31 December 2012

Your Loins Girded, Your Lamp Burning

Her name was Charlotte.  She was six years old; not much older than my Gerhardt or Stefan Horner, but she was all girl.  Like some other young ladies we know, she enjoyed Tae Kwon Do with her Dad, but she was into pink and pretty dresses.  Her brother, Guy, was three years older, but they attended the same elementary school, where her Mom was an active volunteer.

Charlotte’s Grandma & Grandpa, on her mother’s side, live in Minnesota, on the western outskirts of the Twin Cities, not far from where I worked and went to church between college and seminary, and not far from where I served my vicarage a few years after that.  Small world, isn’t it?

You may have seen pictures of Charlotte’s funeral procession, as her body was taken from Christ the King Lutheran Church to be laid to rest in the Newtown Village Cemetery.  It’s been in the news a bit.  She and her family were not members of Christ the King, but Charlotte attended the Sunday School there, and Pastor Morris has been caring for her family and conducted her funeral.

Charlotte’s parents, Joel and JoAnn, had no idea how little time they would have to care for their daughter, to give her what she needed most, and to teach her the most important things there are to learn in life.  I’m sure they were doing the best they could.  They were actively involved with their children in school and sports.  I don’t know why they weren’t members of the church; maybe they were in transition, or maybe they had let that slip in the busyness of so many other things.  But in the providence of God — maybe it was at Grandma Irene’s urging — they had taken Charlotte to the church, to learn of Christ her King, her Savior and her God.  In doing this, they gave her life.

Be sure of this, dear friends in Christ, if the Principal and PTA of Sandy Hook Elementary had known on what day, and at what hour, the gunman was coming, they would have had that school on lockdown before the tragedy could happen, in order to prevent it.  They would have saved lives.

But there is always more at stake than temporal life and mortal flesh and blood.  Six years is a tender age, but life on earth is not long, in any case: maybe sixty years, or barely more than 100 at most.  But this brief span in a fallen world is not yet the Life for which you (and all) are created.

As it was, the gunman, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, took the lives of almost thirty children and adults, none of them very old.  But for each of those victims who were catechized in the Word of the Holy One of Israel, who were brought to faith by His Word and Spirit, death was but an end to their watching and waiting upon Him: It was a graduation to the neverending Day — to the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells, and where the Prince of Peace reigns in Glory — to the nearer presence of God in Christ, in order to behold Him face to face.  For the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever on those who fear Him, who are called to faith by His Gospel.

Blessed are those parents who teach their children the fear and faith of God, by caring for them with His Word.  There is no more significant task that any father or mother is given than that:

To bring their sons and daughters to the washing of water with the Word and Spirit of God in Holy Baptism, by which the Lord guards all their going out and coming in, henceforth and forevermore.  And to catechize their children in the Name of the Lord, with which they have been named.  To teach them the pattern and practice of repentance and forgiveness, both by exemplifying the use of Confession and Absolution with the pastor in the life of the Church, and by exercising mutual confession and forgiveness of sins in the life of the home and family.  And to bring their children to the pastor, also, for the Holy Communion, to be fed by the coming Lord at His Table.

Fathers and mothers, you do not know the day nor the hour when death may snatch your sons and daughters from your stewardship forever.  But in bringing them to Christ Jesus in His Church, and in giving Christ to them with His Word, you prepare them for the ongoing Feast in His Kingdom.

What, then, if you have no children?  Blessed are you, one and all, who watch and wait upon the Lord by giving careful attention to His Word and to His works, whereby you live, now and forever.  Blessed are you, when you remain awake and alert and alive, by His Holy Spirit, by His grace, even in the nighttime.  Not that you must never take your rest or get any sleep; for He does also give to His beloved sleep.  But how shall you, perhaps, stay up late to bring in the New Year on such a night as this, and yet not keep vigil to watch and wait upon the Lord your God?

You do not know how little time you may have; nor how long you may have to wait.  What if the loud and angry voices that you sometimes overhear at McDonalds, or even at the library, were to escalate into physical violence?  What if treacherous icy roads, or a fire in the night, were suddenly to wreck your car, destroy your home, or end your life on earth?  A tree might fall on you; for accidents do happen.  Deadly cancer might strike, irrespective of age.  Or, your mind might fail long before your body.  Number your days, therefore, and let each one count for what matters most.

Do you not hear the watchmen singing on the heights?  Christ has come!  And He is coming!  Be ready, then.  Have your loins girded, and keep your lamp burning.  Do not be caught unprepared.

If you were a father, a mother, a child, young or old, a brother or sister, in Egypt on that night of the Lord’s Passover, then you would know from the Prophet Moses that the Lord was coming at some hour after twilight: A terrible Thief in the night, He would come, to steal away the firstborn sons of Egypt, from the Pharaoh in his palace and from the captive in his cell.

But how many sons of Israel has Pharaoh already put to death?  And now shall the Lord Himself slay even more?  Not so!  For He has heard your cries.  He knows your sorrows.  And He has come to save you, to release you from the Egyptians.  He shall bring you through the waters into safety and freedom, and feed you generously with bread from heaven in the wilderness, and bring you at last into the Good Land He has sworn to give you, a land of creamy milk and sweetest honey.

What, then, shall you do, now, on this dark night in Egypt?  The Lord your God has told you.  He has given you His Word to guide you and guard you.  You shall take a male lamb, unblemished, from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall slay it in the evening, as the night falls.  If your household is too small for the lamb, then you shall join with your neighbor and his household.  And you shall anoint the doorposts and the lintel of the house with the blood of the lamb, and you shall roast its flesh and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Eat it with haste.  Your loins shall be girded as you eat, with staff in hand and sandals on your feet, ready to leave in a hurry.

You know the story.  The Lord is faithful, and He brings you out of Egypt with His mighty arm and outstretched hand.  No plague befalls you, for the blood of the lamb covers and protects you, and your whole household, in accordance with the Word that God, the Lord, has spoken to you.

Now, beloved, this is how you are to live, each day and every night of your life on this earth.  For the Thief is surely coming, at an hour you do not know.  Death is coming, yes:  Tonight, tomorrow, in the new year ahead, or at some point in the years to come, if the Lord shall grant such years to you and to this earth.  But the Lord Himself is coming like a Thief in the night.

You neither know the day nor the hour of His coming.  Yet, He has not left you clueless, without a Lamp to lighten your way.  He has given you His Scriptures and the preaching and teaching of His Word.  And there is, for you also, the Lamb who has been slain. His Blood anoints your lips and tongue, the doorposts and lintel of your body, and protects you from death.  And His Flesh is your Meat indeed, your true Passover Feast, which you eat with the unleavened bread.  You share this sacrificial Meal in the household and family of God, regardless of your own station in life, no matter the size of your own household.  And here you are kept safe, so that you may have Life.

Therefore, let your loins also be girded, and be ready to leave at any time.  Be dressed for work, and packed for travel at moment’s notice; like a woman ready for her labor and delivery to begin.

Not as though your watching and waiting upon the Lord were a waste of time.

But here now is the point and purpose of your time on earth, whether in Egypt or the wilderness:

Here and now you learn to live by the grace of God, by faith in His Word.  You learn to live each day in view of your Baptism, dying and rising with Christ.  You learn to live with Him, to follow Him through the water, and to be fed by Him in the wilderness, without complaining or grumbling.  And so you are taught to number your days, to know how short your life here is, and to apply your heart to wisdom; which is to fear the Lord your God, but also to love and trust in Him.  You are taught to repent of your sins, and to rest in His mercy and forgiveness.  You are taught to be alert to Him and to His coming; neither anxious nor afraid, but in quietness and peace.

In such repentance and faith, you also love and care for your neighbors, especially for those who are entrusted to your care: Your spouse and children, if you have them; your siblings and parents, your co-workers and customers, your neighbor next door, and your brothers and sisters in Christ.

If your own household is small, or if you are alone, you still share the Lamb with your neighbors.

You love and care for all of these others, as the Lord so enables you to do, in order that they too may be prepared for His coming; so that, when death and judgment come, they shall also be found ready and waiting in the faith of Christ Jesus.  Such love for your neighbor is a priceless service.

All the while, dear little child of God, you do already live: by the grace of your Father in heaven, through faith in His beloved Son — even while you are still watching and waiting upon Him in the power and peace of His Holy Spirit.

For the Lord is coming to you, here and now, and He is already with you: By and with His Name, with which He has named you as His own in Holy Baptism, and with which He still claims you and richly blesses you with His Glory in the Divine Service, in the Invocation and the Benediction.

He is your very present Help in every trouble; for with His Word and Holy Spirit He attends you.  And because you are His very own, and you are dear to Him, He watches over all your going out and coming in, even to the last: With His Holy Angels, whom He has given charge over you; and through the service of His watchmen, your pastors, who shepherd you with the staff of His Word.

By the preaching of His Gospel of forgiveness, He satisfies you in the morning with His steadfast love, and He gives you peace and rest in the night season; no matter what terrors may lurk outside.

And now, again, as day by day and week by week throughout the year, through summer and winter, seedtime and harvest, here and now He comes into His House; and though He is your Lord, He girds Himself to serve you.  He gently invites you to recline at His Table, and here He waits upon you in tender love and mercy: He washes you and feeds you.  And in doing this, He gives you Life.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

30 December 2012

To Sing of Christ in Peace and Joy

Now you are met, as Simeon and Anna were met, with the Christ, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

He is more than He appears, but, by the Light of the Gospel, He reveals Himself to you; so that, not only with your eyes, but into your arms, into your heart and soul, and with your mind and mouth, you receive Him, His Life, and His Salvation.

He is God’s Answer to your prayers.  He is the true Satisfaction of your deepest longing.  He is the reason and purpose for which you have been created.  And now He is here, with you and for you.

He is begotten of God the Father from all eternity, but now, in the fulness of time, He has been conceived and born of the Woman, St. Mary, in order to redeem you with His own flesh and blood.

That is why He comes to His Temple, and why He will enter the Most Holy Place, once for all, by His Self-Sacrifice upon the Cross, in His bodily Resurrection from the dead, and in His Ascension to the Right Hand of His God and Father.  He does all of this, in fulfillment of the Law, in order to save you from sin and death, to justify you with His righteousness, to sanctify you with His Spirit, and to glorify you with His own divine Glory as the Son of God.  These are things that only God the Lord can do, and by His grace He does them all for you.

He first of all becomes like you.  He takes human flesh and blood from His Mother Mary, in order to become true Man; and He opens her womb by His holy Nativity, in order to sanctify all the sons and daughters of man.  From conception and birth, unto His death upon the Cross, His whole body and life are devoted to His God and Father, to do His will.  From infancy, He is presented to the Lord, to grow up before Him — from true boyhood to true manhood — increasing in wisdom and stature, and learning to live, as you must learn to live, by grace through faith in the Word of God.

It is a great Mystery, indeed, that God should first of all become what He was not — without ceasing to be what He always was, and is, and ever shall be — and that He should then also grow in grace and truth, in faith and love, in His own human flesh and blood.  But so He does.  For in this way, He keeps, fulfills, and satisfies the Law of God, as the true Man, for all of mankind.

He lives by faith, entrusting Himself to the Lord His God.  And in love for His God and Father, He lives in love for you and all His neighbors.  As a Child, He honors His parents and submits to their authority.  He is chaste and pure in human celibacy, and in faithfulness to His Bride, the Church.  He cherishes her and cares for all her children in gentleness and peace.  He does not hurt nor harm, but helps all people, without prejudice, and gives life in both body and soul.  He does not rob, but freely bestows His generous good gifts, to both the evil and the good.

He foregoes His wealth and makes Himself poor, in order to make you rich.  He turns the cheek to those who strike Him.  He forgives the sins of those who trespass against Him.  He loves His enemies, and prays for those who kill Him.  And so does He pray and plead for you, with His own blood and righteousness, as your merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God.

So does He perform everything according to the Law of the Lord.  Even to the point of sacrificial death.  For His flawless obedience of perfect faith and perfect love take Him to the Cross; which is already there on the horizon, in His Presentation, when Mary and Joseph offer Him up to the Lord.  He is not redeemed or released from service, but He is consecrated for sacrifice.  For His Mother’s purification, “a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons” are paid, the offering of the poor, because the Holy Family cannot afford the usual lamb.  But in this case, the Firstborn Male, who has opened her womb, is the Lamb who is given to God.  For He is the Passover.  His Blood is the Ransom.  His Flesh is the Meat.  His Cross and Passion are the Exodus from Egypt.

Now, then, if you would be released from the bondage of sin and death, and be set free from the house of slavery, receive this holy Child Jesus into your arms, and bless God by faith in His Name.  For He is your Life and your Salvation.  He is your true Light in the darkness; your sure and certain Hope when all seems lost and hopeless; and your sweet Comfort in all sorrow and temptation.  He is your great Redeemer, who brings you out from under Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, through the hard wilderness in safety, and finally into the Land of Canaan.

This Child who is born for you, this beloved Son who is given for you, He is your Peace and Sabbath Rest.  For He is the Christ who atones for your sins by His Blood.  He is the Mighty Lord who conquers death by His Sacrifice.  He is the Seed of the Woman, who crushes the accuser under His wounded heal.  And He is the Prince of Peace, who reconciles you to God, His Father, and brings you into His presence, blameless before Him in body, soul, and spirit, both now and forever.

Therefore, everything depends upon this Lord Jesus — yes, even upon this little Lord Jesus, who at six weeks of age is presented in the Temple — and nothing else matters, at all, apart from Him.

As you are met with Him, so are you confronted by His Cross, and that is the Sign that first of all opposes you: the Sword that pierces your heart and your soul, dividing between your bones and marrow.  It puts you to the test, by forcing you to choose between the Christ and the Pharaoh; between the Exodus and Egypt; between God and the devil.  There really is no middle ground, no compromise or living in-between; except the wilderness, which teaches you repentance by the Cross — which begs the question, yet again, and confronts you with the choice of life or death.

Theoretically, it should be easy: Your life is in Christ Jesus, so, there you go.  But, in fact, it is impossibly hard.  Because your heart is desperately sinful, and you are deathly afraid of entrusting yourself entirely to God in Christ.  You neither understand nor trust the paradox of the Cross: that you must die to yourself, in order to live with God.  That you must fall, in order to rise with Christ.  That you must be humbled in genuine repentance, in order to be exalted in faith and righteousness.

Between you and the Lord in the Holy of Holies, there stands the Sign of the Cross, which threatens to undo you, and does.  It is a swift and terrible Sword, which not only divides your heart and soul within yourself, but also divides and redefines your family and all of your relationships.  For it calls you to belong to God, so that you and your life are not your own, but His; and so that all of your feelings, all of your friendships, and your entire family are under Him, and under His Cross.  That is how deeply the Sign of Christ divides you.

If this work of repentance were yours — for that is what this falling and rising is; this revealing of the heart; this division of soul and spirit — it is repentance — and if this were your own work, you would be lost, and you would have no peace or joy forever and ever.  For you cannot break the yoke of bondage that lies upon you.  You cannot redeem yourself from sin and death.  You cannot preserve your life, nor can you save your mortal flesh.

But the work of repentance is the work of Christ Jesus.  It is for this work that He is appointed by His Father, for the falling and rising of many in Israel.  It is for this Cross that He is consecrated, in order to sanctify forever the children born of women, by the offering of Himself once for all.  It is for this death of His that He is presented to the Lord, in order to bring you to God in Himself.

So He comes to you now, and He calls you to Himself, and He crucifies the man or woman, the boy or girl that you have been, in order to make you alive in His own Body of flesh and blood, to fill you with His Holy Spirit, and to grant you perfect Peace in the presence of His God and Father.

You see, His redemption of Jerusalem, and His consolation of Israel, are not only what He has done by His Cross and Resurrection, once upon a time, but what He does for you and gives to you, even now, here in the Temple of His Church on earth.

That is why the Holy Spirit calls and gathers you here, by the Gospel.  For this is where your Life and Salvation are found, for you, in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus.  Here is where the Glory of God fills the Temple in the means of grace, in His preaching of forgiveness and in His holy Sacraments, which are His Pillar of Cloud by day, and His Pillar of Fire by night.

Even better, these Sacred Things are the Light of the Revelation of the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus.  In Him, you see the Face of God, and yet, you do not die, but live.  For His great Glory is the Gospel of Salvation, which shines upon you, that you may see and believe.

As the Holy Spirit brings you to this place by this Word of the Gospel, so by this Word are you anointed and filled and sanctified by the same Holy Spirit.  Thus are you able to live by faith, to bless the Lord your God, to serve Him day and night in His Temple, and to love and serve your neighbors in the peace and joy of Christ Jesus.

As scary as the Cross of Christ is, it is now also your comfort and your peace.  For by the Cross you have already died, and now, by the Cross, your life is safely hidden with Christ in God.

It is hidden, yes, but Christ is your Anchor behind the Veil, in whom you have entered into the Holy of Holies.  Indeed, at His Altar, here and now, where you eat His Body and drink His Blood, you rest in the bosom of the Father, and you abide in the Inner Sanctum of the Holy Triune God.

Now you are released from the fear of death, and you are set free to sing unto the Lord, to sing the New Song of God and of the Lamb.  For He has done marvelous things, for you and for all people, and here He feeds you with such good things, which shall not be taken away.  He remembers His mercy and His faithfulness to you, and to His whole Church in heaven and on earth.  Everything is safe and secure in Christ, your Savior.  Which is why your whole life is one of thanksgiving.

I know that your heart and spirit are not always thankful.  For that, I must say to you, Repent.  Do not give yourself over to discontent or grumbling.  But then I say to you, also, that Christ is your Sacrifice of Thanksgiving; as He is also your High Priest, and your constant Prayer of Faith.  He always lives to make intercession for you, and His Spirit also helps you in your weakness.  For Christ is your Offering to the Father, your acceptable Sacrifice, and your sweet-smelling Incense.  There is, therefore, nothing lacking, nothing amiss, and no accusation against you.  There is only thanksgiving for your life and salvation in this one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, beloved, now sing, as the Apostle instructs you to do.  It is no empty or futile exercise, but meet, right, and salutary.  It is good for you, and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  For the Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of His Word fill you and the household and family of God with His Life-giving Holy Spirit.  They catechize you in the true faith, and strengthen you in faith and love.  And they bear the fruits of thanksgiving to God.

Such singing of Christ is both a principle part and a paradigm or pattern of the entire Christian life.  It is a godly work of faith and love, which both a little child and an old man or woman can do, by the grace of God, and by His Word and Spirit.  It chases away the devil, and glorifies the Holy Trinity, and allows the joy and gladness of heaven to echo throughout all of creation.

How so?  How shall a song do all of this?  How shall your voice accomplish such great things?

Because Christ the Lord, the Son of God, your Savior Jesus, has become flesh and blood.  He has a human voice, like yours, with which He speaks and sings the Word and Spirit of His Father.  And in His Body, crucified and risen from the dead, all of creation has been redeemed and sanctified for God: including you, your lips and tongue, your mouth, and your voice.  And in the Temple of the Lord, all cry out and sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!”

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

28 December 2012

In and Out of Egypt with the Lamb of God

Do not suppose that death has got the upper hand, nor that death will have the last word.  For out of Egypt God has called His Son: the same Son, Jesus Christ, who has come in the flesh to bear your sins and be your Savior.  He has shed His blood and died for you, and God has raised Him from the dead.  Therefore, death has no power over Him; and neither does it have any power over you, who are baptized into Christ and belong to Him, now and forever.

And yet, despite all that, it would appear that death is still winning.  How many examples abound!  One hesitates anymore to read the news, when each new day seems to bring some new calamity.  The events of the past fortnight alone have been staggering: young children gunned down in their school rooms; firefighters shot while responding to a fire, deliberately started for the purpose of luring them to their death; and Christmas shoppers randomly killed in a Portland mall.

“In the very midst of life, death has us surrounded.”  And the fear of death, under its many guises, enslaves and tyrannizes you, and drives you to sin.  It is at the heart of all your selfishness and greed, your covetousness and idolatry, your deception and manipulation, and both your laziness and legalism.  For death has come into the world because of sin, and sin increases all the more in the fear of death.  It is a vicious cycle, which erupts here and there, within and without, sometimes with cold calculation, and then again with aimless outbursts of violence.

Sometimes, like King Herod, you get angry, and you fight back and defend yourself with force; as though you were a god, with the power and authority of life and death.

At other times, like Rachel, you despair of any help or consolation; you weep and moan, refusing to be comforted; as though there were no God, no Savior, and no hope.

Such fear of death, such anger, and such inconsolable grief are all sinful and unclean, because they are contrary to faith and to the love of God.

I tell you, then, repent of your misplaced fear, of your violent temper, and of your hopeless despair.

Wait quietly and patiently upon the Lord, and rise up at His Word to do what He calls you to do.  No matter how daunting, difficult, or discouraging the task at hand may be, get up and go in the hope of His grace, mercy, and peace.  Precisely as St. Joseph of Nazareth does in caring for his wife and for her Son, in fleeing with them to Egypt and waiting there upon the Word of the Lord.

But, yes, about that story set before us on this day: Again it would appear that death has got the upper hand, and that everything is out of God’s control.  After all, the little Lord Jesus has to be rushed away to safety in the middle of the night, while the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem are slaughtered in His wake.  Where is the justice or the hope in any of this?

To point out that everything actually unfolds according to the Scriptures, seems, on the surface, only to make matters worse.  For why on earth would God permit such atrocities to happen?

Why, indeed, does God permit you to suffer?

And why does God permit you to hurt and harm your neighbor?

In fact, God does respond and deal with evil, with sin and death, with fear and anger and despair.  Only, He does so very differently than you would do.  He is different, too, than Rachel and Herod.  He does not react with force, nor retaliate with the raw unbridled power of a temper tantrum.  He has no need to get “defensive,” as though He were backed into a corner and desperate for some way out.  Nor does He panic and throw up His hands in frustration.  He does not give up the fight.

True enough, there is a day of reckoning, a day of judgment, when God vindicates His people and punishes the sons of disobedience.  He does get glory against Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt, who are drowned in the depths of the Red Sea.  Herod also dies and is judged by the Lord.

But the Lord God demonstrates His almighty power over sin, death, the devil, and hell, chiefly by showing mercy to sinners, and having compassion upon them, and forgiving them all their sins.  He is patient and long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  He establishes His righteousness in the midst of the nations, not by punishment to start with, but by redemption.  Else we should all be lost, completely and forever, and then there really would be no hope at all.

As it is, the Lord our God is faithful in His mercy, and He is righteous in His forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, Herod’s treachery does not triumph, because death does not get the last word.  Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is no less sinful and wicked on that account, but neither does it win.

God does not fail or neglect the children of Bethlehem, but He calls them to Himself and rescues them from every evil, unto the life everlasting in body and soul.  Their little bodies are cruelly butchered and put to death, but God gives them rest, and He shall raise them in glory at the last.

Because the Lord Jesus does not “run away” in fear from danger and from death, but He proceeds in faith to the death of His Cross, which shall be at the time appointed by His Father in heaven.  No one takes His life from Him, but He lays it down willingly when that Day and that Hour come.

Unto that purpose, He grows up — from infancy, through childhood, into adulthood — in order to redeem the entirety of human life.  He lives in faith and love, from the first to the last, on His journey to the Cross.  And as true Man, He learns to refuse the evil and choose the good.  That is to say, He learns to live by faith in the Word of God, even in the midst of sin and death; so that He goes to His death, not as a helpless babe in His Mother’s arms, but as the Perfect Man of God.

In all of this, He does not escape the trials and tribulations of this life — which the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem are spared (though their mothers and fathers are not).  But He submits Himself to every bit of the Great Tribulation: for you, and for your salvation, and for the sake of all people.

He enters Egypt, in order to rescue and redeem His Israel from Egypt: in the confidence that His God and Father will call Him forth by the new and greater Exodus of His Cross and Passion.

Not at Herod’s whim, but in fulfillment of God’s holy will, the Lord Jesus lays down His life in the hope of the Resurrection, trusting the Scriptures of the Prophets, the promise of His Father.

He thus becomes the Passover Lamb, who is slain in place of beloved Isaac, and in place of the sons of Israel, and really in place of all the children of men.  He is pierced for our transgressions, wounded for our iniquities; and by His stripes we are healed.  He is crucified, dead, and buried.

But now, behold, He lives!  For He is raised by God to life again, which is our justification, our righteousness and holiness before God in heaven.  And so does He return to His own territory, to the Right Hand of His God and Father.

Beloved of the Lord, you now follow this Lamb, Jesus, wherever He goes, so that you are with Him where He is: First of all by your Baptism into His death, and so also by the eating and the drinking of His true Passover Feast, which is His Body given and His Blood poured out for you.

So shall you be with Him forever, alive with His Spirit in body and soul, holy and righteous in the presence of His Father, residing in peace on the heavenly Mount Zion.

This is your future, and in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, it is your sure and certain hope.  Amen, Amen, it shall be so!  As it was for the believing baby boys of Bethlehem when Herod put them to death, but he could not rob them of their life, which is in Christ Jesus.

To be sure, your time now under the Cross — in the wilderness to and from Egypt — is not easy; whether you must care for your neighbors in hardship and adversity, or mourn for those who die.  It was neither easy for St. Joseph and the Holy Family, nor for the grieving fathers and mothers of Bethlehem.  And let us not make light of the Cross that is thus borne in this poor life of labor.

But the truth remains: For Christ has died, and Christ has risen from the dead.  And He has written His Name — the Name of His Father — with the sign and seal of His Cross upon your forehead.

Therefore, God also calls you out of Egypt in His Son.  Indeed, you are His beloved son in Christ!

Have no fear of death, for it has been undone.  Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your sins are all forgiven.  The devil, who sought your life, is defeated; he cannot harm you anymore forever.  You are ransomed and redeemed by the Lord your God, and you are taught the New Song of the Lamb, who has purchased and won you with His own Blood.

Even now you sing His Song in the strength of His Resurrection, which is the surety of your own resurrection from the dead; because He has become your Salvation, evermore and evermore.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

18 December 2012

Plan A, B, C, and D (all of the above)

Do your duties faithfully, as best you can

Repent of all your sins and failings
Confess your sins and be absolved

Receive the Gospel in preaching and the Sacrament

Call upon the Name of the Lord
Rejoice, give thanks, and sing

Spend time in the sunshine
Exercise your body and mind
Listen to good music

Sleep: Christ Jesus is Your Sabbath Rest

Remember your Baptism: God raised Jesus from the dead

16 December 2012

Our Top Twelve Read-Aloud Favorites of 2012

For many years now, from when my Zach & Bean were small fries, one of my favorite pastimes has been reading aloud to my children.  Over the years, I've plowed through numerous books, with lots of highlights along the way.  My doctoral work slowed down the pace considerably, especially in the final years of dissertation writing. But Harry Potter came to the rescue even then, while also serving as something of a transition within our family: It was really the last series that I read aloud to DoRena and Zachary, and the first significant set of books that I read to Nicholai and Monica.  After that, it was a bit hit-and-miss for awhile, because it was frankly difficult to find anything worthy to follow the magic of Ms. Rowling.  Last year shook us out of our slump, and this Year of Our Lord 2012 has been a marvelous literary adventure for me and my five middle children listeners: Monica, Ariksander, Oly'anna, Justinian, and Frederick.

Especially as various other projects and pursuits have gone by the wayside for me, whether being finished up or given up, I've been able to read aloud to my children with regular consistency this year.  Unless I'm out of town for something or other, which happens on occasion, I generally read at least half an hour each day; and, sometimes, when we're closing in on the end of a good book or series, it might be as much as several hours. Many a family day has been spent largely in the pages of a story, in the company of beloved characters.  In my life on earth, there is hardly anything that I treasure more fondly than this time spent with my children.

So far this year, we've shared a total of forty-four books together, my middlings and me.  We'll probably devour another couple or three before the year is finally finished; although the observances of Christmas Tide will slow us down, naturally.  But the next thing on our list are the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander  — one of my own childhood favorites, among the many that I enjoyed listening to my own Dad read aloud to me — and I'm quite certain that we won't be able to finish that whole series (five books in all) before the New Year.

Anyway, in typical Stuckwisch fashion, the six of us who read and listen together voted on our favorite reads of 2012, and tabulated the results this afternoon.  Because we like to share such things, and because others might discover worthy treasures to enjoy within their own family enclaves, I happily publish the following list of our Top Twelve Read-Aloud Favorites.  We've grouped sequels and series into single entries, rather than trying to segregate the individual titles; and in some cases, we are breathlessly awaiting subsequent volumes, yet to be published. Meanwhile, there are plenty of books in the world to occupy us.  It should be noted that most of the following books were not published in 2012, but were among those that I was privileged to read aloud in the course of the year.  I've exercised paternal privilege in unilaterally resolving the numerous ties that occurred, but each of the following received at least two votes (out of six possible).

Top Twelve Read-Aloud Favorites of 2012

1 - the Jimmy Coates series (six books and counting), by Joe Craig

2 - the Michael Vey series (two books so far), by Richard Paul Evans

3 - The Candy Shop War; and, Arcade Catastrophe, by Brandon Mull

4 - the Gregor series (five books), by Suzanne Collins

5 - the Percy Jackson series (five books), by Rick Riordan

6 - the Beyonders trilogy (two books so far), by Brandon Mull

7 - Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier

8 - the Fablehaven series (five books), by Brandon Mull

9 - The King in the Window; and its sequel of sorts, The Steps Across the Water, by Adam Gopnik

10 - Savvy; and its sequel, Scumble, by Ingrid Law

11 - the Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

12 - the Ghosthunters series (four books), by Cornelia Funke

Astute readers will notice that our favorite authors of the year were Brandon Mull (nine books, three series) and Suzanne Collins (eight books, two series).  Bring 'em on, Brandon and Suzanne; we're hungry for more.

09 December 2012

The Preaching and Baptism of Repentance

So, what does such baptizing with water indicate?

It is a baptism of repentance, which both requires and results in more than lip service or an outward show; although words and actions are certainly also a part of it.  Genuine repentance necessarily includes a confession of the truth and godly behavior, in accordance with the Word of the Lord.  But repentance begins and continues, far more deeply, with a decisive change of heart and mind.  It is a turning away from one way of life to another, a full conversion of self from the inside-out.

Repentance is both a death and a resurrection, and this is the very thing that such baptizing with water means and does.  It calls you and converts you to become altogether different than you have been: in your attitudes and commitments, and in your thoughts and feelings, and therefore also in your words and actions.

Truly to repent is to flee from the wrath to come, in the conviction that the one true God exists, that He is the Author and Creator of all things, including you, and that His Law is a serious matter, which means what it says and holds you accountable for what you have done, and for what you have not done.  Thus, repentance begins with the fear of the Lord.

God threatens to punish all who break His commandments.  Therefore, you should fear His wrath and not disobey Him.  The axe is laid at the root of the trees, and eternal fire awaits the ungodly, who do not live in faith and love.  For to flee from God’s wrath is not to flee from Him, as if you could ever escape from His judgment.  It is, rather, to live righteously according to His Word; and all the more so as the Day of His coming draws near.

He is the Lord, your King, who approaches.  And St. John the Baptist is sent to prepare the royal highway before Him, which shall be called a highway of holiness.  Thus, by his preaching and his baptism of repentance, he fills up the valleys and flattens the hills; he straightens up the crooked places and smooths out the rough spots.

Where, then, have you been lacking in your labors, whether out of laziness, arrogance, or despair?  And where have you exalted yourself, and puffed yourself up with pride?  Where have you turned to the right or to the left, distracted from your duties, or bounced around from one passion and pursuit to the next, as though you had no clear direction?  Where have you stumbled and fallen?

That is where St. John directs his preaching to you.  And that is where your Baptism would drown and destroy the old Adam in you, and put you to death, in order to make you alive and brand new.  That is where your fruitless tree ought to bear the fruits of repentance: Not only to claim sorrow and regret for past failures, but from the heart to change your behavior; to set your ears, and mind, and mouth upon the Word of God; to cease from doing evil, and to do what is good and right.

Would you receive the Christ who comes, and follow Him into His Kingdom, and live with Him in righteousness and purity forever?  Would you be a Christian, a child and heir of God?  Then live with both humility and confidence before Him, within your vocation and stations in life.  Fulfill your duties faithfully, and carry out your responsibilities with honesty and integrity.  Not for the sake of appearances, as a people-pleaser, but in the fear of the Lord, and in love for your neighbor.

That is what such baptizing with water indicates.  And that is how you flee from the wrath to come.

For now the Lord has begun to purify the sons of Levi, beginning with Zacharias and his son, the baptizer, St. John.  These righteous men, to whom the Word of the Lord has come, have been raised up in striking contrast to the reigning high priest, Caiaphas, and to his father-in-law, Annas, who was still pulling strings and calling shots behind the scenes.  Annas and his extended family were something of a religious mafia, as corrupt as Eli and his sons when Samuel was born.  It was not to Annas or Caiaphas, however, but to faithful Zacharias in the Temple, while he was offering the incense of Israel’s prayer, that the Archangel Gabriel was sent.  And it was St. John who was commissioned as the messenger of God, called and sent to prepare the people for the Lord.

By his preaching and baptism of repentance, St. John offers up the people as a priestly sacrifice to God, and as a righteous offering to the Lord.  He slays them with his words in the waters of the Jordan, and then pulls them back up out of the water and points them to the path of righteousness in Christ.  And by this repentance thus worked in them, by the washing of the water with the Word, the people offer up themselves and their lives to the Lord their God.  They each become a living sacrifice, entrusting themselves entirely to Him, and so living a new life, by faith in His Word.

Such repentance is exemplified, later in St. Luke’s Gospel, in the tax collector Zaccheus, when he restores what he has stolen and then gives half his money to the poor; and in the soldier who confesses that Jesus is the righteous Son of God, after witnessing His death upon the Cross.

You also are called to live a life that is pleasing to God, that is, according to His Word, in the place where He has stationed you: In the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of repentance and of wisdom; and in the confidence of His faithfulness, His righteousness and steadfastness.

He is the Lord, He changes not.  From everlasting to everlasting, He is God.  His promises are true, and His covenant is certain.  Though you have wandered far and wide, and forsaken His Word, return to Him, for He returns to you.  He draws near for judgment, for justice and righteousness, in order to make all things right; in order to restore the people of His choosing as a priestly nation, in holiness and righteousness before Him, forever and ever.  That is what He comes to do for you.

But, honestly, who can endure His coming?  Who can stand in His judgment when He appears?  Who can survive His Advent?  For even on your best day, no matter how hard you try, there is yet more to be done, and there is still sin in your heart and life.  Outwardly, your words and actions do not fully measure up, but inwardly it is far worse.  You neither fear the Lord your God, nor do you love and trust in Him; not as you ought.  There are still valleys to be filled, hills to be flattened.

The holy and righteous Law of God leaves no one unscathed.  It does not accuse you falsely, nor does it demand from you more than is fair.  And yet, for all your effort, you cannot live up to it or make amends for all your wrongdoing.  Will you pay back four times over all that you have taken from your neighbor?  Will you give up all of your possessions, or even half of them, to the poor?  And would you thereby atone for all your sins and justify yourself before the Lord your God?

No, the axe still cuts you down; the fire still consumes you.  The Law is insatiable in its demands and prohibitions, in its condemnations and its punishments; until it is fulfilled in the righteousness of perfect faith and holy love.  But such righteousness and holiness are beyond your grasp.  They are not a work that you can do or achieve for yourself, but a work that only God can accomplish.  You do not perform it, but suffer it.  And only then, after it has killed you, do you begin to live it.

St. John is not a motivational speaker, nor a self-help guru, but a preacher of repentance.  It is true that he baptizes with water, but the Word that he preaches, being God’s Word, is a fire to be sure.

Yet, it is also the Gospel that St. John preaches to the people; although he does not fully realize or understand, at first, what his baptizing with water shall do.  He rightly preaches the Law, but to begin with he does not perceive that Christ Jesus will submit Himself to the righteous judgment of that very Law.  He preaches a baptism of repentance, and then he is confronted by the Christ who suffers that Baptism and repents for the sins of the world.  Which is how and why St. John’s baptism of repentance is for the forgiveness of sins.  And so it is that, afterwards, he will point to Christ Jesus and say: There’s the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice to end all sacrifice for sin, who makes Atonement for the world, who justifies and sanctifies all who believe and are baptized into Him.

He is mightier than John, not in threats and punishments, but in mercy and compassion for poor, miserable sinners.  He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He forgives iniquities, trespasses, and sins.  That is the character of His heart, the essence of His Being, the perfection of His almighty power.  That is the sort of Lord He is: The true and only God, who is Life and Light and Love.  That is why you are not consumed, even though you deserve nothing but punishment.

Not as though the Lord overlooks sin or takes it lightly, but because He is mightier than you — in taking sin and death upon Himself, and suffering their worst, and establishing the righteousness of perfect faith and holy love in His own faithfulness, in His own flesh and blood, on your behalf.

St. John’s preaching and baptism prepare you for the coming of the Lord, because they make ready the way by which He comes to you.  That is to say, Christ Jesus comes by the way of repentance, which He thereby opens up for you and for all, by taking responsibility for the sins of the world, by making Himself accountable for every last one of them, and by suffering their consequences.

The Lord Jesus submits Himself to St. John’s Baptism, not to flee, but to bear the wrath to come.  He suffers the axe and the fire by His Cross and Passion.  He bears the tree of the Cross, and by it He bears the fruits of repentance — which are for you the fruits of righteousness and salvation.

This is the good work that your dear Lord Jesus Christ has already accomplished for you, which He has also begun to work in you by His preaching and His Baptism.  By the fruits of His Cross, and in His Resurrection from the dead, He brings you daily to repentance, and He purifies your heart and life by faith.  And just as surely as He is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity, so shall He bring this good work of His to perfection in you, in body and soul, forever.

Not only does He daily and richly forgive you all your sins, by the fruits of His Cross — that is, by the preaching of His Gospel of forgiveness, by His spoken Word of Holy Absolution, by the remembrance of your Baptism, and by His Food and Drink of the Holy Communion — but so does He also bear good fruits in you, by the same means of grace, after the same kind as His own Tree.  For the Gospel bears the fruits of faith and love in the righteousness of Christ, your Savior.

He puts to death all that is sinful, unholy, and unrighteous in you, but then He also raises you up to newness of life in Himself.  This is the repentance of His own Cross and Resurrection, which He works in you by His Law and His Gospel.  In this way, and by these means, He removes the chaff from your life, from your thoughts, words, and actions, and He gathers you as finest wheat into His barn: into His Church, and into His Kingdom, now and forever.

He does it by His Word of the Cross, to and from your Baptism, day by day by day.  He crucifies you with that Word, as He puts you to death and buries you with Himself by those waters; so that you die to yourself, to your old attitudes, behavior, and commitments, and you rise up to live unto righteousness in Christ.  You follow Him through the waters into the way of faith and love.  And all the while, on the way, beloved, know this: You are blameless before God in Him.

Remember how Joshua, when he led the sons of Israel into the promised land through the waters of the Jordan, established a memorial of twelve stones, not only on the shore, but also in the midst of the water: In the very place where the sons of Levi had remained with the Ark of the Covenant until all the people had passed from the wilderness into the paradise flowing with milk and honey.

So has this priestly son, St. John the Baptist, stood with the Christ in the midst of the Jordan, to whom you have come, as to a living Stone — rejected by men, but choice and precious before God.  And you, also, are a living stone in Him, built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, in order to offer up sacrifices that are pleasing to God through Jesus Christ.

Such is the Word that is here preached to you:

From these stones, in the midst of these waters, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has raised you up as a beloved and well-pleasing child in Him.  He has dressed you with His own tunic, so that you are now fully clothed and covered in His righteousness and holiness.  And He who has the Food of everlasting life, now feeds you with the fruits of the Cross, the Body and Blood of the Lamb.  Therefore, in His flesh, you taste and see the Salvation of God.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.