it’s too soon for any physical proof of her own pregnancy, but the angel mentioned Elizabeth as proof that he was sent by God. So she goes to see for herself, not doubting, but expecting to rejoice.

 And they did rejoice.  Mary certainly rejoiced because the Angel of the Lord told her directly that God was working His plan of salvation for all people through her, that she would be the mother of God’s Son. Mary believes the Word of God spoken to her without question. She’s confused, still being a virgin and all, but Gabriel explains that God has a plan. The Holy Spirit will overshadow you and you will conceive. Then He tells her about Elizabeth and concludes, ... for nothing is impossible with God. She hears this and simply humbles herself saying, Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word. And that was it. From a purely theological perspective, it’s understood that this is the very moment that divine conception occurs.

Luke tells us that Mary, full of joy and excitement and wonder, goes to see her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, and as soon as those words enter her ears, the other child of promise, the one in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims in faithful joy, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

Elizabeth also rejoices. She rejoices because God has so richly blessed Mary with this gift for all and privilege for her. Elizabeth rejoices because she also been blessed with a child, the child who will usher in the beginning of the ministry of Mary’s baby. Any doubts she may have had are gone. The truth is, we’re never told what Elizabeth thought when she first found out that she was pregnant with the “new Elijah” whom God had sent to prepare the way for His Son. We do know that as soon as the pregnant Mary greets her, the words enter into her ears and her baby leaps for joy, and her response is to rejoice. 

Think about that for a moment. From a theological perspective, where does Jesus dwell in our lesson? In Mary’s womb. Where does our Lord dwell right now? He’s here in the midst of His bride, the Church. For centuries Christendom has understood the Church to be the womb of Christ’s bride, that is, the place where God gives new life to those born of His Word, whether on its own or combined with water in baptism, and with His own body and blood nurtures and cares for and feeds His children.

So, in our lesson, we see Christ dwells within Mary. Mary greets Elizabeth interestingly, using a word that is a modification of the root word for peace. So you might say, Mary offers the peace of Christ who dwells within her. Elizabeth hears this Word of peace that penetrates to her inner-being, and feeding the very soul of the child she carries, he jumps for joy! Understand, it’s not Mary’s word that causes this child (who the angel said to name John) to rejoice, it’s the Word of God who dwells within her and will go out into the world from her that causes him to leap for joy.

My friends, has anything changed? Ask yourself, “What is the Church’s job?” Answer: To proclaim the glories of the Lord through both the condemnation and forgiveness of sin, that is, through Law and Gospel. That’s it. When the Church speaks, you should hear Jesus and Him alone.

Will some of what you hear cause you to be unsettled or uncomfortable? Yes. God loves you enough to tell you the truth. He loves you enough to tell you that you’re a sinner and that what you’re doing or not doing is wrong, and that the wages of your sin, that is, what you have earned with your life … is death. That should leave you feeling uncomfortable, but it’s not the end of the conversation! 

Yes, the wages of sin is death, but on the cross, Jesus died that death for you. And so, you, by grace through faith in Christ, are forgiven. You and all who believe have been redeemed, delivered from sin, death, and the power of satan, not because of how good or awesome you are and not because of how much of a “blessing” you are or think you are to others. No, you’re forgiven because Christ paid the debt you owe, and God is merciful. His mercy is truly peace for the weary soul, and that is what comes to us from God through His Church and is ours to share with the world. As I pray with the children, … asking God that we might share with others the same love and forgiveness we receive from Him.

That brings us to John the Baptist. Only six months along in the womb and he’s already doing the job God sent him to do. Even from the womb he’s making Christ known to others. In John we see a sanctified faith and the joy it brings. We see John completely untainted by human wisdom who can’t help but share his joy.

And that’s exactly what we see in today’s reading, a beautiful picture of life and faith in action.  When Christ is the center of our lives, there is true joy and there is real peace, not just the absence of conflict, but the knowledge and belief that you are one with Christ. 

Mary rejoices and proclaims the joy and peace within her. Elizabeth rejoices. Not only has God kept His Word and promise and sent His Son to deliver mankind from sin, death, and the power of satan, but Mary is also standing in the very presence of this Savior. The Messiah has come to her, to visit with her and greet her with His peace. 

And just in case Elizabeth was slow to understand, the blessed and faithful child she bore in her womb makes all kinds of joyous commotion, confirming for mom, if you will, what Mary had told her, that she is in the presence of the Christ. The blessed and faith-filled child, still being formed in his mother’s womb, understood that the words of peace that were spoken by this humble handmaiden was the Word of almighty God, and his joy is seen by others.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the truth is, nothing has changed. Look around you. We, as God’s holy and precious children, are living safe and secure within the body of Christ. In Him we now, by grace, live and move and have our being. Here in His house, through His word, He is nourishing your faith with His grace, mercy, and love; reaching out His pierced hands to feed you with His very body and blood. Here in His house the water and the Word are poured over you, according to His command in Holy Baptism, so that He might clothe you with His righteousness while promising that He will always be with you until the very end of time.  

So rejoice, refresh your weary souls with His word and Sacrament, for here in His house and with His own words, Christ assures you that by grace through faith you are and always will be His precious and forgiven child.

                                                                                                                        In His name, Amen

Tags: Luke 1:39-56

Comfort and Joy

December 15, 2019
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 for this, the third weekend of Advent, comes from our Old Testament text, where Isaiah records YHWH’s words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

If you’ve never looked at the immediate context of these very familiar and comforting words in Isaiah’s prophecy, you may find the narrative to be rather … jarring. King Hezekiah of Jerusalem had been sick; more than that, he had been dying. Isaiah had come to him with a word from YHWH saying that the illness with which he was afflicted was going to kill him; that he wouldn’t recover. Understandably, Hezekiah breaks down, begging with God for more time. Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight. And Hezekiah wept bitterly. God relents, saying He’s heard the king’s prayer and seen his tears, and will thus add 15 years to his life, defending the city and delivering it from the hand of the king of Assyria.

News of Hezekiah’s recovery is remarkable enough to garner the attention of Merodach-baladan, son of the king of Babylon. This guy sends an envoy to Hezekiah in Jerusalem. You’d think a king would practice discretion, but we’re told the king welcomed them gladly. And he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. As you may expect, Isaiah is pretty upset about this. He comes before the king, demanding to know what these envoys had said, from where they had come, and what they had seen. Hezekiah discloses everything, probably with a gleeful naïveté, only for Isaiah to declare this word from YHWH: “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

Ghastly, terrible news, right? But you wouldn’t know it from Hezekiah’s response. The king appears to be whistling past the graveyard, telling Isaiah, “The word of YHWH that you have spoken is good,” and thinking to himself, “There will be peace and security in my days.” Setting aside the abject, nearly unbelievable selfishness of the king in that moment, after he died, things in Judah only got worse. King after king was faithless, abusive, and tyrannical. The rich abused the poor. Virtually all the people had abandoned the worship of YHWH, or at least abandoned Him as the only God. No one in Judah lived as God’s people, and nearly 200 years after Isaiah issued this dire warning, God made good on His promise by visiting death and destruction upon Judah at the hands of Babylon. Most who escaped the slaughter were marched to that far-away land to live in exile, squalor, and humiliation.

Their exile in that pagan country was anything but pleasant. Enslaved, stripped of their Judahite identities and given Babylonian names, forbidden from worshipping YHWH their God or following any of their native religious observances, the people felt hopeless. And they only had themselves to blame. God had sent prophet after prophet, warning them to repent and turn back to Him, and instead of turning, they dove headlong into iniquity and transgression so heinous that it wasn’t even known in the surrounding pagan nations. They deserved all that they got and more, and I think they knew it. No doubt, many wept and lamented, crying, “God, be merciful to us sinners!”

THAT … THAT is where our text comes in. Written 200 years before those suffering Judahites were languishing in Babylon, God spoke to them through Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” Incredible! But this isn’t God whistling past the graveyard; He’s actually got cause and reason to declare “Comfort!” to those suffering in Babylon. No, He’s not promising to take away their present suffering right then and there. He’s not promising immediate rescue. What He is promising … is salvation, and ultimately, restoration.

He continues through Isaiah, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” God’s glory will be revealed, and all of creation will see it. God’s Word stands forever, and thus since He promised it, He will do it. And He did. He pardoned her iniquity, covered over her former sins, declared that she had received double punishment for her sins from God’s own hand. She was forgiven, restored, and in God’s timing, she was also saved from the barbaric Babylonians. God sent Persia in to wipe that wicked nation from the map and to free all those who were enslaved. The comfort of God’s promise, which had sustained them through their trials, turned to joy when they saw for themselves the fulfillment of His Word of promise. The jubilation on that desert highway, as the Judahites returned to Jerusalem after decades of humiliation, was no doubt incomparable – not only because they were free, but because YHWH their God had kept His promise in spite of their faithlessness.

What about us? We’re not enslaved in a foreign, enemy nation, but make no mistake, we are strangers in a strange land. We may not be forced to give up our names, but Lord knows there are aspects of our identity as Christians that are defamed and castigated. We’re not threatened with death for exercising our faith, but we are certainly discouraged from and chastised for the public exercise of our beliefs. Is God’s word of comfort to His people, His promise of restoration and salvation for you? Without a doubt!

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. “Speak tenderly to My world, and cry to that her sins are atoned for, that her iniquity is pardoned, her sins are forgiven, that My Son was punished on her behalf. He took your sin upon Himself, bearing the just penalty that you deserved. Because of that, there is peace between you and Me, and because He was raised from the dead, you also will be raised to life when He returns! That is My promise to you, to all who believe Me, for My Word does remain forever!” Those promises are not just for languishing Judahites, they are for you! Regardless of your life circumstances, your sins are forgiven, completely atoned for, because Jesus received from the Lord’s hand, on our behalf, infinitely more punishment than we could ever bear.

God doesn’t promise that the trials won’t come. He doesn’t promise that you won’t suffer. He doesn’t promise that life will be perfect for you. We live in a broken world filled with broken people. But, He does promise that your sins are forgiven, that you are His, that He will not leave you nor forsake you. He promises you a restoration yet to be fully realized, begun in in the waters of Holy Baptism and to be fulfilled at the restoration of all creation on the Last Day when our risen and ascended Lord Jesus returns! For this life, He promises the comfort of His abiding presence, and in the life of the world to come, He promises eternal joy with Him. That’s His Word to you, and it does endure forever.

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

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

December 11, 2019
By Rev. David French

When Abraham was 75 years old, God told him to leave his country and his home and go to the land of Canaan. God promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation and that all people would be blessed through him and his descendants. Even though Abraham was childless, he followed God’s command. Abraham went with Sarah his wife, a few relatives, and all their possessions to this new land in which they were strangers and foreigners.

The Lord later told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. It is written that Abraham believed the Lord’s Word, and God accounted it to him as righteousness. Abraham trusted God’s Word, without any evidence, and because of his faith in the Lord’s promises, he was declared righteous before God.

In today’s reading Abraham is ninety-nine years old and Sarah, his wife, still has had no children and is, of course, now past the age of childbearing. Abraham, however, is still clinging to the Lord’s promise despite the fact that, humanly speaking, it seems impossible. You can imagine how their faith must have been tested during those twenty-four years. It appears that Sarah has all but given up on the promise. But in the midst of his weakness, Abraham continues to hold to God’s Word.

Advent is all about that sort of waiting in humble faith. Not only did Abraham wait for the fulfillment of the promise, not only did the people of Israel wait for the coming of the Messiah, but now we wait for fulfillment of the Christ’s salvation on the Last Day at His second coming. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’s first coming at Christmas, we pause to consider how much of the Christian life is characterized by waiting, looking forward in hope to what is yet to come.

Sometimes the waiting can be discouraging. It can seem so long. The doubts begin to creep in: “Is the promise really real?” Our hearts begin to focus on other things, things that give us more immediate gratification. We push the promises of Christ to the side instead of dwelling on them in faith and eagerly anticipating their fulfillment. Patience doesn’t come easily for sinners. But, we are reminded in the psalms, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage” (Ps 27:14).

We see that steadfastness being demonstrated here in the life of Abraham and Sarah. In His grace, the Lord comes to Abraham to announce that the waiting is just about over. Abraham prepares a special meal for his special guest. And in the context of that meal, the Lord confirms the promise one last time: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (v 10). In the same way, the angel of the Lord also came to Joseph in a dream to announce Mary’s pregnancy by the Holy Spirit: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). The waiting was almost over for the whole people of God; the Christ was coming.

Sarah and Mary’s reactions, however, were a bit different. When Sarah heard what the Lord said, she laughed and said to herself, “After I am worn out, and my lord [husband] is old, shall I have pleasure [of having a child]?” (v 12). Sarah focused entirely on the unlikelihood of the whole idea. Mary also wondered how she, a virgin, could conceive. But when the angel explained that it was by the power of the Holy Spirit, she said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Mary responded in faith, focusing only on the words spoken to her. When confronted, Sarah tried to deny that she had laughed, but then the Lord asked the question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (v 14).

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Certainly not; and that includes not only causing miraculous births, but also saving poor, miserable sinners and giving them new life. At one time Jesus’s disciples were concerned that if even the most admired people on earth are not good enough to get into heaven, who then can be saved? Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). No one can enter the kingdom of God by their own strength, but God has made the impossible possible through Christ. Even we poor sinners are saved by his holy birth among us. Though we were dead in our trespasses and sins, God made us alive with Christ through his death and resurrection. Nothing is too hard for the Lord, not even saving us. That is the promise that God calls and equips you to believe.

Abraham believed that nothing is impossible with God. He believed, as Romans 4 says, God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” In hope, he believed that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told. Nothing could make him doubt the promise of God. The truth is, Abraham grew stronger in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

God has done the same thing for us. He has brought life out of our death and has given us joy and laughter through the birth of the Son of God. The long-awaited promise of the Savior has been fulfilled. In Him, we are set free from sin and fear and death. In Him, we have hope in the midst of this fallen and hopeless world. In Him and his cross and his resurrection, we truly are the children of Abraham.

Keep in mind that Abraham was father to Isaac, Isaac was father to Jacob, Jacob became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, and out of Israel came Jesus who is Christ the Lord, and we have been baptized into Him, and so, made one with him by faith. As God reveals through Paul, “It is written, ‘If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring’” (Gal 3:29). And just as Abraham was counted as righteous before God because of his faith, so too are we who believe in God’s promises in Christ counted as righteous in His sight.

You see, God has done for us the same thing he did for Sarah and Mary. He has created in us, by the working of the Holy Spirit, new and eternal life. Out of the barrenness of our sin, He has created a living faith. In the emptiness of our souls, He has caused Christ to dwell, to fill us with his love and his mercy. That is, He makes our hearts his dwelling place. You see, nothing is too hard for the Lord.

In His name, Amen.

Christ Is with You!

December 08, 2019
By Rev. David French

As Pastor Heckert reminded us last week, Advent isn’t just about Christ coming in the past, but it’s also about His coming to us through His Word and Sacraments today, as well as that time when He will return in all His glory to judge both the living and the dead. Today’s lesson focuses on that last day.

The Judgment Day imagery that our Lord gives through the prophet Malachi is powerful and unmistakable. Our Lord will return, and if you’re not in Christ, it’s not going to end well. Resurrected to life in Christ, we will go about in joy, leaping like young calves let out into the springtime pasture. The enemies of Christ, however, will be turned to ash and scattered about for the faithful to trod underfoot. 

Jesus speaks of this same future coming using language that paints a very terrifying image. In the days leading up to that great and glorious return, the sun, moon, and stars will be going dark. The seas will be raging and roaring. All of nature is going to be coming apart at the seams. 

And, while I don’t believe that Judgment Day is upon us, you still see the signs. Not counting things that are a direct result of man’s sinfulness, like terrorism or wars, there have been hurricanes that completely leveled not just cities, but entire regions. There have been wildfires that scorched and incinerated everything in their paths in a matter of hours. Flood waters are flowing, even now, down south. And, just Google most recent earthquakes, and you get dozens of 5+ in the last month.

 My fellow believers, that’s all been in the last six months. Just think of all the devastation we’ve witnessed over the past year, ten years, twenty years. But, Jesus says that this is just the beginning of the birth pains.

What else does Jesus say about all this? He says, “When you see these signs, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Now, I need to point out that Jesus does call these natural disasters “signs.” The word used in the Greek is “seimeion,” which matters because it’s the same word that is translated as “miracles” in other places. For example, when Jesus turns water into wine at Cana, we read, “this was the first of His miracles/ signs that Jesus did, manifesting His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).

So, why did Jesus do miracles? Answer: To manifest or make His glory known. That is, they proclaimed Christ to be God in the flesh. The disciples saw these miracles and believed. Many, however, saw those same miracles and refused to believe, not least among them, the Pharisees. They saw, and yet they refused to see. 

Looking back throughout the Old Testament, we see God working great and mighty miracle/signs. Remember, God’s desire is that all would be saved. He gives signs so that all may see and turn to Him for the forgiveness of their sins. Some see these signs and repent and rejoice. Many more do not. They see the same thing that the repentant believers see, and yet, they don’t understand what God is showing them.

Think about the ten plagues. God gave ten clear signs that Pharaoh and Egypt should repent. Some saw and turned to Yahweh, but most did not. Think about the bronze serpent account. God gives the bronze serpent to His rebellious and sinful people, promising that whoever looked upon that bronze serpent when they’re bitten by the fiery snakes would live. Some believe and looked and lived, while others did not. They refused to believe that simply looking at a statue of the very thing killing them would save them. They all saw the same thing, and yet on that pole, some saw God’s promise of life and some did not. Those who refused to see, died.

As St. Paul writes, “These things were written in the former days for our instruction.” All of these signs are recorded for us. God gives us these things so that we can learn from the past, so we can look to the present as well as the future with the full confidence of our God-given faith. God worked all these great and mighty signs for you and the good of all His people. 

You see the news, you see the disasters that fill the world. Everyone sees them. But, what do they see? Do they see them as signs of God’s judgment against sin? Do they see them as God’s call to turn and hold to His promise of life? Some do, but many more don’t. 

My friends, make no mistake. God is not okay with sin, and the world as we know it, was cursed as a result of man’s fall into sin. The truth is, we don’t even have to look to the natural disasters to see it. Just look at the barren trees and dead leaves on the ground. Look at the thorns and thistles in your gardens and lawns. Look at the sweat of your brow and the pains you feel in childbirth. Look at yourself and what you used to be. Hospitals and cemeteries are filled with signs that God is not okay with sin! Sickness, death, pain, suffering, despair, depression … all of them are signs and symptoms of the sin that infects each and every person borne from Adam.

The signs are all around us. We all see them, and yet, not everybody sees the same thing. Some recognize God’s merciful call to turn and hold fast to Him. Others exercise their free will and refuse to see. They see problems they think they can fix. They’ve taken God out of the equation and put their own reason and intellect in His place. 

And yet, the state of the world continues to get worse. It is a classic example of the blind leading the blind. As Luther once wrote, “… Let the unbelievers doubt and despise God’s signs and say they are only ‘natural.’ You hold fast to the Gospel!”

And so, it’s to the Gospel we go, for there God offers to you His life and a peace that surpasses all human understanding. But first, a truth we all live with: faith in God does not magically take away the sorrows or sufferings of life. No one is immune from the effects of sin while we live in this fallen world. God never promised you a “cross-less” life; that is, a life without fear or suffering or pain or despair.

Now, I remind you of that because satan will temp you with a different gospel; a better sounding gospel, one that promises health and wealth in the here-and-now. You just have to pray a little harder or live a little better, and it can all be yours. The problem is, Jesus said, “It is finished.” His resurrection says It is finished. God’s Word reveals that Jesus has done all that needs to be done for your salvation. You only need to believe, and you will be saved.

Yes, you will know suffering. You will know pain and sorrow and frustrations and failures. We are, after all, sinners living in a sinful world. The signs and proofs of that are within us and all around us.  As Jesus said, “When you see these things taking place: Straighten up.  Raise your head, because your redemption is drawing near.” So, look and hold fast to God, but look where He has promised He will always be. Look to the font. Look to the altar. Look to His Word. By faith we understand God is not far off, but He is right here, right now, working among us. In spite of your pains and sorrows and sufferings, God is holding out His mercy and grace and peace to you right now. 

God is with us. As the fires rage, the winds and seas roar, and the earth quakes, His grace abounds. Rich or poor, sick or healthy, in good times and bad, Christ is with you. So, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His love endures forever.

In His name, Amen

Let's Keep It Simple

December 04, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

When it comes to theology –the study of words about God – you can keep it as simple as you’d like, or you can go as deep as you’d like. It really is as simple as “Jesus loves me; this I know for the Bible tells me so,” but you can plunge into the deep waters of doctrinae like the communication of attributes, or forensic justification. We haven’t the time to do the latter here tonight – if you’re interested in either, feel free to hit me up after tonight’s service! For tonight, let’s keep it simple, and that last reading that we heard, from John’s Gospel account, keeps it nice and simple.

In the beginning, God created everything, and saw that it was very good. However, humanity screwed it up. Adam and Eve broke the single rule God gave them, and now, as a result, we can’t have nice things. People get hurt, they hurt each other, they die. This is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin, and we inherit their guilt. Humans really are the reason there’s so much suffering in the world, why we go to war, why we have the social ills that we do. It all stems from our First Parents, and what followed their sin was nothing short of the shattering of the universe that God had called “good.”

I wouldn’t have blamed Him for leaving us to our own devices; we made our bed, and we should be made to sleep in it. We sowed sin, and we reap as we sow. But God doesn’t think like you and me. He didn’t want that for His creation. He didn't make the cosmos just because He could; He made it … out of love. And it was love that dictated His response.

Before the beginning, knowing how we would so royally screw everything up, God had a plan, to rescue His broken creation … to rescue us. But we couldn’t be involved; we’re the ones that broke it, and we ourselves are broken. No, if we were to be rescued, God Himself would have to do it.

Thus the words we heard a few moments ago: The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, Who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Christmas is not merely a time to gather with loved ones, enjoy awesome food, watch countless (often cheesy) holiday specials, and partake in ugly sweater contests. Christmas … is about Jesus Christ. Christmas is all about how the eternal Logos, the eternal Word John talks about, loved His creatures, you and me, so much that He became one of us … and died for us.

That is the reason why Jesus was born in the first place: to die. By itself, that’s nothing special; people die every day. What made His death special … was that He died … for you, bearing your sin, my sin, and the sin of all the world in His body … because He loves you. The special word is “atonement,” reconciliation between God and man, but as long as man was still in sin, reconciliation couldn’t happen.

That’s what Jesus made possible. By His being punished in our place, you, and I, and every other human being that has ever lived or will ever live, are forgiven. Because He took on human flesh at Christmas, because He died on the cross on Good Friday, your sins are forgiven! There is reconciliation, peace, between God and man, now that Jesus has atoned for all sin! That’s the joy of Christmas, my friends! Not simply that Jesus has come, but that He has come ... for you. The God who created all things, who spoke all things into existence, who formed you in your mother’s womb … died for you, so that those who believe His promises would have the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. In Christ Jesus, and only in Christ Jesus, are your sins forgiven, and are you made right with God!

Do you believe this?

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

Tags: John 1:1-14

He Comes!

December 01, 2019
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 for this first weekend of Advent comes from our gospel text where Matthew records, “And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Are you confused? We are starting an entirely new Church year – happy new year, by the way – and we’re considering a text that is usually reserved for Passion Week! This is the Palm Sunday narrative, the glorious triumphant day that Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, riding upon a donkey, to the hails and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as palm branches and robes are strewn in His path. It’s a glorious day … but it doesn’t exactly fit into the post-Thanksgiving, nearly-Christmas feeling you get around this time of year. What our text speaks of is glorious, but it’s neither holly nor jolly. There’s no mention here of a little bitty baby to be born in Bethlehem, no angelic hosts, no stable or manger. So, why in the world are we talking about Jesus’s triumphant coming into Jerusalem … just a few weeks before Christmas? Well, that’s what Advent is about, my friends. It’s about Jesus … coming to us.

 The word “advent” means the arrival of a notable person, place, or thing, and that is precisely what we are celebrating and observing during the season of Advent (hence its name). We are celebrating the coming of the Christ, the One whom countless generations, innumerable persons longed for … the Annointed One whom God had promised would come to save His people. In our Old Testament text, Jeremiah wrote about this Messiah’s advent when he recorded, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

Jeremiah was by no means the only prophet who foretold the coming of the Messianic king. Moses preached to the Hebrews that YHWH would raise up a prophet like him from among their brothers. Isaiah wrote of a shoot that would come from the stump of Jesse, a Davidic king upon whom the Spirit of YHWH would rest. Zechariah cried to the daughter of Zion that she should rejoice, for her king was coming to her righteous and having salvation, humble … and riding on a donkey. Many generations waited for this King, this Messiah to come … and by the time Jesus sent His disciples ahead of Him to untie the donkey and the colt with her, at long last, the time was at hand! The King was coming, the Rabbi who had been creating all the buzz for the previous three years! Here He came, humbly entering Jerusalem on the back of a beast of burden! Humble as His appearance may have been, the people knew the royal procession when they saw it! And it could not have come at a better time!

Rome had had its boot on the neck of Judea for several decades, and the people of Judea (and Jerusalem in particular) were sick of it. They were sick of oppressive taxes. They were sick of oppressive conduct. They were sick of two-faced politicians who played to the people’s sensibilities, and yet kowtowed to Rome. They wanted freedom from this oppression … and the advent of David’s royal Son, no matter how modest-looking, how humble, was most welcome! It was a sign that things were going to change! It appeared that, just as Adonai had redeemed His people from the oppressive rule of the Babylonians, He was about to do so again! It’s no wonder the atmosphere was so festive as Jesus rode through the city gates as the crowds cried out, “Hosanna in the highest!”

But these joyous cries are marred by what we know would happen by week’s end, when the tables would turn drastically and tragically. We, who know the rest of the story, know how short-lived these festivities were. By that Thursday, this same heralded King would be dragged before the Sanhedrin, beaten and bloodied, only to be condemned as a blasphemer. The following day, presumably the same crowds that blessed Him as the Son of David, would cruelly damn Him and demand His crucifixion. By the end of that day, the One to whom the crowds declared, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” would die the worst death imaginable at the hands of evil men and be laid in the newly-cut tomb of a rich sinner.

Not exactly in the Christmas spirit, but that’s sort of the point. We haven’t reached Christmas yet. Advent is not merely the precursor to the main event. This is the season that we are eagerly anticipating Jesus’s arrival: as the newborn Messiah, yes, but also as our Redeemer. We all too often forget that the shadow of Calvary’s cross would always loom large over that stable in Bethlehem, over Egypt when they fled there, over Nazareth when they returned. Jesus’s tête-à-tête with Pontius Pilate on that Good Friday lays bare the reason why we consider this text on the first weekend of Advent: “Then Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.’”

The crowds weren’t wrong about who this was coming into Jerusalem, humble and lowly. They weren’t wrong to give Him the royal treatment. They weren’t wrong as they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” The One riding that donkey is the King, the Messiah, the One for whom countless generations and innumerable peoples waited … but His kingdom is not of this world, and He has not come to be served, but to serve. He had not come to oust the Romans, but to redeem Romans, and Jews, and Greeks, and Persians, and Americans, and all human beings that have ever lived or ever will live. Among other things, Advent is a reminder to us of why it was necessary for the Second Person of the Trinity to take on human flesh and become one of us in the first place: to redeem us from the just punishment for our sin. Jesus of Nazareth, true God and true Man … came to die, for you, and for me.

Of course, as people who know the rest of the story, we know that He did not stay dead. He was resurrected on the third day, never to die again! He is ascended to the right Hand of the Father, and we do confess that He will come back again! That’s also what Advent is about, my friends: Jesus’s return! It won’t be as a little baby born in some backwater city, neither will it be as a king upon the back of a donkey, riding to His death; it will be in glory and majesty! The God who took on human flesh will no longer veil His deity; it will be on full display as He comes back in power and righteousness, to judge and reward, to destroy and to restore! Advent … is all about Jesus coming to His people – as that little babe of Bethlehem, yes, as redeemer of the world, yes, and as the One who is to come again! So raise your “Hosanna’s” to the Son of David, who is also David’s Lord! He has come, and He is coming again!

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

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