The Baptism of our Lord – C LSB #’s 400, 731, 397
Text – Luke 3:17
His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor & to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
WHEAT & CHAFF
One of the things I remember from childhood is walking along the edge of fields of wheat. I remember because for some reason a ripe field of wheat swaying in the breeze with the sun shining upon it is a sight that I appreciate. I also remember, because somewhere along the line, I was taught how to shell a head of wheat in order to eat the kernels.
You take a ripe head of wheat in your hands & roll it like this until all the chaff is stripped off. Then you carefully blow the chaff away & you’re left with the grain, which is eatable. I guess it’s one of those rituals that is passed down from generation to generation when you’re raised in the midst a farming culture.
In the sermon text, the picture that John the Baptist paints for his listeners is a very familiar one to the Jews. Because farming was one of their chief occupations, threshing floors were found almost everywhere. They were simply hard packed dirt located in open fields where the wind had easy access in order to quickly separate the wheat & the chaff.
The threshing floor represents the part of the world that God has placed us in. It’s the context in which we live our lives. It’s the good times & the bad. It’s your job, your home, your family, your school, your friends & your enemies. The threshing floor represents everything about your world, believer & unbeliever, saint & sinner.
The wheat are the people who have repentant hearts. The chaff are those who have refused repentance, for whatever reason. God is the thresher man whose separation of the wheat & the chaff is a labor of love. And because it’s a labor of love that separation is not entirely put off until Judgment Day, but begins already in this life. Once death arrives your eternal future is decided. Judgment at the final resurrection simply makes public what has already been seen & determined with your last breath.
Other well-known Biblical imagery, dealing with the concept of separation, speaks of Judgment Day like this: “All the nations will be gathered before Him, & He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:32) On the Last Day the promise of God will be fulfilled; separation will be completed for eternity.
Still another Biblical text brings in imagery from those who make their living off the sea. “When the net was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down & collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come & separate the wicked from the righteous.” (Matthew 13:48)
Do you hear the cadence in these phrases – wicked & righteous, goats & sheep, wheat & chaff? That cadence is meant to march you & me down the road of truth. Many human beings who are alive in this world today will be condemned to hell by God almighty. The sermon text pictures it by saying the Creator will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
That’s a fire which will never go out. The punishment will never end. The people in hell will never find rest. That picture has been lost in our culture. It’s not uncommon for pastors to be asked, “Why are there times when God commanded the Israelites to kill every single person in a city or nation that they had just conquered?”
Our people have lost the picture of a God who is Holy. They no longer understand how the God they know could harm even a flea. The problem is they know only half of Yahweh. People don’t read or don’t comprehend anymore the point of the OT – Jesus Christ is not optional. If you reject Him, as so many in the OT did, you will be removed from His presence for all of eternity. In particularly bloody imagery Jesus tells His disciples it is better to cut off your hand or foot than to spend eternity where the fire never goes out. It’s better to pluck your eye out than to be thrown into hell where the worm does not die & the fire is not quenched.
For the people that Israel conquered, which God ordered to be killed, their death in this life was nothing compared to the punishment awaiting them in eternity. But it’s easy to feel sorry for them because that costs me nothing.
There are living men, women & children whom we have personally spoken with, worked with & lived with who are also on that death march to hell. Have we the courage to warn them before the day in which God has appointed them to die? PAUSE
In the OT book of Leviticus it says, “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (15:31 ESV) The people that Israel was ordered to kill were being punished for their unbelief, but that was not the only reason they died.
God was also keeping His chosen people, Israel, separate from those who were hardened in unbelief & idolatry. God was protecting His children, by separating the wheat & the chaff. Could it be that some of God’s children need protection from you? Could it even be said that you are your own worst enemy?
John the Baptist recognized that in himself. Some, who heard him speak, wondered if he might be the Christ. But John answers, “…I’m not even worthy to be his slave & untie the straps of His sandal.” (John 1:27 NLT) The Baptist was well aware that he was his own worst enemy, & he knew that about the people of Israel as well.
That’s why John was warning them – the wheat & the chaff are even now being separated. Sin & rebellion are also engrained in our nature, & we too must always be warned of the coming fire. We should never take for granted the evil that still lives within. It cannot be asked but politely to leave. The trials & sufferings we endure in this world, in this threshing floor, they are meant not only to separate us from hardened unbelievers, but to separate us from the sinful nature within us. And each of you has felt the pain of that process.
The opening hymn for this service was written for the celebration of Epiphany, a time when Christ is still a child. The lyrics speak of the guiding star that led the Magi to the Messiah. This morning it’s not even three weeks since we celebrated the birth of Jesus, yet in today’s Gospel reading He has aged already 30 years.
In about three months we mark His death with the services of Good Friday. One of His seven words from the cross is this: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” It was there that God’s own Son suffered the greatest separation of all, as He became the chaff which bore the unquenchable fire; a fire that you & I fully deserved.
In Holy Communion we receive the blood that He shed there for the remission of our sins. It is the blood of that Christ, who is the final fulfillment of the Passover Lamb, which marks & separates you so that the angel of death will pass over you. It is we who are the wheat that our Lord gathers into His barn for safekeeping. PAUSE
As parents in a farming culture willingly pass down certain rituals like the shelling a of head of wheat in ones hands, it should bring even greater joy to pass down the comforting news that Jesus has removed everything that once separated us from the love & majesty of our heavenly Father.
The sufferings & trials of this life are not meant to harm, but to separate us from evil that we might never again be separated from our Lord & Creator. As we welcome that good news into our own heart, there are people who have not yet heard but who will rejoice at the news of a God who loves them & searches for them even among the chaff of this world. It’s a labor of love for our Lord to seek that which was lost. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. And while on the cross that Son endured complete separation from His Father in order that you might never have to. Amen.
O God, forsake me not! Lord, I am Yours forever. O keep me strong in faith that I may leave you never. Grant me a blessed end when my good fight is fought; help me in life & death – O God, forsake me not! Amen. LSB 731:4.
Epiphany – 2019 LSB #’s 803, 801, 352
Text – Psalm 19:1
The heavens declare the glory of God, & the sky above proclaims His handiwork.
THE HEAVENS DECLARE
In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope took a famous series of pictures of the Eagle Nebula, a cluster of approximately 460 stars nearly 7,000 light years away. In the midst of the nebula, Hubble captured a section which has been dubbed the “Pillars of Creation.”
The three massive columns “composed of interstellar hydrogen gas & dust are said to act as incubators for new stars” – literally a place where stars are born. Inside these columns & “on their surface astronomers have found knots or globules of denser gas, ‘Evaporating Gaseous Globules.’” It is thought that within these globules are the stars that are being formed.
In the book by C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (from the Chronicles of Narnia series), young Eustace, a boy from our world, encounters a mysterious old man named Ramandu. He soon discovers the surprising fact that Ramandu is actually a retired star, living on an island in the east of the Narnian world after a lifetime of shining in the night sky.
“In our world,” says Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies, “[but] even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Lewis makes a profound & important distinction here often lost on our culture today. Our scientists have been very good at determining what a thing is made of – whether that be stars or snakes, Sally or Sam – but that is certainly different than answering the questions who we are, what we are for, why we are here.
On the other hand, Holy Scripture says very little about what we are made of, but quite a lot to say about the creation in terms of who, what & why. So the Bible may not tell us what a star is made of in the way the Hubble Space Telescope can, but it certainly begins to tell us what a star is. In the very beginning, in Genesis, we learn that the stars have a meaning & purpose beyond the stuff they are made of: they are to light up the sky, they are to mark the seasons, they are to serve as signs or signals of God’s purposes.
Likewise, Psalm 19 ascribes further meaning to the celestial canopy: they declare God’s glory. Without voice or sound, they proclaim a message universal, from one end of the earth to the other. In the stars’ silvery light the beauty of God’s handiwork glimmers. The sun spreads the warmth of its life-giving rays over all the earth.
The deeper we peer into the vastness & mystery of space, the greater our wonder & the more profound the heavenly message. Truly, whether in night or day, the firmament reveals the glory of our Creator. In the words of the poet, Joseph Addison, “[the heavens] all rejoice, & utter forth a glorious voice, forever singing, as they shine, ‘The Hand that made us is Divine.’”
The psalm then moves on to speak about another source of revelation, the Torah Adonai, the Word of God. In it our being & purpose are made known. We are made of cells & atoms, patterned on strands of DNA, but our identity is as creatures who live & move, by & for the Word of God. The only way we can change our identity is to reject God as our Father.
Through His word, God revives the soul, makes wise the simple, gives joy to the heart, & enlightens the eyes. His word is perfect & pure; right & true. Through it God made all things, & by it He guides our lives into that which is more beautiful than the finest gold – that which is sweeter than the sweetest honey: the great reward of life with God.
Reading on, suddenly the psalm changes themes. So disruptive are the next verses to the flow of the psalm that some scholars have thought it to be an entirely different psalm added on at a later date. But the disruption does not lie in the psalm itself nor in its author, it lies with us. The psalm has something more to say about who we are. It reveals what we cannot fully understand or grasp: “Who can discern his errors?” the psalmist cries. We are creatures that have been gifted with the Word of God – a word that warns us of error, yet the psalmist declares that we are so full of errors we can hardly perceive the extent or the breadth of it.
For the psalmist, the fullness of our faults lie hidden; we are unaware of the depth of our sin. Outwardly, we may appear rather decent, but who we are has been deeply marred by sin.
Sinners are people fundamentally estranged from the Creator & creation. We are a people presumptuous in our dealings with one another with a preference for self-made identities, rather than the beauty & sweetness of what God desires to make us by His Word.
Nevertheless, the psalmist is not without hope. Having the Torah Adonai, the instruction & the teaching, the precepts & the promises of Yahweh, the estranged are not cut off. As St. Paul explained in Romans 3, the advantage of Israel lay in this fact: they “were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
The psalmist, struck by the sweetness of God’s word, in contrast to his own errors & faults, prays for forgiveness, for a declaration of innocence. He prays that he would be as God created him to be – free from the dominion of sin. It is a prayer made in hope yet without a clear answer. But today is Epiphany, & Epiphany is about the answer.
Epiphany is when the heavens declare the glory of God anew, & it’s the glory of His new creation. Epiphany is when the word of God moves beyond just Israel & in to the rest of the world. Epiphany is when a new identity for humanity is ushered in: the estranged are brought near, the foreigner becomes friend, the sinner receives a declaration of innocence.
In the Gospel reading we encountered the journey of the magi, led by an incredible star to encounter a prophetic word that directs them to the Word incarnate. It is a remarkable unfolding of the theme of Psalm 19, but on a scale that could not have been imagined heretofore. The stars, created for signs & seasons, shine now as harbingers for a new & eternal spring. The beauty & sweetness of God’s word is now sought & recognized in a child, worthy of sweet smelling incense & precious gold.
In this baby these strangers to God’s word find a new identity: ‘…neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
A poem by T. S. Eliot called “Journey of the Magi,” was written as a recollection of one of these eastern travelers. It speaks of the hardness of the journey, the sharp cold, the winter weather, & their regret (at the time), for what they had left behind… all in order to find who-knows-what. But in the last stanza the magi concludes:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence & no doubt. I had seen birth & death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard & bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The magi of Epiphany were the beginning of what Paul would call the “mystery hidden
for ages” (Ephesians 3:9), but now brought to light; namely “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). This mystery of cosmic scope was the mystery of birth & death – the death of who we used to be as sinners – the birth of who we are now through the gospel of Yeshua. For the birth of Jesus was intended for His death, a death that would encompass the death of all sinners: “for one has died for all, therefore all have died” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And all this was so that in His resurrection we might be born again to life with God.
The good news of who we are in Christ does not stop there. Like the glory declared by the heavens, this news is to “go out through all the earth… [its] words to the end of the world.” Like the sun which shines from one end of the earth to the other, so shall nothing be hidden from the light of this gospel.
Like the psalmist, we pray that in the telling, our minds & our mouths would please God, filled with His word so that we may declare the Lord as foundation & savior of all creation: our Strength & our Redeemer. So let it be for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. But when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in – that on the cross my burden gladly bearing He bled & died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation & take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration & there proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!” Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, how great Thou art! How great Thou art! LSB 801:1, 3-4.
 Ode, by Joseph Addison, 1672‒1719.
New Year’s Eve – 2018 LSB #’s 878:1-3, 899, 783, 878:4-6
Text – Luke 13:9
If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down. NIV
WAIT ’TIL NEXT YEAR
Another season is finally over. No, I’m not talking about the season of Advent or Christmas. I’m not even talking about the year of 2018. I am speaking of another season of Detroit Lion’s football. The refrain began already months ago, “Wait ’til next year!” The Lion’s organization has been playing that refrain for over 60 years.
2019 will be 35 years since the Detroit Tigers won a World Series & their fans have been singing the same refrain ever since, “Wait ’til next year.” It’s common for sports fans to be optimistic, always hoping for better things next season.
And you know, a fair number of Christians seem to be optimists as well. If you ask them to serve on a committee they’ll frequently express the optimistic hope that next year they will have time. If you enquire about their interest in attending a particular Bible study you might hear, “Wait ‘til next year.”
Next year arrives in about five hours. I brought a signup sheet with me tonight. Is there something in particular you are waiting for in 2019?
Is it then that you’ll finally have time to serve your congregation in some way? Is 2019 the year you’ll actually get around to attending a Bible study? Could next year be the one when you’ll start taking the commands of God as something other than optional?
If the gas tank is nearly empty & you have another 200 miles to drive, you don’t reason that filling the tank is optional. Yet, a full gas tank only helps keep your car going. God almighty not only keeps you going, He created you in the 1st place. Why is it that strengthening your relationship with your Savior is something so unnecessary that it can always “wait ‘til next year?” PAUSE
Sporting teams certainly can get set in their ways & need the digging around their roots to change their losing attitudes. The Detroit Lions are a perfect example of an entire organization being stuck in its losing ways. Yet the Gospel reading this evening isn’t concerned just with organizations, but also with individuals.
Has “wait ‘til next year” been the attitude concerning your relationship with God? If so, then God’s sense of judgment is speaking about you this evening: “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?”
Those are some ominous words. We use the phrase “wait ‘til next year” about teams that didn’t do so well this past season, or maybe the team’s coach, or general manager. Sports writers are calling this day – Black Monday – because six NFL coaches were fired today. Does that leave you wondering how they might refer to hell?
God’s judgment is a far more serious issue, & we have no guarantee that there will be a next year, nor even a tomorrow. Our Lord has been looking for fruit in our lives. That fruit is a repentant attitude & God’s vineyard is too important to leave an unproductive tree occupying good ground indefinitely.
As the OT reading stated, there is a time to be born & a time to die. Your death will come. Judgment Day will arrive. On which hand of God will you be found, His right or His left? PAUSE
From sports we learn to say, “Wait ‘til next year!” Then my team will do better. But sin fools us into thinking that applies to our lives also. “Wait ‘til next year,” God, & then I’ll
do better! Right now I’m too busy, or too lazy, or just indifferent. Fortunately God’s sense of judgment is not the only force deciding whether or not we should be cut down. God’s sense of mercy also factors in. It is His sense of mercy that states, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it & put in fertilizer. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
There, we find that God’s Word too uses the idea “wait ‘til next year.” In His Son, Jesus Christ, God has acted to save the tree – you & me. And in His Son, He continues still to act, calling us through His Word & Sacraments. His voice of mercy pleads for our forgiveness yet again & again, “Wait ‘til next year.”
As we are children of the world we seek after the things of this world. As we are children of God, we need the church to call us back home to God. As we are children of the world we tell the church, “Wait ’til next year.” As we are children of God, we repent of our sinful indifference & joyfully return to God’s family.
As long as we are God’s children, there will always be that tension in this life, the tension between our saintly nature & our sinful one. God must act in order to save, yet as long as we refuse God’s saving actions, they are of no benefit.
What next year will bring, God only knows, but just 365 days from now it will all be history. Our heavenly Father will have sent trials & struggles into our lives in order to dig up the hardened soil around our roots. He works through those painful events to help us see our sin with repentant hearts. And He does so purely out of love & mercy.
However, along with what we see as the rain, Jesus also sends the sunshine, the joyful events that we more easily recognize as blessing. There will be times when everything seems right with the world, like the candlelit moments as we sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve.
Those too come purely out of Yahweh’s love & mercy.
You see, “Wait ‘til next year,” is a phrase that cuts both ways. It speaks of our sinful indifference to the Lord who died a most terrible death purely out His love for us. It also voices our stubbornness as we get set in our selfish ways; as we cling to our lazy & losing attitudes.
But “Wait ‘til next year” also speaks of God’s patience & mercy. Jesus sacrificed His body & blood that we might we might receive it in Holy Communion. He sacrificed His own flesh & blood that ours might be strengthened & preserved through it. At the resurrection we’ll receive a new body of perfect flesh & perfect blood.
God’s sense of judgment was carried out against His only begotten Son. Jesus was the Tree of Life that was cut down in our place. In the 1st Judgment, the Baby born at Christmas was our substitute. Yet, if we constantly refuse His mercy & love, the 2nd Judgment will see our own tree cut down, & that will be for eternity. PAUSE
The OT reading is a beautiful passage as it describes the proper times for many of the events of life. May it remind you also that there is a time to repent & to seek God. That time is now while He still waits patiently with loving arms. Amen.
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living & enduring word of God. For, “All men are like grass, & all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers & the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. Amen. (1 Peter 1:23-25)
1st Sunday after Christmas – C LSB #376
Text – Luke 2:40
And the child grew & became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.
The rather lengthy Gospel lesson for today closes by shifting from a scene of drama in the temple at Jerusalem to mundane life in the village of Nazareth. In the original Greek language, it’s only one sentence that makes up the sermon text. Then, in the verses following it, the scene shifts back again to more drama as His parents find Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem.
There’s drama in the temple. There’s a sentence that appears totally insignificant. Then, there’s more drama in the temple. As I was reading the Gospel lesson in order to choose the sermon text for this morning, I wondered, “Why is that sentence in the Bible? What purpose does it serve? Amidst all the historic events of Jesus’ life & death, what does this mean?”
“And the child grew & became strong, filled with wisdom, & the favor of God was upon Him.”
For a God, born as a human being in order to suffer, die & then rise from the dead, to save the entire world from sin, that sentence seems completely pointless & insignificant. I believe this is the connection. How many of you have wondered if the struggles you’ve gone through in living are significant in any way?
Have you asked yourself, “Is there any purpose to my life? What good has all my hard work accomplished?” What about your education, & job, or career? Was all of that just so you could work for a living & then die, hardly to be remembered ever again? What if you end up spending the last five years of life in a nursing home? Would that have any value?
What about this congregation? How significant are we? What are we doing here that has any lasting effect? We keep paying the bills & teaching the students & repairing the building & singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, over & over again, year after year. Yet fewer & fewer people are hanging around. More & more of them are drifting, if not running away. Is this congregation irrelevant to history? Is there any lasting point to any of all the stuff that we do?
I’m guessing that not a one of you could name my grandparents. At most, only a few of you know the names of my parents, & probably half of you cannot correctly spell my last name. Is there even the least bit of significance to what I do here as the pastor of this congregation? Will anyone remember me ten years after I’m gone? Is my life completely irrelevant?
King Solomon, supposedly the wisest man to ever live, famously wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, “…vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 ESV) Solomon was wealthy & powerful enough to have done it all, & claims that he did, yet he concluded that all of it is vanity. PAUSE
“And the child grew & became strong, filled with wisdom, & the favor of God was upon Him.” The same could be said for millions & millions of other human beings born to this earth. The vast majority of us never become famous, & as far as the world is concerned our lives have no significance or worth. And that is why the message of Luke 2:40 is so important for us.
It’s important because none of our lives are making the world go round. None of our tweets are detailed across the nation in the daily news. We have not written symphonies like Johann Sebastian Bach. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. You & I have not invented the iPhone, or designed the Empire State Building.
The 1st thirty years of Jesus’ life also appeared insignificant & irrelevant to anyone except His immediate family, & the small community in which He lived. Other than the two events we noted earlier at the temple of Jerusalem, nothing more is mentioned of His first 30 years until His baptism at the Jordan River. In fact, one of the greatest scandals of Jesus’ entire ministry is that He did not come to save the rich, the powerful & the well-healed upper classes of society. Instead, Jesus came to save the lost, the poor, the broken. Messiah came to save women & men like Anna & Simeon. Neither were significant people in world history. After the verses in chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel, neither one is mentioned again in the Bible.
Anna & Simeon have played the role ordained for them by God & then moved off the stage, back into obscurity. However, they are not irrelevant, & they are not gone. And you know where they are! They’re with angels & archangels, & with all the company of heaven. If you end up in eternal paradise, your life here could not possibly have been insignificant.
It may look that way, & often feels that way, because sin has totally destroyed our ability to see the things of God with our physical eyes. Countering that Job prophesied, “I will see [God] for myself. Yes, I will see Him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!” (Job 19:27 NLT) In heaven, it will be obvious to the naked eye that no one there is insignificant.
To take our place, in every way, not just on the cross, but in every aspect of life, Jesus had to live a life that appeared insignificant & irrelevant. He had to be born & to grow up just as we do. Since we fail to live every aspect of human life perfectly as we ought, Jesus had to live through every aspect of human life in order to perfect all of it as a gift to us.
You see, we sin every day even in the insignificant & seemingly irrelevant aspects of life. We can’t even grow up properly, or perfectly, as Yahweh intended when He created the human race. So He sent His Son, in person, to do it over. God the Father sent God the Son to grow up perfectly so there is zero reason for us to fear anything at which we have failed.
Do you remember the struggles of your own childhood? Was it a struggle watching your children grow up? Is it a struggle now watching your grandchildren grow up? Jesus has taken your place, & He has taken their place, even in those things: “And the child grew & became strong, filled with wisdom, & the favor of God was upon Him.” The favor of God was upon Jesus so the favor of God can now be upon you, & upon your children, & upon your grandchildren. The favor of God was upon Jesus so the favor of God can now be upon every single child that comes through the doors of our childcare & our school, every day of the year.
As those children grow & develop & mature, they already face a lot of struggles, & more are sure to come their way. Operating our childcare & school programs is a ton of work. It is filled with headaches, & costs a bunch of money. However, we can do it with optimism & hope because Jesus “grew & became strong, filled with wisdom, & the favor of God was upon Him.”
The Christ Child blazed the way for you to give you hope & a future no matter how unimportant you feel your life is. That’s news worth passing on to children & grandchildren, to infants & toddlers & preschoolers. It is news worth passing on to men & women in nursing homes, & to anyone, anywhere, who feels irrelevant, or insignificant, or left behind.
It may seem odd that between 2 well-known events in the life of Jesus, there is this one sentence between them that sort of stands alone, like an afterthought: “Oh, yeah, the child grew & became strong, filled with wisdom, & the favor of God was upon Him.”
It is the news we need to hear as members in congregations the world seems to have passed by. Today’s Gospel reading is important for us because God used two elderly people who were completely insignificant in the affairs of Caesar or King Herod. Through them God gave information about, & glorified, the Christ child before He performed a single miracle.
It seems fitting now that, in all the resources I looked at to study for this sermon, there was hardly a word written about the 40th verse of Luke 2. Apparently the theological scholars of the world couldn’t find anything significant to write about, & yet God’s message was right in front of their eyes. It is the news we need to hear as people whose values & beliefs the world seems to have passed by. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you & not to harm you, plans to give you hope & a future.” (29:11 NIV) At the very least you & I can rest assured that our future will include eternity in heaven, & that will be no small thing. Amen.
Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. He came down to earth from heaven, Who is God & Lord of all, & His shelter was a stable, & His cradle was a stall; with the poor & mean & lowly lived on earth our Savior holy. For He is our childhood’s pattern, day by day like us He grew; He was little, weak & helpless, tears & smiles like us He knew; & He feels for all our sadness, & He shares in all our gladness. And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love; for that child so dear & gentle is our Lord in heaven above; & He leads His children on to the place where He is gone. Amen. LSB 376:1-4.
Christmas Day – 2018 LSB #’s 366, 361, 363, 364
Text – Isaiah 9:2
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
A Great Light
The soldier lay in the hole he had crawled into at sunset. The cold night settled over him. An eerie silence shrouded the battlefield. The place of fire & fury had become an icy tomb.
He needed to move, to get back to his lines, to rejoin the others. But which way? He had no idea. Turned & turned again, during the fighting, running & often falling – now in the darkness, he was completely lost – as lost as he’d ever been – as lost as anyone can be. Going the wrong way could cost him his life. Not going at all could mean freezing, capture or worse.
He tried to pray. The words didn’t seem to come. He had not prayed much in the years since he left home. Somehow God had slipped away...
“Pray. Prayer. What prayer?” The word brought a clear picture of his mother to mind. Every evening she would gather the family by “the altar” – as she called it. And there at an old table with a piece of white cloth on it, she would light a candle & they would pray.
He always thought it such a bother, so silly, all of them praying on their knees in front of a broken-down table, & an old, bent candle. “I don’t need this!” he would grumble – more & more as he got older. “Just come & pray,” she would say. “For what?” “Someday,” she would answer, “it will light your way.”
Now, the darkness pressed upon him. “God, remember me,” he muttered. “God help me.” Stumbling prayers; not what they should be, but what else could he say? He waited for an answer. There was nothing but darkness, & silence, & cold.
Finally, he raised his head just above the edge of the hole & squinted into the gloom. There! Off there, barely visible in the mist he saw a flame – a single, silent flame. What was it? Could he trust it? Could he follow it? There was nothing else to do. He began to crawl toward the flame, toward the tiny, flickering flame. After what seemed like hours he broke into a clearing. There were the others, soldiers he knew, huddled around a little fire.
“Hey soldier,” his sergeant whispered. “Where’ve you been? You look a little lost.” The fire still peeked at him between the gathered figures in the darkness. “The fire,” he muttered. The sergeant came closer: “Just a little while ago, the captain said we could risk one small fire to help keep warm. But we’ve got to put it out soon. The enemy...”
The soldier got to his knees & stared at the flame in wonder. “It looked like a candle. From out there – from out there in darkness, it looked like an old, bent candle I used to know.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). The soldier in the opening story certainly was in the dark. It surrounded him, trapped him, held him captive. Left on his own, he had no idea where he was, where he could go, where he would be safe.
The darkness describes your story & mine. On our own, people are left in the spiritual darkness of this world. It is a deep, blinding darkness, one that we alone cannot overcome. We have the illusion that we can make our own light. We think we can find the way, make our path by the light of our intelligence, our wisdom, our inborn ability to be light to ourselves.
But human beings are no more able to create our own light than was the soldier in the story. All of us are lost in the darkness of sin & we cannot fix it, nor make our own light. All of humankind is unable to create anything but the illusion of light. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12). “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned & fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our spiritual situation is no different from the soldier lost on the battlefield. We know there is a path ahead that will lead to life, but where is it? How do we find it? That’s where the flame comes in.
This Christmas celebration is not just a happy time to give & receive gifts, decorate the house, recite the Christmas story. This is the time we celebrate the light that has been placed in our life & in our future. Indeed, it is God’s light that guides us to the safety of God’s kingdom.
“(We) are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). Indeed, we are those who walked in darkness, at least we were destined to before we were received into God’s kingdom by Baptism.
Now, we are His own, marked with the cross of Jesus Christ & filled with the light that is the grace of God in Christ. We have a light that will guide us through this earthly life & bring us to eternal life. Certainly, we can turn away from the light. In fact, for all of us, there are times when the light does seem to fade, but the Spirit does not leave us.
We wander into what we think we want or what we deserve. Clearly, because of our sin, we deserve nothing but judgment & separation from God. But Jesus took action for us. He went to the cross for us. He gained forgiveness & life for us. Now He offers it to us as a gift. Children, gifted by God, we walk by faith, by the light of faith amidst a dark & dismal world:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp & put it under a basket, but on a stand, & it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works & give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). The one who is the light of the world, now names us the light of the world. We become light by the grace of God. We give off light, not just keep it for ourselves. We can no more hide the Good News of God’s salvation in Jesus than can we hide the spiritual light that is now in us.
Darkness, sin, evil & death still exist & always will, in this life. Christmas is the story of how light shines in the darkness even as the darkness did not comprehend it. As the light shines, it allows us to see, past the darkness, to the shadows of love, grace & hope which found us.
The flickering light provides a glimpse of the companions that wait for us, walk with us, & sometimes will remain after us. The gentle light of Christ leads us away from all that would close our future & destroy life. That gentle light of Christ guides you toward the amazing power of God’s love let loose in the world. Shine, Jesus, shine!
This is the Christmas message of joy – “You are the light of the world... ” (Matthew 5:14). The lights of Christmas remind us that the light of God’s salvation has come as a baby born in a cattle stall. The lights of Christmas are to remind you that you are light to those who remain in darkness, even if you are nothing more than an old, bent candle.
The lights of Christmas reassure us that God will hear even the stumbling prayers of anyone who turns to Him. Amen.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep & dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes & fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin, & enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel! Amen. LSB 361:1, 4.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet