28 December 2007

Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Almost as soon as He was born, our Lord Jesus was under a death sentence! That's what the Church commemorates today, December 28, the day of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.

After the Magi (a.k.a. "Wise Men") had asked of King Herod where the newborn King was to be found, Herod's fears and fury would soon be unleashed. He may have said with a good bit of duplicity that he wanted to "worship" the Christ Child, but really he wanted to slaughter him. Then, when the Magi returned to their own country without reporting back to Herod, the wicked king was even more incensed. This led to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, infants two years and younger in and around the little town of Bethlehem. See Matthew 2:1-18.

But we can rejoice on this day even as we remember the blood of these infant martyrs. You see, our Lord rescued them from this valley of sorrows, from the battles against sin, death, and the devil, and gave them peace and bliss in His presence. So, while Rachel (Bethlehem) weeps, the Innocents get to rejoice in God's unending love and glory. They went home.

That's our lot too, in the Christ Child who had to flee for His life before He could walk or talk, at least that well. We may suffer the valley of the shadow of death here and now, but for those of us who cling to the Christ Child and His cross-won salvation and life, we rest in the grand promise that one day we will get to join the Holy Innocents in God's unending, glorious presence. We too will get to go home.

This specter of persecution and death - this "death sentence" - that our Lord endures in His infancy would come to full fruition about 30 years later. The "death sentence" would catch up with Him on the cross, but He would actually hand out the ultimate "death sentence" - He would sentence death to death. That's the joy of the Holy Innocents. Even though they suffer senseless slaughter at the hands of wicked King Herod, they get to enjoy the fruits of Christ's redeeming work of bringing life and immortality to light.

In the same way, even though we must suffer our sins and life under the specter of death in this fallen world, Christ's victory over death, the very purpose for which He came into this dying world, gives us the promise of everlasting joy with Him, His Father, the Holy Spirit, and, yes, the Holy Innocents. So, today we thank God for the Holy Innocents and for our Lord's victory over death for them and for us. It's all wrapped up in the Newborn King, just waiting to be unwrapped, unpacked, and enjoyed for all eternity!

Collect for Holy Innocents, Martyrs:
Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise not by speaking but by dying. Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Hymn Verse for Holy Innocents:
All praise for infant martyrs
Whom Your mysterious love
Called early from their warfare
To share Your home above.
O Rachel, cease your weeping;
They rest from earthly cares!
Lord, grant us crowns as brilliant
And faith as sure as theirs. (LSB 517:9)

27 December 2007

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today the Church celebrates and commemorates St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist. His simple writing proclaims the most glorious truths of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, especially as He is the Word made flesh and how He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. His Gospel and his letters (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John) give such profound and life-changing truth and light, and his Revelation gives great hope that the Lamb of God, who bled, died, and rose again to take away the sin of the world will come again to rescue us and place us around His glorious throne, along with the whole company of heaven, to sing praises to the Holy Trinity and bask in His eternal life. Thank You, Lord, for Your gift of "St. John the Divine"!

Collect for St. John, Apostle and Evangelist:
Merciful Lord, cast the bright beams of Your light upon Your Church that we, being instructed in the doctrine of Your blessed apostle and evangelist John, may come to the light of everlasting life; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Hymn Verse:
For Your belov'd disciple
Exiled to Patmos' shore,
And for his faithful record,
We praise You evermore.
Praise for the mystic vision
Through him to us revealed;
May we, in patience waiting,
With Your elect be sealed. (LSB 517:8)

Christmas Color Scheme a la the Church

The Church's "color scheme" for the days of Christ-Mass sure seems to fly in the face of the world's typical "red and green" (not that there's anything wrong with the red and green; it can also have a good, Christ-centered meaning).

What I mean is this: Christ-Mass (12/24 & 25) is white, St. Stephen's day (12/26) is red, St. John's day (12/27, today) is white, and then Holy Innocents (12/28) is red. The glorious light of the Infant King shines in both the glory of His divinity (white) and the blood of martyrdom (red) for His saints. What a great and glorious color scheme it is! Not only does God the Son humble Himself to become Man and thus reveal Himself and God's gracious favor, but His followers, epitomized by St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, also find their glory in being sacrificed for Him.

But the blood red of martyrdom means very little without our Lord's own blood. So, the Church's "color scheme" for the twelve days of Christ-Mass really tips the hat to what our Incarnate Lord comes to do - sacrifice Himself to save us from sin, death, and the devil. His glory is fully revealed in His own shedding of blood for us!

And, as a fruit of His life of white and red, glory and sacrifice, we, His followers, get to live the same "white and red life." Our glory comes through being sacrificed - that is, in putting to death the sin and death in us by His grace. This shows up especially in the life we live in Baptism. As Luther explained it so well, our Baptism "indicates that the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever" (Small Catechism, IV:4).

So, the Church's "color scheme" for Christ-Mass shows us our Lord's life and our daily life in Him!

25 December 2007

Homily - Nativity of our Lord - Christmas Day

With special thanks to my good friend Pr. Weedon. He gave this homily out at our Pericope Study for possible ideas, and the whole thing was just too good to pass up. So I adopted and adapted, tweaking some things here and there and adding other points along the way.

God Locates Himself
John 1:1-18

In the Bible, God loves to locate Himself somewhere specific. Of course, He’s always present everywhere, but He also promises to be at a certain place so that His people can find Him and receive the gifts He comes to bring.

God located Himself in the days of ancient Israel. He let the people know where they could and would find Him. He was in the Tent. If you were an Israelite, you only had to go to that special tent called the Tabernacle, and you could find God there. He would be there to receive your prayers, and in that very place He would shower you with His forgiveness, His grace, and His truth. Later God located Himself somewhere more permanent: the Temple. It did not move around the land. It stayed put in Jerusalem. In that specific place all of the promises that God made for His people and attached to the Tent remained in effect. God would be there to receive their praise and worship, their prayers and supplications. God would locate Himself in that place to give out His gifts of salvation – His glory, His grace, His truth.

But the people abused both the Tent and the Temple. They thought that since God promised to locate Himself for them at that specific spot, they had God locked up and on their side. Instead of faithfully following Him and receiving the gifts He came to give, they went their own ways. They thought they could worship Him in any old way they wanted, that they could use any old statue or image they might make or choose. So God chose to abandon the Temple. Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord leave. It was a sad sight. The cloud of glory picked up and moved out of the Temple, out from the city of Jerusalem. Then it hovered for a few moments on the Mount of Olives, as if sadly looking back, and then it was gone [Ezek. 10-11]. Simply gone. And no one at the Temple even seemed to notice. Very sad.

And still, God loves to locate Himself somewhere. He’s not just a God “out there” somewhere. He’s much more than merely the “man upstairs.” God does not want His presence, His glory, His grace, or His truth, to be unanchored and un-located. The Tent and the Tabernacle were merely pictures and shadows of a greater reality that God was planning – sort of like black and white sketches of a more vibrant, colorful reality yet to come. God would inaugurate His new reality in a stable in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.

A Virgin had carried a Child. A Baby is born. Mary gives birth to her only Son. But this is no ordinary child. This Child is none other than the Eternal Word of the Father – He through whom all things were made; He who still holds all things together in Himself; He who is “begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” That’s who this Child is. And the very flesh of this Child becomes the true Tent and Tabernacle of God. God located Himself somewhere specific, all right. From that moment of conception, from that holy birth, and for all time to come, anyone who wants to find God will find Him only in the flesh of the Man Jesus.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That word “dwelt” is most interesting. In Greek, it’s the word for “pitched His tent.” The Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us. Find the flesh of Jesus, and you find the Tent of God – the very place, the specific somewhere, where He promises to be, receiving our adoration and praise, hearing our petitions and supplications, but most of all giving out His gifts of grace, mercy, and truth.

“And we have seen His glory.” Glory goes with the Tent and the Temple. “Glory” is another way of saying God’s brilliant, radiant, life-giving presence. It’s the glory that Moses and the Children of Israel saw in the wilderness, hovering over the Tabernacle. It’s the same glory that the Apostles saw in the flesh of the Man Jesus. They knew He is “the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

But they did not see that glory at Bethlehem. They weren’t there then. And, to tell you the truth, there wasn’t much glory at Bethlehem anyway. A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths may sound like a precious sight, but it’s really no different than wrapping a baby in a warming blanket in the hospital today. The miracle of Bethlehem is that this Baby is true God as well as true Man, but we have no Biblical hint that any glory was visible there. Then what about the halos and nimbi we see in the pictures? They’re imported by the artists.

But the Apostles did see the glory shine. And they saw it shine through the very flesh of Jesus Christ. It happened on the Mount of Transfiguration. John, along with Peter and James, saw the very flesh of Jesus Christ gleam like the sun, only brighter. For that brief moment they saw His divine Godhead united with the flesh that He assumed from the Virgin’s womb. It was a sight they never forgot. With this glorious event in his mind, John looks back on the Baby in the manger. He is overawed by what he sees. After all, it is our flesh that this Baby has – flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, identical with ours. And it’s this flesh stuff that is glorified in Christ Jesus beyond all imagination.

Think of that as you look at people around you. They share the same flesh – the very flesh that our God honored so highly by taking it into Himself. And once He put it on, He has never taken it off. He is still clothed in that flesh and blood that He received from Mary’s womb. It is exalted to the highest place, and yet it is still the same flesh as ours. When we see that God has honored our flesh in this way, how dare we dishonor it by treating each other shamefully? If you cannot find something good to say to or about that other person, then at least say this: “This person has the same flesh and blood as the Son of God.” And then behave toward them accordingly. Whether they know it or not, whether they realize it or not, they are blood relatives of the King of heaven.

You see, that’s why He came among us. He came to make a new beginning for the whole human race. He came to share our flesh and blood. He came to bleed and die for our sins, and thus make atonement – that is, reunite us – with God. But even more, He came to unite our weak, corrupt, and dying flesh to His flesh, His flesh radiating with strength, purity, and life. In this way He overcomes our decay and death with His glorious flesh and resurrection life.

So, the glory of God is located in the flesh of Jesus, flesh full of the life and light and grace and truth of God. And God does not leave you to find that flesh on your own. No, He locates it somewhere specific for you: “Take and eat, this is My Body. Take drink, this is My Blood.” Behold, the Tent and Temple of God! Behold, the glory and grace and truth and life and light of God for you! It’s all right here, hidden under the bread and wine, located on this very Altar. And when you eat and drink it in faith, it’s all hidden in you too. Yes, your Bethlehem Lord makes you His Temple too. He pitches His tent in you by putting His Body and Blood into you. He pours His endless life into you. He unites you to Himself as a branch to a vine, as a body part to the body – the Body of Christ, that is.

Jesus knew that His body, His flesh, is the new Tent and Temple of God. After all, He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). Yes, His flesh, His body is the very Temple of God. And here we worship and adore Him with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” Here He comes to give us His grace, His truth, and His life. Amen.

There's nothing like...

...new Christmas duds! Oh, I've not received any just yet, but Porthos and Gimli did, last night.

Here's Porthos proudly and regally sporting his new "Christmas collar." Don't you just love that distinguished, sophisticated Beagle look? :-)

And here's Gimli showing off his new Christmas collar (finally, after we settled him down from running around like a nervous idget...no, not because of the collar, but because he had to go outside for some "business"!).

And, with the help of my daughter (she has always loved dressing up our dogs!), Porthos gets to display his fashionable Christmas bow. (Actually, we were surprised he finally held still for the picture, because he kept trying to get his teeth under the "neck strap" to yank it off!)

And Gimli relaxing (finally) with his new Christmas look!

24 December 2007

Homily - Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Midnight

Where Is Bethlehem?
Luke 2:1-20

Make no mistake about it, this little Child sitting on Mary’s lap is perfect God and perfect Man. He’s the God-Man, “Immanuel” – God with us. As the Bible says, “God so loved the world,” the whole human race, that He came out of eternity into time so that we might see Him and be reunited with Him. As Isaiah proclaims to us tonight: “For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be on His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

That all sounds very nice, but perhaps it sounds a bit too abstract, a bit too disconnected from real life. After all, we want something real and down to earth. And guess what? God knows that. In fact, that’s how He created the world in which we live. There is a natural order to life in this universe: normally life functions through physical matter. Think of vegetable life. It works through flowers, plants, and trees. Think of animal life. It also works through physical matter, namely, animal bodies. And human life? Yes, we too live life in and with physical bodies. I’ll bet you’ve never seen a baby without a body!

So, the Lord of all life comes into this world, not in a blaze of glory to drive people to their knees, but in a way that fits with His own created, natural order, in a way that draws us to Himself – in a body. God manifests Himself in the flesh. The eternal God becomes a little Baby! As one favorite Christmas hymn says:

“Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!” (LSB 380:2).

But that still might seem a bit too abstract, a bit to disconnected from real life. We know the story quite well. Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger.” Imagine that: God in diapers! God nursing at His mother’s breast! Almighty God who cannot yet hold His head up straight! The Creator of all things with tiny hands and fingers that cannot yet grasp anything! God became one of us so that we can recognize and receive Him. “But that was some 2000 years ago!” you might say. “I believe all of this is quite true and beautiful. But how does it change my life here and now?”

Yes, God came in the flesh at Bethlehem many centuries ago. But it’s more than a history lesson or a cute, heart-warming, inspirational story. God became Man – God took on our human flesh and blood – to change our life even today. Children may not have a hard time seeing the reality of the Christmas story, but we adults seem to. We think of the Christmas story as, well, ancient history. We want something to help us make sense of our life here and now. We want something to help us deal with the selfishness that we suffer from other people. We need something to help us deal with the selfishness that we inflict on people around us. We might even ask, “Where is Bethlehem today?” Dear friends, Bethlehem is right here, tonight, before our very eyes. Bethlehem is right here at the Altar, in the Holy Communion.

Pastor Berthold von Schenk wrote about Christmas this way in his book, The Presence:
What is Christmas to most people? Candles, lighted trees, carols, presents, happy faces. How touching! How beautiful! Isn’t Christmas lovely? With some, it is a little more. How they love to hear the story of a young peasant maid who came to Bethlehem, who, finding no room in the inn, gives birth to her first child in a stable. With reverence they listen to the Christmas sermon as the preacher begins to rationalize on Christmas. But this must leave us unsatisfied. We feel in our inner selves that Christmas must be more than this. And it is. Christmas must be experienced. The shepherds experienced Christmas. There they found the Christ-Child and made known abroad what they had heard and seen. Through the Communion, we too have a sure way to appreciate the Manger-Child (p. 54).
Yes, as Pastor von Schenk says, Christmas must be experienced. Lighted trees, presents, and happy faces are fine things, but they are not the beating, living heart of Christmas. Hearing the Christmas story told in reading, preaching, and song is also very fine, but there’s still more. Bethlehem must come here to us today. We need the God-Man, Immanuel, the God who was born of a pure Virgin, to come and rescue us from the darkness of our sin and death. And that’s exactly what He does in the Holy Communion. Here is your Bethlehem! Here is God in the flesh for you! Here is the best way for you to experience Christmas. All of the other things are wrapping paper and pretty bows. Here, on the Altar, you have the truest, most genuine Christmas gift: the God-Man giving Himself in Body and Blood under the bread and wine for you.

Here’s the reality and down to earth life of Bethlehem that we need and crave. We live in a world that says, “Find your meaning in money” or “Find fulfillment in the many electronic toys from Best Buy or Circuit City.” The TV and the Internet train us to find our fulfillment in pleasing ourselves at the click of the remote or the computer mouse. But we human beings were not made for such shallow things. We were not made to be automatons that merely seek the next little thrill for a quick fix. Besides, focusing on ourselves in these ways leaves us very unfulfilled, even frustrated. And we end up taking our frustrations out on people around us, on those near and dear to us, even on our fellow Christians. Deep down, we know there’s something more to life. And Bethlehem on the Altar delivers it.

In our second reading St. Paul describes the glorious fruit of Christmas, the joys of Bethlehem on the Altar for us. He says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” When we experience Christmas at the Lord’s Altar, we learn how to do just that, how to live godly lives in the present age. We see how our Lord has honored us by becoming one of us. We see how He honors the whole human race. We see how His love for us begins to radiate in us and through us toward the people around us. We see that our real meaning and fulfillment come from the God who loves us enough to become one of us.

You see, God so loved the world that He came into the world. He came into the world to lift us up to Himself, to restore us to His life and His love. The very flesh and blood Son of God born of the Virgin Mary comes here today. He’s the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, who spilled His innocent blood on the cross. He’s the same Lord of life who conquered death by dying and then rising again on the third day. And He gives you this life in His Body and Blood on the Altar. “Veiled in [Meal] the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”

So, where is Bethlehem? It’s right here at the Altar. How do you experience Christmas aright? Right here at the Altar, eating and drinking the very Body and Blood of the God-Man, the Manger-Child, the God-with-us, Immanuel. And with the eyes of faith, you will see on this Altar not merely bread and wine, but the Christ-Child, the Word made flesh. And then you can imitate Mother Mary by treasuring all these things, pondering them in your hearts. And then you can leave here imitating the shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all that you have heard and seen…and tasted, as it has been told you. Amen.

Christ's Holy Birth is Our Birth

From Martin Luther, Sermon for Christmas Day, 1522 (cited in "Day by Day We Magnify Thee," p. 33):

Christ has a holy birth, immaculate and pure. Man's birth is unclean, sinful, and accursed, and man can only be helped through the holy birth of Christ. Yet Christ's birth cannot be shared out to us, nor would it help; but it is offered spiritually unto every man wherever the Word is preached. He who firmly believes and receives it will not suffer harm because of his own sinful birth.

That is the way we are cleansed of our wretched Adam's birth, and that is why it was Christ's will and pleasure to be born as man, so that in Him we might be born again. 'Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of truth, that we should be reborn unto a new creation.' Behold, in this manner Christ takes our birth away from us and sinks it in His own birth and gives us His birth, that we may be made new and clean, as if it were our own birth. Therefore shall every Christian man rejoice in this birth of Christ, and glory in it, as if he too were born of Mary. He who does not believe that, or doubts it, is no Christian.

O, this is the great joy of which the angel speaks. This is God's comfort and His surpassing goodness, that man (if he believeth) may glory in such a treasure, that Mary be his very Mother, Christ his Brother, and God his Father. For all these things have truly happened that we might believe in them.

See, then, that thou make this birth thine own and dost change with Him, so that thou mayest be rid of thy birth, and mayest take over His, which comes to pass if thou believest. Thus does thou surely sit in the Virgin Mary's lap, and art her darling child. But thou must learn to have such faith and to exercise it throughout thine earthly life, for it can never be strong enough.

(I just love it when Luther, the German, speaks in Elizabethan English! :-)

"The Doctrine of Bethlehem" - part 6

Just in time for celebrating the Nativity of our Lord, here's the sixth and final installment of what I'm calling "The Doctrine of Bethlehem" taken from Pr. Berthold von Schenk, in his book The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion (1945). I hope that these readings from von Schenk have helped you prepare to celebrate the mystery of our Lord's Incarnation, especially as we experience it - indeed all of Bethlehem - at the Altar. I know they have helped me!

Here's Part 6, continuing and concluding Chapter III:

It is Christmas. The Gospel states “And it came to pass that a decree, etc.” The preacher gives his message. The sacred vessels are being prepared. Then these words are prayed: “This is My Body.” Now what do you see, bread and wine? Yes! and more! These are only the veil. It is now the true Body and Blood of our Lord. Remember the Spiritual Body. If we have the eyes of faith we see the Babe in Mary’s lap, not as it was then in the state of humiliation, limited to space, but glorified, triumphant, through His Resurrection Body.

An awful mystery is here
To challenge faith and waken fear;
The Saviour comes in food divine,
Concealed in earthly bread and wine.

In consecrated wine and bread
No eye perceives the mystery dread,
But Jesus’ words are strong and clear;
My Body and My Blood are here.

We come to Church on Christmas and we have the right to ask: Where is He? In Bethlehem, is the answer. But where is Bethlehem? Thank God that we can be directed. We are as sure of it as the angel was. We must believe this: The Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…then wrapped in Mary’s arms, now wrapped in bread and wine.

Communion is the bulwark of our faith in Bethlehem and in the Incarnation of our Lord. Every time we receive the Communion we confess to the faith that this little Babe is Mary’s Son and God’s Son. And we know that to those who kneel at the Communion rail, the fact of Bethlehem becomes a reality in a very special manner. The faithful communicant will never question the Virgin Birth; he will never doubt that the Christ-Child is true God and man, for there He is—the same—yesterday, today, and forever.

Therefore, the Holy Sacrament is the bulwark of our faith and doctrines, rather than any elaborate system of doctrine apart from it. If we neglect this truth, then the deadly fifth column starts its dreadful work in our midst, weakening gradually but surely our real defences [sic]. The Holy Sacrament is the battleground of the very belief in the Deity of Christ. At the Altar there can be no rationalism. At the Altar all shadow of doubt disappears and Christmas means something real, for through it we are linked to Bethlehem.

What is Christmas to most people? Candles, lighted trees, carols, presents, happy faces. How touching! How beautiful! Isn’t Christmas lovely? With some, it is a little more. How they love to hear the story of a young peasant maid who came to Bethlehem, who, finding no room in the inn, gives birth to her first child in a stable. With reverence they listen to the Christmas sermon as the preacher begins to rationalize on Christmas. But this must leave us unsatisfied. We feel in our inner selves that Christmas must be more than this. And it is. Christmas must be experienced. The shepherds experienced Christmas. There they found the Christ-Child and made know abroad what they had heard and seen. Through the Communion, we too have a sure way to appreciate the Manger-Child.

You may say: Are you not materializing God? Is there not something almost superstitious about it? Indeed not. We are following very biblical lines. God is worshipped through the finite body, and is approached through this finite channel because the world is built on that law, because we are made in that fashion. Unless we have a great truth focused to a point where we can grasp it, it is unreal, hypothetical, theoretical. Our Christmas must be based not only upon an historical fact, but it must be a vibrant truth, a reality, an experience. And this truth becomes a reality in the Communion. At the Altar we fling the challenge to the world. We say: Man has not been made for money, or wage-slavery, or mere pleasure or passion; man was not made to be a machine. Man has been made to be God’s own, made in the image of Eternity. And this is not the vague dream of a mystic. It sprang into realization at Bethlehem and is brought down to us today at the Altar.

It is Christmas. Have you found the way to Bethlehem? It is important to make straight the pathway of the Lord into your hearts. That duty is now done. Now take your pilgrim-staff and your gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You will not have to stop off at Jerusalem to inquire the way. The Altar is your Star. There you will find Bethlehem.

Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Indeed, “bread of life,” “staff of life.” You will come, then, as the shepherds came. You will kneel as they did in adoration. And if your vision of faith is clear enough, you will see at the Altar not merely bread and wine, but the Christ-Child, the Word made flesh. After Christmas? You will do the same as did the Wise Men. They went home by another way, not by way of Jerusalem. You will go another way, the way of the new life. And with the shepherds you will also make known abroad all that you have seen and realized. The confession—“Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man,” will be more than a vague truth, more than an historical event. Christmas will be an experience. You will truly understand the truth of the angelic words: “They shall call His Name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us,” aye, Immanuel—at the Altar.

23 December 2007

Homily - Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli

The Mother of God
Luke 1:39-56

She was just a teenage girl, only about 14 or 15 years old. She had long dark hair and a dark, Middle-Eastern complexion. She wore humble clothes, nothing showy about them. She was not married, but she was engaged. Then, all of a sudden, she had an unplanned pregnancy. Think of it – an unmarried teenager, pregnant outside of wedlock! It’s enough to make you gasp. It surely made Joseph, her fiancĂ©, decide to “divorce her quietly” (Mt. 1:19). But this is Mary…the pure Virgin…the Mother of God!

We do well to honor this pure Virgin. Yes, you heard me right. We Christians, even we Lutherans, do well to honor Mary. No, I did not say “worship”; I did not say “pray to” her. I simply said, “honor her.” Some in the Church may go overboard and say that she is a “co-redeemer,” but we Lutherans tend too go to far in the other direction and sideline her altogether. As we try not to worship her, we forget to give her proper honor. So, today let’s honor Mary, the Mother of God, even as we worship her Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let’s honor Mary, the pure Virgin, the Mother of God, just as the angel Gabriel did. When he greeted her, he called her “favored one.” Some translations even say, “highly favored.” What made Mary “highly favored”? Gabriel said, “the Lord is with you.” Mary found favor with God because God showered her with His grace and mercy. Mary was nothing special in herself, but God did choose Mary to carry and give birth to His own divine Son. We honor Mary because she shows us the way of humble faith. After the angel told her all the great things about her Son, the Son of God Most High, she faithfully said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

Let’s honor Mary, the pure Virgin, the Mother of God, just as Elizabeth did. After Mary heard the announcement that she would give birth to the Savior of the world, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. We honor Mary because she shows us the way of life in God’s creation. As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s own baby leaps in her womb. What made Elizabeth’s baby leap? When Mary walked into the room, she carried God-in-the-Flesh in her womb.

Somehow pre-born John knew that he was in the presence of pre-born Jesus, and he leaped for joy inside Elizabeth. Both John and Jesus were more than “tissue mass,” as some say today. They were full-fledged human beings. They had God’s gift of life from the moment of their conception. We honor Mary because she shows us that life begins at the moment of conception. When the Creator of the universe, the Son of God, was conceived, He showed that life in the womb is truly precious and sacred. Let’s honor Mary and worship her Son by standing firmly against abortion and embryonic stem cell research. But let’s also honor Mary and worship Her Son by bringing those brutalized by abortion into the Church to hear the healing forgiveness of Jesus the Savior.

Let’s honor Mary, the pure Virgin, the Mother of God, in the same way that Elizabeth did. Let’s call her “blessed…among women.” Why? Because the Fruit of her womb, Jesus, blesses her by being present in the flesh. Elizabeth called Mary and the Fruit of her womb “blessed” by singing a hymn of praise. She worshiped in the very presence of God in the flesh. Elizabeth did not merely say, “Nice to see you, Mary,” and then rush off to her other duties or activities. She did not view her worship as just another chore or obligation. No, Elizabeth paused. She sang her liturgical hymn. She realized that God Himself was present, so she sang with awe and amazement.

So, how’s your worship? Are you worshiping just because it’s on your schedule? Are you more concerned about who is or isn’t here, or what choir is or isn’t here? I urge you to imitate Elizabeth. Worship and sing your liturgical song with awe and amazement. You see, God still comes to you in the flesh. Jesus, the Fruit of Mary’s womb, comes right here. Worship is not some mere schedule filler. It’s our very lifeline with God; it’s where we meet God in the flesh, God who comes to us in His Son. Elizabeth could not see Jesus any more than you can now. Then Jesus was hidden inside His Mother’s womb. Later He would be hidden by the shame of a dead Man on a cross. Now He is hidden under His Gospel message, His Baptismal water, and the bread and wine on His Altar. But He is still present to bless and forgive. So, sing your song of blessing. Honor Mary and worship her Son.

Today’s Gospel reading sounds a lot like the story of David bringing the Ark of God back to Jerusalem 1000 years before Jesus (2 Sam. 6). Just as David arose and journeyed to Jerusalem, so did Mary. David took the Ark of God – the seat of God’s presence – to Jerusalem. So did Mary as she carried Jesus. Both the Ark and Mary are greeted with shouts of joy. The Ark was brought to the house of Obed-Edom. Mary brought Jesus to the house of Elizabeth. David cried out in terror: “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” Elizabeth cried out in awe and amazement: “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” The Ark of God stayed at the house of Obed-Edom for three months and was a source of great blessing to his house. Mary stayed at the house of Elizabeth for three months and was a source of great blessing to her house.

The Ark was the seat of God’s presence in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Mary becomes the seat of God’s presence. Now, in our day, the Church is where the Lord is present in His Gospel and Sacraments. And the Church carries more than Mary did. The Church carries not only the Savior conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; she also carries the Savior who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. She carries the Savior who rose from the dead on the third day. The Fruit of Mary’s womb still comes to you. And this very house is incredibly blessed. Here, in this place, you receive Jesus and His gifts of newborn life and cross-won forgiveness. So, we get to honor Mary as the Mother of God and worship her Son who is still God in the flesh and with us still.

Finally, let us honor Mary, the pure Virgin, the Mother of God, just as Elizabeth did. Let’s echo Elizabeth’s words: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary shows us how to live by faith. She was a virgin yet pregnant. She would give birth to a Son, and yet she would remain a pure virgin. Our Lutheran Confessions say it this way: “[Jesus] showed His divine majesty even in His mother’s womb, because He was born of a virgin, without violating her virginity. Therefore, she is truly the mother of God and yet has remained a virgin” (FC SD VIII:24). God would use this humble virgin to carry out His work of saving sinners such as us.

One writer said this about Mary: “If Jesus Christ is the Savior, Mary is, par excellence, the image of the saved” (Hopko, Winter Pascha, 20). Mary is the perfect picture of the Church and of individual Christians. She received Jesus by the word of the angel. You receive Jesus by the words of God proclaimed into your ears. Mary trusted that God would preserve and keep her, no matter what people around her might say. You may trust God to keep and preserve you no matter what happens in your life, no matter what the world around you says about you or your Lord Jesus.

Mary was made pure by God’s grace. So are you. Mary had the mission of carrying Jesus, God’s Son, into the world. You get to do the very same thing. The world started celebrating its backwards version of Christmas right after Thanksgiving. Now everyone is tired from the shopping, the partying, and the rat race they call “Happy Holidays.” But you, dear people of God, now you get to carry Christ to people around you. You get to announce the Savior who forgives sinners and reunites them with the God who gives life and light. You get to sing with Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

One preacher once said this about Mary: “As long as the focus of the spotlight is on the Lord Jesus Christ, the richer the radiance that reflects upon His Mother the better.” Let’s honor Mary, the Mother of God, because she brings us our Savior and shows us how to receive His salvation. Amen.

"The Doctrine of Bethlehem" - part 5

Part 5 of our serial reading from von Schenk's The Presence ties Bethlehem with Christ's Resurrection Body and, of course, with the Altar. Here's the first half of chapter III:

Chapter III
Finding Bethlehem Today

Our destiny is supernatural. We must be caught up with the divine love. We are to love God so much, and be so “one with Him” that His own very love is to shine in us and through us to others.

Now you will say: “That is right. I have failed in my life because I have not had love, the God love in me. But I see it now.” And then, with tears in your eyes, you will say bitterly: “How can I own this love? How can I fulfill my destiny of union with God? It is a beautiful thought—and yet so impractical.” But that is not true. It is not vague. Bethlehem is not just a beautiful fact of history. You can find Bethlehem. Bethlehem is here today, living and vibrant. Bethlehem comes to us in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. At the Altar you find Bethlehem—There is Christmas! If we become as a child of simple faith and good will we shall see it as we have never seen it before.

The angel’s [sic] directed the shepherds:

“And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Is there not a sign for us? Bethlehem is a very beautiful story. It must be more than the sweetest story ever told. Christmas must really be more than candles, more than tinsel. How is this possible? We were directed to Bethlehem by way of Bethlehem’s doctrine. Then we progressed to the though how Bethlehem shows us our highest destiny. Let us now see how Bethlehem is brought down to us today.

At Bethlehem, 1900 years ago [von Schenk writes in 1945!], God applied the laws of His own creation, focusing Himself in the form of a little Babe. The Word, the Eternal, was made flesh so that we could behold Him, grasp Him, see Him. He did this because the world is what it is. However, He has also focused the truth of Bethlehem so that it can be vibrant and living today. He did this because of what we are. What are we? Spirit? Only immortal soul? All of that, but more. We are a spirit functioning through matter. Our soul expresses itself through our body—our weak, frail, finite body.

“God is a spirit and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth.” We cannot cast out our spirit from our body. Our body is the only vehicle by which our spirit can work. We are an infinite soul, wrapped in a finite body. God has given us the spiritual enshrined in the material. He gives us the unseen veiled in the seen. He did this in Bethlehem. It is because of this that the Christmas story is so meaningful to young and old. It is to be more than a story, even more than a great truth of doctrine. Bethlehem must be brought down to today. Bethlehem today! How? Where? At the Altar. “This shall be a sign to you.”

Why must Bethlehem be more than an event, more than a doctrine, a theory? Faust answers: “Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, und gruen des Lebens goldener Baum.” [“Gray, dear friend, is all theory, and green the life the golden tree.”] All theory is indeed gray. Christmas must be green and living.

If we take offense at God’s making this truth of Bethlehem real to us by His Real Presence at the Altar, then we must take offense also at the whole Christmas story. If we stumble at the Altar, we shall also stumble at the threshold of the stable.

There are people who say: I believe only in the non-material religion. That position would be correct if we were angels—but we are not. We are men. Therefore, God must deal with us as we are. What, then, is our doctrine of the Altar? We believe that the bodily Presence of Christ is in the bread and wine. The Catechism calls it “a sacramental, not a spiritual eating and drinking.” Through the outward means, bread and wine, we obtain the inward, the Body and Blood, given and shed for the remission of sins. It is the unseen, veiled in the seen. Now we know that God is everywhere. But is not God in any special place? We ask Moses, “Where is God?” He tells us, “God is everywhere.” “But is He not in any special place, Moses?” “Aye, in the burning bush. Take off thy shoes.” We ask the High Priest, “Where is God?” “Everywhere.” “But is He not in some special place?” “Aye, in the Holy of Holies, at the Ark of the Covenant.” We ask our catechumens where God is. They reply: “Where the Word is.” How true! But is He not in some special place? Yes, at the Altar, for Christ says: “This is My Body.” You may say to yourself; is not all this quite complicated? It is, unless you have the interpreter’s stone. The key to the whole problem is the spiritual Body of the Risen Saviour. Recall that after His resurrection, He had the spiritual Body. He came through closed doors, and yet the disciples saw Him. He ate broiled fish and yet ascended to Heaven. Now we cannot explain this risen spiritual Body, because the risen Body of the Lord is governed by divine laws of which we know nothing.

We know it only by revelation. But if we deny the reality of the spiritual Body we shall have to remove from our Bible all the resurrection appearances of our Lord, and that is what many people do, consciously or unconsciously. They cannot think of a body, except it be like there own, carnal, limited, subject to death and decay. But Paul insists that there is a natural body and that there is a spiritual body. At the cemetery we say it…”Sown a natural body; is raised a spiritual body…for this corruptible must put on incorruption.”

If you desire to bring Bethlehem down to today, then you must sit at Paul’s feet and listen closely to his teachings of the Resurrection Body. Likewise, in our comprehension of the Bodily Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, we must also sit at Paul’s feet to hear him declare: “There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body" (pp. 49-52).

22 December 2007

"The Doctrine of Bethlehem" - part 4

Part 4 continues where Part 3 left off and runs through the end of Chapter II of The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion:

The only thing which can satisfy man’s heart is to love God so completely that man becomes the channel of the divine love to his fellowmen. The only love which will affect our fellow men is the supernatural love. All other love is tainted with self-interest, and this is the reason why we often fail—because we do not love enough with the divine love. If we could only love with the divine love, then our duties to God and to our fellowmen would become an expression of our divine love. This is the one thing we must ever seek in Bethlehem—that Bethlehem begets in us that divine love—a selfless, supernatural love, which is the Bethlehem love, a love which alone can ease the heartache of the world.

When we fail in our relationships with our fellowmen, either at home or in business, it is because our love is tainted with self-interest. But it is only the divine love which can make us irresistible.

And this love can save society. The world is always tense with wars, revolutions, global planning. If it is not one thing it is another. Labor is tense, capital is tense—dissatisfaction. The result is more revolution. Why does man revolt? He revolts because he is dissatisfied. That much he knows. The laboring man knows, perhaps only subconsciously, that he has not been created to be a machine, a cog in the wheel of selfish, materialistic civilization, and he rebels against such an order of things. Still he may not know the true reason for his dissatisfaction, which is that man has been made for union with God, and nothing else can satisfy him but that. An eight hour day, minimum wage scales, proper housing conditions, are not the answer. Bethlehem is the answer to the labor problem, for Bethlehem means union with God. And why is the employer, the rich man, so often unhappy? You say that he has everything—no financial worries, every luxury, beautiful homes, shiny cars, money in the bank, security; but he is unhappy still—discontented. Why? Within yourself you think; if I had his money I would never complain again! Oh yes, you would. This man is unhappy despite his money and luxuries because deep down in his soul he knows that he has not been made for money. He has not been made for riches. For after he has accumulated his fortune, he finds himself still dissatisfied. Why? Because he has been made for God.

The only solution, then, for the agony of the industrial world, whether we be in the ranks of labor or capital, is Bethlehem; that divine fact that God came down to earth to lift man up to Himself. Any philosophy, any social order which ignores it, is bound to lead to hell. There are two conflicting forces in life: Good and evil; love and self; God and the devil; Heaven and hell. And if you find the Bethlehem evangel in your life, then Love and Heaven are yours. If not, you will read hell. The reason we have hell in our national, political, social and domestic life so often is that men have lost the way to Bethlehem. The reason we church-members are so impotent is that we too often lose sight of the way and, therefore, cannot direct others back to Bethlehem (pp. 47-48).

21 December 2007

"The Doctrine of Bethlehem" - part 3

Our serial reading of Pr. Berthold von Schenk's treatment of Bethlehem and Christmas, in his book The Presence (Ernst Kaufmann, Inc., 1945), continues with Chapter II, "The Vision of Bethelehem":

Chapter II
The Vision of Bethlehem

Are you an earnest seeker? Do you want Christmas to mean more than holly wreaths and tinsel? If so, let us inquire earnestly: “Where is Bethlehem?”

We have deepened our understanding of the doctrine of Bethlehem. The doctrine enshrined in Bethlehem is this: The little baby Jesus is God Himself, and still the little baby Jesus.

Why was He born a little baby? So that He could focus Himself on our thinking and feeling. Again, why did He become man? The answer which gives us the biggest lift is this: God became true man so that He could thereby bring us back to Himself.

How difficult it is to bring home the Christmas message! The Preacher wants Christmas to be a reality, to count, to mean something in people’s lives; but too often he finds that the people still thing of Christmas in terms of candles and holly wreaths. But it can be much more to us if we get the Vision of Bethlehem. How is this possible? Bethlehem, let us remember, cannot be rationalized. It can at least be realized. And if it is to be realized, then we must become really simple—simple enough to grasp the full implications of just one word—and that word is the key to the mystery of God, the mystery of our problems and troubled lives—and that word is Love. The mystery of Bethlehem is meaningful when we remember that God is Love.

Why did God create man? What was His motive? Why—love, and love cannot be anything else but itself. God made us because He loved us. What does God desire of us? What does love always desire? Love does not ask for gifts. Love asks for love. “I don’t want your gifts,” says the maid to her lover, “I want you.” Why this? Because love must always give itself to and for the beloved. If love were to give anything else but love, it would not be real love. Now this little baby in Bethlehem is God. It is love, it is God giving Himself.

Mark you, Bethlehem reveals its secret only to those who receive the simple truth that God is Love, and Love can never be satisfied with anything less than Love. When we realize that God is Love, Bethlehem must follow. It would almost seem to us that it all could have been no different from God’s point of view if it would fulfill this loving purpose with man. Because God is Love, Love had to give itself. It did give itself. The Child in Bethlehem was born because God love the world.

But let us see this from man’s point of view.

God is love. He made us because He loved us, and He gave Himself at Bethlehem. But there is more to this. He gave Himself so that we could love Him in return! To love God is man’s highest destiny. Thus Bethlehem teaches man his highest destiny, his greatest goal, and if people could find the way to Bethlehem, all problems and difficulties could be solved.

What is man at his best? Is not a child of God at his best always when he gropes after God? The poet realized this: “ As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul for thee, O God, My soul thristeth for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” This is not the cry of a helpless fanatic. This is the cry of a man at his best. The most precious longing of the heart is to be at one with God. Jesus expressed this with His own precious lips on the night before He died, when He prayed for His disciples in that high-priestly prayer: “That they also may be one in us; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the love wherewith Thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” We are to be one with God through our faith in Christ—by our surrender to Him. This union with God through our Lord Jesus Christ is to be so real, so complete, that the very love with which the Father love the Son, that is, the very divine Love itself, the love of Bethlehem, the love of Calvary, is to RADIATE IN AND THROUGH US. That is our destiny. There can be no other destiny than this. We are to be so completely at one with God that our weak love is caught up with His divine love. And the result is that we become channels of the divine love to others. Not a love like the divine love, but the very divine love itself. Therefore Jesus said, “…that the love wherewith Thou hast loved me may be in them.” Our destiny then, is to love with the divine love. It cannot be otherwise. We know that this is true. In our best moments we know it is true. It is the only thing which can keep us sane. Therefore, since that first Christmas Eve, the Christian in his deepest moments, has turned to Bethlehem—sometimes with hope, often almost with despair, but he turns to it as the sweetest thing in the history of man. He turns to Bethlehem because Bethlehem shows him his highest destiny—to love. Thus Christmas must be a vision of divine love. This is the HOPE OF THE WORLD. The story of Bethlehem is important, but the receiving of the Bethlehem Love is Life (pp. 44-47, emphasis original).

St. Thomas, Apostle

Today the Church remembers and thanks God for St. Thomas. Though a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus, Thomas wasn't quite sure about the message he received from the other ten that they had seen the Risen Lord. We usually think of Thomas as "doubting," but the text uses the word "unbelieving." And I wonder if it isn't best to keep the context in mind: Thomas wasn't doubting/unbelieving everything, but specifically that the other ten had seen the Risen Lord.

At any rate, we remember and honor St. Thomas because the Lord does lead him to confess the God-Man, Jesus Christ. What a great confession of the Divine-Human Savior Thomas makes when he says, "My Lord and my God"! And that just after he had poked his fingers and hands into Jesus' very open, fleshly wounds in His hands and His side. That wounded Man is truly God and Lord indeed.

So, we can thank God for Thomas because we see how He, our gracious Lord, handles our doubts and questions that undoubtedly creep up on us from time to time: He simply keeps revealing Himself to us; He lets us poke around and explore the wounds; He does bring us to confess Him as "Lord and God." It's no wonder that the Church as placed this feast so close to the celebration of the Christ-Mass. In just a few days we'll all get to hear and sing with great joy that our Lord and God is in the flesh and in the manger at Bethlehem!

Hymn Verse:
All praise, O Lord, for Thomas,
Whose short-lived doubtings prove
Your perfect twofold nature,
The fullness of Your love.
To all who live with questions
A steadfast faith afford;
And grant us grace to know You,
True man, yet God and Lord. (LSB, 517:6)

Collect for St. Thomas, Apostle
Almighty and ever-living God, You strengthened Your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in the resurrection of Your Son. Grant us such faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that we may never be found wanting in Your sight; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

20 December 2007

And for a little "holy-day" fun...

...check out this rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" (quite entertaining, for a bunch of men impersonating nuns!).

...and, while you're at it, check out this cultural statement about saying, "Merry Christmas" instead of a mere "Happy Holidays."

Incarnation and Renewal of Creation

Here's a great little gem from St. Athanasius. As he introduces his work, On the Incarnation, he ties our salvation together with creation. After all, he says, the same Incarnate Word accomplishes both.

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 1:1, emphasis original).

"The Doctrine of Bethlehem" - part 2

Advent preparations are winding down and the celebration of Christ's Birth is just around the corner. So we continue the serial reading from Pr. Berthold von Schenk's book, The Presence, under the title "The Doctrine of Bethlehem." This section picks up where Part 1 left off (p. 41) and runs through the end of Chapter 1:

Some may complain that all this is too theological, to dogmatic, and perhaps to abstract. Is there not some spot on earth where this great truth can be focused, where we can reach out to this mystery which the angels desired to behold? Can we not have it human, real, living? It is possible. We can harness that great truth of Bethlehem to a single point. We can translate it into a concrete concept which will bring this sublime truth nearer to us. “God Himself has given us this focusing point in the Incarnation. God had to do it since the world is what it is.” “There is a law which runs throughout our universe. It is this, that life normally functions through matter. Life is known to us through outward signs. The scientist will tell you that this is a law of the universe. Take the lowest form of life—vegetable life. How is it known? Through flowers and trees. Take animal life. How is this known? Through animal bodies. Human life is know through human bodies. You never saw a baby without a body. So then, when the great life of all lives came into the world—when the Eternal was to function here on earth as Saviour, how did He come? In a blaze of glory across the sky to drive men down to their knees? No, He came through the law which runs throughout His creation. God was manifest in the flesh. God, the Eternal, became a little baby”—

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity!”

“They all were looking for a King
To stay they foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st, a little baby-thing,
That made a woman cry.”

“And this shall be the sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Simply the story is told: Mary brought forth her first-born Son and wrapped Him in diapers. God in diapers! You see, God obeyed His own Law—He focused Himself to Bethlehem, so that we could conceive of Him through our finite minds. In order that we could harness the great truth with our finite minds, God was made very human babe, and there is nothing so human in all the world as a baby. God became one of us—so that we could realize Him. You will say, “I can grasp that, but my trouble is not with some history which happened 1900 years ago. I believe all this to be true and beautiful. I also believe this was God manifest in the flesh, the eternal God in a manger. But how can this truth become effective in my life? How can it be a living truth? We follow the same scientific law. As God focused Himself in Bethlehem and to Bethlehem as a little babe, in order that we can historically grasp Him and realize Him, so He has also focused the Truth of the Incarnation. He made it possible for the doctrine of Bethlehem to be a reality today.

It is true that Bethlehem, the Virgin Mother and the angels are a reality to many little children. They do not have to be convinced about the reality of Bethlehem. But how hard it is for a grownup to become as a little child. How difficult it is for us to have and to hold the reality of Bethlehem by merely hearing about it. However, it can be brought down to today, for it is focused beautifully for the believer at the Altar—in the Holy Communion. The Holy Communion is the continuation of the Incarnation.

Homily - Advent 3 Midweek

Waiting with Isaiah: Waiting for God's Promised Land
Isaiah 35:1-10 & James 5:7-11

This Advent we’ve been “Waiting with Isaiah.” The Prophet Isaiah spoke some pretty amazing promises about the coming Messiah – and all about 700 years before the Messiah would come. God’s people would have to wait to receive and rejoice in God’s promised Savior. Just as God’s people waited, lo, those 700 years, we’ve been learning to wait with Isaiah, and just a few weeks to celebrate the Savior’s Birth. So, how well have we been doing?

Two weeks ago we heard about “God’s Promised Justice.” Since our coming King promises and gives His cross-won justice – His victory over our enemies of sin, death, and Satan – we can learn to wait for God to give us His final victory, His final vindication, for all eternity. And as we wait for that day, we can put off the works of darkness. Last week we heard about “God’s Promised Peace.” When our King came in the flesh, He inaugurated lasting peace between us sinners and our loving God. That peace, which passes all understanding, fills us with encouragement, hope, and harmony as we wait for His full, final, and eternal peace. So, how well are we doing in our waiting?

Let me ask that question another way. Are you just plain tired and worn out – tired of the rat race called “the Holiday season”? Are you already stuffed to the gills from the Christmas goodies and the Christmas luncheons, dinners, and parties? Do you feel absolutely under the gun to get everything done, frantic that it won’t get done, and stretched too thin in too many directions all at once? Are you looking forward to December 25 so that you can just crash and burn and say, “Whew, glad that ‘merry chaos’ is over”? If so, to whatever degree, you haven’t been waiting very well, have you?

Yes, waiting is very difficult for us Americans. Being patient is just not in our cultural DNA. Like children waiting for Grandma and Grandpa to arrive so that we can begin opening presents, we get antsy and fussy if it – any it – takes too long at all.

Perhaps it’s hard for us Christians to wait for God’s promised justice and His promised peace because, well, they don’t seem real enough. Hey, we gotta live in the here and now, Pastor. We gotta be practical and down to earth, you know. That justice stuff, especially from things like sin, death, and the devil, may seem more like a dream than real life. That peace stuff, especially if we can’t see it, may seem more like a Christmas card wish than something real to experience and enjoy.

Isaiah’s words tonight should give the soothing, healing medicine we need. Isaiah promises: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Now that’s more real – a barren, dry land blossoming with vibrant life. Sounds like a real promised land. The prophet continues: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” More joyous, real-life stuff – blind people able to see again; deaf people able to hear; limping people able to walk and leap without hindrance; and tongues loosed to sing for joy. It’s a new creation folks. It’s a creation that bubbles forth with good life – life without the problems that we face day to day and at different stages of life. Truly a promised land And, yes, folks, Isaiah promises; it will happen.

And between these great, real-life promises, Isaiah says: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” My, how we need those words as our weariness leads us to stumble through the “merry chaos” season! “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’” Great words for us who are so anxious about getting everything done and just enduring until December 25! “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Normally vengeance is a bad thing, but when it’s God’s vengeance on behalf of His redeemed people, then we can welcome it with open arms. You see, God is our mighty King who comes to rescue us from our prisoner of war camp in Satan’s domain.

You see, dear friends, our worries, our weariness, our impatience with crazy drivers, with shopping mall clerks, and with each other show that we are not waiting so well. In fact they show that, spiritually, we still live in Satan’s prisoner of war camp called this fallen world. If we are stressed out and anxious, it’s because we are diverting our eyes from our Coming King. If we are impatient with fellow Christians, loved ones, and friends, it’s because we falsely think that all of our efforts at creating the “perfect Christmas” (again, this year) will create heaven on earth, at least for a day or two.

But, dear friends, Isaiah promises our real heaven on earth, our real new creation, our real promised land. It all comes when our Lord God comes as the Infant in the manger to save us. It all comes when the Son of God takes on our flesh and blood to restore us to life in His kingdom. It all comes when Jesus Christ spills that innocent blood and has His perfect body broken on a cross to rescue us from being prisoners in Satan’s war against the Triune God. Our Lord Jesus comes to inaugurate His eternal “promised land,” a land where we need not worry over and succumb to crowded malls, forgotten gifts, hectic schedules, or overindulging. You see, God’s promised land is where Jesus gives His forgiveness, His life, and His rescue from our self-centered concerns. God’s promised land is not in the shopping mall or around the Christmas tree; it’s in the Church. It’s where the Son of God stretches out His arms, even as they are nailed to a tree, and says, “Come, I will give you rest.” It’s the promise that Isaiah gave some 2700 years ago, and it’s still true: “The ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Did you hear that? In God’s promised land of Jesus and His Church, our sorrow and sighing shall flee away. What replaces our anxieties and our stresses? The singing, the everlasting joy, the gladness that our God, that Infant small, has conquered our sins, our death, and the devil himself.

And so, dear friends, we once again hear very timely and wise words to help us wait, this time from St. James, the brother of our Lord: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.” We can be patient, because our God has come in the flesh. As a farmer plants his crop and waits for rain and soil to work together to bear the fruits of the crop, we can wait for our God to deliver us from our self-inflicted “merry chaos.” St. James continues: “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Yes, when you keep your eyes on your Coming King, the anxieties of “merry chaos” fade away.

And James even gives an additional bit of sage, sanctified advice: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” Yes, the King is coming. He has come in flesh and blood. He continues to come in the preaching of His forgiveness and life. He continues to come in the very Body and Blood on the Altar. And He will come again to rescue us from this fallen land and bring us to our eternal promised land. With such great promises already given and yet to come, why grumble against one another? We get to spend eternity together, with our God who is Love and with each other. We get to celebrate His mercy and compassion now and into eternity. There’s no need to let the world’s chaos get the better of us. As James also says: “you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Amen.

19 December 2007

"The Doctrine of Bethlehem" - part 1

As we continue and conclude our Advent preparations, and as we look forward to celebrating the Christ-Mass, here's a little something from Pr. Berthold von Schenk on what he calls "The Doctrine of Bethlehem." Some great and meaty devotional reading for our Advent preparations and Christmas celebrations!

Chapter 1
“Et Incarnatus Est”

The Church confesses, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…. Being of one substance with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man.”

This sublime truth of Christmas is based on the simply story told by Luke: “While they were there the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Another Evangelist tells of Wise Men who came to Jerusalem at the time of the birth of Jesus and inquired: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” The Wise men sought Bethlehem. They asked, “Where is Bethlehem?” This should be our great quest. Can we find Bethlehem to-day? [sic] Can Bethlehem be more to us than an historical event? The Wise Men found Bethlehem. The Shepherds also found it and worshipped the Child. We too can find Him if we are men and women of good-will, if we have a sincerity of purpose, seeking earnestly and eagerly. We might have to overcome certain habits, rid ourselves of some prejudices, and permit ourselves to be guided and to follow the sign given unto us.

Repentance is the condition for a successful quest.

Repentance is necessary before we can find the real Bethlehem. Thus John, the herald of the Christ, preached repentance as a necessary condition for entrance into the Kingdom. The word that is used in the New Testament for repentance literally means a change of mind. This is not simply an acceptance of new ideas in place of old notions. It actually implies a complete change of one’s inner attitude.

To repent is to change the inner attitude toward self, toward sin, toward God, toward Christ. The Herald of the Messiah came preaching to vile publicans and to haughty Pharisees, “Change your inner attitude.” He who seeks the way to Bethlehem will get this direction, “Except you repent, change your attitude, have a complete reversal of your inner attitude, you will never find Christmas.”

How Shall We Find Bethlehem?

There is first of all the doctrine of Bethlehem. There is nothing more thrilling than when Christians confess—“And was made man.” We want to kneel when we express this great mystery that God became man.

To state it very simply, the doctrine of Bethlehem is that God became man and remained God. The human nature of the Divine Redeemer was the instrument of His redemptive work. We must believe that, for John says: “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.” Scripture thus calls Him the Son of Abraham, the Rod of Jesse, the Son of Mary. God had to become man and lower Himself. Let us imagine a conversation in Heaven. God the Father says to His Son, “You wish to redeem mankind? It is better not to don the apparel of a Ruler, on the contrary, in a manger you will lie, the lowliest bed, and this bed will be in a stable, for such is the world to which you will go.”

To find Bethlehem, then, we must realize that our Saviour, that Child in the Bethlehem manger, is the SON OF MAN. This does not mean that He was the ideal man, the flower of manhood! He was of course all of that, and more. He was the one wonderful man who is at once the child of Mary and the Son of the Living God.

Behold this wondrous Person:
Of the Father’s love begotten—in a stable.
He whom the Heavens could not contain—a poor Babe.
He forgives sins—and is despised.
He is the Lord of Sabaoth—and has no place to rest His Head.
He sits at the right hand of God—and dies.

It was God’s plan from eternity that if man should sin, He would send the Redeemer. But this Redeemer had to be true God and true man. Therefore, His conception in the Virgin Mary was supernatural, but His birth was natural.

The conception happened this way: There is a maid in Nazareth who is of “the house and lineage of David.” She is unmarried. God sends a messenger to her. This messenger tells her that she is to have a child. Amazed at this statement, she replies: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” The messenger answers: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: Therefore, also, that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Thus Mary conceived, and when her time came she gave birth to the Christ.

It was God Himself Who was conceived in the Blessed Virgin. When, therefore, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was to give birth to John the Baptist, she said to her: “Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

We should know that the Incarnation does not consist in this that God worked in a single human form, nor that God expressed His will through a human form called Jesus, but that the Son of God with His divine essence went into the human nature. The Son of God received the human nature into His Divine Being. God assumed the human body. “The Word was made Flesh.” The human nature of Christ is, therefore, the Body of the Son of God, “for in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”

The Rod of Jesse is Jehovah.
He Who came from the Father is God forever.
The Son of God is Jesus of Nazareth—
Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God.

The Son of God is that Babe, born of a woman, Mary, for “When the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law.”

This is the doctrine of Bethlehem, the true spirit of Christmas. The Christ-Child on Mary’s lap is perfect God and Man, the God-Man; “for God so loved the world,” the human race, that He came out of eternity into time that we might see Him and be united with Him in return, “for unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given: And the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” (The Presence, pp. 37-41)

14 December 2007

Advent Fasting?

I've often pondered the folly of being so gluttonous for several weeks *before* Christmas, and then almost collapsing with fatigue for the real celebration of Christmas' Twelve Days. Our society likes to celebrate first and recover later (something about hangovers comes to mind).

However, the Church reverses the order: first comes preparations, and then comes the celebration. The preparations - such as fasting, prayer, and giving to charity - help us get ready for the "true message" - and celebration of - the Christ-Mass. When we empty ourselves first (rather than after overindulging), then we can truly enjoy the celebration and feasting...and without the guilt-laden exhaustion.

Here's a though-provoking little piece from Fr. Fenton on devouring the Advent Fast. Now I'll have to track down that article in First Things!

Homily - Advent 2 Midweek

And here's what I delivered a couple of evenings ago for our second week of Advent Evening Prayer:

Waiting with Isaiah: Waiting for God's Promised Peace
Isaiah 11:1-10 & Romans 15:4-13

This Advent we are learning to wait with the Prophet Isaiah. After all, Advent is a time of waiting, of patiently preparing to receive our Coming King. Even though waiting and being patient do not come easily for us Americans, God does invite us to learn and grow in such virtues. Last week we heard about “Waiting for God’s Promised Justice.” Our normal sense of fairness, and fair play, demands that we get justice as soon as possible. However, God exhorts us to wait for Him to give justice. And justice He gives – in His Son Jesus Christ, in His victory over sin, death, and the devil for us.

Tonight, let’s focus on the theme “Waiting for God’s Promised Peace.” Isaiah gives us quite a wonderful and glorious picture of God’s promised peace. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and lion and the fattened calf together.” Wow! What a picture! After all, we know how wolves, leopards, and lions love to prey upon lambs, young goats, and fatted calves. We’ve just come to expect such a “natural” food chain in nature. But it’s far from natural, at least as God designed it. You see, when wolves eat little lambs for breakfast and lions devour fatted calves for supper, we see death – one creature sustaining its life by the death of another. That’s not the way God created His world to work.

And what about that Christmas-sounding line, “and a little child shall lead them”? Oh, we know better, don’t we? Little children cannot lead. Save the leading for older people, more mature people, people who have grown through the school of hard knocks, or experience in politics, and have gained their wisdom for dealing with the people they must lead. Again, it’s not the way God planned things from creation. You see, most leadership tactics have to stem the tide of the sin, death, and evil that we human creatures have brought into the world.
But Isaiah’s picture is still God’s picture of promised peace. No more death. No more killing. No more intrigue and shady, back-room deals among authority figures. No, God’s peace brings real peace. It brings a world of creatures living and lying down together without fear of death. It brings the innocence, purity, and trust of a little child as the way in which people deal with each other. As Isaiah says, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see that Day! But wait we must, because, obviously, we don’t see such a world of peace and innocence.

And how does our gracious God accomplish this peace? Isaiah gives us another picture: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Again, we hear a familiar Christmas-sounding picture. But let’s ponder this image. First, Isaiah speaks of a stump – a cut down tree, a lifeless hunk of wood sticking out of the ground, just waiting to trip up folks who walk by and don’t see it. Yes, God had to make this stump. It’s a picture of His Old Testament people. They had strayed from Him to worship foreign, false gods. They had ignored His many pleas to return to Him in repentance. So God chopped them down. The grand, glorious tree of God’s people had to be cut down and sawed into firewood. Only a stump remained.

That’s what our sin and death do to us. It may be the sin of getting upset with family members, with each other at church, or even with the tired, cranky store clerk who has dealt with all of those other impatient Christmas shoppers. Our sin and death may be our sheer greed in wanting only the best Christmas present for ourselves this Christmas. It may be our tendency to place so much attention on the “spirit of the season” and enjoying that “perfect Christmas” that we forget, or minimize, the God who took on our human flesh to give us His life and His Holy Spirit. So God comes to us to chop down our sinful pride, our impatience, and our self-reliance. That’s why we wait and prepare during Advent.

But Isaiah does not leave us with only the stump of a sawn down tree. The picture that brings us peace comes in that little “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” That tender little twig speaks loudly and clearly: the tree is not completely dead; the tree of God’s people will come back to life. That tender little shoot is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, He comes as a tender little sapling, born of the pure Virgin. But don’t let His fragility in the manger fool you. This tender Root of Jesse brings God’s eternal peace. He ushers in God’s picture of lions and lambs dwelling together. He inaugurates the reign of innocence and purity among His people. This little shoot named Jesus would hang lifeless from a cross, another piece of lifeless, chopped down wood, but He brings the healing peace of God’s forgiveness for our impatience. His spilled blood brings the pardon for our prideful, self-absorbed ways. And when He rises from the dead, He shows beyond all doubt that “righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” This tender little shoot, whose birth we will celebrate in thirteen short days, brings God’s promised peace. “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

But, again, we must wait. We must wait until the celebration of our Lord’s Birth; it’s not Christmas just yet. We must wait until the Last Day to witness and enjoy the picture of peace between lions and lambs, the scene of utter innocence and purity among people. And what shall we do until that Day?

St. Paul says it well: “Whatever was written in former days – think of Isaiah, about 700 years before Christ – “was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” We wait, but we wait with hope. And remember, hope is not some mere wish, as in, “Gee, I hope it doesn’t rain today.” No, hope is as certain as a young Virgin carrying a Baby in her womb for nine months. All the peace of God is wrapped in that little Infant inside that holy Mother’s womb. It’s just a matter of time before He bursts forth. It’s just a matter of time before His peace reigns supreme. And so we wait with hope, with confident expectation, with eager anticipation. God’s promised peace does come and will come. It comes in the lifeblood of Jesus that gives forgiveness and life. It will come when He will chop down the ways of this God-ignoring world only to reveal the true life of peace and innocence.

What else do we do as we wait for God’s promised peace? Listen to St. Paul again: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now there’s a breath of invigorating fresh air in this world where we suffocate from living by creed of “I gotta have it my way.” Our gracious God and Savior gives endurance to wait, but He also gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other. In our world sadly divided by our individualism and our personal likes and dislikes, our gracious God says, “Live together in harmony with each other, because you are in one accord with Me.” In other words, God uses our time of waiting to train us in His promised peace. Better yet, when we, His redeemed people, live in harmony, Savior Jesus is showing how His cross-won peace is already breaking into our world, our hearts, our minds, and our lives. Call it a preview of Isaiah’s peace-filled picture. Call it a foretaste of the feast to come – both on Christmas Day and on the Last Day.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Amen.

Homily - Advent 1 Midweek

For our Advent Evening Prayer services, I've decided to focus on the Old Testament and Epistle readings from the LSB Series A Lectionary. In light of our American propensity for turning life into a veritable rat-race in the weeks before Christmas, I've also chosen to look at these texts with the theme of "Waiting with Isaiah," because, after all, Isaiah proclaimed some pretty magnificent promises of God, but then God's people had to wait...about 700 years...before seeing them come to fruition in Jesus Christ.

Here's what I proclaimed on the Wednesday of Advent 1 (5 December 2007):

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God's Promised Justice

Isaiah 2:1-5 & Romans 13:8-14

We Americans sure are an impatient lot, aren’t we? When the speed limit sign says “60,” we insist on pushing “70”…at least. When we go to the store, we just expect our favorite products to be on the shelf; and when they’re not, we insist that we just cannot wait a few days. And it gets really bad with things like email. We send an email to a loved one, a friend or a coworker, and if they don’t respond, say, within 5 minutes (at the outside), then we feel we are being ignored, snubbed. Yes, we are an impatient lot, we Americans. We want what we want, and we want it now (if not sooner).

But Advent is a time of waiting. Advent teaches us to wait, to be patient, to persevere. So, this Advent let’s learn how to wait with the Prophet Isaiah. Tonight and the next two Wednesdays we will focus on readings from Isaiah, readings that promise the Savior and His forgiveness, life, and salvation. These promises will teach us how to wait and what to wait for. We will also look to the New Testament reading each week to teach us how to live as we wait for God’s deliverance. How do we Christians live in this time of waiting until our Lord returns on the Last Day with His full and final salvation? This Advent let’s learn to wait with Isaiah.

Isaiah lived and proclaimed God’s message about 700 years before Christ. It was actually a time of prominence for Judah and its capitol city Jerusalem, but the kingdom would soon decline in decades to follow. It was a time of international treaties and alliances as the king of Judah sought to protect his land from invading attackers, but God’s people tended to trust those political alliances for their safety and security more than they trusted God and His promises. It was a time of prosperity as the people of Judah enjoyed their splendid homes, abundant possessions, and nice clothes. Does this sound at all familiar? It’s very much like our day, isn’t it?

So, God sent Isaiah to proclaim His words of judgment and promise to His people in this prosperous, prominent land, safe in its own “homeland security.” And Isaiah had some pretty stern things to say to these people redeemed by God. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Is. 1:2-3). God’s own people were laden with iniquity and dealt with each other corruptly. Isaiah even compared them to Sodom and Gomorrah! God used Isaiah to warn His people that He would have to remove all of their “nice things,” because they did not trust and cling to Him. He would take away “the finery of the anklets, the headbands…the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves…the perfume boxes…the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments…,” (Is. 3:18-22) and so on. Well, there went that shopping list! All those treasured possessions from the 8th century B.C. version of the shopping mall and Best Buy would be gone!

But right in the middle of these two sermons of judgment, in the passage we hear tonight, Isaiah gives a sweet promise, a promise of the Lord’s holy mountain. The Lord’s mountain will be “lifted up above the hills…and many peoples will come to it.” Yes, God would have to humble Jerusalem, but He promised to lift it up again. And what would happen on God’s holy mountain? People would invite one another to go up to it “that [God] may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Instead of being consumed by and worried over the things of international politics and how to have lots of stuff in nice big houses, God’s people would much rather have His teachings and His paths. Isaiah also says, “[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.” God would work His pure, fair, and loving justice. And here’s what it would look like: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” There would be actual, real-life world peace.

Great picture, isn’t it? I’m sure that people who first heard Isaiah’s words would say, “Please, show us this mountain!” Even now, 2700 years later, we want to say, “Please, show us this mountain!” But the people would have to wait for this promised paradise; they would have to wait about 700 years. You see, “the mountain of the house of the LORD” would be built from the wood of a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. The Lord Himself would come and build it, but He would build it by dying on that cross. Yes, God would work His justice, but He would do so through the weakness of His Son being born of a virgin, living a humble, penniless life, suffering rejection and crucifixion, and then rising again on the third day. The mountain of the Lord is Mt. Calvary. His cross shows His ways of mercy, forgiveness, and true life. His path leads us to trust and enjoy Him much more than the national security or seasonal goodies of our day. The Lord would work His justice by conquering our real enemies: sin, death, and the devil.

Now, at first, we might think, “Well, they had to wait for the Lord’s promised justice,” but we know it’s already come. Yes, people had to wait 700 years to see how God would give justice by forgiving sins in Christ Jesus. So, why do we need to learn to wait? Don’t we have God’s justice? Yes, we do. His justice, His righteousness, His forgiveness, comes in Christ Jesus, wrapped in human flesh and bone, hung on a cross, and risen again. But we still wait. We wait for that final grand display of God’s justice when Christ shall return on the Last Day.

But it’s so hard to wait, isn’t it? We are an impatient lot, even though we know the promise fulfilled on Calvary. It’s hard enough to wait until December 25th each year before we start celebrating Christmas. We want the celebration right now, on our terms, with all of the material trappings of the season. We want the picture-perfect Christmas with all the sugary joy and smiling cheer, hot cider and Christmas sweaters, and everyone else doing things our way.

But have you ever noticed how tired, tense, and irritable we get this time of year? When things don’t go our way, what do we do? Complain. Complain about the driver who cut you off on the way to the mall. Complain about not finding the right gift for that certain someone. Complain if things don’t look, sound, or go as you want in church. Complain…. Well, you can fill in the blank. We want the perfect celebration of Christmas now, and if we don’t get it, well….

We really need to hear St. Paul’s words in our second reading: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” That’s God’s promised justice! Now that He has conquered our sin and death, we are free to love one another. We are free to take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on our neighbor. We are free to wait for God to deliver the perfect Christmas. We are free because “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” We are free to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are free put off the drunkenness and sensuality and indulgence of this time of year. We are free to put off the quarreling and jealousy that happens at home, at work, and at church.

And how are we free from all of that? God has worked His promised justice already in His Son Jesus. God promises something far, far better than the “perfect Christmas.” He promises real peace, eternal peace that comes only by feasting our eyes, our ears, and our hearts on the Son of God made flesh. Whatever happens to us in the meantime, whatever we disappointments we endure, we can persevere; we can wait. You see, when we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” we can resist gratifying our selfish desires. His mercy helps us wait. So, “house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” Amen.