Recent Message

Matthew 2:1-12 "PEOPLE WHO DON'T BELONG"
The Epiphany of Our Lord (observed) - Jan. 10, 2021


  After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
  Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
   After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.


  Before jumping both feet into our text, I'd invite you to think about a time in life when you felt out of our element ... a very personal, individual moment, when you thought yourself the 'odd one out.' You may even have told yourself, “I don’t belong here.” Maybe you were about to do something you’d never done before and frankly never imagined yourself doing:  like zip-lining through the treetops at one of those outdoor adventure parks, or standing at the open door of small plane about to step into the wildblue yonder (sky-diving). Or maybe you were simply in an uncomfortable situation ... on a blind date with someone of whom a friend had said, “I know this really nice guy or girl who you should meet. I think you two would hit it off.” In such a situation you can feel like the proverbial a duck out of water, telling yourself, “I just don’t belong here!"  

   I don’t know if Tom Brady felt that way yesterday in leading Tampa Bay to their first playoff victory in 18 years. After 20 seasons as quarterback with the New England Patriots, it seems uncharacteristic to see Tom Brady in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' uniform, as if he doesn’t quite belong.  

   In his account of our Lord's life, the evangelist Matthew shows us a gospel filled with people who don’t belong in the places that they’re found. In many cases it’s glaringly odd …

  • What’s the disciple Peter doing, walking on the water of the stormy Sea of Galilee?!
  • What’s that Roman army officer doing, groveling at Jesus’ feet and begging for his servant’s life?!
   The scenes you come across in Matthew's gospel can seem incongruous - the pairing of person and place usual and head-scratchingly strange.

  As we turn to the familiar account of that bright eastern star which signaled the Messiah’s birth and the subsequent visit of that cadre of foreigners, the Wise Men, who knelt in worship before the newborn King of the Jews, we find a number of these odd match-ups —   people who don’t belong in the places they’re found. Let’s see if we can sort them out and discover what they teach us about Epiphany.  

 
1. The Magi did not belong bowing before the newborn king of the Jews.

  We think first of the Magi or Wise Men as they’re commonly called. Matthew identifies them as coming “from the East.” They weren’t from Jerusalem or even another part Israel. These men were foreigners. But of greater significance than their country of origin was the fact that the Magi were Gentiles, meaning they had weren’t heirs to the promise of the Messiah. Some  which the Lord had made some 2000 years earlier to patriarchs (the fathers) of Jewish nation – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  Even more striking – eyebrow-raising, these Gentile outsiders – these Magi – were magicians! … no, not on the order of magicians like Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, or Penn & Teller. These Magi were spiritual magicians with whom the king could consult. They seem to have been court astrologers on the order of ‘Jannes and Jambres,’ the two legendary wizards of whom we read in Exodus 7, who served under the Egyptian Pharaoh in the days of Moses, or the court magicians who served Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, of mentioned in Daniel 5. As such, the Magi probably were not pure worshipers of the Lord. They quite likely had a ‘mixed faith’ (syncretic religion) in which they had a fuzzy knowledge of the God of Israel.
No, the Magi did not belong in Jerusalem; they did not belong bowing before the King of the Jews.

 
2. King Herod, an Idumean – and a wicked one at that - did not belong on David’s throne.

  As we consider this, we find too that Herod was in a place where he did not belong. Herod was by nationality an Idumean, a descendant of Esau, who was seated on the throne of Israel not by a royal lineage traced to David, but by the proclamation of the Roman Senate. Herod had no rightful claim to sit on the throne of David but thanks to political posturing and ‘strategic wedding vows,’ that was indeed where Herod was found. And thanks to his ruthless and paranoid nature – along with the execution of any person who had legitimate claim to the throne, there he stayed.

  Caesar Augustus, a close friend of Herod, is reportedly quoted as saying, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” Herod had his favorite wife, Mariamne, killed because of suspected infidelity, and he likewise ordered the deaths of his uncle, his mother-in-law, and three of his own sons. So you can understand why the Magi made a big mistake when they showed up in Jerusalem the capital of Israel seeking the new-born king in the palace of Herod. It was a mistake that made all Jerusalem tremble and if Herod’s wrath and jealousy would be stirred by such an tiny error, and then heaven help them all!

   Jerusalem’s residents were right to tremble in fear.  Herod’s jealousy and his paranoia would soon produce weeping and mourning among her daughters, the mothers of all the baby boys around Bethlehem, who were put to the sword in this king’s vain attempt to eliminate his rival.

 
3. Jesus, too, did not belong in the many places where he was often found.

  The King of the Jews whom the Magi sought wasn’t in the royal palace. He wasn’t even in Jerusalem. He was in Bethlehem, the village which the Prophet Micah described as “small among the clans of Judah.” That newborn King was under the care of a carpenter with calloused hands and a young virgin with soft, tender hands and heart to match.

  No, the King of the Jews was not where he should have been. He should have been in a mansion full of every comfort, dressed in fine regal clothing, and attended by servants on all sides. Instead, the King of the Jews was laid in a manger at birth, bereft of any kingly comfort, with shepherds as his only attendants. Later, the Magi attended him as well, presumably in a simple house in Bethlehem.

  This was not the last time that the King of the Jews would be found in unexpected places and in places where he did not belong:
  • He was found in the waters of the Jordan, baptized among sinners, for sinners. John the Baptist noticed. This was not where the King of the Jews belonged.
  • The King of the Jews was found eating and drinking with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners —   hardly the people of high moral fiber or impeccable pedigree who should make up a royal court. The Pharisees noticed. This was not where the King of the Jews belonged.
  • And who would have thought to look for the King of the Jews on a cross, enthroned and executed between two criminals? No one expected that.

  These were hardly the places to seek and find the King of the Jews, the heir of David’s throne, the Messiah. So, the star had to guide the Magi to that tiny house in Bethlehem; … the Spirit had to descend and the Father had to speak at the Jordan; … the prophets had to describe the work of the Christ as being for transgressors, the workers of iniquity; … Pilate’s sign had to be written.

  All of this was not just for the Jews, but also for the Gentile nations –  so that humanity might be guided to Jesus, King of the Jews, expectation of the prophets, the crucified Savior, and forgiver of sins.

4. We do not belong in God’s presence, but cleansed by the blood of Jesus we are invited to come.

  So, do you see what I mean about the evangelist Matthew showing us a gospel filled with people who do not belong in the places where they are found?

  Actually, this is a point of rejoicing for us, for it does not take too much honest self-examination to realize that we do not belong in the presence of God. Mindful of Isaiah’s description of us (6:5), we all have unclean hearts, and we live among a people of unclean hearts. Yet, we come into the presence of God by his precious invitation, guided not by a star but by the Holy Spirit, working in many and various ways to bring us to the life-giving water of new birth. We come into the presence of God trusting in his promise that our bodies have been washed with pure water and our hearts cleansed by that sprinkling of Jesus’ blood – as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us. We come into the presence of God knowing that our Lord has bidden us to come to him as his very own children —   not to punish us, but to give us his grace and blessing.

No, we don’t belong here among God’s chosen people or in this royal priesthood, this holy nation, in which we now stand. But here we are, drawn by God’s goodness and mercy, crowned with forgiveness and salvation so that we may be his own and live under him in his kingdom forevermore.

  None of us merits this honor, but having been so called, gathered, and enlightened, we now go into the world as light for the world, proclaiming the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. The people of the world live in the darkness of unbelief and continue to search for salvation in places where it is not found. So like the star that led the Magi to Jesus, you serve as the Lord’s chosen instruments to lighten others’ paths and guide them in the way of Holy Scripture so that those who walk in darkness, too, may see his great light and kneel before Christ and worship with outstretched hands, being given his precious gifts for the remission of all their sin.
 
   People drawn by the Holy Spirit out of the darkness of sin won’t always get things right. They will often lean on their own understanding – as the Magi did when they initially stopped in Jerusalem rather than in Bethlehem; even as we choose ways that are to our liking but are not in keeping with the will of God. It happens because we’re sinful by nature. But, happily, the Spirit continues to guide us truthfully and faithfully to our Savior, so that we might repent of our errant footsteps and, in the end, be found with Christ in his kingdom of glory … exactly where the Lord God says to each of us:  “Here, my child, you belong!”

  Amen.


John 7:40-43 "THE WORD CREATES CONTROVERSY"
Second Sunday after Christmas - Jan. 3, 2021


  On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”
Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”
  Thus the people were divided because of Jesus."


  If there’s one thing a person absolutely, positively, has to have in the desert it is water. Without water in the desert, you die. That’s obviously not a profound statement. Neither, therefore, is it difficult to understand why Jesus’ words at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem caused the discussion that they did.

  The incident the evangelist John reports here in our Gospel is virtually a leap of lightyears in terms of where we have been in the past several weeks:  kneeling with the shepherds at manger-side, ... eavesdropping on that scene in the Temple when aged Simeon and Anna meet Jesus as babe-in-arms. Here, our Lord is already grown to manhood. He's become a wildly popular rabbi and miracle-worker. He comes to Jerusalem in the fall of the year, perhaps eight months ahead of his going to the cross.  

  A fascinating ritual would take place at the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three prescribed Old Testament festivals for the Israelites. Every day for eight days a contingent of priests would lead worshippers from the Temple mount in procession to the nearby Pool of Siloam. There the priests would take a golden pitcher, dip it into the pool, and draw out water to be ceremonially poured on the Altar of Sacrifice. As they made their way in procession back to the Temple, the priests and people would sing the words of Isaiah 12, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” If the Feast of Tabernacles was summarized as just one thing, it would indisputably be the solemn commemoration of the way God provided for his people Israel in the desert, especially for his providing water from the rock.

  With that background in mind, picture this —  into this scene walks Jesus (!) who stands and proclaims in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” Think about that for a moment. Are there even words to describe the kind of earth-shattering statement this was?! That declaration created such a stir among those who heard it that the people were abuzz. They turned to each other with incredulous looks on their faces. They were wondering what this man was saying and what it meant for them and, more than that, just who this person was!? 
   
   It's that scene John captures so simply in these verses and which we want to consider on this Second Sunday after Christmas: “The Word Creates Controversy.”
 
  What was that controversy? John says, “On hearing his words, some of the people said, 'Surely this man is the Prophet.' Others said, 'He is the Christ.' Still others asked,  'How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?' Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.”

   
The center of the controversy was Jesus' identity. Some of these people were of the opinion that Jesus was THE ONE whom the Lord had foretold through Moses nearly 1400 years earlier - the Great Prophet like Moses from among his own brothers whom God would raise up and to whom everyone needed to listen. In truth Jesus was (is) exactly that One! He is the Prophet (Spokesman from God) who had come to give a better word than Moses. But it’s unclear just what these people thought that meant given the fact that John contrasts them with a second group who confessed Jesus as the Christ. Finally there was the group who questioned both evaluations regarding Jesus, and in them we see the greatest disgrace of all. Armed with a vague awareness of Scripture and a smug indifference in spiritual matters, their questions reveal a group more assured of their own opinions than the Word of God or the man right in front of them. For in their first question they ask it in such a way that expects “no” to be the answer, even though Isaiah had foretold the Christ’s work in Galilee. Of course, they were right about the Christ coming from Bethlehem and from David’s line.

  Unfortunately, none of them did so much as even bother to ask where Jesus had come from. If they had, they would have known him as the One born in Bethlehem in keeping with Micah’s prophecy and they would have realized his royal lineage as the Son of David. But they didn’t ask and didn’t do the research – didn’t search the Scriptures – because, frankly, they didn’t care. And so this indifference existed not just in and amongst the people in that crowd, but within each individual – in the sinful heart and mind of people, the Word had created controversy by exposing an inability on one’s own to know him … an outright reluctance to know him and an unwillingness to know him.

  Sound familiar? Of course it does – and especially at this time of year! It’s why so many people want to have a Christ-less Christmas. It’s why cheery nostalgia packs church pews on Christmas Eve but leaves them less than packed on Christmas 2. It’s why so, so many prefer to linger at the wooden manger marveling at the baby but never manage to marvel at the man on the wooden cross, instead casting a derisive leer at such an image. It’s because no one on their own wants to know Jesus. No one on their own can know Jesus. The Word creates that controversy.

  If we look into our hearts, we must conclude and confess the same. We are all ‘foot-draggers’ when it comes to being diligent, eager Berean students of God’s Word. Why do Bible classes stay empty while restaurants grow packed to have people waiting for a table? It’s because by nature (thinking now of our Old Adam) none of us truly loves Jesus, none of us are truly ‘married’ to his Word. We cling to the opinion that a vague awareness and a passing familiarity with him is good enough. But, of course, it is not. When we think such thoughts and when our hearts stay cold toward him, then we are on the wrong side – the losing side – of the divide that Jesus causes.

  And that’s why Christmas is such a remarkable event, because on Christmas we have two miracles that we need to ponder. The angels sang one. Simeon sang the other. The angels of course sang that peace existed between God and rebellious mankind because God’s own Son had become man – a remarkable miracle indeed! But perhaps the more magnificent miracle is the one Simeon sang about: that God has revealed this to me! That ought to just blow us away. Why me? Why you? Why not anybody, everybody else? We are, after all, no different than they? The answer is grace pure, unadulterated grace.

  Consider the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed and its explanation. We confess with Martin Luther: “I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts ...”. Jesus exposes our inabilities to know him and therefore believe in him precisely so that we may believe in him. By exposing our ignorance in spiritual matters Jesus compels us to rely on him to work that trust so that our salvation may never be in question. For when God is the author and perfector of our faith, then it is a firm and certain matter from beginning to end. But when we try to take responsibility in any small part, especially in regards to coming to faith, our certainty of salvation is inevitably lost. I can never know fully and surely that I know him well enough on my own!
So what will we do to stay close to him? … to stay on the proper side of the divide? Listen to him. Hear his Word. Study his Word. Read his Word yourself and in your family. Come to his house. Learn about him diligently.

  You see, when you do these things —   God does even more for you! In the Word he delivers THE WORD to you, the One who the evangelist John said in the prologue to his gospel “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” In the Word we see THE WORD, Jesus Christ. We watch him grow up before the eyes of sinful men and live a perfect life under the law of God in place of us sinners. Through the Word we hear and learn how Jesus shouldered the guilt of our sin, …how he bled and died on a cross to forgive us and to restore us to a right relationship with his heavenly Father and how he so freely bestows on us the gifts of eternal life – salvation! Through the Word we see the God-man, Jesus Christ, rise from the dead, thereby guaranteeing that his Word is true, that he is indeed God’s only begotten Son and that all who believe in him will live forever as well. That, dear friends, is what our Lord gives in his Word! That, dear friends, is precisely what sinners such as you and I need.
 
   Two thousand years ago, at a monumental Feast, Jesus made waves by declaring to all in the Temple that he had water for those who were thirsty. Today Jesus stands in this temple and declares once again to all who are thirsty that he has water for all who are interested. That controversial word, dear friends, is your hope and salvation today, and your hope and salvation forever.

  Amen.





Luke 2:6-12  "GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY"
Christmas Day - Dec. 25, 2020


  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”


  They’re calling this a ‘Christmas like no other’ – and in many respects it is.

   People here in America and around the world have had to make adjustments reluctantly, grudgingly, to their holiday traditions. For some families, layoffs and closures have translated into a skinny Christmas, with fewer presents under the tree and scaled-back get-together plans.

  A temptation would be to look back to Christmases past and feel glum, disheartened by the losing hand we’ve been dealt. A self-pity session could ensue and the classic anti-Christmas word could easily cross our lips:  “Bah Humbug!” What was it Ebenezer Scrooge said? “Every idiot who goes about with a ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
 
  But is it so bad —   that the frustration over our present circumstances should totally rob us of the joy of Christmas? In this ‘Christmas like no other’ our thoughts go back, not to the joy of days gone by or the gifts we’ve given and received through the years. We go back further ... to a Christmas that was truly like no other —   to the very first Christmas when God gave the perfect Christmas gift!

   The angel whose appearance initially filled Bethlehem’s shepherds with fright told them he’d been sent to bring them “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY”! And indeed, it was good news! The birth of the world’s Savior! That news yields a joy that cannot be dimmed or negated by any outward circumstances ... a joy that truly lifts our spirits and sends our hearts soaring!

1.  The humble child born in Bethlehem

  The first Christmas opens to a scene of serene simplicity. A young couple ambles into a small Judean town, Bethlehem. Here is where the pair need to go to register because the powers that be have decreed it. A census has been declared, as Roman rulers were wont to do every set number of years in parts of the realm for the purpose of taxation. The command meant that this pair, residents of Nazareth in Galilee, had to return to their ancestral home. But they’re not the only ones from Bethlehem. The census crowds the small town with a lot of people, swelling the population far above the normal 300 or so residents.

  Here in this scene we find Joseph and Mary, a man and his fiancée – a young woman obviously pregnant and due any minute. Her condition makes finding shelter imperative. She doesn’t want to give birth out-of-doors and this baby won’t wait. A place to bed down is found in a barn, likely a converted cave rather than the quaint wooden structure we customarily imagine. Like every baby born in human history, the Child comes – stunning in how ordinary it all happens, at the same time profound beyond human comprehension. This Child, born like every other child, is like no other child. His birth creates a Christmas like no other.

  How? Why? Through this humble birth, God slips into our human race; it’s so common, so unnoticed for the present. Mary gives birth, wraps her newborn Son in strips of cloth, and places him in a manger – a feeding trough for animals. Nowadays we might question how sanitary all this would’ve been. Why couldn’t the skilled carpenter, Joseph, have rigged up a better bed – whipped something up quick? In the days of hospital births and maternity suites, we might wish the Lord of the universe had better accommodations. But for people of humble station in the 1st century AD, the surroundings were adequate. Besides, the manger and the swaddling clothes would soon be clues informing the shepherds that, yes, they’d found the right Child.

  On the one hand it’s all so ordinary! On the other hand the difference is striking —   this is no ordinary child! Prophets wrote and spoke of his coming hundreds of years ahead of time. They described his royal lineage – descended from David. They identified Bethlehem as his birthplace. They also understood the significance of the event. Here, God comes down from his throne on high. Here, conceived and born miraculously by the power of Holy Spirit, through a virgin mother, Immanuel appears. No trumpets announce his arrival though he is a King of unparalleled majesty. No fireworks light up the sky. No jostling press corps vies to scoop the story. It’s so simple, but so profound:  God comes to his people as a Child, weak and helpless, needing his human mother to wrap him tightly to protect him from the elements. The God who upholds the universe has become completely dependent on two human parents.

  This is the birth our Lord chose and unfolds all according to plan. He is God’s Christmas present, the greatest gift of all, his Son. This is … “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY.”

2.  The angel’s announcement to humble shepherds nearby

  Not everything about his birth is ordinary. Whenever a newborn child comes into the world, that birth fills hearts with joy:  a mother, relieved at the end of labor, after nine months’ of anticipation, is at last overjoyed to meet her little one face-to-face; a father, beaming with pride, cradles in his arms that new life so fragile, so delicate. Grandparents show off pictures to whomever  they encounter, … share their joy with friends and neighbors, wherever there’s willing ear to listen. The birth of a king’s heir multiplies an entire nation’s joy! This Child, heir of God’s promises, the King of kings and Lord of lords, brings “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY” to all the earth.

  So it’s no surprise that a chorus of angels signals this Child’s coming. God wasn’t about to let this awesome event go unnoticed. The birth announcement is sent, though, to some unlikely people, to ordinary folk. The news wasn’t telegraphed to capitols and palaces around the globe. The news was delivered to shepherds “living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”

  Without this account (Luke’s account), their story would be forgotten. As it is, no one knows their names. Shepherds of this day were typically poor. They had to hire themselves out to make ends meet for their families. Today, working the Christmas holiday commands double-time. That night, they were working the graveyard shift, another ordinary night. But this was precisely when God chose to announce his “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY” though the shepherds didn’t ask for it, didn’t earn it, and didn’t deserve it.

  Out of nowhere, a single heavenly messenger appeared, lighting up the night sky and telling these shepherds a message like no other. The dark sky was filled with resplendent light. The glory of the Lord, a brightness that knows no bounds, shone around the shepherds. It filled these sinful shepherds with terror, which is a natural response. Remember how Zachariah, the aged priest in the temple shook in his sandals when an angel appeared and told him that he and his wife were going to be parents? But the shepherds’ fright faded with the angel’s message.  “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Fear was in a moment replaced with rejoicing.

  Why point out the profoundly ordinary circumstances of that extraordinary first Christmas in 2020, in this ‘Christmas like no other’? … to remind ourselves how good this good news truly is! Our Savior’s birth is a  genuine game-changer. Granted, the dawning of this Dec. 25th has not stopped the virus, or the violence, or the vitriol that has become too familiar and hangs over our world. That bad news seems to have a firm hold on the media cycle and appears likely to occupy the headlines and our attention for months to come. But the fact that the Son of God came to our world to bring his grace to bear —   that fact has fundamentally changed the life and death equation.

  “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy …”. Fear cannot dominate the heart that knows Christ by faith. By his coming, the promised Savior of the world brings joy, inspires hope, and calms the restlessness and addresses the uncertainly felt in times such as these. He is, as Micah’s prophecy identifies God’s great Warrior —   he is … our peace! We don’t deny that there’s bad news out there now, and there’s always been the dark, depressing despair of death haunting humankind and threatening to compete and overcome . But Christ has come! As the hymnwriter teaches us to sing, this is reason for rejoicing …
 
JoyO joybeyond all gladness, Christ has done away with sadness!
    Hence, all sorrow and repining, For the Sun of Grace is shining!
 
  In that Christmas which was like no other, we are able to put aside all the stressors of life in this fallen world and focus on the true meaning of Christ come to be with us.

3.  The good news brings great joy to humble hearts today

  All people desperately need this “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY” … the frightful and fearful, as well as the proud and prominent, the cold and uncaring. And this good news is meant for all people, regardless of age or race or ethnicity or economic class. Now, as always, the simple sights and sounds of that Christmas like no other reverberate in our ears.

  Our sin strikes in us the same sudden terror that initially gripped the shepherds. But just like God did not come to them as a fearsome, stern Judge, but as a helpless babe, so he comes to us through the words of the angel and in that Word of God brings us “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY.” “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.”

  No, the promised Savior did not come in the way some expected – not in pompous fanfare or with resplendent glory, but as a child. He wasn’t the Savior expected by the influential and the powerful. But, as we are reminded through the words of the angel, this was God’s plan.

  A story says that in the fields around Bethlehem, shepherds raised sheep for the temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. These sacrifices, offered daily, made atonement for the sins of the people; yet not one of them could bring an end to sin. How appropriate that in Bethlehem the Lamb of God, our Savior Jesus, was born. He takes on flesh and blood, becoming like us minus our sinfulness, raised by Mary and Joseph, God’s true Son from eternity, this Lamb – Jesus – will make his final entrance into Jerusalem, where in fulfillment of the ritual slaughter of sheep, he will offer himself as the one sacrifice to take away the sin of the world.

  That’s why our Savior is born —  not so you and I can marvel at a cute baby, but so that this weak helpless Infant can live and die as the perfect Substitute. In Jesus Christ, God and man are united in one person – a truth so profound not even the keenest minds can fully comprehend it, but the purpose is clear. He becomes a man to bring you and me “GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY” … sins forgiven, taken upon this Son of God and Son of Man.  God’s purpose completed, your heavenly home secured —   even in 2020, all goes according to God’s good plan for you. And our fear, like those shepherds, is turns to joy … the greatest joy in all the world!

  There may not be the same number of Christmas gifts under the tree this year. Maybe some of the traditions from years past have been set aside. That’s okay, … because our Christmas is like no other. This Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, still comes to humble hearts who trust his saving work – a gift given to those who did not earn it, did not deserve it, but desperately need it. God’s gift is like no other; for us he offers up his Son to save us … not the happiness of human holidays, but the joy of heaven come down to earth!
 
  May this “good news of great joy” fill your hearts not just at Christmas, but all the way from this world into heaven with Jesus!

  Amen.

 



Luke 1:26-38  "THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD"
Fourth Sunday in Advent - Dec. 20, 2020


   In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
   Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
   “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
   The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.


   One of the greatest American jurists – in the opinion of many in the field of law – was the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. A Catholic of Italian descent, he knew what the right thing was, the right way to do it, and the right way to say it. A case in point was an interview he once gave to the press.

   Interviews are plagued by the fear of saying the wrong thing. Most employment opportunities require an interview. Interviews are not for getting data; that’s what forms and applications do. Interviews are for finding out how one reacts to certain questions —   whether you can think on your feet. If you were being interviewed for a job, you might be asked to tell what the most gratifying, personally rewarding experience to-date in your career had been. You might mention the time you were recognized by your peers as the team member who had most contributed to the team’s success over the past year. Or you maybe you’d cite the outstanding achievement award you received from the company where you worked.  

   Justice Scalia was not asked about was the most important moment in his own life, but WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

1. The incarnation is more important than any of the other greatest events in history.

   The question – What was the most important event in the world of the world – sounds on the surface quite subjective. Possible answers based on a classical education would yield a somewhat narrow group of choices, whose mention at this time in history would likely be considered border-line politically incorrect. The first was the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks after a long-running conflict in the late 400s BC.  The Greeks’ victory gave rise to the dominance of the city-states, such as Athens and Sparta, and the Greek culture. If the Persians had won, our culture undoubtedly would have been more like a Middle Eastern country and we would be speaking Farsi. A second choice would be the defeat of the Moors by Charles Martel in southern France (Battle of Tours) in 732 AD. Had it gone the other way, we would be Muslims. Coming in third as the most important event in world history was the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588 AD. Had the winds calmed, we might not be speaking Spanish, but we would have all been Catholics.

  Had Justice Scalia named an event like any of these as the most determinative event in world history, no one would have batted an eye. But, good Catholic that he was, Justice Scalia replied that the most important event in the history of the world was the incarnation and, of course, he was right.

  The word incarnation is not part of most people’s everyday vocabulary. There might be a familiarity with the word on the part of some in our society, but they likely have no real idea what it means or to what it refers. Justice Scalia would’ve answered, “Christmas.” An approximate parallel is the playing of Christmas ‘tunes’ (carols) in malls and discount stores at this time of year, familiar strains to most but the tunes are so jazzed up or otherwise altered its always not readily apparent that what’s playing is “Silent Night” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
 
   
But Justice Scalia did not say the first Christmas was the most important event in world history; he said the incarnation was. And the word incarnation takes us not to tiny Bethlehem where Jesus was born, or to rugged Calvary where he died or to the garden tomb where he rose from the dead. Incarnation takes us to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so small that if the tour bus driver did not slow down, you would not have been aware that you had driven through it.

2. The incarnation is important because, as Mary’s Son, God became one with us.

   Mary was as insignificant as the town she lived in. To boost her credentials, the Catholic Church has invented a narrative about her life before that fateful day when the angel Gabriel told her she would become the mother of the Son of God. There’s not a shred of evidence that her parents were Sts. Anne and Joachim —  though our Lutheran heritage sparks a memory:  St. Anne was the saint to whom Luther prayed when he was caught in a thunderstorm and fearful of dying, and made the vow to enter a monastery.

   Today, men are more likely to get married in their late twenties or early thirties. Sixty years ago, the average age for marriage was the early twenties. In biblical times, whom you would marry was determined in the teenage years. (If that seems terribly young by our standards, bear in mind that average life-span was significantly shorter.) Like other girls age 15 or younger, Mary had marriage on her mind, and she also had already chosen Joseph as her husband. All this was ordinary and typical. What makes Mary different was that her plans for marriage were interrupted by God’s plans, determined before the world began, to bring us salvation. She would marry Joseph, and he would later become the father of four sons and two daughters, but the first child born to Mary would be God’s child – and not Joseph’s.

   The angel Gabriel was sent by God to tell Mary that she would become the mother of the Son of the Most High and that he would receive the throne of his father David. In fact, her child would be the true David, perfect in a way that the first David was not. When she asked how all this would happen, the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would cause her to conceive a child. The almighty God would circumvent the laws of nature which he’d established from the beginning of time and, in permitting Mary to become pregnant in this miraculous way —  he would accord her the distinction of being the mother of the Savior of the world.
Mary’s Son would be like us in every way, but without sin. Jesus would suffer sorrow, disappointment, and physical and emotional pain. Looking at him, we can see ourselves, but still, Jesus was … different. He was and still is Immanuel, “God with us” – as Joseph learned from the angel Gabriel. Jesus was and is the Father’s eternal Son through whom the world was created. That is what we confess in the Nicene Creed, although we’ve not used that statement of faith as consistently in the past few months. We declare that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ … by whom all things were made.”

   Mary became the mother of the God to whom she owed her life. She was chosen for this role and so addressed by the angel Gabriel as “highly favored.” Momentarily, when she breaks forth in that song which we call the Magnificat e  This was all paradoxical to the point of contradiction. But it was not a contradiction because God was doing what he always wanted in becoming one with us. That is the incarnation.

3.  The incarnation is important as the beginning of an elect nation, a chosen people, a royal priesthood.

   What God had done “in the beginning” in creating our world was perfect —   that’s why the home our Lord prepared for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was called “paradise.” Everything was perfect and pristine without fault or flaw. But God had an even greater perfection in mind … where he, the Creator, would become one with his creatures. All this was going to happen in Mary, whose Son would have origins both in heaven and earth. Jesus would be God and man in one. The Holy Spirit who brooded over the face of the waters in Genesis chapter 1 would become involved – once again – in making perfect the creation which sin, and Satan, and death had brought to ruin, by uniting God and man in Mary’s Son. This is what incarnation is:  God becoming man, God and man in one.

   Ever since the foundation of the world, God’s done unusual things to remind us he’s still the Creator. At 90 years of age, Sarah gave birth to a baby boy – an event she found so amusing that she laughed, and so she called him Isaac, a name that means laughter. (Mark and Jen DeKok just had their little Isaac baptized here at church yesterday.) Then God gave a repeat performance, and Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist in her old age. By old women giving birth to babies, God was signaling that an even greater thing was going to happen—and it did.

   Without the aid of a husband but by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived a child. The Spirit through whom the world was created was propelling the world to its final destination in which God in Christ would be all in all. As the classic hymn “Joy to the World” says: “And heaven and nature sing” (CW 62). The conception of Jesus was the beginning of what we can term ‘a cosmic readjustment.’ The incarnation was not just the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, but the beginning. Mary had conceived a Son, who would take the place of Adam, and in him, God was creating an elect nation, a chosen people, a royal priesthood for himself. For if in Adam all sinned, so in Christ, all would be alive.

   It takes a measure of faith to get married, and more to raise a family. It took an abundance of faith for Mary to believe that she was going to be the mother of God himself. In response to the announcement which she received, the Holy Spirit gave Mary that faith to believe, and she replied: “May it be to me as you have said.”

   
Amen.




1 Thessalonians 5:16-24  "GOD'S EARLY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS"
Third Sunday in Advent - Dec. 13, 2020


   “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it?.’”

  Have you opened any Christmas presents yet? I wouldn’t be surprised if you had, because there is such a thing as an ‘early’ Christmas present.’ I think you know what I mean. Someone gives you a gift wrapped in holiday paper and says, “Here, open it now.” Sometimes that happens because it’s something you can use right away – like jewelry or an article of clothing to be worn to an event now. It’s a gift to be enjoyed now without having to wait, an ‘early’ Christmas present.

  We are less than two weeks away from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We are in the middle of our waiting for Christmas. The same is true of the Last Day, as believers we are waiting for Jesus to come again. So, on both counts it’s early. It’s not yet Christmas, nor has Jesus come back yet ... still God has some 'early' gifts for us. These are presents he wants us to have and to open and to enjoy right now before Christ comes.

  You seem puzzled ... as if you're about to object or at the very least ask for an explanation. "Pastor, I didn't recognize any gifts you mentioned in those several passages you just read! I heard what sounded like more of a 'to-do' list. God wants me ... to practice being happier, to work on my prayer life, and to remember to say ‘Thank You!’ to God for his blessings. ... to do all of these things while I'm waiting for Jesus to return."

  Paul seems to be writing to us like a golf coach trying to fix a golfer’s swing – relax your grip, keep your weight back, watch your rotation. “Believer, be joyful, pray, and give thanks – that’s what you need to be doing.” But that’s not the case. Notice how Paul says, “… for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The Apostle’s point here isn’t to add to your list of failures and shortcomings and show you what to fix. He’s saying, “Look what God has willed for you! Look what he planned and accomplished for you! Open the gifts he gave you in Christ! Joy and prayer and thanksgiving are things we have through Jesus. So, open those gifts now, while you wait for Jesus and use them in your everyday life.”

  Maybe if we backtrack and I tell you a bit about the background to this First Letter to the Thessalonians you’ll understand. Paul is writing to people who, quite likely, haven’t been believers for very long at all – perhaps a matter of weeks. It’s hard to be sure about these things, but if the Book of Acts is complete in its details which are related in chapter 17, Paul was in Thessalonica doing mission work for only a couple of weeks. Some people became believers. Praise God! Paul then was run out of town and had to move on to Berea. He was there for a couple of weeks before being harassed again and compelled to leave for Athens.

  Separated by 300 miles and two or three months, Paul is frankly worried about how his spiritual children are doing. He sends Timothy north to Macedonia to check and Timothy learns – much to Paul’s relief – that the believers in Thessalonica are doing fine. They’re doing fine! Now he writes in response to what he’s learned and these verses of our text come as the conclusion. So these are not so much challenges – areas of improvement to work on, voids in their spiritual life needing filling, but encouragements to continue as the Thessalonians have been doing, all of which makes perfect sense because of what the Apostle has previously written.

  Just to elaborate on that and by way of paraphrase ... Paul has said things such as:  “I am so thankful to be able to say that God has chosen you! I know that he has chosen you because his word, his gospel has come among you with great power and effect. That word has transformed you and is transforming you. There’s a love among you that would not be there, if God had not chosen you. You are living in the hope that Jesus will return in power and glory. On that day God’s anger will be revealed against idolatry, but you have turned away from other gods and are awaiting his Son.  God’s Son, Jesus, has saved you and he will save you from that coming wrath. Because God’s word has been at work in you, you’re willing to suffer rather than let go of that word. Although life is hard, you are standing fast. Continue to live the sanctified, set apart life to which God has called you, especially with regard to your sexuality. Don’t give into immorality – as the heathen do; you’re people who know God and his will for you – that holy life he wants for you. I know this world’s brokenness has been pressing down hard on you because you have brothers and sisters who’ve died. They’ve died before the Lord’s return! Grieve for them, but do not grieve as if you had no hope —   because when Jesus comes, they will rise first! That’s the plan, actually. When Jesus comes, the dead in Christ will rise first. There’ll be a loud trumpet and you won’t have to wonder what the voice of an archangel sounds like … the dead in Christ will rise first and then we who are still living will be taken up with them to meet the Lord in the air. Encourage one another with this truth.”

  Again, ?In paraphrase, that’s Paul’s line of thought. There’s no apostolic haranguing, no taking the Thessalonians out to the proverbial woodshed. He’s gratified these new believers are standing firm in the Lord and closes with these encouragements.  

  These are the gifts God would have you and me unwrap right now. They are our ‘early’ Christmas presents. And God knows we need them. He knows your weaknesses and struggles. He knows about the miserable day you just had. He knows the problems you are facing. He knows the challenges in your spiritual life which you just can’t seem to overcome. He knows the pressure you feel to keep your faith private and the injustices you receive at the hands of wicked people. This period of waiting for Christ comes with warfare against sin and is filled with sin’s consequences. But — “Here,” God says. “Open this now.”  

  All these 'early' gifts bear a direct relationship to Jesus, our Savior. As Paul explained, this is the culmination of our Lord’s eternal will for us. We truly have a God of peace who’s always had this plan to restore a fallen people to a perfect and peaceful relationship with him. That’s what Jesus Christ did for us. Those tiny hands of a little baby lying in a manger were the hands of God nailed to the cross. There on the cross the sin that separated us from God was removed once and  for all time. In Jesus we have the joy of God’s forgiveness. We have God’s his strength as help in time of temptation. We have a heavenly Father who listens to and answers our prayers, and who even tells us that they are powerful and effective. We can even give thanks in any circumstance, even after the worst day. These are not 'to-does,' but God says, "Here, here are some gifts for you to take and use right now.

  So, open them - these ‘early’ Christmas presents in Christ:  the joy, the gift of prayer, the ability to give thanks in all circumstances – because that’s our reality. It’s what we have received through Jesus. Take and use them while you wait for Jesus to come. 
Remember the reason to rejoice always. Pray whenever and wherever about whatever —   it’s God’s gift to you. Give thanks whether you’re with Paul in prison, being persecuted for your faith, or staring trouble in the face.

  In Christ, God has brought victory over sin and its consequences into your life through faith. Take that victory and use those gifts in your everyday life – not because you have to, but because they are all yours to use, for your benefit and help.

  What peace God brings ... to every part of our lives! It is a peace revealed to us in God’s Word. Paul mentions that too: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” To understand what he’s saying here, you have to put yourself in the context of the early church. At that time, God’s people didn’t carry Bibles around with them. Jesus did promise them, however, that he would send his Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. So as they gathered for worship, the Holy Spirit gave the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpretation, and also of prophecy – which is a “speaking forth” of God’s Word. Through these messages, the Spirit gave them guidance and  insight. But if prophecy was such a good thing, why would anyone want to extinguish it or treat it with contempt? 

  Imagine if for every prophet back then there was a false prophet – and so, with all those prophecies  going around they disagreed with, ... contradicted each other. Soon prophecy didn’t have much meaning because you get a “one says one thing and another says another thing” situation going on. How do you know who’s telling the truth???  It’s not unlike today, when believers get frustrated because there appear to be so many different churches with so many different interpretations of the Bible. Who's to say one’s right and another wrong? Some Christians just throw up their hands and say, "I'm going to skip the whole thing!” That’s what some in Thessalonica were doing with prophecy in the early church ... basically 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater' ... prophecy had become meaningless to them.

   Paul had a better idea. “Hey, hold on! This comes from the Spirit!” he essentially says. “Don’t treat prophesies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” Just because there are differences, don’t give up. Do your homework! Study the Word to see which teachings you should hold on to and which you should avoid. That advice is still good and sound. If we don't the necessary homework, do you know what will quickly get lost??? Our peace and confidence. We lose that ‘early’ Christmas present to help us while waiting for Jesus to come. So don’t let the great number of teachings keep you from doing your homework. Studying the Bible so that you have a rock solid foundation for your faith —   or you just might lose the ability to determine what is God’s truth and what is Satan’s lie.

  All these things so far are weapons in our hands – given us by God – the joy, the prayer, the thanksgiving in all things, the Word given to us by the Spirit. They are ‘early’ Christmas presents intended for our use before Christ comes.

  Paul concludes with a prayer and the answer to that prayer: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

  
What a perfect finish! So far in our Advent journey we’ve talked about being watchful … we’ve re-examined our wretched state, which called for repentance. Now, we learn what life with God means – joy, answered prayer, reasons galore to give thanks, blamelessness on the Last Day! How can we be sure we are in a position to enjoy these gifts? Paul explains, “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” This is a done deal. God at all times is there to support us whenever we need him. As the ever-faithful God, he 
will not fail to deliver you from evil, to guard and defend you, and be at your side as you walk through the gates of heaven into life eternal.

  How we need that confidence ... while we wait for Jesus Christ to come again! How reassuring to know that God won’t stop bringing me joy, answering my prayers, and giving me plenty of reasons to give thanks in all circumstances! Although we are so lacking in and of ourselves, God fills us up with everything that's missing. He gives us these ‘early’ Christmas presents!
 
  So, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, be bold in your prayers, courageous in our joy, and give thanks when you have absolutely no earthly reason to give thanks. What great gifts God brings to the table in these words as he fills our hearts with peace and confidence.

  I know it is too early for this, but there's just one more thing to say when you open such blessed gifts from God —  Merry Christmas! 

   Amen.





Mark 1:1-8  "TERROR AND WONDER AT THE EDGE OF THE WILDERNESS"
Second Sunday in Advent - Dec. 6, 2020


   “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet:  “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
   And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


   It has the reputation of being the hottest place on earth and driest place in North America. A blistering 130° F. was recorded at Furnace Creek on Aug. 16th of this year, the highest ever reliably recorded air temperature on earth. Geography is responsible. A lower-than-sea-level basin surrounded by mountains traps the superheated air. Sand and rock, making up a majority of the desert floor, radiate the oppressive heat. A spokeswoman for the national park there describes the months of July and August “ … like stepping into a convection oven every day.” The place I'm talking about is ... Death Valley, CA.

   It is not Death Valley, but today we journey to an equally barren, seemingly lifeless place – a wilderness on the opposite side of the world where the topography is nearly the same:  a valley 1380 feet below sea level encircled by craggy peaks. The evangelist Mark brings us here as he opens his account of the life of Jesus Christ. While Matthew and Luke begin their gospels in more pleasant surroundings:  Nazareth in Galilee, telling us about people we recognize as connected directly with the Christmas account – Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family to-be —  Mark takes us here to the edge of the wilderness. Mark wants us to meet John the Baptist, forerunner to the Messiah … John, whose ministry precedes Jesus’ ministry by maybe six months … John, cousin to Jesus on their mothers’ side. For the evangelist Mark “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ” is not found in the nighttime chill of a stable in Bethlehem, but here in the sweltering heat of the desert of Judea. 

   Amazingly, people are not turned off by this uninviting location. From all over the Judean countryside, it hamlets and villages, and from big city Jerusalem – they come. They come on foot by the twos and tens and twenties to stand beside the flowing stream of the Jordan and listen to this wilderness preacher. You see, John’s caused a stir. He is the hot topic of conversation. Mark explains for us that John’s appearance has been 700 years in the making. Isaiah talked about him, “… a voice of one calling in the desert”! This is the new Elijah and his preaching is filled with such power and delivered with such intensity that you just can’t shut it out. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” he shouts. 

   Everything about John’s appearance reinforces this call. His diet is dried locusts and wild honey —   not as disgusting as you might think; it is a poor man’s meal, desert survivalist food. He wears a robe of camel’s hair cinched at the waist with a leather belt —   no linen finery, smooth to the skin for this rugged man. You wouldn’t expect to see John strolling around in a king’s palace, although he is sent as a royal messenger. If John entered the room where you were, you'd give him wide berth! ... because he smelled of smoke, the acrid smoke of the impending destruction Peter in our Second Lesson warned against - God’s judgment on the wicked! And John’s fiery eyes, which the Jewish religious leaders surely took to be the eyes of a madman —  those eyes reflected with the gravity of his call to repent. Make no mistake there’s terror and wonder at edge of the wilderness!

  In Scripture the wilderness is not a symbol. We should not reduce it to that. The Judean desert is a real place with real GPS coordinates. It’s where John set up shop. It’s where Jesus would soon be tempted by the devil for forty days and nights. We are here in spirit because we need to visit this place in these weeks ahead Christmas to appreciate again the birth of the One destined to be our Savior. But we can also see the wilderness as a picture of our lives.
   
   A preacher once explained it like this for his parishioners:  "More than anything else, wilderness … is the place you want to journey through. It’s not the place you want to live. It’s the place that God’s people pass through on their way from slavery to freedom. When the gospel writers speak of wilderness they want you to have that story in mind. When Isaiah speaks about wilderness he wants you to have that story in mind. Wilderness is the place of danger. It is the place of temptation and testing. It is the place where it is easy to lose your way and spend the rest of your life wandering. It is the place where you could easily die, and your dreams and hopes could die with you … . It is the place where there are no homes, the place where you cannot make a home."

   We've come to the desert of Judea to peer over the shoulders of those who are listening to John. They’ve come out of curiosity. They’ve come because they’re seeking truth and this man seems to have a handle on it. And we, too, listen with rapt attention because the message which this man brings, we realize, so accurately describes the condition of our souls – what we are feeling ... our spiritual struggles, our hopes and fears, our longing to be right with God.

  In imagery drawing on those surroundings and echoing Isaiah, John says, “make straight paths” … straighten out your life … leave your sin behind and embrace – in faith – the Coming One, the Messiah, your Savior. Be baptized here in these waters of the Jordan for the forgiveness of your sins.
 
  What’s not to like about that message? we might ask. To our ears that sounds all that sounds pretty good! But here’s the rub. Our Old Adam does not want to acknowledge our guilt before God. That I need a help from outside to be right with God (“I need a Savior?! Me?!”) —  our sinful natures balk at the idea. The Jewish religious leaders (the people sneering on the fringes of the crowd) were adamant in that opinion, “Oh, we’re just fine. We don’t saving from anything!” They thought that their righteousness was sufficient. Their heritage as descendants of Abraham made them shoe-ins for eternal life. But the Baptist’s cry “Repent! … can’t be ignored. Listening to it and taking it to heart is vital. Repentance continues to be imperative for every one of us, every believer here  —  not simply in these weeks ahead of Christmas, but all the time. Repentance defines our lives in the wilderness where there's both terror and wonder.

   Here’s an illustration I think can help us. You’ve likely played darts, maybe on a board like this one with safety darts (no sharp pointy ends). Taking a dart in hand, you stand a distance away from the target and throw the dart attempting to hit your mark. Does the dart always go where you want it to go? Do you always hit the bullseye or the number you at which you’re aiming? No. Of course not.

  Think of the bullseye on this target as the perfection that God demands of us. We’re supposed to hit the bullseye all the time. Peter wrote, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Those words mean nothing other what they say. When a youngster in your home doesn’t live up to your expectations, you are still to be a patient and loving parent every … single … time. When you have a weekend getaway with the guys or gals, you’re still to have a pure heart and mind every … single … time. When you’re going through some trial, some challenging circumstance of life, you are to trust in the Lord every … single … time. You are to hit the bullseye of perfection without fail.

  Does that happen? Hardly! The darts ... fly here and there. They land anywhere but the bullseye. The dart of contentment is lying on the floor. The dart of speaking well of others can barely be seen. The dart of obedience to those in authority is dangling from the edge. The dart of gladly hearing and learning God’s Word is nowhere to be found. In short, we miss the mark all the time. We’re guilty of sinning and therefore deserving of God’s punishment. We desperately need a Savior.

  That was the first part of the message John proclaimed in preparing people for Jesus’ coming. He told them to repent. But John didn’t stop there. There was a second part two. John also pointed to the One coming after him and announced that God’s gift of forgiveness could be found in him. They certainly needed to know that, because they were completely incapable of cleaning up the mess sin had made of their lives. If the people thought John was something —  “Just wait until you meet him – the Messiah!” John essentially said. His actual words were: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  

   God still calls us to repentance today and still announces his forgiveness in Christ. It’s why we’re here at the edge of the wilderness, in terror grieving over our sins and in wonder marveling at the grace we’ve received. We understand that this isn’t a problem we can fix ourselves. Scripture makes plain that even repentance is not our work. It’s not something a person does which God then rewards. No. True repentance is worked in our hearts only after the Holy Spirit crushes our pride and self-righteousness through the law and makes us alive through that good news of Jesus. Again, notice, this was John’s twofold message. He came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." 

  Here’s how that works. Let's go back to our illustration for a second. Remember all the darts of your life lying around, having missed the bullseye of God’s perfection? That, I said, is our sin, the obstacles that litter the road between us and Jesus. All those obstacles and hindrances have been dealt with ... and quite effectively so! ... by Jesus himself. In terms of the road reconstruction project of making straight paths ... they are ripped up, torn down, leveled out. For shortly John is going to point to Jesus as he stands on the bankof the Jordan. And John will say, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

  
What is it that Jesus has done? He’s kept the law of God perfectly in our stead. His darts hit the bullseye of God’s perfection every … single … time. Jesus lived a completely 100% holy life for you and for me. And though he was rejected and crucified – killed on a cross - since he is the Son of God, his death served as the all-sufficient ransom price to pay for the guilt of our sins.

   Jesus Christ came in the quietness of the first Christmas on a deadly mission. From the moment of his first breath, the plan was for him to take his last breath on that cruel instrument of torture – the cross. He came as true God so his sacrifice would be all-sufficient. As a result, those who trust in Jesus can know for a fact that their debt of sin has been canceled, their guilt has been paid for, their missed darts dismissed and done away with. Only one dart remains, and it counts as our own – the dart of Christ’s righteousness which has hit the bullseye of God’s demands.
 
   Here on the edge of the wilderness of our lives, a voice still calls. In this wild mess that we have made of this our existence, a wilderness that constantly wants to turn us back into beasts – beasts of prey or beasts of burden – a voice cries out:  “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”  Someone is coming to you. He is not waiting until you can find the way out, until you can make your way to him. He is forging his way through the wilderness in which you live. And his road in will be your road ou!

   In the name of Jesus.

   Amen.



Mark 13:32-37  "WATCH FOR THE MASTER!"
First Sunday in Advent - Nov. 29, 2020


   “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.  It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
   “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”


   If you knew that you only had three months left to live, how would it change your life? What would you do differently in your remaining days? Would you reserve some of those precious few weeks binge watching the eight seasons of that Netflix series you’d heard so much about but had put off viewing, or would you be on the phone constantly, ringing up friends from school days and family members whom you’d meant to stay in touch with, but hadn’t? Would you bust out some classic works of literature that you never got around to reading such as Leo Tolstoy’s  “War and Peace” – only 1400 pages, or Wm Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” – only 1250 pages, or would you perhaps spend more time delving into the Good Book to be strengthened during your last days? Would you cash out that lifetime of assets you’ve acquired and spend it all on those extravagances you’ve secretly wished for, or would you sit down soberly to settle your affairs and do some estate planning to benefit your family and the Lord’s church? If you knew that your time on earth was ending, you’d probably develop a whole new set of priorities, knowing that soon you would be standing before God’s throne of judgment. Or at least —   that’s what we think we would do.    

   I think of the times my parents left me at home with my brothers and my sister and gave us a list of things to get done while they were away. Without fail, we never got to those assigned tasks right away. Instead we putzed around here, wasted time there, then tried to cram everything in the last fifteen minutes. Most of us have done this a time or two in our lives with relatively unimportant stuff. Because we’re human, plagued with the frailties and foibles of a sinful Old Adam, we all do this with the most important stuff. 

   As Jesus just told us, we don’t know when he is going to return. We don’t know when the end is going to come. This should have us constantly on watch —   more than if we knew the exact day and time. But we tend to live by the adage offered tongue-in-cheek by the chronic procrastinator:  “Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” Whether it is the coming of our death or the coming of Christ, we always think we’ll have more time.

   When we are children we’re only thinking about what is going to happen the next day. When we are teens, we assume that nothing can harm us and have our whole life ahead of us. In our 20’s we’re focused on establishing ourselves in the world and don’t have time to think about the end. We reach the 30’s and now kids have taken over our lives. In our 40’s we still think that we’re young and have much life left to enjoy yet. In our 50’s the kids are growing up and we see them become adults, so that takes priority. In our 60’s we start thinking about retirement, relaxation, and spending time with the grandkids. Even in our 70’s and beyond we can still get wrapped up in the day-to-day and figure “the end ain’t here yet!’” So we let our guard down and any watching we do is only with our peripheral vision. Getting serious about Christ and our relationship with him can always wait.

   But Jesus is quite clear on how our time should be spent, what our watching for his returning consists of. We are to be diligent in staying vigilant. We are to be time-conscious and conscientious in making optimal use of the life-time God has allotted each of us. We are always be living as though Jesus were coming back tomorrow, always be living as though Jesus were on his way right now, always be living with Jesus on our minds.

   Consider how Jesus makes that point here in the passage before; he says. “Be on guard! Be alert!” In other words, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by this world, for it is passing away … it’s not going to last. To borrow one of those Kwik Trip video gas pump expand-your-vocabulary-words:  all of the things of this earth are ephemeral – ‘here today and gone tomorrow.’ Is that concept firmly fixed in our minds? Do we operate under that principle and with that perspective? Or do we find ourselves obsessed with the next generation technology, the next gadget, the next theatrical release, the next vacation or long weekend get-away, the next little bit of fun we can have? Do those activities take precedence over the next encounter with the Lord, which we are told in Scripture is coming?

  “It’s like a man going away:  He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task...” Our primary task in this world is to be Christians, and to live as Christians, and to do as Christ would have us do. In our mixed-up minds we think our primary function is to be human, to live like the rest of the world. So we look to work and to build, to consume and to collect, to indulge and to enjoy, when we should be looking to serve and to help, to love and to protect, to learn and to grow in the Lord.

   “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back ...”. We should always be looking and longing for Jesus’ return, always anticipating his arrival – like a child waiting for Grandma and Grandpa to arrive for Christmas (except maybe if turns out to be a ‘COVID Christmas’ like our ‘COVID Thanksgiving’ when we don’t actually want ’em around in person).
   
   Is Jesus’ second coming sharply in focus or kinda fuzzy? How have we fared in our expectant waiting on, say, a scale of 1 to 10?  … 10 being eagle-eye scanners of the sky look Jesus’ return and 1 being yawning, droopy-eyed, really-need-another-jolt-of-java inattentive watchers? We’d like to rate ourselves maybe in the mid-range, 6-8. But, clearly, more often than not – we’ve failed in this all-important assignment. We don’t even accomplish a few of the tasks assigned, much less all of them. 
We are to be glorifying God by the way we live and by each decision we make. We are to be heavenly-minded, even though we live in a worldly world, yet we lack the resolve, the strength, and the courage to carry out our assigned duties —   and often don’t even want to. 

  
To our shame, we must admit to sleep-walking through life, perhaps not blatantly ignoring the commands of God, but definitely going about without the awareness of his return and the responsibilities asked of us. By doing so we not only put ourselves in danger, but thumb our nose at his warnings and dishonor his Word. So we condemn ourselves to an eternity not of rest, but of endless anguish and torment – as our sins would fast-track us for hell. 

   With this realization could easily come despair. With this revelation we could easily lose all hope. With these failures brought to our hearts it would seem pointless to bother watching anymore. Why would we care at all about Christ’s coming, if it will only be for our doom? But Jesus, our Master is not a heartless lord. Instead he is a kind and compassionate lord, of a gentle and winsome spirit, who does not desire anyone to perish, but rather to come to a knowledge of his grace. 

  We poor sinners look forward eager to his coming, because our forgiveness does not depend on our goodness, but on the blood that Jesus shed on the cross.  We miserable slaves can’t wait for him to arrive, because our names have been written in his Book of Life – through no holiness of our own as if we belonged to be listed there, but because Christ was perfect in our stead and we are counted righteous in him.  We weak children are longing for his return because we’re not required to scratch and claw our way out of hell, rather Jesus – through his resurrection –  rescued us from that bottomless pit of misery. We foolish servants are on pins and needles for the Prince of Peace to show, not because we – in our brilliance (!) – have discovered the Gospel of Christ, but because the Holy Spirit has enlightened us and enabled us to believe in God’s Son. We poor sinners are overjoyed at the thought of his glorious coming because when we stand before the judgment throne of God we will not rest on our own laurels, but on the saving work of Christ. 

   Over the years some have wondered why God would not tell us when he would come. Some have even tried to figure it out for themselves, claiming that they discovered the day and the hour, because they were convinced that God wouldn’t keep this kind of info from us. But not telling us was the most loving thing that he could do. He has not told us the day and the hour so that we don’t grow lazy and indifferent, so that we don’t take things for granted.  Rather, our Master keeps his coming secret that we may be on guard and as watchful as we possibly can.  

  It may seem at times that this watching and waiting is too much. With so much to distract us, so much to deter us, we are doomed to fail. But whatever the tasks we have been given, we can be sure our Master will supply the wherewithal to be faithful and fruitful. Consider the help he supplies – not boxes of NoDoz® or 5-hour Energy® shots to improve our alertness. For ready access, we have the assurances of God’s forgiveness, love and acceptance in his powerful, life-imparting Word. In addition our Savior has given us the tangible assets of his sacraments – Baptism and Lord’s Supper, the storehouses of his zeal and his Spirit to which we can come again and again. The very same Word that speaks with the voice of God, that promises blessing without end, that empowers and enlightens our faith – through these Means of Grace our righteousness is restored and our souls are reinvigorated. Our joy and our longing for Christ to come again and for us to meet him face-to-face is increased a thousand fold!  

   
On what day will your house be burglarized? On what day will you get struck by an inattentive driver who is texting? On what day will the doctor tell you that the tumor is cancerous? On what day will you say farewell to this earth? We don’t know the answer to any of those questions. The future is unknown to us —   and out of our control. The important thing is not when or if these things will happen, but whether we will be ready for them.

   Today, as we enter upon another Season of Advent, Jesus tells us, “Watch!” We may not know the day or the hour when Jesus is coming, but we know – without a doubt (!) – that the Master is coming.

  Dear friend and fellow watcher, carry on as a Christian, living out the love that Christ has showered upon you. Watch for the Master with the grace and strength he provides, and you will indeed find great joy when he comes. 

  Amen.





Luke 17:11-19  "WHY CHRISTIANS GIVE THANKS"
Thanksgiving Eve - Nov. 25, 2020


   Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

   When our daughter called a week ago today and asked if we had settled on our plans for Thanksgiving, I said: “Your mom and I thought we’d just stay home and have Thanksgiving ourselves.” She responded in a cheerful tone, “Oh, good! Martin is going to be glad to hear that.”

   That reaction – under normal circumstances – might leave a parent wondering, “What did we say or do, or not say or do, to make our kids not want to spend the holiday together?” But you all know where she was coming from. Nothing’s been normal for nine months now. I’m sure we are all hoping that the scaled-back Thanksgiving holiday is a one-off, never to be repeated in our lifetimes.

   If you are looking for the familiar —   old knock around the house blue jeans or sweatpants comfortable, I can offer you tonight’s gospel. It is the traditional reading for the lectionary series used in most of our congregations, Luke’s account of that one extraordinarily appreciative leper who was a Samaritan and the nine lepers who were – to put it charitably – challenged in the thanksgiving department.

   A short shrift consideration of this text could lead to a less than satisfying interpretation, something like —    “We are so blessed, yet not thankful enough. Jesus was always thankful. He died on a cross so we too often ungrateful people can be more thankful going forward.” A message with such a misguided moral wouldn’t really be edifying. I actually think it would leave us deflated.     

   This is a fantastic passage to consider on Thanksgiving Eve! On close examination, we see a lot that speaks to our situation. This Scripture teaches us WHY CHRISTIANS GIVE THANKS in the first place. All ten lepers had great reason – in Christ – to give thanks and we have far more reasons – in Christ – to give thanks.
 
   Context provides helpful insight into Jesus’ miracle and the gratitude it prompted in the heart of the Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks.
 
  Jesus had just visited Mary and Martha at the death of their brother. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. One of the most astonishing and public wonders Jesus had performed, it created quite a stir. The Pharisees convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin to address the Jesus issue. Here is where they hatched the plot to kill him. Because of this, John chapter 11 tells us Jesus withdrew from Bethany in Judea to the village, Ephraim, along the border between Samaria and Judea.

   Some Bible commentators speculate that it was outside Ephraim that the ten lepers met Jesus. Others place this encounter several weeks later in Jesus’ travel itinerary, after an interlude spent in neighboring Perea, the adjacent territory just across the Jordan River.

  In any event this healing fits into the closing months (even weeks) of Jesus’ ministry. Shortly, Jesus would join the throngs of pilgrims headed up to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus’ last Passover. It was fortunate these men had opportunity to meet Jesus and approach him with their plea for healing. It’s this that Dr. Luke reports, telling us, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him."

   Previously, in Luke chapter 5, we hear about the healing of a single leper, one man. Aferwards we're told, “… the news about him (Jesus) spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and be healed of their sicknesses.” Had these ten men heard of that earlier miracle? If so, it only emboldened them in their approach! Here was the one person in Israel who could cure them: Jesus of Nazareth! These men believed Jesus had the power to cure them! He could end the awful isolation forced upon them. For too long they’d been quarantined – separated from society. Life had been anything but normal! Sound familiar?

   Hold on —   there's more! Leviticus chapter 13 is where you find the protocols to be followed in the case of a person diagnosed with leprosy. It was an incurable disease and regarded as highly contagious. The leper would have to wear torn clothes and wear their hair unkempt – ruffled Albert Einstein-like so they would be easy to spot. They would have to wear a face-covering over their mouth and cry out “Unclean!” in the presence of others. Lepers could associate with one another – in their own little pod, but with nobody else, not even family. The ten “… stood at a distance …”. Rabbis decreed that a leper had to remain four paces (12 feet) away. Que the Twilight Zone music.

   “They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’” They must have appeared an odd chorus of bandaged beggers! Either because the disease had affected their vocal cords or because their words were muffled by the face-coverings they wore, the ten shouted in unison to get Jesus’ attention. Of course, the omniscient Son of God was very much familiar with their dilemma and knew what they were seeking.

   Mercy is the kind of love that is provoked by the need and misery of someone. They called Jesus by name, indicating that they are aware of who he is – Jesus’ reputation has preceded him. They identified him as “Master,” the only occasion this word is used in Scripture by someone not a full-time disciple of Jesus. Clearly they were convinced Jesus had the ability to restore them to health, to decree their living death null and void.

   And Jesus took pity on them ... his Savior’s heart filled with compassion. “When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’” Jesus knew what their life was like – the sadness and loneliness and helplessness and hopelessness of their situation. He also saw their spiritual condition as is Jesus can see directly into the human heart. In answer their pleas Jesus issued a simple command: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Yes, they were to go get tested. The command suggested that the testing would reveal that none of the symptoms of their disease would be discovered and they’d be pronounced clean. Except they weren’t yet —  as they stood there in Jesus’ presence.

   Often Jesus’ miracles provided immediate healing and instant amazement. Here, his approach was to lead these men to trust his word without any real evidence. Did the transformation from unclean to clean happen in the first ¼ mile or ½ mile or a full mile or further down the road? We don’t know, only that Jesus miraculously cleansed them, and the miracle changed everything!

  They were delivered from what would’ve been a slow, painful death. They could return to society; the quarantine was lifted! They could unmask! If they had families, they could hug their children and wives without fear of spreading the disease. They were returned to full health, no doubt feeling the renewed energy and strength in their once frail bodies. They could go to work again, unshutters their business, and begin to repair their financial lives. This was more than just about physical wellbeing. They had received a second chance at life! They had so much for which to be thankful – all ten equally blessed!

   But not all ten responded in the same. “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.” Although there were requirements of the law to be met which Jesus told them to do, one man went back. The joy and gratitude he felt because Jesus had mercy on him compelled him to return and express his gratitude to Jesus. He said, “Thank you!” over and over and over again. But didn’t just say it; he shouted it “in a loud voice,” with what otherwise might’ve been construed as an embarrassing boisterousness. His thankfulness could not be contained within his heart; it had to come out. And it did!

   The past nine months have been difficult for us here this evening —   and that’s understatement! Living through a pandemic is no cakewalk … but one of most frustrating, emotionally draining experiences we’ve ever had. Yet, others have suffered worse. Some have lost their jobs a second time around now. Some have lost a family member or a friend. Being thankful under such conditions is challenging. But are we Mother Hubbards staring a bare cupboard of blessings??? We are in a four week, mandated “pause,” but has God paused his grace and his goodness, telling us, “Oh, you can’t enjoy them until we get the case count down”? No, of course not. The Samaritan leper now cleansed had a reason to go back and fall facedown at Jesus’ feet and say thank you – and so do we, reasons in truth in abundance.

  WHY DO CHRISTIANS GIVE THANKS? The foremost reason is because of what God has accomplished for us ... our salvation! He has enabling each of us, now and forevermore, to confess personally, “Jesus is Lord of my life.” In the words of Luther, “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil.” As believers in Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid of anything! Satan may rage and accuse (he’s good at that); but it’s all blather. A pandemic may flare and frustrate hoped for holiday plans; but infinitely greater festivities are in the offing and will last into eternity. Nothing can alter or undo our soul’s salvation, because our Savior-God holds us in the palm of his hand. We are secure – now and always. Jesus, the source of every blessing is why we give thanks.

   Our Lord did not allow himself to be disappointed by the meager response he received. He did note it. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner.” The original literally, has Jesus asking more abruptly, “Were not the ten healed? But the nine, where?” The nine who took Jesus at his word and headed off down the road to the priests were MIA in the thanksgiving department. Jesus wasn’t disappointed in the Samaritan, it pleased Jesus to see him there at his feet.

   Did you ever think about to whom Jesus put that question? “Where are the nine?” Who was supposed to answer it?  It wouldn’t have been fair to ask the Samaritan to account for his associates’ whereabouts. Their failure to return and give thanks wasn’t on him. Was it for the sake of his disciples who’d witnessed Jesus’ interaction with the ten and had a grasp of that miracle-in-the-making? Possibly. Or just might Jesus, looking across the centuries, have had us in mind, and all who would have occasion to reflect on this account? Did Jesus ask this question so that we could mull our response and see as our role model and mentor in thanksgiving in that unnamed Samaritan?

   “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.”  That was Jesus' commendation to that man. You can’t help but picture Jesus’ outstretched hand reaching out to lift that Samaritan to his feet and with that word of benediction send him on his way. Some blessings are readily apparent, fairly ease to distinguish. Others require a different sort of discernment, a vision or perspective that the Holy Spirit alone gives. When that one grateful leper looked up and his eyes met Jesus’, he saw more than his healer. That thankful Samaritan saw his Savior and understood exactly how great was the blessing he had received that day.
 
   The blessings we are able to check off on our personal list of good things I’ve received this Thanksgiving deserve a heartfelt “Thank You” to God. But the Giver of those good things, the “bounteous source of every joy” as we name him in one of our Thanksgiving hymns —   God himself in his grace and goodness is why we Christians give thanks. Having Jesus living in our hearts by faith means we have everything we need for this holiday and every day of our lives.

   Amen.




Matthew 27:27-31  "THIS IS YOUR KING!"
Christ the King - Nov. 22, 2020


   Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

   Setting aside the last Sunday of our church year under the name "Christ the King" is a recent innovation. It doesn’t originate with the Lutheran church. A Roman Catholic pope, Pius XI, actually established it about a century ago. He felt the people of his day had shut the rule of Jesus out of their lives. He wrote his encyclical at a time when the world was just coming out of WWI, one of the worst conflicts humanity has experienced up to that point. Twenty million soldiers and civilians were slaughtered across the battlefields of Europe.

  Pius XI felt that the cause of all the disorder and upheaval was that people had neglected to let the rule of Jesus guide them in their thinking and their actions. As a remedy he said there should be an annual celebration to focus on the fact that Jesus is our King. His encyclical went on to list all sorts of prescriptions on how all the social ills of the day might be addressed. Included were things like fair labor practices, even how to bring about world peace. While we might disagree with those applications, we don’t deny the basic premise:  Christ is our triumphant king … 
ruling all of history in the interest of the salvation of souls; ... ruling in our hearts, feeding us with the means of grace so that we grow in faith and become better subjects of his kingdom and learn to serve others selflessly; ... ruling in his heavenly kingdom with all his saints, as we heard last Sunday on Saints Triumphant. 

   Sadly, these facts aren’t foremost in people’s minds. Even we can’t claim to live day to day in an awareness of Jesus’ reign. What I mean is that we are not immune from thoughts of skepticism and fear as we see the conflict and turmoil sinful humanity churns out. We are tempted to question Jesus’ reign and wonder how he could possibly be a king over this. 

   Our gospel takes us to the moments following Jesus’ condemnation on Good Friday. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, has yielded to the demands of a mob, spurred on by the chief priests and leaders of the Jews.  Jesus has been sentenced to die on a cross. But first the Roman soldiers decide to give this ‘king’ the royal treatment. They strip him of his clothes. They take an old, tattered cloak worn as part of their uniform and drape it over his shoulders as a robe. They weave a crown of thorns and press it down on his head. They prop a stick in his hand as his scepter. They kneel mockingly before him. They spit on him and hit him with that staff. 

   Seeing Jesus treated this way – abused, manhandled by these ruthless soldiers – leaves one with the impression that he is hardly king-like. No one comes to his defense. He appears weak and powerless – the delusional lunatic, the phony, that those soldiers judged him to be. Here is the dilemma that derails many in their thinking about Jesus’ kingship. Even we find it hard to claim this Jesus as our King. 

  But, remember who this is —   the sinless Son of God! The all-powerful and eternal God is being beaten and mocked at the hands of puny, sinful men. Jesus could have retaliated and had legions of angels come to his aid. He could have destroyed these men with a mere thought. What we see here is a sad reality —   until we consider why it is happening, why it had to happen, and for whom Jesus is enduring this in silence and full submission. “This IS your King!”

   A 19th century poem set to music as a carol tells how “Love came down at Christmas.”  What we see in this stark scene is love, the love the King of heaven and earth has for us. What Jesus said to Pilate about his kingship just before this reveals why he came.  “I am, as you say, a king. For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (EHV). Jesus came to be a King for us unlike any other.

   One of the roles of a king throughout history has been to protect his people. A king raised up and supplied an army to defend his people. In Old Testament times the king even led his army into battle. He would not sit idly in his throne room. He would be out on the battlefield, alongside his soldiers. Just so the Son of God could not remain in heaven’s throne room. In love for us sinners Jesus appeared on the battlefield of this world to wage war for us.

  The Mark Twain novel The Prince and the Pauper tells the story of a prince of England who trades places with an impoverished youngster from the streets of London. The two boys live each other’s lives and experience life from a different perspective than each is familiar. There’s more to the plot-line, but the point is Jesus is like that prince —  willingly setting aside his power and glory and humbling himself to live the impoverished life of a sinner, though he had no sin. Jesus still retained his title of King, but with his divine power and majesty hidden. Thus he entered the fray, did battle with sin by living perfectly life under the law his Father had given and then he died an innocent death.   

   All of this Jesus did alone. Unlike an earthly king, Jesus didn’t come to rally his troops and lead us into battle. He came to fight alone. That’s how we see him here. He walked the way of the cross by himself, bearing our sin and guilt. Above the timbers that formed the strangest of thrones was posted a sarcastically written sign:  “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” On that cross Jesus suffered an excruciating death and hell itself – abandonment from God his Father. He did this to win us back from the devil who since the Fall had exercised his diabolic control over sinners. Jesus shed his holy, precious blood to rescue us, redeem us. A single verse of Scripture says it so simply:  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” That’s a King who loves us, who would go to any extreme to fight for his people.

   The Jesus who allowed himself to be treated this way —  abused and tortured by the hands of sinful men —  is the One of whom St. Paul wrote:  He is seated “at his [God the Father’s] right hand in the heavenly realms, far above every rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given.” We sang about that a moment ago:  The head that once was crowned with thorns / is crowned with glory now; / a royal diadem adorns / the mighty Victor’s brow.
 
  But it doesn’t always seem as if Jesus is ruling over everything, does it? Rather, the world appears to be spinning out of control – a locomotive with no engineer in the cab heading at breakneck speed toward that broken trestle and sure destruction. Sin runs rampant. Satan has his way in the lives of so many people. Even we often feel as if we are engaged in a losing battle with our Old Adam.

  Yet, think of it this way: picture a city under siege. The enemy army surrounding the city won’t let anyone or anything come in or go out. Supplies are running low. The citizens are fearful. But in the dark of the night, a spy sneaks through enemy lines and makes his way into the city. He tells the inhabitants that in another place the main enemy force has been defeated and its leaders have already surrendered. The people inside the city don’t need to be afraid because it’s only a matter of time until those enemy troops on the outside learn the same news and lay down their arms. Momentarily it appears that we are surrounded by all these spiritual forces of evil bent on destroying us. But, things are not as they seem. Christ was victorious at Calvary, defeating Satan and his minions there and soon that fact will be apparent to all.

  When Pilate inquired about Jesus’ kingship, he heard the reply, “My kingdom is not of this world” and Jesus kingdom is not. It does not operate according to accepted principles. There’s no gleaming throne, no impressive palace, no well-armed marshalled forces (at least to be seen) drawn up and awaiting the king’s orders. We don’t to see any physical evidences of our king’s reign, but he does reign – among us and within us.

  In ascending into heaven, Jesus did not disappear into the clouds to be forgotten or go into hiding. Rather he assumed the position that was always his, at the right hand God, where he serves in majesty and might every day as our Shepherd-King (Ezekiel’s description of him in our opening dialogue). Our Shepherd-King guides and guards us. He binds up the wounded; he strengthens the weak. As the Good Shepherd, he knows his sheep. He leads us and speaks us through his Word. He protects us from the devil, who like a roaring lion would try to devour us. He supports us and stands at our side, empowering us to overcome the Tempter’s temptations. When we do succumb because of our inborn weakness and our failure to let him lead, he recalls and restores us. This is what our King is doing for us right now. I may sometimes seem as if we’re losing the battle but, as promised, he is the Mighty Victor!

   Look to his Word and there you will find the uplifting good news of your forgiveness. There you will be strengthened in your faith. Through the cacophony, the din of this present world, focus and train your ears to hear the promises he makes to you:  “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” “Surely I will be with you even to end of the age.” These are promises he will keep.

   Yes, this same Jesus – who was mocked, beaten and died at the hands of sinful men – is the One who of whom it is written, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …”. One way or another everybody – unbeliever and believer alike –will acknowledge him to be King of kings and Lord of lords, either grudgingly or in grateful thanksgiving.

  On the Last Day Jesus will finally and forever put an end to his enemies’ reign of terror. Revelation reminds us that we are living in the twilight of this present world’s existence. Signs of that fact are all around us and pointing, seemingly with greater clarity, to The End. During this time, the enemies of Christ and his people will rage more and more fiercely and we, the King’s subjects, will have to face them. But, remember —   Jesus has overcome every force of evil; their doom sealed at Calvary. Jesus prepared his disciples for this by telling them: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So we are victorious with Jesus. His called, chosen and faithful followers, you and I will be victorious too in The End.  

   We are blessed to be the subjects of the King of kings and Lord of lords. We are blessed to experience his reign now and in the life to come. Shortly (?), all struggle and strife will be over. Sin and the effects of sin will disappear ... not even to be a distant memory. The tiny bit of limited power Satan still has will be stripped from him. And Jesus will reign forever and ever, with you and me alongside him. 
 
   Could the Jesus we see here in our gospel, beaten and bloody, mocked and despised —   could he be our King? Could he possibly hold sway over this sinful world? Could he be the Victor ... our salvation, our life, our light? HE IS!

   To him be all honor and glory now and forever! 

   Amen.






Isaiah 65:17-25  “HEAVEN IS FOR REAL - AND THE LIFE WE WILL ENJOY THERE, TOO!"
Saints Triumphant – Nov. 15, 2020

   “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight     and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
   "Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.


   Almost ten years ago a book by publisher Thomas Nelson topped the New York Times best seller list for seven weeks in a row. It was an usual accomplishment for the company because the firm is the world’s leading producer of Bibles —   and inspirational books. The easy-read, 163 page non-fiction work, though, captured the public’s attention and word of mouth, more than anything else, was responsible for its popularity. The title of the book? Heaven is for Real.

   The author, Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo, tells what happened after 4-year old Colton, their son, was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix. The youngster had what we’d call an out-of-the-body experience. Colton vividly recalled the amazing he saw and heard in heaven and related them to his father. He described heaven as a fantastic place, better than Disney World. He spoke about incidents where he met people he couldn’t have known personally:  a great-grandfather who’d died long before he was born, an unborn sister he never knew about because he had died in a miscarriage, and he had an up-close encounter with Jesus. Colton’s story was made into a full-length movie a number of years later with the same optimistic message … that the best is yet to be.

  On this second-to-last Sunday of the church year, our thoughts go in the same direction – to what heaven will be like and to the joys our loved ones who’ve died in faith are enjoying. They are God’s saints, his ‘holy ones’ in Jesus – as are we. “Saints of God” is the designation you and I have received.

   But these are challenging truths to try to wrap our minds around, aren’t they?  … challenging because although we are rational beings we lack the intellectual capacity to grasp fully the blessedness of heaven. Life without end in the presence of the God who created and redeemed us??? … That’s beyond anything we know! Perfect bliss??? That’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine. In a line from the first stanza of Jerusalem the Golden, we sing … “I know not, oh, I know not / What joys await us there, / What radiance of glory, / What bliss beyond compare." For information about what awaits us as believers —   we need to be taught by God. And the Spirit of God does that today, providing us with at least partial answers to the question, “What’s heaven going to be like?” While the answers we receive today might not totally satisfy our curiosity, we’ll have to be satisfied and should be because Colton on this count is right …heaven is for real!

   In these verses the prophet Isaiah serves as a mouthpiece for the Lord. In a unique way he explains what’s not going to be found in heaven. Certain things are going to be absent – and purposely so because they don’t fit, they don’t belong to that place of endless peace and joy which God has prepared for his people. From the negative, then, we can deduce the positive. Elsewhere Scripture has descriptions of the hereafter from Jesus and his apostles approaching this topic from different angles in an effort to get us to understand. Heaven is described as a feast or a banquet – like a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trappings and the family we love. We can understand that, even though heaven isn’t exactly an elaborate multi-course meal. Heaven is described as a wedding, an intimate, loving, emotion-filled day. We can understand that, even though heaven isn’t exactly like a grand wedding reception. Here, near the end of Isaiah’s prophecy, we learn that heaven has a lot of nots (n-o-t-s’s).

   The Lord begins, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” Right off the bat we see why it’s hard for us to understand what heaven is like, a near exercise in futility. God says it will all be new. Dying and going to heaven … or being caught up into heaven as 1 Thessalonians 4 describes should Jesus return in glory first … is not going to be like moving into a remodeled apartment where the leaky sink has been fixed, the mold around the tub scrubbed off, the stained carpeting removed and the odd smell taken away.  Heaven is not “earth remodeled” – but a complete teardown job. Heaven is not a sanitized version of what we experience here on earth. It’s something totally different, totally new, something God defines here by what it doesn’t have.

   Here’s the first ‘not’ (n-o-t) of heaven:  “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” What kind of emotional baggage did you carry into church with you this morning? Any of you have any “big sins” that are buried deep in your closet and no matter how hard you try and move on from them, forget them, they just keep coming back to haunt you? Did any of you walk in here with a painful memory, a time when sin or death or heartbreak became a very real thing for you, and no matter how much time passes you can’t help but cringe and feel a little terrified because you know firsthand how much hurt you can feel in this world and that reminds you that it could happen again at any moment? All of us carry mental and emotional baggage through this life, but not into heaven.

   Do you want to know what heaven is going to be like for you? —   or what it is like right now for that loved one of yours who is already there? It is not baggage-filled!!! All those painful memories, all those guilt ridden recollections will be gone for you, and they’re already gone for those who have gone before us – never to be remembered. Welcome to the nots of heaven! Pretty good first ‘not’ (n-o-t) isn’t it? “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

   
Instead painful or shameful memories haunting us, God says to us:  “… be glad and rejoice forever, in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” Scripture Bible often uses Jerusalem or the New Jerusalem or Zion (which was one of the hills on which that ancient city was built) as a synonym for heaven. In just a bit we’ll sing hymn #728 which makes use of that picture of the Holy City for heaven. “… I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” Here’s the second ‘not:’ “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” If your stock portfolio includes shares of Kimberly Clark, the manufacturer of Kleenex, unload those shares ahead of the day of heaven’s dawn because they’re going to be worthless.   

   What’s heaven is like? It will be devoid of tears, tears of sorrow and grief for sure. The tears of frustration that streamed down your face when you fought with your spouse because even though you love him/her, and he/she loves you —  you’re still two sinful people capable of hurting each other deeply …; that sobbing and sense of helpless grief at the bedside of your sick child … ; that sorrowful weeping as you stood next to that hole in the ground and watched the body of your loved one being lowered into it … all of these heart-wrenching experiences which define so much of our time on this earth —   our God says to us: “Not in my heaven! Not in my new Jerusalem! Not among my chosen people! You will never cry again!” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  

   And why will we never cry again? Well, the third ‘not’ answers that: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” God says to us today, “You want to know what heaven will be like? It will be like that old guy, that 100-year old man, who considers that his life is just beginning. That’s what forever feels like.” Forever is a concept, again, that’s is so very hard for us to try to wrap our minds around. We’re accustomed to thinking linear. There’s a starting point and an ending point. Every cemetery gravestone is engraved with two dates: a person’s birthdate and the date of a person’s death and a person’s life is the dash between the dates. But as believers in the living Lord Jesus Christ, we really need to alter that way of thinking, in fact, jettison it completely. Do you know what the mathematical symbol for infinity is? A figure 8 turned on its side ... because it has no endpoint. 

   God uses these illustrations of a newborn and a centenarian not to teach us that people will grow old and die in the hereafter, because they won’t. This is just God trying to put forever in terms we can – perhaps – begin to understand. Death is one of heaven’s ‘nots.’ And we remember what brought death into this world in the first place, don’t we? Death is the “wages of sin” according to Romans 6. So why will all crying be gone and why will the former things not be remembered? Because the wages of sin have been paid in full! The death you and I rightly deserve to experience, the death that makes this world so disappointing and so disheartening, the death which the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 terms “the last enemy” —   death will be completely and utterly vanquished. The Grim Reaper will be persona non grata in the hereafter. Welcome to another of the ‘nots’ of heaven:  death cannot hurt you anymore!

   Heaven means no more baggage, ... no more crying, ... no more death, and God has one more ‘not’ for us: “No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands.” In heaven there will be no more foreclosures. No recessions. No layoffs. No job cut backs. No workplace anxieties. No wrestling with purposelessness or lack of passion for your job. All of these, too, will be gone.

  God throws out a bunch of the ‘nots’ of heaven – not an exhaustive list, but it is his hope is that one of them would resonate with you, that one of these would give you some peace of mind as you wrestle with the consequences of sin this side of eternity. We may not be able to understand it all, but it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? 

   Which leaves us with one final question to consider: Why us?? Why do we get to enjoy this blessed existence?? Why do we get to rest secure knowing that this heaven of ‘nots’ is where our loved ones are now, and where we will be too one day?? Scripture makes clear that not everyone will get to enjoy the heaven of ‘nots.’ Our description of heaven ends with the ominous note “dust will be the serpent’s food” – the devil and those aligned with him do not get to enjoy the heaven of ‘nots.’ Why is that not us??

   
Well, it certainly isn’t because we have earned or deserved it. It isn’t because we are smarter or better than the rest of the world. It has nothing to do with us at all, actually. It has everything to do with Jesus – Jesus who came to pay the wages of sin for us; Jesus who sent his Spirit into our hearts to create faith that clings to the forgiveness he bought for us when he died on his cross; Jesus who promises us that one day we will be in the heaven of nots because we are children of the resurrection – children who were adopted into God’s family when he put his name on us at our baptism. One day you will find yourself among the people blessed by the Lord, part of God’s forever family, clad in a white robe and standing around the throne of your God —   all because of Jesus.
 
   Today is Saints Triumphant —  the Sunday of the church year when we especially remember our loved ones who have gone before us, the day when we spend time thinking about the triumph that’s waiting for us. And while we may not be able to fully understand every aspect of heaven until we get there, God has not left us in the dark.

   Rejoice, friends, over the heaven of ‘nots’ – no more baggage, no more crying, no more death, no more hardships. That heaven is for real and it’s yours! Jesus promises that it is so!

  Amen
.          



Daniel 7:9-10  “GOD GETS THE LAST WORD ON THE LAST DAY”
Last Judgment – Nov. 8, 2020

     As I looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.”

  Most of us know Daniel best as the man in the lion’s den. If you were with us last week, we considered that familiar account in connection with our celebration of the Lutheran Reformation. If you weren’t with us, I’m sure you recall that episode from Daniel’s life: his being thrown to the lions for daring to pray to the true God and the Lord sending an angel to shut the lions’ mouths.

  However, there’s a whole lot more to Daniel and his life than one night staring down a pride of lions. In fact, Daniel’s whole life is kind of an adventure. Like the rest of his countrymen, Daniel saw the anger of God up close and personal. After almost a millennium of rebellion against God, God finally reached his breaking point and brought down the hammer on his ancient people, the Jews, including Daniel. God sent an invading kingdom – Babylon – to conquer Judah and tear Daniel’s people away from their homeland. God permitted the king of Babylon to drag Daniel and his people a thousand miles across the desert into exile.

  A gifted young man, Daniel was groomed for public service. He rose through the ranks of administrators in the government of Babylon until he became the head of an entire province. Slotted by God into this unique niche where he could exert influence for the benefit God’s people, Daniel had it good in Babylon.

  But the rest of the Jews – exiled, oppressed, a thousand miles away from home with no clear prospect of going back —   they didn’t have it so good. As their 70 year captivity dragged on, they grew despondent. They weren’t being able to muster the joy to sing praises to their God. Under the thumb of their captors, they sat sulking. Psalm 137 records their lament: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. … How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” God’s people wanted to go home and they wanted to see judgment carried out against their captors, but couldn’t imagine relief would ever come. Instead of asking for deliverance, of trusting that a plan devised by God was at work, they sat and cried, hopelessly. 

  Daniel was no stranger to dreams and visions. The Lord actually gave him many dreams and visions during his time in Babylon. At the heart of these prophetic glimpses into the future was a promise for God’s people. As hopeless as the situation might’ve seemed, a day of reckoning for those enemies was coming, along with salvation. Deliverance and restoration were just on the horizon. Daniel’s dreams and visions carried that message then and they still carry it today:  “God gets the last say on the Last Day” … to ‘erase’ his enemies and to save his saints.

  God’s people in exile in Babylon needed to hear that message, because they were in despair. They thought God’s judgment would never come – that God would never judge their enemies. It’s a thought many of God’s people easily fall into ... including the followers of Jesus today.

  Today the enemies of Christianity – opponents to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ – seem to thrive all over the world. Religions that deny the true God seem to spread like wildfire. Fanatics and extremists target Christians and commit horrible acts of violence, stabbings and beheadings. Governments influenced by radical religious beliefs persecute believers in Jesus. Here in America, loudmouthed atheists blather about how ignorant and gullible Christians are. And in the middle of it all, we, God’s people, seem to be in exile in a world that opposes us and our God, a world that wishes that he, and we, would just disappear, a world that seemingly will try anything it can to make that happen.

  Like God’s people of old, the Jews in Babylon, we see no end in sight. We may start to think the end will never come. Like Daniel’s countrymen crouched by the rivers in Babylon, we too may start to sulk and cry: “God has forgotten about us. He will never destroy his enemies. He will never take us home. Deliverance is nowhere in sight.” And so, our songs become muted, too. We push those gracious promises our Lord has made to us to the back of our minds. Instead of proclaiming the coming wrath, which is part of the whole counsel of God, we may even start to wonder if maybe these enemies don’t have it right after all: “They’ll just get away with it forever and judgment will never come.”

  The people of God in the present ... you and I ... need to take Daniel’s vision from long ago to heart. The end of all things is coming! And God will have the last say on the Last Day, to ‘erase’ his enemies and to save his saints.

  The first part of Daniel’s vision, which we did not hear because it's earlier in chapter 7, pictures what be the experience of those enemies. Out of a churning sea Daniel sees four beasts emerging:  a lion with eagle wings, a bear raised up on one side with three ribs in its mouth, a leopard with four wings and four heads, and a terrifying beast with iron teeth and ten horns. Each beast conquered and ruled - in turn - until all of them were gone and —   what we have in these verses before us took place:  the Ancient of Days appeared!

  Later in chapter 7 we have the interpretation of Daniel's vision. “The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth.”  In succession these empires would come and go:  the Babylonian, the Medio-Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Daniel saw this vision during the first of those empires – Babylon. As powerful as Babylon appeared, it would fall and another empire would rise, but that too would fall, and so on. Still today nations rise and fall. In our country the political winds shift each election cycle. Yet Someone reigns supreme, our Lord Jesus. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:22: “God placed all things all things under his [Jesus’] feet and appointed him [Jesus] to be head over everything for the church." The church is the people of God, with Jesus ruling and reigning only good will result for God’s people always.

  In full view of all who opposes him, the all-holy, almighty God sets up his courtroom and takes his seat. “As I looked, ‘thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool.’” Nowhere else in Scripture do we find this name for God ... the "Ancient of Day" – only here, to make a very important point:  our God goes back long before everyone and everything else. He knows everything that has happened in the history of his creation, and nothing any of his enemies has ever done will go unpunished in his courtroom.

  The Ancient of Days is pure holiness, indicated by his white hair and white clothing. While it’s challenging to press every detail in a vision such as this, we can draw some conclusions … make some inferences that correspond to Scripture truth. This is a holy Judge who demands holiness from those he judges. He’s not going to pass any verdicts such as, “Well, you weren’t perfect; but as a pretty good person, I’m going to give you a pass.” Or, “Well, you know, you didn’t oppose me as vigorously as some others – so I’m going let you off the hook.” You won’t going hear waffling verdicts. Rather, holiness is what this Judge demands. Holiness is the only thing he will accept.

  Daniel sees this holy Judge sitting on a seat with wheels – wheels suggesting a Judge who is not stationary, but mobile. He gets around. He’s omnipresent, if you remember that big 50 cent Bible word. Isn’t that exactly what we know about our God? Through his prophet Jeremiah the Lord declares, “Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?” The psalm writer echoes that same concept, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” God’s been all over the face of the earth, surveying his creation and keeping an eye on his creatures. He looks even into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human heart and that’s scary thought at face value, because this Judge is ready to unleash his wrath. The fire is already flowing from beneath his throne, even before he begins rendering his judgment and nobody can escape his court:  “… thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.”

  God’s been keeping track of all his enemies say and do and it’s on the books. In Jesus’ illustration of the sheep and goats, the actions and attitudes of each group have been appropriately noted:   The result for those enemies of God and of God’s people —   they will be consigned to an eternity of doom. Daniel talks about those enemies being subject to the white, hot fire of God’s wrath. He will ‘erase’ those enemies from the view of his holy people who had to struggle – contend for the faith, and even suffer persecution. For … “God gets the last say on the Last Day.”

  It’s a good thing we don’t deserve that kind of destruction on the Last Day, right? It’s a good thing we are good, church-going folks who’d never dream of countermanding one of God’s commandments and so anger him. Good thing I’m a pastor – I’ll be safe for sure, right? Good thing we read our Bibles —   we do read our Bibles, right? (Let’s just assume we do.) We might like to think we’ve no problem with our record in that courtroom on the Last Day, as long as we point out all these nice little facts about ourselves. But the truth is … pointing to our own record in this courtroom on the Last Day wouldn’t help us in the least. The opposite is true. It would destroy us. When God opens his books in that courtroom, the last thing you’ll want him to do is to read off your own record, … the record of a person who at least occasionally treated God’s name like a rag, using it any old time for any old thing; ... the record of a person who at least once in a while let the pleasures and distractions of the world crowd him out of heart and mind; ... the record of a person who has lied and lusted, who has harbored grudges and refused to let go of hard feelings that we’ve clung to tenaciously; ...  the record of someone who, at times, thought and lived as though the Last Day would never come.

  Remember, this Judge is the Ancient of Days, who knows everything about everybody. Again, he wears the pure white of righteousness. He’s not lenient. He’s not a look the other way guy; he demands perfection. And with that in mind, our prospects on that Last Day might seem hopeless ... as if we will end up in the same place as God’s enemies, because we’ve sometimes lived and thought like his enemies.

  But when this Judge opens the book and turns to the page with your name on it and the page with my name on it, he’s not going to find our own record, the record of our sinful lives. Instead, he’ll find a perfect record because he has blotted out all of our sins from his book – blotted them out with the blood of his Son, Jesus. By God’s grace we won’t hear our own damning record on the Last Day. We will hear the record of the perfect life which Jesus lived in our place, the perfect life credited to us when the Holy Spirit brought us to faith. You see, when God brought us to faith in his Son, he dropped the gavel in his heavenly courtroom and declared us, “Not guilty!” innocent through Jesus’ saving work! In other words, God has made us saints through faith. So on the Last Day, he will save us together with all his saints. “God gets the last say on the Last Day” … to save us, his saints.

   I wonder what Daniel’s people must have thought when they heard this vision. They were really just looking for judgment against the Babylonians so they could return to their earthly homeland. Instead, God gave them a more glorious message! He gave them a glimpse of the final judgment by which he would rescue them forever. This is not just a vision for them back then; it’s a vision that means everything to us today, and everything to all of God’s saints for all time.

  Already justified in God’s courtroom, we can look ahead to Last Day with confidence, not fear; we can look ahead to that day when God will deliver us from those enemies that surround us here in this world. While we wait, we don’t lose heart, because we know God’s judgment is coming. On that day he will ‘erase’ his enemies from our view and save us, his saints.

  Amen.