LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Isaiah 9:1-7

1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

 

What is the meaning of Christmas?  I’m sure you have been hearing a lot of options.  Ads and little jingles are saying that Christmas is all about gifts, presents, decorations, food, parties, yada…yada…yada.  Your Spotify or iTunes playlists are singing about reindeer, a fat-bellied, jolly, man in a red jump suit, a snowman, and on and on.   And how about all the Christmas movies?  A few weeks ago, I went with my 5 year-old daughter 3 year-old son to see the new Grinch movie.  It was a fresh take but similar to the one I grew up with.  The Grinch hates Christmas, so he steals everything from the Whos down in Whoville.  But to his surprise, they still wake up on Christmas Day and gather together to sing.  Do you remember the song from the Dr. Seuss version?  “Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze! Christmas Day is in our grasp! So long as we have hands to clasp!”  …and later “Fah who rahmus! Dah who dahmus! Christmas Day will always be! Just as long as we have we!” Seeing and hearing that completely changes the Grinch forever.  His heart grew three sizes that day. The meaning of Christmas is you don’t need presents, decorations, and food; you just need hands to hold.

That pretty much sums up the way our culture talks about the meaning of Christmas.  It’s sappy, sentimental, and tugs at your emotions.  It says as long as we have compassion and kindness with family, friends, and those around us, then the world will be a better, brighter place.   That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?  The meaning of Christmas.

And then we hear these classic words of Isaiah 9 that always come up at Christmas time: “For to us a child is born , to us a son is given…” and everything seems right in the world.  But this section of the Bible is so common at Christmas, maybe sometimes we don’t even concentrate on what it’s saying and the meaning of it.  For example, did you notice how Isaiah chapter 9 begins with the word “nevertheless?” That means to understand Isaiah chapter 9, you have to look at what comes before it.

And here’s the situation surrounding Isaiah and his beautiful Christmas prophecy.  Judah is the land where he is living, and it’s an ugly mess.  The people were threatened by a foreign nation that specialized in terrorism.  The Assyrians loved to send a message by chopping off heads of conquered foes and piling them up in pyramids to let everyone know who was in control.  Isaiah tells us that the world was full of racism, mostly against the Jews because there was something different about them, their religion and laws.  Isaiah says there was a problem with elitism.  That means the rich had no mercy and compassion for the poor and destitute, even taking advantage of them.  People didn’t care for one another but were always fighting “neighbor against neighbor.”  Divorce was on the rise.  Immorality was the norm. People struggled with addiction as some were known as “heroes of drinking wine.”

Terrorism, racism, elitism, moral decline, political chaos, addiction – does this sound familiar?  The truth is the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Isaiah described the gloomy scene as he saw it more than 2,700 years ago, and it’s still pretty accurate now.   Turns out God know us really well.  This world doesn’t look much like the one he made.  This is the result of what we have done to it.

And so, Isaiah says that we are people “walking in darkness.”  The word “walking” there means to “walk in the way of;” it can be translated “to follow.”  And the word “darkness” is the common word that refers to something that is not filled with light.  Symbolically, it can mean the parts of my heart and life that aren’t bright, like “distress” or “dread.”  So, Isaiah is saying this is not something that we were forced into, against our will.  Darkness is often something we choose to walk around in, like taking a casual stroll.

Jesus said the same thing in one of our earlier lessons from John 3.  He says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light…”  And if we examine our own heart, we have to admit it’s true.  When someone wrongs us deeply, we have this urge to hold onto the grudge or seek revenge, rather than forgive them.  When we have a juicy bit of gossip, there’s a part of us that would love to share it a few times.  We say that honesty is the best policy, but if being dishonest will get you ahead – like a free meal at a restaurant, a better grade on a test, a better perk at work – then we prefer the self-serving dishonesty.  My friends, why would you think that humanity can rid the world of darkness, when I can’t even begin to rid my own heart of darkness?

And then, there’s the other word for darkness that Isaiah uses.  He says we are “living in the land of deep darkness.”  This is the Hebrew word, “zalmavet.”  It’s the more poetical word that means “death shadow.”  You might be familiar with this word from another place in Scripture. The Good Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, is where the psalmist says, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  Maybe you can look around this world and say, “Yeah, there’s some darkness, but it’s not completely corrupted.”  But the darkness is not just something that we walk around in, it is also coming for us, looming like this death shadow over everything.

That’s the mother of all dark problems that not one of us can solve.  You can run 5 miles a day, eat healthy, and use products that counteract signs of aging, but the shadow of death is chasing you.  We can cure cancer.    We can crack down on gun violence.  We can stop abuse.  All we’ve done is put off the inevitable. We haven’t really made the world a brighter place.

Like I said, we live 2,700 years after Isaiah.  All these advances in technology, sociology, and in governments – the invention of democracy – s0 now we don’t have terrorism, we don’t have racism, we don’t have political chaos, now we don’t have economic problems, we don’t have people struggling with addictions, or do we?  The world is a dark place, and everything that mankind does to try and rid the world of darkness fails.  Merry Christmas!

It’s a pretty gloomy message, if that’s all that Isaiah tells us.  But he goes on; chapter 9 starts with “nevertheless.”  And Isaiah reveals these two brilliant conclusions to the phrases in verse 2:  people have “seen a great light…a light has dawned.”   I hope you notice that this light is not something the people produced by holding hands and singing around a tree.  This light is not a program or policy. It just appeared; it “dawned.”  What is the light?  It’s a person.  “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.”  The light is a human baby boy, but he’s no ordinary baby boy, because Isaiah continues “the government will be on his shoulders.”  It’s not a government.  His job is not to be a king for just Jews.  The administration of the entire universe is his responsibility.  That is something no human being can handle.  So, Isaiah tells us this human baby boy is also God.  He emphasizes that fact with these four titles.  He is the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  We don’t have time to dig into the beauty of these divine titles, but each one can only be applied to God.

Wonderful Counselor – he is the one who gives perfect advice because he knows absolutely everything.  That doesn’t apply to Oprah or Doctor Phil or anyone else.  Only God knows everything.

Mighty God – this little baby will accomplish things only God can do.

Everlasting Father – the author and source of all life, and he has been doing it for all eternity with the love and compassion of the perfect Father.

Prince of Peace – he is able to create perfect harmony, even between the Holy God who hates sin and the people who sin every day.  This Hebrew word for “peace” is “shalom.”  It also has the idea of making everything whole and complete.  He can take any and everything that is broken in your life and put it back together forever.  This is what the angels sang about that first Christmas.  Only God can do this.

The Light of the world is God in human flesh to free us from the darkness of sin.  That is who lies in the manger.  The Light had to be both God and human.  He had to be man to deal with the darkness of the mankind.  If God wanted to tell us how to think about darkness and sin, he could have used a normal person to give us his laws, which show us how to live a bright, beautiful life.  But then again, he did that with all those prophets and we still choose the darkness.  If God wanted to give us an example of how to live a bright life, he could have sent us an angel to show people how compassionate, thoughtful, and selfless we need to be.  An angel would show us how to use our entire existence to give God glory.

No, that wasn’t going to be enough. We needed all the darkness to be snuffed out completely.  Normally, we think of a light being snuffed, but we needed the darkness – sin and that death shadow – to be snuffed out and removed.  That required the Light to be God and man.  The Light needed to be man so that he could be pay for sins.  The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death.”  The Light needed a human heart, so that it could stop beating.  The child needed blood in his veins, because the Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

The Light also needed to be God for the payment to have enough value for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived.  We all understand that a trade needs to be two things of equal value.  You can’t get away with trading a Christian Yelich card (great baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers and MVP of the NL) for a T206 Honus Wagner from 1909.  One is maybe 5 bucks and the other is over 3 million.  If the one who died on the cross was just a man, then an equal trade is one other person.  But if the one who died on the cross is not just a man but the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace that is a sacrifice that is extremely valuable.  It’s so valuable, in fact, that the Apostle John wrote in one of the lessons that we read, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

My friends, the only gift that matters for us at Christmas is this Light, God and man to free us from the darkness.  Christmas was not given to us to be sappy and sentimental.  It’s not supposed to be a distraction from the darkness.  It’s not just nostalgia with all the lights, cookies, carols, and parties.  See, here’s the facts. I cannot save myself.  I cannot overcome temptation enough.  I cannot fix the relationships I have fractured, including the one with my Creator.  I cannot outrun the shadow of death, even if I fulfill a New Year’s resolution to get in shape.  There’s too much darkness in here.  And you have it, too.  We are in desperate need of the Savior from all the darkness.  That is what Jesus came to be.  Christmas is Jesus saying to us, “You all are so broken, so utterly incapable of cleaning yourselves up, that I had to come into this world to save you.  The situation was so dire and hopeless, that I not only was born for you but I will die to completely remove all darkness from you forever.” That is what Christmas is about.  The angels said so: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you.”

But this Light of Jesus Christ does not just save me from the darkness.  Isaiah says the Light is going to build people into a new nation. “You have enlarged the nation…” he says, which, from the context, is a reference to believers.  In using that terminology, Jesus intends that the relationship we have with him will create relationships with each other.  Do you remember hearing that already tonight?  The Apostle John wrote, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”  God doesn’t want his people walking in his light alone.  If you consider yourself a Christmas and Easter type of person, God’s gift of this Light in the darkness is for you, so that you can walk in his light with others.  Believers need the encouragement of fellow Christians as we roam through a world that is still covered in darkness.  One of the main places that happens is here, in this place of God’s light.

So, are you still looking for the meaning of Christmas?  You’re not going to find it from the pen of Dr. Seuss, from your playlists on Spotify, from a TV special, a movie or a shopping mall. The meaning of Christmas comes from God. It isn’t sappy nor sentimental.  It is his honest truth from the one who loves you more than anyone, because he was willing to do more for you than anyone could.  The world is full of darkness, and we contribute to it without any way of piercing the darkness.  Nevertheless… NEVERTHELESS! A light has dawned.  Christ was born to you.   Walking in his light gives you peace, joy, hope and love this world cannot give. It’s your free gift now and forever.  Merry Christmas!

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YOUR EYES ARE OPENED

fields-of-battle-lent-a

John 9

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

34 …they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

 

 

Darkness is dangerous.  Just the other night, the kids were asleep and everything was dark in the house when I was heading to bed.  You can probably guess what happened.  I walked down the hallway and crashed into a toy that was left out.  Luckily, the kids didn’t wake up.  But darkness can be dangerous.

And that is true psychologically or emotionally.  When there is no light, your mind can play tricks on you and give you that uneasy feeling.  When it’s dark, you don’t have certainty about your surroundings and it can cause your blood pressure to rise.  What’s that sound when you are camping?  I know a couple weeks ago when it was really windy, Issy was a little tense a bedtime when she asked, “What’s going on outside; what’s that noise?”  Darkness can be dangerous.

That is also the case spiritually.  When there is no light shining for your soul, what do you do?  Where do you find comfort and hope when the dark cloud of guilt is engulfing you?  What happens when the fog of sickness or loss rolls in and cuts out the bright rays of Jesus?  Darkness can be dangerous.

That’s why Jesus went to battle against darkness in this next field of battle.  It takes place on the Sabbath day in Jerusalem. Jesus is with his disciples and they come across a man who was born blind.  This wasn’t someone begging because they were foolish and loss everything because of poor investments or a gambling problem.  This isn’t a beggar because he is too lazy to work or because times are tough and he just can’t seem to get his feet firmly under him.  This is a man who was born to be a beggar.  There were no social services back then for the blind, no community homes.  If your family was gone, your best-case scenario was to find a friend who would lead you out to the roadside where you beg and hopefully you get enough money for food.

Nobody walked by that man without thinking, “He got a raw deal.”  And the popular idea of the day, even what rabbis were teaching, was that sin caused that kind of suffering.  The very logical question that the disciples had for Jesus is, “Who sinned? Was it something that this man did, even before he was born? (That was one of the real arguments that people made.)  Or was it something really bad that his parents did?”  The common misconception was all part of the self-righteous attitude of most religious teachers. “I am not blind, so that means there must be something better about me or something worse about that blind man that made God want to get even.”  It’s a misconception that naturally still comes up today.  When tragedy or heartaches comes into your life or someone close to you, we’re tempted to think God is getting even.

So it’s really important what Jesus says next.  “This isn’t about sin. This man didn’t sin in the womb and it wasn’t his parents either. This happened so the God can work in his life.”  Jesus says God doesn’t get even with people.  Bad things don’t happen to people because they have been bad.  Sometimes “bad” things happen so that the Lord can show his mercy.  Sometimes people have difficulties, really bad ones, so that God has a chance to show his gracious heart.  Jesus explains it kind of like this: sometimes there is darkness in this world that was ruined and covered with sin so that the Light of the world can shine with the only brightness there is.  Then Jesus shows them what kind of Light he is.

The next part sounds a little weird, where Jesus spits on the ground to make mud with his saliva and then puts it on the blind man’s eyelids telling him to wash in the Pool of Siloam.  And when the man listens to Jesus and does what he tells him, his eyes are opened.  Blindness doesn’t have a chance against Jesus. How amazing for a man who had never seen anything to open his eyes and see that water, the sky, people – to see everything like nothing had been wrong.  For decades he couldn’t see; he didn’t have a life.  Jesus changed all that, displaying the work of God in his life.

As amazing as this miracle is, it’s the rather simple miracle in this section.  How about the way this man reacts when he is brought to the Pharisees later to tell his side of the story?  He tells the truth, when it’s pretty clear the Pharisees were not big on Jesus.  Two different times he tells this hostile room that Jesus opened his eyes, that Jesus was a prophet, and that he wanted to learn more about Jesus.   God’s work was on display in his life.

When Jesus hears what had happened, he goes to find the man.  It probably wasn’t hard to find the guy who was wide-eyed and so excited about seeing such normal things.  Jesus gets right to the point and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man (the Messiah, God’s chosen one to bring the light of life to a world that is lost in darkness)?”  The man responds, “Who is he, sir?  Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

The Light of the world then shines for the man who was born in the dark.  Before this, the blind man didn’t see Jesus, but now that his eyes are working, Jesus says, “You have now seen him; in fact, the one speaking to you is he.”

Now, here is where the real miracle happens, in verse 38: Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.  It’s true that the work of God was done the day that man’s blind eyes saw their first views of this world.  But the real amazing miracle happened days later when his sin-blinded soul was given faith to see and believe his Lord and Savior.  That’s when those eyes didn’t just see a prophet or a traveling rabbi from Galilee but the Son of Man who was here to win the war against sin, death, and hell.

Now, it’s time to ask one of those important questions when reading the Bible: where do I see myself in this section?  It’s pretty clear.  I was born spiritually blind and so were you.  We were born not seeing Jesus.  We were born not knowing a thing about our Savior and what he has done.  And when you can’t see Jesus, then you don’t know God very well.  You’ll end up thinking he is the kind of God who tries to get even with people who are bad.  When you don’t see Jesus you may even think that you can make up your own god, and that everyone has the right to choose what they want their god to be.

If you don’t know Jesus, then you don’t know God, and if you don’t know God, you have no idea why you exist on this planet.  You have no idea how to handle guilt.  You have no idea what to do about death.  When you don’t know Jesus, it’s like you are walking around blind in this world.

It reminds me of a story I’ve heard before about 3 blind men.  A guide took them to experience an animal they had never known before. The first blind man was brought to the animal and he felt something that seemed like a big rope.  The next blind man was brought to the animal and he felt a snake like creature.  The final blind man was brought to the animal and he felt a big wall.  So, thee three blind men had three different views of the same animal.  The one said, “It’s like a rope.”  And the other two said, “You’re crazy.” The other said, “This animal is like a snake moving all around.”  And the final man said, “You’re both wrong, it’s like a big wall on tree trunks.”   They were all wrong.  The animal was an…elephant.  They couldn’t see the whole picture.  Each grasped on to what they experienced, but they couldn’t see the whole elephant, and so none of what they said was true.

That’s exactly what people in this world are like whose eyes have not been opened by the Light of the world.  They go around grasping for truth, grasping for knowledge, but they are like blind men touching parts of an elephant.  They don’t see the whole picture.  They can’t.

They try.  They try to come up with explanations.  They write books and blogs.  They teach seminars and classes.  They say life is about self-fulfillment.  They’ll say things like, “The point of suffering is to make you stronger.   When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.”  And like three blind men talking about an elephant, it’s all a bunch of nonsense because they can’t see the whole picture.  The answers that people come up with don’t begin to win in the battle against sin and evil.  They leave people in blind unbelief.  They can’t see.

But we can! God’s work through the Word and Sacraments opens our eyes.  The gospel light pierced the blindness of our hearts.  God’s grace makes us see our purpose in life plainly.  We get to walk the path of God.  We enthusiastically praise our God and Savior, just like the man did when Jesus opened his spiritually blind eyes.  We speak his name in worship, not just in this place but in our lives out there.  We don’t have to walk around in blindness anymore

So the question is, my brothers and sisters, the important question to think about is why in God’s green earth do we keep acting like we are still blind?  …We?  Would members of Our Saviour’s do that?  Would leaders and pastors do that?  Yeah…we do.

We are living in the dark when we think pain and suffering in my life isn’t fair.  We are living in the dark when service for Christ is a burden. We are living in the dark when worship interrupts my weekend plans.  We are living in the dark when the Christian life is carried out grudgingly.   We are living in the dark when we treat others as those Pharisees treated this man.

Do you know how Jesus dealt with our darkness, our blindness?  He loved you so much that he refused to let you stay in the darkness of unbelief.  He found you and me. He poured on us the water of life in baptism.  He opened your eyes so that you could see your Light.  Now he lets you see things for how they really are.

That’s why we can say things like, “I never would have seen how forgiving God is, but Jesus opened my eyes to see the love of the cross and the glory of the empty tomb.  I never would have made it through this rough patch, but Jesus opened my eyes to see how God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  I never would have known what a fulfilled life is, but Jesus opened my eyes to see the satisfaction of serving in ministry.  I never would have seen the blessings God gives in worship, but Jesus opened my eyes to see worship as the food my faith yearns for and the place where God keeps the blindfold of sin off my eyes.  I never would have seen the joy of the Christian life, but Jesus opened my eyes to see how following his ways is such a benefit to those around me.”

Jesus opened your eyes so that you see it all.  You see everything he has done for you and all that he continues to do for you.  You see that there is still daylight and the night hasn’t come yet, so you can shine with the light of Christ.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

WHAT GOOD IS A SERMON ABOUT SALT AND LIGHT?

sermon-on-the-mount

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

There are many different kinds of sermons.  There are deductive sermons.  Those are the ones with a theme based on a portion of Scripture, which is broken up into a few parts.  As we said at the Seminary, “You tell people what you are going to tell them, then you tell them, and then you tell them what you just told them.” There are explanations, illustrations, and applications sprinkled in but it’s basically preaching God’s Word logically and outlined point by point.

Then there are inductive sermons.  Those are the ones that kind of follow the plot of a movie or book.  The beginning introduces not the main point of that particular section of God’s Word but the malady or problem that people face.  The preacher then shows how that is not just a problem for people in Bible times or for people out there, but that this malady also hits home for every one of us, too.  That brings a certain sense of uneasiness or tension, similar to a movie when you wonder what is going to happen.  But there’s a twist; it’s not all bad news for us, because God has turned things around.  At the climax, the pastor reveals the Biblical solution to sin is found in the gospel of Jesus.  That good news helps us live happily ever after.

There are expositions, or homilies.  That’s more of a verse-by-verse or phrase by phrase sermon.  There are also narrative sermons where the preacher may take on a role of a Biblical person to bring that section to life. There are a few more, and there are plenty of mixtures between these various styles.

You can probably guess what I’m going to say next.  Is the style the most important part? Not so much!  The essential element must always be the pure Word of God. The style, the personality of the preacher, the lighting or seating in the sanctuary, the fellowship snacks, the robe or lack of a robe, these things do deserve some thought but they aren’t the main attraction on a Sunday morning.  The message of God’s Word is.

A sermon that teaches God’s Word improperly doesn’t do anyone any good ever.  Adding personal beliefs and interpretations or subtracting things that may be unpopular from God’s Word is not going to shine the pure light of Christ.  The sermon must always find its basis and its power in God’s law and gospel.  Plain and simple, a sermon should show you your sin and show you how God has completely removed your sins through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

This is called the teaching of justification.  If you have been coming to our Sunday morning Bible basics class, then you might remember that word.  It’s the central focus in Scripture. Justification is a courtroom term that means “to declare someone not guilty.”  Now, sinners like us do not do good works – cannot do good works – to earn that declaration from God.  We are guilty.  Nothing we do can change that reality. The Bible makes that abundantly clear.  Jesus came to this world to earn justification for us.  He made the sacrifice.  He did the work so that we would be forgiven of all sin and declared perfectly innocent by God.  Through faith in Christ, we are children of God and our inheritance is in heaven.  That is a statement of fact.  It’s not a wish or a hope.  It’s God’s honest truth from his own lips in his Word.  That’s the message of justification that God gives you over and over again.  No matter what the style is, a sermon that comes from God’s Word must proclaim that central message.

But there’s something else a sermon should probably do, too.  It should probably show a child of God how to be a child of God. That is called the teaching of sanctification.  (I know we’re getting into some big words today, but these words come from God’s Word to help us understand what God is teaching us)  Sanctification is the ongoing work that God carries out to help us live like people who are justified. That’s what Jesus is talking about today in this section of his Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5.  He says you are the salt and light of the world.  But what good is a sermon about salt and light?

Well, salt should probably make things salty and light should probably illuminate dark places. Jesus is saying that you should make an impact.  He says be who you are.  The thought that Jesus is getting at is not how you earn your way in to God’s good graces.  That’s not possible.  God’s saves people by grace through faith in Jesus. In other words, he does the work for us.  What Jesus is saying in this part of his sermon is that when you are a child of God you better look like it.  Your good works don’t make a bit of difference in getting you to heaven, but that is not a reason to put that light of faith under a bowl so that only you know it’s there.

Jesus wants you to live as a child of God because that is who you are.  He paid for your adoption into God’s family.  The Spirit took up residence in your heart at your baptism.  You are completely and totally God’s child for eternity.  So, Jesus wants you to act like it.

Jesus wants you to act like it for two really important reasons.  First, it gives glory to God.  When you shine with the brilliance of Christ, it’s like giving God a thank you.  He has made you his very own.  You don’t have to worry about death anymore.  You don’t have to get caught up in the greed of this age.  You don’t have to stew in anger about protests or politics, because you know that your home is in heaven forever.  So when you do good things it’s a way of showing how great he is and telling him thank you for this new life that you have.

And the second reason Jesus says he wants you to act like a child of God is because Jesus intends to use your words and actions to bless the people around you.  That’s what he is getting at with these two illustrations, salt and light.

Let’s start with the salt.  Most people use that phrase “you are the salt of the earth” to say someone is a good person, down to earth, helpful worker, and stuff like that.  Sometimes saying someone is salty can mean that they have a little bite, they are blunt and opinionated.  But that’s not how Jesus meant it.

What Jesus was talking about is that this world is rotting.  In Jesus’ day they didn’t have refrigerators.  So if you butchered a cow, by the end of the day it was getting a bit funky.  Without some method of preserving meat, it goes bad in a hurry.  We put meat in the fridge or freezer, but in Jesus day they used salt to cure and preserve meat.

Jesus is saying this world is rotting.  It’s like when you turn on the news or you scroll through the headlines and you see all this negativity: problems in schools, problems in governments, and problems in other nations. It seems to be getting worse.  And that isn’t some nostalgic commentary hoping we can get back to the good old days.  The Bible says the world is decaying and sin doesn’t help that.  At some point God will bring the End, but until that happens, do you know what he is doing to slow down the rotting?  He sprinkles the world with salt.  God uses you to keep this world from rotting to its core.

That does mean we should be Christians who stand up for what God calls good.  Neighbors, coworkers, and friends should know that we stand for what God wants and not what he forbids.  People should see the compassion and love that we have because God has first shown his love to us.  We should be good parents and employees, not keeping our faith in the shaker but sprinkling it everywhere we are.  God says that we are salt and it makes a difference in the world.

Jesus also calls us light.  He says a town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  When you live in North Dakota it’s really clear what Jesus is saying.  I will always remember when we moved here, the trip from Fargo to Bismarck.  It was a clear day and you could see for about 1000 miles.  But when you’re heading west you can’t really see Bismarck until you make that left had turn on I-94.  Then, all of the sudden – boom – Bismarck appears out of nowhere!  But then I remember the first time we made that drive at night.  We were driving back from visiting friends in South Dakota.  You could see the hazy glow of Bismarck from Hazelton, if not farther.  You couldn’t miss it.  If someone is lost out on the plains in the dark, they will see that hazy glow of Bismarck from over 50 miles away.

That’s what Jesus is saying about us.  In his sermon, he makes the illustrations that we are lights in a dark place.  If lights are in a dark place they will make it brighter.  You are just like Bismarck at night.  People who are lost in the darkness of unbelief, people who are growing senseless to their surroundings should see your light and it will show them where to go.

So what does that mean for our congregation that is made up of all these lights? It means people should see a place that tries to help.  People should look at Our Saviour’s Lutheran and see a group of people who are equipped to serve their needs.  This is an oasis from the storms of society.  This is a place where the darkness is overcome by Christ’s light.  This is a church where people need to see the gospel light of Jesus.  That’s the main goal.  That’s the purpose for our existence.  That’s what God has made us to be.

When we are salt and light people are going to notice it.  Sometimes, sometimes it might feel like we are the rotting part or the dark part of the world.  Sometimes it might even look like it.  But that’s why Christ came, to remove our rotting sinful flesh with its dark, evil ways.  He has given us a new life filled with the Spirit, a life where we are salt and light to dark and dying world.

You don’t have to be afraid of what might happen.  Jesus has told us that some people might want to stay in the dark because they think they can hide.  Some people might have gotten so comfortable with the stench that they think it’s normal.  But that’s not you.  God has given you a perfect place with him in heaven.  Until we get there, he says that we are salt to bring the cure of Jesus and we are light to shine the light of Christ’s love.

I’d say Jesus’ sermon about salt and light is a pretty good one, because that’s what he made us. So today Jesus is telling you to be who you are.  God grant it.

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.