Friday, December 25, 2020

The Necessity of Christmas

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!

Matthew 1:18-25

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: “ 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: “ 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!

Christmas Eve with Malcolm Guite

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Biblical Background of 'The Small Catechism,' Part 24

We began our discussion of Article 23 of 'The Augsburg Confession,' which deals with the marriage of ordained clergy last Friday over on Facebook. But the gremlins assaulted us and we had to end the discussion early. 

So, tonight, we concluded the discussion. Facebook no longer allows me to download and edit my own videos there; so, I present these two installments, warts and all. The first video is plagued with frequent freezes. Nonetheless, I hope you find what follows helpful. God bless you!

What We Need to Hear Again and Again

During my morning quiet time with God, this passage struck me: "We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away." (Hebrews 2:1)

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

What God Imagines for You

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the final Sunday before the celebration of Jesus' birth at Christmas. Below is the video of online worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below that is the text of the message presented during the service. I pray that God uses this service and the message to His glory. Have a wonderful Christmas!

Imagination, I’m sure, is one of those things that show that human beings, unlike all the other creatures God created, were made in the image of God.

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 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