Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Reason for Christmas

[This was shared during the second Christmas Eve worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio earlier this evening.]

Luke 2:1-7
It’s striking that in his Gospel, Luke takes just seven verses to describe the birth of Jesus! It's so spare that, if we’re not attentive, we may miss the powerful message his narrative conveys.

“In those days,” Luke writes, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”

Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The adopted son of Julius Caesar, in 31 AD, about three decades before Jesus’ birth, he became the uncontested ruler of Rome after a long civil war. After taking power, he named himself emperor. He labeled his adopted father and himself the “son of god.”

It was claimed that through Augustus’ kingship, he had brought God’s justice and peace to the world. The many poems and songs written in honor of Augustus claimed that he was the savior and lord of the world. And in much of his empire, during and after a long reign, Augustus came to be worshiped as a god. Augustus, a ruthless and bloodthirsty man, did nothing to dissuade people from worshiping him or from making all these claims about him.

Employing the coercive powers by which all governments--whether good or bad--must operate, Caesar Augustus ordered a census of his empire, which included most of the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, north into Europe, and even what we today know as the United Kingdom.

Augustus was a powerful man and when he issued an edict, an entire empire hopped-to. The purpose of the census Augustus ordered was to generate tax money. It takes a lot of money to run an earthly empire.

Affected by this decree were two impoverished young people, betrothed to be married, who lived in the often forgotten Galileean countryside of Palestine.

“And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Today, many scholars believe what Martin Luther preached in his Christmas sermons: That Joseph of Nazareth actually grew up in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth in Galilee as a young man. Recent archeological finds indicate that there was a large migration of people from the Bethlehem countryside to the Galileean region. It’s possible that both Mary’s and Joseph’s families had migrated from Bethlehem to Nazareth, because both were descendants of David. Going to Bethlehem would have been required of Joseph because he still owned property there.

Augustus’ decree forced Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. But, in fact, neither Augustus nor his empire were in control of events.

Nor were Mary or Joseph.

Decades later, as He stood trial before Pilate, the governor who oversaw Roman interests in Jesus’ homeland, Pilate asked Jesus why Jesus refused to answer Pilate’s questions. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Pilate asked Jesus. But Jesus answered: “You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above...

Despite outward appearances, Joseph and Mary and the Child in Mary's womb went to Bethlehem not because that’s where Caesar Augustus, who had never heard and never would hear of Joseph or Mary or Jesus, wanted them to go, but because that’s where God wanted them to go.

Those with earthly power may misuse or abuse their power. They may be selfish. They may act unjustly. They may treat other human beings like chess pieces to be manipulated at will. But the Biblical witness is clear that over the long haul, God is in charge. As I've been telling Catechism students for years, "Either God gets His way or God gets His way." There are no other options.

Old Testament prophecies had made it clear that when God’s Anointed King--the Messiah, the Christ-- came into the world, His birth would take place in Bethlehem.

He would be born into a family descended from David. God intended to enter our world and be our Lord at precisely the moment and in precisely the place He chose.

He would do it in order to live the perfect life, become the perfect human sacrifice for sin, then rise from the death promising that all who repent and believe in Him will share His victory over sin and death and meaningless living.

A Caesar might be willing to die to take or keep earthly power. Augustus had killed a thousand times over.

But he never would have died to give forgiveness and eternal life to people who, like us, only deserve condemnation and death for our sin. Jesus is a different King and Lord.

Please pull out a pew Bible and look at Romans 5:6-8 (page 785). It says: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

At the right time, the Savior Who was to die on a cross was born in a barn. 

There’s a simple reason why God doesn’t bludgeon us into submission with showy displays that evoke “shock and awe” the way the Caesars of this world do.

A reason why God the Father sends God the Son, Who totally takes on human flesh, a baby who cries and needs His mother, Who suffers and bleeds and dies.

There’s a reason God claims subjects for His kingdom not by brute force, but by love, by the gentle wooing of the Holy Spirit Who empowers ordinary people like you and me to keep telling the story of our crucified and risen Savior.

There’s a reason why by God’s plan, we become His subjects not by establishing residence in a religious institution, not by performing a set of tasks that lead to earning citizenship in the kingdom of God, but solely and simply by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

And the reason is simple: “God is love,” the New Testament teaches.

The Old Testament book of Genesis says that God made we human beings in His image.

God made us to love and to be loved by Him.

God made us for relationship with Him.

Sin has marred that relationship, separating us from God.

Jesus is the bridge back to God.

He is the manifestation of God’s love given on the cross.

The ultimate goal of a Caesar is to elicit obedience so that he can lord it over you.

The ultimate goal of Christ is to elicit faith and obedience so that He can set you free to live in a relationship of self-giving, fulfilling love with God and with others.

Jesus doesn’t want to judge you, though one day He will one day judge the living and the dead.

He wants to save you from your sin.

He wants to make us children of God.

There are lots of things that we do in the name of Christmas. But all that the God we meet in Jesus really wants us to do is repent and believe, turn from sin and trust in Him to guide us into life with God.

It's a life characterized by love, service, and selflessness.

It's a life of confidence that we are loved and approved by the only One Whose love and approval matters.
This is the God Who came at Christmas.

The God Who demonstrates His power not by ordering people around as though they were worthless robots, but by becoming One of us so that, by His grace, we might be restored to Him again and forever.

Thank God He loves us and gives us Jesus.

May we take Him as God's great gift to us every day and learn to joyfully, voluntarily, without coercion, be loved by God and to love Him in return.

Merry Christmas! Amen

Monday, December 23, 2013

Still in Love with the Savior Who Isn't Always Easy to Get

During worship yesterday, I told the story of how, after a decade of being an atheist, my new faith in Jesus Christ made itself plain to me.

It happened while taking a class at my wife's home church. I was trying to understand this faith she and the people of the congregation of which she was a part, professed.

Uncharacteristically for someone who was a "just do enough" student, the God I was learning about in the course, Life with God, incited me to seek to learn more on my own. Because I wanted to try to understand more about how a person lived faith in the God revealed in Christ, the first book of the Bible I read was Acts, in the New Testament.

I read it in 1976, around the time I came to faith in Christ. The other day, I looked inside the resource book for Life with God and found these brief notes I made after reading Acts. (You can click on the image above is if you want to enlarge it.)

Thirty-seven years later, I still love Jesus. He sometimes baffles and confounds me. Often, I simply don't understand Him or His ways.

But I know that He loves me and blesses me with a passionate love I don't deserve and could never earn. He's my lifeline and my hope.

And more than ever, I want to have the courage to share Him and His gracious love with the world.

Here's a demo Rich Mullins recorded shortly before his death. The song is called Hard to Get and it's about Jesus.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Genesis of Hope

[This message was prepared to share during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 1:18-25
It’s not a new observation to say that the beginnings of things often explain a lot about their later development.

The fact that of the two Steves who started Apple, Steve Jobs, the marketer, was the dominant partner, explains you how a passion for creating new and expanding old markets nurtured a corporate culture in which technical people are still expected routinely to do things that can’t be done.

The fact that Living Water began with a commitment to reaching out in word and deed with the Good News of new life for all who believe in Jesus Christ, explains this congregation’s outreach culture.

Beginnings are important.

The ancient rabbis said that if you wanted to understand Biblical faith, you should master the book of Genesis, the book of beginnings.

In Jesus Christ, God has made a new beginning and God gives new beginnings to us every time we trust Christ with our sinful pasts, our each today, and our unknown futures!

That’s what Matthew conveys in chapter one of his Gospel, including the verses that make up today’s Gospel lesson.

Please turn to our Gospel lesson, Matthew 1:18-25 (page 675 in the pew Bibles). Verse 18 says: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about...” A more literal translation from the Greek in which Matthew wrote would be, “This is how the genesis of Jesus Christ happened...”

Matthew is signaling a fresh start for the human race. In Jesus, a new Genesis is possible for us all!

The verse goes on: “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.”

The phrase “pledged to be married” hardly does justice to the state of Mary’s relationship with Joseph. They were betrothed. Betrothal was more than an engagement. During betrothal, the couple were considered married, although they were strictly forbidden from consummating their relationship until they publicly affirmed their commitment to one another before God and witnesses. If one of them had intimacy with someone else during betrothal, the act was considered adultery. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy said that if a woman was guilty of adultery during this period, she should be stoned to death. By the first century AD, this law was rarely enforced.

But even then, the woman cut loose by her betrothed quietly didn’t have an easy lot in life, forever branded by her adultery.

Our lesson conveys an unambiguous message: Mary was a virgin.

She and Joseph had not come together, we're told.

And, the child conceived within her was from the Holy Spirit.

Later in the passage, we’re told that Mary and Joseph didn’t have marital relations until after Jesus was born.

Today, as has been the case since the first century, there are people who deny that Jesus could possibly have been born of a virgin.

It’s always seemed a bit presumptuous to me for human beings to claim that the God Who created every particle of this universe is incapable of doing something that doesn’t comport our usual experience. Jesus teaches that, “With God all things are possible.”

Still, some virgin birth deniers point out that other ancient religions told stories of their idol gods roaming the earth and having intimate relations with women, often resulting in the birth of a notable person. They say that the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin is similar.

But the witness of the New Testament about God the Father and about Jesus’ birth is very different from those mythical gods.

During His ministry, Jesus said that “God is spirit.” The God of the universe isn’t like the bawdy deities of mythology. He is Spirit, Who by His Word created matter, created human beings.

Just as the book of Genesis says that God’s Spirit moved over chaos and brought life into being, so now, as God prepares to gives us the chance for new life through Jesus Christ, His Spirit passes over a virgin’s womb and the Person the apostle Paul calls, “the second Adam,” is conceived.

If this is hard for us to accept--because it doesn’t fit with our everyday experiences, imagine the effect it had on Joseph!

Verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

Hurt, Joseph decides he won’t lash out. But he won’t have a life with a woman he believes has been unfaithful to him. The verb translated as divorce here in the original Greek is apoluo, meaning basically, that Joseph would cut Mary loose. 

Verse 20: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit...’”

The Bible and centuries of believers affirm that God speaks to people in many ways. The God Who created the universe can use the universe in whatever way He wants to get our attention.

He spoke to Moses through a burning bush.

He spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice.

You know how God spoke to Balaam.

And sometimes, God gets the attention of His saints in dreams.

However we may sense God is speaking to us, the message and the messenger must conform to what God has revealed to us about Himself through His inspired Word, the Bible.

The Bible’s last book very sternly warns against adding or subtracting anything from the truths taught there, a statement that we can make about the whole of Scripture, because it’s God-breathed, a living Word.

The book of Hebrews says that, “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

In this light, one of the basic confessional statements of Lutherans, the Formula of Concord says that God’s Word in the Bible, “is and should remain the sole rule and norm of all doctrine, and...no human being’s [teachings] dare be put on a par with that...everything must be subjected to it.”

Joseph understood that the witness of the angel in his dream was true because the angel’s words conformed to the promises of Scripture!

Verses 21 to 23 continue the angel’s message to Joseph: “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus , because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [in Isaiah 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.’"

Joseph, a man who walked with God, knew God well enough and knew God’s Word well enough to know that the angel was telling the truth.

In a fallen world, it’s imperative that those who believe in Jesus know God’s Word! I hope that every member of Living Water will make it their business to know God through regular Bible reading and study!

Now, in Matthew’s explanations of the origins of our hope as believers in Christ, He mentions two names associated with the child in Mary’s womb.

First: Jesus, the Savior’s given name. It means Yahweh, [God], is our salvation. Jesus’ name says that God sent Jesus to save His people from sin.

“The wages of sin is death,” as we know. But Jesus came to take the wages we deserve, death, separation from the God Who gives life. Then He rose from the dead so that all who believe in Him have the gift we don’t deserve: Never-ending life with God.

And Jesus came to save more than just God’s first people, the Jews. In the great commission, Jesus sends us to share the Good News of new life for all who repent and believe in Him with people of every nation. Jesus came to give all people the chance to believe in Him and be saved for eternity.

Second: Matthew tells us about the name Immanuel. It’s a nickname, really. Like many nicknames, it’s descriptive. As the text says, Immanuel means God with us. Jesus is God in the flesh Who came into our world to save us from sin and death, to give us life in the world to come. Jesus is also God with us, in this world. 

To truly celebrate Christmas this year, may I suggest you remind yourself of those two names of our Lord?

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ origins and of the Names of Jesus, we find the origins of all the hope a person can ever want or have!

Immanuel, God with us, assures us that no matter what happens to us in this life, God stands by us, strengthening us, encouraging us.

And Jesus is not only with us, He lives in those who receive and believe in Him. 1 John 4:4 tells believers in Christ: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

Satan, temptations, fears, apprehensions, worries, sins, stress: God with us can give us the strength of character and the thrill of hope that will help us face every obstacle!

God is with us when the kids make us crazy, the in-laws are a pain, the marriage is troubled, we’re sick or depressed, the bills pile up, or the pressures mount.

If you want Him, Immanuel will never let you go!

And, I have found, He will even send His ambassadors--other believers in Christ--to extend His love, grace, mercy, and help when you need it! You just have to lay down any pretense of self-sufficiency and let Him carry you when you’re to weary to take the next step!

And by His Name, Jesus, God is our salvation, assures us that no matter how lost we may feel, no matter how guilty, when we trust in Him, we are saved from sin and death and separation from God.

The hope of heaven imbues this life with joy even when we’re unhappy or guilty, assures us of peace even when things are crazy.

Please turn to Romans 8:1-2 (page 787 in the pew Bibles). It says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

That, friends is the good news that came when God was virgin born of Mary and Joseph accepted the responsibility of acting as His father on earth.

If we want Him, we are saved and accompanied always by Christ!

Welcome Him as Mary and Joseph did, ignoring the wagging tongues and the warped reason of a world that wants to sell God short and feed human ego.

Welcome Jesus.

Let Him save you.

Let Him live with you every day.

Because of all the things the God of this universe wants, nobody and nothing is more important to Him than you!
Let that truth soak into your heart and mind this Christmas and every day!