"Presenting a Heart of Wisdom"
New Year’s Eve – 2019 LSB #733
Text – Psalm 90:10 & 12
As for the days of our life, they contain 70 years, or if due to strength, 80 years, yet their pride is but labor & sorrow; for soon it is gone & we fly away. So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom. (NASB)
Presenting a Heart of Wisdom
“Four score & seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, & dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived & so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting & proper that we should do this.”
Those well-known words were given by president Lincoln at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. In his day, the KJV was the English Bible, & its wording is similar to Lincoln’s opening. On the internet, there’s a claim that Lincoln was self-consciously alluding to Psalm 90 as he chose the words of his speech.
If true, the president could not have chosen a more fitting verse of Scripture to honor the lives of all the strong, young men whose flames had been snuffed out even before their allotted fourscore years had been counted. Nevertheless, Lincoln did not confine his speech to a wallowing in the past, but rather pointed to the great task remaining before the nation.
That task was to keep freedom alive that the dead shall not have died in vain. Similarly, Moses, who authored Psalm 90, was writing not to wallow in the past regarding the multitudes whose bodies God scattered in the Sinai wilderness. Moses also was pointing ahead to the great task that lay before the people of God. They were about to cross into the Promised Land, but they’d have to conquer it first. Many trials & challenges, many failures & successes were to come. Even though they were moving into a land that would become their new home, through this prayer Moses reminded them of a foundational truth, “Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Psalm 90:1 KJV)
If you remember, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, & birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:20 ESV) You see, technically speaking, Jesus did not need a home because the heavenly Father is His dwelling place. The same is true for us.
People who really struggle with letting go of the family homestead are missing that truth. The generation that left Egypt struggled with that truth. They barely crossed the Red Sea & were complaining. They wanted to go back, to slavery no less, because they struggled to find their dwelling place in God. Do you know where this is going? You & I struggle with that too!
Moses calls us to the past not for hope there, but so we remember how the heavenly Father provided for us then. He cared for us, even blessed us, through all the trials of our past, so we can be certain, that even in our unknown future, Yahweh will do the same for us there. Learning that lesson we can present to our Lord a heart of wisdom instead of a heart of evil.
Numbering our days is one key to learning that lesson – the equivalent of learning to be humble. As this year draws to a close, what lessons in humility have you learned? Is your heart any wiser today, than a year ago? What have you presented to your Lord & Savior over the past year? What will you be presenting to your Lord & Savior during the coming year?
Those are the sort of questions that God’s children should be asking themselves. As for what we present to God, we’re simply giving back to Him what He’s already given us in the 1st place. As the prayer says, “We give Thee but Thine own Lord, whatever the gift may be. All that we have is Thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from Thee.” Only if God grants me a heart of wisdom does His sin-blinded creature know enough to acknowledge the power of His anger & then to flee to His steadfast love for redemption. I don’t come to any of that knowledge or faith on my own. So it is wise to spend time in God’s house on this evening, above all evenings. Each of God’s children is blessed to take stock of the year past & contemplate the days to come.
Martin Luther wrote of Psalm 90: From the beginning of his prayer to this point, Moses stressed the truth that another life follows after this one – a life of wrath or of grace. Moses wishes to kindle in us fear of the impending wrath & the hope of eternal life. His goal is not merely to drive us away from something in fear, but also to draw us toward something in hope & love. Unbelievers are unable to say with assurance that God exists & that’s He’s still concerned about people after they die.
We’ve just been through the season of Advent & its purpose is not just about preparing our hearts for Christmas in this time & in this place. It is also about preparing our hearts for the day when Jesus returns. An honest look at the day of our death will prepare us for the remedy that God has in store. We should not allow the things of this life to overshadow that.
How do we walk in the center of God’s will? How much control do we have over our actions? This evening, at midnight, the year 2019 will come to its death. At the same time, a new year, 2020, will come to life. But years are only an abstract concept. They have no concreteness, no reality of substance.
The calendar is only a cataloguing of time – a time that will cease to exist on the Last Day. It’s in the moment that things happen, & it’s in the moment that the Spirit moves. It is in the moment that we are able to relate to God – not in the past, nor in the future – only in the now!
Now is the time to turn your heart to your Creator. If you do not you miss the blessings of that moment & they can never be returned to you. “The days of our years are threescore years & ten; & if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor & sorrow; for it is soon cut off, & we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10 KJV)
The Civil War created a time of grave reflection for the people of our nation. Wars tend
to do that. The calamities of our personal lives have the same effect. If we turn to our Creator He uses them to bless us, as painful as it may be. Faith believes & trusts Him in all things. The heart of wisdom that we gain can then be presented to our Lord in grateful devotion:
“We give Thee but Thine own Lord, whatever the gift may be. All that we have is Thine alone, a trust O Lord, from Thee.”
If, in times of discipline, we turn our heart away from our Creator then all the time in this world will be too short, because eternity will never end.
I try to put the words of Psalm 90 into play in my life by using this prayer when I’ve finished receiving communion: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, & renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10 NASB) May that be your prayer also, not only when you receive Christ’s body & blood, but also every time you hear His Word.
Then, each day, you may present to your Lord & Savior a heart of wisdom. Amen.
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, & our eternal home: under the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure; sufficient is Thine arm alone, & our defense is sure. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away; we fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day. O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, be Thou our guard while troubles last & our eternal home. Amen. LSB 733:1-2, 5-6.
"Where Does Evil Come From?"
1st Sunday after Christmas – LSB #342
Text – Matthew 2:16
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that entire region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
Where does evil come from?
This morning, I’d like our meditation on the Word of God to begin with thinking about your favorite aspect of Christmas. Is it the bright lights and the beautiful decorations? Is it time spent with family and other people you love? Are you waiting to see the look on the face of that person for whom you found the absolute perfect gift?
One of my favorite moments is singing Silent Night with the candles flickering in the darkened sanctuary of God. Another favorite of mine is any time that we’re singing O Little Town of Bethlehem. As a pastor, one of the moments I love best is seeing families together, kneeling at the communion rail, to receive the work of the Holy Spirit as He erases their sins.
All those things are in stark contrast to the words of Matthew’s Gospel that form the sermon text for this morning. Did you notice the disparity, or are the words too awful to give any consideration to? “Herod… sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under…” Did you tune out God’s Word?
This morning I want them, as the Word of God, to sink in to our hearts and minds, because they tell us why Jesus came! They tell us why Jesus came in a manner that is, in some ways, more powerful than the classic Christmas story that Luke tells.
King Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus did not enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards, or a place of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus entered a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus entered your life and all of its sadness, darkness, confusion, and suffering. As complicated and difficult as that is, it is still good news, gospel news. It just takes more effort on our part, to come to grips with. St. Paul refers to that struggle and effort in 1st Corinthians when he makes a distinction between offering solid food or milk as our spiritual nourishment.
So today, we are on the other side of Christmas. All the buildup and the anticipation is gone. In the secular world, even the happy holidays are over. It’s on to the New Year, and the major college bowl games. The world isn’t ready to face the cause of our trials and tribulations. The apostle Matthew, however, is doing his best to help you face yours.
We’re a mere four days from, “…Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10 ESV) Yet, on this other side of Christmas, Matthew reveals the senseless suffering of many caused by the evil king Herod.
However, Matthew also gives insight into the unstoppable nature of God’s salvation as Herod is prevented from destroying the child Jesus. Christ’s time to die on our behalf had not yet come. First, He had to live, for us, the perfect life we are incapable of. He needed to love His neighbor as Himself to replace our continual failure to do so.
As unfair as the comparison seems to be, we are just as guilty as Herod of senseless evil. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is full grown, He tells His disciples, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean.’” (15:19 ESV)
So Jesus answers the sermon title, “Where does evil come from?” Among others it also comes from your heart and mine. The next time you’re tempted to lay a guilt trip on someone, “Come on, have a heart!” you may want to think twice. We are programmed by the world, and we are predisposed by sin, to think of the human heart as essentially good, especially our own.
It’s the I’m okay you’re okay type of theology. It says that Herod became an evil man
because he had an evil father or mother. He must have been scarred in some way during his childhood to turn out like he did. It’s the type of ‘spirituality’ which never accepts the blame for anything I do wrong. Evil must always be someone else’s fault. That’s one manner in which my sinful nature makes excuses for itself so I do not have to accept responsibility.
When St. Luke tells the events of Jesus’ birth, a lot of people find it to be a beautiful and inspiring story, but often for the wrong reasons. Jesus came to take responsibility for all those times that we failed to, or even refused to, be responsible for our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Jesus came to take our place, and King Herod’s place, under the wrath of God.
That is what we should find to be beautiful and inspiring - that Jesus is overcoming the evil in your heart and in mine, along with the evil that thrived in the heart of Herod. Because if Jesus did not come to pay the price for the sins of Herod, can you be sure that He paid the price for yours? If God dies on the cross, can His death pay for anything less than the sins of everyone?
That’s why, on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, we hear of the senseless suffering caused by King Herod, yet, the Holy Spirit also shares the news that Herod’s evil can go only as far as God allows it. God’s salvation in Jesus remains unstoppable. Though the effects of sin and death remain strong in our day as well, evil can trespass only so far.
The reasons to lament persist. The weeping never gets easier. But the Lord who delivered His children from Egypt through Moses, and the God who delivered His Son from death through a victorious resurrection, is the Creator who has sent you to proclaim the coming deliverance of all who are found in Christ Jesus.
God remains mysteriously and incomprehensibly the Lord over all things – even senseless suffering – and His gracious salvation is the preacher’s response to the many reasons we have to lament. Senseless suffering comes in a multitude of forms. Sometimes the resemblance with the boys from Bethlehem is strong. Unnumbered boys and girls have suffered violence even before birth, not to mention the countless children who live with regular neglect and abuse. The senseless suffering on the other side of Christmas is not limited to children, and it was not unique to Bethlehem.
For people who’ve had an abortion, for those who’ve performed an abortion, for everyone who has stood silently by, on all sides of abortion procedures, this text offers the hope and the comfort of the forgiveness of sins.
There are plenty of people weeping and lamenting because their Christmas celebrations have been marred by the deadly effects of many different sins. But senseless suffering is not the only thing we find on the other side of Christmas. In the midst of the tragedy of life in a sinful and violent world, God’s plan of salvation proved itself unstoppable.
No matter how hard Herod tried, God would not let this child suffer; not yet, at least. With a series of angelic visitors, God led Joseph to protect the Christ-child from the threat of violence. Much like His deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt, God called his Son out of Egypt again. But the promised land Jesus came to establish would be for all the nations.
This sermon is not the end all and be all of the answer to the question, Where Does Evil Come From? Ultimately, what it boils down to is this, “Do you believe that God is good, and that He loves you?” As children of God, that struggle will continue throughout our lives here on earth. In closing, I’d like you to consider the answer of someone who lived through horrible evil.
Corrie ten Boom, the woman from the Netherlands whose family had hidden Jews in their apartment and helped some to escape the death camp, was eventually imprisoned with her sister and mother at Ravensbrück, one of the infamous concentration camps of Nazi Germany. After the war Corrie traveled the world to tell her story of suffering in the context of faith in God. During the 33 years following Ravensbrück, she never had a permanent home. When she was 85 years old, some friends provided a lovely home for her in California. It was a luxury that stretched beyond her wildest dreams. One day a friend visited and remarked, “Corrie, hasn’t God been good to give you this beautiful place to live?” Corrie replied firmly, “God was good to me also when I was in Ravensbrück.
Now that we are on the other side of Christmas, with all the hopes and the anticipations being gone, it can be difficult to move forward as we realize that sin and evil are still in our lives and in our world. The cross of Jesus Christ shows us that God is good and that He loves us. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead proves that God is strong and able to overcome evil. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all human understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
"Jesus is the Son of Sinners"
Christmas Day – 2019 LSB #’s 379, 380, 374
Text – Matthew 1:6b
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.
JESUS IS THE SON OF SINNERS
Months before December, the time arrives to begin planning for the annual children’s Christmas program. You know how the events will unfold, again. Several boys will be conscripted to wear bathrobes and pretend that they know something about shepherds. A dozen girls will gleefully volunteer to be angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.
Crepe paper and glitter will be combined to create colorful crowns for the magi who will undoubtedly sing off-key, We Three Kings of Orient Are. Others will be drafted to join the ranks of choirs who through the ages have memorized lyrics to O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Joy to the World.
Then, to unleash the church’s greatest controversy since the outdoor picnic was rained out, a boy and a girl will be chosen to play Joseph and Mary. Add to this cast a newborn baby, an innkeeper, a few straggly sheep and presto – the program will be just about ready to launch!
But one important component is still missing. Who will the church get to direct the pageant? After a thorough search, a director is “specially selected” and given this mandate, “Keep the bathrobes one color, make sure everyone remembers their lines, and please, no angels with crooked halos this year!”
Six weeks of rehearsals and costume making lead up to the night of nights. Anticipation will fill the air! The unstated goal is that after everyone reverently sings Silent Night they will return home saying, “This year’s program was the best yet!”
Should we expect anything less from Matthew’s Christmas pageant? Why, if anyone can pull this off without a hitch it will be an organized and efficient tax accountant like Matthew! Looking at his genealogy, Matthew began impressively by organizing his presentation of Jesus into three groups of fourteen (Mt 1:17). In all likelihood, Matthew’s 14 x 3 patterns is a play on the name of David, whose Hebrew consonants daleth waw daleth add up to fourteen. This indicates that Jesus is The Son of David three times over! Quite impressive theology!
Studying his gospel more broadly, we see that Matthew plans to perfectly structure his narrative to highlight our Lord’s five teaching blocks (Mt 5:1-7:29; 8:1-11:1; 11:2-13:58; 14:1-19:1; & 19:2-26:1). “The old timers will love it,” we exclaim with joy. “They will be reminded of Moses’s five-part book that we call the Pentateuch.”
With great anticipation the children’s Christmas program meeting concludes on this high note: “If anyone is going to direct a ‘lights out’ Christmas presentation it’s going to be Matthew!” But at the next meeting we look at Matthew’s genealogy with greater scrutiny.
Within moments the committee is shell-shocked. Matthew has placed four huge eyesores into the program! Their names are Tamar (Mt 1:3), Rahab, Ruth (Mt 1:5), and a certain “wife of Uriah” (Mt 1:6). How dare Matthew go against the conventional wisdom of the day by letting women into his genealogy!
One committee member sighs in frustration: “Well! If he has to include women, why not invoke the names of our three lovely matriarchs – Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel?”
Another person adds this caustic critique, “Doesn’t Matthew remember that lineage is traced through men, not women, and that the function of a genealogy is to give solemn honor to the final descendant, Jesus? Matthew breaks both of these time-honored rules!” A vote is taken and it is unanimous. Stop the presses!
The chairman then asks the inevitable question, “Who picked Matthew to direct this program in the 1st place?” Someone grabs a Bible and reads from Matthew 9:9, “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The room becomes quiet enough to hear a pin drop! The reading continues with these words of Jesus, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13).
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba demonstrate how God chooses “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and how He chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). Their presence in Christ’s lineage foreshadows Jesus’s love for other outcasts – like a Roman centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13) and a Canaanite woman’s daughter (Mt 15:21-28).
At the heart of Matthew’s genealogy is this grand gospel. Jesus loves people who are victims as well as perpetrators of family dysfunction and deceit (Tamar); who feel used and worthless (Rahab); who bury loved ones and endure the pain of leaving their homeland (Ruth); and who are used by others for pleasure only to witness the death of so many dreams (Bathsheba).
In the end, the lives of those four women are amazing testimonies to what Joseph told his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gn 50:20).
So Matthew knew what he was doing all along! Could this be the reason he includes this saying of Jesus, twice? “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt 19:30; 20:16).
Then, Matthew adds a fifth woman to his genealogy – Mary. Mary also knew about this good news that turns everything upside down. In Luke 1:52 she sings of her God, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Just like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, Mary encountered disgrace and anxiety:
“She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:18–19). But Mary’s life was vindicated by God. She became the very mother of Immanuel – God with us (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14). Matthew’s Christmas genealogy prepares us to follow his gospel and to revel in the multitude of His messages of grace. Jesus chooses fishermen instead of Pharisees, sinners instead of Sadducees, and whores instead of Herodians. Climactically, Jesus chooses thorns for His crown instead of silver and gold. He chooses spit and blood instead of sweetness and light. His choices lead to torment and torture, darkness and death.
This led to the greatest shock of all: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He is risen, as He said” (Mt 28:5–6). Jesus is Life overriding death and making all things new. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mt 21:42; cf. Ps 118:22–23).
Let’s face it. Try as we might, our Christmas pageants are never exactly perfect. Isaiah 9:2 might be misquoted. The babe’s swaddling clothes may slip off at the most inopportune time. The Christmas tree may remind us of Charlie Brown’s sorry-looking stick, and the inn keeper may forget his lines, again! That’s okay.
Let those “failings” remind you of how Matthew introduces Jesus. It is not with glitter or Hollywood glitz. There are no fireworks or fine pedigrees. Matthew does not incorporate the kind of people who are finalists on American Idol. Rather, Matthew selects four broken and outcast women, who in so many ways, are just like us.
No wonder he records this stunning promise just after his genealogy; “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Thank God for annual Christmas pageants. Thank God all the more for the one inspired by the Holy Spirit and penned by a man named Matthew. Merry Christmas! Amen.
Hail, the heaven born Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by; born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
"Jesus is the Son of Mary"
Christmas Eve – 2019 LSB #’s 344, 370, 368
Text – Matthew 1:22-23
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, (which means, God with us).
Jesus Is The Son Of Mary
Who is Jesus? That’s the question we’re asking this Advent, using Matthew 1 to guide us. “Who is Jesus?” is the most important question we can ever ask. Some say that Jesus is a therapist – He helps us cope with life’s problems, heals our past, tells us how valuable we are and not to be so hard on ourselves.
Others say that Jesus is a coffee lover – He drinks fair-trade coffee at Starbucks, loves spiritual conversations, drives a hybrid, and goes to film festivals. People say Jesus is a coach – who helps athletes fun faster and jump higher than non-Christians, even determining the outcome of the Super Bowl.
It used to be that people would say Jesus was a hippie – He taught everyone to give peace a chance, imagined a world without religion, and helped us remember that “all you need is love.” Some picture Jesus as a spiritual guru – He hates religion, churches, pastors, priests and doctrine, and would rather have people out in nature, finding the “god within.”
People have said Jesus is a revolutionary – teaching us to rebel against the status quo, stick it to the man, while blaming things on “the system.” Maybe you’ve thought of Jesus as a good example – He shows us how to help people and to protect the earth and nature.
Finally, there’s the real Jesus – the one from the Bible, the Jesus of Matthew chapter 1. Matthew announces that Jesus is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, and the Son of Solomon. Today we see that Jesus is the Son of Mary: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” (Matthew 1:17 ESV) Matthew summarizes Biblical history in three sets of fourteens – or six sevens. Now, if you’re a Hebrew reader, a story cannot end with six sevens. That’s not a complete story. There must be another scene – a seventh seven. This is a genealogy, and a story that lacks an ending. That is Matthew’s point.
Who is Jesus? He’s the One who ushers in the final act in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus brings our story to completion. How so? His two names connected to Mary complete everything that is lacking in our lives. Jesus is our Seventh Seven! Let’s see how.
Matthew 1:18, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Mary conceives Jesus through the Holy Spirit. You remember. At first Joseph is hesitant to believe. We can’t blame him!
So God sends an angel who speaks to Joseph in a dream. Joseph is convinced. His anxiety is gone. Joseph believes the unbelievable. Joseph chooses to trust God and love Mary. The two now live together and share a home. This will most certainly raise eyebrows in their hometown of Nazareth.
Busybodies standing on the street corner will assume that Joseph and Mary conceived the child during their engagement instead of waiting to be married. “What nerve, those two!” Nazareth was a very small town – only 2,000 people lived there – so gossip of this sort would travel quickly.
The angel continues, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because he will save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). “Jesus” is the English form of the Hebrew name, “Joshua.” It means “Yahweh saves.” The child’s name is Joshua – or Jesus – because this Son will save His people from their sins. Jesus will pay the price for all sin – lock, stock, and barrel! And we need it! Oh God, do we need it! We are so incomplete without it! We have financial problems – yet if all our money problems vanished today, our lives still wouldn’t be perfect. If all our political problems vanished today, our lives still would not be perfect.
If everyone’s psychological problems vanished tonight, or all of our family problems and all of our health problems were solved, our lives would still be empty and lack completion. That’s because of who we are – people who need to be saved from our sins. Contrary to what we tend to think we are not Superman or Superwoman. We cannot save ourselves.
There’s an old Pogo cartoon that hits the nail on the head: “I have met the enemy and he is me!” Every political, social, or psychological problem is the result of our fallen condition. That’s why Jesus did not come as an economist, a sociologist, or as a family therapist. His name is Jesus, “because He will save His people from their sins.”
I experience joy and peace when I recognize that I cannot bring my life to a successful conclusion. I just can’t, and I have tried. My biggest problem is me, and your biggest problem is you, so we need a Savior to rescue us from our sins. If we come to Jesus for any other reason – such as hoping He’ll make us popular or successful – we will be disappointed.
Jesus has more important problems to solve than our unpopularity and our failures. Those are just symptoms of the root issue. Jesus lays down His life to save us from the sin that is alienating us from God and from each other; all the while threatening to destroy us. Jesus, the Son of Mary, is our Savior. He isn’t another prophet; another rabbi; another wonder-worker.
Jesus was the One they’d been waiting for to complete God’s story of salvation; to deliver His people from exile; to establish God’s reign and rule; to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, freedom to the prisoners and proclaim Good News to the poor; to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is our Seventh Seven! And “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Is 7:14] – ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22–23). “God with us” is what Matthew’s Gospel is all about. It appears in the beginning, and in the middle, “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).
And yes, in Matthew’s very last verse, Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Jesus, the Son of Mary, is not only our Savior from sin. This Son of Mary is Immanuel God with us, up close and personal. Immanuel is also God in us and God behind us and Immanuel is God going before us.
Jesus is God up close and personal – entering our muck and mire, our chaos and our deep confusion. We see it most profoundly on the day of deepest darkness. On that day we all grabbed hold of Immanuel, nailed Him to a cross and cried out, “Leave us alone! Leave us alone!”
To this day, our every sin demands exactly that – for us to be left alone by God, forever. That’s what hell is. On the other side of Good Friday, though, Immanuel lives! There was the cradle and there was the cross, but, conquering death, Immanuel now wears the crown. Jesus, God with us, completes our story!
Jesus fulfilled the commandments, and reversed the curse. He came to crush the serpent’s head; to be our Great High Priest; Isaiah’s Suffering Servant; Jeremiah’s Righteous Branch; Daniel’s Son of Man; Amos’ Roaring Lion; Haggai’s Desire of all the nations; Zechariah’s King riding on a donkey; & Malachi’s Sun of Righteousness with healing in his wings.
Jesus is God predicted through the prophets and prepared for through John the Baptist. The Son of Mary, our Savior and our Immanuel is not a figment of our imagination or the projection of our own desires. Jesus is the Lord our God. Jesus is the Savior of the world, and the substitute for all our sin. Jesus is more loving, more holy, and more wonderfully merciful than we ever thought possible. Every last bit of God’s forgiveness, grace and love are packaged and delivered to us in two marvelous Hebrew names – Jesus and Immanuel – our Seventh Seven. They complete your life and your story. These names are His Christmas gifts for you, forevermore! That is Jesus, the son of Mary. Amen.
What Child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring Him laud, the babe, the son of Mary. Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary! Amen. LSB 370:1-2.
"Called to Belong"
4th Sunday in Advent – A LSB #’s 341, 915, 546
Text – Romans 1:6
Including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
CALLED TO BELONG!
When Satan came to Eve in the Garden of Eden he strongly implied that God did not know what was best for her or for her husband. The devil’s approach hasn’t changed since those early days in the Garden. He still seeks to dupe us into thinking that we can take charge of our lives, going our own way, without any burden of obedience to God our Creator.
It’s a relatively easy task too, because by nature we rebel against the very word obedience. It’s no fun having to obey. Life appears much less complicated when I make all the rules myself. And so Eve followed the suggestion of the devil hoping that she would become like God. Instead, she ended up learning what the word alienation is all about.
Prior to the fall, all that Adam & Eve knew was perfect harmony & complete communication. They never felt alone, isolated or separated, not from each other & not from their Creator. But after acting upon the devil’s line of reasoning they immediately realized that something had gone terribly wrong with their plan for self-improvement.
They felt shame, not only about what they had done, but about whom they had become. Their disobedience separated them from God & from each other. Life would never be the same. They would forever have to live with those feelings of being different, separate & alone. Their feelings of shame & guilt motivated them to run from & to hide from their Creator.
As their descendants we too struggle with feelings of guilt & shame. We deal with feeling alienated, separated & alone. Resolving those conflicts in our lives is a continual problem, because God created us to be social beings. God’s purpose for us was to be in fellowship with Him as well as with family & neighbors. That need is created into us, & it conflicts very strongly with the alienation & separateness that sin causes us to feel. Therefore, ever since the fall into sin, all of mankind has been brought into this world cut off from God. Even those innocent looking newborn children are naturally opposed to Him, & they are outside of His Kingdom, except for the work of Jesus Christ.
Baptism is so important because God Himself promises that it brings children back into His Kingdom. Each of us needed that “bringing back” since we were conceived in sin, born as lost & condemned creatures.
That sense of separateness then fosters many of our sins. It bothers our conscience less to steal from ‘them’ or to harm ‘them,’ & our mind justifies it by saying that we have no connection to ‘them.’ Our feelings of separation are put to work by Satan.
And yet, those feelings are not to be the ultimate definition of our status in life. Satan well knew the alienation that Adam & Eve would encounter once they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, because the same thing had happened to him. He was once in perfect fellowship with God but rejected that & suffered the consequences.
His damnation is already eternal, & Satan desperately wants us to believe the same of ourselves. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus put it clearly when He said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, & they follow me. I give them eternal life, & they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
That “no one” includes the devil. Yes, not even Satan is able to snatch us out of God’s Kingdom. The danger, however, is that God’s children are still able to separate themselves from eternal life. Satan’s goal is convincing us to do exactly that. He tricked a holy Adam & Eve into separating themselves from God, & he’s constantly working on you & me as well.
Listen to the words of Cain after he’s murdered his brother. The Lord spoke to him,
“Where is Abel your brother?” And [Cain] said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) Did you hear how Cain is separating himself from Abel? It’s like he’s saying, “What brother?” He’s clearly avoiding any responsibility for Abel’s welfare.
Cain is seeking to maintain that disconnect which sin had created, & those feelings of distance toward his brother made it an easier thing for Cain to murder him. In the process, Cain only furthers the distance between himself & God.
His Creator had given him a chance to confess & to repent, but Cain meets that opportunity with further denial, & thus with further separation. All sin does that. It separates us from a holy & righteous God. Hell is that separation becoming permanent.
When was the last time you experienced that feeling of indignation at being caught in your sin? Maybe a cop pulled you over for speeding. Maybe a loved one caught you acting like a hypocrite through your lack of practicing what you preach. If so, your indignation enlarged the separation between you & your accuser, & thus you have already experienced a bit of hell.
That’s not a good feeling, yet daily we find ourselves, like Cain, rejecting the notion of confessing our sin. It’s a deadly struggle we are in, between the sinful nature that we’re born with & the saintly nature created & strengthened through the means of grace where God’s Holy Spirit calls us to belong to Jesus Christ.
The life we live in this world is a never-ending battle where real people actually die spiritually & are condemned to the eternal separation. Particularly distressing to pastors is seeing someone intentionally cutting themselves off from God’s means of grace. They take offense at something or someone in the church & leave, without realizing what they’re doing.
They’re playing right into the devil’s hand as slowly but surely he draws them away from their only hope of filling that hole in their heart created by sin. That sense of alienation & aloneness will kill us, little by little, if we don’t receive the antidote. As we act upon & believe those emotions of aloneness & that feeling of separation, the separation only grows. There are no hobbies, no careers, no human relationships so fulfilling that they remove our need for Christ. There is no drug so magical that it can satisfy our need for God’s love.
So God descended to earth & took on flesh in order that our Savior might endure the ultimate separation on our behalf: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) are the words of Jesus Christ as He endures that separation on Mt. Calvary.
He endured that horrifying separation in order that you & I might never have to; in order that you & I might be called to belong to Him once again. We prepare our hearts during Advent because we are no longer foreigners & aliens, we are no longer separated, but we are fellow citizens with God’s people, & members of God’s household.
In Adam & Eve, mankind separated themselves from God. Daily in our lives we sin & separate ourselves over & over again. But daily God calls us back, to be separated from the world instead; as St. Paul wrote, “to be set apart for the gospel of God.” It’s the love displayed for us on the cross that ultimately heals the wounds of all the separations we encounter.
Here, we endure alienation because of selfishness, because of anger, because of jealousy & gossip – because of death. Yet as separate & alone as we may feel there is hope in this life & the next because of Christmas. The name Immanuel was given to Jesus because He truly is God with us, yesterday & today & forever. No matter how we feel, we are NEVER alone.
As Christmas arrives, let us keep in mind that the baby born in Bethlehem so long ago is
on His way back. Advent is not just about preparing our hearts for Christmas in this time & this place. It is also about preparing our hearts for the day Jesus returns. We know when Christmas arrives. The commercial advertising will not allow us to forget. What we don’t know are the day or hour when our Savior will come again, & He promises that He will come – like a thief in the night. Don’t allow the alienation & separations caused by sin to deceive you & determine your future. The Holy Spirit is waiting to create in you a clean heart & to renew within you a steadfast spirit. Yahweh has freely given us His forgiveness, & daily He offers us a new life.
Our failures do not disqualify us from God’s family, because Jesus Christ took our place & He did not fail. You are not separated from God. You are not alone, & Satan lies when he tells you otherwise. Our heavenly Father no longer sees your guilt. It has already been removed. There’s nothing left to separate you from Him.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Lord, we believe! Help our unbelief as You continue calling us to belong. Amen.
Today Your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been, however long from mercy our hearts have turned away, Your precious blood can cleanse us & make us clean today. Today our Father calls us; His Holy Spirit waits; His blessed angels gather around the heavenly gates. No question will be asked us how often we have come; although we oft have wandered, it is our Father’s home. O all-embracing Mercy, O ever open Door, what should we do without You when heart & eye run o’er? When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer. Amen. LSB 915:1, 3-4.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet