THE #BLESSED LIFE

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5:1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

Today, we’re talking about the #blessed life.  So, I did what any 32-year-old pastor would do.  I did little research on Twitter to find out what people are saying.  I searched the hashtag #blessed, and here are some of the examples.

“I bought my first car today… Hard work pays off, no handouts. #blessed”

“got my dream job today!! #blessed”

“Just wrote out a whole tweet about Monday…then realized it was Tuesday. #blessed”

“I want to thank not only God, but also Jesus for letting me not go for cafeteria duty. #blessed”

Linebacker for the Patriots, Dont’a Hightower tweeted this, “No better felling than waking up and knowing you’re headed to Houston #blessed”

“the diner just gave me two extra pieces of bacon for free #blessed”

“Ash and I still look good while drinking beer. #blessed”

“I’m thankful for wine.  You’ve always been there for me… Thank you for never giving up on me.  I love you, wine. #blessed”

Now, hopefully some people are being sarcastic.  But what if some aren’t?  What if people think “blessed” only refers to earthly items and situations that make you happy? What happens if being blessed is only about the physical and material?  Well, then are you blessed or not?

If you don’t have the job that you went to school for and the one you have been waiting patiently for, then you can’t tweet #blessed.  If you don’t have the car you really want in your garage, the clothes that friends have, the tech toys that you see on TV, the happy feelings that others seem to relish, or the meaningful relationship you have been praying for, then is it true that you aren’t living the blessed life?  If you can’t handle some of the situations you’re dealing with right now, does that mean God is not blessing you the way he promises he will?  That seems to be the way America is talking.  Whether it’s people at the office or the ones poking at screens all day, being blessed means that you are happy because of what you have or because your current circumstances are enjoyable.

So, what about you?  How would you define the blessed life? Is it having a lot of earthly blessings that makes you blessed?  Does being blessed mean you are soaking up a bunch of joyful moments lately? Is blessed all about your satisfaction with life?  Or maybe…does #blessed simply mean you are regularly thanking God for everything you have?  Does blessed mean you are happy just because you woke up and God gave you another day on this earth?

If that’s the case, then listening to Jesus start off his Sermon on the Mount might have you scratching your head a little bit.  Because what Jesus says about the blessed life doesn’t necessarily fit in with what Twitter says, and it might not jive with what your own heart is telling you.  Recorded for us in Matthew 5, there are nine different descriptions that really don’t seem to fit current trends about the blessed life.  These might not even be what you would expect Jesus to say. Let’s quickly go over them.

Poor in spirit seems like the opposite of success and happiness.  Someone who is poor in spirit isn’t talking themselves up or referencing a long list of their achievements.  Someone who is poor in spirit isn’t proud of all that they have done this past week.

Those who mourn are dealing with sad news.  They are in the throes of grief.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that someone who is morning is enjoying a happy blessed life, does it?  I didn’t see any tweets where people were posting sad news with the hashtag #blessed.

The next person that Jesus calls blessed is the meek.  That’s humble, gentle, considerate, selfless people. Do we really say that people who don’t focus on themselves are blessed?  The meek don’t jostle for the first spot in line.  The meek might miss out on Black Friday deals.  The meek want others to be joyful and successful. But if you are the meek one, how does that help you?  Would Americans in 2017 call that the blessed life?

Jesus then brings up those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  These folks aren’t filling their bellies or their lives with whatever they want whenever they want it.  They are seeking only what the Lord calls good.  They find their happiness in worship, Bible study, devotions, prayer, and serving others.  That means they aren’t putting tons of time and effort into their own personal enjoyment.  Does that have anything to do with earthly blessings and success?

The merciful are compassionate and loving, the way Jesus is.  The merciful don’t neglect what Jesus says, but the cling to his words and follow his example.  The merciful wouldn’t gossip or grumble about bullies, protests, and politicians.  Instead, they would stand on the foundation of God’s Word and show God’s kind of sacrificial love to everyone.

Pure in heart doesn’t even seem possible.  You and I all know what was going on in our heart this week, whether planned or just popping in, and pure is not the word we can use for that.  Who is here among us who can say they have felt no guilt, that their life is free some sin?  That would be zero.

Peacemakers normally have to put up with a lot of stress.  They have to go back and forth in a process of restoring relationships that have been torn apart.  It’s hard work.  It’s true that peacemakers are certainly causing joy when their work pays off.  But I don’t know if it always feels happy and joyous to go through the ugly side of the peacemaking process.

Jesus finishes his list with those who are persecuted in one way or another for their faith.  I don’t know how many would say “Amen” to that.  Along with the mourners, this seems like the people who would in no way have the blessed life.  It’s hard to envision any scenario where persecuted people would be happy, joyful, and successful.

This whole list flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but maybe that tells you something.  Jesus wants us to get a different definition for “blessed.” We don’t need to search it on social media or listen to the news.  We don’t need to look at our contacts, calendars, or careers, not in our homes or at our hobbies.  To find what the blessed life is the hashtags are always going to miss one vitally important concept, eternity.

Jesus starts his Sermon on the Mount with this “blessed” list because he wants your face off the phone and not staring at yourself so much.  Instead, Jesus gets us looking at him for happiness and joyful contentment, no matter what your earthly circumstances might be right now.  That’s what needs to happen for a blessed life.  Look and listen to Jesus.  And what do you think he wants you to have? A nice car? A great career? A big house? Fun friends? A particular set of skills?

Sure.  Jesus wants you to enjoy the life that he has given you here on earth.  BUT! But, don’t you think he cares a little bit more about your eternity?  Don’t you think he wants the source of your happiness to be your Savior and not your stuff or yourself?

Friends, that is the reason why Jesus came to give the blessed life a new meaning for you and me.  Just think, he was living the most glorious life of all as the ruler of heaven and earth.  He needed nothing.  He had perfect glory and perfect control.  And he gave it up to live in human form, which meant he put himself under the laws of the land and under the care of parents. During his life he was poor in spirit. He felt sadness and pain. He was gentle, humble, and meek.  He was not filled with all sorts of good things but was filled with righteousness, even when people hated him for it.  He was patient and compassionate to a degree that no one can compare.  He was pure in thought, word, and deed every second of his life.  He was patient and kind, never giving in to gossip, grudges or grumblings.  He was persecuted, insulted, betrayed, falsely accused, beaten and killed.

His life means you and I have the blessed life, because only Jesus’ life gives us what we need forever.  Look again at that list, paying specific attention to the second half of each verse.  Only Jesus’ life produces a place in the kingdom of heaven.  Only Jesus’ life comforts those who mourn.  Only Jesus’ life gives humble, gentle people power in our world.  Only Jesus’ life fills us up with righteousness.  Only Jesus’ life gives us forgiveness for every one of your sins and the compassion to show that kind of love to others.  Only Jesus’ life gets rid of the guilt, replacing it with pure heart that will see God in heaven. Only Jesus’ life gives us a new title of God’s child.  Only Jesus’ life gives joy to the persecuted.  Only Jesus’ life takes away the sting of death.  Only Jesus’ life gives us the eternal blessed life.

Talk about the blessed life!  If I told you I can promise you a life where there is no trouble or toil, no bullies or Band-Aids, no stress or sadness, no heartaches or headaches, no lusting or lies, no anger or anxiety, wouldn’t you say, “Sounds great! Sign me up! That’s the blessed life for sure!”  That’s what Jesus has accomplished for us.

For people who believe in Jesus there is an eternity of blessings in heaven waiting for you.  It won’t be because of what you will have but who you are with, Jesus.  By faith, we are also with Jesus now.  So that means we can live the blessed life now, as well.  And what does that look like? Twitter doesn’t have the answer.  Actually, Jesus has a pretty good glimpse for us right here.  You are living the blessed life when you are poor in spirit, trusting Jesus’ sacrifice and not your own. You are living the blessed life even in sadness because your comfort is rock solid in God’s Word and not the things of this world.  You are living the blessed life when you are humble and gentle, not getting dragged into useless arguments or getting caught in political rants.  You are living the blessed life when you are filled regularly by God’s Word and sacrament.  You are living the blessed life when you are compassionate and forgiving just like Christ, looking for ways to love and not hate.  You are living the blessed life when you are the pure, who live a life of faith in Jesus, fleeing from temptation and selfishness.  You are living the blessed life when you’re the peaceful and helpful.  You are living the blessed life when you wear your faith on your sleeve and take whatever happens because you know you have a Savior watching over you.  You are living the blessed life every day with Jesus.

And he says you can rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven. No one can dampen that eternal joy. Nothing can take that away. What can I say; it’s the blessed life.

Amen.

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WHICH LAMB MAKES A DIFFERENCE

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John 1:29-42a

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

 

It’s the kind of blood and gore you see in a movie or heinous crime scene.  It’s the kind of thing that PETA would protest, for sure.  I’m talking about worship for God’s people in the Old Testament.  Every day, in the morning and evening, one lamb was slaughtered as a sacrifice to God.  That means every year over 700 lambs were killed just as a part of their daily routine. But that wasn’t all.  Lambs were also sacrificed for every fellowship offering, every sin offering, every guilt offering, and every Passover.  The sight of all that slaughter, the sound of it, the smell of it – it’s kind of shocking.  Just trying to make a guess is difficult, but every year thousands of lambs were killed as sacrifices.  Multiply that by more than 1400 years from the time God made those rules for Jewish worship up to the time of John and Jesus and that means maybe 3 million lambs that were killed in Israel.

Did God hate lambs?  Did he like the smell of lamb chops?  What did all this sacrificing accomplish?  Well, think of it this way: it’s kind of like a walk through Arlington National cemetery.  I’ve been there twice.  Whenever you walk around, you see row after row, section after section of white grave markers and you can’t help but think of all the lives that were given so that I could enjoy a pretty peaceful and free life in America.  It’s a very visible reminder of the sacrifices that keep us free.

With all those sacrificial lambs, God was sending a very similar message to his people of Israel.  It wasn’t about their freedom as a nation.  God wasn’t showing his people how to earn blessings.  With every one of those lambs, God was painting a bloody picture of what sin causes.  Sin always causes death.  If you want to know what’s wrong in the world nowadays, there’s your simple and God-given answer.  Sin is wrong with this world.  And some must be dealt with.  Every sacrificial lamb was God’s honest way of saying that sin must be paid for.  But as I said, all the blood from those innocent lambs was just painting a picture.  A simple year-old lamb cannot pay for my sin.  That has never been possible and never will be.  Before the judgement throne of our holy God, the blood of any animal cannot count for us.

For so many people in Israel, they thought that was how it worked.  They thought those religious practices and sacrifices were keeping them in God’s family.  Being acceptable in God’s eyes was all about following the rules that were given back at the time of Moses.  So if all those lambs needed to die to keep God happy, then that’s what they were going to do.  For so many of the Jews around this time, life with God was all about what they were doing and how they were living.

Is that still going on today?  We don’t bring lambs to worship services.  We don’t slaughter animals.  But sometimes without even realizing it, we might be making a case for that kind of religious life.  We aren’t raising lambs for the slaughter, but we can act as if our sacrifices are most important for a life with God.

Do you know how that happens? It can be pretty subtle, but I’m sure you have done it before.  It can happen on Sunday morning.  You could get an hour or two more of sleep, but you don’t.  You could have a lazy morning and a big brunch, but you don’t. You show up here.  That’s what God wants, right?  So, you do it because that is just what you have to do to be in God’s family.  It makes him happy.

And you bring an offering with you, too.  No, it’s not a lamb but money.  It’s something you are giving up for yourself so that God can use it to take care of his church and others.  It’s not easy, but you do it because you know God wants you to do it.  It’s just part of being his child.

It’s true that those are sacrifices that God’s children will make.  But if we think these kinds of sacrifices are going to make a difference for our eternity, then we are falling into the same trap as all those Israelites.  We are thinking our sacrifices are the important part of our spiritual and eternal life.

There are plenty more ways how this happens.  It can happen at work.  You try hard to do your best.  You go in early sometimes or stay late.  You try not to get involved with the office gossip.  You put up with a couple coworkers who are not the easiest to handle. You may even invite a few to church.  It’s not always the easiest thing to be a Christian at work, but you try.  It’s a sacrifice, and you do it because you know how God wants you to let your light shine at work.

This happens at home, too.  You try to fulfill your God-given roles as a parent, a spouse, a child, or what have you.  You try to be patient, loving, humble, careful, selfless, and all that because your light doesn’t just shine at work, but it also shines when you are in the privacy of your own home.  God still expects you to be his child in private as well as in public.  Maybe it’s easier at home or harder, but you do it because you are a child of God.  That’s just how it has to be.

This kind of thinking enters our minds pretty regularly, because being a child of God is not an on and off thing.  Either it’s on or it’s off.  You can’t have it both ways.  And so you make the effort, the sacrifices, to live this way because God tells you to do it.  And you had better do it his way.  Because that’s what is most important, right?

Well, there’s a couple problems with that.  No, the problem is not with any of those sacrifices you make as a child of God.  God’s law is a good thing, and following his laws is a good thing.  The problem starts not with him but with me.  How can my sacrifices ever be perfect?  I’m tainted by sin.  Everything in this world is tainted by sin.  And if I’m not perfect and my sacrifices aren’t perfect, then how can a perfect God ever accept them?

Lamb after slaughtered lamb, Israelites thought that their religiousness would somehow help them with the Lord.  But it was just a picture, a reminder, of what sin causes and how God would deal with it. When the focus becomes my actions, my attitude, my life…my sacrifices for the Lord, then it starts to drift from the Lord.  His promises get fuzzy.  His grace starts to fade into the distance and everything depends on what I do.

Stuck in that system of religion, the sacrifices can never stop.  And in a figurative way, the lambs will continue to shed their blood.  For us, instead of blood, it’s a dollar here or there.  It’s an hour today, tomorrow, or next week. It’s extra car rides.  It’s running here and running there.  That becomes the new sacrificial system that takes control, that makes me feel like a child of God.  I will still try to make up for what I have done wrong.  I will still think that my actions and attitudes can change God’s view of me.  I will continue to carry out everything in my life with the focus on me. And the figurative blood of all of these sacrifices will never take away my sin.  Because the blood of an animal cannot cleanse each spot and stain in my life.

Only God can cleanse me.  Only the Lord of heaven and earth can create a new heart in me.  Only God forgives every one of my sins.  Only God removes them from my eternal record and forgets that they were even there to begin with.  Only the eternal Lord can open the door to his home in heaven.  I cannot – even with my most fervent and determined obedience and service – I cannot shed the blood that is necessary for salvation.

So, do you know what God did?  God became the Lamb.  John points to Jesus and says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  Now, his blood is different.  This is the blood of the God who created all things.  He made the lamb.  He made the blood that flowed.  He made the sacrificial laws for Israel.  And he promised that those sacrifices would never pay, but his blood would. This is the blood of the God who left heaven and to be born in a stall.  This is the blood of the God whose first guest were those who watch over lambs and sheep.  This one sacrifice is the only one I need, because the blood of Jesus purifies me from all sin.  The perfect blood of Jesus is spilled because God loves you that much.  He’s the sacrifice, the only sacrifice that could pay the debt I owe.  God knew that the blood of those lambs in Israel was just a picture, so he promised and sent the one Lamb who could actually pay for you and for me.

No wonder, John made such a big deal about him. “LOOK!” He says it so anyone there and anyone who has these words of God could hear.  He says it the next day to some of his students, because he knows we don’t need to be students of a man, even if that is a great man like John, to be saved.  We need the blood of God’s perfect Lamb.  We need Jesus’ sacrifice.

And do you notice that this Lamb makes a huge difference? Jesus is the only way our sacrifices can be acceptable.  Only with God’s perfect Lamb as the payment for my sin can I offer what is pleasing to God.  Only with his blood can I be purified to live as God’s child.

That made the difference for those men who left John behind and followed Jesus.  And how about Andrew? He couldn’t keep it to himself; he had to go find his brother.  And it doesn’t seem like the reason was that he thought that was a necessary sacrifice to make.  The focus wasn’t on him.  The focus was on the Lamb of God.  Andrew needed Peter to have that Lamb, too.  So he brought Peter to Jesus.

Do you think there are still some Andrews and Peters out there?  Are there still people who are seeing God’s Lamb?  Of course.  Are there still people who need a friend, a family member, a neighbor, a coworker, or a pastor to bring them Jesus, to show them that the one sacrifice has already been made?  You bet!  Just think back to the WELS Connection video.  There are some places that don’t have a pastor.  There are some places that don’t have churches.  There are some places that don’t even have Bibles in good supply.  Can you be the difference? I think so.  See, Andrew wasn’t trained.  What made him such a great option to go to Peter was that he had seen God’s Lamb and Peter was his brother.  What makes you a good candidate to be an Andrew is not your skill or personality.  It’s not your supreme sacrifices.  What makes you a good candidate is that you have God’s Lamb and some people who know you.  That’s all it takes. We are a congregation full of Andrews simply because this Lamb is just that good.

The lamb makes a difference, wouldn’t you agree?  If we are going to continue to make our own sacrifices, our lambs will never work.  If we look to the Lamb of God, then we see the one sacrifice God made for us.  And life will never be the same again.

Amen.

THE PERFECT CHOICE

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Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

A man had a horn full of oil, but he wasn’t heading home to make a meal. Instead, the oil was to be poured over the head of the new king or priest in Israel.  It was a signal that God had chosen to set apart that man as one of his representatives. Looking back, it seems like an odd practice – anointing a guy’s head and face with oil – but when you think of the promise that God connected to the oil, it becomes a beautiful picture of God’s power and blessings.  That new king or priest was the Lord’s anointed one. He wasn’t just the best candidate for the job after rounds of rigorous interviews and an in depth background check.  He wasn’t just the next available in the family line.  He didn’t get the most votes.  He wasn’t the best looking or the strongest.  He was the Lord’s decision, the Lord’s choice, simply because the Lord chose him.

Today, God is showing us his choice on the banks of the Jordan River.  You could call it an inauguration in a way, because Jesus had already been chosen by God long before this.  He had already claimed the title of God’s Anointed One.  Do you remember what the angels said to the shepherds on the day of his birth?  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”  That name, Christ, is the title Jesus was given.  It’s Greek for “anointed, chosen one.”

But is the Jordan River really the place where this type of introduction should happen? Is that what we would expect for Donald Trump’s inauguration this week?  They’re going to take him to a river to be baptized. Maybe that’s not the place we would expect for Jesus.  If God wanted to show people his choice for the job of Savior, wouldn’t it be in a palace or at the Temple?  That would make sense.  After all, Jesus had already gone through the humble stuff.  He was born so inconspicuously in Bethlehem.  There was a good reason for that, to fulfill God’s promise.  Magi had seen his star and came from afar to fulfill God’s promise that Jesus is for all people of all nations.  And they brought treasures to worship Jesus, but then Joseph had to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt for safety from Herod.  That also kept a different promise God had made in the Old Testament. When it was time for him to be introduced and revealed to people as the Messiah, the Christ, as God’s Anointed One you’d think that would be the time to make it a big deal.

However, Jesus’ job was not to be a big deal.  He didn’t need the pomp and circumstance of a royal inauguration.  He didn’t need the accolades and attention as the Chosen One.  God proves to us time and time again in his Word that he doesn’t do things with human wisdom. He uses simple things so that we won’t look for eye-popping wonders but simply trust the eye-popping love and forgiveness of God’s Anointed One, Jesus Christ.

So Jesus the Christ shows up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  While it doesn’t make sense to John, it makes perfect sense to God’s Anointed One.  No, Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized to wash sins away.  He’s God’s perfect Son.  There is no evil in him.  There is no drowning of Jesus’ sinful nature, because he doesn’t have a sinful nature.  But God’s Chosen One needed baptism to fulfill all righteousness.  See, Jesus’ job was to come and fulfill all things for us.  To make us right before God, he needed to do everything right, according to God’s perfect specifications.  Only then would Jesus fulfill his role as the right choice for us.  His whole life, Jesus Christ needed to be our substitute. Living for us and in our place, Jesus walks into the Jordan River to be baptized.  He is anointed with power by God in his role as the Anointed One, God’s Chosen One.

And at this point God cannot stay quiet.  He booms from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”  And God the Spirit descends in the form of a dove over Jesus.  This powerful display confirms what has been true ever since he was conceived in the womb of a virgin: God’s choice was a good one.  Jesus’ baptism points us to the one who was set apart as our Savior and substitute.  It shows us the one who rightfully had the title “Anointed One,” or the Christ.  Jesus’ baptism displays for us the power that God gives in baptism, power that Jesus had as the Christ and power that he would use to fight for us and carry out this job of salvation.  Jesus is God’s perfect choice for you and me.

But you know, God has used baptism for people other than Jesus.  People like you and me.  God has made the choice to set us apart as his children.  God has made the choice to give you the title of his chosen one.  God made that choice to make your heart his home.  God did that with something so simple, like water and his almighty Word.

And I don’t know about you, but that’s when I start to wonder, did God make a good choice on me?  I mean, what have I done to deserve it?  Why would God want someone like me?  Why would he choose you?  Because spending a little time examining my life I don’t really find the kind of life that a chosen child of God should have.  Maybe you know what I am talking about?

You’re driving around town on a weekday just after 5pm.  You need to make a left turn onto Divide Ave from 18th and it’s not going well.  Maybe those are the times when your attitude stinks.  Then you get onto State only to find it backed up more than three blocks.  You didn’t know it was possible but your poor attitude just got worse.  Or you get home from a busy day where your no-good boss had it out for you again and the kids weren’t smiley and welcoming, but they were just whining about this and crying about that.  And all of the sudden you didn’t see them as the blessing that God has given you to love and nurture.  Were there times this week when you measured your satisfaction in life by what you have or what you have done?  Were there times when you didn’t care much about anyone but yourself?

Maybe you have no clue what I’m talking about.  Maybe your week was exactly what God wants.  Your heart was pure.  Your attitude was selfless.  You had nothing in mind this whole week except loving God and loving people.  You never wavered for a moment.  You lived for Christ with every ounce of energy you have.  Every decision, every act was in perfect harmony with God’s will.  Was that your week or was it more like mine?

Why would God chose someone like me or someone like you to be his children?  Why would he want us when our hearts didn’t spend every moment wanting him?  Why would God call us his chosen people?  It doesn’t make sense.  I have not, cannot, and will not ever deserve that from God.  I have not, cannot, and will not ever please God with my life to earn his choice.  But do you remember why God chose the men to be anointed as kings and priests in the Old Testament?  It wasn’t because they had the popular vote.  It wasn’t because their past was squeaky-clean.  It wasn’t because they were the smartest or strongest.  God anointed them because he chose to do it.  It was his choice not based on any qualifications or human conditions.  He simply made the choice with his amazing grace.

Brothers and sisters, God doesn’t find people who are pleasing to him and select them as his people.  God makes people pleasing to him.  That’s so important to remember.  God doesn’t find people who are pleasing to him; he makes them pleasing.

Do you know how God does that?  Baptism!  In baptism God chose you to be in his family.  He replaced your cold, dead, sinful heart with a new heart that filled with faith and hope and love.  In your baptism God made you his own.  See, baptism is not me doing something for God.  Baptism is God doing something for me.  And that’s the way it has to be, because I could never do enough for God.  A sinner can’t make a perfect God change his mind about you.  But a God who loves you and choses you can change the way you live.  That’s what God did in baptism.  He chose you to live a new life as his own child.

Do you remember what happened when Jesus was baptized?  The heavens opened and God’s voice thundered, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” God was stating the facts that the Savior Jesus was his Anointed One, his own dear Son, who was in the world to do his Father’s will and bring salvation for us.  Jesus didn’t need baptism to be chosen as God’s Son and our Savior.  He needed baptism to show us who he is.  He needed baptism to fulfill all of God’s righteousness for us.

For us, we need baptism to give life to our cold, dead hearts.  We need baptism to change our identity.  We need baptism to empower us with God’s grace.  And that’s what God has done. At your baptism heaven wasn’t ripped open but God was saying.  “You are now my child. I love you.  And I make your life pleasing to me.”

That’s not all.  Because the Spirit was there, too.  At your baptism, the Holy Spirit found a new home.  He entered your heart and planted the seed of faith there.  And he’s been there ever since, using the Word and using the sacrament as the food that feeds your faith and makes it grow.  This is happening whether you notice it or not.  The Holy Spirit is in your heart and life.  And he is giving you the power to say no to the pleasures and treasures of this world.  He is giving you the confidence to follow your faith wherever it leads, even if people think you are weird for it.  He is continually there, using God’s Word when you read or hear it, to keep you set apart as a holy child of your Father.  He is making you the perfect choice.

You are God’s chosen child.  But for what?  I mean, the men that were anointed in the Old Testament were set apart and chosen to serve as kings or priests.  Jesus was anointed at his baptism, because he was God’s Anointed One, the Christ, and he was fulfilling his role for us.  But what are you chosen for?  If God chose you at your baptism, then what does he have in mind for your life?

Well, I can tell you some things that you don’t have to do.  You don’t have to leave here today with this heavy weight of expectation on your back, as if it is your job to save the world.  See, we already have a Savior.  His name is Jesus Christ.  And he was the perfect choice.  You don’t have to leave here today thinking that you have to find ways to make God happy with you so that he won’t punish you.  He has already punished Jesus in our place.  He has already made you his own child.  He is the one who makes you pleasing, not the other way around.  You don’t have to leave here today and look for eye-catching feats of faith.

What you can do is live as a chosen child of God.  If that means you try a little harder so that your attitude won’t stink, then your baptism and the power of the Spirit empowers you.  If that means you stop thinking about all that you have or all that you want out of this life, so that you can spend more time thanking God for his eternal life, then your baptism and the power of the Spirit enables you.  If that means you spend just a few extra minutes each day with your Lord in his Word and prayer, then your baptism and the power of the Spirit helps you.

Remember, just as Jesus is God’s Son, God has made you his child.  Just as Jesus was set apart as the Christ, to be our Savior and substitute, he has set you apart to live in faith and hope.  He has chosen you to thank and serve him and live with him forever.  It’s his perfect choice.  And thank God it is.

Amen.

 

DON’T MISS THE LIGHT

epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

 

 

On December 3, 1992, a 22 year-old British engineer named Neil Papworth used his computer to send a message to the Vodafone network and the phone of Richard Jarvis.  The message read, “Merry Christmas.”

Now, 20 years later, you don’t need to be a brainy engineer, a fancy computer program, nor a specialized network.  You just need a cell phone and you can send one of the 6 billion text messages that go out every day in America.  Some of the texts we send are important, some are not…at all.  Some are clear and some are so abbreviated and emojied that it’s a wonder anyone can read or understand.

We are here today for the Epiphany festival.  It’s a celebration of God sending a “Merry Christmas” message.  But he didn’t use a text message.  He didn’t make a phone call.  Social media wasn’t big enough.  Local news media couldn’t handle this story.  Those are all far too small for the eternal God.  No! When God wanted to tell the world that Jesus was born, he put something in the sky.  He made a celestial body that was maybe 1.4 million km across, 1.9 million plus another 23 zeros kg, burning with the power of nuclear fusion, able to be seen not just on this planet but across galaxies.  God didn’t do something small to announce the birth of the Savior like an email or text.  God put a star in the sky.

King Herod didn’t notice that light.  Even though it was shining for the whole world to see, Herod was one of the millions who was too wrapped up in his own life to spot it.  The “king of the Jews” has other things to worry about, like taking care of his throne.  See, Herod was not a Jew; he was placed as the puppet-king for the Roman government.  He had to try and keep the peace with a nation that wasn’t thrilled with outsiders. Let’s just say maintaining his position as “king of the Jews” consumed him.

And for all his hard work, his many advancements and public projects, history calls him, Herod the Great. However, God does not.  You see, Herod didn’t care about what God had to say. He didn’t listen to the prophecies in the OT Scriptures and he didn’t notice the star in the sky. All he cared was his throne.  With a crazed paranoia about threats to his reign, Herod killed his wife, 3 sons, his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and hundreds more.  He was a ruthless tyrant who did anything to keep his position.  But that’s what powerful people do when they get nervous; they take matters into their own hands.

No wonder Matthew tells us King Herod was disturbed when the news from the Magi reached him.  He had done some unthinkable things to keep his throne and was not going to give it up.  That’s why all the people of Jerusalem were unsettled with him.  They didn’t know what he would do with the news from the Magi that there was another “king of the Jews.”

Isn’t it interesting that when Herod needed answers, who did he turn to?  He didn’t go looking for the political analysts of the region.  He didn’t ask his Roman superiors.  He went to the Jewish people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, to people who knew God’s prophecies and promises.  Even though they had been in his kingdom the whole time, it wasn’t until his throne came into question that he called the religious leaders together for answers.

These were the men who knew the Scripture, chapter and verse.  They knew it backwards and forwards.  And yet it seems like these religious leaders where in the same boat as Herod. They didn’t even notice the bright light shining in the darkness, did they?  God’s promised newborn king was born in Bethlehem, just as they had learned from all their reading, and they missed it.  Only shepherds found him wrapped up and lying in a manger.  When those foreigners showed up and said that the new king was born, the religious leaders didn’t react like they cared too much.  They answered Herod’s request by repeating the prophecy about his birth place, but that was it.  They didn’t even ask to go along with the Magi. These religious men knew what God had said and were actually waiting for God’s promise to come true, but what they were looking for it to be huge, not with some insignificant, barnyard birth.  They figured if anyone would know when God’s Savior had come that they would be the first to tell the people.

We know about religion and the Bible, too, don’t we?  We love the Christmas narrative. We enjoy hearing those prophecies and promises.  But even though we know what Matthew, Luke, and Isaiah say about Christ’s birth, turns out just knowing God’s Word doesn’t mean it has a home in your heart.

The religious leaders knew God’s prophecies really well, they were the experts, but they still missed his star and didn’t seem to care.  Sometimes we miss it, too.  Knowing about God’s Word or knowing the right things to say during a worship service doesn’t mean that you always notice the bright light shining in darkness of sin.  Just showing up for worship here and there or having your name in a church directory doesn’t mean you are good to go with God.

Sometimes we can even be as bad as Herod.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting you in the category of someone who wants to wipe Jesus off the map.  I’m not saying you don’t have time for Jesus; you are in church today.  But sometimes we might sound a little like King Herod when we fake it just a little bit, when our lips move but our hearts aren’t interested. Remember what Herod said the Magi, Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.

Our attitude is similar sometimes, isn’t it? We say things like: Jesus, I’m with you on Sunday morning, but you’re not coming with me to work.  That isn’t the place for you. Jesus, I will be on your side when I pray, but you’re not coming with me on my date Friday night.  You won’t be happy. Jesus, I love you most of the time, but I’m really really busy right now.  Jesus, I am so thankful for you, but not when you keep asking to be the highest priority in my life.  Jesus, I will give you my gifts, but I won’t be generous or happy about it.

For us, sometimes we miss the light like Herod and those religious leaders.  We can be too consumed with our own lives to be aware of what God is doing.  You see, God wants to have all of you, your whole life.  God doesn’t want his Word to visit your heart every once in a while, he wants his Word to live and grow in your hearts.  He wants to change the way you live.  Getting your attention off of earthly pleasures, he wants you to have lasting comfort and hope.  God takes the confusion and selfishness away.  He stops the suffering and the pain. God doesn’t want to give you rules, but freedom.  He doesn’t want to keep you in darkness, but open your eyes to the light of life.  Herod was too selfish.  The religious leaders were too conceited.

But the Magi, those foreigners from the east, they didn’t miss God’s light shining in the darkness.  We don’t know if there were 2 or 3 or 23.  I don’t think 3 men would pack up their camels and make the trek across hundreds of miles of scorching desert by themselves.  People tend to think of 3 because there were 3 gifts.  But we do know that they weren’t Jewish or living in a Jewish land.  They were probably from Babylon, more than 600 hundred miles east from Jerusalem.  In fact, out of all the people Matthew tells us about today, these guys knew the least about Jews and Jewish kings.  And yet, the star was beckoning them to find out more.

Why? What would possess them to make a long journey across a huge desert?  God did.  God’s message intervened.  They wouldn’t have known that the new King of the Jews was born unless God had put the star in the sky.  They wouldn’t have known to go to Bethlehem unless God had told the prophets to write the place down generations beforehand. They wouldn’t have found him unless God made that star go on ahead of them until it stopped over house where toddler Jesus was.  They would not have brought their best gifts, if God had not brought his King to our world.

The foreign Magi were overjoyed to see God’s light.  They had to go.  They had to worship the king.  That’s the natural response to God’s love and this amazing gift.  They didn’t miss the chance to worship their king because God hadn’t kept him hidden.  God gave his word, put the plan into action, set the star in the sky and brought them to Bethlehem.

Friends, God has done the same for you.  God found a way to make the light of Christ shine for you.  He found a way to give lawless people like us the kind of ruler we needed.  Not a king who makes rules, but a king who gives freedom.  Not a king of hidden secrets, but a king of unveiled truth.  Jesus is the one who came here, not just for some Jewish shepherds or Gentile Magi, but for all people.  He is the one who lived in the bright light of perfection to save us from our darkest enemies.  He is the King who opened the gates to a kingdom that lasts forever.  God then found a way to put this message in your ears.  He found a way to shatter the darkness in your heart with the brilliant light of his gospel.

So if God treated us like the Magi, giving us the light shining in the darkness, doesn’t that mean we can respond like the Magi?  Don’t get me wrong.  God’s message today is the same as it was for the Magi. The Savior is here for all people everywhere.  Doesn’t that also mean that God wants us be like the Magi, as well?  Can’t we open our lips with consistent worship and thanksgiving?  Can’t Jesus’ light get us off our butts the same way it moved the Magi?  Can’t we bring our best gifts to the King?

Of course!  God’s message brought us into the same light as the Magi.  And if it’s true that light and darkness have nothing in common, then we can live in the light. But maybe you’re thinking, “It’s not that simple.”  Maybe you’re asking yourself, “What can I do? What can I do if I don’t feel welcome because I don’t have the right name?  What if I don’t talk or act like everyone else? What can I do if I don’t fit in with all the other people?  Don’t I need a certain kind of ”

Well, take another look at the Magi.  They weren’t Jewish.  They didn’t look like anyone in Jerusalem.  They didn’t sound the same or act the same.  They did not have the right names. They didn’t fit in at all, but it didn’t stop them.  Because when God puts the light of Christ in your life, when God brings you into his family, you don’t need excuses.  You don’t worry about what people might think of you at work.  You don’t try to find ways to hide the light.  God’s message gets rid of our selfishness, our pride, and our excuses.  The light that Jesus shines makes us like the Magi.  We look for opportunities to worship.  We look for ways to serve and obey.  We joyously bring gifts to honor him. We search for dark spots where we can shine God’s light.

Friends, don’t miss the light today. Your Savior King is here.  He’s yours yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Nothing can change that. Jesus’ light shines on you for the good days or forgives you on the bad days.  Jesus empowers you when you’re strong and builds you up when you’re weak.  So don’t miss your opportunities to shine the light that he put in your heart. Don’t miss your chances to marvel like the Magi.

Amen.

 

 

 

HE IS GOD’S GIFT

what-child-is-this

We don’t know the exact day it happened.  God doesn’t tell us, but we know Jesus was born.  That is a historical fact.  And that’s why you are here today.  We have Constantine to thank for that. It was the year 336 and Constantine wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ rather than all the other celebrations going on around the same time –  Hanukah and pagan winter solstice festivities to name a couple. Well, as the Emperor of the Roman Empire and a Christian, he could make that call.  So he did.  And here we are.  It sounds simple enough: pick a day, call it Christ’s Mass, or Christmas, and let’s celebrate Jesus’ birth.

But we’ve turned it into this commercialized train doing warp speed down the tracks, and nobody is going to stop it.  Christmas has exploded, and not in a good way.  The music tells you about snowmen, Santa, sweat treats, and sappy feelings.  The shopping deals start in November and you are urged to get out and shop ‘til you drop.  Even now the thought is to get out there and find after Christmas deals. Millions of dollars are flying out of bank accounts to make sure that we do Christmas right every year.  Having a celebration for the birth of Christ just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It was supposed to be that simple, kind of like the Christmas story John tells us today.  The words before us in John, chapter one are straightforward.  So clear and easy, in fact, that even a kindergartener could read them. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  …In him was life and that life was the light of men…The Word became flesh… It’s not difficult to read it.  We don’t need a professional linguist or theological scholar to get through this Christmas account.  They’re simple, until you to start thinking about what these words mean.  Christmas becomes a bit more complex.  There is more going in here than we could ever comprehend.  What child is this?

Throughout history, people have tried out many answers.  There are some who said he’s a nobody because they say he never happened.  They put Christmas and Jesus in the fairytale category.  Then, there are those who said he was great example for us.  The way he helped the poor and diseased when no one else would shows us what love is. They say Christ was showing us that love is accepting all people no matter what they say or do.  Others said he was a powerful prophet who taught wise lessons about humility, finances, possessions, personal sacrifice, and determination.

Well, that’s not good enough.  For people during the Apostle John’s day, for people during Constantine’s day, for people during any age of this world, it’s not good enough to think that Christmas is about the birth of a wise teacher, a great example of compassion, or just a fairytale on the level of The Grinch who Stole Christmas.  People need to know the simple truth.

So God had the Apostle John write this version of the Christmas story in simple sentences to lay it all out there, describing what kind of child this is.  And to start it off he says, “In the beginning…” That’s right!  For John’s Christmas story, he goes back to where it all began.  No Bethlehem here.  No City of David.  We don’t hear about a journey from Nazareth in Galilee.  We go back before there was a Bethlehem or Nazareth.  This Christmas story takes us to the beginning of it all.

Why does John go back so far?  Why start with creation?  Well, we have to see how vast God is.  We have to understand that we cannot understand everything about God.  He’s too big, too infinite, too omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  God is before us and after us.  He fills all things.  He’s the one who made everything and still makes everything work.  He’s the almighty Creator.

Then, John wants to go back one step farther.  He wants us to think of a time before there was time and space. Peering back into that mysterious eternity, John introduces us to this main character of his Christmas narrative with a unique name.  This time of year, we would call him baby Jesus, the Newborn King, and Immanuel.  But as we have already heard, John’s Christmas story is simple but a little different.  He says his name is the Word.  That title for God’s Son is simple and so beautiful.  What child is this?  He’s God’s messenger.  He speaks for God.  What God thinks, the Word speaks.  What God desires, the Word communicates.  And John says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…” So you have the Word and God side by side, face to face, in perfect harmony, perfect agreement.  It is the perfect relationship.

At this point, we have some answers for who this child is.  He is there before the beginning.  He is called the Word.  And he was with God.  These are simple answers.  Christmas is supposed to be simple after all.  But now John is going to start blowing our minds.  John continues with something that sounds like a contradiction: “…the Word was God…”  The Word was with God in perfect harmony. The Word was communicating for God.  Even though the Word and God are two separate and distinct beings in eternity, they are also one, united and joined together.  So when it comes to the beginning, the Word and God do not have one.  God has always been.  When it comes to creation, the Word and God did it together.  “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” 

If you want to know what kind of child this is laying in Bethlehem’s manger, you have to look around at everything there is.  It’s all because of and through him.  He is the Word that is both with God and is God from all eternity.   You want to talk about an amazing birth with angels and shepherds?  John wants you to know that before there was any birth, or any sheep, or anything out there at all… you have to talk about who this child is and what he has already done.

These are simple words but they go beyond what I can understand.  And we need it that way.  We need to know that this little baby in a manger is the eternal Word, that he is the vast and infinite God who made all things.  We need to see how much care he took in making this little pearl of a planet. We need to know just how much we don’t know about God, because that makes this next part so amazing.

The Word became flesh.  This God, who can do more with a single breath than billions of people can do with their entire lives, he decided to come here and live like one of us.  He traded his eternal throne of heaven, as the creator and ruler of all things, for a feeding trough.  He gave up his unlimited power and knowledge to be a helpless little baby.  He did that for you and for me, so that Christmas would not be about dollars and decorations, about deception and, for some, depression.  Instead, it is a time of good news and peace for all.  The creator of this world was content to be born in a stall so that you and I can have a place in his mansions.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  The Word, who created mankind, had to become a man himself in order to save his beloved creation.  This is the message of Christmas for you, the simple truth of a God who loved you enough to be one of you.  The Word became flesh.  If we don’t have this kind of Christmas, then we don’t have a Savior.  The Word became flesh just like you.

Have you ever had trouble sleeping because you are dealing the things that you did or didn’t do?  You’re upset because you realize that your title is spiritual failure, again.  You wonder how you can fall back into the same sins that said you wouldn’t do anymore – the same feelings or same words.  Do you wonder if God can ever understand what you are going through when you are having struggles or sadness?  He can.  The Word became flesh. Jesus knows exactly what it is like to live in human flesh.  He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin.  Jesus knows your frailties and my weakness.  He knows what it is like to like in a fleshly world like this.  He became flesh and he did it perfectly so that he could be the Savior for every one of us on this pearl of a planet.

John says the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.   God was not willing to let this world sit in its own handiwork.  Where there was darkness, God brought light. With every promise God made, with every message of good news and hope God was shining his flashlight in the darkness.  It happened when God told a man named Noah to build a boat.  It happened when God made a bold promise to a 99 year-old man named Abraham.  It happened when God told David that he would have a future son who would establish a kingdom for God’s people forever.  It happened when prophets told God’s people that rescue and restoration was coming.  It happened when angels appeared to shepherds in the fields nearby.  It happened when Magi saw a special star and made a long journey.  It happened when apostles and evangelists walked miles and miles to bring the news of the risen Christ to people who had never heard it before.  God’s light was shining in the darkness.

That kind of light still shines.  When God’s people gather (even a week after Christmas because we had to cancel a service), there’s a light.  When God’s people give church invitations to friends and neighbors, that’s a light.  When children sit up front here to sing and proclaim the real Christmas story, that’s a light.  When you forgive as the Lord forgave you, that’s a light.  When you stand on the foundation of God’s holy Word, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was God, that’s a light.  God’s light still shines, and he uses you to do it.

But it doesn’t always seem to work, does it?  Noah only had 8 people on that boat.  Everyone else mocked him and perished in the flood.  Abraham’s wife laughed about the thought of a child for an old couple.  David’s sons became kings, but often the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – they were liars, sexually immoral, and murderers.  God’s prophets and apostles went to great lengths to preach good news, but were often persecuted and even killed for the message they spoke.  The light, well, it’s not always understood today either.  Watch the news, walk around in a store, listen to people at the gym.  The darkness is creeping everywhere.  Invitations go out, facebook posts go up, and you ask someone to come, but not everyone wants to hear the good news of great joy that is for all people.

We know this darkness, often times too well.  It lingers in our hearts towards people who are different.  It creeps into our conversations when our words are not decent.  It covers our actions when we are selfish or when we are alone and there are no eyes on us.  We each have our own battle with darkness that we cannot overcome.

That is exactly why the Word became flesh.  Jesus came here to be a light in our darkness.  And in love he let the darkness overtake him so that it would never overtake us.  He gave up his human life so that we wouldn’t have to.  Jesus came down from heaven so that he could suffer the punishment of hell for us.  He took our fear of darkness and death away forever.  Every ounce of guilt that we produce and carry, Jesus has removed and replaced with the light of life.  Our greatest need is not a bunch of presents under a tree.  Our greatest need is forgiveness and life, so the Word became flesh to do just that.

What child is this?  What a great question.  And what a fantastic answer we hear today.  He is the eternal God, who created all things.  He is the Almighty, who decided to leave heaven to live, die, and rise for us.  He is the light that shatters our darkness.  He is life that defeats death.  As John puts it so beautifully, he is the one who gives us the right to become children of God.  Now there’s a gift.  And friends, that’s a gift that will be with you every day in the New Year.

The words are simple and clear, but the meaning boggles the mind.  What child is this?  Listen one more time to the Christmas gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 

Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!

DO NOT BE AFRAID! GOD IS WITH US!

are-you-ready

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

 

We must have missed the sign.  My brother and I were hiking Picacho Peak in Arizona, probably 15 years ago.  It’s a pretty demanding trail. In some places you have to pull yourself up rock faces using anchored cables.  There are sharp drop-offs and steep switchbacks.  It’s a pretty intense climb.  And we made it much worse for ourselves because, as I said, we must have missed a sign.  On our way back down we ended up on the wrong path, if you can even call it that.  I don’t remember seeing any footprints in the few places where there was dirt.  Basically, we were on a sheer rock with what I would guess was a 400-800 foot drop-off to the left, trying not to slip to our death.  My brother was a little bit more of an experienced mountaineer than I was (he spent 5 years serving one of our WELS schools on the Apache Reservation in AZ), but I remember asking him one of those panicked questions that makes no sense, “What happens if I fall?”  His response was, “Don’t fall.”  Well, we made it back, but missing a sign was unnerving to say the least.

Talk about missing signs. Could you imagine if people had missed a weather report or a road closed sign earlier this week?  I drove north of town on 83 just to see for myself how bad it was out there.  Driving north of the new Bismarck Motor Company was crazy.  For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was in my lane or the other.  I couldn’t tell where the cars were.  I knew the intersection with 71st Ave was coming, but I couldn’t see where.  A true North Dakota blizzard is nothing to mess with.  It could be terrifying to miss a sign in a winter whiteout.

Joseph had missed the sign.  We are first introduced to this carpenter from Nazareth during his own personal nightmare.  Remember the events?  Joseph was pledged to be married to a girl named, Mary.  That means he had courted her in the customary Jewish way.  He had paid Mary’s parents their asking price for her hand in marriage.  They had publically made their vows and signed all the legal documents signaling that these two were “off limits”.  People would view them as husband and wife. It would take a divorce to end that relationship.  They were just waiting for the appointed time when Joseph would go over to Mary’s house and take her to his home to move in with him and begin their lives together.  That’s when the big celebration would take place.

But before that, his world came crashing down.  One day Mary showed up pregnant.  Can you imagine the things that ran through his head?  “Why!?!!! Mary, what did you do?  What did I do wrong?  Who’s the father of this baby?  What’s going to happen to me?  What should I do with you?”  Joseph misses the sign.  It’s very clear that his legal wife is pregnant, but he doesn’t understand what’s really happening.  It didn’t make sense. The way he was looking at things it was horrible news.  He couldn’t see the sign.  He didn’t understand the big picture.  I don’t know if any of us blame him.  He needed help to see things from a better vantage point.

I know I can relate to that, can you?  Missing a sign is downright dangerous on a mountain trail or in a whiteout storm, but those aren’t the only scary times for us.  Christmas can be filled with anxiety and fear.  Are all the plans coming together? Are you staying within the budget?  Are they going to like what you give them?  On a scale of 1 to 10 how well have you been avoiding the Christmas stress?  Christmas can get chaotic. I know I’ve felt the pinch about services and sermons and classes and, Lord-willing, the follow-up with guests.

But it’s not just Christmas.  Every day in this life there is some pretty scary stuff out there.  Maybe it’s not what Joseph was going through, but it can cause just as much fear and confusion.  Do you every wonder why there is a really popular course from David Ramsey called Financial Peace University?  It’s because finances and planning your future is scary, especially if you are putting so much emphasis on that part of your life.  Relationships can be scary.  What’s he going to think of my faith?  What’s her past like?  Is this working?  Do they have what you’re looking for?  So many questions can come to mind that some people are afraid of it.  No one wants to be another statistic.  And how about illness?  Coughs can turn into the flu and the flu can turn into pneumonia and that can lead to a hospital stay.  How about cancer?  That’s a scary word and it’s becoming more and more familiar.

How do you handle these things?  Well, how was Joseph handling his situation?  He had a few options.  He could accept Mary’s news and take her anyways.  He could do what most would do and publically draw attention to an unfaithful spouse.  Mary’s life would never be the same, and Joseph’s would be much better.  Or he could go easy on her, taking advantage of the lax divorce procedures of the day by sending her away quietly.  That way Mary would have to deal with everything alone.  But imagine the fears going through Joseph’s head as he considers each option.  There’s the slanderous gossip and the snobbish glances.  No one likes that feeling that other people are talking about you behind your back.  There are the fallen hopes of the families.  There’s the baggage that he would carry into the future of one failed marriage…before it even got going.   For a good guy like Joseph, there’s the fear for Mary.  What’s a pregnant teen going to do with no man in the picture?  She’d be damaged goods and go to a man of far less character.  No matter what option he picked, it was going to be an unsettling few months.

Do you know what?  Whichever option we pick doesn’t get rid of our fears in life, either.  The bottom of a bottle doesn’t remove fear.  The internet has tons of life hack videos and self-help solutions, but it can’t remove fears.  More stuff doesn’t make the scary stuff go away. Financial peace, a healthy and happy start to a relationship, or advancement in medicines cannot cover up fears.  See, when the focus is on the trouble, the pain, the stress, the problems, then the fear remains and always will.  When we miss the sign, we’re going to feel a lot like Joseph was feeling.

Can you notice how does God sees the situation? What’s his point of view?  For Mary and Joseph it was a trying time, but God was going to use it as a blessing for men, women and children across all the world of all time.  It was not going to be easy for them for the next few years, but God was going to work it out for good for them and for all.  God has a way of doing that.

Do you think God can still do that for you?  Can the eternal King of all creation work things out for your good, for your spiritual and eternal benefit?  Can he get rid of your fears?  Of course!  God relieves our fears by getting us to take a step back from our own personal problems and see the much bigger picture that God has painted with our lives.

Joseph just needed God to show him that this was all working out according to plan, his plan, his all-knowing and all-powerful plan. God wanted Joseph to know, “Mary has not been unfaithful to you.  This is the sign that everyone has been waiting for.”   The angel appeared to Joseph to help him see God’s view.  The angel said, “You don’t need to be afraid.”

Fear is always going to hurt you.  It was tearing Joseph up at this point. Fear is the exact opposite of faith.  Fear doesn’t see God’s promises, purposes, and plans. Living in fear is so dangerous for us eternally because fear destroys us.  And that’s why God has such a great way of taking our fears away.

The angel calls Joseph the son of David.  But Joseph’s dad was Jacob.  He’d be familiar with people saying, “Joseph, son of Jacob, come over here…”  “Joseph, son of Jacob, what are you doing over there?”  It wasn’t Joseph, son of David.  But that’s how God wants the angel to address him, because he wants Joseph to remember the he is a descendant of the great King.  David ruled God’s people.  Even though there were plenty of battles and plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns, David buried his fear with faith in God’s never-failing, never-ending promises.   Whether he was fighting Philistines, unruly family members trying to ruin him, or ungodly giants, David knew that faith in God’s promises overcomes fear.  God has the angel call him “son of David” because he wants Joseph to remember the promise of David’s son.

The promise of David’s son was the sign that so many people missed, but not anymore.  Joseph didn’t need to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife because this was the sign for all people that we have a God who keeps his promises, we have a God who does things this world cannot fathom, we have a God who loves us enough to leave heaven.

That was the sign, after all.  “Don’t you remember, Joseph?  Can’t you hear Isaiah?  ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’  Joseph, I’m not going let you miss the sign.  Mary is that virgin.  She’s going to give birth to a son.  You are going to call him, Immanuel.  Joseph, that means I’m going to live with you.  You won’t need to be afraid, because I am coming.  This child is the Promised One.  What has been hidden for generations is coming into the world.  Joseph, that’s the sign: God is with us in person.

Brothers and sisters, we have the same God, who left heaven to be with us in the flesh.  That’s our sign, too.  And by God’s grace he made sure we wouldn’t miss it.  Jesus wasn’t here to crush us.  He wasn’t here to judge us.  He wasn’t here to teach us how to earn heaven.  He was here to rescue us.  He was here to live among us and remove the fears forever.  He was here to open heaven for people who keep forgetting, for people who are scared and alone, for people who are lost and condemned.  God is with us.

You know, I went back to Picacho Peak.  It was a few years later with my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, and Mandy.  We did the whole thing again.  There were still really steep sections with cables to pull yourself up.  It was still a sheer rock face.  But this time there was no fear, because we saw all the signs.  It never felt like we were on a path that had never been walked.  It never felt like I was doomed to death.  What a difference it is when you actually see and understand the signs.

Joseph woke up and he didn’t miss the sign.  It was all true.  Somehow, someway God had found a way to make it clear to him.  And the sign, a virgin with child giving birth to Immanuel, would change the world.  No more fear, because God is with us.  That’s how we prepare for Christmas fearlessly.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

THIS IS FRUIT-BEARING SEASON

are-you-ready

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 

4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

 

2 feet of snow has a way of signaling a few things.  All the feelings of fall have been rudely stopped cold in their tracks. It sure was nice while it lasted, but it’s all gone now.  Winter has arrived!  This year it was swift kick in the face.  There was no introduction, just one of the bigger storms ND has seen over the past decades.  So that means we will enjoy this white winter wonderland for the next 4, maybe 5, months.

And yet, at this time the appointed readings from God’s Word tell us in the cold snowy north to get ready for fruit.  In fact, every year at this time God tells us in worship to prepare as you would for a harvest.  He says there are things we must produce.  And he’s not talking about writing up a Christmas list or taking a shopping trip.  He’s not talking about decorating or baking.  Because this is fruit-bearing season.

If that is the case, that God says this can be a fruit-bearing season, then do you ever wonder why during these exciting days we put so much emphasis on a tree that has been cut down (or a fake representation of it)?  I mean, why did we spend all that time last week setting this stuff up.  None of it is living.  None of it is producing anything for us or for God.  Those trees that have been cut down are dying and there’s nothing that can stop it.  But every year we do the same thing.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas we spend money and time picking out the right tree, or we spend time and serious, backbreaking energy hauling this lifeless representation of a tree out to our living room.  It has become one of the main things that mark our preparations, but this kind of tree is never going to be productive.  There is never any useful fruit from it.  So, to cover up that fact, on this dying tree we attach lights to make it shine brightly and beautifully.  It might hide the fact that the tree is not in good shape, but it won’t change the outcome.  We also add little round balls to ornament this tree with fake “fruit.”

Did you know that’s kind of how ornaments started?  Without going into too much detail, people in Europe and America in the 1800s were doing this Christmas tree thing, too.  But the trees were decorated with candles, paper roses, beads, snowflakes, and little treats.  Well, as the story goes some people wanted to add edible snacks to the tree.  And because people during winter were always looking forward to spring, some thought it would be a good idea to put fruit on the trees as a way to ponder and promote growth and new life that would be coming.  After a while, the tree became more about decorating, so the fruit changed to round and shiny ornaments that symbolized fruit.

I don’t think that’s what John the Baptist had in mind, do you?  When he said produce fruit, he wasn’t talking about hanging little balls on a dying or fake tree.  It’s all a commercialized sham now.  And we eat it up.  Getting into the Christmas spirit with a tree, lights and ornaments isn’t going to give you the productivity that you need this year.  It’s a dying or fake tree.

Now, I have nothing against a Christmas tree.  There is some good symbolism to it and it does add to the overall festive nature of Christmas.  But I think that this whole Christmas tree thing serves as a great illustration today as we listen to God’s Word.  It describes what is wrong in our lives.

God saw it happening long ago.  People were trying to cover up the problems in their lives. Back in the days of Isaiah, the prophet, they were saying things like, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about?  We are God’s chosen nation.  We are descendants of Abraham.  Nothing can happen to us.  We’ll be fine.”  They did what they wanted and I’m sure it they convinced themselves that it was ok, because at least they weren’t as bad as other people.

Then, centuries later John the Baptist comes to prepare people again.  And there were people who didn’t learn.  These Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious gurus.  They knew the Old Testament. They knew what happened to God’s chosen nation, both the highs and lows.  They knew how God kept his promises to people who didn’t deserve it.  And when John started preaching out in the desert these religious leaders thought he was nuts.  They said, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about?  We are God’s people.  We have Abraham as our forefather.  We follow the laws. We’ll be fine.”

Do you notice how they were just like these dying trees that we put in our houses at this time of year?  They were trying to ignore the reality of their sinfulness.  They were trying to make their life shine brighter than others do by their actions and their religiousness.  They were ornamenting their lives to look good on the outside, but it didn’t change the facts.  They were dying inside.

People still haven’t learned.  Today the preparations for Jesus’ coming can look pretty similar.  We can be like the dying trees.  You try to cover up the problems.  You try to hide the mistakes.  You illuminate what is good and ornament our lives with what the world calls fruitful and productive things.  “As long as there is more good than bad in my life, then I’m fine.  And have you noticed the kind of people in this world.  Look at all those protesters out there.  I would never be like them.  I would never spread lies or cover up facts.  I would never cause mischief or harm for others.”  And have you ever noticed how we bring up family connections when it comes to religion?  “My family tree is full of Christians.  I went to church and Sunday school as a kid.  I went to Lutheran high school or I want to send my kids to a Lutheran high school.  That means I’m a healthy branch on a healthy tree.  Nothing is wrong with me.”

Friends, there is a reason why John tells us today to “produce fruit in keep with repentance.”  Because so often the kind of stuff we come up with won’t produce that kind of fruit.  Repentance is not trying to convince yourself that you aren’t that bad.  Repentance is not trying to make a dying tree look productive and beautiful.  Repentance is not making your life better than callused criminals, disgruntled coworkers, or passionate protesters.  Repentance is not what I do so that God will give me what I want.  That kind of repentance does not exist.  It’s fake.  It takes the focus away from God and puts it on others and me.  When that’s where my focus is, how can I be productive?  How can I be on a straight path to heaven?

This Christmas, when my focus is on doing all the things that other people, or the TV commercials, or the internet deals and steals are telling me to do then I’ll have a great December 24 and 25. But it won’t be a great Christmas.  It won’t be productive for my faith. It won’t be productive to others.  It won’t be fruitful for God.  And John tells me and he tells you what happens to a tree that isn’t productive and fruitful. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

God has done it before.  The family tree of Abraham was falling apart.  Branch after branch became diseased and fell off.  The family tree of God’s chosen people resembled those firs and spruces that people throw out in January.  The fruit God was trying to produce was gone.  God warned them.  With such fatherly love and patience, he warned them.  He said unproductive, fruitless trees serve no purpose.  They get cut down.  And then it happened.  God cut down the family tree of Abraham.  They were cut off from the land of Israel.  Their homes were destroyed.  God’s own house, the Temple, was leveled.

Now, we might think that nothing good, nothing productive, nothing fruitful would come from that.  And I know that we make stuff out of dead trees. Lumber is good for lots of stuff.  I even have a fire pit in my back yard so that I can enjoy burn up old dead wood for cooking and s’mores.  But a dead tree isn’t going to live.  It isn’t going to produce fruit.  It’s isn’t going to produce seeds for more trees.  It’s dead.

Did you hear what Isaiah spoke about 700 years before those Pharisees and Sadducees went out to see this crazy prophet by the Jordan River?  “A shoot will come from the stump… from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”  Do you know what that says?  It says God doesn’t do things the way this world does things.

We know that a cut off tree isn’t going to be productive.  All the time spent decorating and ornamenting isn’t going to bring the tree to life and make it fruitful again.  And we know that the stump doesn’t do much good either.  You grind a stump away.  You dig it up so you can do something useful with that spot in your yard or that soil.  But the way God looks at it, he sees possibilities with the stump.

See, out of the ruble that was left in Abraham’s family tree God kept a promise.  He said through Abraham all nations would be blessed.  12 generations later, there was a man named Jesse and again, God promised to his son, King David, that there would be a king that would sit on his throne forever.  And even after God cut that whole family tree down, God saw the hope.   A little offshoot sprang up from the stump.  Where there was death, God brought life.  He made a productive tree.  No, Jesus was not here to be a productive political king.  No, Jesus was not here to be a productive entertainer or educator.  But he was a here to produce forgiveness.  He was here to produce a new and lasting life.  He was here to produce eternal salvation.  And what a job he did.

People tried to cut him down.  People tried to get rid of him.  People tried to replace him with their own better versions.  But it didn’t work.  Jesus accomplished his mission.  He came to give us a new life, a productive and fruitful life.  He came to give us a life that is not focused on trying to make a dying tree look good.  He gave us a life where the tree and branches are all living and productive and fruitful.

Did Jesus need your permission for that?  Did he need you to ask him to do it?  Did he need anything from you in order to be your Savior and mine?  NO!  So, gone is the focus on me.  Gone is the focus on the commercials and internet steals and deals.  Gone is the focus on what other people are doing.  Those things were cut off and thrown out.  Jesus made us new because he loves us.  That’s what happened in baptism.  He came with the Holy Spirit to change who you are.  The old way is destroyed.  The sinful nature is no longer in control.  Instead,  we are God’s children.  We are connected to Christ.  We are part of his chosen nation.  We are grafted into his family tree.  And that means we have a good fruit to produce, just like John said: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Like I said, repentance is not something I do to get God’s attention.  It’s not something I do to meet God’s requirements.  It’s not a one-time choice so that I can have eternal blessings.  Repentance is not a worldly sorrow that I got caught doing something I shouldn’t have.  Repentance is not a childish sorrow that is bummed out about missing all the fun.  Repentance is producing God’s fruit.

If you are forgiven by Christ, if you are filled with the Spirit through Word and Sacrament, if you are a child of God by his grace, then repentance is a natural thing for you.  You make a mistake and you don’t need to cover it up, like we cover up dying or fake trees.  That’s not productive.  You can’t hide that from God anyways, but you can confess to your loving Father and he forgives you.  You hurt someone and you don’t need to hide from it, you can humbly admit what happened and say sorry.  You get caught up with the ways of this world and you don’t have to make excuses for it.  Your Savior already took those things to the cross and died for them all.  Repentance is simply acknowledging the facts: I have sinned.  Jesus has forgiven me.  I am a child of God by his grace.  I have fruits of faith to produce.

So as you look at your Christmas tree, think about that.  Don’t think about all the things that need to get checked off your list before Christmas comes.  Think about all the things this little baby in Bethlehem has done, how productive his life was for you.  Think about the faith that was planted in your heart to make you a fruitful child of God.  And think about how you can be productive, yes, even in the middle of the cold north, months away from any gardens growing or trees producing, you can bear fruit for God.  Amen.