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Sermon for January 19, 2020, Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 1:29-42a (Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Series A)

“Point to Jesus”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

January 19, 2020

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

Our text is the Gospel Lesson from John 1:

29The next day, [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 30This is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is superior to me because he was [always] before me.’ 31And I did not recognize him, but on account of him I came baptizing with water so that he might be manifest to Israel.” 32And John bore witness saying, “I have seen the Spirit coming down out of heaven as a dove and he remained on him. 33And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one upon whom you see the Spirit coming down and remain on him, this one is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and I have borne witness that this one is the Son of God.” 35The next day, John was again standing there along with two of his disciples 36and looking intently at Jesus walking by he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” 37Now his two disciples heard him saying this and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi”—which means Teacher—“where are you remaining?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was remaining, and they remained with him that day. It was about the tenth hour. 40Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who had heard John and had followed him. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”—which means Anointed. 42He brought him to Jesus.

 

          When young children see something new, different, or unusual, they will often, in their excitement, point at it. Depending on what has caught their attention, pointing might not be appropriate. As parents, then, we tell our children, “Please don’t point. It’s not polite.” Today, however, I’m going to encourage you to point as much as you can. As the daily opportunities arise, point to Jesus!

          Pointing to Jesus is what the forerunner of the Savior, John, does very well. In Christian art, John is often portrayed pointing. In some images he has an extra-large hand and pointer finger! It is John who points out and points to Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John himself was pointed to Jesus by God the Father who had told him, “The one upon whom you see the Spirit coming down and remain on him, this one is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, John saw exactly that, the Spirit coming down out of heaven as a dove and He remained on Jesus. John confessed, “I have seen, and I have borne witness that this one is the Son of God.”

          John, who was pointed to Jesus, then continued to point his disciples to Jesus. “Looking intently at Jesus walking by he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’” What was the result of this pointing to Jesus? John’s two disciples followed Jesus. They became Jesus’ followers. Then one of those two, Andrew, before he did anything else, went and found his brother, Simon. He pointed Simon to Jesus—“We have found the Messiah!” So Andrew brought Simon to Jesus.

          Just look at all the pointing going on! And it is all appropriate pointing because it’s all pointing to and pointing out Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, the Savior of all people: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

          That is what Jesus has taken on human flesh and blood to accomplish for all humanity. He came among us as true God and true Man, one Christ, in order to rescue all people from their sins and the punishment of eternal death and hell. The Bible tells us, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 ESV). And death is more than simply the physical death that we will all experience at the end of earthly life (unless the good Lord returns first!) Death is also eternal separation from God—forever. The full ramifications of that are pretty incomprehensible since we have never experienced a moment without the presence of God who is truly active in His creation as He preserves all people and rules over His creation with His almighty power. To experience the complete lack of God’s presence and help and mercy and grace and love—to endure hell, the place where God is not—is the proper payment for your sins and mine.

          To be saved from this horrible punishment, all people need to trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior from sin, death, and hell. Perhaps you read in the latest edition of the New England District News that our congregation is smack in between the number 1 and the number 7 most post-Christian cities in the entire country!—Hartford-New Haven (#7) and Springfield-Holyoke (#1). In round statistics, about 90% of people in the Springfield-Holyoke area surveyed had not read the Bible within the last week. Almost 50% had not prayed in the last week. A full 11% don’t believe in God, period. What does this tell us? Folks don’t seem to take understand that sin leads to eternal death and hell. Folks don’t know that Jesus is the only Savior from their sins and death.

          So, John pointed to Jesus. Andrew pointed to Jesus. Now it’s your turn. People in our community need to know who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for them as their Savior. They won’t know unless Christians like you point Him out and point to Him with your words and actions. The apostle Paul writes by the power of the Holy Spirit in Romans 10, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. . . . For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rom. 10:9–15 ESV).

          You, like John and Andrew, have “beautiful feet.” You know Jesus Christ by faith because you have been baptized into His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and rescue from death and the devil. You are the only ones equipped to point to Jesus with your words and actions and so declare to those in need of salvation, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus was the One who lived a perfect life so that all people might receive credit for His righteousness. Jesus was the One who suffered hell itself on the cross and died our death so that all humanity might receive complete forgiveness of sins and eternal life rather than eternal death. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8 ESV). It is a gift for all people because all people, whether they think so or not, need what Jesus Christ gives freely—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, new life, abundant life.

          For the past month, our Sunday morning Bible class has focused on tools to equip us as God’s people to be the ones who point to Jesus the Savior. As a Christian, you can be sure that you already know enough to tell people about Jesus. You simply tell others what you know, or rather, who you know—Jesus. Since it is God Himself who calls us to be His witnesses to point to Jesus the Savior, you can be certain that He’s going to give you the support and strength to do it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember also that it is not your task to create saving faith in Christ in another person’s heart. That’s the work of the Spirit through the Word. Your task is simply to show people Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

          What are some ways that you and I can point people to Jesus, the Son of God, their Savior? First and foremost, come alongside a friend, a coworker, a neighbor and invite them to “come and see.” Bring them here to the place where Jesus meets with His people as He comes among us through His Word and Sacrament. Invite them to come and see Jesus here in His Word, in the hymns and liturgy, in the people of God themselves who speak words of peace and greetings in love.

          Pray for that person who does not yet know Jesus by faith. Pray that the Holy Spirit would be given opportunity through the hearing of the Word by that individual so that they might be brought to faith and new life. Don’t be afraid not only to pray for but to pray with someone as they have need. There is no harm in asking, “Can I pray with you right now about your illness, your fear, your __?” That’s pointing to Jesus as you demonstrate your trust in Him who hears and answers the prayers of His Christians.    

          Listen to others. Hear their concerns, their fears, their needs. Share how Jesus has helped you in similar moments. Show them the comfort of the Word of God. Point them to Jesus in the Scriptures, in those passages that help and strengthen you. Share the Good News of what the Lamb of God has done for you. Be a model of the faith in your words and in what you say and do.

What the people of our community need is you, the people of God, pointing to Jesus while living life by looking to the Lamb with faith and trust and joy. This trusting gaze will show in your lives this coming week. People will notice. How many lives will be touched by those of us here today? How many eyes will see evidence of something in us that causes them to wonder? How many opportunities will we have these next seven days to say, “Look to Jesus, the Lamb of God! Come, and see Him”? God will use your heart’s gaze, your soul’s fixation on Jesus, to proclaim to the people in your lives, “Behold, Jesus loves you, forgives you, and gives you eternal life!” Amen.

Sermon for January 12, 2020, The Baptism of Our Lord

Matthew 3:13-17 (The Baptism of Our Lord—Series A)

“Fulfilled for You”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

January 12, 2020

 

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

Our text is the Gospel Lesson, recorded in Matthew 3:

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized by him. 14But John tried to prevent him, saying, “I myself have need to be baptized by you, yet you yourself come to me?” 15Jesus answered and said to him, “Allow it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he did allow him. 16Now after he had been baptized, Jesus immediately went up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and coming upon him, 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

 

          Put yourself in John’s shoes, or more properly, put yourself in John’s sandals. He is the end-times prophet of God, proclaiming in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (Matt. 3:3 ESV). John has preached that the One mightier than he is coming, whose sandals he is not even worthy to carry. This “Mightier One” will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, bringing the final salvation and judgment of God into the world.

          Then, one day, the Mightier One appeared from Galilee at the Jordan River, the very spot where people have been confessing their sins and have been baptized by John in response to his proclamation, “Repent!” Jesus came to the same place, to the same person, and for the same purpose—“in order to be baptized” by John.

          So put yourself in John’s sandals. Here comes Jesus for a baptism that He does not have a need for. Jesus has come, in mind-boggling fashion, not as the One who in this moment baptizes with the Spirit and fire, but as the passive receiver of John’s own baptism for repentance, for conversion from unbelief to faith and for entrance into the people of God! John proclaimed that Jesus comes in power, bringing end-time salvation and judgment—a Jesus so superior to and mightier than John that the Baptizer isn’t worthy to perform the most menial service for this Jesus. But it is precisely this Jesus who comes to John, not displaying His power or His higher status, but in lowliness, to be baptized by John.[1]

How else is John supposed to react this? “I myself have need to be baptized by you, yet you yourself come to me?” John is completely taken back. He doesn’t know what to make of this. Jesus is true God come in human flesh as the One who saves all people from their sins. It is this Jesus who, after His baptism, John pointed to and exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). “How, then, can it be, that you, Jesus, come to me, John, for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” I have the need to be baptized by you, the sinless One, the Holy One of God!”

John well knows that he has a need. You and I, also, have the same need. And it is Jesus who fulfills that need for us all with His perfect life, death, and resurrection.

The Need. We are unable always to keep God’s commandments because we are unable always to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We are unable always to show love and mercy to our neighbors. “When we examine our hearts and consciences, we find nothing in us but sin and death, from which we are incapable of delivering ourselves” (LSB 290 “Confessional Address”). Consider:

In what or whom do you trust above all else? For financial security, physical safety, emotional support?

Are you diligent and sincere in your prayers, or have you been lazy, bored, or distracted?

 

Have you been angry, stubborn, or disrespectful toward those in authority over you?

 

Do you hold grudges or harbor anger and resentment?

 

Do you engage in any form of sexual immorality in thought, word, desire, or deed?

 

Are you faithful to the responsibilities of your vocation?

 

Do you speak the truth in love?

 

Have you done anything to break up a friendship?

 

          The need is there, staring at us, painfully so. There is nothing in our natures but sin and death. We stand rightfully condemned by God’s perfect judgment. We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by the things we have done and by the things we have left undone. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We truly deserve His punishment of death and hell. “I myself have a need to be baptized by you, and yet, you yourself come to me?”

          Indeed. The eternal Son of God, without beginning and without end, became fully human, was incarnate as a man, in order to come among sinners. That’s the shocking, amazing, wondrous thing about our Triune God’s love and mercy toward us lost and condemned people. He loved us so much that His One-of-a-Kind Son was willing to take to Himself our human flesh and blood and so live among us as the One who will save all people from their sins, which is what the name “Jesus” means—Savior. So if the God-Man Jesus is to be the representative of all people, of all sinners, He must first be identified with them.

          Jesus, to fulfill all righteousness, to show that He takes our place, stands where sinners stand, undergoes the baptism that sinners undergo. The sinless Son of God receives the baptism meant for sinners because He is their sin-bearer. He Himself stands there in the Jordan and received baptism from John as He stands there in our place, people for whom He would not only keep God’s commandments, but also offer up Himself to death and hell, taking our place under the wrath and judgment of God.

          Jesus fulfilled our obligation to keep God’s commandments. Where we have failed to fear, love, and trust in God above all else, where you and I have not loved our neighbors, Jesus did so perfectly. As our substitute, Jesus’ perfect life was lived for us. In God’s eyes, we get the credit for Jesus’ perfect righteousness. He kept the Law for us so that God sees us, in Jesus, as having kept it completely and perfectly. We get the credit for what Christ has done as true God and true Man. Jesus stood where we stand, under God’s commandments, and accomplished for you and me what we never could. And joy of all joys, Christ’s righteousness is credited to us! God looks at you and me with delight and speaks of us as His sons and daughters in whom He is well pleased.

          But our Lord Jesus did more than keep God’s commandments for us as our substitute. He also paid the price for our failures to do so. Jesus willingly suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins of not loving the Lord and not loving our neighbors. Jesus paid the full price for our lazy prayer life, for the grudges and anger we harbor, for the lust we pursue, for our lies and deceptions that hurt others and ourselves. Jesus died for our failures to show mercy to anyone to whom we are able.

          Jesus, the sinless Son of God, who received the baptism of John meant for sinners, bore our sins in His body on the cross. He who was perfect in our place, died and shed His blood to purchase our forgiveness. He stood in our place in the Jordan. He was nailed, suffered hell, bled, and died in our place on a cross. To fulfill all righteousness. For you.

          Because Jesus Christ stood in our place in His baptism, in His life, death, and resurrection, you have forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. From the cross and empty tomb of Jesus flows your baptism, which gives to you the salvation and the new life Jesus won for you. To you, Jesus gives the water and Word of Holy Baptism, delivering to you the forgiveness and salvation He purchased with His blood. He gifts to you the new life of faith and good works, which He creates within you by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In Christ, you are new creations because He fulfilled all righteousness for you. You are empowered by the Holy Spirit in the gift of baptism to overcome temptation and sin. You are able to love the Lord and love your neighbors in concrete ways, with specific words and actions done in mercy on their behalf. You can pray for others. You can visit them in their times of sickness, loneliness, and other needs. You can lend a helping hand or a kind word. You can tell others about Jesus the Savior.

Pastor Martin Luther, preaching in 1538 said, “For this reason, Baptism was given to the whole world, that whoever wishes to be saved might wash in the same bath in which Christ also stood. And there I get the innocence which He brought into His bath, and the world also obtains His innocence, life, and honor. . . . Is this not a great glory that he who is baptized receives these things?”[2] All righteousness has been fulfilled for you by your Savior, Jesus Christ, through His perfect life, death, and resurrection. In your baptism into Christ, you are counted as righteous. You have forgiveness and everlasting life. Your need has been met by Christ, the Righteous One. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006), 178.

[2] Martin Luther, Martin Luther on Holy Baptism: Sermons to the People (1525-39), ed. Benjamin T.G. Mayes (St. Louis: Concordia, 2018), 91.

January 5, 2020, Second Sunday after Christmas

Psalm 119:97-104 (Second Sunday after Christmas—Series A)

“Blessed by Being in the Word”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

January 5, 2020

 

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

Our text is the psalm appointed for the day, Psalm 119:97-104:

97O how I love your instruction. It is my meditation all the day. 98Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies because it is forever mine. 99I have insight greater than all my teachers because your testimonies are my meditation. 100I have more understanding than the elders because I have kept your precepts. 101I have restrained my feet from every evil way for the sake of keeping your word. 102I have not turned aside from your judgments because you have taught me. 103How sweet are your words to my taste; sweeter than honey to my mouth. 104From your precepts I get understanding. Therefore, I hate every false way.

 

          Mary and Joseph had searched everywhere for their son. They had looked among all their relatives and friends as they traveled back to Nazareth from Jerusalem after celebrating the Feast of the Passover. They couldn’t find him anywhere. After three days of searching for the boy in the city, they finally found Jesus “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). These among whom Jesus sat would have been the teachers of the Torah, the Hebrew word meaning, “instruction.” We often find it translated “law,” as in “teachers of the law.” The Torah, however, is not simply what we would call “the Law,” as in just the commandments of God. It is His whole counsel, Law and Gospel, His Instruction to us in His inspired Word.

          That is what the psalmist rejoices over in Psalm 119. Luther said that it “is a long psalm, containing prayers, comforts, instructions, and thanks in great number”[1] He’s not wrong. Psalm 119 has 176 verses! It is actually an alphabet acrostic, where the psalmist praises God with everything from A to Z . . . er, I mean, from aleph to taw, all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The whole psalm, exhausting every letter of the alphabet, is about reverence for God’s Torah, His Instruction, showing us the breadth of His Word and the psalmist’s deep devotion to it.

          Each line in the acrostic for the section of Psalm 119 that is our consideration today starts with the Hebrew letter “M.” Here the psalmist exclaims, “O how I love your instruction! It is my meditation all the day.” The psalmist here indicates the proper procedure for a person’s response to God’s Word. Because of his love for God’s Instruction, the psalmist was prompted to meditate on it all day long. Due to his practice of meditation, the psalmist received greater insight than all his teachers and more understanding than the elders of the people. The word of the Lord’s instruction gives more insight to us than any teacher can find apart from it. Elders were respected for their wisdom, but the Lord’s wisdom found in Scripture surpasses even that of the wisest elders.

          The primary theme here is that we have God’s instruction in its purity so that we might read and hear it gladly for our blessing and benefit. As a true human person, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, at age twelve, surrounded Himself with the teachers of the Word in God’s house, listening to them, dialoging with them about the Word, studying the Word. He shows us, by way of example, how important it is to be “in His Father’s house,” among the things of the Heavenly Father—His Torah, His Word.

Reading, hearing, meditating, and thinking through the texts of God’s Word produces in us, through the working of the Holy Spirit, “powerful prayers, instructions, thanks, prophecies, worship of God, suffering, and all that pleases God and grieves the devil.”[2] The psalmist says that, “for the sake of keeping [God’s] word,” he has been empowered by the Spirit to restrain his feet from every evil way. He has been empowered by God’s grace not to turn aside from the Lord’s judgments because the Lord has taught him.

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12 ESV). St. Paul writes in Ephesians 6 that the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). The Lord’s Word, His Instruction, is the means that the Holy Spirit uses to reveal to people the Law (what we should and should not do) and the Gospel (what God has done in Jesus Christ to save us from our failures to keep God’s Law as we should.) We shouldn’t get the idea from Psalm 119 that its author was sinless. At times, he was restrained from walking in the paths of evil, but not always. He writes in verse 176, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” He knew what God desired for his life. He hated every false way. But so do we who have the Spirit dwelling in us. And yet, we, right along with the Psalmist, fail to always keep the Lord’s instruction. We do not always hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

Martin Luther explains why this is so in the Large Catechism: “Let me tell you this, even though you know God’s Word perfectly and are already a master in all things: you are daily in the devil’s kingdom [Colossians 1:13–14]. He ceases neither day nor night to sneak up on you and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against these . . . all the commandments. . . . Where the heart is idle and the Word does not make a sound, the devil breaks in and has done the damage before we are aware [Matthew 13:24–30].”[3] The devil, world, and our own corrupt flesh daily seek to distract us from the Word. These enemies do not want us to taste the sweetness of God’s Instruction. They do not wish us to receive insight and understanding from our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Oh there are so many more things we could be doing rather than reading the Bible! There are many things that are so much more appealing to us than gathering in God’s House and being about the things of our heavenly Father. Too often, God’s people are tempted to worship at “St. Mattress of the Pillow” rather than meet with God at His invitation when He comes among us here in His Word. Yes, you can read the Bible at home, but there are at least a half dozen other things that will distract you from doing so on a regular basis—cleaning, cooking, television, YouTube, Xbox, Instagram. You don’t need me to list all the reasons that we come up with to neglect the Word here at God’s House and in our daily lives. The devil and the world and our flesh make it so easy for us to be distracted from what is truly important and needful.

That’s why, on this first Sunday in a new calendar year, the words of the Psalmist hit home for us. You and I, as Christians, DO love the Lord’s Word. We have received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our Baptism. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one, true faith. The Spirit equips us by means of the Word to take a stand against the temptation of the devil and the lures of the world and our own flesh. The Psalmist, as part of the great cloud of witnesses that Hebrews 12 talks about, reveals to us the great blessings of being people of the Word, people in the Word. The Torah—the Instruction of God’s Word—Is eternal-life-changing. Again, Dr. Luther: “The Word is so effective that whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, it is bound never to be without fruit [Isaiah 55:11; Mark 4:20]. It always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts [Philippians 4:8]. For these words are not lazy or dead, but are creative, living words [Hebrews 4:12]. And even though no other interest or necessity moves us, this truth ought to urge everyone to the Word, because thereby the devil is put to flight and driven away [James 4:7].”[4]

          “The Word they still shall let remain Nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain With His good gifts and Spirit” (LSB 656:4). The boy Jesus in the Temple—the Word of God made flesh—would return to Jerusalem some 21 years later. The teachers of the law would revile Him, mock Him, and demand His crucifixion. They had other priorities than the Word of truth. And yet, their actions fulfilled that Word of Promise. Jesus, who meditated on God’s Torah, who never departed from God’s perfect Law, who never turned aside from the Father’s judgments, suffered and died on a cross for those of us who have. Jesus, the Word made flesh, true God and true man, died for your sins and mine so that we might have the complete forgiveness for all our sins. He died to bless us with grace and restoration for every time we fail to keep God’s commandments, for every instance where we fail to do the good God desires, for every moment we do not hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it because we have become distracted.

          And does not His Word of Absolution taste so sweet each time you receive from Christ what His death and resurrection purchased and won for you? “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Sweeter than honey! Words of forgiveness, words of restoration and new life, words that give eternal life just as He promised. Words that deliver the Holy Spirit to you with grace and power to overcome the temptations of the devil, the world, and the flesh. Words that strengthen Baptismal faith and empower the fruits of faith in good works shown in love and mercy toward your neighbors. Words that give you wisdom, insight, and understanding of the grace, mercy, and love of God to you through Jesus Christ.

          In this new year of grace, be blessed by being in the Word daily. By the power of the Holy Spirit, increase in the wisdom, insight, and understanding of His Word. Pray the words of the Psalmist, “O how I love your instruction. It is my meditation all the day.” Amen.

[1] Reading the Psalms with Luther (St. Louis: Concordia, 2007), 284.

[2] Ibid., 284-5.

[3] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 370.

[4] Ibid.

Sermon for December 29, 2019, First Sunday after Christmas

Matthew 2:13-23 (First Sunday after Christmas—Series A)

“Overcoming the Grinches of Christmas”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

December 29, 2019

 

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

Our text is the Gospel Lesson from Matthew 2:

Now when [the Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

          I would imagine that most of you have read Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. If you haven’t read the story, maybe you’ve seen the classic holiday cartoon or the movie. If so, you will remember how everyone in Who-ville loved Christmas. Everyone, that is, except the Grinch. The Grinch hated Christmas and he came up with a plan to spoil the joy of Christmas in Who-ville. He dressed up like Santa and went down into Who-ville and stole all the Christmas presents, trees, decorations, the roast beast, and the last can of Who-hash. It was a terrible thing to do. According to the story, the Grinch hated Christmas because his heart was two sizes too small. He was selfish and hated to see anyone else who was happy and enjoying themselves. But the Grinch’s plan didn’t work. The people in Who-ville knew that the real joy of Christmas doesn’t come from presents, decorations, and food.

          The story of the Grinch is not a true story. But today’s Gospel lesson shares with us the story of a real “Grinch” who tried to steal the very first Christmas. No, on second thought, “Grinch” is too nice of a word to describe King Herod. He is truly “the monster of the Christmas story.” 

          Herod took the snub of the wise men with all the rage of the deluded and suspicious old paranoid that he had become. “Ordering the ruthless massacre of all male babies two years old and under in Bethlehem and vicinity, he hoped that the infant “king” must certainly have been among the victims. Estimating a town of some 2000 inhabitants at the time, about 20 male babies would have fallen into this category and been slain. The scene of mothers madly trying to hush their crying infants so as not to be discovered, only to see them snatched out of their arms by Herod’s soldiers, thrown to the floor, and run through with swords sends a bristle of shock into the Christmas story so utterly [dissonant] with the rest of it.”[1]

          Herod, the monster of Christmas, seems to ruin the whole thing for us this morning. Here we are back in God’s house just days after our Christmas Festival Service and the joy is stolen from us by this maniac king. As the prophet Jeremiah has spoken, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” In the very region where Old Testament Rachel had died giving birth to Benjamin, other children of the promise lost their lives to wicked King Herod’s sword, and their mothers wept and could not be consoled. “The mothers wept because they were [left without] their children, as if their insides were being torn from them.” 

          Those of us who have lost children to death can understand this kind of grief. Those who have not can only empathize and give their sympathy. In my experience, there is no grief greater than that experienced in the death of a child, no matter the child’s age. Many of you, like me, have experienced the death of your children through miscarriage. It is a gut-wrenching thing to go through, even for the father. Some of you have experienced the stillbirth of your child. My family remembers my niece Molly who was called to the Lord Jesus before her birth. One could argue that stillbirth almost makes miscarriage merciful, but not without deep pain and grief. The grief of loss grows even greater when a child that you have known and loved dies. Some of you have experienced the loss of children as they were growing and in their prime. Some have experienced the profound grief of losing your adult son or daughter. The grief is real. The pain is intense. The heartache, while it lessens, never fully disappears. And so we think of the anguish of those Bethlehem mothers and fathers when the monster of Christmas destroyed their lives.

          Then we ask the question, “Where was God?” Where was God in the middle of this death? Was this God’s purpose? I’ve asked those questions about the losses in my life. Was it God’s plan that death take three of my unborn children from this world? Was it God’s plan that Molly not live? Was it God’s plan that my father drop dead from a heart attack? The answer is no! Although God takes and uses evil deeds such as the slaughter of Bethlehem’s little ones to bring His Scriptural plan and promise to fruition, Matthew avoids declaring that it was God’s purpose that the children in Bethlehem die. We cannot blame God for the death of these “innocents” just as we cannot and do not blame God for miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of our children or loved ones. God is not the author of evil. The devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh are. Death is a result of sin in the world. Yet God is always working to turn what is meant for evil into good.

          God’s Son, Jesus Christ, for whose sake the Bethlehem innocents died, would bring an end to sin, the devil, and the last enemy—death. In defeating death, Jesus Himself would die, but not because Herod willed it. Jesus had to die, but not on Herod’s schedule. Since it was not His time, the baby Jesus was protected from Herod by God’s divine intervention. Following the angel’s word, Joseph led his family to safety in Egypt. God was accomplishing His plan of salvation in Jesus Christ in spite of Herod’s wickedness, and in so doing, Jesus has paid the price for Herod’s sins, for our sins, and for the sins of the world.

Jesus had to die for Herod’s sins; He had to die for our sins. He had to die because of our doubt and our fear and our unbelief and all of our daily sins. Jesus would die when the time was right—on Calvary’s cross. He would suffer death for us so that we might have eternal life. In His resurrection, Jesus forever broke the power of death. Death lies defeated in its own grave, no longer to have mastery over Christ or over those of us who are in Christ by faith.

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those of us who have lost infants and children to death know that our children have the victory of Christ. Our children are in God’s presence, experiencing His loving care right now, as are the innocents of Bethlehem. Our children are in heaven, and we will see them again. Those children are not lost. In the ages to come, our gracious God will show us our children and we will recognize and know them. That’s the victory over death that they, and we, have in Jesus! That’s our hope and our comfort in the face of loss. Jesus has defeated death and won life for us and for our children, just as He did for those little ones who died in Bethlehem so long ago.

Jesus Christ, the Child of Bethlehem, is God and Lord. Christ is the Victor over sin, death, and the devil. He is still active in human history. Christ the Lord is still in control. He continues to lead little children and adults into the safety of His Church through the waters of Holy Baptism. He continues to feed and to nourish His Church with His Holy Word and with His precious body and blood, given and shed for our forgiveness and life! Our Lord Jesus continues to announce and give His forgiveness to all who confess their sins and seek His mercy.

In Jesus, the “grinches” and monsters of Christmas lie in defeat. Sin is conquered. Death is vanquished. Satan is crushed. We have forgiveness and eternal life. We have comfort and hope in the midst of the losses in life. We have joy and peace in Him who is Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] Paul L. Maier. In the Fullness of Time. © Kregel, 1991. Pg. 64

Sermon for Christmas Day

John 1:9-13 (The Nativity of Our Lord—Christmas Day)

“The Light of Christmas”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

December 25, 2019

 

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

Our text is recorded in the Gospel reading from John 1:

9The true light, which enlightens every man, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world and the world was made through him yet the world did not know him. 11He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. 12But as many as did receive him, he gave to those who believe into his name authority to be children of God, 13who were born, not from blood, nor from the will of the flesh, not from the will of a man, but from God.

 

          One  of the most exciting things about Christmas time growing up was when Dad would put the string of lights outside and I would get to help. And by help, I mean I got to watch as he hung them from the cup hooks under the front eave. Nothing fancy—one line of colored lights—but that was perfect. The Christmas lights were up and lit for all to see! Then, on Christmas morning, Dad would plug in the lights on the tree and flip the switch for the outdoor lights announcing that Christmas Day was finally here (and we could open our presents under the lights of Christmas!) Have you ever stopped to think: why lights at Christmas?

          We decorate our homes with light—white, blue, multi-colored; twinkling, twirling, steady, blinking. Light dispels darkness. Turn on a lamp in a dark room and the darkness disappears. Ever since Genesis, chapter 3, the whole creation of God, and humanity in particular, has been plunged into the cosmic darkness of sin and death. The prophet Isaiah described people as “walking in darkness” (Is. 9:2). The apostle Paul has written that we were, at one time, “darkness” and were “under the domain of darkness” (Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13). That’s the nature of sin. It places us into the darkness, without true fear, love, and trust in God. We do not know God as He wishes to be known. By nature, we have no regard for Him or for His Word. We are turned away from the Lord and unable to look to Him for security, meaning, and righteousness. We love ourselves first and foremost and fail to love God and our neighbors. We are spiritually dead people, enemies of God, enslaved in a lifelong sinful condition from which we cannot free ourselves. Is it any wonder that the Bible calls this sinful, fallen condition “darkness”?

          To escape this lost condition that ultimately leads into the deep darkness and shadows of eternal death, a divine rescue mission was needed. The “true light” must come into the world of hostile darkness, into a world of sin and separation from God. That’s the rescue mission for God the Son.

          On Christmas, the Light began to shine into the cold darkness of sin and death. On Christmas, the true Light that enlightens every person came into the world to get rid of the darkness of sin and death. In the beginning, when the Lord was ready to start creation, darkness was over the face of the deep until the Triune God spoke, “Let there be light!” And there was light. With the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His birth into the world of darkness, a new creation begins with the coming of the Light. Jesus banishes the darkness of sin and death because Jesus is the Light of the world, light incarnate.

          Here, in this darkened world, Jesus shines His light. Here, into our darkened hearts, Jesus gives the light of His grace and forgiveness. This light of salvation is given to us, not by removing us from the darkness, but by His entering into our darkness, by Christ being enveloped in the darkness of our sin and death, by Jesus being oppressed by the darkness of our evil. “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land,” Matthew records in his Gospel (Matt. 27:45). On the cross, Jesus went into the darkness of death and hell, bearing our sins. The Early Church father St. Augustine wrote, “[Jesus] accepted death from what was ours, in order to give us life from what was his. How did he get death from what was ours? ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ He accepted from us here what he would offer for us. And where did life come from for us? ‘And the life was the light of men.’ He was life for us; we were death for him.”   

          This is Good News for everyone! “The darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining!” (1 John 2:8). “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8 CSB). Jesus Christ has purchased and won for you the full and complete forgiveness for all your sins. He chased away the darkness of your sin with His blood-bought forgiveness and has enabled you to live safely in the light of His love and grace.

          In Christ, we have light and life. You and I no longer live in darkness of sin and death! Into our once darkened hearts, Jesus has given the light of His gracious favor through the work of the Holy Spirit. We bask in the light, in the life, in the goodness and wisdom of Christ’s light. We are forgiven. The darkness of sin and guilt is removed by the bright light of the cross of Christ. We have eternal life. The darkness of death is defeated by the resurrection glory of Jesus. He became the “darkness of the world” for us so that we might be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

          Think of the lights on the Christmas tree and on our homes. They represent Jesus, the true Light. Jesus also calls you to be His light in this world! You are the light of the world as you reflect the light of Christ into the darkened lives of others. Through your words and actions, you share the love and mercy of God. You tell others the Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection that scatters the darkness of sin and overcomes the dark night of death. You help those in need with your time and talents; you give of your treasure to those who lack the necessities of life. Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Martin Luther commented, “What [Jesus] calls ‘good works’ here is the exercise, expression, and confession of the teaching about Christ and faith. . . . Shining is the real job of believing or teaching, by which we also help others to believe.”[1] So our good works done in faith are meant to lead others to glorify our Father in heaven. Our whole purpose as Jesus’ lights in the world is to lead others to worship the true God so that through faith in His Son, they might receive the light of forgiveness and life in Christ.

          Imagine Christmas without lights? I don’t think I could. Jesus Christ is the true light of Christmas. He came into the darkness of sin and death and wiped the darkness away by His sacrifice on the cross and His glorious resurrection. The light of Jesus’ love and mercy shines bright like the sun, so bright that you and I not only live in His light but also reflect His light to everyone. As the concluding liturgy of Holy Baptism reminds us, “You have received Christ who is the Light of world. Live always in the light of Christ, and be ever watchful for His coming, that you may meet Him with joy and enter with Him into the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which shall have no end.” Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 21 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 65.

Sermon for Christmas Eve

Micah 5:2-5a (The Nativity of Our Lord—Christmas Eve)

“From Bethlehem and Eternity”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

December 24, 2019

 

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

Our text for this Christmas Eve is recorded in the Book of Micah, chapter 5:

2And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the thousands of Judah, from you for me he will go out to be ruler in Israel, and his goings-out are from of old, from days of eternity. 3Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor will give birth, and the rest of his brothers will return to the sons of Israel. 4And he will stand, and he will shepherd in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh, his God. And they will endure because now he will be great unto the ends of the earth. 5And this One will be peace.

 

          “O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!” Little, small, insignificant. That certainly describes Bethlehem, which in Hebrew, Beth-lechem means, “House of Bread.”

We first really get introduced to Bethlehem in the Book of Ruth. “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. . . . They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband” (Ruth 1:1-5). After Ruth returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi, she eventually married her kinsman-redeemer, Boaz.

And this is important to the Christmas story. Ruth and Boaz had a son named Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse. So it was that, years later, God sent the prophet Samuel to Jesse the Bethlehemite (1 Sam. 16:1). The Lord did not choose any of Jesse’s first seven sons to be the next king of Israel. But Jesse had one son left in field, keeping the sheep—David: “Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12-13a).

It was to King David that God made a promise. It was a continuation of the promise first made in the Garden of Eden—to send a Savior to our fallen race—to crush the head of the ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan. God said to David, “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” (2 Sam. 7:12-13). In the fullness of time, there would come One from the lineage of David, a successor to his throne, who would establish the kingdom “forever.” This singular descendant of David would be the promised Messiah.

Two-hundred fifty years later, the prophet Micah would pick up the promise and carry it forward even further. From Bethlehem this Messiah would go out to be ruler in Israel “for me,” God says. His “goings-out are from of old, from days of eternity.” Indeed, this Messiah has no beginning and end, for the Messiah is none other than God Himself who shepherds the people “in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh.” “In his song, Psalm 90:2, Moses sings: ‘From everlasting to everlasting Thou art God.’ There Moses used the same expression that Micah uses here, that is: ‘You did not begin with the world, but, when the world began to be, You already were.’ Christ also says about Himself: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58).”[1]

O little town of Bethlehem . . . the birthplace of Boaz, Obed, Jesse, and the great King David . . . comes the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. The people asked in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” When the magi asked King Herod where the king of the Jews had been born, he asked the chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born and they replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet [Micah], ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matt. 2:6).

But long before the magi ever show up, there was THE night in insignificant Bethlehem that changed the town’s status forever. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she 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.” The descendant of Boaz, Obed, Jesse, and David—the Savior, the Ruler, the Messiah promised from of old—God-made-flesh is now dwelling among His creation. For unto you is born this day in the city of David—Bethlehem—a Savior, who is Christ—the Messiah—the Lord—Yahweh Himself. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

God the Son comes to earth in human flesh in the person of Jesus. That’s what we are celebrating here. God the Son comes in strength and majesty concealed in the flesh and blood-infant born “for you.” Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, has come to save this fallen race of which we are a part.

Remember, Lord of life and grace,
How once, to save our fallen race,
You put our human vesture on
And came to us as Mary’s son. . . .

For from the Father’s throne You came,
His banished children to reclaim;
And earth and sea and sky revere
The love of Him who sent You here. . . .[2]

 

Jesus, the very Bread of Life, who gives His flesh for the life of the world, is born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread. Jesus, a descendant of David the shepherd boy according to the His flesh, is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life to save His sheep—all people—from the power of sin, death, and the devil, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (Small Catechism).

From Bethlehem’s wooden manger to Jerusalem’s cross of wood, Jesus came for you, to suffer and die for your sins so that you would enjoy complete forgiveness and once again have peace with God, your heavenly Father. Micah prophesied, “This One will be peace.” As Isaiah announced about Emmanuel, God-with-Us in human flesh, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,  on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Is. 9:5-7).

 What sin and death had done to separate you from God, making you an enemy of God, was reconciled by the blood of Jesus Christ who endured cross and grave in order to establish peace once again between you and your heavenly Father. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38). “Therefore, since we have been [declared not guilty of sin] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

Peace is yours for the sake of Christ, who took on human flesh and was born to bring you forgiveness and eternal life, who died in that flesh to reconcile you to God, who rose in that flesh to proclaim peace to you, and who is coming again in that flesh to receive you into His everlasting new creation. Your sin that once alienated you from the Father has been overcome. In Christ your Savior, the Father receives you as His children in joy.

O little town of Bethlehem . . . from you came the greatest gift of God to the people of the world—the Root of Jesse, the Key of David, the King, Emmanuel: Jesus Christ, our Savior. Through Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection there is forgiveness of sins and peace with God for you and the whole world.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
    Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
    The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Immanuel!

 

 

         

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 18 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 248.

[2] Text: © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. Used by permission: LSB Hymn License no. 110000752

 

Sermon for December 22, 2019, Fourth Sunday in Advent

Matthew 1:18-25 (Fourth Sunday in Advent—Series A)

“Believing the Incarnation”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

December 22, 2019

 

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

Our text is the Gospel Lesson from Matthew 1:

18Now the origin of Jesus Christ was in this way: After his mother Mary had been betrothed  to Joseph, before they came together, it was found that she was pregnant (from the Holy Spirit). 19Now Joseph, her husband, because he was righteous and because he did not wish to disgrace her publicly, wanted to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had reflected on these things, Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he himself will save his people from their sins.” 22And this whole thing has happened in order that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, 23‘Behold, the virgin will be pregnant and she will bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’” 24And Joseph got up from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and he took his wife [into his home], 25but he continued not knowing her until she gave birth to a son and he called his name Jesus.

          One question that parents dread their children to ask is, “Where do babies come from?” Quite frankly, I don’t think it should be any of their business thinking about such things and they certainly shouldn’t be asking me about it. That’s why they have a mother!

It turns out, we are all interested in the origins and the beginnings of things. I once read a wonderful little book about the origins of many of our Christmas hymns and songs. It was quite fascinating. Did you know that “Jingle Bells” was originally written for a Thanksgiving Service? James S. Peirpont of Medford, Massachusetts was asked by his father, Medford’s Unitarian Church’s pastor, to write special music for Thanksgiving in 1840. The fully harmonized arrangement made its debut to a large audience on Thanksgiving Day, the most important holiday in New England at the time. That’s a pretty interesting beginning for one of people’s favorite “Christmas” carols.

          But what about the origin and birth of Jesus Christ? As we enter this Fourth week in Advent, with the Nativity of our Lord just days away, we hear from God Himself about the “origin” of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The conception and birth of the Son of God made flesh is full of misunderstanding. Even Joseph’s perception of the situation and his pious, yet uninformed, decision was off the mark. Mary “was found” to be pregnant, with the result that righteous and compassionate Joseph decided to cancel the legal marriage created by their betrothal. According to Jewish custom, betrothal was a legally binding relationship, the first stage of marriage. It was not at all like “engagement” today. Mary and Joseph, St. Matthew makes clear, had not come together in marriage yet. The marriage was consummated only after the brothel period was completed. For a virgin, betrothal usually lasted for about one year. During this time the betrothed girl was legally the man’s wife even though she was still a virgin, since the marital relation did not begin until the marriage ceremony. The betrothal could only be broken by a formal written divorce or death.

Since the child inside Mary’s womb is not from Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, it must have been from a sinful union between Mary and another man. This is the natural human evaluation of the “origin” of Jesus Christ. Joseph can only act on the basis of his own logical understanding of the child’s origin. Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary discreetly would leave both his conformity to the Law and his compassion intact. The Law called for Mary to be stoned if she was guilty of adultery, yet Joseph felt compassion for Mary and planned to dissolve the marriage contract as quietly as possible. As Dr. Jeffry Gibbs stated in his commentary, “Joseph is, for the right reasons, about to do the wrong thing, but God intervenes.” 

          God’s ways have to be revealed to us. We cannot get the knowledge of the things of God by our own reason or strength. There was no way Joseph could have imagined, even in the wildest of fantasies, the Mary would be pregnant without the help of a man. So God steps in with His angel-messenger to clear things up. The angel tells Joseph both the origin and the name of the child to be born: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he himself will save his people from their sins.” Matthew clues us in as readers that this child, conceived in Mary from the Holy Spirit, is “God with us,” Emmanuel. This is exactly what Mary already knew from the angel Gabriel, whom God had sent to her. We read in Luke 1, “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘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.’” (Luke 1:30-35)

          Now the whole thing is revealed by God to Joseph through an angel. As an act of God’s Spirit, the conception of Emmanuel in the womb of the virgin Mary directs us to Jesus’ divine nature. Jesus has no biological father. Jesus is true God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made” (Nicene Creed). As we will hear on Christmas morning, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . 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” (John 1:1, 14).

          It is the purpose of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to “save” people from their sins. That’s what the name “Jesus” means, “The Lord is salvation” or “The Lord saves.”  Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, “for us for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.” 

It is hard to think about “the how” of Jesus’ Incarnation. The Bible doesn’t share with us this information. The God-breathed Word simply tells us of the fact that Jesus is true God and true Man. In Martin Luther’s beautiful words, Jesus is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary” (Small Catechism). In Christ, God and man are united in one person. While our brains might not understand it, we can trust that this is most certainly true because the Word of God tells us so. Yes, believing that Jesus Christ is, at the same time, both true God and true Man, is a matter of trusting the Word of God found in Holy Scripture. It is receiving from God the Holy Spirit the gift of faith that the Word of Scripture is true because it is the Truth. Although the devil and the world and our sinful flesh tempt us to think otherwise, God the Holy Spirit, through the Word and the Sacraments of Christ calls, enlightens, makes us holy, and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one, true faith. May God our Father forgive us for the times that we doubt His Holy Word and grant us grace to believe His promises to us in Jesus Christ, who is true God and true Man, our Lord.

          It is for the very forgiveness of all our sins that God sent His One-of-a-Kind Son to take to Himself a human nature in His Incarnation and so be our Lord. But does it really matter if one believes that Jesus is both God and Man? Could He not be our Lord without being God-made-flesh? No, He could not. Hence Scripture’s insistence that we believe and confess that Jesus Christ, “the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man” (Athanasian Creed).

In order to save us from our sins, the Son of God had to take the place of those He came to save. He had to become the perfect substitute for people. In order to be that perfect substitute, Jesus, true God from eternity, had to take to Himself a true human nature and human flesh. He had to be made just like us, yet without sin, in order to save us (Heb. 2:17; 4:15). Because you and I are not able to keep God’s holy Law perfectly as He demands, Jesus as true God and true Man took this burden on Himself. The Son of God was born of a woman, born under the Law, that He might fulfill God’s Law on our behalf (Gal. 4:4).

To satisfy God’s demands for justice, full atonement for the original sin with which we are conceived and born and for all the sins we have committed since needed to be made. The death penalty for humanity’s sin had to be paid. The Son of God had to be true Man so that He might be capable of suffering, shedding His blood, and dying for the sins of the whole world in whose place He hung on the cross. Jesus the Son of God took on flesh and blood so that He might be able to die and so purchase and win the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for each one of you.

Simply put, Jesus had to be true God and true Man in order to be our Savior. That’s why it does matter that we believe and confess along with the Scriptures that Jesus is both “perfect God and perfect man” (Athanasian Creed). And it is none other than this Jesus—the Son of God and the Son of Mary—who is our Lord! It is this Jesus who “has redeemed [us] from sin, from the devil, from death, and from all evil.”[1]

          Joseph believed God’s Word and took Mary, his wife, into his home. By God’s revelation to us in His Word, the Bible, we, by the power of the same Holy Spirit who worked the conception of God the Son in Mary’s womb, believe and confess the Christian truth of the Incarnation. As the hymnwriter expressed it:

1    From God the Father, virgin-born
To us the only Son came down;
By death the font to consecrate,
The faithful to regenerate.

 

2    Beginning from His home on high,
In human flesh He came to die;
Creation by His death restored,
And shed new joys of life abroad. (LSB 401)

Text: Public domain

 

 

By the power of the Holy Spirit working through His Means of Grace in Gospel Word and Sacrament, continue this Christmas Season to confess boldly in your lives and with your words that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, your Lord, the Savior of all people! Amen.

 

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 401–402.

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