Wednesday, December 30, 2020
Monday, December 28, 2020
I don't know why the video gets distorted like this. But here it is, again, warts and all.
Friday, December 25, 2020
Below is the video of the online Christmas Eve worship service of Living Water in Centerville, Ohio. Under that, you'll find the text of the message presented during the service. Have a blessed Christmas!
Christmas combines the mundane and the miraculous. It’s the moment at which, as C.S. Lewis says, the Author walks onto the stage and becomes the central character of humanity’s unfolding drama. It’s the point at which God, Who is Spirit, takes on the dust-born attributes of our humanity, to offer up His sinless life in sacrifice for our sins, then have His victory over our sin and death verified as God the Father raises Jesus, God the Son, from the dead. Christmas is, along with Good Friday and Easter Sunday, one of the three greatest events in the history of the universe.
But why was Christmas necessary? Why did Divinity need to take on dust, take on flesh? Why is it so important for you and me in 2020?
Our gospel lesson for this Christmas Eve, which only mentions the actual nativity of Jesus, His birth, in the beginning words of verse 18 and the beginning of verse 25, actually helps to answer those questions, particularly in verse 21, where the angel who has visited Joseph in a dream famously says of Mary, Joseph’s betrothed wife: “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.” Here is a simple proclamation of God’s truth: Law and Gospel.
The Law, you know, is God’s command of righteousness from the human race. It’s the basic and non-negotiable requirement for human beings who want life with God today and, in perfection, in eternity. To live in righteousness is to live in a right relationship with God, one in which we who are God’s creatures honor, worship, and obey God out of simple love and gratitude.
Such love, gratitude, honor, worship, or obedience to God don’t come naturally to us though. From the moment you and I are conceived, we inherit from our parents the common damning attribute of original sin. Because of original sin, our every impulse is to get our own way, to be righteous (or good) according to our own standards rather than God’s standards, and to be our own gods.
Most people will acknowledge that lives of love--love of God, if they accept God’s existence, and certainly, love for neighbor--are lives of righteousness. But we don’t live utterly righteous lives, do we? It may be possible for us to appear to live perfectly righteous lives in the eyes of others. Nonetheless, deep down, we know what our true motives are, what brooding selfishness percolates at our cores. Honesty compels us to confess that we are unrighteous. And that’s where God’s Law leaves us: aware of our unrighteousness, of the awful yawning chasm between God’s expectations of us and our total inability to meet those expectations. The Law condemns us.
This is where the Gospel comes in. The angel tells Joseph of the baby in Mary’s womb, remember: “...you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” In English, we translate the name of the Christ child as Jesus. This is a transliteration of his name from the Greek, Ἰησοῦς (Yesus). That, in turn, translates the Hebrew version of the name, Yeshua, Joshua, which means, “Yahweh [the Lord] saves” or “The Lord helps.”
Jesus came into the universe to help us, by saving us from ourselves, from the sin that would otherwise condemn us to separation from God.
God acts to save us before any of us are conceived or have any notion that we can’t save ourselves. The Gospel, the good news, is that we, who are incapable of mustering the basic righteousness that would make us acceptable in the eyes of God, are given the gift of the righteousness Jesus has had since before the universe came into being.
That righteousness is ours by faith in Jesus. The apostle Paul writes: “...now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)
Faith isn’t easy. Faith in the God Who takes on our humanity and saves us is so beyond our ability, that God has to give us faith in Jesus.
We see that in our Gospel lesson in Joseph. No child had ever been born into the world who hadn’t been born by the usual means, a woman and a man each contributing their genetic make-up to the formation of a new human life.
But if the human race was to pay the proper penalty for its sin, only a perfectly sinless human being could make the offer the perfect sacrifice of death. After all, because of our sin, all the rest of us deserve to die. If Jesus had inherited the DNA of Joseph and Mary, He would have been a sinner just like them...just like us.
That’s why the Spirit of God, intent on recreating the human race in His image, used the virgin womb of Mary to bring a new human race into being in Jesus. To do this though, God needed to show Joseph that Mary’s story of bearing a Child implanted in her womb by the Spirit was no fairy tale. The prophecies said that the Messiah, the Savior, would be born into the House of David and Joseph was the descendant of David that God chose to be the Messiah’s earthly father. Joseph needed to have faith that God could do the impossible.
God knew his man. Joseph was human, a sinner as susceptible to the same suspicions and conspiracy theories that keep human beings from seeing the truth in our times. But God also knew that Joseph, this working-class fix-it man, had a faith that turned to God in both easy and perplexing times. Even when the letter of God’s Law gave Joseph every justification for publicly dumping Mary for what appeared to be adultery, Joseph decided that the spirit of God’s Law, its revelation of God’s heart of love for all people, called him to divorce Mary quietly.
The angel, this messenger from God to Joseph, changed Joseph’s plans though! “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.” (Matthew 1:20)
What fears did David have that night as he dreamed? Maybe, the fear of dishonoring God by marrying an apparently adulterous woman; the fear of the wagging tongues of those who lived nearby; the fear of being played the fool.
Today, we people of faith have similar fears: the fear of being thought strange for entrusting our lives to a risen Savior we can’t presently see; the fear of rocking the boat by suggesting that racial injustice is a sin; the fear of being the one who suggests that you thank God for your food before the Christmas dinner; the fear of giving an account to others of the eternal hope we have within us because of our faith in Jesus Christ!
But God says to us today what His angel told Joseph: We need not be afraid to trust in Him. In Jesus, we know that God is trustworthy! He entered our lives on the first Christmas and He promises in Jesus to be with us always, to cover us in the righteousness of Jesus as we, like Joseph, dare to believe God for the most impossible things of all:
God’s forgiveness of our sins, though we don’t deserve it;
the righteousness of God we can never muster on our own;
and everlasting life with God that only comes through faith.
On this Christmas Eve, friends, hear the message of God’s Gospel and, like Joseph before you, believe in Jesus: true God and true man and true Lord and Savior of us all.
Merry Christmas, friends!
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
In a bad news world, it's hard to remember the good news-the Gospel-that God loves us so much He sent His Son to die under condemnation for our sin and rise as God the Father's affirmation that all who trust in Jesus with their lives will not be condemned for sin, but live with God now and, more perfectly, in eternity.
This is probably why Luther said, "We need to hear the Gospel everyday because we forget it everyday."
It's perilous to drift away from God. That's true not only because of the eternal implications. It's also true because such drift can incite us to go along and get along with a world mired in the sins of materialism, sexism, racism, sexual immorality, self-worship, the worship of ideologies, people, pleasure, things, and so on. When we grow deaf to God, all we can hear is the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful selves screaming in our ears.
This is why the lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal is so central to discipleship. I need to keep "hearing" to God's Word so that He can create and build faith in Christ within me. (Romans 10:17)
Monday, December 21, 2020
Because of our common condition of original sin, that image is distorted, like the image of ourselves we see on the surface of a pond when we skip a stone across it is distorted.
But imagination is central to who we are as human beings.
Scientists notice that the COVID-19 virus is another SARS virus and imagine how to go about creating a COVID vaccine.
A poet reads a passage from the Psalms and imagines a new sonnet, applying the truth of the psalm to life today.
A visual artist sees an advertisement for soup and creates a piece of pop art.
A self-starter imagines a new business and creates a product millions of people use.
But, again because of the distortion of original sin, the things we imagine aren’t always innocent, altruistic, or godly. Not even the good things we imagine are left entirely untinged by our desire to be our own gods, to make names for ourselves. In Genesis, we’re told that God said in His heart, “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood…” (Genesis 8:21) When we’re honest, we know that’s true.
Our first lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Advent begins with imaginings rooted in the seemingly good intentions of Israel’s greatest king, David. David imagines ordering the construction of a permanent house for the tabernacle, where God lived among His people in a simple tent. David wants to build God a place as impressive and imposing as his own palace. The prophet Nathan is impressed with David’s desire and tells the king: “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.” (2 Samuels 7:3)
There’s little doubt that the Lord was with David. God had made David, the runt of his family, a conquering king. But now that things were peaceful in Israel, David may have had more in mind than honoring God through the construction of a place to house God’s presence among His people. One commentator notes, “Temple building was an activity often undertaken by ancient Near Eastern kings to legitimize their rule and to ensure favor from their gods.”
Maybe that’s why God came in a dream to Nathan the prophet that night and said that David was not to build a temple. God pointed out that, “I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.” (2 Samuel 7:6)
And then, in a play on words, God says that not only should David not build a house for Him, but that instead, God is going to build a house for David. The Hebrew word used for house here can also mean dynasty, like the House of Windsor, the family lineage of the kings, queens, and royalty in the United Kingdom. Nathan is to tell David, “The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you…” (2 Samuel 7:11)
The point is that no matter how great we think our imaginings may be, God’s are greater.
The apostle Paul writes that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
That was certainly true of David’s desire to build a house for God. The House of David would rule on the throne of Israel for another four-hundred years! But more than that, God honored David’s desire to honor God, however, tinged by human sin David’s desire might have been: God tells David in 2 Samuel 7:16: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
What a passage!
David’s House, the succession of human kings raised in the house of David would last forever, God is saying.
The kingdom over which David reigned, God’s kingdom, God’s people, would be established forever.
This verse contains the promise of a King Who is both true God and true man, Who would come on the first Christmas, then die for the sins of all people and rise from the dead, tearing open the walls to eternity, to make not just Israel, but all people who repent and believe in Him, eternally right with God.
This was far more than David asked or imagined. David wanted to build God an earthly home, like his own. It was the greatest thing he could imagine.
He’s not alone. Most of us spend much of our working lives saving the money to buy the perfect home.
But God desires to give all who dare to believe in David’s descendant, the Son of God Jesus, raised in the household of David’s descendants, Mary and Joseph, an eternal home.
“My Father’s house has many rooms,” Jesus told the first disciples, “if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)
Earthly homes, even royal dynasties, don’t last forever. My father told me the other day that the house that I lived in for much of the first eight years of my life has been torn down. That happens to even the best of homes on earth. Our eternal home with the God we know in Jesus will never be destroyed!
What God imagines for us is infinitely and eternally better than anything of which we can conceive.
At one of my former parishes, I got excited after a conversation with a parishioner who told me, “There’s no reason why this congregation shouldn’t have 500 people in worship each Sunday.” Without any prayerful reflection, I announced in a sermon the next week that we should aim for the goal of having 500 worshipers each Sunday by the end of the following year. I hyped the goal, prayed for it, pushed it. Guess what? We did see an increase in worship attendance the next year...to about 90. While I imagined one thing, God was imagining another: People’s lives being changed through the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and through the faithful administration of the Sacraments--Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--through which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains saving faith in Jesus within us. God had decided that in that particular church at that particular time, we didn’t need 500 people in worship on Sunday mornings to fulfill that calling.
There is usually an enormous gap between our desires for God and God’s desires for us. We think that we can serve God best if we’re successful, comfortable, able to give to God and others out of superabundance. We also think that somehow, we have to protect God against an unholy world, as though God needed our shelter and our protection. That’s the way religious people think. This is how David and Nathan seemed to be thinking when David first shared his desire to build a house for God.
But, in fact, we don’t need to be successful or comfortable or living with financial abundance to know God’s blessings. These things can impede faith, becoming snares that tempt us into thinking that the blessed life consists of how much ease and how many toys we acquire before our earthly lives end. They can steer us away from faith in Christ alone for justification or joy.
The truth is that before our common enemies of sin and death, we don’t need to shelter or protect God...we need to take refuge in the shelter and protection of the God we meet in Jesus. This is what God promised David in today’s lesson. It’s what He promises to us in Jesus: protection from the power of sin and its result, death, the assurance that all who call on Jesus’ name will live under His protection forever!
Jesus once lamented over the people of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34) David imagined all that he would do for God. God told him to let go of such thoughts and instead trust in all that God was going to do for him...and for us.
In this strangest of all Advent and Christmas seasons, God invites us to not take comfort in what we can do or in our imaginings of how things ought to be, but to take comfort only in what God has already done for us in Christ and all that He is going to do for those who trust in His Son Jesus for all the eternal good God has in mind for us. Could there be a better gift than this at Christmas or any other time? Amen
Friday, December 18, 2020
Skip ahead to about the 7:46 mark. Up to that point the video quality is a hot mess. In the past, I would have downloaded the video from Facebook, edited out the "hot mess," uploaded it to YouTube, and embedded the edited video here. But for the past two days, I've been unable to download my own video presentations from Facebook. Hopefully, FB will resolve that problem soon.
Thursday, December 17, 2020
Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Monday, December 14, 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
So, when lists of seven things crop up in Scripture--like the seven petitions Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, for example--it merits our close attention.
In such lists, God is telling us, “This is important! This is perfection!”
The first three verses of our first lesson for today, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, contain seven statements of what God intended to do for His ancient Jewish people, by then returned to their homeland after long years of exile. God had forgiven their years of sin--in which they had unrepentanly engaged in idolatry and injustice, among other sins--and not forgotten them in their years of repentant exile.
Here, God uses the prophet Isaiah to tell His people how He intended to fulfill His perfect will for them.
But, as often happens with the words God gives to prophets, these seven statements of promise weren’t just for Isaiah’s time. They also prophesy what God would do centuries later.
About six-hundred years later Jesus, the Son of God, having begun His earthly ministry, returned to His hometown of Nazareth. He went to the local synagogue for worship. As was the custom for synagogue visitors, Jesus was asked to pick a passage of the Old Testament Scripture to read and explicate. Luke says, “...the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:17-19)
Part of what makes the seven statements Jesus read from Isaiah so completely perfect is that they describe not just what God did for an ancient people, they also describe what God does through His one and only Son, the crucified and risen Jesus for all people who believe in Him.
And they perfectly describe the mission of Jesus. That’s why, after reading the passage from Isaiah, Jesus turned to the Nazareth synagogue crowd and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:21)
So, how exactly does Jesus describe His ministry to us by applying the words of Isaiah 61 to Himself?
Jesus first claims the little prologue to our lesson for Himself: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me…” (Isaiah 61:1) Jesus claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He can do that because He was conceived in Mary’s womb, not by the usual means, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. And He was shown to be God’s anointed one--a phrase that’s translated as Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek--at the Jordan River when God the Father declared Jesus to be His Son. Isaiah’s words then explain why Jesus, both God and Christ, came into the world.
The Father has anointed Me, Jesus claimed at Nazareth, “to proclaim good news [or gospel] to the poor…” The poor here refers to the powerless and downtrodden, those who are helpless before the forces of socioeconomic power, political power, aging, illness, sin, death, and the devil. People like that--powerless, helpless people like you and me--need Jesus’ good news: the good news that the Sovereign God of all creation will not allow these things that render us helpless have the final say over our lives.
In Jesus, God’s help has come and all who trust in Jesus and His gospel are set free from our spiritual and economic poverty, set free, because of our faith in Jesus, even to lift up those around us from whatever poverty afflicts them. In this world, we can walk with our heads held high, no matter if we’re rich or poor, and we can dare to love the powerless and downtrodden, knowing that we belong to the King of kings. And in the next world, we know that all who have trusted in Christ will enjoy the infinite riches of God’s grace for all eternity!
Jesus also claims that He came “to bind up the brokenhearted…” (Isaiah 61:1). Jesus soothes and mends believers’ broken hearts, whether they’ve been broken by what the world has done to us or what we, through our sin, have done to ourselves.
Jesus says that He came “to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” (Isaiah 61:1). Jesus here has in mind the year of Jubilee, a day appointed by God under His Old Testament law by which slaves and indentured servants would be freed, all prisoners set loose, no matter their crimes, all debts would be forgiven, and all property would revert back to their original owners.
Jesus wants to free us from all the slavery that holds us back--from our bondage to sin from which we can’t free ourselves to the psychological and emotional slavery in which we can be chained. He sets free all who believe in Him to “be the people of God.”
Jesus says also that He came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God…” Notice the juxtaposition of year and day. A year of Yahweh’s favor is a way of speaking a prolonged time--like eternity--of walking in the favor God gives to all who daily turn in repentance and faith to Jesus. A day of God’s vengeance refers to the quickly administered condemnation God may mete out to us when believers stray from Him, the discipline a loving Father may mete out to those who deliberately walk away from Him. I know that in my life with Christ, God has disciplined me, always with the view of causing me to come to terms with my sin and my need to return to Him through Christ. This statement from Jesus’ lips also references the quickly-administered last judgment and consignment to hell of all who have turned away from faith in Christ that will happen on the day Jesus returns to the earth.
Jesus then says He comes “to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:2). When we comfort friends who have lost loved ones, we come to them with listening hearts, comforting words, and loving deeds. Jesus comforts us in similar ways, but also in a much greater one. Just as God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus will, at the end of history, call all who have believed in Him from our graves to live with Him, in what Luther described as “everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”
Finally, Jesus says that He has invaded our lives “to bestow on [all who believe in Him] a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” (Isaiah 61:3)
One day, I will die. Buried or cremated, my body will soon be reduced to ashes and dust in a short time. But because of the infinite goodness and eternal promises of Jesus Christ, I know that I won’t be forever confined to the ash heap. Like Job, I know that “that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27)
This, is what Jesus came into the world at Christmas to do: to call a people mired in sin and death to forgiveness and new and everlasting life through faith in Him. He sets us free to love God and neighbor today, and to know that He is with us always. And one day, because we have trusted in Him alone for our life and salvation, we will see Him with our own eyes. In this Advent, 2020, that’s especially good news! Amen