31 December 2019

Watching and Waiting on the Lord in Hope

Most of you will already have heard about the shooting at a church in Texas this past Sunday morning.  Two parishioners were shot and killed before the assailant was taken out by another.  It is a sobering reminder of the troubled times in which we live and of how precarious this life is.

Various “mass shootings,” school shootings in particular, have been much in the news in recent years, often being used as political playing pieces to advance one agenda or another.  Lots and lots of strong feelings, understandably, and many conflicting opinions as to the causes and solutions. But setting aside all the clutter, it remains a tragedy when even one child is killed — to say nothing of the fact that 3,000 children are being “gunned down” in the womb every day in the United States (making Herod’s wicked slaughter of the Holy Innocents look like child’s play by comparison).

In early 2018, I happened to catch an impassioned statement and plea that one bereaved father, Andrew Pollack, made to President Trump following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  Grieving for his murdered daughter, he pointed out that it wasn’t about partisan politics or even gun laws, but simply about protecting the children.  “We need our children safe,” he said.  “Let’s get together and work with the president and fix the schools.  That’s it.  No other discussions.”  “Whatever we have to do,” Mr. Pollack insisted.  “I didn’t think it was going to happen to me,” he noted.  “If I knew that, I would have been at the school every day if I knew it was that dangerous.”

To be sure, if the parents, principals, teachers, or school boards knew ahead of time that there was going to be a shooting — if they knew on what day and at what hour the gunmen were coming — they would have their schools on lockdown before the tragedies could happen, in order to prevent them.  They would take whatever steps were necessary to keep their children out of harm’s way.

But, of course, there is far more at stake than temporal life and mortal flesh and blood.  Our life on earth is not very long, in any case, whether six or sixty years, or barely more than 100 at most.  And this brief mortal span is not yet the Life for which you and your children have been created.

It is a tragedy for anyone to be gunned down, whether at church or school, at a movie, a concert, or a club, or in the womb.  But for those who are catechized in the Word of the Holy One of Israel, who are kept in the true Christian faith by His Word and Holy Spirit, their death from this body and life (whatever the cause) is their release from the burdens and labors, pains and sorrows of this fallen and perishing world, and the beginning of true peace and Sabbath rest in the nearer presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as they await with us the Resurrection of all flesh.  For the steadfast love of the Lord abides forever with those who fear Him, who are called to faith by His Gospel.

Blessed are those parents who teach their children the fear and faith of the Lord by caring for them with His Word.  There is no more significant or valuable work for any father or mother than that!

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

Fathers and mothers, you do not know the day or the hour when death may snatch your sons and daughters from your stewardship forever.  You have no idea how much time you’re going to be given to care for your children, to give them what they need the most, and to teach them the most important things there are to learn in life.  So do not waste the time you do have now!  Bring them to Christ Jesus in His Church; and give Christ Jesus to them by rehearsing, confessing, and praying His Word together with them.  Thus do you prepare them for the ongoing Feast in His Kingdom.

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

You do not know how little time you may have, or how long you may have to wait.  What if the loud and angry voices that you sometimes overhear at McDonald’s, or even at the library, were to escalate into physical violence?  What if treacherous roads or a fire in the night were suddenly to wreck your car, destroy your home, or end your life on earth?  A tree might fall on you; accidents do happen.  Deadly cancer might strike you down, regardless of your age.  Or your mind might fail long before your body.  Number your days, therefore, and let each one count for what matters most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do not know the day or the hour of His coming.  But He has not left you clueless or without a Lamp to light your path.  He has given you His Holy Scriptures and the preaching and teaching of His Word.  And there is for you also the Lamb who has been slain.  His Blood anoints your lips and tongue, the doorposts and lintel of your body, and so covers you from death.  And His Flesh is your Meat indeed, your true Passover Feast, which you eat with the unleavened bread.  You share this sacrificial Meal in the household and family of God, regardless of your station in life, no matter the size of your own household.  And here you are kept safe, in order that you may live.

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

And know that your watching and waiting upon the Lord are not simply “biding your time.”  But, no, these serve the point and purpose of your time on earth, whether in Egypt or the wilderness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 December 2019

To Seek and Receive Your Savior in His House of Bread

As He once called David from pasturing his father’s sheep in the fields outside of Bethlehem, and He anointed that young boy to shepherd His people Israel, so does the Lord announce the coming of the great Good Shepherd King, the Prince of Peace, to shepherds keeping watch in those same fields.  He calls them to come and see, to worship and receive their Savior, born for them in the City of David.  For the true Bread of Life is baked and ready for them in that House of Bread.

So also for you on this night, in this House of Bread, in this City of great David’s greater Son.

The Lord has made known His grace and mercy toward you, and you have heard the good news of great joy, that the Savior has in truth been born for you.  God Himself has come in the flesh, in order to be with you, to save you from your sin and death, and to bring you to Himself.  For the Child born of Mary is the Christ, who is both David’s Son and David’s Lord.  His flesh and blood are given and poured out — as a Sacrifice upon the Cross, and as a Sacrament within His Church — to be an everlasting Covenant for you, and for all those whom He calls to Himself in peace.

Do not be afraid.  The Holy Spirit calls you by this Holy Gospel to come and see, to worship and receive your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  He sends messengers to announce what He has done, and He sends shepherds to feed and care for you with the preaching and teaching of His Word.

Give ear to this preaching, wherein the Prince of Peace is revealed to you and His great Salvation is bestowed upon you.  Seek Him here, where He is found, where He is with you in the flesh, just as He has told you.  He is here for you in His Church, in the Ministry of His Gospel.  You find Him in this Manger, in this Bethlehem, where He is set before you as your Food and Drink.  For here is the dwelling place that He has chosen, where He causes the Ark of His Covenant to rest and abide among His people.  Here He satisfies you with true and living Bread for your body and soul.

Do not merely gawk and wonder at what you see, and do not be dissuaded by appearances, but believe the Word of the Lord.  Listen carefully to Him, and live by what He says and gives to you.  Recognize Him, receive Him, and adore Him in His means of grace.  Eat freely of His good Food.

Splendor and majesty are here at His Altar, because Christ is here in His Word and Sacrament.  Strength and beauty adorn this Sanctuary, because He fills this place with His Holy Spirit by the preaching of forgiveness, and because He gives His flesh and pours out His blood for His Church.

Worship Him, therefore, in the splendor of holiness — that is, by faith in His salvation — with confidence and great joy in His Holy Gospel of forgiveness, and in love for Him, your Savior.

In His Love for you He clothes you with His own righteousness and sanctifies you by His grace.  So it is that you worship Him rightly, you honor and adore Him, and you ascribe to Him the glory due His Name, first of all by receiving what He gives to you in faith and with songs of rejoicing.

Then, also, as He calls and sends you to and from this Holy House of Living Bread, you glorify the Holy Triune God — the Father, the incarnate Son, and the Life-giving Holy Spirit — by faith and love within your own place on earth.

You worship the Holy Trinity by faithfully tending your own sheep with loving care, with patience and in peace — whatever your particular flock may be, and wherever your field may be found.

And again, you worship the Lord your God by telling your neighbor what you have seen and heard in this “City of David,” according to the Word that Christ has spoken to you by His messengers.

So, then, confess the grace and glory of your Holy Baptism into the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  Confess His Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of all your sins on earth and in heaven.  And confess the Holy Communion, which is the New Testament in His Body and His Blood.

Not only do you glorify God in the highest by testifying to these means of grace in conversation with your neighbor, but likewise by hearing, receiving, and treasuring these things within yourself, and by pondering them devoutly in your heart and mind as you go.  Exercise your faith in this way, by rehearsing both inwardly and outwardly the Word that you have heard.  Confess and pray with heart and lips alike, with your body and your soul, what the Lord has said and done for you.

For your great God and Savior, Jesus Christ — the Righteous One, great David’s greater Son — He has come, and He is here with you and for you, just as He said.

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

29 December 2019

You Find the Lord Jesus Where He Finds You

The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and these Twelve Days of Christmas have brought to the forefront of our attention the central and absolute importance of Jesus the Christ, our Savior and our God.  And perhaps the Season has in various ways rekindled your desire and commitment to live as a faithful Christian and to keep “the Christmas Spirit” throughout the coming New Year.

Such resolves and good intentions will not save you, but it is truly meet, right, and salutary that you should live your entire life in the faith and love of Christ Jesus.  And to that end, it is by all means necessary that you know where and how to find Him — although, in fact, it is always Christ Jesus who must first of all find you!  Indeed, if He does not find you and reveal Himself to you, then you never will be able to locate Him; far less will you be able to live according to His Word.

Of course, that murderous tyrant, King Herod, was also looking for Jesus, in order to destroy Him; because Herod felt threatened by the coming of the Christ and feared for his throne.  Herod did not want to be found first, nor to be found out, so he thought he’d just take matters into his own hands.  That was Herod, such as he was.  But let us rather look for Christ Jesus according to His Word, and so receive Him and embrace Him as our true King, and as our Savior from sin, death, and hell.

So the question is, “Where do you find Jesus?”  And the Gospel has provided the answer for you.

To begin with, you find the Lord Jesus under the Cross, persecuted by the world from the first to the last.  Even if you don’t normally associate His Cross and Passion with the stories of Christmas, the Cross is surely right there.  It is painfully displayed in Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, as we also remembered here at the Lord’s Altar yesterday morning, on the Fourth Day of the ChristMass.  His wicked desire and desperate attempt to destroy the young Christ-Child was thus vented against everyone associated with Him, even if only be the proximity of age and birthplace.

That must always be the reaction of this fallen and perishing world to the presence of the Lord and His children — fear and rejection, hatred and animosity, and outright execution of the innocent.

Have no doubt that our Lord could easily have avoided all that violence and suffering, and readily dispatched His enemies by the force of His divine power.  After all, Herod was nothing in contrast to the King of kings and Lord of lords, who has all the legions of angels at His beck and call.  But our dear Lord Jesus Christ came into the world with the intention to sacrifice Himself upon the Cross, to suffer the persecution of wicked men, and to lay down His own Body and Life and shed His holy and precious Blood for the forgiveness and salvation of the very world that hated Him!

So also to this day, in this world you will always find the Lord Jesus in, with, and under His Cross.  As He was surely with our fellow Christians who were martyred this past week on Christmas Day.

It is not in worldly power and might that you find the Lord Jesus, far less in worldly pomp and circumstance, but in humility and meekness, in poverty and weakness, in suffering and death.  Not as though He were thereby defeated, but because His power is made perfect in weakness, and because the Cross and Crucifixion of Christ Jesus are the height of His divine power and glory — manifested in tender mercy and compassion.  And for all of that, this old world with all its sinful bluster and bravado will never be able to comprehend or tolerate the presence of God in Christ.

Now, therefore, in taking up the Cross and suffering the persecution of the world, the Lord Jesus has taken the place of His people and identified Himself with their pain and sorrow.  That is to say, He has come to share your suffering and death — which is all that you deserve on account of your sins; but He has come to share your death, in order that you might share in His divine, eternal Life.

Indeed, the Son of God has become true Man for this very reason and purpose, that you might become a son of God in Him, by adoption and by grace, through your Holy Baptism in His Name.

So it is that St. Matthew indicates something rather profound and unexpected in this poignant Holy Gospel.  He records that Jesus and His Holy Family fled into Egypt, in order that God should call His Son back out of Egypt in fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Hosea.  But if you were to look at those words of the Prophet Hosea, you’d be hard-pressed to know that he was referring to anyone other than the Old Testament Sons of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt under Moses.  And yet, it’s not really an either-or.  It’s rather that the Lord Jesus assumes the captivity of His people, in order to rescue and release them, and to bring them out of that captivity in and with Himself.

By the same token — in spite of the fact that, in the case at hand, it would seem as though the Holy Innocents were the ones to suffer death instead of Christ Jesus — it is ultimately the case that Jesus is the One who has suffered and died for all of them, and for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, in order to rescue all of the children of man from eternal death and damnation.

Indeed, the blood of all the holy martyrs — including those little boys of Bethlehem and those Christians in Nigeria this past week — signifies and points to the shed Blood of the Son of God, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  In every case, He identifies Himself with His people in their suffering and hardship under the Cross.  And thus, by His own Cross and Resurrection, He takes you and all His people with Himself through death and the grave into His eternal Life and Salvation.

So does the Church confess in the face of death and the grave; and so do we mourn with Dave and Karin, with Aaron & Annalise, and with their families, not as those who have no hope, but as those who abide and rejoice in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.  And that is the case, not only when your loved ones have passed from this vale of tears to the nearer presence of Christ, but in all your struggles under the Cross in this body and life.  You find Christ Jesus precisely there, in all your troubles, because He has come to find you and to abide with you there, before you ever even knew to look for Him.  He has come to sojourn with you, that you should also be called out of “Egypt” by His God and Father in heaven, and that you should also be a “son of God” in Him.

Along with that — on the flipside, as it were — as the Lord Jesus has associated and identified Himself with His people in the midst of this fallen and perishing world, so do you also find the Lord Jesus Christ, in the flesh, in and with His Church on earth, and not apart from His Church.

St. Matthew has made that plain in this Holy Gospel, in the way that he has described the Christ-Child always with “His Mother.”  Over and over again, it is “the young Child and His Mother.”  Not only in this Holy Gospel, but also in the Visit of the Magi that precedes it, as we shall hear on the Feast of the Epiphany.  It is St. Matthew’s way of indicating and stressing, as Dr. Luther also stressed, that one should not look for God — nor will you ever be able to find the one true God — anywhere else than here, in the flesh and blood of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, born of Mary.

Which is also to say that you should not look for God — nor will you ever be able to find Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God — except in His external Means of Grace, that is, in the preaching of His Holy Gospel, in His spoken Word of Holy Absolution, in the washing of the water with His Word in Holy Baptism, and in the Holy Communion of His Body and Blood, given and poured out for you to eat and drink with your body in repentant faith and with thanksgiving.  For these bodily Means of Grace are where and how the Lord Jesus Christ is present and available for you and for the many.  These are the lap of His Holy Mother, wherein and whereby His flesh is given to you.

Along the same lines, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God-in-the-Flesh, is also understood in the Holy Scriptures to be a living icon of the Church on earth.  And that makes perfect sense.  For in much the same way that dear St. Mary conceived and gave birth to the Son of God — by His Word and Holy Spirit, according to His gracious choice and mercy — so does the Church on earth conceive and give birth to the children of God in Christ by the same Word and Holy Spirit.

Thus, the Church is your Mother in Christ Jesus, even as God is your true Father.  And you never will find the Christ-Child Jesus apart from this Holy Mother, His Church of the Gospel–Word and Sacraments.  Seek and find Him there, nestled and nursing, laughing and playing in that Mother’s lap and arms.  Just as He is here for you this morning, in this place — the Only-Begotten God, the incarnate Son, who has come from the bosom of His Father to the bosom of His Church on earth.

In each and every case, you find the Lord Jesus where His Word has directed you to find Him.  As we have heard over the course of Advent and in the accounts of the Christmas story from St. Luke, so have you heard again this morning that everything happens according to the Word of the Lord.

St. Matthew clearly indicates that every event in this story of the Holy Gospel was in fulfillment of the Old Testament Holy Scriptures.  And that is revealed to be the case even in ways that we would surely not have guessed or figured out for ourselves.  For example, you’ll never be able to find any specific Old Testament Prophecy that says the Savior would be called a Nazarene.  But in the Hebrew language, the root word for “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” is the word for “root.”  And it certainly was foretold in many and various ways that the Christ would be the “Root” of Jesse, that is, from the house and lineage of Jesse’s son, King David.

And so it is in fulfillment of that Word of God, St. Matthew concludes, that you will find the Lord Jesus in the little burg of Nazareth (and not, as others might expect, in the royal city of Jerusalem).

Again, you never will find Christ Jesus apart from His Word.  But in and with His Word, He first of all comes to find you, as He is causing His Word to be preached to you this morning.  And by His Word He directs you and leads you to find Him, your Savior, your God in the Flesh, here in His Church — and within your vocations and stations in life, as you live to and from His Church, whether in Egypt or in the midst of your sojourn through the wilderness.  His Word reveals to the eyes of faith that He is, in fact, already with you.  For He is indeed “Immanuel,” God-with-us — He is God-with-you in the flesh.  And behold, He is with you always, even to the close of the age.

With those precious Words and Promises of God in Christ ringing in your ears and going with you from this place, be encouraged by and emulate the good example of St. Joseph in heeding the Word that God the Lord has spoken to you by His Son.  Not only in obeying His Commandments, as you are surely called to live the new life in Christ throughout this coming New Year.  But, above all, in receiving and believing His precious Word of the Gospel, whereby He forgives you all your sins and gives you life and health and strength in both body and soul, unto the Life everlasting.

So does your God and Father call you out of Egypt and save you by His mighty deliverance, by the humility and meekness of the Cross and Resurrection of His Son.  And so does He reveal and give to you that same Son, Jesus Christ, your Savior, that you should live and abide with Him forever.

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

25 December 2019

The Lord Has Come Down to Open Up the Heavens to You

Throughout the Season of Advent, we have called upon the Lord and prayed that He would rend the heavens and come down.  And according to His Word and Promise, He has come.

So is He coming to you now.  And so will He come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Already here and now, the Glory of the Lord is shining upon you; the great God and Savior has appeared in your presence.

Therefore, what sort of person ought you to be?  How should you be living in this body and life?

The Lord has taught you by His Word and Spirit: Do what you are given to do, not begrudgingly, but zealous for what is good and right and true, for what is godly, sensible, and righteous.  If you are a husband, love your wife.  If you are a mother, care for your children.  If you are a shepherd, tend your sheep.  And whatever you do, whether eating or drinking, waking or sleeping, wherever God has placed you on earth, do all to the glory of God, in peace and with love for your neighbor.

You are quite right to be humbled by the Glory of God and by His Word.  And you are quite right to fear His Law, His wrath and judgment, for He shall judge the world in righteousness and truth.

But now also hear and heed His Word of the Gospel, which is for you today.  He is your Savior, and He is born for you, to redeem you from sin and death, and to purify you with His forgiveness unto the Life everlasting; that you may live with Him in His presence and serve Him without fear.

This true and greatest Glory of God is hidden and mysterious, because it is not finally the obvious, overwhelming, and irresistible glory of power, might, and punishment, but the gentle and quiet Glory of a voice that speaks forgiveness.  It is the paradoxical divine Glory of a powerless little Child, the Word-made-Flesh, who will submit Himself at last to voluntary suffering and death.

The threat of punishment scares you, but you can understand it, and you know it when you see it and feel it.  Indeed, apart from this Gospel of the Christ Child, you cannot see or feel anything other than punishment and death — which is all that you deserve on account of your sins.

But the paradoxical Glory of divine humility and weakness befuddles and confounds you.  It makes no sense to your wisdom, reason, and experience.  Apart from the Word and Spirit of God, you are not able to recognize or comprehend such Glory; you are rather inclined to despise and reject it.

Even so, repent of your sins and failings.  But do not be afraid!

Here in this place, on this dark night, you are called by the Gospel, enlightened by the free gifts of God the Holy Spirit, and gathered together with the Body of Christ in His Kingdom of Peace.

He is the Lord your God, your Shepherd, and your King.  He cares for you, feeds and waters you, guards and protects you, leads and guides you, in steadfast love and mercy for you.  He rules you with justice and righteousness — not that of the Law, but of the Holy Gospel.  His own perfect righteousness of grace prevails for you, because He has redeemed you from sin and death, rescued you from every evil, reconciled you to Himself in peace, and sanctified you with His own holiness.

Here is where and how you find Him, because He has come to be with you here in His Church on earth, His Bethlehem, His House of Bread.  Here He feeds you from the feed trough of His Cross, from the manger of His Altar, with the Meat and Drink indeed of His own Body and His Blood.

This is the Body of the Baby born of Mary, who shed His Blood for you upon the Cross.  He has been wrapped in cloths, both at His Birth and in His Burial, for you and your salvation.  And here He is wrapped in vestments and paraments, in chalice and paten; He is concealed in, with, and under the bread and wine — given and poured out for you — the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

What is there to be afraid of in any of this?  It is all for your great joy and blessing, for your life and eternal salvation in the gracious and glorious presence of the Lord your God.  There is no threat of punishment in this little Babe who comes to save you; there is only forgiveness and peace.

The zeal of the Lord of Hosts, the God of Sabaoth, has done it.  With divine grace, He has done it for you and for all people; and all the angels in heaven rejoice in this free and full salvation.  For the Lord has come down from heaven to earth, in order to open up the heavens to you and to all.

So the holy angels praise and glorify the Lord for your salvation.  Shall you not also praise Him, give thanks to Him, and honor Him?  Not because you must appease His wrath.  Far less as though to stroke His ego with flattery.  He has no need of anything from you.  He showers you with grace and every blessing, with or without your prayer.  Yet, how much more shall we, His Church, His people, give all thanks and praise and glory and honor to Him, our Savior and our God.

Receive His gifts, therefore, with thanks and praise, with joy and gladness.  Feast upon the sacred food and drink, the flesh and blood of Christ, which He provides and pours out for you here in this place, in this holy house — which is made holy by His presence — in the midst of this dark night.

And rejoicing in His mercy, return again to your office and stations in life in His peace.

Know that both you and your neighbor have such a Savior as this, who comes not with terrors to destroy you, but with gentleness and divine kindness to serve all men everywhere.  To serve you.

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

24 December 2019

Christ the Savior Is Born this Night for You

By the grace and mercy of the Lord our God, by His Word and Holy Spirit, we have heard again the story of Christmas from His holy Prophets and Apostles.  And the hymn-writers of His Church have likewise proclaimed that sacred story to us in their beautiful art of poetic verse and music.

It is a delightful story, and one of the most familiar and best-loved stories in the world, surpassing even the most popular of fairy tales.  Indeed, the story of Christmas is part of our culture.  It is retold in countless ways and countless places — in television specials, newspaper editorials, and popular renditions of well-worn carols by some of the most unlikely performers.  For even those who care nothing for Christ and His Church recognize the power and appeal of this lovely story.

But as Christians, of course, we must certainly understand that the Christmas story is far more than just another story.  And by that I mean not only that this story, in contrast to beloved favorite fairy tales, is absolutely true — though, to be sure, it is nothing less than true and historical, as St. Luke makes clear enough.  But this factual account must be for you, not less, but far more than just that.

St. James reminds us that the demons know the historical facts and the truth of the story, and yet they tremble in fear.  And as far as that goes, the people who lived in Jesus’ day were able to see and hear Him for themselves, in person; yet, the vast majority of those people did not understand or believe the real significance of this Child born of Mary, the humble Carpenter from Nazareth.

As a Christian, you are called to see and hear beyond the nostalgia, beyond the beautiful poetry of the story, and beyond all the drama and excitement it presents.  No one could deny that Christmas includes all of those things.  But far more important is the heart and soul of the story, that the Child born of St. Mary in a Bethlehem stable is the Christ, your Savior from sin, death, and the devil.

That is more than just another “detail” in the storyline; it is more than just another historical fact.  Even the angels in heaven must sit up and take notice.  For Jesus Christ your Savior is the one Truth and Light that gives significance — not only to the Christmas story — but to all of history, to the entire universe, and to your own body and life on this and every other day of the year.

His Salvation and the significance it brings are sorely needed, as we are surely all aware.  For in spite of the festivity all around us — or perhaps it is precisely because of all the festivity — one often hears about a dramatic increase in depression and suicide at this time of year.  Like Charlie Brown, the Holidays can make you painfully aware of the loneliness and emptiness and frustration that you might otherwise be able to put out of your mind.  The frenzy of the Season — the frantic rush of shoppers, the piling up of decorations, the urgent writing of cards and letters, and the painstaking preparation of meals — so much breathless rushing about! — what is it all for?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all of this activity is nothing so much as a desperate attempt to manufacture a sense of meaning and purpose, to fill the void you have inside with something.

Yet, none of the frenzy can do it.  Nothing that you do can accomplish or discover what you need.  The only real Answer is contained in a single Word: Jesus, a Name which means “Yahweh Saves.”  That is who He is and what He does.  He is God in the Flesh, who saves His people from their sins.

Dear friends of God in Christ, He has done it!  He has saved you from your sins, which are the root  cause of all your hardships and heartaches.  He is your Savior, who is born this night for you!

He has taken your human flesh and blood to be His own, being conceived and born of the Woman, St. Mary.  And not only that, but He has also taken upon Himself, into His flesh and blood, the curse and consequences of your sin, your frailty and weakness, your sickness and suffering, your mortality and death.  He has lived your life in the flesh, being tempted and tested in every way that you are, save only without any sins of His own.  But He has borne all your sins and carried all your griefs and sorrows in His own Body to the Cross, in order to put them to death in Himself and be done with them forever.  Which is why His bloody death and passion there on the Cross — in your place — is what the celebration of Christmas and the entire Church Year are really all about.

The Joy and Peace that we rightfully find in the story of Christmas is the Joy and Peace of the Cross.  For Christ Jesus, your Savior, was born to give His life for you.  That is why He came.

And having done so — having given His body and life for you and all upon the Cross — He now gives His life to you and to His entire Church on earth in the Ministry of His Holy Gospel, which is the free gift of His forgiveness and salvation.  He thus fills the void in your life with Himself.

And with that, you are given to understand that the real story of Christmas — which is to say, the coming of the Son of God as your Savior in human flesh and blood just like your own — that most precious story is not just “once upon a time.”  Such a story as that, whether it were true or not, would do you no more good than the fictional Santa Claus with his fanciful flying reindeer.

The real story of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is not only historically true but deeply and intimately meaningful, because it is a story that continues very much for you in the here and now.

The Son of God, conceived and born of St. Mary, is still coming as “Immanuel,” as God-with-us, to be and abide with you as your Savior in His very own flesh and blood.  He is very present here with you in the proclamation of His Gospel.  And in the “Christ Mass,” at midnight and tomorrow morning, He comes to feed you with the very same Body and Blood that were conceived and born of St. Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, put to death and buried in the dust of the earth, but now risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.  Thus, it is here in His Church, in the Liturgy of His Gospel, that the story of Christmas now lives and gives life.

No matter what the crosses you might be given to bear in this life on earth, it is here within the liturgical Life of His Church that Christ Jesus freely gives to you the forgiveness of His Cross and Life everlasting in His own Resurrection from the dead.

It is in the Resurrection of His Body that all things are made new, so that you also, in both your body and your soul, are able to look forward to that great and glorious Day when sadness, death, and pain will be no more, and Christmas will be forever, though you won’t have to do a thing to get ready for it.  For Christ your Savior has already trimmed the Tree with Himself; He has sent the cards and letters of His Holy Gospel to all the people; and He has prepared for you a Feast in His Kingdom, which has no end.  In Him there is no frenzy, but only the Peace of His forgiveness.

That is why we sing tonight, and so also throughout the Church Year.  For that is how the Church expresses her joy in Christ Jesus.  We sing with all the angels and archangels and all the heavenly host in praising the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  We sing in response to the Word of God — the Word-made-Flesh who tabernacles with us as the true Light in the midst of the darkness.  We sing by faith with the whole of creation, rejoicing to welcome and receive the almighty Creator, the Lord our God, who has become a fellow Creature with us, our Savior, and our truest Friend.

God the Father grant His Peace and Joy to each and every one of you, by His Word and Holy Spirit, as you receive — tonight, tomorrow, and throughout the year — the gift of His Salvation in the Body and Blood of His incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.

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

22 December 2019

To Live and Work in the Righteousness of Faith

Where other sons of David have failed to follow in their father’s footsteps — and even great David himself was not always faithful, as the Holy Scriptures make plain — here now is a son of David who shows himself to be a man after his father’s heart.  In fact, the Scriptures present St. Joseph, the son of David, as flawless in his obedience of faith.  He is righteous by God’s grace, and he is faithful in his righteousness.  He governs himself and lives by God’s Word, and when God the Lord speaks to him, St. Joseph acts immediately to do as the Lord has spoken.

Even so, the birth of Jesus Christ and His Holy Gospel do not begin with St. Joseph and his faithful obedience, but with the Word and Spirit of God.  It is God’s gracious speaking that precedes and brings about St. Joseph’s faithful hearing, from which his righteousness proceeds.  And it is God’s speaking of His Word — His speaking to us by His Son — that not only marks but makes the beginning of all things, and so also accomplishes the fulfillment of all things in Christ Jesus.

Before there ever was King David, the Gospel that begins to make its appearance in the birth of Jesus Christ was promised through the holy Prophets in the Scriptures.  This same Son of God, who has now become flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood by His conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is Himself the Word of God by whom, through whom, and for whom all things are made.  And when our first parents, Adam & Eve, fell into sin by their disobedience of His Word, it was this very Son of God — St. Mary’s Son, the Seed of the Woman — whom God promised and pledged and for centuries prepared to give in the fullness of time.

The Lord God takes every initiative and acts in love for you and all.  He does not ask for your help, nor does He need your help; nor does He simply offer to help you.  As He created you in love out of nothing, so it is by grace alone that He moves to save you from your sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.  It is His work, His labor of love, and His good gift from start to finish.

What He does ask of you — His commandments of faith and love — are not for His benefit, but for your benefit and for your neighbor’s benefit.  For He would have you learn to live as He lives in the flesh.  Not that you must “earn your keep,” but that you would receive by faith and live in love the divine Life that is yours by the grace of God in the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus.

In the divine, eternal Love of God the Father for His Son, and by the Love of God the Son for His Father in the Holy Spirit, the Lord freely chooses to give you Himself and His Life and Salvation.  And that you might know Him and receive Him in His grace and mercy toward you, He gives to you a Sign; which does not simply point to His Salvation, but the Sign is your Savior, Immanuel, “God with us,” deep in the flesh.  The Lord Himself draws near and is with you to the utter depths of Sheol; and so does He remain with you in the flesh unto the heights of heaven — in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the Word of Holy Absolution, and in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion.

The thing about His Signs, though, is that they are recognized only by faith, and not by sight.  And so, for now at least, you know them solely by the hearing of His Word — and that is how it will continue until you shall finally see them fulfilled in the Resurrection of all flesh.

So, then, wait upon the Lord in the hope of His Resurrection, according to His Word and promise.  Wait in the peace of His Holy Gospel.  Watch unto prayer, as He has taught you to pray and has promised to hear you.  And Work in those labors of love to which He has called you in this life.

Do not lose heart when your place in life is hard to bear, when your job is difficult and long, when your work seems pointless and under-appreciated, and when all your labors appear to be in vain.

Do not lose heart or give up hope, although you are tested and tried and frankly tired of waiting.

Do not grow weary of doing good, even if you feel like it doesn’t really matter what you do or don’t do, or whether you do anything at all.  In truth, your works of love do mean a great deal; they are significant in the same mysterious and hidden way as all the Signs of Christ are hidden under His Cross — because they are His good works of love in you, and they fly in the face of sin, death, the devil, and hell.  So it is that your obedience of faith and your persistent labors of love are the fruits of Christ’s Cross and genuine Signs of His Resurrection from the dead.

True enough, it is a perilous path that you are called to follow in faith and love, and you will not be left to proceed unhindered.  You walk in danger all the way, as St. Joseph did when he took the pregnant Virgin Mary to be his lawfully-wedded wife.  Whereas the glory of the Resurrection is hidden from your eyes, what you do see and feel and experience tugs persistently on your heart and mind, tempting you away from the Word of the Cross to that which has the appearance of wisdom and glory and power and might, but which the Lord has forbidden as deadly and damnable.

Adam & Eve fell for it when they turned away from all the gracious means of life that God had so generously given to them, and they took hold of the one thing He had warned them against.  It was, after all, a delight to the eyes and desirable to make them wise.  King Ahaz, too, a son of David according to the flesh but not by faith, refused and rejected the Word of the Lord and sought instead to find refuge and strength in the enemies of God’s people.

It’s easy to recognize their gross errors now, in retrospect, with your 20/20 hindsight.  But you pursue the same false trail and fall into the same deadly trap when you neither hear nor heed the Word of God but insist upon your own wisdom, reason, inclinations, feelings, and experience; when you neglect what God has given, and you attempt to take what He has not given; when you demand your own preferences, and when you chase after the lusts of your heart, mind, and flesh.

In order that you would not go down that deadly path and become lost, the Lord in His mercy sends the ministers of His Word, like the Prophets and Apostles before them, to preach His Law and His Gospel to you.  As always, He takes the initiative in coming to you and acting for you.

In order to warn you against the way of death, He comes with the fiery judgment of His Law, which exposes and condemns your sin.  In this, He disciplines you in love, as a good father will discipline his children — not out of anger or frustration, but out of care and concern for your life.

Do not despair of His help, nor suppose that you must earn His favor by your good behavior.  But live by the righteousness of faith in His Word, and do as He has commanded, because it is meet and right so to do.  Proceed in the confidence that He loves you, that He desires to save you, and that He has in fact redeemed you from all your sins and reconciled you to Himself by His grace.

So does He send His preachers to you, not only with the frightening thunder of His Law, but with His sweet and precious Gospel of forgiveness.  You receive this grace and ministry of the Gospel through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who by His Cross has descended into Sheol as your dread Champion, but who has also risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven for you.  The preaching of the Law and the Gospel is really the preaching of His Cross and Resurrection, in order that you should pass through death with Him into the Life everlasting.

The preaching of His Cross and Resurrection is the preaching of repentance, unto faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.  For what is repentance but the dying and rising of Christ worked in you by His Word and Spirit?  It is what He has worked in you by your Holy Baptism in His Name, and what He continues to accomplish in you by the ongoing catechesis of His Word of the Cross.

Now, you should know that even the Prophets and Apostles were wearied by the sinful response that often met their faithful preaching.  Deaf ears and hard hearts seem impervious to the Word.  And it is no different now than it was for any of them, so a pastor can easily become discouraged by the seeming hopelessness of preaching.  So many people don’t even bother to listen at all, and those who do hear the preaching may still act as though it made no difference whatsoever.  The pastor is tempted to suppose that the success or failure of the preaching rests upon his shoulders.  And yet, he is not called to achieve results, but simply to preach and confess the Word of Christ.

Much the same is true for you, as well, within your own vocation and stations in life.  If you are a husband and father, love your wife and children and live to provide and care for them, as the Lord has called you to do.  And if you are a wife and mother, love and serve your family in the confidence of Christ, the Lord, trusting that He will guard and keep you by His Word and Spirit.  Whatever your job may be, live and work conscientiously as a faithful servant of the living God.

In all of your duties and responsibilities, be encouraged by the beautiful example of St. Joseph, and by the mercies and faithfulness of God toward that strong but quiet man of faith.  In each case that God has chosen to record for us in the Holy Scriptures, St. Joseph receives the Word of the Lord without question or complaint, and he immediately gets up to do exactly what the Lord has given him to do.  He takes dear St. Mary to be his wife, though she is already pregnant with a Child not his own.  He loves her and cares for her because he knows and trusts the love of God for him, on the basis of nothing more nor less than God’s Word and promise concerning her Son, Immanuel.

For his obedience, St. Joseph’s life is challenging and difficult, probably embarrassing in ways we can only imagine, and frustrating at any number of steps along the way.  He allows the outward shame of Mary’s pregnancy to rest upon himself, and he shelters and protects her from danger, taking her to Egypt, for example, and keeping her there when Herod tries to kill the Christ Child.

All St. Joseph could see with his eyes were the needs of his family and the hurts and hardships of their life together under the Cross.  Not so different from what you see and find in your callings.  But not only did the Lord provide for St. Mary and the Baby Jesus through this sturdy carpenter, a faithful son of David, indeed; He also obtained salvation for St. Joseph, for you and everyone.

Who would tell St. Joseph, now, that his work was meaningless, that his labors were in vain, and that the crosses in his life on earth were not worth the pain and trouble they brought upon him?

And it is no different for you here and now!  Whatever your place in life, whatever your office and occupation, you also are given to care for the Mother of God and for the Christ Child, that is, to care for His Church and for your neighbors.  Do not doubt that is true.  You may not even live to see the difference God makes in the lives of His people through your faithful service, but, as for the preachers of Christ, so also for you, it is not for you to achieve or accomplish but only to love your neighbors by doing what the Lord has called you to do.  He will take care of everything, as He will surely take care of you, providing for all your needs of body and soul, for now and forever.

The proof of this promise is the Body of Christ Jesus, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Word and Spirit of God.  With His own flesh and blood, crucified and risen from the dead for your Salvation, He gives to you the same Sign that He gave to the House of David.  For He is the incarnate Son, Immanuel, who is God with us.  He is with you and gives Himself to you.

Why does He do it?  Because He is Jesus, which being translated means, “Yahweh Saves.”  He comes to save His people from their sins.  That is why He is here with you.  That is what He does.

He has defeated all your enemies, and He has cast them out.  He has brought peace to the Land, and He grants Sabbath rest to all His people, even to you and yours in this poor life of labor.  All that you fear has been removed by His Cross and Resurrection from the dead.  Sin is forgiven and death is defeated.  For Christ is risen from the dead, and in Him all of creation is made brand new.

You cannot see it now.  Your eyes will deceive you and play tricks on you, as will your sinful heart and mind, your fickle feelings and fluttering emotions.  But even when you see and feel death, behold the Cross of Christ, and by the hearing of His Word let faith discern His Resurrection.

Hear His Word to you now, and taste the Signs that He thereby gives to you and pours out for you, His holy Body and His precious Blood.  If He has eaten curds and honey in the promised Land, so do you eat and drink a better Milk and Honey in His Kingdom, even now in His Church on earth.

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

20 December 2019

My 2019 in Twenty Bullet Points

Given the eventful year that our family has had over these past twelve months, it was clear that our annual Christmas-Epiphany letter would either amount to a short novel or else need to be encapsulated in a series of brief bullet points. The lovely LaRena suggested that we have copies made of the family picture we were able to get on the occasion of Frederick's Confirmation in October and summarize the high points of the year in whatever space would be available on the back of the picture. Between the two of us, we managed to do just that.  (No novels this year!)

As usual, for LaRena and me, breaking down the year into a few highlights basically results in a list of our ongoing vocational duties and responsibilities; which hardly does justice to all the varied nuances constituting our daily adventures throughout the year. In LaRena's case, for example, a few seemingly mundane phrases actually encompass more steady hard work, sacrificial loving service, and significantly valuable contributions than any number of words could adequately describe. Such is the life and labor of a wife and mother (who in this case also happens to be a ballet seamstress and costume assistant).

For myself, it occurred to me that, other than my Dad's funeral, my short list of "bullet points" did not really include any of the most memorable highlights of this past year. Well, that's not quite true, but it is the case that a number of my favorite memories from 2019 simply did not fit. And that's okay! But there are those other significant things that I would like to savor and remember from this past year. And as I was thinking out loud about it with LaRena, she suggested that I could put together a list of those things and share it with family and friends online.

So, anyway, without attempting to rank these activities, events, and occasions in order of importance (which would hardly be appropriate or possible in most cases), here are my own Top Twenty "Bullet Points" from the Year of Our Lord 2019.

  • Visiting my Dad in the final months and weeks of his life on earth, and then laying his body to rest in the sure and certain hope and promise of the Resurrection, with my Mom and siblings and almost the whole extended family gathered for his funeral
  • My regular outings, play dates, and walks with our seventh baby grand, Guinevere
  • Welcoming our eighth, ninth, and tenth baby grands, Benedict Paul Ingram Harrison, Philippa Eilonwy Nichole Stuckwisch, and Augustin Steven Wirgau
  • Looking forward to the birth of our eleventh and twelfth baby grands in 2020
  • Sam & DoRena and family returning to Indiana, and visiting them in Ossian
  • Preaching for Sam's installation as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Ossian
  • Officiating the installation of several other new pastors within our Indiana District
  • Serving as 1st Vice President (NW regional VP) of our District under Pres. Brege
  • Bringing LaRena with me to the spring pastors' conference at this new stage in our family life, in which we have more adult and teenage children than adolescents at home, and no more infants or toddlers of our own
  • Speaking on the Liturgy at multiple other conferences throughout the year
  • Serving as the D.Min. thesis adviser for Rev. Dr. Phil Huebner at CTS, Fort Wayne
  • Finally finishing my essay on the lectionary and Church Year (after over a decade!)
  • Taking my first actual vacation in several years, visiting Zach & Bekah and family in Texas (and not taking any work with me on vacation for the first time in decades)
  • Daughter Monica's engagement to be married to a fine young man, Mr. David Sams
  • Having all of our children and and all of our grandchildren gathered together with us on the occasion of Frederick's Confirmation at Emmaus
  • Watching Frederick and Katharina dance throughout the year and fostering new friendships with other ballet parents at Southold Dance Theater
  • Reading the entire Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb (all sixteen books)
  • Reading all of the books by one of my long-time favorite authors, Lloyd Alexander, including quite a few books that I had not previously known about
  • Seeing Joe Bonamassa in concert at the Morris in South Bend with LaRena and our good friends, Erich & Christina Fickel
  • Celebrating the national Thanksgiving holiday with my Mom and most of our children and grandchildren at Matt & Oly and Benedict's house in Michigan
And one more "bullet point" I could hardly forget or fail to mention: Baptizing not only two of my own baby grands, Benedict and Philippa, but also four other new babies at Emmaus (Fredrick Bliese, Violet Rodriguez, Ruth Osbun, and Juniper Seyboldt)! Christ be praised!

18 December 2019

The Voice of the Lord

The Lord your God has given you a Savior, Christ Jesus, who has redeemed you from sin and death, delivered you from all your enemies, and set you free to live without fear.

That is what the nativity, the circumcision, and the name of St. John the Baptist mean; for everything about this boy points to the Christ, to the Redeemer of Israel, the Holy One who comes after St. John.  The greatness of the Forerunner derives entirely from the Greater One who follows, to whom he points and whose way he prepares, the Horn of Salvation whom God has raised up for us from the house of His servant David.

It may seem unnecessarily complicated, that the Lord should bother with St. John the Baptist, instead of simply sending Jesus in the flesh, the Son of Mary, and starting the story there.  What is the point in sending St. John, when his role and service are so relatively brief, and then he must decrease and make way for the Christ, the Coming One?  The Lord could certainly have given Zacharias and Elizabeth a son, in any case — and several decades sooner, as far as that goes, instead of leaving them childless for so many years — and then let well enough alone in the giving of His own beloved Son.

After all, it’s not as though Jesus needed any help in accomplishing redemption for His people.  And what is there for St. John to do, anyway, who is not worthy to untie the sandals of the Lord’s feet?  St. John is not the Redeemer.  He is not the Christ.

So, what, then?  He is but a Voice, who cries out today in being borne from his mother’s womb and in his circumcision, and who will cry out the Word of the Lord in the wilderness.  He is a prophet, and more than a prophet, who preaches what the Lord has given him to preach, and with his preaching points to Christ Jesus and prepares His way.

It is by such a voice of preaching, by His Word spoken and proclaimed, that the Lord visits His people and gives them life and grants them peace.  He does so in this way and by this means, not arbitrarily, nor simply as an accommodation of human weakness, but by His good and gracious will, by His own choice and design, according to His own divine nature.  As the Son is begotten of the Father from all eternity, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, so does the Father create and give life and accomplish all things by His speaking of His Son, by which He breathes and bestows His Spirit.

It is, therefore, not so much that God works through preaching because we “happen to be” verbal creatures, but He has created us to be verbal creatures after His own Image, because He is a Verbal God — and there is no other God than the Word, by whom and for whom all things are made.

Thus, for the purpose of giving His Son, the divine eternal Word who would become Flesh when the time had fully come, God spoke to His people of old by the Prophets — and precisely as He spoke, so has He fulfilled.  There is consistency and perfect continuity in the Lord’s speaking, even as that Word of God becomes true Man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  And now, in anticipation of and preparation for that gift of her Son, there is the conception and birth of the last and greatest prophet, St. John, who goes before His face as a messenger.

The message and the messenger are all-but-inseparable, especially in this case of St. John the Baptist.  Again, everything about him points to the coming of Christ Jesus, though He, the Lord in the flesh, will be that much greater in every way.  St. John’s miraculous conception of old and barren Elizabeth anticipates the greater miracle of the Lord’s own conception and birth from the young Virgin Mary.  St. John’s divinely-given name, which means grace, anticipates but yields before the gracious name of Jesus, which testifies that He is Yahweh, our Savior.  The rejoicing of St. Elizabeth’s family, friends, and neighbors anticipates the rejoicing of heaven and earth at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus.  And the canticle of Zacharias at the circumcision and naming of his son, John, already begins to find its fulfillment in the presentation of our Lord Jesus at the Temple, in the canticle of Simeon, who departs in peace in accordance with the Word of the Lord to him.

In all of this, fear is giving way to Peace as the Glory of God is “seen” in His Word of the Gospel, and as divine comfort is granted in the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.

This, dear friends, is how God works, and He does so in love.  So much so that the almighty and eternal Son of God is revealed to be the Voice, the Speaking, the Word of God the Father.  So, too, it is by the preaching of that Word that God the Holy Spirit is given, and by which the Spirit lays Christ Jesus upon your heart and mind, upon your body and soul, for divine Life and Salvation.

Which is also why those who are filled with the Holy Spirit do one thing in particular: They speak as the oracles of God.  They pray and sing His Word.  They confess.  They prophecy, proclaim, and preach, each according to his own vocation.  As they believe with the heart, so do they speak.

Whereas, apart from the Holy Spirit, man is unable to speak.  Not that fallen man will actually keep silent — for he fills the world with his endless chatter, noise, and confusion — but he cannot speak truth, or beauty, or wisdom, or anything of any lasting value and importance.  He cannot speak life and love, because he cannot speak Christ Jesus, until the Holy Spirit enters in by the divine Word.

So does the Holy Spirit enter in and make ready the way of the Christ by the preaching of St. John the Baptist.  And the same preaching continues to this day, in order to open the way of the Lord Jesus Christ unto you.  That is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

That is the preaching that levels mountains and fills up valleys.  It shatters both pride and despair.  It straightens what is crooked and bent, and it makes flat and smooth what is rough and uneven.  It is the preaching that wounds in order to heal, the preaching that kills in order to make alive.

Whatever it is in you that would oppose or prevent the coming of the Christ, the preaching of the Forerunner removes.  Where you are arrogant and exalt yourself, he humbles you.  Where you are doubtful and afraid, he silences your unbelief and quiets your fears, that he might speak the tender mercies of God to your troubled heart.  For the Lord is at hand to visit and redeem His people, and this Word of salvation comes to all who fear God — not in terror, but in the reverence of faith.

In the preaching of St. John the Baptist there is the culmination and crescendo of all the Law and the Prophets before him.  He comes in the spirit and power of Elijah, to be sure, but his preaching is also that of Moses and Samuel, of Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Here the rolling thunder of the Law, with all of its demands, all its promises and threats, all of its holy perfection and fiery judgment, becomes a deafening roar that warns of a terrible storm.  All hell is about to break loose in the righteous wrath of God against idolatry, unbelief, and the lawlessness of sin; and even now the axe is poised at the root of every fruitless tree, to cut it down and throw it into the fire.

As this preaching is the Word of God, it certainly does what it proclaims.  It is a fire and a hammer, which crushes and destroys the sinner.  But where is the comfort of the Gospel in this?  Where is the peace of forgiveness and salvation?  And how does such dire preaching point to Christ Jesus and prepare the way for His coming?  It is actually the key to understanding the point and purpose for which St. John the Baptist was born, and for which he was sent — in ways that even St. John did not fully comprehend or understand at first.

He was sent to preach, not only repentance, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And in that baptism was all that he preached, all the Law and the Prophets, all the promises and threats, the blessing and the curse — the wound and the healing, the falling and the rising, the death of sin and the Life everlasting in the way of the Christ.

Thus, the Lord Jesus comes on the heals of the Forerunner, and He submits Himself to St. John’s baptism of repentance.  Though St. John tries at first to prevent Him — knowing that Jesus is the Greater One, and that He should be the Baptizer — it is necessary for St. John to baptize Jesus in order to fulfill all righteousness.  For in this way the Lord Jesus submits Himself to the Law, and He takes His stand with sinners, in order to become their Savior and Redeemer — and yours.

St. John was not the M.C., called upon to introduce the Guest of Honor.  Nor was this some kind of “bad cop, good cop” routine, in which St. John comes preaching fire and brimstone, and then Jesus comes in all soft and sweet.  But something else altogether is at work and going on here.

The Lord Jesus comes, not to wave away the fire and brimstone, but to take it upon Himself.  He is the Lamb of God that St. John will proclaim, because He takes upon Himself the sins of the world in His Baptism by John, in order to remove iniquity by His own sacrifice and bloodshed.  He cleanses the world of unrighteousness through the waters of Holy Baptism, by soaking up all the dirty bath water into His own flesh and then handing Himself over to His death upon the Cross.

Indeed, it is already the death of His Cross to which He submits Himself in St. John’s baptism of repentance.  Thus He dies, in order to raise you up.  He comes down from the lofty mountain, in order to bring you up out of the deep dark valley of death and despair.  He enters upon the way of the Cross, for you and for all people, that your way might be cleared and opened up; that you might enter through His death into His Resurrection and Ascension and His Life everlasting.

This is the mercy of the Lord that He reveals in the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, not only to Elizabeth and Zacharias, but also to you.  The birth of this child, his naming and circumcision, proclaim that Christ Jesus is now at hand, that the Lord your God has come in the flesh to save you from your sins, and that He will indeed deliver you from every evil of body and soul.

The birth of St. John the Forerunner is the promise and the evidence that God the Father shall continue preaching to you, and that He shall do all that He has spoken by the mouth of His holy prophets, and that He shall henceforth speak to you by His own beloved Son in the flesh.

He remembers His holy Covenant in that flesh of Christ Jesus, and in His holy precious blood, given and poured out for you.  He remembers you in love; and remembering, He acts to save you, to give you life.  He makes Himself known to you, and gives Himself to you, and shines His Light upon you through the preaching of His Word — the preaching of His Christ — which is the Gospel, the forgiveness of all your sins.  Truly, this Word does and gives exactly what He says.

This Word gives you peace, because it fills you with the Holy Spirit, so that you now also speak as the oracles of God.  You live before God in the righteousness and purity, the innocence and blessedness of Christ Jesus, and thus are you free to worship the Lord without fear.  For here there is no condemnation or punishment, but only the tender mercy and compassion of your dear God and Father in Christ Jesus.  The One who promises is faithful, and He loves you.  As He speaks, so He does, and so shall you live, both now and forever.

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

15 December 2019

The Lord Is with You Where the Wild Things Are

Well, then, what are you waiting for?  What have you come here to see?  And what do you want?  What are you hoping to find, to hear and receive?  What do you expect to happen?

You have heard of the works of the Lord Jesus Christ — but what has He done for you lately?  Where do you find yourself now?  What circumstances and challenges are you dealing with?

Beloved, wait upon the Lord.  Not by laziness or lethargy, but wait upon the Lord by seeking out His Word and the preaching of it, and by gladly hearing it and learning it.  Wait upon the Lord by confessing His Word, and by praying in accordance with His Word, in faith, hope, and love.

Wait patiently in this hard life under the Cross, not grumbling, groaning, or complaining, neither against the Lord your God, nor against His servants, nor against your neighbors in the world.  Do not harden your heart against faith and love by rehearsing bitterness or resentment, but persevere in prayer and confession.  Speak and sing what is good and right and true, even when you can’t feel it, because God has spoken to you by His Son, who sings to you so sweetly with His Gospel.

It is better to be comforted by the Gospel in your misery, in the midst of sin and death, than to be comfortable and at home in this world that is perishing.

The world is so impatient, precisely because it is dying.  Its time is short.  But you, dear brothers and sisters of the Son of God, Christ Jesus, wait patiently upon Him and rejoice in the Lord.

Watch for Him, and wait upon His coming, and do not worry.  Though you find yourself under His Cross, strengthen your heart by His Word.  For He is near, a very present help in trouble — though you be imprisoned by one means or another; though you be deaf, mute, or blind; though you be leprous or lame; though you are mortal, and you mourn your family, friends, and loved ones.

Wait patiently on the Lord, and trust that He will open up His hand to satisfy your every need of body and soul, for this life and forever.  Trust that He will do as He has promised and provide you with all good things, despite the fact that you are impoverished in one way or another, and though you would prefer to be wealthy and rich, dressed in fine clothing, and living in a royal palace.

It is true that, in this body and life, you do live under the curse of sin and death.  But the Lord Jesus has turned that very curse into the blessing of His Cross, for you and for all the children of man.

Therefore, this desert wilderness in which you find yourself is not a death trap, not really.  It is a journey of repentance — from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from Egypt into Canaan.

The Lord disciplines you here in the wilderness, not to be mean, but because you are His own dear child, His beloved son or daughter.  He puts you to death by the cross in order to catechize you in His way of life, in the faith, hope, and love of Christ Jesus, in His Cross and Resurrection.

He teaches you to hunger and thirst for Him alone.  He teaches you patience and faith.  He teaches you to call upon His Name and to wait upon Him in hope.

Your journey through the wilderness with Christ is a kind of classroom, so to speak.  But it’s not like a semester of lectures, nor even a science lab.  It isn’t like reading a book, reviewing your notes, writing a research paper, or preparing for your final exams.  It’s more like the school of hard knocks, a chance to gain some real street cred.  But it’s definitely not a do-it-yourself program.

The journey and its catechesis of faith and life do require listening, experience, and preparation.  But you are not able to prepare yourself, leastwise not by any reason or strength of your own.

It is rather that the Lord sends His messenger before His face.  He comes to you in the wilderness and walks with you there in the way of the Cross, to prepare the way of the Lord, and to prepare you for His coming.  It is by the preaching and Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

That preaching, that Baptism, that repentance and forgiveness are your preparation for the Christ, by which the Lord prepares you for Himself.  It is His good work, His good and gracious gift.

He does not simply preach it and teach it, nor does He merely offer it and give it to you, but He Himself receives it, undergoes it, and fulfills it for you in human flesh and blood like your own.

So it is that the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence at the hands of sinful men.  The Prophets and Apostles suffer violence, because they preach the Christ, the Crucified One.  St. John the Baptist suffers violence, because he is the Lord’s own Forerunner, who points not only with his words but with his whole body and his life to the sacrificial Lamb of God.  And Christ the Lord Himself suffers violence, every last bit of it — all that you suffer, all that you deserve, and all that you inflict upon your neighbors — so that, by His suffering and death, by His Holy Cross and Passion, you are brought through suffering, sickness, death, and the grave, into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The fact is that the curse of sin and death has been laid upon childbearing and childbirth, and upon every child born of a woman.  It is laid upon you, because you are a sinful son or daughter of the first Adam and his wife.  And it has been laid upon the second Adam, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and of St. Mary, because He has come in love and voluntarily subjected Himself to that curse, in order to redeem all the sons and daughters of Adam & Eve from sin, death, the devil, and hell.

And now His Church, His own beloved Bride, in the waters of Holy Baptism gives birth to the children of God in His Kingdom — through the bloody labor of His Cross and by the delivery of His Resurrection from the dead.  Whoever is born from that womb is greater even than St. John.

So then, do not take offense at the Cross and Passion of Christ Jesus.  Certainly not in the historical facts of the matter, but neither in His preaching to you now, nor in your own life as His disciple.

It is the last of these that is heaviest and hardest to bear, that is, the Cross you are given to carry.

Even so, wait patiently upon the Lord under the Cross, not complaining but rejoicing in His Word and promise of the Gospel.  Rejoice at all times and in all places, in whatever circumstances you may find yourself, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Rejoice in the Lord, for He does set prisoners free.

Rejoice, for He does cleanse lepers and heal the lame; He casts out demons and cures diseases.

Rejoice, for He does feed and clothe, shelter, and protect the poor; He provides for all their needs.

And again I say it: Rejoice.  For He does raise the dead from the dust of the earth to live forever and ever in body and soul, glorious like unto His own glorious Body in the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of this He has experienced, He has done it and accomplished it for you — in Himself — in His own patient waiting on the Lord, His God and Father — by His Cross and in His Resurrection.

And He gives it to you all by grace — into your ears, into your hands, into your mouth, and into your body.  He gives it to you by the preaching of His Gospel, by the preaching of His Cross and Resurrection, by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of all your sins in His Name.

It is in this way that He makes His Advent and draws near to you — in your own prison, and in your desert wilderness.  He is the Coming One, who comes to you now by this preaching of His.

His Word to you is the crescendo of His grace and glory as the crucified and risen Christ.  It does and gives exactly what He says!  Spoken by and from His Cross, His Word makes all things new!

His preaching opens your ears to hear, and your heart to believe, and your mind to comprehend.

His preaching opens your lips and your mouth to pray and confess.

And His preaching opens up your blind eyes to recognize Him by faith in the hidden Mysteries of His Cross.  Thus do you recognize Him and His Victory in the water and the Word of His Holy Baptism, and you recognize His Body and His Blood in the bread and wine of His Holy Supper.

It is the preaching of His Word that provides you with water in the wilderness, with streams and pools of cool clear water in the desert.  The waters of your one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and His ongoing Word of Holy Absolution cleanse you and refresh you in both body and soul.

By the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins He continues to prepare His way before His face, to prepare you for His coming, to lead you in His paths of righteousness by faith, and to keep you on the straight and narrow “Highway of Holiness.”  To be sure, there are dangers aplenty on your right and on your left.  And yet, because you are ransomed and redeemed by the Lord, reconciled to God, and righteous in His sight through faith in His Word, the roaring lion who is always on the prowl, always seeking to devour you, and the vicious beasts that would destroy you — they are all kept at bay.  The wild things cannot harm you, because the Lord is with you.

It often may not seem that way at all in your present experience.  For here and now, in this body and life on earth, you still suffer harm and heartache, hurts and hungers, death and the grave.

But have you not heard?  Christ Jesus Himself has also suffered all of these things and more, and everything that you suffer.  He has spent His time in the wilderness, where the wild things are.

Indeed, He has also died your death.  And yet, God raised Him from the dead for you!  Therefore, no hurt or harm, no heartache or hunger, no suffering, sickness, or death shall have you forever.

Rather, taste and see — right here and right now — in the House and at the Table of the Lord, in His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, even in the face of sin, death, the devil, and hell — taste and see the great Feast to which the Highway of Holiness leads you by the Cross of Christ Jesus.

With His Body and His Blood, crucified and risen, the Lord Jesus answers all your questions and concerns.  He answers all your prayers, too, with this resounding “Yes!” and “Amen!”

Though you were born of a woman under the Law, under the curse of sin and death, you are now born again of the free woman, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, the daughter of God.  So it is that, now and forever, you are His dear child and heir and a royal citizen of His Kingdom.

Though you have been shaken and stirred by a fierce wind, even so, you are not bent or broken or blown away.  Your dimly burning wick is not snuffed out.  The Lord stands fast on your behalf.

Though you have been naked and ashamed and are rightly garbed in sackcloth and ashes, here, instead, you are dressed in the fine clothing of your Baptism, which is the righteousness of Christ.

And even though for now you still sojourn through a real desert wilderness, here you also live and abide in the true King’s Palace, in perfect Peace and Sabbath rest at His Festal Board.

Here, then, beloved of the Lord Jesus, eat, drink, and rejoice.  For He is with you, and all is well.

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

11 December 2019

By the Divine Righteousness of Grace and Mercy

People have developed and adopted all sorts of coping strategies: machinations, orchestrations, negotiations, and countless different stories to spin to their own advantage and benefit.  Perhaps you’ve also tried to lay your own foundation, to build your own house, and to establish your own kingdom, in the hopes of securing your place and purpose in the world, your safety and security.

The problem is, though, that none of those strategies work.  Not really, and not for long in any case.  None of the numerous ways that you attempt to protect yourself and preserve your life is able to secure what you’ve got or achieve what you actually need.  Your self-made building will not last.  Sin and death will bring it down, and it will crash and crumble into dust, as easily as your brother smashes your sand castle, and as swiftly as your sister destroys your Lego masterpiece.

Your “covenant with death” is a deceit of the devil, which has become your own self-deception.  The joke’s on you, but it’s not the least bit funny.  Your “pact with Sheol” will not secure your survival; it actually seals your doom.  And your “deal with God,” as many people imagine their own conceit to be, is nothing else than arrogant self-idolatry.  So, too, the “understanding” that you think you’ve got with “the Man upstairs” is surely not the fear of the Lord or faith in His Word.

So there comes the preaching of destruction and judgment.  The wrath of God is visited upon all disobedience and unbelief, including yours.  It is why there are consequences for sin.  And do not kid yourself in this regard, as though you could live recklessly and not get burned.  For the Lord God sets Himself and the cleansing fire of His Word against all unrighteousness, which is sin, and against all the pompous self-righteousness of man, which leads only to death.

Not only with fire, in anticipation of the final judgment, but also with water, in continuation of the Flood that once destroyed almost everything in the days of Noah, God disciplines the children of man for the sake of His mercy, in order to bring them to repentance and save them by His grace.

I know it doesn’t feel like mercy or grace, but it is, lest you be caught unawares and die forever.

His waters sweep over all things and into all the secret places of your heart, mind, and life, into all the nooks and crannies of your innermost thoughts and private time — behind your closed doors, into the back of your dark closet, and underneath your messy bed.  They seek out and wash away all of your deceptions, your every pretense, and your subterfuge.  They scourge and they cleanse from the inside-out, like a dentist cleaning out your teeth with jets of water that cut like knives, or a doctor cleaning out your ears with a roaring rush of water that blows away all the wax.

It is like the farmer who plows up his field in order to remove the stones and break up the hard soil, in preparation for the planting of the seed.  And again, it is similar to the way he later threshes the grain and grinds it into wheat, in order to bake it into bread.

But the Lord does not keep plowing when the Seed has been planted.  He does not continue threshing forever, lest the grain be destroyed along with the chaff.  Nor does He grind the wheat into oblivion.  But, in due season, the Seed that was sown in humility, which died and was buried in the dust of the earth, He brings forth again as the Bread of Life for the eater.

The deadly and devastating work of His Law, which crushes and purges and threatens to destroy you forever, that is God’s strange and alien work, His unusual and extraordinary task.  To be sure, it is a divine and necessary work.  Indeed, for those who are perishing in their sinful unbelief it is the first exercise of His mercy toward them.  But it is not the best or last Word of the Lord.

It rather goes like this: The Forerunner, as a wise and well-catechized farmer, goes before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way, first with the Word of the Law, but then also with the preaching of the Gospel.  The one who threatens fruitless trees with poised and ready axes, and vipers with wrath, and chaff with unquenchable fire, will baptize the Lamb of God, and point to Him, and say, “There is the Mighty One whose power is made perfect in mercy, who takes away all your sins.”

This is another strange and alien work, but of an altogether different sort and in a totally different way.  Whereas wrath and condemnation are strange and alien to God’s innermost nature, the Cross of Christ, by which He saves you, is utterly strange and alien to your own self-righteousness.

Learn, then, by His Word and Spirit of the Gospel, to perceive and trust the Cross for what it is, although it cuts against the grain of every other wisdom and every instinct you have known.  It is so different from and contrary to your own strategies of safety and security, so different from and contrary to all your striving for self-preservation and survival, that it really makes no sense at all.  And yet, it is by the Cross, by the Lord’s own sacrificial death, that He lays the Cornerstone, preserves a strong Foundation, establishes His Throne, and rules His Kingdom in righteousness.  Not only for a little while, nor even for a long, long time, but forever and ever.

That is why, already, at the sounding of His Word and promise, the barren old woman and the blessed young Virgin both conceive and bear sons, as surely as the Lord creates all things out of nothing, and as He brings forth Life out of death.  These two little boys, these two babies in the womb, anticipate the Resurrection of the Crucified One, of Mary’s Son, from death and the grave.  Their very lives confess that all things are possible with God, and that His speaking makes it so.

The infant St. John, in utero, rejoices in the great Salvation of his God.  He has heard and believes the promise of the Gospel, even in the greeting of his Savior’s Mother.  He already knows by grace through faith, and he confesses with his leaping little feet, what he will preach and profess in due season on the bank of the Jordan River: Here is Mary’s little Lamb who takes all our sins away.

He takes them all upon Himself, this little Lamb of God, the incarnate Lord Jesus, and He bears them in the same Body that He has received from His Mother’s flesh and blood.  That is why, when He is finally crucified under Pontius Pilate, when He suffers and dies and is buried, then all the sins of the world — all the sins of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve — are done away with and forgiven.  And because they are not any sins of His own, but He has borne them all in faith and love and innocence, death has no just claim on Him; nor can death lord it over Him or keep Him, but it must relinquish this Lord Jesus Christ to His own God and Father.

So, then, the One who has become like you — your Brother in the flesh, who has borne your sins and griefs and sorrows, who has died your death and suffered the judgment of God in your stead — He has also risen from the dead in the same human flesh and blood that He shares with you.

Which means that, not only have your sins been forgiven, once and forever, but death itself has also been defeated in Him.  It no longer has any legitimate claim on you, as you are in Christ.  The Lord Himself has cancelled your contract with death; He has renegotiated your pact with Sheol.  Hence, even though you die from this mortal coil, yet shall you live forever in both body and soul.

The sign and seal of this precious Holy Gospel is given to you in the son of the “barren” old woman Elizabeth, and in the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is the Sign of the Cross, with which you also have been signed and sealed in your Holy Baptism.  And it is given as the surety of your salvation in the Resurrection of your dear Lord Jesus from the dead.  For as the Father raised Him up — which is your Justification and your Righteousness — so, by faith in Him, in the Word that He has spoken (which He preaches even now), you are safe and secure forevermore.

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

08 December 2019

The Tree of the Cross Bears the Fruits of Repentance

The Lord is coming.  As surely as He made the heavens and the earth — as surely as He drowned the unbelieving world in the waters of the flood and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness — as surely as He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, put to death, and buried — and as surely as He has risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity — so surely is the Lord Jesus coming to judge the living and the dead.

The Lord shall come in all His power and great glory for the final judgment at the last, that is most certainly true.  But He is already coming to you here and now, to judge you in His righteousness.  His Kingdom is at hand, here within His Holy Christian Church, as He Himself is here at hand in the preaching of His Word, in His Body and His Blood, and with His Holy Spirit.

If you would receive this Lord Jesus Christ, true God in the Flesh, your Savior and your King, make ready for Him in your body and life.  Clear and straighten your path to coincide with His.  Hear and heed His Voice, and repent of your sins.  That is the only proper response to His coming.

To repent is to be turned entirely around — away from your willful self-pursuits, away from your covetous greed and jealous envy, and away from all the false gods in your life — to fear, love, and trust in God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It is to liquidate all of your own assets and investments, and to put all your eggs in the one basket of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

To repent is to be crucified to yourself and to all your sins and sinfulness, to be drowned and die with all your sinful lusts and desires, and to be raised up with Christ Jesus, to live in Him alone, to trust Him completely with all that you are and have, and so to live unto righteousness in Him.

To repent is not simply to be sorry for your sins; it is to be turned away from them altogether.  And it is not only to stop being bad; it is to begin doing good.  It is to flee the wrath of God against sin and every evil — by fleeing from sin and every evil — and to govern your life by God’s Word.

As the Lord is coming and His Kingdom is at hand, and as He calls you to repent, therefore, bear the fruits of repentance.  For every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  The chaff also is burned up — whereas the wheat is harvested and gathered by the Lord.

Indeed, the axe is already laid at the root of the trees.  And as we have heard over this past week, the time is now, and the judgment has begun with the household and family of God.  So, then, repent of your sins, and bear the good fruits of faith and love in keeping with such repentance.

That is not to bear the fruits of your own righteousness, which are filthy, rotten, and wild apart from Christ and His Spirit.  It is rather to fear the Lord, to hope in His mercy and rely upon His Word, to trust Him for all good things, and to live according to His good and acceptable will.

The genuine fruits of repentance are never self-made works; they are the gifts and produce of the Lord’s own Word.  For that matter, no tree or fruit-bearing plant produces anything apart from the Word and Spirit of God and the good gifts that He alone provides by His grace.  Rather, He speaks, and it is so.  He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall, and He nurtures His good creation with providential care.  So does the earth bring forth its bounty for every living thing.  And so it is with you, as well, whom God has raised up from the dust of the earth by His grace.  He brings forth good fruits after His own kind in your body and life by the exercise of His Word and Holy Spirit.

The first fruit of repentance is thus to confess what God has spoken to you.  You echo back His Law by confessing your sins, and you echo His Gospel by confessing His mercy and forgiveness, His Christ, and His Salvation.  His Word opens your lips to confess what is true and right, and by your speaking of His Word you rightly honor Him and worship Him and glorify His holy Name.

With that confession of repentant faith — in that humble confidence with which you acknowledge your sins and yet rely upon the Lord’s forgiveness — the fruits of repentance then also continue in tangible love for your neighbors.  That is the exercise of righteousness by faith in Christ Jesus.

As you have known your own sins, your own frailties and failings, and yet you have also known the Lord’s free and full forgiveness of all your sins, so do you in turn extend gentle patience and tender compassion toward your neighbors.  You do not deal harshly with their sins against you, but with a gracious spirit you rebuke where appropriate, and you correct and guide and help where you are given to do so — with your own children, for example, and with others placed under your care and authority.  Even so, in love you bear with your neighbors’ weaknesses and faults, and you cover their trespasses with grace.  Instead of holding grudges, you readily forgive and forget.

So do you also pray for your enemies, as the Lord Jesus has taught you to do.  You turn the other cheek when others hurt you, as He did in going to His Cross.  Instead of self-defensiveness, you are quick to defend your neighbor, to protect his reputation, and to guard his interests, even at your own expense.  You love and serve without counting the cost or expecting anything in return.

You love your neighbor fearlessly, because you fear the Lord your God and love and trust in Him.  After all, He is your Life and your Salvation.  He alone is your hope in the face of sin, death, and every evil.  He is your sure and certain confidence when you are confronted with your own sins, and no less so when you are confronted with the sins of others against you.

If you would receive this Lord Jesus Christ, who comes to you in righteousness and peace, and if you would enter into His Kingdom, which is here at hand, repent, and bear the fruits of repentance.

Confess your sins, and receive the mercy of the Lord’s Absolution.  Wherever you have not done what He commands you, confess your failures; and wherever you have done what He forbids, confess your wrongdoing.  Acknowledge that you are sinful and unclean from the inside-out — in all your thoughts, words, and deeds, and in many other ways that you have not even realized.

Humble yourself before the Lord, and trust not in yourself but in His loving-kindness, in His tender mercy and compassion.  Believe and confess the truth of His Law, which correctly condemns you for your sins.  But so believe His Gospel all the more, which the Father speaks to you by His Son.

In that confidence of Christ, submit yourself to the Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins.  Repent and be baptized, every one of you, and be forgiven.  This promise and this gift are for you and for your children, for nursing babies and infants, and for the elderly and infirm.

If you are already baptized, praise God for that gift, for that new birth of water and His Spirit, for that washing of water with His Word, that cleansing of your conscience before Him in Christ.  And so live in that one Holy Baptism as a disciple of Christ Jesus, that is, by hearing and heeding His Word, by taking up the Cross to follow Him, and by returning to the significance of your Baptism every day.  That is to live in the way of repentance, which is by the daily catechesis of Christ, by the preaching of His Law and His Gospel, by the proclamation of His Cross and Resurrection, and by the daily prayer and confession of His Name.  So does He put you to death and raise you to new life, each and every day, unto the resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting in Him.

You are “born again” only once, in the waters of one Baptism for the remission of sins.  But you continue to live that brand new life — as a child of God the Father, as a Christian, as a member of the Body and Bride of Christ, His Church — by the breathing of His Spirit through the preaching of His Word, and by the eating and drinking of His Body and His Blood in the Holy Communion.

Die to yourself, therefore.  Die to your stubborn will and selfishness.  And die to all your sins of thought, word, and deed, to all that you have done wrong, and to all the ways in which you have failed to do right.  Die to everything which is not the one true God, that you might live by faith in Him who was and is and is to come.  Trust not yourself, but Christ, the incarnate Son, the crucified and risen Lord, and find in Him your true and real Life with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

As you thus live with God in Christ, even now by faith, bear the fruits of love for your neighbor, just as the same Lord Jesus Christ loves you and loves your neighbor with His whole body and life.  To love as He loves you is to bear the Cross of Christ and so to bear the good fruits of His Tree.

That divine Life and Love are the gracious works of Christ Jesus, which He has accomplished for you and for all in Himself, and which He now works in you by His Word and Holy Spirit.  For He has borne the true fruits of repentance by His death upon the Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  Indeed, His own Body, His own flesh and blood, are the First Fruits of repentance, and of righteousness, and of the New Creation, the Kingdom of the new heavens and the new earth.

And so it is that, now, by the preaching of His Cross, by the Rod of His lips and the Breath of His mouth, He bears the fruits of repentance in your body and life by slaying the wicked old Adam in you with His Word of the Law, and by raising up the righteous New Man in you (and you in Him) by His Word of the Gospel, which is the Word of His forgiveness, His Absolution of your sins.

It is thus by His Cross, by His Word of the Cross, that He judges you with His own righteousness.  For He has submitted Himself to the judgment of the Law in your place, on your behalf, in order that you might also share His victory, His vindication of innocence, and His emancipation from death.  His Cross is your Atonement, and so it is that His Resurrection is your Righteousness.

He and His Tree were cut down and thrown into the fire of God’s righteous wrath and judgment.  But, look, He and His Tree have been raised up as a signal for the nations — as a signal for you.

It is by that holy Tree of His Cross that the Lord Jesus Christ bears good fruits for you, here within the Orchard of His Church.  Those are the fruits of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Or, to be more concrete and specific, the fruits of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion.  And by these means of grace, so does He also freely bestow upon you the fruits of perfect peace and rest within His divine Kingdom, here and now by faith, and hereafter in Paradise forever.

Though you are chaff within yourself, and you are thoroughly consumed by the fire of His Holy Spirit, yet you are not destroyed forever, but you are brought through the fire with Christ Jesus.  For He is pure Wheat, indeed, who has passed through the fire before you, in order to be baked into a wholesome Loaf of living and Life-giving Bread, with which He now feeds you in holy Love.

And so it is that, now, you rise up with Him from the fires of death, and you are baked together with all your fellow Christians as one Loaf in Christ Jesus — just as you all eat of the one Bread which is His Body, and you drink from the one Cup which is the New Testament in His Blood.

It is to this great Feast of Christ that you are called by the preaching of repentance and forgiveness in His Name.  It is to this Food and Drink that you are turned, that you should not die but live by the grace of God and by His Holy Gospel.  For here at the Lord’s Altar, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  He comes, not with a heavy hand or an iron fist, but with the right hand of fellowship, with divine Peace and reconciliation with God and each other through His forgiveness of sins.

All of this because it is most certainly true that He has redeemed you from sin, death, and hell, by His Holy Cross and Passion.  He has reconciled you to His God and Father in grace, mercy, and peace.  He has clothed you with His righteousness and faithfulness in Holy Baptism.  And here at His Table, in His House, it is His great glory to grant you His Sabbath Rest, both now and forever.

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