Tuesday, December 26, 2023

All God Wants for Christmas

[Below you'll find the text of this year's Christmas Eve message as well as live stream video of both services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Because our sanctuary is small, we move these services to our Mission Outreach Center.]

Luke 2:1-20

The message and meaning of Christmas can be put simply. The very simple message is this: God is for you

Now God gives His law–His commands, of course, because He wants you to see that you and I fail to keep His law and, because only perfectly righteous people can live in God’s presence, you are in dire straits. You need to turn to Him in repentance.

God also gives His Gospel–the good news–that tells you that because God loves you, He sent Jesus to take your sins onto Himself so that He could give His perfect 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’s an immediacy to the Christmas message and to the message about Jesus Christ, that, despite how hard our secular world tries to ignore it, cannot 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 not do all of this so we can engage in a frenzy of materialism and self-indulgence once a year.

Instead, God became human at Christmas, then went to the cross and rose from the dead for us: for me, for you.

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 individually, not as members of a numberless, faceless mass of people, but as particular people for whom Jesus came to die and rise

Let’s look at three different places in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth where the “for you-ness” of Christmas 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 shepherds. Shepherds were 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 is saying, “but right now I am bringing it personally to you, the very people the world looks down on!!”

The Lutheran preacher and novelist of the last century, Bo Giertz, said in one Christmas sermon that this message deeply affected 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 cares about you every moment.

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

As I prepare to retire in one week, I wonder how I will do. So much of my identity has been wrapped up in my identity as “pastor” these last 39 years.

But Christmas reminds me that God long ago gave me another identity when I was baptized into Christ and blessing was pronounced over me by Reverend Borton: “Mark James, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Long before there was a Pastor Mark, there was a Mark whom God made His child because, as Christ demonstrates, God is the God Who is for sinners like me and you.

The angel then tells the shepherds, “a Savior has been born to you…” (Luke 2:11) We all need this Savior because 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 all the condemnation meted out against us by the devil, the world, and our sinful selves. He saves us from condemnation for all our sin and our failings. 

The apostle Paul, after talking about his weakness in the face of his 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, Jesus would have been born to you, gone to the cross for you, and risen for you. That’s how important you are to God! 

In this time of year, when you’ll be encouraged to make new year’s resolutions, I hope you won’t consider me a Debby Downer when I tell you that you are incapable of deciding to be a better person. You are incapable of doing it. You can’t make a decision to not be a sinner. You cannot decide to follow Jesus. You cannot decide to be a good person. None of us can. We are bound to acknowledge our vulnerability and our utter lack of invincibility. 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 [that is, if anyone is baptized into Christ and lives with Christ in daily repentance and renewal], the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The Word also tells us, as we mentioned a few days ago, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1) In Jesus, you have a Savior. There is absolute 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 sleeping in an animal’s 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. That is not His M.O.

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 compelled to bow down to Him.

God enters your life to, in the words of the Christmas hymn, “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 the shepherds to the King and Savior of the world was a manger in a barn. 

Today, we don’t need signs. Instead, Jesus comes to us directly in God’s Word and the Sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Through them, we receive the forgiveness of our sins and saving faith in Jesus, the Savior Who is for us. 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. You, friends, are on God’s Christmas list. You are who Jesus came to seek and save at Christmas.

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, to paraphrase Mariah Carey, all God wants for Christmas is you!

Merry Christmas, friends.


YOU Have Found Grace with God

[Below is the text and the live stream video of yesterday's Sunday morning worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 1:26-38
Our gospel lesson for this morning begins with a virgin named Mary who is visited by an angel. The angel is Gabriel, whose name means God is our strength.

Gabriel, as is true whenever God sends an angel, because the word angel means messenger, has a sermon to preach. That’s what angels do: preach. Not all preachers on this earth are angels; but all angels are preachers.

Only one part of the sermon is for Mary alone though: Mary, though a virgin, will give birth to a son. Understandably, this is the part of the sermon Mary is troubled by. How, she wonders, am I going to become pregnant when I have never been with a man?

To assure Mary that, in the pursuit of His good ends, God can do what otherwise would be impossible, Gabriel gives Mary a sign. The sign is this: He tells her that six months earlier, her relative Elizabeth, who had always been unable to conceive, became pregnant.

But, you know, while miraculous signs from God may strengthen our faith or point us toward faith, signs in themselves cannot give us saving faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus.

Less than twenty-four hours after Jesus had fed them with a few fish and pieces of bread, you’ll remember, a crowd asked Jesus to show them some sign that He was the Messiah and God; then, they said, they would believe in Jesus. Signs don’t create faith.

And I have known people who have been given miracles from God, but never believed.

A man once told me how happy he was that I’d given him a tip to pray regularly because all of his relationships were falling apart. I asked him, “Have you thought of praying about it?” He later told me, “I started praying and my relationship with my boss has completely changed.” But months later, he told me he didn’t believe in God or Jesus’ resurrection or eternity. The man had been given a seemingly miraculous sign, but signs in themselves don’t create faith.

Only the Word of God can give us saving faith in Christ. That’s why you and I are called to preach Christ. The apostle Paul says, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23) Only the Word about Jesus crucified, risen, ascended, and, one day, returning to the world to judge the living and the dead and establish His kingdom, will give us saving faith in Jesus!

To give both Mary and you faith in Jesus Christ, Gabriel preaches God’s Word to us today.

In our lesson, he’s going to tell Mary that God is about to fulfill the promises He made directly and through His prophets of the Messiah, God in the flesh, come to reconcile us to God and to save us from sin and death. But before he speaks that Word, Gabriel speaks five words from God that God wants to speak to you today in our gospel lesson.

First, Gabriel preaches: “Greetings!” This is not as bland a salutation as our translation makes it out to be. The word translated here as “Greetings!” is, in the Greek in which the New Testament was originally written, Χαῖρε. It means, “Rejoice! Be glad! I’m bringing you news that will be cause for you to celebrate!” Gabriel is telling Mary and you that God’s promises of a Savior Who would negate the power of sin, death, and darkness over our lives is about to arrive. “Watch out!” Gabriel is saying, “Eternal joy is coming your way!”

Next, Gabriel calls Mary, “O favored one.” This title doesn’t apply to Mary only. The word translated as “favored one” is κεχαριτωμένη. This means that Mary and all sinners are ones on whom God chooses to give and to keep giving His grace.

In the months and years that followed in Mary’s life, when the tongues of gossips wagged, implying that she couldn’t have been a virgin when she conceived Jesus or when she watched her first-born suffer the agony of the cross, Mary may have wondered how much grace God was actually giving her.

When suffering comes to us or when we’re assailed by doubt, we too may wonder whether we, even though we believe in Jesus, are under His grace.

This is why it’s so important for us not only to come to God in prayers of confession, but also to confess our sins in worship or in private times of confession and absolution with a pastor, so that we can once more hear from pastors and worship leaders: “In the name of Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven.”

God favors repentant believers with His grace, even in dark and difficult times!

Gabriel also tells Mary and us, “The Lord is with you!” The God we know in Jesus Christ doesn’t stand far off, like a rubbernecker observing an accident on the freeway.

He enters our lives.

He celebrates with us.

He weeps with us.

Jesus, God the Son, is truly God and truly human. So, one of His titles is Emmanuel, God with us.

The Bible tells us that even when we are tempted, Jesus is with and He understands: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Whatever you go through in this life, Jesus has gone through it before you and He goes through it with you.

We can live with the same assurance my dying friend had when she pointed to a crucifix and said, “He’s always with me.”

With David, we can pray, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” (Psalm 23:4)

Gabriel then says, “Do not be afraid, Mary…” These words are for you too!

In one of his Christmas sermons, Martin Luther, considering how the angels, on the night of Jesus’ birth, told the shepherds not to fear, confesses, “I fear death, the judgment of God, the world, hunger and the like. The angel announces a Savior who will free us from fear. Not a word is said about our merits and works, but only of the gift we are to receive.”

Jesus and the gift of justification by grace through faith in Him alone is the greatest gift we can receive from God!

In this life, our old sinful selves will be tempted to fear. But in Jesus Christ, we have no more reason to fear! Neither sin, death, nor the devil will have the final word over our lives! Because Christ has claimed us in Holy Baptism and given and sustained faith in Christ within us through His Word and Holy Communion, we have nothing to fear. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gabriel then says, “You have found favor with God.” What he actually says in the Greek in which Luke originally wrote his gospel is: “You have found grace with God.”

Grace is God’s undeserved charity for sinners who deserve nothing but condemnation and hell.

Instead, God has sent Jesus to forgive sinners who, by the power of His Word, turn to Him and, in Him, find God’s charity, His forgiveness, and His new life.

The thief on the cross turned from His sin and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus established His Kingdom at His second coming. Jesus’ promise to the thief was unconditional and complete: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” The Word of Jesus, God the Son, brought the thief the grace, the favor of God.

Gabriel’s sermon to Mary is God’s sermon to you today, friends! God is not your enemy and in Jesus, you see, as Luther put it, God’s smiling face.

He graces you.

He favors you.

He is with you.

He gives you nothing to fear.

As you prepare for Christmas, for the living of everyday life, and for eternity itself, you can take up your cross–that is, acknowledge your sin–and follow Jesus–receiving His forgiveness, with confidence and hope, no matter what else may be happening in your life.

You can live the whole year long in all the “comfort and joy” that Christ has come into this world to give to you. This is what God gives to you in His gospel Word.