Sunday, December 30, 2018

A change to the College Football Playoffs?

I've probably watched a total of six quarters of college football this season. Between big money despoiling the game and the risk of head injuries that are endemic to the sport (to which I don't want to be an accessory), I've pretty much given up on my former Saturday obsession.

But after the convincing defeats meted out to Notre Dame and Oklahoma in yesterday's championship semifinals, it gives me the impetus to throw in my two cents on an idea I have for changing the College Football Playoffs (CFP). Feel free to take the idea for what it’s worth. (And it’s probably not worth much.)

Here's the idea. Instead of expanding to an eight-team playoff as some are so fevered to do--many being the same people who wanted this format when just two teams were picked for a championship game and said they’d be content with a 4-team playoff), what if the committee delayed announcing the four entrants for the CFP AFTER all the bowl games are played, say on January 2?

That would give lots of bowl games greater significance and incentivize players who want to showcase their talents for NFL scouts as they play against top-tier opponents.

I'm sure that if the CFP committee could delay picking the four teams in the playoffs until after defeats like the ones suffered by Notre Dame and Oklahoma, neither of those teams would be involved in the national championship.

With a little adjusting, this approach would only add, at most, two games to teams’ seasons.

It’s possible that under this format, perennial also-rans like UCF, with convincing bowl wins over Power 5 opponents, could get invited into the CFP. (Which may be one reason that the Power Five conferences wouldn't adopt this idea.)

The Fine Print

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this morning.]

Luke 2:22-40
Whenever people get new high-tech gizmos, as some of you may have received on Christmas morning this year, their response usually follows a two-step pattern. Step one follows the initial excitement over getting the gizmo: They try to make it do all of the things that they’ve heard it can do. Step two follows the realization that they don’t understand everything about the gizmo: They have to stop and read the instructions, including the fine print, the tough stuff. This can be overwhelming. But the promise is that if we’ll put up with the pain, there will be gain.

Our gospel lesson this morning sort of follows this same pattern. Only both the pain it talks about is infinitely more difficult and the gain is eternally more sublime.

And today, God asks us, “Will we take the pain in order to experience the gain?”

The lesson recounts an incident that took place many weeks after Jesus’ birth. On that night, the shepherds went to the child and confirmed for Joseph and Mary what this couple already believed they’d heard from God, that this baby really was the Christ, the Savior long promised by God. That must have been a moment of quiet euphoria for Mary and Joseph. They weren’t crazy. The two of them truly had been chosen by God to play a part in the salvation history of the world. (Just as you and I have our roles to play in salvation history as we follow Christ and share Him with others.)

Take a look at our lesson, please, Luke 2:22-40. It begins: “When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’”

Under Old Testament law, a woman who had given birth was required to wait several weeks, then be purified--offering a sacrifice--in order to be able once more to fully participate in Jewish religious life. (By the way midwives had to undergo such purification as well. Because Joseph acted as Mary's midwife, some scholars believed that both Mary and Joseph were at the temple to offer sacrifices for purification.)

So, purification was one reason for the visit to the temple. But Mary and Joseph also went there to consecrate or dedicate their child to the Lord, God the Father.

They were soon to learn through two unexpected interruptions, only the first one of which we’ll talk about this morning, that God had them in the temple for other reasons. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? You go somewhere for your reason and then learn that God has you there for His reasons. Our niece told us yesterday about going to the grocery to pick up a few items. But while there, she ran into a friend going through a tough time and spent an hour-and-a-half listening and offering encouragement. On that day in the temple, there were two things that Mary and Joseph needed to be told. That's the reason God wanted them to go to the temple when they did.

Verse 25 and forward: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…”

This wasn’t part of Mary’s and Joseph’s plan. A stranger, an old man who, it turns out has deep faith has been praying that the Messiah would be revealed to him before he died appears. When the old man sees Jesus, he does a shocking thing, taking the baby Jesus from His parents, he cradled Jesus in his arms. The man’s name is name is Simeon, meaning God has heard in Hebrew. Simeon was overwhelmed with joy because he knew that, at long last, God had heard his prayers. The Holy Spirit had assured him that his prayers would be heard. And on that day, the Holy Spirit moved him to go to the temple courts.

Is there any good or godly thing for which you’ve been praying for years? Or that you started to pray for and then gave up, not because the Holy Spirit seemed to tell you that God wanted you to stop, but because you got tired of praying? Because you were discouraged. Because you felt defeated. Ann and I were talking about that very subject on the way here this morning. There's something we've prayed about for years and nothing seems to change. Have you been there?

Listen: In another chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is quoted telling a parable about a widow who had been wronged by someone in their community and a corrupt judge whose judgments were usually bought and paid for. The widow had no money. She couldn’t pay the judge off. (Any more than you or I can buy God off!) Jesus says though that because the woman would not give up on petitioning the judge to bring her justice, the unjust judge finally gave in and saw to it that the woman got all the money that was owed to her.

After telling this story, Jesus says that if an unjust judge can be worn down to do right by a person and hear their pleas, how much more will our loving God in heaven Who wants to do the right things for us answer our prayers?

There are, as we’ve said before, four answers that God can give to our prayers: no, maybe, wait, and yes. When we pray to God for answers, we’re asking God that His good and gracious will be done. We do the asking, but we leave the answering up to Him. And God will answer prayers offered in Jesus’ name at just the right time.

This isn’t magic. This is faith. And sometimes, God’s answers to our prayers will require us to give up on our imperfect will to yield to His good and perfect will.

Sometimes, God's answers to our prayers will mean turning away from sinful habits we enjoy so that we can embrace the blessings wants to give to us or to those for whom we incessantly pray.

Apparently, in Simeon’s quiet times with God, the Holy Spirit had assured him that he would see the Messiah. Now here Jesus was in the temple courts! You can understand why he scooped Jesus up into his arms!

Then Simeon did what people on whom the Holy Spirit rests always do: Simeon prayed some more! Verse 29: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Years ago, I heard a hospice nurse tell the true story of an old man in her care. As his life ebbed away, the man was in a coma. The nurse knew that the man deeply believed in Jesus, the only One Who can give us everlasting life with God. She didn’t know if he could hear her, but she decided to worship God and sing what she knew was his favorite hymn. “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so / Little ones to Him belong / They are weak, but He is strong” [You know the words] “Yes, Jesus loves me / Yes, Jesus loves me / Yes, Jesus loves me / The Bible tells me so.”

She had just sung those last lines when the man opened his eyes, pushed himself off the bed, and said, “And don’t you forget it!” In the next moment, he fell back to the bed and peacefully passed from this life.

In the temple, Simeon tells God that he can peacefully die because God had sent the Savior to bring new life not just to God’s first people, the Jews, but also to Gentiles, like you and me, who repent and believe in Jesus!

Mary and Joseph heard in Simeon's prayer further confirmation of Who their child was (and is).

But then came part two, the fine print, the kind of stuff we like to gloss over, the hard part (verse 34): “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Anyone who really gets around Jesus sees things about themselves they’d rather not see. Coming into the presence of the “Light of the world” is not an easy thing.

When we come to Jesus, we see our sins in the light of His perfection.

We see our mortality in the light of His eternity.

We see our weakness in the light of His infinite strength.

Like Adam and Eve after their fall into sin, we want to hide.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we want to farm out our relationship with God to preachers and Sunday School teachers.

But Jesus wants us to come to Him personally because it’s only when we see our sin and our neediness that we’re ready to turn to Him for life, strength, and hope. 

It’s only when we let Him crucify our sinful natures, that He can bring us to the life God has in mind for us: a life with God filled with His goodness!

Simeon was telling Mary and Joseph, especially Mary, a hard truth: The world would speak against her Son, the world would demean Him. And when she saw Jesus die on a cross, Simeon warned her, the pain in her heart would be like a sword piercing her soul.

Mary and Joseph needed to give up on any thought that they could control the Child, the Savior, Who had come into their lives.

This was the fine print that God chose Simeon to deliver that day in the temple.

It’s our fine print too.

This baby is the Savior of the world, the only One Who can dispense life to human beings who are otherwise destined for death and separation from God.

But like Mary and Joseph, if we’re to take hold of all the grace God wants to give to us through Jesus, we must daily surrender our wills to God’s will and ask God to give us the strength to let go of all that keeps us from following Him.

We need to accept the momentary pain that sometimes seems it will never end in order to experience the eternal gain Christ died and rose to give to those who trust in Him.

We need to daily ask God to make room for Jesus in our lives, because that’s really what faith is: God, through the power of His Word, spoken, preached, taught, and given in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, clearing out the sin and death in our lives to make room for Jesus.

And as we daily receive God’s grace given through Christ, we, like Simeon, faithfully pray and live and follow and see how God acts to give us resurrection life with Jesus. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Friday, December 28, 2018

Learning a New Word: Otiose

I learned--or maybe, just noticed for the first time--a new word while studying the gospel text for this coming Sunday. The word, otiose, appears in I. Howard Marshall's commentary of the gospel of Luke. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, the word means, "Serving no practical purpose or result." It also meant, archaically, "indolent or idle."

Marshall's use of the word comes in a refutation of Rudolf Bultmann's assertion that the appearance of both Simeon and Anna at the temple on the day of Jesus' dedication was implausible. Bultmann said that for the two them to show up at virtually the same time was contrived, a literary doublet meant to hammer a theological point home. Marshall disagrees and, noting that Anna's particular words aren't quoted, says, "her rather otiose role is more likely to be an indication of historicity." In other words, Simeon's words were cited and Anna's weren't. A contrived doublet would have them both spouting verbose proclamations. The fact that Luke doesn't quote Anna's specific words, only that she affirmed Jesus' identity and began telling others about Him, affirms that events that day in the temple happened exactly as Luke reported them.

The point Marshall makes is a good one. Twentieth-century scholars like Bultmann took as their project "demythologizing" the New Testament, believing, like Thomas Jefferson before them, that anything that they couldn't rationally explain or didn't come under the category of "normal" human experience, couldn't possibly be true and must be "made up." This kind of thinking is what causes people to dismiss such essential New Testament teachings as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, Jesus' miracles, and His resurrection. In other words, it leads to a tamed, irrelevant, impotent, and meaningless version of Christian faith.

Influenced by such thinking, one of my seminary professors, for example, made light of the New Testament's teaching about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead. "There must be a Holy Spirit," he would say dismissively. "Otherwise, how does the next tissue pop up in the Kleenex box?" To speak of the Holy Spirit, he said, was to speak of nothing more than team spirit, the good feelings that infect a group of people when they're joined together in something like the Church.

That, of course, is no Christianity at all and I am thankful for faithful Christian teachers, people filled with the power of God's Holy Spirit, who trusted in Jesus in the way that Luke 2:22-40, this coming Sunday's gospel lesson, tells us that Simeon and Anna believed. They trusted God even when He did something out of the ordinary that they couldn't explain.

To fail to take the Bible's witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ seriously is to render Christian faith otiose. And my experience with Christ these past forty-two years tells me that the Christian witness is anything but that. I believe in Christ and I also believe that Simeon and Anna declared Him the Messiah that day in the Jerusalem temple two-thousand years ago.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

When Amnesia Hits

[God moved me again this morning by His grace. This is what I journaled from my quiet time with God today.]

Look: “‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (Luke 2:49-50)

I’ve always been struck by this incident and these words from it. Today, God has shown me exactly why it so strikes me.

The incident happens at the end of a family trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back for a festival. Mary and Joseph “lose” Jesus and search for Him frantically back in Jerusalem for three days. In the gospel of Luke, whenever people go “seeking” or “searching” for things, it’s trouble, even if they’re seeking God. We can’t find God, according to Luke: God finds us. (Jesus’ parables in Luke 15 pound this point home.)

Mary and Joseph finally “find” Jesus, Who was never lost, in what was apparently the last place they would have expected to find Him, in His Father’s house. It was Mary and Joseph who were lost. Jesus was reliably where I can always be found, with the Father, which is part of the reason He teaches us to pray in His name: Where Jesus is, there is God the Father.

Listen: What’s striking about this incident to me is that Mary and Joseph know Who Jesus is, the Messiah. But in the twelve years since Jesus’ birth, they’ve developed a kind of amnesia. They love the boy. He’s part of the family. Because of the redundancy of daily routine, they’ve effectively pushed all the unpleasant stuff associated with Jesus being the Messiah out of their minds. (Simeon, when Jesus was eight days old, warned Mary that the Babe in her arms would be “a sign that will be spoken against...And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” [Luke 2:34-35])

I know that I too can suffer from spiritual amnesia. I forget all that God has done for me, that Christ died for me, that my sins were part of why He, though sinless, had to go to the cross.

I cheapen His grace, turning God’s favor to me into an obligation God has toward me, rather than the undeserved gift that it is.

I forget the call to take up my cross--to acknowledge my sins--and follow Him, not the thing that I think is a good idea.

I forget that Jesus is my Lord, not my Aladdin.

And sometimes I forget that in Christ, I am forgiven, made new, accepted by God. At a subconscious level then, I begin to think that it doesn’t matter what I do, that nothing that I do matters.

These are all symptoms of my spiritual amnesia.

Respond: God, thank You for once more today finding me, just as I am. Forgive the amnesia that leads me to frenzy: fearing I’ve lost You, fearing You’ve lost me, fearing that I’m too lost to be found, or trying to prove myself simply because I’ve clean forgotten You.

Because I am baptized, You are always with me.

In Your Word and in the sacraments, You are always with me.

As I claim my inheritance as Your child, as I pray in Jesus’ name, as I read Your Word, and as I fellowship with other believers this day, help me to remember Who my Savior is and rest easy in Him as I work, play, and live.

In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

A 99-year-old biomedical engineer, best known for limericks that commented on the news...

...has died. Dr. Larry Eisenberg, also a writer of science fiction, became known in later years for writing witty, pointed lyrics in response to articles on the online version of The New York Times. He wrote more than 13,000 commentaries in limerick form, all after 2008. Eisenberg also "helped develop a transistorized, battery-operated cardiac pacemaker, which was considered a vast improvement over the wire-laden earlier models." (For this I'm deeply and personally grateful!) 

I find it interesting that his most prominent scientific achievement involved helping hearts (like mine) beat in a healthy rhythm and that he did political commentary with rhythm, rhyme, and meter. Born in a different generation, he might have become a rapper.

Eisenberg's first letter-to-the-editor limerick was a condemnation of a proposed policy of gradual withdrawal from Iraq shared in an OpEd piece by then-Senator Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign:

A “residual force,” Mr. O.? 
With “limited missions,” ah, so,
Precipitous? Nay!
It’s a sure way to stay.
Your plan sounds like “in statu quo”!
And when Donald Trump was elected, Eisenberg was also inspired by his muse to pen a limerick:

A mauler, a grabber, abuser,
A do whatever you chooser
Non-thinker, non-reader,
A spoiled-children breeder
An every trick-in-the-book user.
So, when it came time to write Eisenberg's obituary, the Times rose to the occasion:

Larry Eisenberg, whom we well know,
Has died (and his age is below).
He opined on the news
With limericks, whose  
Delightfulness leavens our woe. 
(As we used to routinely say in the heyday of blogging, H/T to Ann Althouse, for linking to this story on her blog)

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, and I'm a fan of clean limericks.]

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Word

[This is the journal entry for my quiet time with God yesterday, December 26.]

Look: “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

Jesus, famished after forty days in the wilderness, gives this reply from the book of Deuteronomy after the devil suggests He turn some stones into bread.

It’s remarkable that Jesus here, as at His trial and execution, refuses to exploit His power as God in a self-interested way, even if the world might consider miraculously feeding Himself would not be an act of selfishness on the order of, say, whipping up a Mercedes-Benz to take him from preaching stop to preaching stop.

Jesus refuses to act in a self-interested way, ever. His sinlessness is precisely what gives His death on a cross the power to save a self-interested sinner like me.

Listen: But the question Jesus’ citation of Deuteronomy raises for me is where the Word of God fits into my life. Jesus is saying that God’s Word is more fundamental to our living than food, oxygen, or water, that if you don’t have the Word of God pulsing through your mind, body, and soul, you’re dead.

To not take in this Word, Jesus is saying, is to be starving to death. And Jesus would rather have physically starved to death in the wilderness than not rely on God’s Word.

On the other hand, Jesus, because He knew His Father’s faithfulness, also knew that if He “stayed the course,” turning back the temptations of the devil, the Father would find some way to take care of Him. (Which is what happened, once the devil had temporarily given up on tempting Him.) 

Jesus then doesn’t have some death wish and He doesn’t commend recklessness as a way of life to His disciples. (For example, in a later temptation, He refuses to jump off the temple mount, as the devil wants Him to do, because it’s wrong to “tempt the Lord your God,” to presume that if I act in a stupidly sinful way, God is obligated to protect me from my stupidity.)

Quite simply, Jesus trusts His Father and He tells us to do the same, even if it entails adversity. It’s “the one who stands firm to the end [who] will be saved,” Jesus says in Matthew 24:13.

This means turning to the Father when the devil, the world, and everything within us says to do what we want to do, to act self-interestedly to fill a present urge rather than relying on God for the life that only He can give.

Respond: Lord, help me today to consciously and consistently turn to You, rather than to my own thoughts or “wisdom” or to the world for the right path in my decision-making. You alone have the words of life. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Who Are The Favored People?

[This was shared last evening with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during three of the four Christmas Eve worship services. (One of our Christmas Eve service, the Family Service, has no sermon, but a reading of the Christmas history from a children's book.)]

Luke 2:1-20
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” (Luke 2:13-14) 

It’s these two verses from Luke’s narration of the events of the first Christmas on which I want to focus tonight. 

The question raised by the angels' words recorded here is this: Who exactly are the people on whom God’s favor rests?

Ann and I have a friend who, when we were all in our late-twenties, seemed to have a favored life. 

Her husband, it appeared, adored her. 

Both she and her husband had good jobs that paid them well, allowing them to own a beautiful new home and to take nice vacations. 

They had a healthy child, at that point, aged two. 

Then it happened

The husband who adored our friend announced that he wanted out of their marriage; he’d found someone else with whom he felt more compatible. 

There was the custody to negotiate and a divorce to endure and a new way of life to establish. 

Our friend said that the whole experience was like being on a flight for a planned trip to Italy only to learn once the plane landed that she was in Hungary instead. 

The life she’d begun to experience and projected into the future was no more.

Had our friend lost favor with God?

There’s an idea that’s been popular in this world from the moment that Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden of Eden, an idea probably even more popular today that it’s ever been. The idea, put simply, is that the most favored people in life are those who enjoy success, happiness. We’re told that life’s most favored people get the best educations, have the best jobs, take the nicest vacations, make the biggest killings in the market. 

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with good educations, jobs, vacations, or even “making a killing” on Wall Street. 

But are the people who have these things going on for them God’s most favored people? 

Are they the ones about whom the angels, God’s messengers, told the shepherds, “peace to those on whom [God’s]” favor rests”?

A clue as to what the angels meant (and what God means) when speaking of people favored by God can be found in something another angel, Gabriel, said to Mary, the virgin chosen by God to become the earthly mother of God in the flesh, God the Son, Jesus

When Gabriel met Mary to announce God’s plans for her, he said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” (Luke 1:28) 

Luke, the gospel writer says that even Mary “wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). 

Understandably! Mary had none of the things that the world sees as indicators of being favored. From a worldly perspective, she would come to have even more reason to doubt the angels’ words once the angel told her that, a teenager and unmarried, she was going to give birth to a Son, the Savior of the world. 

It seems that God’s idea of being favored doesn’t conform to our world’s ideas on the subject.

God’s favored ones aren’t necessarily those God picks to know this world’s wealth or good health or the applause of others. In fact, Jesus tells us, having it all can be an impediment to the everlasting life with God He came into the world to give: “ is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle [Jesus tells us] than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).  

God’s favored people, it turns out, are those who are obedient to God

  • They’re like Mary, who told Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant...May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38) 
  • God’s favored people are like the impoverished shepherds on whom the world looked down, people who were considered to be the low-life, riff-raff of society, who weren’t too busy with the rewards of the world to say to each other after the angels had told them of the Messiah’s, the Christ’s, birth, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:15)

The obedience of the shepherds, as with the obedience of Mary, had nothing to do with the world’s conception of what it means to be religious. As you may have noticed already, it's entirely possible to be scrupulously religious and completely unfaithful as a Christian!

Neither Mary nor the shepherds saw God as some cosmic Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice, [figuring] out who’s naughty and nice.” 

While the disciple of Jesus Christ will seek to obey God’s will for his or her life and pay heed to God’s commands, true obedience to God, the obedience that gains us the favor of God, is all about trusting in Jesus Christ alone for life and hope and salvation from sin and death and futility

Jesus tells us who God favors in a simple passage in John’s gospel: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29) 

God’s favored people are those who seek, however imperfectly, to welcome His Son, Jesus, with faith, whether the world considers them blessed or successful of favored or not.

Put another way: This work of God, the obedience of faith, of forsaking everything else in order to bet our lives on Jesus Christ each day through lifestyles of daily repentance and renewal is what brings us God's favor

It’s what brings us the peace from God the angels proclaimed on the holy night of Jesus’ birth. It’s a peace that can’t be achieved or striven for, but a peace that simply must be believed and received. It’s what Saint Paul calls “the peace that passes all understanding,” the peace that God gives to those who daily trust in the Christ Who bore the shame of our sin on a cross and rose from the dead to give eternity to all who turn from their sin and trust in Him to be their Savior.

In the midst of her pain and uncertainty, our friend came, gradually, to turn to Jesus as her God and Savior. She moved from valuing the favor above all else of the world to valuing the favor of the God we meet in Jesus. 

There are some people who would say, “She needed a crutch and that’s when she turned to Christ.” Exactly!

Listen: It’s a sign of maturity and self-awareness to realize that, in fact, we all desperately need the crutch that is Jesus Christ

  • Only Jesus gives us the power to face this life with joy and hope and peace. 
  • Only Jesus gives us the power to turn away from the world’s selfish ways and to embrace God’s command that we love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
  • Only Jesus gives us the power to look death in the eye without fear, knowing that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love, God’s favor. 
  • Only Jesus gives us the confidence to see Him face to face, despite our imperfections and our sins and His perfection and sinlessness, knowing that this same Jesus, by grace through our faith in Him, covers us with His holiness and perfection, fitting us to live in His kingdom. 

You see, Christmas tells us that God wants to favor people with His grace now, in the midst of this imperfect, sometimes painful, inexplicable world, and in eternity, a realm with no pain or tears, no regrets and no goodbyes, a world in which obedience is no grim obligation, but simple faith in the Christ Whose birth among us we celebrate tonight.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s favored ones, keep entrusting your lives to Jesus. 

And then, like the shepherds long ago, “...spread the word concerning what [has been told you] about this child” (Luke 2:17) so that others will come to believe and know the life of God’s eternal favor you and I have in Christ tonight as bring worship to Jesus!

Merry Christmas! Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Faith, Peace, Joy

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday, December 23.]

Luke 1:39-56
On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, our theme word is peace, the peace that God makes between Himself and those who trust in Him for lives made new by the grace--the charity--He offers to all through Jesus of Nazareth. 

Our Gospel lesson for today shows us that peace from God is a product of faith that results in joy

The lesson, Luke 1:39-56 recounts what the Church calls the Visitation, the time when Mary, the virgin, pregnant for Jesus, visits her relative Elizabeth, once thought to be barren and past menopause, now six months pregnant for her son, John the Baptizer.

Both women had reason to fear the reactions of their neighbors to their pregnancies. 

Although Elizabeth would have often been marked as faithless for not having birthed children through her long years of marriage to Zechariah, now that she was old, the gossiping tongues would wag about two elderly people having a baby. 

Mary faced scorn (and the Jewish law even said that she could be stoned to death) for the sin people would assume she’d committed, having intimacy with a man before marriage. 

And yet, our lesson portrays no fear in either woman. They are at peace with God because of their faith in God and the unfolding of His plans for the human race...and for them. Instead of being afraid, these two women rejoice!

Take a look at our lesson with me now, please, starting at verse 39: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”

Mary’s world has just been rocked. Gabriel, an angel of God, has told her that in nine months, she will give birth to the Savior of the world. Mary, then unmarried, will become the mother of God the Son. At the same time, Gabriel tells Mary about Elizabeth’s pregnancy and, we’re told, Mary hurried and got ready to see Elizabeth.

The Holy Spirit conceiving God the Son in the womb of a virgin mother is a miracle. But maybe the greater miracle is how quickly and enthusiastically this young woman believes and because she believes, she acts

The Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel says that Mary prepared to visit Elizabeth “with haste.” Through worship, prayer, and attentiveness to God’s Word, Mary knew God. Her belief, resulting in action, contrasts with the men among Jesus’ party of believers who wrote off the women’s story of a risen Jesus at Easter as “an idle tale.” 

It strikes a contrast too, to the male disciples with whom the risen Jesus walked to Emmaus about whom Jesus said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25) 

Mary was far from slow to believe

I don’t know about you, but her faith shames my own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve faced decisions, received clear guidance from God’s Word and confirmation of God’s will in prayer and conversations with other Christians, and still been slow to act. May God forgive my fearful slowness and, instead, help me to trust in Him and do what He calls me to do.

But why did Mary go to Elizabeth? We can surmise that she went, in part, to help Elizabeth with the birth three months later. But I think there may be a deeper reason. You see, Elizabeth and Mary, in essence, were the first members of Christ’s Church, the first to believe that the Child in Mary’s womb was God the Son. They were the first members of the body of Christ in the world. 

It’s abnormal for Christians not to seek the fellowship of other believers. Decades later, the preacher in Hebrews would tell believers not to give “up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25). 

In Christ’s Church, this fellowship of recovering sinners, we encourage one another’s faith, we inspire each other to live out our faith, and we hold one another accountable when our faith is flagging

No wonder Mary ran to Elizabeth. 

No wonder she ran to the Church at this moment of trial and of joy. Many of you could testify as to how important the Church has been for you in moments of trial and of joy!

Verse 41: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women,and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’”

John the Baptizer was not yet born but was very much alive. When he heard Mary’s greeting, he knew that his Savior Jesus was present and he “leaped” in Elizabeth’s womb. 

The Greek word used by Luke in his original manuscript only appears in three places in the New Testament, two of them here in verses 41 and 44. The other place is Luke 6:23. There, the grown Jesus tells His disciples, including you and me, how we should react when we are persecuted for believing in Jesus. “Rejoice in that day,” Jesus says, “and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.” 

John, the last of the prophets of the old covenant, would be persecuted and ultimately, lose his life for his faith in the God we know in Christ. But, from the beginning and to the end, he leaped for joy over Jesus! 

You and I are fortunate to live in a land in which Christians aren’t persecuted, though we are often shunned or marginalized. 

But with the apostle Paul we can say, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) 

And we can remember what James tells us in the New Testament, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4) 

Listen: Nothing--not adversity, pain, or even death--can rob the believer in Jesus of their joy

We know that through Christ, by Whom we were claimed in Holy Baptism and Who sent the Holy Spirit to create faith within us, we belong to God forever. 

Even Lutherans, known for being staid and quiet, have reason to leap for joy!

Elizabeth shared in the joy of her son. She feels blessed that Mary, who has trusted in God’s promises and bears the King of kings in her womb, has come to her home.

In verses 46-55, Mary gives witness to her faith in the God about to be revealed to all the world in Jesus. In this faith, she experiences and verbalizes the peace she has with God and with God’s plan for her life, as well as joy for all that God is doing.

Mary describes herself as a person in a “lowly state,” a phrase that translates Luke’s use of a word here that can also mean humiliated

In a way, Mary has been humiliated by God, forced to deal with the insults of religious snobs over her pregnancy and illegitimate baby. 

But more broadly, the life of her nation has been one of frequent humiliation by the world despite being God’s people. 

And, most broadly of all, every human being, despite being made for eternal life and in God’s image, is humiliated by our common sin and by the death that shadows and taunts and haunts us

But, Mary is saying, these humiliations aren’t fatal or never-ending for the one who trusts in the God we meet in Jesus

Just as all generations would come to see Mary as blessed for the role that God had given her to play in salvation history (verse 48), through Jesus, God’s mercy would be extended “to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (verse 50).

This Jesus, growing in Mary’s womb, would be more than just a baby born in a Judean barn. He would turn the world upside down: bringing down rulers and rich folks who act like gods, lifting up those humble enough to acknowledge their need of Him, feeding the hungry while sending the sated and selfish away from Him, “the bread of life.” 

Mary’s Magnificat, which is what we call the poetry that she voices at this moment in the Visitation, is a creedal statement of trust in God, expressing the faith of believers in God in both Old and New Testaments...and today! 

God will overturn the lies this world tells us about what it means to live good lives, lies that we seem to hear more at this time of year than at any other: The lies that tell us that to live means to own more, dominate more, lord it over others more, have the bigger name, the bigger house, the bigger wallet, the bigger power. 

But when God came into the world to conquer sin and death, He did so as a powerless pauper in a backwater of a conquered country

And He gives the power to live forever to those who humbly take up their crosses--owning the sins of which we are all guilty and for which we all deserve death and separation from God--and follow Him

Repent and believe,” the Babe of Bethlehem, now crucified, risen, ascended, and one day, returning tells us. 

The humble respond, with even Mary, who would later appear to have her misgivings or doubts about the wisdom of God’s plans for her son, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, ESV) 

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

This was the faith of Mary. 

This was the faith of Elizabeth. 

This is the faith of the Church. 

This is the faith that produces peace and results in joy

This week, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, I ask you to be open to the Holy Spirit building a deeper faith in Christ within you. Seek Him in His Word and in prayer in His name. Through these things, along with the sacrament and the fellowship of other believers we enjoy here at Living Water, let Christ give you His peace

And because of all His promises to you, take time to savor the joy of being His child, His disciple, now and forever. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]