A taste of joy here below

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Sermon for Epiphany 2

Romans 12:6-16  +  John 2:1-11

From the time of Jesus’ birth until the wedding feast at Cana, there had already been so many amazing revelations about Him: how He was conceived of a virgin in the first place, the manger that served as His bed, the sky of Bethlehem filled with angels and the angels’ words to the shepherds, the wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem and presented their gifts, Simeon and Anna’s praise of a little baby, the flight to Egypt to escape from King Herod, the twelve year old Boy in the Temple who astounded the teachers with His divine wisdom, the Father’s voice from heaven and the Spirit’s descent like a dove at Jesus’ Baptism. And now this—that Jesus should choose a wedding banquet, of all places, to reveal His divine power over the creation by changing water into wine.

Jesus had been recently baptized. He’d been tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. He’d been acclaimed by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and He’d called His first few disciples, including Nathanael.

You remember Nathanael? Philip had found his friend Nathanael sitting under a fig tree and told him that he and those other first disciples had found the Christ. Nathanael didn’t believe it was possible, but then he went to see Jesus and Jesus told him how He saw him while he was sitting under the fig tree, even though Jesus wasn’t there to see it. That little revelation of Jesus’ omniscience convinced Nathanael that Jesus was the Christ, the King of Israel. And Jesus told him, Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

The “greater things” began on the very next day as they attended this wedding banquet in Cana. And here already we see a striking difference between Jesus and John the Baptist. John, if you remember, lived outside of society, in the wilderness, alone, dressed in uncomfortable clothes, with insects for his diet. John has been pointing people to Jesus as the true Prophet, the Christ. But Jesus didn’t act like John in many ways. Here’s Jesus participating in human society, spending His time celebrating at a wedding banquet.

That, in itself, was a revelation, a manifestation, an epiphany, and one that John the Baptist himself alluded to when he referred to himself as just the friend of the Bridegroom, while Jesus Himself was the Bridegroom. Jesus has, indeed, come to celebrate a wedding—the wedding between Himself and His holy Christian Church, whom He first had to cleanse with His own blood in Holy Baptism in order to make her spotless and acceptable to God, as Paul writes to the Ephesians in chapter 5. So of course Jesus doesn’t shy away from a wedding invitation. Human marriage is a picture of the whole purpose for Jesus’ coming.

On a more mundane note, we shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus’ attendance at this wedding banquet also expresses His approval of the institution of marriage in general—God’s approval. Of course He approves! He instituted marriage in the beginning and has never changed His design for it. Even in these last days, marriage isn’t to be looked down on. As the writer to the Hebrews says, Marriage is to be held in honor by all, and the marriage bed kept pure. It is still God’s plan and purpose for society, that one man and one woman come together till death do them part, that they love and support one another, that they raise godly children, and that sexual relations be reserved for marriage alone. That’s the union that God instituted and that Jesus blessed with His presence and still smiles upon, not the godless misuse that covers our land today. You and I are more and more surrounded by a culture that rejects the divine definition of marriage, the divine purpose and description of marriage. Christians may have even participated in that rejection of God’s purpose for marriage, but, as St. Paul writes, you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. And as Paul said in last week’s Epistle, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. But know, at the same time, that that will make you part of an ever increasing minority in the world, even in your own country. If you honor marriage as God ordained it, you will appear very strange in the eyes of the world around you. Learn to embrace that strangeness as Christians!

Back to our Gospel itself. There was a need that came up during the course of this banquet—and understand that these Jewish wedding banquets often lasted more than one day. They ran out of wine too early. Maybe it was poor planning. More likely, it was a poor family that couldn’t afford to buy enough to last till the end. A little shame would have been suffered by the bride and groom at the outset of their marriage for running out of wine at the banquet. But in the grand scheme of things, it was a small need, a minor problem. No one needs wine.

But Mary informs Jesus of the need anyway. She seems to suspect that He isn’t only here to socialize and to put His seal of approval on marriage. He’s been baptized now. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s become a Rabbi and gathered His first few disciples, who are there at the banquet with Him. So she intercedes for the wedding party.

In fact, this intercession on the part of Mary is seen by some Roman Catholics as a reason to pray to Mary about their own needs, hoping she’ll intercede for them, just as she did here for the bride and groom, and hoping that Jesus will take her intercession into account and act to help them, out of reverence for His mother.

But, why does she intercede for the wedding party? Why don’t they go to Him directly? Because they don’t know Him directly yet as the Son of God, as Mary does. They don’t know Him as the Savior sent from God. He’s only beginning to reveal Himself to the world. And so she intercedes for those who don’t yet know Him rightly, not for those who do. Because all who know Christ, who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. No one is closer to Him than another. He hears all of His people equally.

What we may learn from this account, though, as those who do know Jesus as the Son of God and the Son of Man, is to do as Mary did and to intercede for those who don’t yet know Him rightly. To pray for His mercy and help for unbelievers, or for those who were baptized, but have fallen into the delusion of false doctrine so that they no longer know Christ as they should know Him.

Jesus’ response to Mary at first seems strange. Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come. He seems to decline to help. But what it shows us is that Jesus doesn’t have to perform this miracle. It isn’t His “concern.” It isn’t His business. God’s Law doesn’t call upon Him to supply extra wine for a wedding party. So the fact that He chooses to do it shows His abundant grace and favor.

Furthermore, He refers to His “hour,” meaning His hour to reveal His glory. John’s Gospel records many of those references, all of them leading up to Holy Week, when the real “hour” would come for Jesus to be glorified before the eyes of all, not by performing a miracle, but by willingly offering Himself up on the cross as the payment for the world’s sins. That hour would be the full uncovering of His true glory and the fulfillment of His purpose in coming to earth. He didn’t come to replenish the supply of wine.

And yet He does it anyway. You heard in the Gospel how He did it. He told the servants to fill the water jars with water—gallons and gallons of it. And suddenly it wasn’t water anymore. It was wine. This was a supernatural act of divine creation—taking H2O molecules and turning them into something else, into fermented and aged grape wine, and fine wine at that, as if the best grapes had been grown and squeezed and the juice fermented under the watchful eye of a master winemaker. Freely, under no obligation, easily, with nothing but a word, Jesus provided the bride and groom and all the wedding guests with an abundance of wine, with a taste of joy.

In the Psalms it says, The Lord brings forth wine that makes glad the heart of man. In the Scripture, wine is tied to joy and a merry heart. Yes, the abuse of it is condemned, but not the use. It’s a symbol of God’s grace and favor, of God’s abundance, of joy and celebration. And what could better describe the reason for which Jesus came. As John told us back in chapter 1, And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. This first miracle performed by Jesus reveals His grace. It reveals that He truly came, not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He has come to proclaim the Gospel—the Good News that Christ has come to save sinners. This first miracle makes Jesus approachable to poor sinners, because they can see that He has come to help, to bless, to save. As Jesus would later say, I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

That’s the lesson Jesus’ disciples were to learn, and only a few others at that time—the servants who filled the jars with water—because this miracle wasn’t done in full view of the public; hardly anyone knew about it. But the Holy Spirit saw to it that we would find out through His inspired Scriptures, so that you would know that you, a poor, miserable sinner, will find God’s grace and favor with Jesus whenever you come to Him in repentance, seeking His forgiveness. This, after all, is God in your midst. He is hidden, but if you look closely you will see your God acting. Everything He will do is for your good. Everything He will do is for your salvation, and even for your enjoyment. Some things you will enjoy here on earth. But most of the celebration awaits the heavenly wedding banquet, where He, the Bridegroom who has brought you into the body of His Church by Holy Baptism, will provide everything in perfect measure.

For now, your God offers to His Bride, the Church, a Sacrament of bread and wine, of sustenance and gladness, of the forgiveness of sins, of His true body and blood—a miracle of a different kind, not visible to the eye, but revealed only to faith. Let it sustain you here, as you wait for Christ to be revealed in glory. Let it provide you with a taste of joy here below and remind you of the great wedding banquet above! Amen.

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The revelation of the King of all nations

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Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Matthew 2:1-12

Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you. Epiphany is the season of light. It means appearance or manifestation or revealing. God’s Son was finally born into the world. And following His birth, there were many appearances, many revelations of His glory, some of which we’ll hear about during this short season. Today, on January 6th, in the ancient Church, three such revelations were traditionally celebrated: The revelation of Jesus to the wise men as the King of Jews and Gentiles. But also the revelation of Christ as the Son of God and our Savior at His Baptism, which is why we sang Luther’s baptism hymn a moment ago. And the revelation of Christ’s divine power and goodness at the wedding at Cana, which we’ll hear about next week.

For now, our Gospel turns our attention to the visit of the wise men. There was literally a light that shined on Israel at the birth of Christ—a miraculous light, a “star” that was no ordinary star, but, as Isaiah prophesied, The glory of the Lord is risen upon you…The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. It led the wise men to the land of Judah. But it wasn’t really the star that led them.

There was another light that led the wise men to the Light in Israel. As the Psalm says, Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. These wise men from the East had clearly been exposed to the Holy Scriptures of the Hebrews, probably from the time of the Babylonian captivity. These wise men had learned about the LORD God of Israel and had found some of the prophecies of the Old Testament about the coming Savior-King who would be born from King David’s line and rule, not only over the Jews, but over all the nations, all the Gentiles. God used His Word to enlighten them, to bring them to understand and believe the prophecies about this divine King.

The light of the star only pointed to the land of Israel, so they naturally went to Jerusalem to find the newborn King. Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. Now the light of the prophet Micah had to guide them, as Herod had the priests and scribes search the Scriptures for the answer: But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel. See how God always drives His people back to His Word, so that we ground our faith, not in outward signs that are so often misinterpreted, but in His sure, unfailing Word.

So the Word of God through the prophet Micah shined the light on Bethlehem. And the Word of God through the prophet Isaiah, which you heard this morning, explained the meaning of the wise men’s visit: they were the Gentiles who had come to Israel’s light—the light of the King, the light of the Messiah who was born to rule over one great kingdom, one holy Christian Church. Born to bring all nations into Israel, to enlarge Israel, to earn salvation for all men, and to offer salvation to all men.

But even then, before Jesus uttered a single word, most in Israel didn’t care to have Him, didn’t care to see Him. The king and the priests of Jerusalem, and most of the city with them, were not happy to hear about the birth of the King of the Jews. They were “troubled,” it says. They were upset. Others were obviously apathetic; they didn’t follow the wise men to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King.

Jesus once said, And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God. The world, in its darkness, in its idolatry, in its sin and love for sin, doesn’t love the idea of the true God sending His Son into the world. And that’s tragic, because the true God, while His Laws are demanding and His wrath is severe—the true God has given His own Son into human flesh to suffer the punishment for our sins, to obey His own Law in our place, and to give us eternal life as a gift. The Son of Man came, not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. Salvation is by faith in Him, faith that the Holy Spirit Himself creates through the light of His Word.

The Holy Spirit was resisted by most of Israel; He can be resisted. But He worked faith in the hearts of the non-Jewish wise men—as He had worked faith in Joseph and Mary and Simeon and Anna, the shepherds, and others in Israel who remain unknown to us. The wise men journeyed to Bethlehem, and then, led by the Word of God, they were again blessed with the light of that mysterious star to point them to the exact place where the Christ Child was.

They found the humble Baby with His humble mother in a humble house—not a palace, not a mansion. He had no attendants, no servants, no other worshipers. Their eyes told them that this must not be the place, that He must not be the One. But Scripture told them otherwise, and they believed the Scriptures over their own eyes. They knelt before the Baby. That’s what you do in the presence of royalty, or in the presence of divinity, or in this case, both.

And they gave gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. All were gifts fit for a king. All were gifts actually given to King Solomon long ago, the son of David who prefigured the Son of David born of Mary. Myrrh and frankincense made up the perfume that King Solomon wore for the day of His wedding, wearing his crown of gold, all of which, in the Song of Solomon, was an allegory of the great Son of David, Jesus, and His beloved Bride, the Christian Church, made up of Jews and Gentiles—of all who believe in Him.

The wise men knew that Jesus was born for them, and they worshiped him with great joy. They were the first Gentiles to worship him, but certainly not the last. You Gentiles have seen His light, not with your eyes, but with your ears. You have beheld His glory as the Holy Spirit has revealed this Christ as your Savior, too, as your God and as your King. Even now the Holy Spirit is revealing Him to you, another Epiphany, the appearance, the manifestation of Jesus as King of all nations, right here in our midst in His Gospel. Join the wise men in seeking Him where He is found, in giving your life for His service, and most of all, in believing in Him as your King. Amen.

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The whole-self service of the Child of God

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Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 12:1-5  +  Luke 2:41-52

There were many kinds of sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament. There were sin offerings. There were peace offering. And there were also whole burnt offering. The offering and burning of a whole animal on God’s altar was to teach the people of Israel that a person’s whole life should be completely devoted to God. It seems to be the whole burnt offering that St. Paul had in mind in our Epistle today when he encouraged the Roman Christians, Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.

You want to see what it looks like in practice, to offer your whole self in service to God? Watch Jesus today in the Gospel—the Boy Jesus when He was twelve years old.

Some important things have happened since we left Jesus in the Temple last week with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. Joseph was warned in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, because King Herod was searching for Him, to kill Him. Herod did kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. But Jesus was kept safe in Egypt until Herod died. Then God directed them back to the land of Israel, and up to the region of Galilee, where Mary and Joseph had lived prior to Jesus’ birth.

Once Herod was gone, it was safe for the holy family to make the annual trek down (or up) to Jerusalem for the Passover. God required His people to make that annual journey, both in commemoration of the first Passover, and in anticipation of the true Passover of the Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. So every year, Mary and Joseph would go to Jerusalem to the feast in commemoration of the death and resurrection of their Son—though they surely didn’t understand that at the time.

But Jesus did. He knew His purpose. He knew that each Passover He attended was a sort of rehearsal for Holy Week. Luke tells us that He went with His parents to Jerusalem when He was twelve. Whether or not He went before that, we don’t know. But now that He’s twelve, He is expected to follow all the commands imposed by the Law of Moses on an Israelite. He was now a Bar Mitzvah—a Son of the commandment.

After the Passover, Mary and Joseph left to start the long trip home to Nazareth. But Jesus stayed behind. He didn’t get lost. He didn’t run away. He “lingered.” His parents—rather carelessly, it seems—left Jerusalem, assuming Jesus was with some of their relatives who had traveled from Nazareth with them. That reveals just how much they trusted in this twelve-year-old boy. He never got in trouble. He never disobeyed. They could always count on Him to do what was expected of Him. Until now.

They go back searching. They had already traveled a day’s journey, so another day to travel back, and then after three days, or probably on the third day, they found Him. Not playing with the other kids His age. But sitting in the Temple, in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. He had, if you will, enrolled Himself in the church’s school, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to listen to the teachers of the law, to ask questions, and to answer their questions. And He proved to be an amazing student.

You can imagine Mary and Joseph’s joy mixed with surprise with a bit of anger. Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.

“Son,” Mary called Him. And, of course, He was that. She refers to Joseph as “Your father.” And, legally and practically, that was true, too. But it seems they forgot for a moment who this Boy really was, and why He had come into their lives in the first place. He reminds them: Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business? Jesus is twelve now, a Son of the commandment. His life—His whole life—is and has always been devoted to the service of His Father. When He was a Baby, you couldn’t see that. But now you can. You can see where Jesus’ heart is: fixed on learning God’s Word, as every child must do, yearning to be in God’s House, determined to spend His life doing His Father’s business. This is what whole-self service to God looks like for a twelve-year-old.

But then it’s also going back with His father and mother when they tell Him to, and, as Luke tells us, being “subject to them.” And “increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Those are the duties God has given to children. And Jesus shows us what it looks like to carry out those duties, from the heart, as One who has devoted His whole self to serving God.

Why did the boy Jesus render this whole-self service to God His Father? Because He loved Him with His whole heart, His whole soul, His whole mind, and His whole strength. That love for God, on this occasion, brought Him into conflict with His parents, whom He also loved. But when it comes down to whether to obey God or to obey man, God has to win every time. And He always did in Jesus’ life.

There is the innocent sacrifice, the spotless offering that mankind needed, to whom all the Old Testament offerings pointed. As the perfect, sinless, spotless Lamb who loved God from the bottom of His heart and served Him with His whole life, and as the Son of God, whose life is of infinite worth and value, He was the offering, He was the substitute that we all needed.

Because, parents, you know that, in addition to all your other sins, you’ve had your share of failures in raising your children and in guiding them to serve the Lord with their whole lives, even as Mary and Joseph stumbled in our Gospel. And children, you know that, in addition to all your other sins, hearing and learning God’s Word, faithfully, regularly, eagerly, is not always what you want to do, and submitting to your parents, obeying them, without any complaining, without any whining, without any disrespect for them in your heart—that doesn’t describe you, does it?

And so Jesus, our Substitute, who truly loved His Father and devoted His whole life to His Father’s service, is qualified to be the spotless sin offering, whose blood, shed on the cross 21 years after the incident in our Gospel, pays for all your sins and self-service. He is qualified to be the spotless peace offering, who makes peace between God and man and brings you into God’s family through His Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and sits down to have a meal with you in His own holy Supper. And He is qualified to be the whole burnt offering, whose blood now cleanses your service, as baptized children of God, so that, even though your service to God isn’t perfect, still He is pleased with it and accepts your works of love for Jesus’ sake.

And so, St. Paul pleads with you, baptized children of God who know the mercy of God in sending His Son to be your Substitute, your Sacrifice, your Savior— I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The world around you wants your attention. It gives you games to play. And games to watch. And shows to entertain. It gives you countless opportunities to work, to explore, to make money and to spend it, too. It gives you the chance to pursue friendships and relationships and courtships. But all to have a good earthly life. To have fun here. To be comfortable here. To pursue happiness here. And you see most of the people around you in the world conforming their lives to that. But St. Paul says, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. You’re Christians. Think differently about the world than non-Christians do. Think differently about your life. Make different goals—godly goals, goals to pursue God’s service and God’s will in the work you do or in the career you pursue, in the marriage you’re in, if you’re married, and in the marriage partner you’re looking for, if you’re looking.

All this begins, of course, with a zeal for godliness. It begins with knowing your Small Catechism—a summary of the most basic truths of the Christian faith—and reviewing it often. It continues with regularly hearing the preaching of the Word and receiving the Sacrament, and with knowing the Bible and learning to know it better this year than you did last year. It continues with regular prayer, with daily repentance, and with asking the question each and every morning, how shall I serve my God today? How shall I walk in the footsteps of Jesus my Savior? Not to earn my salvation. He’s earned it for me and paid for all my sins. But as redeemed children of God, Jesus teaches us what the whole-self service of the child of God looks like. May He grant you the zeal to spend your whole life pursuing it. Amen.


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Celebrating redemption with Simeon and Anna

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Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas

Galatians 4:1-7  +  Luke 2:33-40

Merry Seventh Day of Christmas! Seven days have passed since we followed the shepherds to Bethlehem to see the newborn Babe. But forty days have passed between the shepherds’ visit and the events recorded in today’s Gospel. Jesus had been circumcised on the 8th day, which is tomorrow on the Church calendar. The wise men have likely already visited and left, which we’ll celebrate this coming Saturday, but the holy family hasn’t yet fled to Egypt or returned to Nazareth. Today’s Gospel takes place in Jerusalem on Jesus’ presentation day, and Mary’s purification day, which is celebrated more fully on February 2, 40 days after Christmas. The Law of Moses required that Mary present a sacrifice of purification from the blood that was shed in childbirth—a reminder of original sin, and that the blood of sinners is impure, and a sign pointing forward to Christ, to the only One born in human history who was not a sinner, but whose blood could purify the sinful human race before God. And the Law required that the firstborn son of any Israelite be redeemed—a reminder that God Himself redeemed the firstborn of Israel by the blood of the Passover lamb, even as He struck down the firstborn of Egypt, and a sign pointing forward to Christ, the firstborn Son of Mary, and also the Firstborn over all creation, by whom the human race would be redeemed.

Truly this Jesus was, as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “born of a woman, born under the law,” and His parents dutifully saw to it that everything that was required by the Law was done, so that, by His perfect keeping of the Law, He might free us from the curse of the Law, by becoming a curse for us.

In the Gospel today we meet two elderly saints who met Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the temple: Simeon and Anna. The beginning of Simeon’s story and the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis that is so familiar to us, are the Gospel for the Festival of the Presentation, so we’ll pass it by for now and focus on Simeon’s prophecy.

Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Simeon rejoiced to meet the Baby Jesus. The Holy Spirit had miraculously revealed to him that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ with his own eyes, and here He was. Simeon praised the Lord for sending His Christ and for allowing him to see Him. But his blessing of the holy family wasn’t what you’d call “cute,” was it? No, it was a prophecy of Jesus’ future, and it was a hard prophecy to hear.

“Destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” Isaiah had prophesied that the Christ would be “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,” and that’s exactly what Jesus was. He caused many in Israel to fall. Why? Because He told them the truth: “No matter how much you try to keep God’s holy Law, you’re unclean. Your works are evil. You can’t earn God’s favor.” Many didn’t like that, and they stumbled over it, and fell. And He told them the truth: “I am the One sent by God to redeem you. I have come to give life to those who don’t deserve it, to cleanse the unclean by My blood, to save mankind through faith in Me.” And many didn’t like that, either, and they stumbled over it, and fell.

But many heard it, and were raised up. Many heard it, and repented of their sins. Many heard it, and believed and found a place in God’s kingdom and God’s house.

Simeon says that Jesus will be a sign which will be spoken against. We know how that history played out in Israel as many spoke against Jesus even before they crucified Him. And then Simeon adds to Mary, on a very personal note, a sword will pierce through your own soul also. And there it is, the bitter reminder that we shouldn’t get so caught up in the birth of Christ that we forget who He is or the reason why He was born. The Church calendar helps keep us focused. On the day after Christmas the Church remembers the stoning to death of Stephen. On the next day, we remember the labors of John the Evangelist—and the martyrdom of St. Peter. On the next day, we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, murdered by King Herod. In tomorrow’s Gospel on the Circumcision of the Lord Jesus, we remember His first shedding of blood. And today, on the Sunday after Christmas, mingled with Simeon’s praise, is the prophecy of a sword—the sharp pain and grief that a mother would one day experience as she sat at the foot of her Son’s cross, watching Him suffer and die.

What stronger medicine could there be against our culture’s infatuation with cute things, with a “Christmas spirit” that, at best, forgets about the cross, and at worst, leave Christ out entirely?

Yes, all of this still plays out today. Jesus still causes the fall and the rising of many. He is still a sign that is spoken against. And the thoughts of many hearts are revealed as the truth comes out. What’s really behind the rejection of Jesus? It’s the deep-down view of God’s law as something, either that I don’t need to keep, or that I can keep. In either case, I don’t need a Savior who is true God and true Man to keep it for me and to die for my sins to redeem me from the Law’s curse.

But there’s old Simeon, praising God for a little Baby. And there stands old Anna, giving thanks to God for this Child and speaking about Him to all who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem. To those who are looking for redemption, looking for rescue from their sins, looking for a price to be paid so that you, the sinner, can go free, can receive the adoption, can call upon God as Father…here He is! Born when the time had fully come. Born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Remember your Baptism today, because that’s when you, a child of wrath by nature, were united to the Son of God and so received the adoption as a son. That’s when you were purified and rescued out of Satan’s kingdom into the kingdom of God. And the forgiveness you first received there is still held out to you now, to cover all your sins and guilt.

And remember also the gift of the Holy Supper, where the body of Him who was held by Simeon and praised by Anna in the temple is still set before you, to wonder at God’s mercy, not only in bringing His Son into the world, but in bringing Him to you now, that you, too, may receive Him and worship Him and rise to life because of Him.

And then let that wonder and worship spill out into your life as you celebrate redemption with Simeon and Anna, so that, as faithful Simeon and Anna spent their long lives hearing God’s Word, devoutly walking according to His commandments, you, too, live a life of devout, devoted service to God and your neighbor, speaking about Christ to the people in your life, knowing that God kept His promise to send the Savior into the world, and that He will keep His promise to come again soon. May God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—guard, guide, and strengthen you while you wait. Amen.

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God was made man to bring man to God

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Sermon for Christmas Day

Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

Everyone can understand a baby. Everyone can accept that a baby was born in the small Judean town of Bethlehem, a baby named Jesus, to a mother named Mary. It’s rather harmless, unintimidating. And in part, that’s the point, and that’s why, sometimes, even unbelievers are willing to hear the Christmas Eve Gospel from Luke 2, because the story of God’s salvation begins, in a sense, with this baby, who doesn’t threaten anyone. The unbeliever can even tolerate, for a night, at least, the notion of angels. Because it’s all good tidings of great joy for all people. It’s a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. It’s peace on earth, goodwill to men!

But we’re careful to explain, even on Christmas Eve, that the good tidings of the birth of an unintimidating baby can only be understood properly through the lens of the sin and darkness into which that baby was born—sin and darkness that permeated even Israel, not to mention the even greater darkness that covered the non-Jewish world, that this Jesus was born because of mankind’s idolatry, because of mankind’s rebellion against God’s Word, because of mankind’s disobedience toward God’s commandments, that He was born to suffer and die for the sins of the world, and that His peace on earth has nothing to do with the absence of war or the end of violence. That’s a little harder for the unbeliever to hear, and yet it’s the only way an unbeliever will ever become a believer, by hearing the whole truth about Christmas and about Christ.

Then we come to the Christmas Day Gospel, and suddenly the unbeliever is confronted with the truth head on, with things that human reason can’t even begin to grasp, with things that sound like foolishness to the modern “scientific” ear. That there was a time when time didn’t exist. That there was a time when there was no matter, no energy, just God who brought all things into being, not with a big bang, but by His almighty Word. And most incomprehensible of all, is that that Word was with God, and that the Word was God, and that this Word that was with God and that was God eventually became flesh. That this Word who existed already in the beginning, outside of time and space and matter and energy, is the very Person through whom all things were brought into existence, including the flesh that He one day became.

But again, if anyone is going to believe in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, it will only be through hearing this truth proclaimed. You can’t argue anyone into the faith. It’s all about the simple proclamation of the Word.

Already in v. 5 of our Gospel, St. John the Evangelist is referring to the Word coming into the world as a man, as “light.” Not some SyFy “being” made of light, but as Jesus Himself once declared, I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life…As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. The very One who is true God also became true Man, the light which gives light to every man, just as the sun gives light to every man, except that He was already there before the sun was, and the sun was created through Him. St. Paul once wrote that God alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. So the only way we poor, sinful mortals could truly see the light of God, is if it’s veiled in flesh, if God makes Himself approachable to us. And that’s exactly what He did in the Person of the Word made flesh.

John the Baptist bore witness to Him. This is the light who gives light to every man! Not that every man sees by this light. But He is the only light by which any man may see, and He offers His light to all. What is His light? It is the knowledge of who God is and of how God gave His eternal Son to be born as a man, not to show us how to work our way up to heaven, but to earn heaven for all men, to suffer hell for all men, and to show us that it is by believing in Him who did all this for us that all men might have everlasting life.

That brings us to the tragedy of Christmas. The tragedy of Christmas is not that Jesus had to lie in a manger for a while. The tragedy of Christmas is that He came to save all men from their sins, to give life to all men, and yet most men didn’t and don’t want Him for a Savior, and so most men remain dead in their trespasses and sins. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. Doesn’t it just amaze you that God knew this would happen, and still sent His Son into the world, still holding out salvation to all, knowing that most would never receive Him and be saved?

But, John writes, as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. This is the glorious victory of Christmas, not that God’s Son was born as a human child, but that He was born as a child in order to give us the right to become children of God.

Because we weren’t. By nature, no one is. Creatures of God? Yes. But children of God? No. As sinners, we had no right to call Him Father, and no expectation of living in His house or of inheriting anything from Him. But now we do. Because we have a Brother who is God’s child. Because we have a Savior who paid for our sins and offers us a place in God’s family through Holy Baptism and through faith in Him. Because He sends His own Holy Spirit to give us that new birth of faith, since we couldn’t come to faith by our own power or will.

Yes, the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. He became Immanuel, God with us, so that we might follow Him in faith, be safe on the Day of Judgment, and live with Him forever.

The angels worshiped the Person of the Word since the moment they were created. But now God has taken on human flesh, and all God’s angels worship Him also as a Man. If the angels worship Him for taking on human flesh to save sinful human beings, will you human beings fail to worship Him? May it never be. On this Christmas Day, may the truth of the God-Man in the manger fill your hearts with wonder and with joy. And let your worship of Him today change the way you live your life tomorrow, so that you who have received Him and been given the right to become children of God may live as children of God in the world, that your life may be a song of joy and thanksgiving. Amen.



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