Thursday, December 31, 2020

What was Jesus like?

Sermon preached on Christmas Day, the Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, 2020.

Who was Jesus, really?  I mean, did He love pizza and beer with His friends and did He laugh at bad jokes and shed tears at sadness?  What were the sins hardest for Him to avoid and the hardest good for Him to do?  Months ago a CNN commentator told us that Jesus made mistakes – which mistakes did He make?  We are filled with questions about the man Jesus.  It is, after all, the man Jesus we are most interested in.  We are just ordinary people and we want to know whether Jesus was like us.  What did He look like or sound like or do for fun?  These things pester our curiosity but they add nothing to us of substance.

Today John’s Gospel does little to feed our appetite for the trivial.  He does not talk of Jesus the man among men.  What he does speak of is the eternal Son of God enfleshed in the womb of the Virgin.  What John does address is how the God of time enters our time to become captive to the ticking of the clock and to suffer the same limitations of a sinful world filled with death.  What John does give us is the picture of glory that has dwelt among us, glory as of the one and only Father, full of grace and truth.  Like Philip of old we just wanna see God and Jesus says whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.

Nobody wants to hear that, not in the least on Christmas Day.  We want the poignant story of angel voices in the night and shepherds leaving their flocks and oxen braying the welcome of creation to a beautiful baby boy.  But John does not give us that.  We heard that last night.  John speaks of the LOGOS, the Word.  This LOGOS called into the emptiness and creation came into being.  “All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made.”  His is the life of God eternally begotten and born in time.  In Him was life and that life was the Light of men.  Though it is hard to recognize today in our crooked world of shallow truths and deep lies, He is “the Light who shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The world slept through the long dark night of sin until the world was awakened by the voice of the messenger sent from God.  He bore witness to the Light.  He was not the Light but bore witness to the Light which was coming into the world.  We might settle for a baby but God is determined to give us nothing less than the Word made flesh.  We would be happy for a momentary distraction but God is determined to change everything.  We are content for a little good will and some good gifts before it all gets packed away for another year complete with all our failed resolutions but God is determined to put a face to the eternal Word, shoulders strong enough to bear the sins of the world, and life powerful enough to rise from the grave.  We would be fine with a little good news but God is determined to create a people of His own, who will believe in Him and be born not of flesh but of the Spirit in baptismal water.  We are happy to get through one more day but God is determined to deliver eternity and heaven to us.

Jesus is not a sign from God or a wake up call or an example for us to follow or a good man.  Jesus is the Word made flesh who has dwelt among us so that we might behold the Father’s saving glory and be won over from sin’s lies to redemption’s truth.  We do not need more rules to fix what is broken or rescue what is in disrepair.  We have the Law of Moses and as good as that Law is, it has redeemed no one.  The Law is good and wise and sets before us the way things ought to be.  But that is all it does.  It does not breath life into the dying heart or courage into the faltering will or hope into the despairing mind.  For that we need something more.

“For the Law was given through Moses but grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.”  God has not come to judge His people but to save them, not to condemn a people who deserve to be condemned but to redeem them with His own blood.  He has not come to mark our sins but to forgive them.  He has not come to awaken the god in us but to kill what is dead so that the life of the Son might bring forth a new man and a new woman in baptism.  God has not come to band-aid a wounded world or build a heaven on earth but to bring us through death’s door into the life that is eternal and from earth’s limitations into heaven’s eternity.

“No one has ever seen God.  Only the God who was at the Father’s side and who was made flesh of the Virgin by the power of the Spirit has made Him known.”  And that is why we are here.  He was in the world and the world did not know Him even though the world was made through Him but to those who receive Him, who by the voice of the Spirit call upon His name, the lost are found, those who were once no people become God’s people, and the birthright we once forsook in Eden is restored to us in Gethsemane and on Calvary.  We have seen God in Christ.

The awe and mystery of this day is more than a manger can hold and more than the flesh and blood of a baby.  It is nothing less than the Word made flesh, the Son of God become the Son of Man, the God who judges who has become Savior.  The Word was always God but now and forevermore He is also Man.  And in a few moments the God man will come to us in bread that is His body and wine that is His blood, so that heaven’s glory may be seen by earthly eyes and the Savior of the world might become our Savior.  So great is the glory He delivers to us that we should be called the children of God and that is exactly who we are.

My friends, Christmas is not in the details.  It is in the Word made flesh for us and our salvation.  These are the words of the Word.  This is the glory of God.  This is the only Gospel.  The Light still shines.  The darkness has not overcome it.  The world will pass away but the Word of God endures forever; we who believe shall live forever. Amen.

Turning back the clock or anticipating the future. . .

Auld Lang Syne is not a song of the Church.  Though the world is ready to turn back the clock (except perhaps in the face of this year), we who are in Christ are not a people who look backwards.  We look forwards.  Instead of trying to recapture a moment in the memory of our past, we anticipate the future prepared for us, enjoying a foretaste of the feast to come right here and right now.  It only serves whet our appetites for that future God has prepared for those who love Him.

We welcome the new year not because we want a new beginning or because we think that this year may be better than the year now ending.  No, indeed, this has nothing to do with how good or bad the times have been or our judgment about the next year.  It is about time which is marching toward the future God has prepare for it.  We are not closing a door so much as we are looking forward to the new door Christ has opened by His resurrection from the dead.

Nostalgia is great.  I love antique stores and walking through flea markets with its many things to refresh my memories.  But the Church does not rehearse the story of Christ, beginning with the prophets to its completion in the death and resurrection, for nostalgia.  We repeat the Church Year and the story of the prophetic message fulfilled in Christ because it is the story of our brand new future.  We were not born again to the same old life when we were baptized.  We were made new.  As. St. Paul reminds us -- we are not who we were but have been made new.  As St. John reminds us, what shall be is not yet fully revealed but we live to this future by faith.

So we do not gather as the sad saying goodbye to something we want to hold onto.  No, we are looking toward the future and directed to the new life which we have already but which is not yet complete in us.  We do not sing into our bear the regrets of our yesterdays.  Instead, we are relieved of that sinful past through the forgiveness of our sins.  We do not feast upon a remembrance meal that attempts to hold to a fading memory or moment.  Instead, we are fed the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation that is the foretaste of the eternal to come.  That is the focus of our New Year's Eve services.  We rejoice in the memory of God's mercies and in the future those mercies have made possible. 

Now greet the swiftly changing year
With joy and penitence sincere.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.
    
Remember now the Son of God
And how He shed His infant blood.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

This Jesus came to end sin’s war;
This Name of names for us He bore.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

His love abundant far exceeds
The volume of a whole year’s needs.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

With Him as Lord to lead our way
In want and in prosperity,
What need we fear in earth or space
In this new year of grace!
    
“All glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth!” the angels cry.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.
    
God, Father, Son, and Spirit, hear!
To all our pleas incline Your ear;
Upon our lives rich blessing trace
In this new year of grace.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Of Gods and Kings. . .

Sermon for the Divine Service, Christmas Eve, 8 pm, preached on December 24, 2020.

Some years ago, a movie was made about the great clash between Pharaoh and Moses and their Gods.  It was an epic tale largely but not exclusively based on the Bible’s own account of gods and kings.  We seem to like those kind of stories – of mortals and divine beings in conflict.  Perhaps that is how some have portrayed the Christmas story.  There is no shortage of kings in it and there is no lack of divine drama.

According to St. Luke at least four kings are part of the account of Jesus’ birth.  First off is Caesar.  At this point in time, he is the most powerful man on earth, having vanquished his enemies and now setting out to survey his vast domain.  He ruled from Rome, the glorious city of gods and emperors.  At the heart of Roman mythology, Caesar was not only king, he was a god.  It appears that all of this seemed to have happened at Caesar’s timing – a census was to take place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  But Caesar Augustus fell from power and is now hardly more than a footnote in history.  He is no god and no more a king and remembered most as a detail in St. Luke’s story of Christmas.

Then there is King Herod.  He is a wannabe king and no god.  Herod is under the thumb of Caesar and chafes under the pressure.  He is a vicious tyrant who will strike against the Christ child by killing all the first born sons of Bethlehem.  In his jealous rage, the mothers of Bethlehem cried out in sorrow.  But he is remembered even less than Caesar and were it not for St. Luke and the Christmas account we just heard, no one would have ever remembered this puppet on Israel’s throne.

Next is David.  David’s appearance is almost incidental.  He ruled Israel when the nation was a great power and yet he proved to be a flawed man whose lust was his undoing and nearly undid the whole of Israel with it.  Israel only got a king by nagging at God and by their desire to be like every other kingdom on earth.  Their kings were forgettable, for the most part.  But David’s throne was destined for a greater king who would marry the divinity of the most high God with the flesh and blood of a mortal.  It was his line from which the Messiah King was to be born.  It was from David the royal line flowed and so it was David’s town where Joseph and Mary were headed.  

David might seem to be only a variation on the theme of Caesar or Herod except for his faith.  He came to God a sinner and before God he knelt in repentance.  
The mercy of God was shown to him and so David lived in the Lord to see the moment when all the hoping and praying would give way to the divine act of God to send His only Son.  David loved the Lord even in his sins and God loved David the sinner.  It would become the type of relationship God would have with you and me when finally a king was born to sit on David’s throne forevermore.

That brings us to the last king.  The only real king.  He is the Son of David, born in David’s city from David lineage, but His reign would deliver up salvation for a whole sinful world.  He is God in flesh, begotten of His Father before all worlds and born of His mother Mary; wrapped in swaddling clothes, the angels sing His lullaby while shepherds come to worship.

Our nation has seen all kinds of Presidents but everyone of them comes and goes.  There seems to be nothing that they can do that cannot be undone.  Our world has seen all kinds of royalty but most of them a figureheads and tourist attractions in a world of politicians and ballot boxes.  My friends, there is only King who still reigns, only one King whose action divides time and eternity.  That is Jesus.  He reigns over a world that did not welcome Him and still does not claim Him.  He reigns over sins He did not commit but for which He has come to pay the price.  He reigns over broken hearts and broken lives that cry out for healing and renewal.  He reigns over plagues and pandemic and over the fearful whose lives are a prison of fear because of them.  He reigns over nations and kingdoms as easily as He reigns over every individual human heart that believes in Him.  He reigns over the grave as the only one who unlocked its door to rise again.  He reigns over hell as the only one who is in command of its gates.  He reigns over heaven and the hopes of all who would go there.

We come today as shadows fall and the silence of the night is all around us to hear again the angels’ song, to join the shepherds in adoration, and to tell abroad the good news of the birth of a King whom death could not contain and who holds life in His hand for all who believe.  This is a King not born in a palace but in a stable, not laid in regal bed but in a manger, not destined for earthly glory but for a cross, not too good to die in our place and not too great to ignore the cries of every solitary soul who cries out for hope.  Other kings come and go and their claims to be gods fall flat in the shadow of death and the grave.  But not this one.  Jesus is born of a woman to die as a man for all those born of woman and marked by sin for death.  Jesus is born amid all the pains and struggles, sorrows and tears of real life to end their power over us and to awaken in us the gift of hope.  So across this world as many as the sand on the shore or stars in the sky will come where you have come, to worship the One you worship, to kneel before the only real King.  But we will find Him no more in a manger.  Not on a cross.  And not in the dusty remains of the grave.  We will find Him where He has promised to be.

This is the sign of His promise.  The words that testify to the Word made flesh and speak forgiveness, life, and salvation to us all.  The voice that speaks absolution and our sins fall away.  The water that bubbles up with new life to a people carrying an old death in their bones.  And the bread and wine that feeds us His flesh as good and His blood as drink.  Here is where you will find this King – still serving us with His gifts, still welcoming sinners into His arms, still paying our debt of His sin with His once and eternal sacrifice, and still raising the dead to everlasting life and light.

All the other kings and their stories are about what once was but is no more.  King Jesus’ story is about what will never fade away and what endures forever.  Here, right here, in this place, you are in the coming of the angels singing, among the shepherds kneeling, and among the Magi journeying to meet the Christ.  Here in the Divine Liturgy the holy Child of Bethlehem still beckons you come, still forgives your sins,, and still welcomes you in the rest of the saints and the heavenly places.

Other kings and kingdoms come and go but Christ and His kingdom and all who live in that kingdom by baptism and faith endure forever.  He ruled the night so long ago with His birth, He rules over sin by His death, He rules of death by His resurrection, and He rules in you by faith.  As you depart this place into the night, do not forget this.  May His peace rule in you now and forevermore.  Amen.

A New Year's Resolution. . .

Now I am not necessarily advocating for New Year's resolutions.  But, if you do want a New Year's Resolution, I can think of none better than to give up the constant second guessing, hand wringing, anxious worrying about what to do, what not to do, and if you should do anything with regard to worship in a time of pandemic.  It is about time, months too late in fact, for us to act without being driven by our fears and uncertainties.  The Church will be wounded far worse by the continued uncertainty over in person worship than she will be by the efforts of the government to shut us down.  So make a resolution and keep it.  No more looking back.  No more hand wringing.  No more living in fear of regrets.  Just do it.

I do not believe that most all liturgical congregations intend to be reckless or irresponsible.  In fact, those Christian congregations who have been tend to be radical Protestant types who look for everything to be a battle.  In nearly every case, the liturgical churches have attempted to be faithful and responsible and have done a fairly good job of doing so -- when they have been allowed.  So why are we still breaking out in a cold sweat about whether in person worship is dangerous or reckless or non-essential?  Give it up already.  Stop.  It is unbecoming of the Church of God and her ministers.

The world delights in our worries and what ifs.  The world and the devil win when we express uncertainty instead of confidence in the Lord and His Word and works.  The world uses our very uncertainty against us to prove we have nothing eternal to offer, no hope better than science or technology, and are certainly not essential to daily life.  The world wins every time we as the Church express our fears and act as if we are the blind leading the blind.  It has got to stop.  From church leaders to parish pastors, it has got to stop.

Our whole presence and purpose is to draw attention to what is eternal and we cannot be faithful in this calling while at the same time giving into the fears, uncertainties, and panic of a moment which is but a moment.  We must do better for the sake of the Kingdom.  We must not preach according to the panic of this pandemic but the eternal Word that manifests the eternal Kingdom and our place and presence in it by grace -- a people captive to a moment in time being accorded the gift of immortality through our Lord Jesus Christ.  No, we cannot afford to be reckless or imprudent but neither can we afford to be fearful or  hesitant. 

So from this Pastor forward and all of us together, let us leave behind the constant second thoughts about whether we did right or contributed to the spread or should have given into the idea that worship in person is not essential.  Let us give it up and concentrate and focus on what is eternal, on being the voices of that eternal and instruments of our eternal God.  We are called to speak hope to the hopeless and life to the dying.  We are planted here in but not of the world to bestow forgiveness to clear the conscience and bestow a future on those who had none.  It is time to set aside the constant hand wringing and get on with it.  If not for the sake of the people we serve and those not yet of the Kingdom, then because God will hold us to account for our captivity to fear and our hesitance to be the Church.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Peace that Quiets All Our Fears. . .

Sermon for Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, preached on December 24, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich. 

 This is the day that many of us have been looking forward to. We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since Easter. All of us hoping that this Christmas would be the joyful end to 2020 and we could all get back to “normal.” But, that’s not the case. Instead of feeling joy and peace and merriness, it’s more of the same. We’re filled with angst, uncertainty, and fear. 

2020 has been a year marked with fears. Fears of riots and violent protests. Fears of a virus. Fears of shutdowns and quarantines. Fear of running out of essential supplies, like toilet paper. Fears of economic collapse. It’s all there. Every night we turned on the TV hoping for some good news, and all we got was more to be afraid of. Fear is the emotion of the year. We’ve all felt it. We’ve feared the unknown, much like everyone who was present for Jesus’ birth that first Christmas. 

I. When we picture the nativity of our Lord, we think of it as a peaceful scene. Mary and Joseph looking over baby Jesus lying in the manger. Barnyard animals quietly surrounding them. Shepherds and the sheep kneeling before the newborn King. Everything seems right and perfect. But this peaceful image that we’ve come to treasure and love ignores the reality of fear that was felt that night. 

There’s always a certain amount of fear that parents have when a child is born. I know I felt it when my two girls were. There’s fear because there’s always a level of uncertainty, not knowing exactly what will happen. If we feel fear today with all the modern technologies we have in hospitals, how much more do you think it was felt in that stable in Bethlehem? 

 

Joseph and Mary were in a frightful situation. The law required them to go to Bethlehem for a census. So, while Mary was 9 months pregnant, they made that 90 mile trek from Nazareth. Today, 90 miles doesn’t seem like that far. Hop in the car, set the cruise at 75, and be there in a little over an hour. But there was no I-24 for Mary and Joseph. They had to walk it. Imagine that, walking 90 miles while you're 9 months pregnant, having to carry with you all your stuff to camp on the side on the road as you made the journey. This isn’t something that many of us would be happy to do. And then imagine the level of fear they had once they got to Bethlehem and realized there was no place for them to sleep. And then imagine how that fear must have grown when Mary’s water broke and contractions started. Talk about a frightful situation, not knowing what would happen. I can only imagine the level of fear Mary and Joseph had as they had to quickly turn a stable into a labor and delivery room. 

But they weren’t the only ones who feared that night. Those shepherds that we picture peacefully kneeling at the manger, they also were afraid. These men were used to sleeping outside as they watched after their sheep. They were used to the night air and the sounds of the open country. It wasn’t a terrifying thing for them to be out there, not fully knowing what was in the dark. But that night, they did become terrified, not because of what they didn’t see, but because of what they did see. 

As they watched their flock, an angel appeared to them. This of course wasn’t a normal thing. We all like to think it would be wonderful to see an angel of God, but everytime one shows up in the Bible, there’s always fear. Joseph feared when the angel appeared to him, telling him to marry Mary. Mary was troubled when the angel showed up in her house, telling her she would be the mother of God. Whenever there’s an angel, there’s fear. There’s fear because there’s uncertainty. Why is the angel there? Were the angels there to help the shepherds, or harm them? Were they a sign of something good, or bad? You can never tell just by the appearance of angels, because they can bring good tidings or judgement. Seeing the glory of the Lord reflected in the angels, the shepherds feared the unknown. And that’s what we ultimately fear. We fear the unknown. We fear the unknown of death. 

That’s why 2020 has been so fearful for us. We’re living with an uncertainty in life. We don’t know what will happen from day to day. There doesn’t seem to be any security anymore. We’re fearful of catching a virus that’s difficult to track. We’re covering our faces and staying away from people because we don’t know if they’re safe. We stay away from gatherings because we’ve been told they’re inherently dangerous. How many church buildings stand empty tonight because of fear? We’re afraid of death, and rightly so because of our sin. 

Death isn’t a good thing. It’s not simply part of the circle of life. It’s contrary to life. It’s not supposed to be, but because of our sin, that’s what we have. We have death, we have to deal with death, we fear death, because of our sin. When our first parents disobeyed, they brought death into our world, and we’ve been living with the consequences of it ever since. Death is literally all around us. This is something that a few of us have had to face recently as loved ones have died in recent weeks. But death isn’t something that we have to fear because we know our Savior who was born to overcome death. We know our Savior who was born to give you life. 

II. The angels weren’t there to harm to the shepherds, they were there to quiet all their fears. They brought the message of good news about the birth of the Savior that God had promised all the way back in the Garden. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) The Savior is born. He is here. The One who’d crush Satan’s head, the One who’d overcome death and sin with His own death and resurrection, the One who’d give His life to you is here! This is the good news that we need to hear right now. This is the good news that we look forward to hearing.

 

The reason why we’ve all looked forward to this evening isn’t because we simply hoped it would mark the end of a year that all of us wish we could forget. No, the reason why we’ve looked forward to this evening is because this is the evening that we celebrate our Lord coming to us to save us. We looked forward to this evening because of that message the angels sang to the shepherds, that message that continues to be sung to us. We look forward to this night because the birth of our Lord answers and quiets all of our fears. Even in the midst of all the uncertainties of death, even in the midst of a world that’s been thrown upside down and turned inside out, even in the midst of not knowing what will happen tomorrow, by faith you know your Savior and by faith you know the final outcome. Death isn’t your final destination, everlasting life is. Jesus’ cross and resurrection guarantees it and your baptism seals it. Everlasting life is a certainty that is yours, no matter what fearful uncertainties surround us. 

So tonight, let the peace of God quiet all your fears. Tonight, hear that message of the angels. Tonight, know you have life because the Savior is born, He has died on the cross, and risen again for you. In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Exeter. . .

 

If you like history and architecture like I do, this may be of interest to you. It is not new -- it is nearly 40 years old, but very interesting!

Monday, December 28, 2020

The star shines for real. . .

The sermon for Christmas Eve, 11 am, Divine Service, preached on December 25, 2020.

This year the media has been all abuzz with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and the wondering if this event was the Christmas star that guided the Magi.  I don’t know.  I have read too much to be sure of anything.  But in our imagination the dream lives that just maybe we all looked out earlier this week and saw the Christmas star.

Christmas is filled with so much imagination.  We imagine the details of the story of our Lord’s birth with oxen mooing and donkeys braying and sheep bleating.  We imagine a young couple, turned away by the full motels, left to find refuge in a farmer’s back yard.  We imagine the shepherds out in the fields being roused by the voice of angels.  We imagine an angelic choir singing in Latin to a stable of bemused animals and the Holy Family at peace with it all.  We imagine the stars shining down from the night sky and far off Oriental sages making their way to it all on camels from afar.  We imagine a perfect baby, in swaddling clothes, not a peep from His mouth.  

But apparently that is not enough.  We also imagine a North Pole and eight reindeer and a sled full of packages and a fat man with a white beard in a red suit heading out into the night.  Or a snowman who awakens to live as long as the snow lasts and sing of old Frosty.  

Or maybe we just imagine a perfect family Christmas, with plenty of time to be together, without any of the rush or stress, with everyone being on their best behavior, with presents to satisfy every want, and a table full of food and enjoyed to smiles and laughter all around.

Maybe we imagine too much.  Maybe our imagination is stuck on the things that are not or will never be and so we lose sight of the one thing that was, is, and is to come.  The Savior is born.  He is made flesh by the announcement of the archangel Gabriel, carried in the womb of the Blessed Virgin for nine months, and now is delivered, the Son of God in human flesh and blood.

Or, maybe we imagine too little.  Maybe our imagination is caught up in trivial things and temporary moments that are meant to come and go.  For the thing that lasts, that endures, is right here – God has come.  He has fulfilled the ancient promises.  He has kept His Word and that Word has been made flesh.  If we are contented by Christmas stars or picture perfect family gatherings or cartoon images, we have surely missed what is real, what is the most real thing of all.

God has come to you and for you.  He has come to shepherds and wise men, to bankers and dishwashers, to kids in school and grandparents snoozing in the chair, to women carrying babies and grieving mothers who have lost their babies, to men hard at work and men hardly working, to those in their youth, those in their prime of life, and those whose glory is fading fast.  The Savior is born to you and for you.

You are unworthy and undeserving.  You are caught up in all the wrong things.  You are distracted by trinkets with no value while the treasure of great price is right before you.  You are swallowed up with the fear and terrible news of a nine month pandemic that is still going strong.  You don’t know who to believe and who to ignore.  You feel alone even when the screens are filled with the images of family and friends quarantined away.  You want to be happy but find it hard to be happy about anything.  But the Savior is still born, born to you and for you.

God does not live in your imagination.  He lives in flesh and blood, born of a mother crying out in the silent night, laid in a manger, and worshiped by strangers.  He lives in the Word that still speaks with the living voice of God and still does what it has said.  He lives in the water of baptism that still churns with new life for all the dead who enter there.  He lives in the absolution that ends the guilt and shame of sin for all the penitent.  He lives in the bread and wine of this Holy Supper where we taste the body and blood of the Lord Jesus and the sweetness of His mercy that endures forever.

God does not live in papered over tensions but in sins forgiven and in a people who lament their sin and delight in God’s forgiveness.  God does not live in fake moments of human artistry but in the midst of all our faults, failings, frustrations, and fears.  God has not delivered up His Son to be our Savior so that we could still find a Kodak moment in the midst of a year we would rather forget.  No, He has come to you and for you.

Love moved Him to leave behind the halls of glory for the humility of a stable, a cross, and a tomb.  Love drew Him to your house and mine, to this church and every place where the Gospel is spoken and hearts believe.  
Love rescued us from our enemies and from our own selves.  Perfect scenes will not last and the manger is already long ago a memory.  But the fruits of His coming remain.  He is life and in all who believe there is life and hope and peace.  This story that we recall today is but the first chapter of all the events that took place so that God would save you, so that His love might work in you, and so that His love might rescue you for disappointment, darkness, and death.

We have not gathered at the manger but here in the city where we live and work and worship.  We have not come for somebody else’s imagined happiness but to find contentment and peace in the God who loved us more than life itself.  We have not come to find a post card or photograph worth keeping but have our lives reborn, our hopes refreshed, and our future recast.  We have not come for dreams to come to true but for sins to be forgiven, for the dead to be raised to everlasting life, and for the tomorrow we fear to become the tomorrow we hope for and anticipate, right here in this communion.

The shepherds returned to their flocks.  The angels sang only once that night.  The oxen and donkeys went back to the ways.  Herod long ago tried to spoil Christmas for the mothers of Bethlehem.  And the Magi returned to their homes by another route.  But God is here where He has promised to be.  The Savior lives in the voice of His Word, in the absolution of our sins, in the water that gives new birth to what was dead in trespasses and sin, in the preached Gospel to ears itching for hope, and in the bread and wine that taste of Calvary and heaven at one and the same time.

Christmas does not live in your imagination.  It never did.  It lives here.  From this lectern and pulpit, in this font, on this altar.  And because it lives here, it will live in YOU as you depart this place to go back home again.  Jesus has come.  Jesus has come to you.  Jesus has come for you.  Oh, come, let us worship Him.  Amen.

Danger ahead. . .

In the old days Roman Catholic politicians insisted that though they adhered personally to their church's teachings, they would govern independently of that dogma and without their faith informing or shaping their decisions.  This is the Mario Cuomo style of things and it began with the response of John F. Kennedy to the fears of a presidency in which the pope called the shots.  It was never all that tenable.  Who wants a faith that does not inform and shape your decisions?  And who wants a president who divorces his faith from his morality?  But it at least gave some cover to those politicians who governed as pro-choice officials because it was the law of the land while privately harboring pro-life views.  Nobody ever believed them except the people who wanted the duplicity and the candidates themselves, of course.

Joe Biden is a different kind of Roman Catholic.  As far as I can tell, he has made no effort to hold onto this idea of public governance vs private religion.  He has not said he is personally opposed to anything that would show consistency with his church.  Just the opposite, Biden has repeatedly, personally, and throughout his later political life affirmed the morality of abortion without meaningful restrictions and fought for that goal.  True to form, he has promised that among his first acts as President would be to undo executive orders Trump put in place to restrict abortion.  He has insisted that it is his job and goal to facilitate full and free access to abortion on demand, to work against any restrictions to that, and to finance the whole proposition with tax dollars -- including the premiums of the Little Sisters of the Poor!  He wants the Hyde amendment repealed and he will extend America's tax dollar support of free access to abortion to other countries.

In addition to this, Biden will rigorously enforce the gender ideology that was begun under Obama and given pause, at least publicly, under Trump.  Physicians and medical personnel will no longer be able to count on cover for their personal opposition to such medical treatments.  Church run agencies, institutions, hospitals, and the like will be treated differently than actual congregations and their ability to act true to their identity will be constrained.  Biden has promised this.  Biden was part of an administration that began to re-frame the right to freedom of religious expression as a not so public rite of belief and he will most certainly continue that effort.

Of course, none of this matters all that much to the Christianity that has abandoned the cause of life, the Judea-Christian definition of marriage, and the idea the salvation is through Jesus Christ alone.  However, lest we forget, the majority of Christians in America hold, at least officially, to these ideas as not only orthodox but Biblical and unchangeable.  Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, conservative Lutherans, and Baptists are united (at least on paper) in their opposition to changing these truths.  Yet Biden and many religious politicians view truth as a relative thing, something that changes and evolves, and may not be more than one person and one moment deep or wide.  That does not bode well for a church body like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and it will also put pressure on our people.  I am not saying anyone will come after your faith but I do believe that how you practice it and what you church body looks like will be affected.  It cannot help but be affected.

Biden and his partner Harris have made it clear that they will use the full force of the law, the bully pulpit of the office, and the threat of sanction to make this happen.  My friends, I was less afraid of Trump's bombastic style, personal narcissism, and less then exemplary life than I am of a President out to punish me as a Christian for being faithful.  There is danger ahead, to be sure!


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Glad. . .

I am sure I am not alone in lamenting the fact that we are going on a year now since the pandemic changed the way we saw our gathering together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  The soft underbelly of this long time frame is that stark realization that some, perhaps many, of those who have not been back yet will not ever be back.  The world has done a good job telling us that Church is non-essential to our lives (as if we needed much help in this direction).  The fear mongers have taught us to be afraid of the folks around us (as if we were not already in danger of too much isolation).  The media has taught us well that the screen suffices and we do not need in person anything (just like my insurance tells me to visit the web doctors before heading to a clinic).  The road ahead is learning again to be glad to go to the House of the Lord and to rejoice in the presence of God and His people in reality that is touchable and real (as opposed to digital).

I have said it many times.  Growing up, we did not fight it.  We knew that unless we had died, we would be in Church on Sunday morning.  But we also understood this was the nature of our family's life.  Church was not a burden to be endured but a part of our very identity.  The Lord's House was a familiar and comfortable home while at the same time harboring space that reminded us this was holy ground.  Our presence was not casual and neither was what happened in the presence of the Most High.  It was solemn without being stern, holy without being off putting, and special in a familiar sort of way.  My parents had learned well from the Psalmist and they taught us well.   I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the House of the Lord.

It was also a place for family.  My grandfather was there and tons of cousins and other relatives (I was not sure exactly how we were related but we were).  In the cemetery down form the back of the church building, there were planted even more relatives.  This was a congregation of family and family together (including those with whom we were related through Christ's blood and not our own).  Part of my gladness to be in the House of the Lord was the recognition that this was a place where my ancestors worshiped, prayed, confessed, and communed.

All of that will have to be retaught and relearned.  That God's House is a place that beckons us and a place we call home is no longer something to be assumed.  That God's House is a place of family and for family goes against the instinct we have learned (both individualism and the narrowest definition of family).  That God's House is a place of joy will have to overwhelm the sense of fear and foreboding that has characterized so much of our recent memories.  But that is exactly where we need to begin if we hope to end up with less of the new normal and more of the old normal.

Oddly in one sense but thoroughly understandable in another, the people who will have to relearn this are those on the younger end of our membership.  All through this pandemic we have been told repeatedly that age and health problems required those on the older end of our membership to isolate.  But age and affliction also serve as a reminder of the fragility of life and the need for what is given in the Word and Sacraments of God's House.  Perhaps it is also true that these as a group tend to be less convinced of the ability of technology to replace personal contact.  In any case, younger families may be the harder to convince that the Lord's House is a refuge, a place to run to and not from, and that in person worship around the Word and Table of the Lord cannot be replaced by anything digital and it will be even more critical to teach them to teach their children to be glad to come into the House of the Lord.  As much as anything, this will need be retaught, relearned, and rejoiced in if the Church post-pandemic is to look even close to the Church pre-pandemic.



 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Happy Boxing Day. . .

I well recall from Downton Abbey where a guest complained to Lord Grantham about the breakfast on the day after Christmas.  He wanted to know where the servants were.  The Lord politely replied that the servants had the morning off for their Christmas and that an English gentleman was eminently capable of getting his own breakfast.  It is not like they had to cook.  The food was already laid out.  All they had to do was serve themselves!  I think about that on Boxing Day.

Boxing Day comes from a time when the rich would box up gifts for the poor. Boxing Day was traditionally a day off for servants.  On this day they received a special Christmas box from the masters of the house. The servants would then take their box and head home to share it with their families.  It was a time to surrender privilege -- if only once a year.

We live with tremendous privilege.  Though we are all complaining loudly about the constraints upon our holiday season (from Thanksgiving to Christmas), the reality is that we are a very privileged people.  Even the death of a quarter of a million is small in comparison to the burdens endured by others.  This cumulative number of many months was endured by a much smaller population in a Tsunami that has escaped our memories.  We have hidden away in our homes, comfortable with the abundance of resources and entertainment options available to us.  Most of us have not had to sacrifice all that much financial (though some have certainly had to do so!).  This is due to a pandemic that has proven 99% survivable.  We should take care not to overestimate our sacrifice or the suffering we have borne.  The poor and afflicted from across the world and throughout the ages should rise up to confront our self-absorbed complaint as hypocrisy of the worst type.

We need a Boxing Day to rise up from the ashes of this pandemic -- a renewed sense of appreciation for the riches of our blessing and a grateful heart whose thankfulness is revealed in deeds and not in effusive words.  The truth is that I contribute very little to the Thanksgiving baskets or Christmas gift programs in my community.  It is because these are so well funded and supported.  It is the rest of the day that goes wanting.  The day after Christmas, our Christmas spirit is ready to be packed away and the poor become again an unwelcome burden upon our self-indulgence.  Boxing Day ought to come about once a month.  Even then, a ritualized awareness of those in need is not at all what the Scriptures envisioned of a people who live in eternal debt to the unearned largess of our Savior.  

So what is wrong with turning Boxing Day into the day we return unwanted gifts to exchange for the money or the stuff we really wanted?  Or, what is wrong with turning the day into a sale day when we can spend our money and get what we want at a discount?  Well, I will leave that to you. . . 

Just a few thoughts on Boxing Day. . .

Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Morning. . .

The Gospel According to St. John 1-18. 

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not. 12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. 15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. 16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. 17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. 18 No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

 





 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

On this night. . .

 














Things are not the same but neither are they different. . .

Undoubtedly we will hear and agree that this Christmas is different.  Masks, roped off pews, social distancing, pandemic, post-election -- well, you name it.  It all seems to point us to the fact that this will be a Christmas unlike every other.  And, yes, I will admit, some things will be different.  But Christmas will not.  Whether or not all your family makes it home, Christ made His home among us. Whether or not you are quarantining or trying to venture out as safely as possible, Christ took flesh and with it all that is dangerous, ugly, destructive, and marked for death upon Himself for YOU.  Whether or not there will be packages under the tree to open, Christ came for the tree of the cross and His birth points you to what God has done to bestow upon you grace you neither deserve nor have earned.  Whether or not some loved ones will be mourned this year instead of laughing, eating, and enjoying the day with us, Christ came to usher in the eternal dawn of light and life in which we are reunited with those who have gone before us with the sign of faith.  Yes, some things will be different but not the thing that makes it Christmas.

Every Christmas, the people of God have gathered with their wounds and their wonder, their worries and their whining, their fears and their fretting, their sorrows and their struggles.  No Christmas has come to us with everything in place, everything on their best behavior, all the right gifts and food, and all the right people gathered.  Or there would be no need for Christmas.  Christ has come for us precisely because of what is wrong and not because of anything that is good or right.  He has come as the great Savior of a people who need to be rescued -- not in the least from themselves and their self-absorbed lives.  Christ has come for a broken people living in a broken world with broken dreams formed from broken hearts.  That has always been Christmas, from the first night in which the angels swelled the silence with song and the star swelled the hearts of strangers to join the shepherds in worshiping Him who is born, King and Redeemer.  It is true tonight.  Yes, we may have to look past what has disappointed us or the constraints placed upon our celebrations or the sorrows that dampen our joys.  But we have always had to do that.  Christ did not come to affirm anything -- not even what we love -- but to rescue every one and every thing.  That is the hope born of the Virgin, laid in the manger, and worshiped as God in flesh.

Do yourself a favor and put on Lutheran Public Radio and listen to Christmas there. . . 






Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Bishops not prom kings. . .

Although bishops are not quite elected in the Roman Catholic Church and are elected among Lutherans (District Presidents included), it does seem to matter all that much.  Rome is in a mess for those who passed muster and were consecrated to the episcopal office.  Some of them have proven most adept at spending money and hiding problems.  Others have proven to be rather good at doing nothing at all.  Still others have presided over a shrinking diocese, clergy scandals, and an office that seems to bow at the altar of what politicians think.  There are some but not as many as should be who are strong, unmovable, steadfast, and stalwart.  Lutherans, due to elections, tend to elect those who have made friends and influenced people on their way up the leadership ladder -- but even more importantly, they have done nothing to tick off their friends or rile up their enemies.  In the end, both Rome and Wittenberg tend to elect and appoint people as if it were a beauty competition or popularity contest -- and one in which talent is a rather small part of it all.

I am sorry if I have offended.  But the reality is that overall our leaders have not distinguished themselves greatly.  They say good words but find it hard to act on them and they act more in the self-interest of themselves, the people, or the church rather than for Christ.  They script meetings so that little of a deliberative assembly survives.  They can be more concerned about what will pass over what is good, right, and true (for the sake of the Gospel).  They treat questions as challenges and interest as offense.  Information is power and they reserve both information and power for themselves and those who are like-minded.  

But it is not quite their fault.  After all we either approved or elected them.  We -- pastors and people in the parishes -- have worked hard to neuter our leaders and to make them beholden to us.  This is especially true for those who are elected but it is no less true of those whose election we have no power over.  The very people whom we thought were to speak truth to us and to the world have become the people to whom the truth must be spoken -- against all the reasons and rationale why they are doing the best they can.  But we must admit that we have an aversion to strong leaders.  We live in our parishes and in our communities like little fiefdoms ruling over our square foot of God's Kingdom pandering to the people the same way we accuse our leaders of doing.  And the people are happy about it because they want leaders who make them feel better more than leaders who will tell them the blunt and unflattering truth.  When we do get a leader who dogs us like one of the little barky von schnauzers, we either ignore them or discredit them.  We would rather have leaders who tell us what we want to hear rather than those who tell us what we do not want to hear.

The almost year past has shown us the cracks in our foundation.  Large parishes who act as if they can do whatever they want and small parishes who think they can squeeze by and all the parishes in between need to wake up and pay attention.  Evangelical wannabes are not serving the confession and are compromising the Church in dangerous ways.  Those who want the message to change with the mood of America and those who live in a their own world need a wake up call.  We will be judged not by our numbers or customer satisfaction but our faithfulness to God's Word and works.  I look in vain for any Scriptures to support the idea of a popular Church but I find all sorts of references to a Church under persecution, threat, and trial.  Maybe filling the pews is not as important as being faithful in proclamation and practice.  After all, if God had wanted to fill the pews, He would have easily figured out a more popular means than a cross once for all and a people who walk in the way of the cross toward a kingdom they can neither see nor grasp except by faith. 

So we have ended up as loose confederations of like minded people among whom oversight of doctrine and practice has been replaced with back scratching and smooth talking.  Conservative or liberal, we would rather have do nothings in our high offices rather than people who might challenge us to the hard things of faith and life together.  And the end result is a mess.  Whether Rome or Wittenberg, everyone is doing what seems right in their own eyes -- but this not toward individuality is hardly God's pleasing or doing the Church and the faithful any good.  We may not all be sure what to do with courageous leaders who stand for the right no matter how popular but it is about time we got some and supported them even when they were speaking truth to us that we did not wish to hear.  So, if you want to know what I want for Christmas, it is leaders who are men of courage and faithfulness and pastors and people who will in humility hear and heed their calls to be upright and faithful.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The simple definition of Catholic. . .

With all due respect to St. Vincent of LĂ©rins, it occurs to me that his definition of catholicity might not be as clear as one might like.  It sounds great in theory but in practice you have competing groups who all claim to be and to have what St. Vincent describes.  So, if you will, let me give you a definition of Catholic that is both simple and practical.  You will note that I am speaking here of Catholic in the fullest sense of that word (and have dispensed with the small c  to emphasize how important this is.

The Catholic believes the Word of God.  The Scriptures are, for the Catholic, not simply words or even words but a means of grace.  They are true and this truth is nothing to shake a stick at but in one sense they are even better than true.  They are efficacious.  The Catholic reveres the Word of God not simply because of its origin or its history or even because it is factual, historic, and true.  No, the Catholic honors the Word of God because it does what it says and bestows that which it speaks.  It is not a dead word of history but the living voice of the Good Shepherd still calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying the sheep.  This Word of God is not theoretical or something we must distill -- this Word of God is the Bible.  You cannot be Catholic and claim that its principal figures are mythological or symbolic or that its miracles are legend or imagination.  You cannot be Catholic and hold something over the Scriptures -- not reason or judgment or preference or opinion.  Not even Church.  It is the same fool's errand as the chicken and the egg to try and figure out which came first -- the Bible or the Church.  One is never without the other.  Every Catholic knows this and believes this and is not embarrassed or ashamed of the Word of God.  We live by it for it's power is the Scriptures and it cannot be divorced in some neat way from its speaker -- the Son of God.

The Catholic lives by the liturgy.  The liturgy is not optional or a bare framework or adiaphora.  The liturgy is the drumbeat of the life of the Christian and the life of the Church.  It moves through time to the rhythm of the Church Year and the weekly movement from Lord's Day to Lord's Day.  The liturgy informs the piety of the Christian by recalling the baptismal identity imparted by God and filling it with the means of grace -- Word and Eucharist.  The Catholic does not choose between God's gifts but lives by them as God has given them -- gifts, richly provided, according to God's design and not what you prefer or desire.  The liturgy calls us to confession and absolution for who can enter into God's presence or dare to walk upon the holy ground with being made clean by the grace of forgiveness?  The Catholic does not find this to be some routine and mundane practice to get out of the way before getting to the good stuff.  For the Catholic, forgiveness is itself the good stuff and the Catholic delights in that good stuff and rejoices over the mercy that absolves the unworthy and undeserving.  The liturgy is the setting in which God bestows upon us the very bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  In this bread is the flesh of Christ and in this cup is His blood -- not as symbols but as means through which what it signed is actually bestowed.  The presence is real -- the most real thing of all.  The presence is not present because we believe it to be or even because the Church and the ministry says it is.  It is Christ's Word that effects this mystery and miracle and it is Christ's Supper and not the Church's or the Christians.  He uses bread and wine and uses the voice of the Pastor but it is His Word and His Eucharist that we are invited to hear, believe, receive, and rejoice in.

The Catholic prays -- not as some sort of formula to get what you want from a God reluctant to give you grace but as the faithful who believe God knows, wills, and bestows that which is good, right, and best.  This faith is epitomized in the phrase Thy will be done.  The Catholic believes this.  The Catholic does not qualify this or attempt to manipulate it but makes knows the desires of the heart with the faith to believe that God's grace is sufficient, His will is gracious, and His purpose is our good.  The Catholic loves forms for prayer because they connect our lives of prayer, intercession, supplication, and thanksgiving with those who went before us but the Catholic does not elevate the form above the faith that prays.  The Catholic prays above all the Our Father as our Eucharistic prayer, our prayer of confession, our prayer of thanksgiving, and our prayer of thanksgiving.  

The Catholic sings.  Music is not primarily a personal preference or individual choice but the medium God has provided for us to worship Him.  We do not sing because we want to or like to but because this IS what we do.  The response of God's people to God's mighty acts of deliverance are sung.  From Moses teaching the children of Israel to sing of God's deliverance to the angels singing at the birth of the Savior to the choirs spoken of in heaven by St. John the Divine and the Revelation give him by the Spirit, we sing.  Music is not performance but confessional and liturgical and doxological.  Theology must sing or it is not theology and the people of God sing or they are not the people of God.  From the chants of Psalm and Divine Service to the hymns old and new, we sing.  It is who we are and what we do in response to what God has done for us.

The Catholic confesses and prays the Creed (s).  The Creeds are not the voice of people or the Church or an authority that competes with the Scriptures but the response of the Church to the voice of God's Word.  We hear what God has said and we repeat back to Him what He has said -- and in doing so that which is most sure and certain is placed upon our lips as worship to God and witness to the world.  The Catholic honors the way through the ages the unchanging doctrine of the faith has unfolded and been applied to specific times and for specific challenges.  The Catholic also confesses from time to time in ways that do not compete with either the Word or the creeds but apply to the particular moment the voice of reform and renewal when the structures have failed us and our leaders have lost their way.

The Catholic shines with the borrowed light of Christ before the world.  Our works neither compete with nor replace God's work to redeem His lost and death marked creation but they do help our neighbor, show forth God's glory, and give evidence of the hope within us.  God does not need these works but our neighbor does and so we delight in loving as we have been loved, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and serving as we have been served -- even though these words do not earn us anything.  Everything we have has been given to us by God's gracious and steadfast love but what we receive is reflected in who we are, how we think, what we say, and what we live.  We do not expect that our works will fix what is wrong in the world (Christ has already done that) but we do bear the burdens of those around us because Christ has borne our burden even to the cross.  We are not do-gooders but do Christ's good to others as He has done it to us -- it is all about Christ and all for Christ.  The Catholic does not give to God but returns to the Lord what the Lord has given -- the tithes (yes, tithes!) and offerings we bring as the first fruits of what God has given us for His glory, for the support of His Kingdom and work, and because this is our duty as well as delight.

I know I have left out some things and I am sure some people will disagree with me but this is what I think of and what I mean when I use the word catholic or Catholic.

Monday, December 21, 2020

You have found favor. . .

Sermon for Advent 4B, preached on Sunday, December 20, 2020.

I well remember opening the letter that said the admissions committee had viewed favorably my application to enter seminary.  It was interesting wording.  It was not simple that they had accepted my application but they had viewed my application with favor.  It is formal language.  Like the old days in which an invitation was often accompanied with an RSVP that said The favor of a reply is requested.  It is a little different than the usual can you do me a favor. This favor is not a one time kindness but a life changing act.

Today we heard how the angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary with these words.  Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  Though we might not think favor such a big thing, it is bigger than anyone can imagine.  When the Lord looked with favor on the blessed Virgin history was changed.  Out of all the people living, it was Mary who figured into God’s plan to save His people from the consequences of their chosen path of sin and rebellion. It was Mary who would carry in her womb the mighty Son of God.  It was Mary who would cry out with the pain of childbirth to deliver up God Himself in human flesh.  It as Mary who would give Him the name Jesus, because He would save His people.  Her life was forever changed and ours as well because of God’s favor.

According to her response, the song we call the Magnificat, the significance of this all was not lost on her.  It is a song of gratitude as much as praise.  She lauds the mercy of God who viewed her with favor, who lifted her of low birth to the place of honor, and whose mercy would make all generations call her the Blessed One.  God did not find in Mary a perfect woman without need of any of His divine grace or mercy but He did find a woman of faith, who trusted in the Lord, who listened to the voice of His Word and believed it, and who would humbly consent to that Word as the divine plan for her life to supercede everything she once desired.

We heard today God speak to Blessed Mary through the voice of the angel,  Do not be afraid.  You have found favor with God.  But these words were also spoken to us.  We too quickly look past the favor of God to other concerns that appear to be larger in our eyes.  Keeping ourselves alive in the face of a viral pandemic, keeping our finances afloat in the face of lock downs and closed doors, or finding toilet paper and other essentials in the panic buying of people giving into the power of fear.  These things come and go, good and bad, but God’s favor remains on us.
Wearing a mask, forsaking most contact with anyone outside the smallest of circles, and maintaining a physical distance that in every other time of history would have been called anti-social.  Not being able to be with the aged in their last days or the frail in nursing homes or the hospitalized in their recovery.  We have no shortage of things for which we have willingly sacrificed because we fear the consequences.  It is no wonder why we might discount the value of the Lord’s favor. All these things will pass, but God’s favor remains on you and me.

When the Lord addressed the Blessed Virgin Mary so long ago, He was speaking words that would echo through time and eternity in the face of the Christ.  Do not be afraid.  The world can persecute you and threaten you with words and diseases that could would your heart and kill your body.  But do not be afraid.  The world cannot steal away your hope in Christ or take away the promise He has given of a new heaven, a new earth, and a new life without any threats or fears the old life knows.  Do not be afraid of losing you life because your life is hidden with God in Christ and no one can steal from you that which God gives.  Do not be afraid because your life is not defined by the sorrows and struggles of this moment any more than it is capable of knowing only the joys and contentment of this moment.  Whether you live or die, You belong to the Lord.  This is God’s favor.

My friends, God’s favor rests not only on the Blessed Virgin Mary but upon YOU.  You have God’s favor upon you.  From the call of God to come to the font where He would bestow upon you the fruits of this living water to the hand of God that lifts you from this veil of tears, the favor of God rests on YOU.  From the tears that fill your eyes to the smiles your cannot contain, do not be afraid for the favor of God rests on YOU.  

What does this favor look like?  The God who should count every one of your sins against you has chosen to forgive you.  The God who should reserve His mercy for those who are worthy, has chosen to give YOU what you neither deserve nor have  earned.  The God who by rights should have written you and all people off and consigned us to punishment and death has chosen to bear the punishment for you and give you instead the gift of life.

Now, right now, in this moment in time, God’s favor rests upon you.  He has decided to look upon you and your sins with mercy and to bestow upon you the gracious gift of a blessed future you cannot even imagine.  
So do not give into the power of fear.  Do not succumb to gloom and doom and despair.  Do not lament the bad without also rejoicing in the good God has done for you.  God has chosen to look upon you favorably.  He has given you the favor of an answer to your cry for help.  He has shown His favor by giving up His one and only Son to suffer for your sins and die in you place the death to sin – once for all – so that you might live with Him forevermore.

We would be happy enough if half our dreams came true but God’s favor makes this pale in comparison.  The impossible dream has come true.  As good as the best of life’s things are, they are nothing compared to the gift God has given you by looking upon you favorable, desiring to save you even if it cost Him His only begotten Son, and giving up your sins to the death of a sinless Savior.  Yet that remains the struggle, doesn’t it.  We are more interested in earthly treasures that fade away than we are Christ’s heavenly victory.  We complain more urgently about all that is wrong than we rejoice in the surprise of God’s mercy.

Satan’s goal is not to make you bad so that God will hate you.  Satan’s goal is to help you discount what God has done to save you so that you will hate God – or at least go your own way and do your own thing without thinking of God.  But to follow the example of Mary is to remember God’s foremost words to you.  Do not be afraid for you have found favor with the Lord.

We live in complaining times amid a people who are not sure who they can trust or if they want to trust anyone.  We argue about everything and are more divided now than any point in our history.  We have made ourselves miserable by thinking we know more than everyone else and we cannot trust anyone else.  We dismiss every blessing as too little or too late and we view everyone – friend or foe – with suspicion.  It has got to stop.  It is distracting us from the one thing needful and from the most important words of all.  Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.  These words have to be lens with which we see ourselves and our lives or nothing else will matter and nothing will ever satisfy the longing of our hearts.  That is why Mary is an example to us of faith, of humility, of joy, and of contentment.  So, come let us follow her in delighting in the Lord, in trusting in His Word, and in rejoicing over the favor He has shown to us in Christ His Son.  Amen.

Influence. . .

The socialization of our youth is increasingly consigned to the screen.  From media to internet, our youth are influenced by this unsocial media more than by the institutions that once held the trust and support of their parents -- from schools to churches!  At some point in time, we must admit that the internet has proven to be a mixed blessing.  It began with high hopes but it has also served as a tool for the entrenched divisions that have plagued our political and cultural divisions.  Perhaps the worst is that few foresaw the profound impact the ever present screen would have on our children.  And now the genie is out of the bottle -- or, should we say, Pandora's Box has been opened and cannot be closed!

At one point in time the Church was also as powerful as the family in shaping the truths, expectations, and assumptions of our youth.  That times has come and gone and the Church fights for the attention of our kids as much as she does for adults who have kicked the habit or never began it.  We can regret what has happened but the reality is that the days when the Church could say something and people would notice have come and gone.  But even when the Church was a pervasive influence, it was not one in the same controlling way that the internet has taken over our lives and dictated what we believe, think, and do.

If you watch action movies that take place in England or Europe, you see how much of daily life is captured by the video cameras that are all over the place.  Even more so, you see how there is almost a centralized access and control of those cameras.  This has not only the effect of monitoring what is happening but actually directing the dynamic and defining how fast it goes and where it goes.  Look no further than to China to see how far government surveillance has gone.  China right now has developed the technological capability to closely monitor the lives of all its people.  This means not only ensuring that those who participate in public life do so in ways that are approved or sanctioned but it also means that China has the ability to deter those who refuse to conform to the sanctions on speech, conduct, work, politics, and even family size.  They have done so with such success that they are right now using this ability to affect minority populations that were once tolerated and given some measure of limited freedoms. In China, you cannot marry, have children, buy, sell, or have a public opinion unless this meets with the permission of the deep state. You would be a fool to think that this is not the direction we are facing as well.  

China has adroitly replaced social trust with fear and exploited this fear with surprising ease.  Look at the ways in which the NBA and basketball superheros cultivate their relationship with this deep state in China and live according to their rules.  China has effectively used its vast market as a tool to control what happens within that marketplace.  There the smartphone has replaced the computer as the tool of choice with which you live your life online.  Americans are not far behind.  Soon we will no longer question the use of social media by our own deep state to define and enforce what people think and believe and do.  In many respects, it is impossible to overstate how powerful the internet and social media are in socializing our youth.  Nothing else — not church, not family, nothing — is more powerful.  This is the reason why the Vatican and Pope Francis have made their accords with the Chinese leadership.  They don't want to be left out but how far they will go to remain in the game is its own issue for Rome to face.

So what is my point?  The more the Church relies upon and uses social media platforms to express its identity, the more vulnerable the Church is to those social platforms shaping what is believed and taught within the Church.  We may well learn how to effectively engage our people online but in doing so we may also surrender ourselves to those who control that online access and to the prevailing cultural norms that media support and enforce.  A recent article suggested that the 2020 election proved that neither side is into engaging and changing the minds of people.  But 2020 did show that our divided society has learned to utilize social media to harden our divisions.  This, too, will be the legacy of our first use of social media -- to harden our divisions and mark them even as we compete with our neighbors.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Hope against hope. . .

Hope is in short supply today and with this limited commodity has come despair, fear, and deep loneliness -- even among Christians.  We generally look around us for signs that things are improving and think this is what gives us hope.  So we search for markers -- economic, cultural, medical, and perhaps even polls -- to tell us that things are better than they seem or better than we can see right now.  One of the things surveys look for is how many have a positive attitude toward the future.  I guess if you are in the White House and running for re-election, this matters.  But is this what Christian hope is?  Is our hope as fragile as the shifting sands of our up and down world?

We do not pin our hope to improving realities or a signs of a better or even happier life.  We do not judge hope through the markers.  For the Christian hope rests on what cannot be seen, what cannot even be known -- except by faith.  We do not have crystal balls or special sight.  We have only the Word and promise of God.  But that is enough, more than enough, to sustain hope when all around us things are falling apart.  It is all Christians have ever had.

In the coliseum facing lions, under the persecution of mighty Caesars, without the protection of law, and with the prospect of martyrdom near, Christians endured in hope.  They trusting in what their hands could not hold and their eyes could not see.  They believed the promise of God of a new heaven and a new earth, of a future without tears or sorrow, of the white robes sin could no more stain, and of a life without any hint of death.  It was enough.  They endured.

In the emptying cities and amid the stench of death, Christians met the threat of the plague.  They had no cure or vaccine but they had the presence of God and the hope of a better life to come.  They endured the struggles, burying the many dead, and living in the shadow of their own death.  But hope did not disappoint them.  They lived in the present the promise of God for a future beyond imagination.  It was enough.  They endured.

In the terror of wars supposed to end all wars, fighting against tyranny and fascism, watching their brothers fall, Christians endured in hope of a real peace engineered not by diplomacy in meeting rooms or bigger and better weapons but a cross planted where nothing lived except hope.  They set off to do battle expecting death to be near and life to be hard but hope accompanied them.  They came hope with hidden wounds and missing limbs but they built families and homes, businesses and communities, and walked in hope where despair once lived.  It was enough.  They endured.

Now we face the barking voices of media counting off the numbers at the start of every newscast, with the blame game that promoted the lie that life could ever be safe or people insulated from danger, and with the prospect of a vaccine to come.  Some of us Christians have allowed fear and despair to steal our hearts and control our minds, refusing to hope until progress is seen and life is made more comfortable.  That is not our hope.  Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.  Will we remember that as we sit in our homes behind locked doors?  Will we put faith to work or give our faith a day off and leave hope to the world and those who promise all the answers?

My friends, Christian hope is different from the hope the world dares.  It is not logical or reasonable or rational or measured.  Our hope lies in the shape of a cross that has become the tree of life for all who believe and a hope that you cannot see but which will not disappoint you.  And the time has come for us to turn off the news and step away from the screens and pick up the Word and feast upon the Lord's Table.  There is where God plants, tends, and brings to fruition the precious tree called hope.  That is why we need to return to the place called home, where God is present in His Word and feeds us at the Table of our Lord.  The longer we stay away from this norm, that more difficult the new norm of COVID's shadow will be to escape.  Hope was enough for Christians in all the troubles trials of the world in the past.  Is it enough for you and for me now?

Hope is not weak or shallow or faint.  It is strong and deep and mighty.  Abraham surveyed the sand on the shore and the stars in the sky and saw a mighty legacy of faith.  Israel saw a mighty army in pursuit and a wall of water left and right and a land flowing with milk and honey.  A virgin saw God in a promise and the Son of God in her womb and redemption for a a whole world.  What do you see?