30 December 2018

Receiving the Lord in His Temple

St. Luke makes it clear that everything here happens according to the Law of the Lord.  On the surface that means the keeping of the rules and regulations of the Old Testament ceremonial Law, as the Lord commanded through Moses.  So it is that Mary and Joseph come to offer the sacrifices required for her purification, forty days after giving birth.  And they pay for the redemption of her firstborn Son, Jesus, per the requirement that all the firstborn sons of Israel be given to the Lord.

But in the keeping of these rites and ceremonies, there is also something else profoundly at work.  When St. Luke writes that it was done “according to the Law of the Lord,” it is as we confess in the Creed, that Christ Jesus rose from the dead “according to the Scriptures.”  It means that what our Lord Jesus has done and accomplished is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, of the Law and the Prophets — as Jesus Himself unfolds for those disciples on the Road to Emmaus, following His Resurrection on Easter Sunday (also recorded by St. Luke).

The “Law of the Lord,” therefore, is not in opposition to “the Gospel,” as when we distinguish and rightly divide between “the Law and the Gospel.”  Here the “Law” rather refers to all the Words and Promises of God, including His Covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai, encompassing not only the Ten Commandments but also and especially the Old Testament Liturgy.  The “Law” fulfilled in Christ Jesus is the entire Word of God, which is the revelation of His good and acceptable will — and the revelation of Himself and His Glory — that His people might live and abide with Him in faith and love, in peace and joy.  And as that divine Word has become flesh in the Person of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, so His entire life is lived “according to the Law of the Lord.”

In those days when He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Law of the Lord was centered and focused in the Temple.  It is certainly no accident that St. Luke begins and ends his record of the Holy Gospel in the Temple.  It is where Zacharias received the Word of the Lord from the Archangel concerning the conception and birth of St. John the Baptist, to begin with.  And it is where the disciples of Jesus gather daily to pray, praise, and give thanks, following His Ascension into heaven.  Between those two book-ends, there are a number of other significant events which also take place in the Temple, including those events that are set before you today.  It is on this occasion when the Lord Jesus first comes to His Temple in His own human flesh and blood.  Thirty-some years later, He will leave the Temple for the last time in the final days before His Cross and Passion — and then His own Body will be raised up as the Temple of God forever.

To understand the significance of the Temple in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is important that you have some basic understanding of the Temple in the Old Testament.  It goes back to the Exodus, when the Lord led the Children of Israel out of Egypt — through the Red Sea and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land — with a Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night.  That Cloud and Fire were the manifest Presence and glory of God among His chosen people.

When God then established and sealed His Covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai, He gave them far more than just the Decalogue.  At great length and with extensive details He provided Moses with careful instructions for the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices, which were collectively the Old Testament Means of Grace, the Liturgy.  The Lord provided the instructions, and He provided the people to carry out His instructions.  And when the Tabernacle and the Ark had been completed, the Cloud and Fire of His glorious Presence settled upon them, in order to demonstrate that He would henceforth be with His people in this way, by these means.

It is helpful to realize that the Tabernacle and the Ark, the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices in the Old Testament are analogous to the Office of the Holy Ministry and the Sacrament of the Altar in the New Testament.  These are the ways and means whereby the Holy Trinity conveys to His people the Gospel of His Christ.  As such, they all hinge upon our Lord Jesus Christ, who is Immanuel, “God-with-us” in the flesh.  The Old Testament Liturgy depended on the Christ who was to come; they pointed forward to Him and prepared the people for His coming.  So does the New Testament Liturgy, the preaching and ministry of the Gospel, depend upon the Christ who has come, who has sacrificed Himself on the Cross, and who has risen from the dead “according to the Scriptures.”

Now, as you know, between Mt. Sinai and the coming of Christ Jesus, there was another son of David, namely, Solomon, who was permitted to build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.  He did so according to the pattern of the Tabernacle, which the Lord had revealed from heaven to Moses.  And when Solomon dedicated that Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant had been moved into the Holy of Holies of that Temple, the Cloud and Fire of the glorious Presence of God then settled upon that Temple — once more indicating where and how the Lord would abide with His people.

Notwithstanding that gracious Promise and Presence of the Lord, the Temple that Solomon built was eventually destroyed, when the people were carried into the Babylonian Captivity, on account of their idolatry and unbelief.  And that was such a devastating blow to Israel in every way.  Who were they outside of the Promised Land, without the Temple, and seemingly without the Lord?  Yet, the Lord remembered His people in Babylon, He remembered His promise of redemption in Christ, and He comforted them with the preaching of forgiveness on the basis of that promise.  What is more, the Prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of a new and better Temple, the perfect and permanent Temple of God, which would be established in the crucified and risen Body of Jesus.

Sure enough, the people were released from Babylon and returned to the Promised Land, and in due time a second Temple was built in Jerusalem.  It was a far cry from the first, architecturally.  But far worse, the Ark of the Covenant had been lost or destroyed, and the Cloud and Fire of God’s glorious Presence did not return to fill the new Temple.  The fact is, though, the promises of God were not to be fulfilled by any human constructions.  Even the first Temple, and the Tabernacle before it — and the Ark of the Covenant, and the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices — they were all about the coming of the Lord Himself in the flesh, the coming of the Christ, our Savior.  And even without the Ark and the Cloud and the Fire, the second Temple continued to anticipate the Coming One, to which its Priesthood and Sacrifices still pointed, even when the people looked away.

The Liturgy of the Lord and the Ministry of His Means of Grace matter, in the Old Testament and the New, because the Presence of God with His people is the source and substance of Life itself.  Apart from Him, there is no life, but only death.  That is the big problem with sin, which separates you from the Lord by the disobedience and disregard of His Word, and then causes you to flee and hide from Him (as if you even could), thereby cutting you off from His forgiveness and His Life.

In your sin, apart from God, there is nothing for you but death.  And as a sinner, it is impossible for you to reverse the situation and find your own way back to God.  You cannot do it, and in your sin you do not even want to get back to God.  Left to yourself, you just keep on running away from Him, and you remain utterly lost in your sin and death.  So would everyone be lost forevermore, if not for the fact that God the Lord, by grace alone, takes every initiative in coming to save us.

The Lord God comes to you, as He came to His Children of Israel in the Old Testament, with His forgiveness of sins, in order to redeem you from captivity to death and reconcile you to Himself.  As He brought the people out of Egypt, and as He brought them out of Babylon, so does He bring you out of your captivity.  And as He was with His people in the Cloud by day and Fire by night, in the desert Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple, so is He with you in the Body of Christ Jesus.

Since the fall into sin, two things have been most necessary for life and salvation.  The first is the gracious Presence of God, and the second is His forgiveness of sins.  Without either one of these manifestations of His mercy, all the sons and daughters of Adam & Eve would remain forever in captivity to sin, death, and the power of the devil.  So, throughout the Old Testament, the faithful people of God clung for dear life to His Words and Promises, whereby they waited in hope and expectation for the coming of His Christ — just as you have waited on the Lord through Advent.

St. Simeon and Holy Anna were among those faithful ones who watched and waited on the Christ.  And so it was that their hopes and expectations were focused on the Temple, “according to the Law of the Lord.”  For that is where His Words and Promises had been given to and for them.  And sure enough, that is where His Words and Promises were first fulfilled — for them and for all people.

As the Cloud and Fire of God’s glorious Presence once filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and then filled the Temple in Jerusalem, so did the glorious Presence of God in the flesh come to His Temple in the Person of the Christ-Child, conceived and born of St. Mary.  By the Word and Spirit of the Lord, Simeon and Anna comprehended with the eyes of faith what eyes of flesh could not see: That this little Babe, just six weeks old, is the Almighty and Eternal God.  He is Yahweh in the flesh, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  And He comes now to His Temple, in order to be with His people and to forgive all of their sins.

Born of the Woman under the Law, He comes to redeem those who were under the Law.  For He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  To begin with, as in this Holy Gospel, even from infancy He keeps the Law perfectly for all of us.  He is ever and always obedient in all things — yes, even unto His death upon the Cross.  Indeed, He has come to sacrifice Himself in our stead.

So does Simeon prophecy that this Child is destined for the fall and the rising of many in Israel.  He comes, the Word-made-Flesh, by the grace of God and in the Spirit of the Lord.  But the world does not know Him, because the darkness cannot comprehend His light.  Most of His own people refuse to receive Him.  They hand Him over to be crucified by the hands of sinful men.  And yet, again, it is for that purpose He has come, to sacrifice Himself in the stead of sinners such as you.

Thus does He obtain forgiveness and atonement for the sins of the world.  And in His Resurrection from the dead, He raises sinners in and with Himself, by and with His Word of Holy Absolution.

It is this Gospel of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord that St. Simeon beholds in the face of the infant Christ-Child, by the Light of His divine and glorious countenance.  And as such, he witnesses that Jesus Christ, in His own flesh, actually becomes the new, divine, eternal Temple of God.  In His own Body of flesh and blood, the Covenant is fulfilled and made new.  In Him all the Words and Promises of God are found.  In Him is God’s resounding “Yes!” to all of your prayers.

“According to the Law of the Lord,” Jesus the Christ comes to His people, to His faithful ones, to St. Simeon and St. Anna in the Temple.  Then, by His Cross and in His Resurrection, “according to the Law of the Lord,” His Body supercedes and replaces that Temple.  So it is that, now, the Temple of God is truly found wherever the Word of Christ Jesus and His Body and His Blood are found.  Which is also to say that the Presence of God and His forgiveness of sins are found in the flesh of Christ Jesus, in His Word preached, His Body given, and His Blood poured out for you.

That is why you are here this morning, and that is what you are here for: The Presence of God in the flesh of Christ, your Savior and Redeemer, and His forgiveness of your sins by His Word and Flesh and Blood.  Not for entertainment.  Not for a pat on the back or a pat on the head.  Not to be emotionally gratified and uplifted.  Not for a sociably good time.  But to wait upon the Lord your God, and to receive His Body and His Blood, according to His Word, within His holy Temple.

This is a divine and sacred thing, an awesome privilege, and a blessed opportunity.  It is not to be approached lightly, but with humility and great joy, with reverence and peace, in sober confidence.

As you come into the gracious and glorious Presence of the Lord your God in the Liturgy of His Gospel, it is well that you follow the example of Simeon and Anna, who received the Christ of God in His Temple, in the flesh, with thanksgiving, praise, and blessing.  Accordingly, not only do we join with St. Simeon in chanting his inspired song of praise, the Nunc Dimittis, but we also follow the example of Holy Anna in giving thanks unto the Lord and speaking of Him to our neighbors.

There are no better or more important activities by which you are given and able to serve your dear Lord Jesus Christ, both night and day, all the years of your life on this earth.  In receiving the Lord in His Temple, in His Church, and returning your thanks and praise, you also grow and mature in the Spirit, and you are filled with the Wisdom of God.  So may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God the Father, and the Communion of His Holy Spirit, be and abide with you always.

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

28 December 2018

The Lord Is for You and for Your Children

The promise is for you and for your children.  There is hope for your future.  Your work will be rewarded.  For out of Egypt God has called His Son; and so shall all of His children return from the land of the enemy to His own territory, to His good land, in His incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.

But here before us is another story — and another big question — for those who wonder and ask why God allows such evil in the world.  If there is a good and all-powerful God, why doesn’t He simply prevent sin and put a stop to all the wickedness?

Why must His Son flee to Egypt in the first place?  And why on earth is Herod permitted to slaughter all those innocent baby boys?  They were just little children, infants and toddlers!  Did they really have to be sacrificed as some kind of object lesson, or to make some dramatic point?

Be sure of this, God is not the author of evil.  But neither did any of these events happen outside of His providential care and permissive will.  Nor does He suffer lightly the death of any creature.

The Lord Jesus goes into Egypt because He has come to save His people from their sins.  He escapes the tyrant’s sword because no one takes His life from Him, but He will lay it down willingly, in faith and love, when His Hour has fully come.  And then He will take it up again.

As His God and Father calls Him out of Egypt when the tyrant has died, so will His Father likewise raise this same Son Jesus from the dead when that last great enemy has been defeated.  For death itself will be defeated by the Lord’s own sacrificial death in human flesh and blood like your own.

So do the little lambs of Bethlehem follow this Lamb of God through death into life, because He is their Salvation, His Cross is their Passover, and His Resurrection is their Exodus into Life.

As before in the history of God’s people, another Joseph now brings his Father’s family into Egypt, lest they perish, in order to preserve the world from death.  But as this story is unfolding, in the middle of the night, St. Joseph has no way of knowing what the outcome of these events will be.  He has nothing to guide him or go by except the Word of the Lord, His warnings and His promises.  With that, he goes in faith, and everything ensues and is fulfilled according to the Scriptures.

Which is really to say that his situation then was not so very different from your own.  As you go about living your life where God has placed you in this world — caring for the neighbors He has entrusted to your love; working the job He has given you to do; and suffering the Cross that He lays upon your body and soul within your vocations — your eyes cannot see, your heart cannot feel, and your mind cannot imagine where things are going or what you will face on any given day.  Yet, you do know where your life story is written, with its happily-ever-after in Christ Jesus.

Both His Cross and His Resurrection are yours.  So you also follow this Lamb wherever He goes.

That can be downright scary, can’t it?  Only do not allow your fears to master you, neither with the violent anger of Herod nor with the inconsolable weeping of Rachel for her children.  Both hatred and despair flow out of fear — not the fear of the Lord, which is true wisdom and bears both faith and love — but, no, hatred and despair flow from the fear of death, which is the fruit of idolatry.

To lose your temper, to rage and storm at your neighbor, to lash out in violence at others, that is to make a false god of yourself, and yet, it also demonstrates your weakness, fear, and insecurity.  The almighty power of the one true God is not found in such uncontrolled anger, but is chiefly manifested in His tender pity, mercy, and compassion for all of us poor and sinful mortals.

In light of such grace, mercy, and peace from your God and Father in Christ Jesus, to throw up your hands in hopeless despair, or to give yourself over to wailing grief and mourning, refusing to be comforted, is to reject the Lord who loves you in favor of atheism.  To act as though there were no hope or any reason to go on, is to live as though there were no God or Savior at all.

That is the false belief, despair, and fear that reside in your sinful heart and in your mortal flesh.  It is especially for this reason that God the Lord lays the Cross of Christ upon you.  Not to atone for your sins, which Christ has already accomplished by His sacrificial death in your place, but in order to crucify and kill the idols that reign as tyrants in your heart, and to work repentance in your heart and mind, your body and soul, unto faith and life in the Lord’s forgiveness of all your sins.

In other words, the Lord your God puts you to death with all your sinful unbelief, ungodly fear, violent rage, and desperate sorrow, in order to call you out of Egypt as His own dear son.

He does not do all of this at your expense, but at great cost to Himself for your benefit and profit.  Nor does He suffer your children to die for the sake of punishing you.  It may be, however, that in love He allows your children to suffer and die under the Cross, for the sake of breaking your idolatry and calling you to repentance — even as He calls your children from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven.  For He is their true God and Father, who loves them more than you do, who cares for them far better, and who is Himself their everlasting Life and eternal Salvation in Christ.

So it was, for example, that God the Lord put Father Abraham to the test, when He commanded him to sacrifice his long-awaited son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved.  But so did God spare Isaac and sacrifice His own dearly-beloved only-begotten Son, Christ Jesus.  It is in such love, with His own Self-sacrifice and Self-giving, that God the Father deals with you and with your children.

The truth is that it is far too easy for you to make false gods out of your children, or a false god of yourself as their father or mother; or a false god of your spouse and marriage, of your job, your house and home, or your family and friends.  All of these are the good gifts and blessings of God, but they are to be received in faith, in the fear, love, and trust of the one true God above all else.

You are to love and care for your children, therefore, as the Lord your God has commanded, putting their needs ahead of your own comfort and preferences (and ahead of their own desires).  Just as St. Joseph cared for the Christ Child and His Blessed Mother, St. Mary, and just as pastors are likewise given to care for the Lord’s Church and His children of all ages and stages of life.  For the Lord’s providential care of His people is exercised through His creatures, by earthly ways and means of grace, and so also through those who are His messengers and servants in faith and love.

So it is that He gives you to serve your neighbor, and He gives your neighbor to serve you.

Proceed in that calling of faith and love, in the confidence of Christ Jesus.  In accordance with the Holy Scriptures, God has called Him out of Egypt, the Father has raised His beloved Son from the dead.  That is now your future and your hope.  That is the great reward which you also receive for His good work of Redemption.  It is His sure and certain promise to you, and to your children.

It is His Peace to calm your anger, His security to calm your fears, and His comfort in all your grief and sadness.  The new and greater Exodus of Christ Jesus — through death into life by His Cross and Resurrection — is your forgiveness and your righteousness, your innocence and your holiness, your eternal bliss and blessedness.  He thereby wipes away every tear from your eyes, so that even now, by His grace, through faith in His Gospel, you behold the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, and the Lamb who was slain upon His throne, alive forevermore, reigning in love.

He is no tyrant, but a most gracious and benevolent King above all kings and Lord above all lords.  He cleanses you and your children, and your children’s children, with His own holy and precious Blood, shed for you upon His Cross and poured out for you here at His Altar for the forgiveness of all your sins.  He likewise adorns you with the pure white robes of His perfect righteousness.  And He feeds you from His own tender hand, with His own holy Body.

Though you are very little, weak, and small, do not be afraid.  Rest here from your labors in the Peace of Christ, under the shadow of His wings and the shelter of His Altar, until He shall call you from this vale of tears to the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of His Paradise.

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

27 December 2018

The Light No Darkness Can Overcome

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.  For the Life and the Love of the Father are in Him, and with such divine Love He has manifested Himself on earth, that you might have that Life with Him forever, body and soul, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

In the incarnate Son of God you see what otherwise cannot be seen.  In the Son of St. Mary you see God, and you know God as He truly is.  In His very flesh and blood, you know and receive the works of God, which are grace and truth.  For in His flesh all of creation is perfect and complete.  So are you also redeemed from the darkness of death and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ is the Propitiation for all your sins, and not for your sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.  That Gospel is the Light that scatters the darkness and shatters all the works of the devil — because the sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God, for the salvation of sinners, accomplishes the good and gracious will of God and makes known the Father to all the children of men.  In this the Name of God is glorified and hallowed among us, and His Kingdom comes to us from heaven.

To know God rightly is to know this Love of the Father in Christ Jesus, and to be sanctified by His Spirit through His forgiveness of all your sins.  As all of this is now revealed and given to you through the Word of the Gospel, so do you have peace in place of despair, and life instead of death.  For not only is God with you in Christ Jesus, but He is for you, He is on your side.  He is here to help you, because He loves you.  His life and death and resurrection — in His own Body of flesh and blood like yours — are the guarantee of that divine Love which was, and is, and is to come.

This is your Light in the darkness.  This is how you get your bearings, so that you know who you are, and where you are, and where you are going, and how to get there.  For knowing God as your Savior in Christ Jesus, you have Life with Him forever.  Everything else takes its cues from that.

So, then, by His Word and Holy Spirit, live that divine Life which is yours in the incarnate Son of God.  Walk in the Light which shines upon you in His Gospel.  Which means, first of all, that you give careful attention to His Word, since that is where and how the Life of Christ is set before you.

Blessed are your ears, which hear the reading and preaching of the Holy Scriptures!  And blessed are you when the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ gives to you His Holy Spirit, so that, by His grace, you believe His Holy Word and live according to it!

Faith thus follows after Christ Jesus in His Word — and love follows after faith in Christ.

That is how you walk in the Light, namely, by listening to and learning from the Word of Christ, so that you might thereby live and love as He does.

Open your ears, therefore, to hear and heed His Word.  That is how you keep your eyes on Jesus and follow after Him as a disciple, for His Word to you is your Light in the darkness.

Look neither to the right nor to the left, and do not turn around to look behind you, but keep moving forward in faith.  I do not mean that you should forget what the Lord your God has done and said and given in the past, but do not linger on your own past works and accomplishments, as though your life were there, in days of glory come and gone.  Leave the past behind in repentance and forgiveness, and praise God for the promise of His mercy and the hope of the Resurrection.

Do not look sideways at your neighbor with envy and jealousy, nor compare and compete with your neighbor, as though he were your opponent or your enemy.  But consider the people around you with the holy compassion of Christ.  Care for them in love and with forgiveness for their sins.  Do so, especially, within your own place in life, on the path to which Christ Jesus calls you.

To turn aside or depart from that path is to wander away from the Light, to walk in the darkness.  Then you will surely stumble and fall — and do not suppose that you will manage anything else.

Child of God, do not sin!  For in such darkness there is only death and despair.  Do not scheme and strive to light your own way, as though to get life for yourself by your own designs and ingenuity.  And do not abandon the faith and fellowship of God for the friendship of this fallen world.

But here is how you shall live.  Do your duty, according to God’s command and your neighbor’s need.  That is to exercise the faith and love that you find in Christ Jesus.  And be content with what you have been given, in the confidence that God who loves you has given His only-begotten Son to die for you, and has also raised Him from the dead, that you might have all good things in Him.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, in His eternal great High Priesthood as your Savior, you now live with Him by faith in the presence of His God and Father.  That is your “royal priesthood,” which is carried out within your own particular place in life, whether that be in service to a ripe old age, or by way of an early martyrdom; whether it be in Jerusalem, Athens, Ephesus, or Rome.

Wherever God has put you in this body and life on earth, love your neighbor there, with the means that God the Lord has entrusted to your stewardship.  Indeed, it is the chief purpose of your time, treasures, and talents that you glorify the Name of the Lord by using whatever He has given you to love and serve your neighbor.  You are quite safe to do so, because the Lord Himself provides for you, in love, all that you need and far more than you could ever ask or hope or imagine.

Instead of seeking to get and to keep whatever you can for yourself, freely give to your neighbor what you have freely received by the grace of God from His generous and open hand.

That is what St. John the Apostle and his fellow Apostles have done; and special thanks and praise to God for the holy Evangelists, who have recorded for the Church the words and deeds of Christ our Savior!  What they received, they have also given; and they were not emptied or undone by doing so, but filled up and glorified by the Son of God.  That is how it goes with the good gifts of God; as with loaves and fishes, the more they are divided and shared, the more they are increased.

So has St. John written what he himself saw and heard and touched — for the sake of the reading and the hearing of the Church on earth, even to the close of the age — and so also here for you.

In the preaching of this Apostolic Word — as in the flesh and blood of Christ, given and poured out for you and for the many — the Life of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is manifested.

This proclamation of God is an admonition and a warning, to be sure, which calls you to repent; to turn away from your sins, from darkness, and from death; to cease doing what is wrong, and to begin doing what is right.  But the Word of the Apostles is not a scolding or a threat.  It is the very Word of God, in which the Gospel predominates because it reveals the very heart of God in Christ.

St. John writes to you, in order that you may be set free from sin, not through your own works and righteousness, but through your Advocate with the Father, who is Jesus Christ the Righteous.

The Apostles and Evangelists write, so that you may be set free from death, and that you may have Life in Jesus through faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.

That is the great joy of St. John and of all the holy Apostles, that you should have fellowship with them in this Word that has been written.  Imagine that!  As we rejoice in the fellowship of the Apostles, so do they rejoice in you, who believe and live in Jesus by their Word.  And not only that, but your fellowship with the Apostles is the fellowship of the Holy Triune God, whereby you also now live and abide with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit.

In order for that to be true — and it is most certainly true — it must be as St. John has testified, that everything he witnessed, and all that he received from Jesus, he has conveyed to you with this Word he has written.  It is more than history and information.  It is the ongoing continuation of all that Jesus began to do and preach from the beginning unto the ends of the earth.  That is why the whole world is now filled with this Word of Christ, and even the whole world cannot contain it.

Beloved disciple of Jesus, what St. John saw with his eyes, and looked upon, and touched with his hands, is here given and poured out for you.  Recline here upon Body of the Lord who loves you at His Supper, and know that in His flesh and blood you are safe in the bosom of the Father, because the Blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses you from sin and releases you from death.  For where there is forgiveness, as there is forgiveness for you here, there you shall not die but live.

That is the true Light which shines for you in the darkness, the Light no darkness can overcome.

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

26 December 2018

Abiding with Christ in the Most Holy Place

So much for the white Christmas you were dreaming of.  Not only have we had no real snow to speak of, but the Church has already set aside her white paraments more quickly than the world takes down its winter evergreens.  Within a day of the Lord’s holy Nativity His chancel is stained red with the blood of His martyrs, anticipating the blood-stained banner of His own Holy Cross.

So it is that on this day, the 26th of December, the Second Day of the ChristMass, we remember with sober thanksgiving the Lord’s faithful servant, the deacon St. Stephen, who was martyred for his faith and confession, put to death as a witness to the Gospel of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

As you know, he was one of the seven deacons selected to serve the Hellenistic members of the early Church in Jerusalem.  Perhaps it would be clearer in our circles to describe him as an assistant pastor to the Apostles, chosen and appointed to care for the Greek-speaking parishes of the city.  In any case, St. Stephen was a man well-attested by the Lord and by the entire congregation of the Church.  He was a man of faith and great wisdom, full of the Holy Spirit.  And he did what he was called and ordained to do: He preached the Gospel and administered the Holy Sacraments of Christ.

But the Church remembers St. Stephen on this day, and she gives thanks to God for this faithful servant and holy martyr, not so much for the sake of a job well done “once upon a time,” but for the sake of the Word of Christ which he continues to proclaim by his preaching and example in the record of the Holy Scriptures, such as we have heard this evening from the Acts of the Apostles.

As St. Stephen thus preaches the Law, forcibly and forthrightly — not only then and there, but here and now to you — take it seriously as a warning against your own idolatry and hardness of heart, and heed what he says as a call to repentance and to the new life which is yours in Christ Jesus.

Do not attempt to hide behind your church membership or your good attendance, though belonging to the church and coming to church are certainly appropriate, good and right, and fundamental to the Christian faith and life.  You do not justify or save yourself by such good works, though you do confirm your unbelief and condemn yourself when you excuse and separate yourself from the household and family of God, to which you belong by His grace alone, through faith in His Gospel, notwithstanding any of your own works and efforts (be they good, bad, or otherwise).

Do not claim or cling to even the Holy Sacraments as works of man, as though the mere fact of going through the motions were sufficient to rescue and redeem your life from the judgment.  It is rather in repentance and faith that you receive and benefit from the Holy Sacraments as the works of God and the gifts of His grace, whereby He delivers you from sin, death, and the devil.  And that difference in perspective makes all the difference in this world and the next.  For it is not by any of your own works or any self-righteousness of yours that you are saved, but only by Christ Jesus, the Righteous One, who was crucified for your transgressions and raised for your justification.

Take it to heart, therefore, and trust and believe St. Stephen’s beautiful proclamation of the Gospel, especially in his example of mercy for those who were stoning him to death.  As the Lord Jesus had prayed that His Father would forgive those who nailed Him to the Cross, so does St. Stephen pray that God would not hold the sin of his persecutors against them.  Such a word of grace is wrought by the Word and Spirit of God, conveying the Holy Absolution of Christ to those who are cut to the quick and convicted by the Law.  It is forgiveness for you, also, chief of sinners though you be.

St. Stephen is, himself, an example of one who has received the Lord’s mercy and help, who lives by the fear of the Lord and by faith in His Gospel.  He surely does not preach with such clarity and boldness by any instinctive reason or strength of his own, nor with a detached, clinical objectivity, but as a man who has been called to repentance and faith by the preaching of the Word of Christ.

So did St. Stephen remain steadfast in his faith, and in his confession and preaching of Christ Jesus, even to the point of death.  He laid down his life without bitterness or guile, but with charity in his heart and on his lips for those who persecuted him, because he had already died and risen with the Lord in his Holy Baptism.  By that Sacrament, and by the daily repentance to which that Sacrament called him, he was conformed to the Image of Christ, his crucified and risen Savior.

St. Stephen died in the sure and certain confidence of Christ, animated by the compassion of Christ for those who sinned against him.  And in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, his merciful and great High Priest, he has received the Crown of everlasting Life, which shall never be taken from him.

As the Christian Church has understood and confessed concerning the many other martyrs who followed him, St. Stephen was strengthened and sustained by his Lord Jesus, not only in his faith and life as a disciple and deacon, but in his faithful death.  Not by human might and power, but by the Word and Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, he prevailed in the face of persecution, as he was given to see the Light of the Revelation of the Glory of God in the face of the incarnate Son.

Whether with the eyes of his flesh or simply with the eyes of faith, St. Stephen was given a vision of the Truth which remains forever, though it is normally hidden (for now) under the shadow of the Cross.  He was given to see his risen and ascended Lord, standing at the right hand of God where He ever lives to make intercession for His whole Church of all times and in all places.

The One who was crucified for your sins and raised from the dead as your Righteousness, He has entered into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens, for your Salvation.  There He abides for you in the presence of His God and Father, as your Anchor behind the Veil, even as He lives and abides within His Church on earth in the preaching and ministry of His Holy Gospel, that you might live and abide with God in Him, in His Body, the new and better Temple, now and forever.  His Body is your Home, already now by faith, and so shall it be ever after.

The heavens have been opened to you, as surely as they were opened to St. Stephen, never to be closed again, by the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, by His innocent suffering and death upon the Cross, by the shedding of His Blood, and by His Resurrection from the dead.

Therefore, do not shut your ears to the Law of the Lord as it is preached to you, though it painfully convicts you of your sins and calls you daily to repentance.  To harden your heart to that Word and preaching is also to reject and forego the grace and mercy and forgiveness of the Holy Gospel, which is preached to you in the patience and compassion of your Savior, Jesus Christ.  It is not for the condemnation you deserve, but for the great Salvation of His Gospel, that you are called by the preaching and Baptism of repentance to the Life everlasting which is by faith in Christ alone.

So, then, with St. Stephen receive and find your life entirely in the Lord Jesus Christ; and so boldly carry out your vocations and serve your stations in this body and life on earth, knowing with the certainty of faith that there is nothing anyone can do to rob you of the life that is yours in Him.

To be sure, there are those who may hurt or even kill your mortal body.  Many others are even more likely to hurt your feelings and to make your present circumstances difficult and hard to bear.  The stones that cut into Stephen’s body and spilled his blood, which shattered his bones and bruised his muscles, they were surely not painless or pleasant.  But they did not rob him of his life with God in Christ, which is immortal, imperishable, and glorious, as Christ Himself now reigns in glory forever.  So also are you preserved in safety, peace, and Sabbath rest within the Body of Christ Jesus, no matter what may happen to your poor body here and now.

Indeed, as your mortal body of flesh and blood is fed with His Body and Blood, so shall your body also be raised in glory, no matter how it may be punished and put to death in this brief span of time.

You have this boldness and confidence to live your life and to face your death, not from within yourself, but from the Lord who comforts you and strengthens you with His Word and Spirit in the Gospel.  He does not condemn you but forgives you, because Christ has given Himself for you.  And as God Himself is with you and for you, in this life and for the life to come, there is nothing and no one in heaven or on earth who shall ever be permitted or able to prevail against you.

So it is that Christ the Lord, the Son of God and Mary’s Son — who has entered the Most Holy Place in His crucified and risen Body, and who ever lives to intercede for you with His prayers and with His precious Blood in the presence of His God and Father — He also continues to call and ordain men, like St. Stephen, to care for His Bride, the Church.  These men He endows with His Spirit and His Wisdom, according to their Office, to serve the Tables of His Church on earth with the Word of His Gospel and with His Body and Blood, given and poured out for the many, for the forgiveness of sins in His Name, for the bestowal and preservation of life and salvation with God.

So does He provide all that is needed for body and soul, for Jews and Greeks alike, for widows and orphans in distress, and for all men and women, young and old, married or unmarried, rich and poor without distinction; for deacons and martyrs, pastors and people; and so also for you and for your children, and for your children’s children, from generation to generation, and even forevermore.

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

25 December 2018

Perfected in the Flesh of God the Word

A man does not hate his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes his body.  It’s not a matter of pride or personal affection, but of need and survival.  There may be all sorts of things that you really don’t like about your body, and yet you are constrained to care for yourself.  Your aches and pains are bothersome, but you give attention to them rather than ignoring them, because they are your own.  Your flaws and weaknesses may frustrate you, and your blemishes and scars may embarrass you, but you deal with all of those things because you cannot separate your body from your self.

There is an immediacy to the demands of your flesh, which you simply can’t ignore.  So you do the best you can to protect and provide for yourself, even though you are not able to preserve your body and life beyond a limited point.  You’re driven to nurture and care for yourself for as long as you are able, all the while you are constantly confronted with the basic fact of your mortality.

You do not hate your own flesh, but neither can you trust it.  You know that, sooner or later, it’s going to let you down, fall apart, or otherwise betray you.  You serve it every day, because you have to — it eagerly and greedily becomes your god — but your body cannot save you.  Instead, it makes you anxious, angry, and afraid.  Your own flesh discourages and disappoints you.

The whole of creation presents a similar challenge and temptation.  Though the rest of the world is not so personal as your own body of flesh and blood, there is still an immediacy to all the stuff that you can see and touch and taste and smell, surrounding you on all sides and pressing upon you.  It is so tangible, so present, and so solid, as though it were definitive and decisive, whether for good or ill.  Creation promises and threatens, seemingly without any recognition of the Creator.  Thus, faith and fear are misdirected from God to the world.  You either idolize or demonize it.

A case in point is the sun, which God created as a great light to govern the day.  It is surely an impressive and valuable gift, and, oh, how we miss it when it goes down at night or hides behind the clouds.  Of course, we also curse the sun when it beats down too hotly upon us and burns us.  But mostly we rely on it, so much so that we often express our hope for the future with reference to the sun coming up tomorrow.  That may be a confession of confidence in the Lord, who causes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good; or it may be yet another case of pagan idolatry.

You have probably heard, at some point or another, that the Feast of Christmas competed for a time with the pagan festival of sol invictus, the “unconquered sun,” which followed the winter solstice in late December.  The lengthening of the days appeared to be a triumph of creation over death.

Modern conceit is no better than ancient paganism in supposing that, with gadgets and electricity, we are now able to provide and control the light for ourselves, and to keep the darkness at bay.

Christians know and confess that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the true Light, and that by His coming into the world He enlightens every man.  He is the true Sun of Righteousness, who has risen upon us with healing in His wings.  He is neither a creature nor within anyone’s control; He is the divine Word by whom all things are made, and without whom there is nothing at all.  The sun, moon, and stars, the earth and the sea and all that is in them, all of these are His own creation, and He is the One who still preserves them and provides for them in His mercy and by His might.

The Light of this Son, Jesus, is the Life that is His by nature, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, from all eternity to all eternity.  It is the holiness of His Life and His freedom as the one true God.  For He is neither constrained by anything nor in need of anything, but He is who He is: He was, He is, and He is to come.  So He remains, always the same, and all of Creation depends upon Him.

But why, then, has He created the heavens and the earth?  Not out of boredom or need, but for the sake of holy Love!  Because the divine eternal Life of the Holy Triune God is Love, the Father for His Son, the Son for His Father, in the Holy Spirit, forever and always.  It is in this Love that He always remains, always the same.  And it is solely for the sake of this Love that He creates all things ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” in order to share Himself — His Life, His Light, and His Love — His Glory and His Holiness — with others outside of Himself, that is, with His own creatures.

That is the grace of God, of which we so often speak, and for which we glorify His holy Name.

By this grace, through His almighty and eternal Word, the Father created man in His Image; which is already to speak of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus — the Word made Flesh — from the very beginning, from the foundation of the world.  This is a great Mystery, indeed, that man is made in the form and the likeness of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Son.  The first Adam is created to be like the Second.  For the Lord Jesus Christ is the Image of God, the exact representation of His Being.

The Incarnation of our Lord is not an afterthought.  His conception and birth of St. Mary are not a “plan B,” they are the original creative purpose and gracious intention of the Holy Trinity; that God should become Man in this way, in order that man might receive and share the Life of God in Him.  Indeed, that is the very foundation upon which the entire Creation has been established.

From the beginning, it is this Word of God — the only-begotten of the Father — who fills Creation with divine Life and Light and Love.  Not only does He bring all things which have been made into existence, but He undergirds them and sustains them.  Neither man, nor the sun in the sky, nor any creature under heaven is self-existing or self-sufficient.  That is why the fall into sin is so deadly and destructive.  In turning away from the Word of God, man plunges everything into darkness.

Despite all that, we rejoice and give thanks on this holy day, because divine Love has moved to rescue and redeem, to sanctify and save His fallen creation.  Not only does He restore man to the starting point, but He fulfills and perfects mankind, as He intended, in His Image and Likeness, in holiness and righteousness.  That is what God the Word begins to do in His becoming flesh.

By His conception in the womb of St. Mary, and by His holy Nativity, He makes Himself one with His Creation.  He enters into it, and by doing so He becomes the definitive part of it.

He comes to His own, to the work of His own hands, and although He is neither comprehended nor received by those whom He has come to save, He accomplishes and brings about a New Creation in Himself.  He does not scrap it all and start over, but He restores all of Creation by the forgiveness of man’s sin, by the sacrificing of His own flesh and the shedding of His own blood.

In doing so, in laying down His body and life in this way, He does not hate His own flesh, but in Love He gives Himself for you, so that you might become a member of His Body and His Bride.

Although this may seem self-defeating and tragic, namely, that the Son of God should suffer and die for sinners, it is precisely in this way that He brings about the fulfillment and perfection of His Creation.  It’s not as though sin and death were ever by the Lord’s design or doing, but they are utterly unable to thwart His purposes; they rather become the occasion for His great Salvation.

As God in the flesh, He saves you from sin and death, and He gives you Life and Light and Love.  This, too, is a creatio ex nihilo, a “creation out of nothing,” for there was nothing and no one else  who could have done this thing.  It is God Himself, and He alone, who saves you.  But being also the true and perfect Man, He does so in perfect faith, in perfect love for His own God and Father, and in holy love for you and for all people.  Grace and truth are thus realized in Jesus Christ.  The faith and love required by the Law are accomplished and established in Him, in His crucified and risen Body of flesh and blood.  And so the “government” of the whole world is upon His shoulders.  The “economy” of the whole Creation rests on Him, and resides in Him, and shall not be shaken.

It is for this purpose that He became Flesh and was made Man, so that, by His Cross — and in His Resurrection from the dead — you who were dead in your trespasses and sin should be given the New Birth of the children of God by the washing of water with His Word and Holy Spirit.  Your Baptism into Christ Jesus is the New Creation by which you have become the man or the woman that God intended you to be, a beloved son or daughter after His own heart, in whom He delights.

No longer do you live and die in the darkness, because the Light of Christ has risen upon you and shines in your heart through His Gospel.  No longer are you driven by desperation to take care of yourself at the expense of others, since the Life of Christ now fills you and sustains you through His Word and Spirit.  No longer are you cast off and distant from God, because He has drawn near to you in Love, and you now live and abide in Him by faith in the Word of Christ, your Savior.

The same living Word of God is with you, because God the Father speaks to you by His Son in the preaching of the Gospel.  And He is no empty or futile word.  He is not white noise or meaningless chatter.  No, the very One who speaks and is spoken to you is the creative and life-giving Word by whom all things are made.  By Him you are named with the excellent Name of God Himself, and sanctified by His Holy Spirit, and glorified with the radiance of His own divine Glory.

By the preaching of this Word, the Lord God Almighty bares His holy arm — the arm of Christ the Crucified He bares — to all the nations of the world, even to the ends of the earth.  And not only does He make known His Salvation, but His Gospel actually saves you and grants you His peace, because it does exactly what it says, which is to forgive you by the Cross of Christ Jesus.

That same Word of the Gospel becomes Flesh for you in this Sacrament.  The One who has become like you, now feeds you with Himself, so that you might become like Him.  The One who shed His Blood for you, now pours out His Blood for you to drink from His Chalice with the mouth of your own body of flesh, that you should thus be cleansed and refreshed with the Life and Love of God.

See, then, how solid, how present, how immediate and tangible this Word is for you.  See here how the true Sun of Righteousness now shines upon you.  See here the perfection of Creation in His Body and His Blood, given and poured out for you.  And know that in this eating and drinking you are granted to become flesh of His Flesh and blood of His Blood; that you are thereby wed to Him as a member of His holy Bride; and that all of you are knit together as one holy Body of Christ.

This true and perfect Man surely does not hate you or any of the members of His Body.  He loves you dearly, and He nourishes and cherishes you with all that He is and has.  Not by any constraint, and not with any selfish desperation, but in the perfect freedom of His holiness and divine grace.

Nowhere is the heart of God more open to you than here at His Altar in His Body and Blood.

The Eucharist is the New Song that you sing to the Lord, the Good News that you shout joyfully to all the world; because the incarnate God, the Word-made-Flesh, here opens your mouth, your lips, and your tongue, to feed you in body and soul with Himself to the glory of His holy Name.

All the holy angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven worship Him, who is your Savior; and all of Creation rejoices in His mighty works and great Salvation.  And of His fulness you receive, His grace upon grace everlasting, in His Word and in His Flesh, which are for you.

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

24 December 2018

Sing with Joy in the Light of Christ

Sing for joy, all the earth, and lift up your voice in song, all you people of the world.  For Christ Jesus, your Savior, has come to disperse the darkness of despair and death.  In His Love for you He has come to shine the Light of His Gospel upon you, in order to give you His own Life.

In doing so, He gives nothing less than Himself — in flesh and blood like yours, but without sin and no longer subject to death.  He has become Flesh, true Man, a human being like you, in order to unite Himself to you — and you to Him — so that, by His grace, you may become like Him.

He has come in the flesh, conceived and born of Mary, in order to bear your sins and carry all your sorrows in His Body to the Cross, thereby to conquer death and shatter all the power of the enemy.

He takes upon Himself — and He removes from you — all your guilt and shame, all your doubt and fear, all your frailty, flaws, and weaknesses.  And in place of your sin and death, He gives you Life and Salvation in body and soul, already now in His Church on earth, and in heaven forever.  For He is Immanuel, “God with us,” that you might live and abide with Him in His Kingdom.

That is why the angels sing and glorify God in the highest, even as they proclaim His glory and salvation on earth.  They praise His holy Name and give thanks for His grace toward all mankind, for His Incarnation and holy Nativity, and for His Cross and Resurrection and Ascension.  They rejoice with you and for you, because they delight in the good and gracious will of God, which is the forgiveness and salvation of sinners; for it is the glory of the Lord to save you by His grace.

And if the angels praise and magnify His Name, how much more shall we rejoice, give thanks, and sing; for He is not the Savior of angels but of all the children of men.  So has He become true Man, not only to rescue us from sin and death, but to share His divine nature and eternal Life with us.

It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we sing for joy this night, with all the holy angels, and with the whole Christian Church in heaven and on earth.  And you are able to do so, even in the midst of deep darkness and the shadow of death, because the Lord here sings His Gospel into your ears.

True enough, the shadow of death lies thick and heavy on the world, and it presses hard on you and all your loved ones.  The bright lights and colors of the season cannot stave it off or keep it at bay.  Wars may or may not cease for these holy days, but the hospitals and morgues cannot shut down, not even for twenty-four hours.  Remember those who serve in those places, and all those who must keep working (while the rest of the world parties) because death continues day and night.

Not only the world out there, but Christians also suffer and die and are buried, even at Christmas, and at any given time in this poor life of labor.  Whether by sickness, violent crime, an accident, or the inevitable atrophy of your mortal flesh, you and all of your loved ones are going to die.

The problem is not that you are a finite creature, but that you are sinful.  You are mortal and die because you are sinful and you sin from the inside-out.  You exist and you have life at all only by the gracious Word of God, and yet your sinful heart still doubts, denies, disbelieves, and despises His life-giving Word.  That is the darkness in which you grope around.  And that is why you die.

Sin leads to death because it is a turning away from God and His Word.  And as such, it leads away from love to selfishness and greed and desperation.  Having turned your back on your Creator, on the Author and Giver of life, you spend your days in a frantic pursuit of a life that you presume to be making for yourself.  But for all your striving, sweat, and struggle, you lose it all in the end.

Such is the darkness of your sin and death, and you’ll never be able to see your way clear of it.  You were conceived and born in that dark valley, and whatever else you have gotten from your parents, you have inherited from them the legacy of Adam’s fall, which always ends up in the dirt.

The problem is within you, as well as all around you.  It is not only your parents but you, as well, who are sinful and unclean.  You do not fear, love, and trust in the Holy Triune God as you must, and you do not love your neighbor as the Lord your God has commanded.  Consequently, because you love neither God nor man, you are not able to know the true and only God, Who Is Love.

Such ignorance of God is deadly and damnable.  What you believe to be true is false.  What you consider good is evil.  What you perceive to be light is only a deeper and more sinister darkness.  Your heart and mind are as clouded as your body is overshadowed by the certainty of death.

And yet, despite all of that, the Church still sings, and she is neither foolish nor ignorant to do so.

It is not a matter of positive thinking or an optimistic outlook.  It is rather that God our Savior now shines His Light into your darkness.  Into the valley of the shadow of death strides the Lord, the beloved and only-begotten Son of the Father; the Christ, anointed by the Holy Spirit; the incarnate God, who is true Man with us and for us, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, blood of our blood.

He strides into the arena, a greater Gladiator than this world has ever seen, and He joins the battle against all your foes.  He sets Himself against all your enemies, becoming your Champion against sin, death, the devil, and hell.  He scatters the darkness and disperses the gloom, because He is the Light, and the darkness cannot overcome Him.  Death and the grave will swallow Him up in time, for a little while, but only because He lets them; He gives Himself over to the dust of the earth in your place.  And having thus entered into those deep dark depths of Sheol, He shatters that grim dungeon from the inside-out; He breaks all its bars and blows the doors right off their hinges.

This Lord Jesus Christ has conquered in the fight, and now He sets you free, because He has given Himself for your sins.  He has died your death, and He has destroyed its power over you by His dying.  He has atoned for all your sins by the shedding of His blood, so that no charge remains against you.  The devil has no legitimate claim on you, nor any valid accusation to level at you, because the Lord Himself has redeemed you, exonerated you, justified and vindicated you.

When God the Father raised this same Lord Jesus bodily from death and the grave — the same Son of Mary who bore your sins in His body of flesh and blood and suffered and died in your place — when God raised Him from the dead, He raised you up out of darkness into His marvelous Light.

That Light of His Redemption, His Cross and Resurrection, His Righteousness and Reconciliation with God the Father, now and ever shines upon you in the preaching and ministry of His Gospel.

That is where and how you “see” Him and know Him — by faith — by the hearing of His Voice.  He speaks and sings the forgiveness of all your sins, and with that Word He gives you His Life.

His Voice of the Gospel is the way and the means by which He loves you — with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength, with His body and His blood, with His whole self, and with everything He is and has.  His Love for you is where His Life and Light begin for you.  He first loves you.  And by the light and warmth of His Love, you see the Light of the revelation of the Glory of God in His face, and you truly begin to live — in Him and with Him.  He loves you, and so you learn to know His Love, to know Him, to love Him, and to love your neighbor as this Lord loves you.

His Voice of the Gospel sounds forth in the darkness; it permeates and prevails over the darkness, which can neither comprehend nor overcome it.  He speaks, and there is Light, as surely as the same Word of God called forth the Light out of the darkness in the beginning of His Creation.

Now He speaks to you from heaven by His messengers on earth: “Here is your Savior. Your sins are forgiven. You shall not die, but live.”  And with this Word, He raises you from death to life.

Do not be afraid.  Do not retreat into the darkness of despair and death, from which your dear Lord Jesus sets you free.  Do not run away and hide from the bright Light of His Voice, no matter how scary it seems, but hear and believe what He preaches.  By Himself He has sworn to bless you and keep you, to give you Life and grant you perfect Peace and Rest.  As He has spoken, so is it done.

And as He speaks and sings so sweetly into your ears, so are you able to confess His Word and praise His Name, to rejoice, give thanks, and sing with your lips, all in the Light of His Gospel.

Come, then, let us sing unto the Lord and raise a joyful song to the Rock of our salvation.  For He who is our Life and Light, who loves us with a neverending Love, He has done great things for us.  Holy, holy, holy is the Name of this Lord Jesus, the Son of God and Mary’s Son, who delivers you from death and the grave and raises you to Life with God in body and soul, forever and ever.

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

23 December 2018

The Lord Comes to Sanctify You for Eternal Life with God

She rises and runs in a hurry to the house of Zacharias in the hill country of Judah, in accordance with the Word that God has spoken to her.  She proceeds in faith on this way that He has set before her, because He has coupled His promise to her with Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy.  Therefore, St. Mary goes in faith to see this sign which the Lord has given her.  And she goes in love for her elderly relative, in order to serve and care for St. Elizabeth in those final months leading up to her labor and delivery.  For the older woman has secluded herself from her relatives, neighbors, and friends, and her husband, St. Zacharias, is not able to speak with her throughout those long nine months.  What a blessing, then, to welcome young St. Mary, even if there were nothing else to it!

But St. Elizabeth not only receives the Blessed Virgin into her home, she also rejoices in the Lord who comes to visit her within His Mother’s womb.  She also now responds in faith and love to the Word of the Lord, which is revealed to her through the confession of her unborn son, St. John.  In this way he begins to fulfill his office as the Forerunner, heralding the presence of the Christ.  The Lord had said that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and now, in utero, he leaps for joy at the sound of St. Mary’s voice, at the Advent (the coming) of her Son.  So it is that St. Elizabeth welcomes, not only St. Mary, but her Lord and her God.  And in this holy faith, these two women praise and magnify His holy Name, and they love each other well.

You are called to live and do likewise, according to the Word of the Lord that He speaks to you.  To trust His promises, to follow the path He sets before you, to receive and love your neighbor, and to rejoice in God your Savior.  Because, in truth, what the Lord has done for dear St. Mary, He has done not only for her, but for you and for all, for the life and salvation of the world.

In her womb is the One who is both God and Man, the divine, eternal Word by whom all things are made, now made flesh and living a truly human life.  Blessed is St. Mary among women, and blessed is the Fruit of her womb, Jesus!  For by His Incarnation — His becoming flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood — He has become like us, and has come to be with us, in order to save us.

All the more blessed is she and everyone else who believes the Word of God and keeps it in the confidence that He will do exactly as He says.  For He is faithful, and He does it.  To believe what He says, therefore, is already to have what He promises and to live by His grace in peace and joy.

His Word to you is challenging and difficult, as it was for Mary and Elizabeth.  He is faithful, no doubt, and He provides whatever is needed for this body and life, but in this fallen world of sin and death it is not easy.  His presence is hidden from your sight in His Church, as it was hidden in the womb of His Mother when He visited the house of Zacharias.  And His Word is spoken in, with, and under the Cross, which appears to be the very opposite of divine life and glory and salvation.

It is only by the Holy Spirit that you believe His Word and live according to it, not by your own logic or reasoning.  And the Holy Spirit is bestowed precisely by that Word of Christ, and through His flesh and blood, as these are administered to you by His servants within His Church on earth.

If this seems like a circular process — no understanding of the Word apart from the Spirit, and no Spirit apart from the Word — that is because it comes to you by grace from the Lord, from outside of yourself.  It’s not something you can enter by any intelligence or effort of your own.  You can’t force your way into it.  But it comes to you and enters you solely by the grace of God in Christ.

What is this but pure grace, that the Lord your God, your Savior and Redeemer, in mercy comes to visit you here in His House, “in the belly of His Mother,” as it were, the womb of His Church?

Thus, by His grace, by His Ministry of the Gospel, the Lord Jesus pours out His Holy Spirit upon you, and you are filled with the Spirit of God.  Thus are you sanctified by Christ Jesus in your body and soul, and so it is that you live in faith and love, and you care for one another in peace and joy.  For the Lord your God is with you, and the Holy Spirit strengthens you, in your vocation as a Christian, as a child of God, and in all of your going out and coming in, even forevermore.

The significance of all your days and your whole life is found in St. Mary’s Son, who still comes to be with you.  He truly is Immanuel, God with us.  He comes to redeem you from sin and death, and to sanctify you for eternal life with Himself and with His God and Father in the Holy Spirit.

It is for this very purpose that He receives His own Body of flesh and blood from the body of His Mother Mary — to save you in body and soul, first of all by sacrificing Himself upon the Cross, and now by sanctifying you with the fruits of His Cross, with His Gospel–Word and Sacraments.

Thus, your ears hear the Word of the Lord which He preaches to you, and your mouth then speaks in prayer and praise, confessing and singing His Word.  So, too, in a similar way, your whole body and life are raised up in faith and love.  Not as merely external tokens, nor as simply going through the motions, but as a living sacrifice of yourself with a heart of faith and with the mind of Christ.

It really is a life-changing visitation that He makes to you here.  Your heart and mind, your body, soul, and spirit are sanctified by His presence, because He comes to abide with you as the One who has atoned for your sins with His Blood.  He has reconciled you to God and grants you His peace.  Indeed, He is your Peace.  And He comes to be with you, in order to bring you to God the Father in and with Himself.  Thus to be and abide with God in Christ Jesus is your life and your salvation.

And as He comes to dwell with you here — no less so than He once tabernacled in the womb of St. Mary — so does He also go with you from this place to wherever you may go, throughout all your days on earth — just as He visited the house of Zacharias and Elizabeth within the body of His Mother.  That is how and why your body and life, even now, have meaning and purpose and value and significance — in Christ — each one of you within your own particular place.

The fact that your mortal flesh is still dying here on earth does not contradict or undo the truth of this Gospel.  It was no different for Mary and Elizabeth, and yet you see that God accomplished His purposes in them.  Likewise, again, the fact that your efforts are frequently disregarded, and that you may not seem to be doing any good, does not change who you are in Christ Jesus.

For God is your Savior, and He is with you.  What is more, He Himself has shared your mortality and suffering, and He has risen from the dead for you in His own human Body of flesh and blood.

It is the Lord your God who now humbles you, therefore.  Not that He should destroy you and cast you away, but in order to exalt you in Christ Jesus.  Which is to say that He kills you in your sinful self, in order to make you alive in Himself, in His holiness.  He thereby takes away all of your self-righteousness, in order to justify you with His own righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

He lets you go hungry, in order to feed you from His hand, so that you might thereby learn to live by faith in His Word.  He leaves you powerless, so that you might rely upon His Mighty Power.

His Law condemns you and puts you to death with its commands and prohibitions, with all of its threats and punishments.  But the Law is not His last Word.  For Christ Jesus has fulfilled the Law and completed it for you.  He has suffered all its punishments in your place.  But having met all of its demands in perfect faith and love, in holiness and righteousness, He has been vindicated of all its accusations and its condemnations, and has thereby established the Gospel for you and for all people.  This Gospel of His does not condemn you at all, but comforts you with forgiveness.  It does not kill you, it rather raises you up from death to life in His own crucified and risen Body.

Proceed in the certainty of that Word of the Gospel, in the peace and confidence of Christ, your Savior — and in fearless love for your neighbor within your own proper station — no matter how difficult or scary your path may be.  For the Lord is faithful, and His Word and promises are true.

It is by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus — the Seed of Abraham, the Word made Flesh, the Son of St. Mary — it is in His Body that all the words and promises of God are now fulfilled.

For He humbles Himself and takes on the form of a servant — not by His becoming true Man, in which there is no shame, since the incarnate Son is the perfect Image and Likeness of God — but by His voluntary bearing of sin and death in His Body of flesh and blood.  And in that humility, He is obedient to His God and Father, even unto death, for the salvation of sinners.  In perfect faith and holy love, He lays down His life on the Cross as the Sacrifice to end all sacrifice for sin.

And God His Father vindicates Him, raises Him up, and exalts Him at His Right Hand forever.

It is by His Cross and Resurrection, therefore, that you are now brought to genuine repentance — that you are humbled in contrition for your sins, yes, but then also raised up and exalted through faith in His free and full forgiveness of all your sins — unto the Life everlasting in body and soul.

Already in your Holy Baptism you share the Cross of Christ and His Resurrection from the dead.  And that Holy Sacrament signs and seals the entirety of your life — your body and soul, your heart, mind, and spirit — and all of your days and your deeds — in His Peace and Sabbath Rest.

So, too, the Lord continues to come, to visit you, to sanctify and save you, to give you life with Himself in both body and soul, in the Remembrance of His Mercy.

St. Mary sings of this “Remembrance” in her Magnificat — as St. Zacharias does in his song, the Benedictus, such as we considered this past Wednesday.  This “Remembrance” of God is the very thing that Zacharias means (in Hebrew).  It is a most appropriate name for a priest, because the liturgical work of the priests — the various sacrifices, the arrangement of the show bread in the Holy Place, the offering of incense, the priestly vestments, and the whole administration of the Covenant — it was all for the Lord’s remembrance of His people, in accordance with His Word.

So now, in the Sacrament of the Altar — which is the New Covenant of God in Christ — His servants speak and act according to the Lord’s Word and Institution “in remembrance” of Him.

In this way, and by this means of grace, in the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, your dear Lord Jesus Christ remembers you in mercy.  And with that good work and gracious gift of Christ, God the Father actively remembers Him as your Savior.  Not as an exercise of intellect, as though He might otherwise forget, but rather as the active affirmation of His Atonement, by which you are saved.

As He thus remembers you in love, He gives His Mercy into your hand, into your mouth, and into your body.  He gives to you His Body and His Blood, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen and ascended — now given and poured out for you.

Thereby He and all His benefits, and all that belongs to Him, are given to you and become yours.

Here and now within His House, with His own flesh and blood, He visits you and does great things for you.  He fills you up with these good things of His Gospel, which shall never be taken away from you, and they in turn shall bear good fruits in you, even now in faith and love, and at the last in the resurrection of your body unto the Life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ — just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns forever at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

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

21 December 2018

The Peace of Christ in the Ministry of His Gospel

The Peace of the Lord is with you in body and soul, in heart, mind, and spirit, because the Lord Jesus Christ is with you in this place, in this preaching, and at this Altar in His flesh and blood.

He is with you in peace, with mercy and compassion, because He has reconciled you to Himself and to God the Father by His voluntary suffering and death, by His self-sacrifice upon the Cross.

He is Himself the true and only God from all eternity, the almighty and eternal Son of the Father.  But for you and your salvation He has become true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  And in His own human body of flesh and blood like yours He has borne your sins away, and all your griefs and sorrows, to the Cross.  All of those burdens He has put to death and buried with Himself, to do away with them once and for all, and to leave them forever in the tomb.

Having thus atoned for the sins of the world with His own holy and precious blood, He has also risen from the dead in the very body with which He shares your humanity and in which He has carried all the crushing weight of your sin and death and condemnation.  Thus, in His Resurrection you also are set free, justified and righteous in the presence of God.  For by His death Christ has redeemed you for Himself, for everlasting Life with Him and with His Father in His Holy Spirit.

All of this He has done, whether you believe it or not.  And He is here for you with all of this grace and every blessing, whether you believe it or not — and whether you are here to receive it or not.

You have the testimony of His servants, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, St. Paul, and all the holy Apostles.  And you have heard again this evening the confession of St. Thomas, that this Jesus who was crucified is the Lord your God.  The confession of the entire Christian Church is that He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.  So shall He also raise you from the dead and give eternal life to you and to all who believe in Him, for His own Name’s sake.

Be at peace, therefore.  God and man are reconciled in the Body of Christ Jesus.  Death has been defeated, because sin is forgiven.  Your sin is forgiven.  The devil has no real power over you.  The grave shall not be able to contain you.  Christ has arisen, and you too shall rise and live in Him.

Do not be afraid.  Do not fret or fuss or fight.  Do not be faithless but believing and faithful.  Love and trust the Lord Jesus.  Abide in peace with your neighbor, as God the Father is at peace with you in His beloved Son.  And be gathered together with the disciples of the Lord, in order to be with Him where He is, also.  Do not rely upon yourself.  Do not attempt to go it alone; it is not good for you to be alone.  Do not lean upon your own understanding, nor trust your own wisdom, reason, experience, or strength.  Do not suppose that what you see and feel is truer than the Word of the Gospel that is preached to you.  And do not succumb to skeptical doubt or cynical despair.

Be where Christ is with you, here within His Church on earth.  And so living by faith in Him, live for your neighbor in love.  Live and abide with your fellow disciples in the Liturgy of the Gospel; and as you also belong to the Body of Christ, live for your neighbors in the world round about.  With the hands of Christ, reach out to those whom the Lord your God has set alongside of you.

Speak the Word that is spoken to you.  Confess the Word of the Gospel, which is Spirit, Truth, and Life.  You have nothing else worth saying.  You have nothing else to give but what you are given.

In considering yourself, you are right to conclude that you are not up to the task that you are given.  You are wounded in body and soul by your sins and pierced through the heart with guilt over what you have and have not done.  You are riddled with doubts and fears, surrounded by dangers and death on all sides, within and without.  Your strength wavers, and your body is wearing out; your mind falters, and your spirit faints.  Battered about by winds and waves of strife and temptation, you cannot help but fall and sink.  You are threatened with oblivion on every hand, at every turn.

What you can see and feel and experience is no help at all, and there does not seem to be any hope.  The good that you would do, you do not.  The evil that you should not do, you persist in pursuing.  Death stalks you like a nightmare; it pursues you day and night, and it will eventually catch you.  And so far as you have ever been able to tell, those who die remain dead and buried in the dirt.

Among your family and friends, in your own health and strength, and in all your thoughts, words, and actions, there is nothing at all that would ever be able to save you or anyone else from death.

So, how are you supposed to reach out in love to your neighbors, even to your enemies, when you have no strength with which to lift a finger or even to grasp at straws?  How shall you strengthen anyone else when you are so decrepit and fragile yourself?  How can you encourage your brothers and sisters in the faith when you are so discouraged and doubtful and down?  And how are you to think about your neighbor and his needs when you are so consumed by worries and suspicions?

See here, now, the Lord Jesus Christ reaches out His hand to lay hold of you and help you.  Yet, even this seems a dismal sort of rescue!  If you consider the men He calls and sends to serve His people — with nothing but the Gospel to do it! — you are sorely tempted to despise His gifts.  Cowardly Gideon?  Playboy Samson?  Peter the denier?  Paul the persecutor?  Doubting Thomas?

What are these men but mortal flesh and blood, wounded and weak, sinners no less than yourself?  They stumble and fall badly.  They are put to death and buried.  They have no power in the eyes of the world, no fame or fortune, and no glory but the Cross of Christ and His Word of the Gospel.

Look at these hands of mine.  They have no great strength.  They could not pull you from the fire, nor snatch you back from the precipice.  What good are they?  They have nothing more nor less than what the Lord has put into them.  And what is that?  The pouring of water in His Name?  The blessing of His Absolution?  A bit of bread and a little wine, here served in remembrance of Him?

The entire life of the Church is like this.  It is a minority in the world, make no mistake about it.  Huddled together as a tiny band against the masses, pastors and people alike are frail and always under the weight of more burdens than resources.  If they are not being put to death, they are dying nonetheless.  There’s always far more to be done than time, money, or people to accomplish it.

So it is hardly surprising that you are often tempted to become cynical and sarcastic, skeptical and incredulous.  You want something to believe in, something tangible and solid, something sure and certain, something you can see and feel and touch and handle and rely on with confidence.

Dear child of God, be at peace.  The Lord is with you.  He is here for you.  These poor hands of mine are His own hands for your benefit.  Though they are wounded and scarred in more ways than one — as you and yours are wounded and scarred — know that He has been wounded for your transgressions and pierced for your iniquities, in order that you should be healed by His scars.

Your doubts and fears are faithless unbelief, for which you are called to repentance.  But for all of that, He is and remains always faithful, and by His grace you are forgiven.  Your demands are selfish and impertinent, but He does not hold them against you; He is merciful and comes to serve you with care.  He puts Himself at your disposal.  He places Himself into your hands.  He entrusts Himself to you — as He who rules the cosmic deep entrusted Himself to the arms of His Mother.

Witness His love for you.  His humility is not weakness but the exercise of His strength for your salvation.  His Cross and Passion, suffering and death, are not His defeat but His victory on your behalf.  His Body and Blood are not impotent but salutary gifts and life-giving benefits for you.

His hands and side and feet are pierced and wounded; they bear the marks of His scourging, His crucifixion, His execution, the marks of the nails and the spear.  But Christ the Crucified, the One who was dead and buried, He has risen from the dead, and with compassion He gives life to you.

There is no human logic here, but divine Wisdom.  His Cross is foolishness and weakness in the eyes of the world and in the perception of your flesh, but it is the power of God unto salvation.  His Cross has not defeated Him, but it has conquered death and crushed the devil’s head.  And it is this Cross that saves you and gives you everlasting Life through the forgiveness of your sins.

From the Sacrifice of His Cross, from His crucified and risen Body, the Lord Jesus breathes His life-giving Holy Spirit into your body and soul with His Word of Absolution.  You are forgiven.  Thus do you live, even though you die.  For those who live and believe in Christ will never die.

From His pierced and wounded side is delivered His Eve, His glorious Bride, the Holy Church.  You belong to her, and so to Him, not by your own wisdom, reason, or strength, not by any choice or decision of your own, but solely by His grace.  He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies you with His Gospel, the forgiveness of all your sins.  He removes your guilt and shame and replaces your doubts and fears with His peace.  He heals you of unbelief and raises you up in holy faith.

His wounded hands pour out His Blood of the New Testament, which permeates the waters of your Holy Baptism and cleanses you, even as it now also continues to fill and overflow the Chalice of His Holy Communion, poured out for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of all your sins.

So do His wounded hands extend to serve you and reach out to feed you with His Body, given for you, that you should remain a member of His Body.  So hide yourself in Him, here at His Altar.

Reach here your hand.  Take and eat.  Drink from His Cup, the New Testament in His Blood.  Open your mouth and be fed from His wounds.  Do not be unbelieving but believing.  And be at peace.  The Lord is with you, and His Peace is with you always.  The One who died for you has risen, so you also shall live, because He forgives your trespasses and remembers your sins no more.

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

19 December 2018

The Lord Remembers His Oath and His Covenant Forever

With the fulfillment of God’s Word to Zacharias, just as the Angel Gabriel had spoken, that Word of the Lord reopens the old man’s mouth and lips, and releases his tongue, so that he now praises God and prophecies.  No longer doubting and questioning the promise, Zacharias confesses what God has spoken.  His beautiful hymn, the Benedictus, confesses the entirety of the Old Testament in proclamation of the New Testament now dawning with the nativity of his little son, St. John.

The arrival of this boy, miraculously conceived and born to his old and formerly barren mother, St. Elizabeth, and now circumcised on this eighth day — in the presence of the little Lord Jesus, still hidden within the womb of His own Mother, St. Mary, in her third month of pregnancy — these events declare that salvation is at hand.  Here there is a restoration and fulfillment of creation, and a restoration and renewal of the true priesthood of faith and life in the presence of God.

It so happens that today, the 19th of December, is also the commemoration of Adam & Eve, which recalls the goodness of God’s original creation — for God saw all that He had made by His Word, and behold, it was very good.  Thinking of Adam & Eve recalls the life of man there in the Garden before the fall into sin.  That was a priestly life, not as it would necessarily become in sacrifices for sin, but as the man and woman knew the Word and will of God written on their hearts and had true communion with the Holy Trinity, with the Father in His Son and by His Holy Spirit.

Adam & Eve in the Garden lived in the presence of God, they walked with Him as friends.  Their work was not a burden or a curse, but a joy and a delight.  Their whole life was a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, even as they ruled His good creation in His Name and on His behalf.

Everything was beautiful.  Everything was very good.  For God created everything beautifully, out of nothing, solely by the power of His Word.  His Word and Spirit ordered all things and sustained all things.  And His Word continues to give and sustain life, even now in the face of sin and death.

But sin and death there are now.  For as the Word of God gives life, so does disobedience to His Word bring death.  Not simply as a punishment, but as the inevitable consequence of turning your heart and mind, your body and life away from God, away from His living and life-giving Word.

The disobedience of Adam & Eve brought death, not only to the two of them and all their children, but to all of creation.  The whole world is subject to the consequences and punishment of man’s sin.  The grass withers and the flower fades, and the heavens and earth all perish and pass away, not only in similarity to the frailty and mortality of all people, but on account of man’s disregard and rejection of God’s Word.  When the king and the queen of the first creation fell from grace, instead of exercising their dominion in faith and love, everything was subject to death and decay.

But mortal frailty and the death of this body and life on earth are not the worst consequences of disobedience.  It is far, far worse that sin divides and separates man from God.  Sin replaces the friendship of faith with enmity, with doubt and fear and guilt and shame.

So it was that Adam & Eve tried to hide from the Lord, who had been their Friend; and then they were driven out of the Garden, barred from the Tree of Life, lest they eat from it in their sin and so remain in permanent enmity with God.

In responding to their sin, the Lord sought to bring about, not eternal separation of God and man, but repentance and a restoration of faith and life in communion with Himself.  Hence, He did not simply drive Adam & Eve from the Garden, but He also spoke His beautiful promise of the Gospel, the Seed of the Woman who would crush the serpent’s head and redeem all the children of man.

The preaching of that promise from fathers to sons, from the holy Prophets to the people of God down through the ages, calls the children of Adam & Eve back into fellowship with God in Christ Jesus.  For so does the Spirit call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the Bride of Christ, His Church.

Zacharias sings about that preaching of the promise in his Benedictus, recalling especially two of the high points in the history of salvation, namely, Father Abraham and King David.  He confesses God’s covenant with Abraham and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to the House of David.

With Abraham & Sarah, whose story is echoed in that of Zacharias & Elizabeth, God established His covenant, which He sealed by the sacramental sign of circumcision.  It is no surprise that Zacharias should be thinking of God’s covenant with Abraham on that eighth day when his own son, John, was circumcised with the sign of that covenant in accordance with the Word of God.

And just as John received his name on that same day, the name that God had given from heaven, so had Abraham received a new name from the Lord along with the covenant of circumcision.  For he would become the father of many nations, a father of faith in the promised Seed, Christ Jesus — in striking contrast to the legacy of death that all of us have received from our father Adam.

God called Abraham away from a foreign land of pagan idolatry, and He promised him that Seed by whom he and his whole family and all the nations would be blessed.  With that Word and by that promise, the Lord was with Abraham in divine grace and steadfast loving-kindness.  Indeed, He committed Himself to Abraham, and bound Himself to Abraham, by the swearing of an oath.  By His own Self He swore that He would be and abide with Abraham and with his Seed forever.

In the son that He gave to Abraham & Sarah in their old age, and so now also in the son who is born to Zacharias & Elizabeth, you see what that covenant and oath of God accomplish.  It is the renewing of creation.  From these old men and barren women, as good as dead, the Scripture says, God brings forth new life.  The conception of any child is always a miraculous work of God.  But here, especially, the Lord God shows that He remains the Creator, the Author and Giver of Life.

It is by His grace that He thus speaks and gives life by His Word.  And so it is also by His grace that He later raised up David, the shepherd boy, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to become the king of His people Israel, that he should reign in peace over the good land that God the Lord had given to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, where He caused His Name and His Glory to dwell.

Of special note today, King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  And he ordered the priesthood, he arranged its divisions and made provisions for it, that the priesthood should be carried out in accordance with the Word and promises of God.  He also made plans for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, the House of God, which David would not be permitted to build, but his son, Solomon, would establish and dedicate to the glory of God in anticipation of the Christ.

Solomon showed such promise and potential at first, such wisdom in the fear of the Lord, and such faith like his father David.  But Solomon, for all his greatness, was led astray by foreign gods.  Of course, that was not only the story of Solomon, but is the way it so often goes with all of God’s people in this body and life, yourself included.  As often as the Lord calls you to Himself and showers you with His good gifts of body and soul, there remains the temptation and the turning of your heart away from Him to the false gods of this world, to the idols of your own desires.

So, too, the children of Israel forgot God’s Word and failed to call upon His Name in faith.  They forgot His holy covenant.  They did not trust His promises but sought to make life for themselves.

So it was that God sent them into captivity.  As they had once been slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh, so were they held captive in Babylon for seventy years.  The City of Jerusalem and Solomon’s magnificent Temple were left in ruins.  The people were separated from the glory of God.  It was the casting out of the Garden all over again, as the Lord disciplined His children unto repentance.

That is the situation concerning which Isaiah wrote, even before it unfolded.  He preached the warning of God.  He preached the threats and punishments of the Law and the terrible wrath of God.  But so did the Prophet Isaiah also write of God’s mercy and compassion, and of the comfort that God the Lord would bestow upon His people through the forgiveness of their sins.  And all of that beautiful Gospel would be voiced by the Forerunner, the son of Zacharias & Elizabeth.

The Lord remembers His covenant and His oath to Abraham and to his Seed forever.  Indeed, that is not only what Zacharias sings in the Benedictus, but it is what his name and his wife’s name confess.  For “Zacharias” means that God remembers, and “Elizabeth” means that God is my oath.  And notwithstanding their own doubts and fears, their own forgetfulness, and all the frailties of their mortal flesh, their names are true and right.  God is faithful.  He remembers and He acts.  As He has promised, as He has sworn, so does He fulfill and accomplish in His own flesh and blood.  In the Seed of the Woman.  In the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In the true Son of David.

With the nativity of St. John, the Lord announces and proclaims the coming of salvation.  For this child is the Forerunner of the Lord who comes in the flesh to save His people from sin and death.

To that end, St. John will preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness in which salvation is known and received and experienced in peace and life with God.  That is what your Baptism is all about, that is what it’s for.  That is what the whole Gospel preaches, as the preaching and baptism of St. John, and of the whole Church, point to the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who takes upon Himself and takes away forever the sins of the entire world.

So it is that Zacharias sings more about the unborn Lord Jesus than he does about his own newly born son, St. John.  He confesses what God is doing in the Son of St. Mary.  He sings of the Christ, still hidden in the womb, as though the redemption of His Cross had already been accomplished, and as though everything were already completed.  No longer are there any doubts or questions on his lips.  Now he sings with the confidence and certainty of faith in the Word and promises of God.

Those promises of God — to Adam & Eve, to Abraham, to David, and to you — truly are fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who atones for the sins of the world, treads death beneath His feet, crushes the head of the devil, and opens up the Kingdom of God to all who believe and are baptized into Him.  For He is the Lamb of God, who not only sacrifices Himself for you and all upon the Cross, but also serves and feeds you with His flesh and blood.  And He is your merciful and great High Priest, who reconciles you and all people to God the Father in heaven.  He redeems and restores all of creation and makes all things new in His bodily Resurrection from the dead.

This Lord Jesus Christ is the great Shepherd-King who excels even His father David.  He gathers His lambs and sheep from all the nations of the world, and He cares for them as His beloved flock.  By His Cross and Resurrection, and by His Ministry of the Gospel, He brings them back to God.

His Baptism is the new and better circumcision, made without hands, which bestows and seals the covenant of God with all the children of man, and by which He names you with His own Name.  He cleanses you with His own precious Blood; He covers you with Himself, so that you are kept safe from sin and death; and He clothes you with His own beautiful righteousness and holiness.

His Body, crucified and risen from the dead, is the Temple of God, wherein the Lord your God abides with you in peace, and you abide with God in holy faith and holy love.  You are not cast out of the Garden or driven away from the presence of God, because this Lord Jesus is Immanuel, in whom God has drawn near to you.  In Him you are restored to Paradise, and you are given to eat from His Tree of Life, His Holy Cross, in the New Covenant of His Body and His Blood.  So does He remember you in tender mercy and compassion, and so does He give to you His great salvation.

Thus do you live and love in the presence of God, without fear, in the holiness and righteousness of faith in Christ Jesus.  You serve the Lord your God, and you sing praises to Him with Zacharias and all the saints, because the glory of God shines upon you in the Gospel of His beloved Son.  And all that He has promised to you by His Word, He remembers, and He does, forever and ever.

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