Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Old Testament Book of Daniel, Part 25 (Final Installment)

Christmas Light

[Here you'll find live stream of video of today's Christmas morning worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, along with the text of the sermon presented.]

Christmas morning may be both the best and the worst time to have John 1:1-14 as our Gospel lesson.

It’s the best time because it tells the story of the first Christmas simply: “The Word [that is, God the Son] became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

It’s the worst time because there is so much richness from God to unpack in these verses. That’s a tough thing to address when so many of you are likely tired from family celebrations and crazy weather. 

So, I’m going to do my best to nutshell these verses.

The lesson, known by scholars as John’s prologue, starts before God created anything. There was just God and uncreated chaos. John shows that while God is one being, He’s also more than one person. “In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) This Word, God the Son, John goes on to say, made the cosmos. He is the Word that God spoke to the chaos–"Let there be light, let there be a vault [the sky], let the dry land appear.” And it all happened!

In this Word, John says, is “the light of all” humanity. 

In other words, the God revealed to us all in Jesus Christ is the One Who can lead us through sin, death, and temptation to life with God. 

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path,” the Psalm says. (Psalm 119:105) 

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus tells us. (John 14:6) 

According to the Bible, the idea of God being the light of all is to be taken both literally and figuratively. 

When Moses met God, His face bore the radiance of God’s presence

When Jesus revealed His divinity to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration, pure light poured from Him

And according to Revelation 21:23, heaven “does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb [another title for Jesus] is its lamp.” 

God, including God the Son, is pure light, and the darkness of sin, unrighteousness, and impurity isn’t in Him.

The problem is that, as people born of sinners, we want to do whatever we want, no matter how much it may hurt God, others, or ourselves. We like the dark. Jesus says that we love darkness instead of light because our deeds are evil. (John 3:19) 

When I was a kid, I loved to let my parents know what good thing I’d just done for one of my sisters. But I tried like everything to keep them from knowing when I’d done something rotten.

Once I was put in charge of my sisters while my parents went out for a while. "Don't have pillow fights," they told me. Of course, we had a pillow fight. As I raised my arms to wallop one of my sisters with a pillow, I broke one of the glass shades on the living room's overhead chandelier. How was I going to keep this in the dark so my parents couldn't see what happened? 

I remembered that in the attic, there was an extra glass shade. I cleaned up the old, broken one and installed the spare. Then I swore my sisters to secrecy. After all, I told them, they'd been involved in the pillow fight too.

The misdeed and the cover-up worked just fine until the day that another one of the chandelier's glass shades was broken. No problem, my parents thought. "Mark," my dad said, "go up to the attic and get the spare." It was then that a bright light shone on my lie and cover-up. Busted!

On the first Christmas, as we remembered last evening, shepherds, prompted by angels, visited the manger where the baby Jesus lay, then told everyone they encountered that the Word–the Lord, Messiah, and Savior–had been born. “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” Luke says. (Luke 2:18) 

“Yet we may suppose,” Martin Luther remarks in one of his Christmas sermons, “that with most of them this astonishment was but of short duration.” 

Within a short time after Jesus’ birth, people seem to have totally forgotten about the news the shepherds brought and nobody really wanted a Savior Whose truth or light would show them their sin or guide them off the dark paths of sin and self-worship that they preferred. 

And we too, if we’re honest, prefer darkness. 

Or, maybe we want just enough of God’s light to reach us in order to help us do what we want to do, but not so much that we need to accede to His control over our lives.

And so, John writes in our Gospel lesson of Jesus the Word: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) That phrase "His own" should not be read ethnically as though the only people who qualified as Jesus' own were His fellow Jews. Every member of the human race, including you and me, is meant by that phrase, "His own." His own didn't want to receive Jesus!

For years, I used a shallow understanding of science to spurn Jesus. I clung to this nonsense even though a creation must have a Creator. The fact is, there was no room for God in my arrogance. 

Others spurn Jesus because they can’t imagine a loving, omnipotent God presiding over a world in which there are things like child abuse, racism, human trafficking, drive-by shootings, abortions cavalierly used as birth control, war, and injustice. But the very fact that we can be revolted by the darkness of our world should tell us that we know, beyond the limitations of our human reasoning or efforts, that there is a light–the Light–Who shines in the darkness and our darkness cannot overcome it!

When the Light of the world came to us, what did we do? 

We did what the darkness of a world enthralled by sin, death, and the devil led us to do: We killed Jesus, thinking that we really could be in charge of things if we did so. 

We were like the tenants in Jesus’ parable: “This is the heir [the Father’s Son]. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance [the creation] will be ours.” (Luke 20:14) 

Even today, I encounter people who tell me that the world will be a better place when the last vestiges of belief in God or trust in Jesus have been wiped off the planet. 

But no matter how hard we may try, friends, as you’ve heard me say before, Jesus will not and could not stay dead

When Jesus offered His sinless life on the cross to destroy the hold that sin and death had on us and He finished the work He had come to do for us, God the Father raised Him from the dead!

And that is exactly what Jesus will do for all who receive Him.

It’s what He will do for you. 

Not because you’re perfect. 

Not because you abide by commandments you cannot keep in your own power. 

But solely because He came into your world and has died and risen for you. 

To make you His for all eternity. 

As John writes in our lesson: “ all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13) 

To you, Jesus says: “...My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:40)

The lights of our altar candles and the lights on your Christmas trees are meant to remind you that you no longer are stumbling in the darkness, forced to fend for yourself in a sinful, death-plagued world. 

All who have received Christ at the font and at the table and in His Word walk in the light of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Who came to us at Christmas to die for us on Good Friday, to rise to give eternity to us on Easter Sunday, to be our light in this life, and to one day return to usher us into the heavenly city where He alone will be our light and where darkness will be no more. 

Merry Christmas, friends! 


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Old Testament Book of Daniel, Part 24

The One Jesus Loves

Today is the Feast Day of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist.

Preachers and scholars sometimes tease John for calling himself “the disciple Jesus loved.” They read a bit of egotism and neediness in the apposition.

But remember that this is the same John who reminds others who walk in God’s love through faith in Jesus how deeply loved they are by God. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us,” he writes in 1 John 3:19.

I think when John refers to himself as the disciple loved by Jesus, he expresses humility and awe bordering on incredulity.

Jesus gave John and his brother James the nicknames, “sons of thunder.” That may be because they once asked Jesus if He wanted them to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Or, it may be because they once asked Jesus if they could be his right- and left-hand men when He became King, confidently assuring Jesus they could take any adversity Jesus might experience.

I imagine John shaking his head at memories like these, memories of his sinful arrogance and condescending judgment toward others, and thinking, “But Jesus still loves me. He still gives me forgiveness and eternal life.”

John understood that the God revealed to all the world in Jesus loves and wants us to be with Him now and always despite our sin. He spent a lifetime trying to wrap his mind around the fact that the world loved by God included him.

It includes you too, friends.

We have that from Jesus Himself, in words noted by John in the third chapter of his gospel. There Jesus says:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Sinners though we are, those, prompted by God’s Spirit to daily turn away from sin and death to believe in Jesus, Who brings forgiveness and life, will have the same sense of awe and incredulity in describing themselves as disciples loved by Jesus.

May you walk each day in that blessed mystery.

[For a beautiful consideration of Saint John by Chad Bird, see here.]


Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas Eve: For You!

[This is the message presented during yesterday's Christmas Eve services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. The structure of this sermon was suggested by one given by the late Bo Giertz.]

Luke 2:1-20
Among the books I’ve read that have had the greatest impact on me is a short one about the central message of the New Testament. That message, it said, is: for you. Actually, that’s the message of the entire Bible. Friends, God is for you.

He gives His law–His commands–because He wants you to see that you fail to keep His law and that You need to turn to Him in repentance. He also gives His Gospel–the good news–that tells us that because God loves you, He sent Jesus to take your sins onto Himself to give His righteousness to all who believe in Jesus.

In the first sermon delivered by a Christian preacher, the apostle Peter tells the crowd who just have heard the Law and the Gospel: “The promise [of the Gospel] is for you…” (Acts 2:39)  

There was an immediacy to Peter’s message that couldn’t be avoided. One reason Christmas has become so meaningless for most people is that the miracle of God becoming human to destroy sin and death for all who believe in Him is lost. 

We forget that God did all this for us: for me, for you. But when you hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, you can’t miss the message from God that the promise of Christmas is for you, not as members of a numberless, faceless mass of people, but as individuals for whom Jesus came to die and rise. 

Let’s look at three different places in our Gospel lesson where this is underscored.

An angel came to shepherds. Although in the history of God’s people shepherds were highly regarded, by the first century AD, nobody looked up to shepherd, generally seen as lowlifes.
The angel tells the shepherds on Christmas night: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people…” (Luke 2:10) “This news is going to bring joy to all sorts of people,” the angel was saying, “but right now I am bringing it personally to you!”

The Lutheran preacher and novelist of the last century, Bo Giertz, said in one Christmas sermon that this message had a deep effect on the shepherds. The shepherds could see that “God cared about them. God wanted to help them. In the midst of the dark and the cold, during their hard and heavy work, in the midst of all the burdens life had put on them, God came so close to them, so near, and did so much in order for them to understand…It really was good news.” 

In Jesus, God is near to you too. 

He wants to help you too.

God with us–Immanuel, Jesus–is with you and He cares about your every moment. 

No matter how high the bills pile up.

No matter how overwhelming the required readings of the syllabus are.

No matter how challenging the 1:00 AM feedings can be. 

No matter what challenges or conflicts or griefs may meet us in this life.

In all circumstances, there is joy in knowing that in Jesus, God is with you. He is for you!

The angel then tells the shepherds, “a Savior has been born to you…” (Luke 2:11) We all need this Savior. We are all sinners. 

And there are days when all of us feel like failures: as parents, grandparents, spouses, friends, children, employees, bosses, and human beings. 

Jesus comes to save us from condemnation for our sin and our failings. 

A man came to see me. He was single and had been conducting an on-again, off-again, on-again affair with a married woman for years. “I resolve never to see her again,” he told me, “then she’ll call me. I’m weak. I see her again, then I hate myself again and I’m sure that God can never forgive me or change me.” 

Jesus has come to free us from our self-loathing. 

He has come to save us from ourselves. 

He can set us free as we turn to Him daily for the strength to follow Him and to live in the love for God love for others for which we were made. 

The apostle Paul, after talking about his weakness in the face of his own sin, cries out: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) 

Friends, Jesus the Savior has been born to you and for you! 

Even if you were the only person in the universe who needed saving, He would have been born to you, gone to the cross for you, and risen for you. 

You can’t decide to be a better person (none of us can), but Jesus can save you and make you a new person as you daily follow Him. (Luke 9:23

God’s Word says, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) 

It also tells us, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1) In Jesus, you have a Savior. 

There is joy in that!

The angel then tells the shepherds: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12) 

There were likely many babies in Bethlehem that night, their families back in their ancestral town to be counted in the Roman census. 

But it’s equally likely that none of the others were in an animals’ feeding trough. 

And who would expect the One the angels described as the Messiah, Savior, and Lord to be in such a place? 

You’d expect such a King to be in a palace in a crib covered in gold, attended by armies.

But that isn’t how the God Who is for you operates. He enters your life not to intimidate you or force you to bow, although when you see Him in His holiness and perfection, you will inevitably feel impelled to bow down to Him. In fact, God enters your life to, in the words of the Christmas hymns, “cast out [your] sin and enter in”--into your life with forgiveness which, when received by faith will make you righteous in God's sight forever!

And so, on the first Christmas, the simple sign that pointed to the shepherds to the King and Savior of the world was a manger in a barn. 

The signs of the now-crucified and risen Savior Who comes to you today are just as simple and easy to overlook or ignore by a world flailing in sin, selfishness, and death: God’s Word and the Sacraments. 

By these signs–these means–Christ comes to us and the Holy Spirit brings faith in and everlasting salvation through Jesus the Savior to us. These are the means by which the Word about Jesus is planted within you, “which can save you.” (James 1:21) This too is our joy!

In the weeks before Christmas, we may ask the people in our families and circles of friends for their Christmas lists. It turns out, God has a Christmas list too. 

This Christmas, whatever else is going on in your life or in this world, know that in Christ, you are deeply loved and that, in Him, there is forgiveness and everlasting life with God. As Jesus says elsewhere: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:40) 

In Christ, you can turn to the God Who is for you. 

The Savior in the manger shows us that all God wants for Christmas is you! Amen

[Videos of the two Christmas Eve worship services can be found here.]

God is for You!

[Here are the Christmas Eve worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I will post the text of the sermon later.]

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Powerful Word!

[Below you'll find the text of the message prepared for both worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this morning. The live stream videos of both services are also here.]

Matthew 1:18-25

Few incidents in Scripture more forcefully convey the power of God’s Word than does today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 1:18-25. In it, Joseph, the Nazareth handyman God had chosen to be the earthly father of Jesus, God the Son, moves from fear to faith in facing the role God marked out for him.

Let’s be clear. God makes a big ask of Joseph. It is, from the standpoint of human beings, one that will upend the plans he’s made for his life and subject him to all kinds of trouble.

You know what happens: Joseph is betrothed to Mary and learns that Mary is pregnant. Joseph knows that he’s not the father and is devastated, certain that Mary has been unfaithful. 

In those days, a betrothed couple was considered legally married among God's people. They were also expected, by law, not to consummate their marriage until the betrothal period, usually lasting a year, ended. Sexual relations outside of marriages between husbands and wives were punishable by death by stoning. It had ceased being customary for betrothed women who were pregnant by relations with men other than their husbands to be executed. Instead, under provisions in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the violated husbands could write a bill of divorce to end the betrothal. 

When Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy, deeming the idea that her pregnancy has come by way of the Holy Spirit unbelievable, he has two bad options. Option one: he can go ahead with the marriage, in effect, creating the impression that he and Mary had violated the sixth commandment–”You shall not commit adultery.” But if he does this, he’ll be subject to condemnation, ex-communication from the synagogue, and a loss of reputation leading to loss of work in Nazareth or the surrounding area.

His second option is to divorce Mary. This is the option he decides on, hoping to do so “quietly.” This means basically that, to protect Mary, the bill of divorce he signs will make no mention of why he’s divorcing her. But everyone in Nazareth will assume that Joseph is the father of the child. Joseph will ruin his own reputation in order to shield Mary and her baby from a lifetime of harassment and shunning.

While still thinking about all of this, Joseph goes home and hits the sack. In a dream, an angel comes to Joseph and says: “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. 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.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Now, these words are so freighted, they must be unpacked. 

First, the angel addresses Joseph as a “son of David.” Joseph was a descendant of King David of Old Testament times. While the baby in Mary’s womb is God the Son in human flesh, He would have none of Joseph’s DNA. (Or Mary’s either, for that matter.) He was conceived, as we confess each Sunday, “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” But the Messiah or the Christ, God’s Anointed One, was prophesied to come from David’s family tree. So, a son–a descendant–of David needed to adopt this child as his own. God had chosen Joseph for that role.

Then the angel tells Joseph, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” “Don’t be afraid of the neighbors’ condemnation or possible poverty,” God is telling Joseph through the angel. “If you take Mary as your wife, you’ll be doing the will of God.” Following the God we meet in Jesus isn’t always easy, friends. To be a disciple of Jesus means we may be asked to do crazy stuff, like confessing our sins, forgiving our neighbors, loving the unlovable, and telling others about new life through Jesus. We’ll incur rejection from some. But when we turn to Jesus in daily repentance and faith, we needn’t fear what the world says about us or does to us. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus says elsewhere. “Rather, be afraid of the One [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

After confirming that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the angel tells Joseph, “you are to give [the child born of Mary] the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) The name Joseph is to give the son Mary bears is, in the Hebrews of the Old Testament, Yeshua, transliterated into English as Joshua. In the Greek, it’s Yesus, rendered in English as Jesus. It means, Yahweh, the Lord, our salvation. Jesus’ name describes His mission. Jesus is God come to save us! The angel emphasizes this when he tells Joseph that Jesus: “will save his people from their sins.”

You and I know, friends, that every person born into this world except Jesus, needs the forgiveness of sin. We are born in sin and there’s nothing we can do to erase its power to condemn us to everlasting separation from God. But Jesus, the Messiah, came into the world to take the condemnation for sin we deserve. He takes our condemnation, then gives His righteousness to all who turn to Him in repentance and faith. The Bible says that, “God made [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

But there is even more to being saved than having our sins forgiven and having life with God right now, wonderful though those things are! Every person who believes in Jesus looks ahead to the day of Jesus’ second advent, His second coming. On that day, we’ll also be saved from the gravest consequence of sin, death itself. In a section of the Old Testament book of Isaiah that describes Jesus and what He will do, we read a prophecy written in the past tense: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) On the day of His return, Jesus will usher those who have believed in Him into eternity, where, Revelation says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”(Revelation 21:4) Jesus, the Messiah, has come to save us so that when we, like Him, are raised from the dead, will be saved to live for eternity, without suffering, grief, or death. Jesus, the apostle Paul says, “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:21) Jesus the Savior has come to save us eternally and totally!

The end of our gospel lesson brings us to one of the greatest Christmas miracles. It’s this: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24)

How did Joseph, who had gone to sleep intent on quietly divorcing Mary, end up taking Mary as his wife and the child in her womb as his earthly son, despite all the challenges it would bring to him? The same way we can leave our worship today knowing that our sins are forgiven, that God is with us always, that we can live in the freedom of the Gospel, that we can ignore the cynicism of the world and live with faith in God. By the power of God’s saving Word!

The angel’s words from God rang true to Joseph because, as a faithful man who knew God’s Word, he would have been aware of the child promised in Isaiah 7-9, from which today’s first lesson comes. That child was a sign sent by God pointing to another Child God promised to send, One born of a virgin from the house of David, One who would save the people He created from their sins. Of that Child, God said through Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Joseph knew God’s Word when he heard it. And just as God’s Word came to him through an angel in a dream and so was given renewed faith, God comes to us in His Word to call you and me to repentance, faith, and new and everlasting life through the crucified and risen Jesus. By Jesus, the Word made flesh, and the Word about Him we encounter Scripture and the Sacraments, we can celebrate Christmas and each day in the certainty that we have been saved, now and for all eternity. We know that Immanuel, God with Us, always. That is the power of the Gospel Word about Jesus that transforms our fears to faith, our sins to righteousness, our despair to hope, our death to life! May you live in the power of Jesus, the Word made flesh, this Christmas and always! Amen