Thursday, January 04, 2024

Gun Violence in America

France24 has details on today's school shooting in Iowa.

I pray in Jesus’ name that God will give us both the wisdom and the courage to act on the wisdom He gives to end the tragic nonsense of gun violence in our country.

No other advanced Western-style democracy deals with gun violence to the extent that we do in America.

Is there more mental illness in America than in other countries? The data I’ve seen suggests that’s not the case. What the definitive answers might be, I don’t claim to know.

Many of the answers will be rendered in the country's political life and, as a pastor, I stay out of politics.

But, as a Christian who cherishes all human life, just as I pray babies will be kept safe in their mother’s wombs, I pray too that those babies, grown older, will also be kept safe in classrooms.

Monday, January 01, 2024

Ready to Die? Ready to Live?

[Below you'll find the message shared yesterday morning, December 31, 2023, during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. We celebrated the First Sunday after Christmas. It was also the last day of my call as pastor of Living Water. As of yesterday, I am officially retired. I hope you find both the service and the message helpful. It has been an undeserved blessing and joy for me to have been called by Christ and His Church to the ministry of Word and Sacrament these past thirty-nine years.]
Often over the years, when I’ve visited elderly people suffering deeply with no prospect of improvement in their health, they’ve told me.“I’m ready to go, pastor.”

Here’s a question for those of you who are likely healthier and younger than the people who have said this to me, “Are you ready to go? Are you ready to die?

“Well, Pastor,” you may be thinking, “this is kind of an unpleasant question for New Year’s Eve.”

But I ask the question because of the song of praise sung by a man named Simeon in today’s gospel lesson. More on that in a second. We need to look at a bit of background before hearing Simeon sing.

As the lesson begins, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, Whom God has entrusted to their care, are in the temple courts in Jerusalem. They have two reasons for being there.

First, they’re at the temple in obedience to God’s Old Testament Law, Jesus is to be consecrated to God. In Exodus 13, for example, God commands His ancient people, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.” (Exodus 13:2)

Second, they’re there in obedience to that part of God’s Old Testament Law which said that the mother of a son was ceremonially unclean, unable to participate in the life of God’s people for forty days after the birth, when she could be purified through the offering of a sacrifice. (Leviticus 12:8)

Now, because we know how this child was conceived–by the Holy Spirit–and Who this child is–God and Savior of the world, it may seem strange that Jesus, the Son of God, needs to be consecrated to God, or that Mary needs purification. After all, what could be purer or more holy than the virgin birth of God into our world?

Well, we’re in the season of Christmas. Do you know what the real miracle of Christmas is? It’s not just that God the Son took on human flesh. The truest and deepest miracle of Jesus’ incarnation is, as the apostle Paul puts it in our second lesson for this morning, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4)

God, Who is holier than the Law and above the Law, intentionally places Himself under the Law–the Law that says we are sinners deserving of death and condemnation–so that He can fulfill the Law perfectly for us and give Himself as the perfect, definitive sacrifice for our sin. For your sin and for mine.

Jesus lived under the Law–God’s righteous commands, everything from “You shall have no other gods before Me” to “You shall not covet”--so that when He died, He could take away all our shame and condemnation, giving us God’s forgiveness, God’s peace, and God’s eternal life for all who trust in Christ!

In our second lesson today, Paul says that Jesus chose to live under the same condemnation of the Law into which you and I are born as descendants of Adam and Eve, “to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons [and that includes female as well as male Christians], God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:5-7)

Here is the breathtaking truth: Through Jesus, all who believe in Him are adopted by God as first-born-sons, inheritors of everything that has belonged to Jesus before the universe came into being!

This promise is yours, friends. Jesus lived under the condemnation of the Law so that you don’t have to.

Jesus justifies–that is, declares innocent, guiltless, pure–all who see Him as the promised Savior and believe in Him.

All of which leads us to Simeon, the singer in our gospel lesson. Simeon, we’re told was a man who was, first of all, δίκαιος, righteous, meaning that he was a sinner justified by God, declared eligible for eternity with God not because he perfectly obeyed God’s Law, but because he trusted in the God Who had, centuries before, promised a Savior. Simeon was like Abraham, then called Abram, of whom Moses wrote, “Abram believed the Lord, [that is, Abram believed the promises of Yahweh] and he [God] credited it to him as righteousness…” Simeon was right with God because he trusted God and God’s promises. Luke also says that Simeon was εὐλαβής, meaning he reverenced, was devoted to, and trusted in God’s promises.

Over the years, I’ve assumed that Simeon was an old man. But in fact, nothing in what Luke writes tells us that. I’ve come to like the idea that he was a young man, with his whole future life seemingly laid out before him.

Whether that’s true or not, this man, filled with the Holy Spirit and responsive to the Holy Spirit, is led by the Holy Spirit to the Temple that day when Mary, Joseph, and Jesus come in obedience to the Law. The Holy Spirit had already told Simeon that he would not die before he clapped eyes on the Savior of the world.

And there, in Mary’s arms, Simeon sees Jesus.

Simeon scoops the baby up in his arms and sings: “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.” (Luke 2:29-32)

“Now that I see my Savior,” Simeon is saying, “now that I know He is here not just for me, but for all sinners, Jews and Gentiles, I can live and die in peace. I can face death knowing that because of this Savior in Whom I believe, I will live forever in the arms of God!”

Today, Christ comes to you again in His Word and hands you His Gospel promise, “Because of Me, all your sins are forgiven. Not just some of them; all of them. Finally, fully, forever!

He comes to you too in the bread and the wine, His body and His blood, with that same gospel promise to you, “Take and eat; this is My body given for you. Do this, even if you feel far from God or from the believer you mean to be, so that you are re-membered to Me again. And take this cupm which is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people to bring you the forgiveness of sin.”

Christ comes to you today as surely as He came to Simeon at the temple. In Word and Sacrament, you, like Simeon and Anna, see your salvation in Him.

And because Christ shows all this to you, you can, like Simeon, sing to God, “Dismiss your servant in peace. I can die now. I know the good, eternal future You, Christ, have secured for me.”

That can be our song every time we encounter Christ in worship with God’s people, when we read His Word, when we pray or serve in His name.

If this all sounds morbid to you, it shouldn’t. Listen, friends: It’s only when you are ready to die to this life, knowing that Christ has already overturned the condemnation of the Law and destroyed the power of sin and death over you, that you are ready to live in Christ’s freedom today and through eternity under His loving grace.

You’ll live each day anticipating the moment that will come after you’ve drawn your last earthly breath, when the first one you will see is Jesus and the first thing you’ll hear is Jesus telling you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)  

Until that day, Simeon’s song is yours: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace…” Amen