Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Circumcision of our Lord - Luke 2

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We should probably call this Sunday, “Let down,” Sunday. That would really be appropriate given this time of year. Everything is over. It’s all done. The mess has come and, hopefully, the mess is gone, and, theoretically, we all feel full of energy and power-packed to engage a whole new year’s celebration! Resolutions for the future are, of course, in order, and we are, naturally, completely capable of making all of our wildest dreams come true.

This is the bill they sell us. This is the bill we buy. This is the bill we pay for with heavy consciences and weakened hearts. We can’t help but hurt as we look at all the let down. We can’t do but cringe as we think about all that still has to be done. Yes, I’m very thankful for all the new stuff, and yes, the food tasted better than any I’ve ever had, and yes, for goodness sakes, I believe the Nativity story, so why oh why am I still not happy? Why do I not leap like a gazelle and bound like young puppy with a stick? Why am I sick? Why am I tired? Why am I fed up?

It reminds me of my first few weeks at Seminary. After softball games on Friday afternoons, it was the habit of the community to gather round a big grill, cook some meat, and hang out. At one of these early gatherings, I was picking the brain of a very amiable professor. I was young and full of spunk back then, and I wanted some answers. I wanted to know why the Church wasn’t working the way it should. I wanted to know why there was false teaching making headway in our midst. I wanted to know why no one was doing anything to make it get better.

The venerable doctor, taking sip of his pepsi, and, of all things, giggling to himself, looked me in the eye with a big smile, and said, “Sin.” He might as well have smacked me upside the back of my head. “Yeah, duh,” half of me thought, but then the other half was flabbergasted. “Yeah, duh you idiot,” I said to myself. And suddenly it was like I saw the world for the first time. And the world wasn’t straight, like I’d always thought it was. The world was bent. (You ever try to write with a bent pen? It doesn’t work.)

The world IS bent. The world has been bent a long, long time; longer than just about anyone can conceive; almost from the very beginning. And ever since it got bent, it just hasn’t quite worked. There’s all this crud stuck in the gears. Wars, famines, poverty, greed. You know the list. And it’s not hard to see it. It’s everywhere! Even when you do the best you can, the best you can possibly do, the best you can is pretty weak-kneed compared to what you know you should have done.

And you’re not alone in this. This is the experience of every single person alive, whether they admit it or not. Every person alive faces this bent reality every day. And every one of us engages it in one of two ways, and often both. Most the time, we look at the bent, and then resolve that we’re either going to make it straight or we’re going to prove that it is straight, even if it kills us trying. You do this, right? You run around like a fool, convinced that if you just light enough matches, you’ll be able to set the water on fire. That’s the natural way to face this bent world. But then, there’s also the Christian way. The Christian way starts by realizing that all those fizzling matches mean something: it means that you’re trying to do the impossible. In fact, the Christian way begins to see, ironically, that the more determined you are to make the crooked pen write, the more crooked it becomes. Ha! And it’s going to kill you one way or the other.

Now this reality is all over the Scriptures. And, as Christians, we definitely bark up both the trees most the time. With our flesh, and our nature, we’re constantly trying to make that broken pen work. But, thanks be to God, because of his gracious Word, and through the miracle of his Sacraments, we also begin to live with faith that sees the world for what it is, and once in a while, finds peace by letting back and letting go. You get that? It’s pretty cool. As a Christian you get to start to look at the bent world, and not get all bent out of shape over it yourself. Because you have seen what the bent world did to a straight God, and you have known how the bending of God has straightened out the crooked. You do believe that your own bentness in large ways really doesn’t matter any more, because you have been brought into a community waiting for the straight that comes from outside this cosmos, to return and set it all right again.

And it’s about here that we find a real connection to our Gospel reading for today. Because back at the turn of the 1st millennium, it wasn’t like Christmas celebration made all the problems go away either. After Jesus was born, there was still a lot to do. And the world was still bent. It was so bent that even the perfect man still had to keep ceremonial laws in order to stay perfect. So the Evangelist Luke recounts for us something which our modern minds might find a bit quirky: the circumcision of Jesus.

Now, a great deal could be said here to explain old testament ritual. We can learn a ton about our own Christian walk in faith from Israel’s purification rites and the sacramental realities of our same mother Church before Jesus came. It can be shown how circumcision is essentially the old testament shadow of baptism. And you can even see how this dominance of “firstborn son” in “patriarchal” cultures carries an ethereal, somewhat supernatural resonance when you think about the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son…” It’s great stuff.

But for the moment, for today, it’s probably enough to learn that the day of circumcision was the day that a child was first given his name publicly. The eighth day after Christmas (tomorrow) was the first that people in Israel heard that their savior’s name was “Jesus.”

And it is quite remarkable that when they did this, where they did this, which was at the place appointed for doing this by Moses of old, there just happened to be a man named Simeon. A man progressed in years who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. What that means is that Simeon was a man who had become pretty darn convinced not only that the world was bent, but that also that, because the world was bent, the Church of the Old Testament (that is Israel,) was also bent, and, knowing that, he knew that he himself was bent, and that everything everywhere was bent… but even more than that, he also knew that it wasn’t going to be bent forever.

And this wasn’t because he has some foolish blind faith in the power of optimism, or because he thought highly of the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity; it wasn’t because he believed modernism and technology could help our race evolve. No. None of that. Simeon believed that there would be consolation for Israel because God had said so. Simeon knew the promises of old, “Comfort, comfort ye, my people.” “The throne of the Lord is established of old.” “There shall come forth from the stump of Jesse a shoot to bear fruit for the earth.” And so on.

Simeon was waiting for the unbending of Israel, and with Israel the unbending of the entire world, and this because the one True Lord God had promised that Israel and with her the world would be unbent through one man who had, by the time of Simeon, come to be affectionately longed for under the name “Messiah.” That’s Hebrew for “Christ.” And it was the Messiah that Simeon knew was a sure thing according to the Promises of God. The Messiah was a healing balm for the nations of the world, and the straightener of all that is crooked, and nothing could stand in his way. And to top all this off, Simeon, blessed among men, had also received a vision from the Holy Spirit of God revealing that he himself would not die before he had lain eyes upon this Messiah, this “Annointed One” of God.

So Luke recounts for us how Simeon - who knew as well as we do the realities of “let down” days and bent crookedness, of failed human dreams and efforts, and the incapacity of the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – it was this man Simeon, standing in the temple courts, who saw the child Jesus, brought there and named, and at once burst forth with words of joy that have echoed down through the ages to this very day. Words which our ancient ancestors in the Church found so complete, so perfect in describing the reality of living within contact with Christ, that they place them in our liturgies, for us too to sing, and to remember, and thereby proclaim the unbending of the world.

Loosely translated, he sang, “Lord God! You now have sent me peace in this life, even though I shall still surely die! For, as your faithful Word has promised, so it is coming to pass that my own eyes have looked upon the very flesh and blood that is your salvation prepared for all peoples, for the nations beyond and for the line of Abraham within, for the Church you will straighten, even as this very child is perfect and straight right now.”

Personally, I find it funny that Joseph and Mary, who theoretically knew as much already, marveled much at these words. But that didn’t deter Simeon, who by faith grasped the promises of God, for he goes on and says even to Mary. “Listen: this child, this infant, this Jesus is sent to lift up the broken, to bring them peace and security, to restore the fortunes of our fallen race. And yet, beware, this child is sent to bring down the foolhardy, to destroy the falsehood of those who put their trust in man and in his powers. And,” he said. “I leave not even you, Mother of God, free from this prediction, for your own heart must, as my own has been, be pierced by the Word of God as well, for so it must be with all who will believe in this Jesus. The Word of God reveals the intentions of the heart. It reveals sin, and brings we who are sinners to nothing so that this same Word might also deliver us the peace of God’s promises, yea, even deliver us this same child who is our peace because he is God alone.” And in him, even then, the bent was already being made straight. Frail human flesh which so easily turns to dust, had already been made imperishable. And the human heart which is always enslaved to the law of sin, had already been set free as a Son of God.

It is for this reason that, even though Simeon knew he would still go to his grave - and even though he still lies there waiting to this day – even though he knew that the joy of the moment would pass, and the pain suffering of every day bent life would come roaring back - he went not as a man overwhelmed by “let down,” but as a man who expects, faces it, hates, and yet heads off to sleep in peace knowing that the Word of God proves true, as it always will.

The same is true for us. Even today, one more “let down” Sunday, with the best festivities over for a time, with another depressing new year about to start, with less lively “computerized music, with a sermon that can’t possibly punch like the last one, with the cold of winter refusing to come and yet no where near leaving, with bentness and crookedness at every corner and curve in our weary roads, we too, like Simeon, wait for the consolation of Israel, and, like Simeon, know that we have seen it’s beginning with our own eyes. More so, we see it’s continuation with our own eyes. We see and touch, eat, and drink, listen to and sing the Words of God once more, trusting that though the story isn’t over yet, the end is already written. And there we will find no let down, but consolation, exaltation, and joy forevermore.

In the Name…

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christ Mass Day - Luke 2

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There’s a star in the sky. It’s unlike any star the world has ever seen. It moves. It leads. It shows the way. This is no haley’s comet. This is no evolution of nature. This is God’s own guidance, moving, leading, showing that tonight, today, is unlike any other day the world has ever known.

There are kings who see it. Magi. Wise men. Learned of the pagan arts. Gentiles who cannot know God. But they see the star, and it leads them. They see the star and it brings them to Jerusalem, to the puppet King of the Jews, who unwittingly gives them the Word of God: “Born in Bethlehem!” To Bethlehem! The true King will be found in the city of royal David, and he is unlike any other king the world has ever known.

But in the fields there were shepherds, and they kept watch over their flocks in the deep of the night. With only a cloak and a fire, they slept beneath the starry hosts, much as they always did. But lo and behold, angels from the realms of God’s own glory filled the sky, dazzling, daunting, daytime light, and they sang, “Glory! Hallelujah! Peace to you men for God has placed his favor upon you!” And off the men went to see this great thing that had happened, for it was unlike any other great thing the world had ever known.

In a stable, in a manger, with ox and ass to warm the air, and all because their was no room for him in the inn, no room in the first come first serve hearts of men, no space to make straight a way for this light to enter our darkness. In a stable, in a manger, with feces on the floor and kings already seeking his attendance, with a virgin mother who treasured up in her heart the very sky itself which said, “Noel. Noel. This is unlike any other birth the world has ever known.”

Its such a wonderful story.

And we have such a wonderful celebration to remember it. We have such wonderful family gatherings. We have such beautiful lights and decorations. We have such wonderful gift-giving and candlelit services. We, with good reason, want to remember that even still, today is unlike any other day the world has ever known.

And yet for all of our pomp, (which I am not condemning!) and for the angels and the wise men and the shepherds (which are the truth of history!) and for the lyrics of the songs (which hold the Word of God,) it must still be asked whether or not we too easily forget that Luke chapter 2 and John chapter 1 are chapter 2 and chapter 1 in books! They are only the beginning of the story, which does not end once the gifts from the wise men were unwrapped, or after the shepherds and the in-laws returned to their homes. Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head, but that swaddling babe, in that story so nice, did not come to sleep. He came to pay a price. And from the moment of his birth, from the moment of celebration by angels in the sky, from the moment that shepherds and kings alike bowed down before a child, that full story was in motion, long prophesied of old, and moving toward a dramatic ending that the sweet and faithful mother could not have possibly even dreampt!

Yet it was foreshadowed so plainly: there was no room for him in the inn. When the child had grown, there was no room for him in the temple that was his own court. And even today, though we meet him with such festivities, there is truly no room for him in this world. He hasn’t merely been replaced by a fat man in a red suit and songs about snowmen and reindeer, but worse than that, that infant’s arms were taken and spread wide as we pounded heavy nails through his wrists and thrust a spear into his corpse to make sure he was dead. Yes, when this child who lay to rest on Mary’s lap asleep had grown into a man and began to speak, we hated him that much.

O come, all ye faithful, and confess that bowing down is not what you have done to your King, but that you would have him bow down before you, and that is what he did: stricken, smitten and afflicted by the cruel price of sin, death, evil and hate. We are men, and men love the darkness for our deeds are evil, and this is most clearly seen in what we did to that child at Golgatha, at Calvary, on a green hill far away outside a city wall where our dear Lord was crucified in a death unlike any other death that the world had ever known, a death which brought not more stars to the sky, but took the sun away, and covered the land in darkness and shadow, our self-chosen darkness and shadow, brought down from heaven by the murdering of the Son the God…and isn’t it ironic that the world still celebrates his birth by killing a living tree.

But that part of the story is not so nice as angels and shepherds. It’s much better to think about eggs and bunny rabbits, cookies and milk by the fireplace and Jack frost nipping at your nose. There is no room for him in the inn.

So isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it marvelous? Isn’t it terribly unbelievable that even though there was no room for him in the inn, in the world or even now, in our hearts, that little infant King came down to save us anyway? Isn’t it profound that even though that boy knew full well that, for his entire life, every step he took was a step closer to holes in his wrists and feet made by iron spikes, and to a scourged back dragged along the splintery rugged wood of a cross, that Savior came anyway? Isn’t it stupendous that, even though his own prayers begged with sweat and blood that he might not have to drink the cup of the Father’s wrath if there was any other road, that Prophet came anyway? Isn’t it grace to see that even though it was for the sake of an entire race of flighty, self-centered, godless people, that the Messiah came anyway?

Oh, that little infant so lauded on that night so silent came anyway because, despite our broken condition, he knew full well the meaning of true, unconditional love. Room for him in the inn, or no; people who truly deserved it, or no; rejected by his own and killed dead or no; the Word become flesh was the kind of new man who could not be put aside, rejected or killed for very long…and so he went through it all; he laid down it all; he poured out it all anyway to demonstrate the kind of real and tangible love that the world can only know in him – and then – at the very place where it seemed that those angels at Christmas had been proved mistaken in their songs, he opened his eyes for the first time for a second time; and he got up from the stone on which he lay; and he folded those burial rags stained with blood; and he walked right out of that tomb in order to say once and for all: “I don’t need room in your inn because I am making a new heavens and a new earth. And in that mansion there will be many, many rooms, rooms unlike any the world has ever known. And I have done it all…for you.

How marvelous is this good thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us; this death and resurrection the holy Son of God to take away the sins of the world! How beautiful is the cross most especially on this the High Feast of Christ Mass, where we eat and drink the proclamation of peace on earth, good will to men! How awesome is the good that comes to you because this Christmas story refused to stay nice the way we would have written it but insisted on staying necessary, staying on track, doing what we couldn’t do but what needed to be done anyway. How great is the greatest story ever told when told all the way to its end: and its not done yet! For lo, he comes descending with clouds, with the tokens of his passion on his body and the ransom given in worship to rapture us in those glorious scars. Now and today it is still in the making, still here for marveling, still coming to give to us people whose King died on the cross that we deserved the risen King himself so that we may know our cross has died in him

Once in royal David’s city, Christ’s birth, happened…and once on lonely Golgatha, Christ’s death happened…and it was all so that once at dawn on Sunday, at a dawn unlike any other dawn the world had ever known, a man who could raise Himself from the dead happened…and that changed the universe forever. It began something new forever. And that forever comes, comes very soon, and even comes a bit early right now, in a meal unlike any other meal the world has ever known. Yea. Dear Christians, one and all rejoice, springing with exultation, and with voice and heart united in song. Let all together praise our God, before his glorious throne. Today he opens heaven again, to give us his own Son, to give us his own Son. Oh yes, Merry Christmas to all, and to you, peace, for on you his favor rests. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen. In the name …Amen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Advent III - Isaiah 40

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Look. Isaiah says it in chapter 40, and it’s simple: the Lord God is coming to this world with might and with all the power of his arm which has ruled the cosmos from the beginning. And he comes with two things: He comes with a reward, and he comes with revenge. And, to him, the nations of the earth, all of them combined, are like a drop of water in a bucket. They are like dust on your bathroom scale. Remember, this is the God who brought forth the stars by number, and calls them by name, for whom all the heavens are like a curtain over his living room window. That God comes to Judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

Then “why, O people of God, do you say that your way is hidden and disregarded by him?” Why do our leaders tell us that the mission of this Church and the mission of His Church will fail to provide the outcome God desires? Why do you, in your daily life, live and believe and act is if your future were reliant upon yourself, your works, your decisions, your investments and plannings? What torture is it that you must experience to truly think that you must provide the bread for your table!?

Have you not heard? Have you not been told? The Lord is everlasting, the Creator of all things. He does not faint or grow weary. His Church, as he wills it, will survive, will flourish, even though his understanding is unsearchable, and we cannot always see the resurrection because we still hang on the cross. Even the strongest of our young grow faint and weary, and the most pragmatic and resourceful of men eventually gets frustrated and tired of trying to make his own visions into reality –

But the promise stands that they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength; they shall find unlooked for answers and unexpected results; in the midst of the storm, when they think their Lord has abandoned them to the depths, there will be a miraculous calm; in six jars of water, when the feast is ruined, there will be the finest wine; in a stinking stable from an unwed teenage mother, while men focus their lives on mammon and pieces of metal, there will be born the true King of universe; and at the foot of a cross with a dead God hanging on it, their shall be life everlasting and hope eternal.

How much more then shall we not cease questioning the state of where we are now, when such love has already been lavished on us? This is why the Apostle Peter, after quoting Isaiah 40, goes on to tell us to humble ourselves before our problems. For if you would have gifts from the Lord, then you will receive not only what you think is good but also the disaster which he insists is good for you. You cannot have a Jesus who is only transfigured and never crucified. You cannot pray “Father forgive them,” without praying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” You cannot come out of your tomb without dying.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Weary, they run and do not grow weary. Fainting, they shall walk and not faint. Afflicted, they shall not be crushed. Perplexed, they shall not despair. Persecuted, they are not forsaken. Struck down, you will rise again on the wings of the dawning Son of God. You will pass through the fires, but you will not be consumed them. Because God relishes giving to those in need mercy and steadfast love in the face of trial and affliction. He loves speaking promises which he will fulfill but which must indeed be believed without being seen.

Do you not know that it is Satan who was cast out of heaven and decided to fight his way back in. He did not look for mercy, but for answer he could control. Pride refused to believe that our weakness is actually God’s strength. But faith, the faith that comes from hearing the promise - faith knows even in the face of utter doubt, that the mercy of the Lord never fails, even when all our sacrifices do.

Of course, we must beware at this threshold of the fullness of the Gospel, for here it is so natural for our flesh to sing, “Aha! I now have an excuse for sin and apathy.” That is villainy! The steadfast love of the Lord which never fades is no dollar-shop grace. The Holy Spirit does not come without having an effect. Christian, you dare not think, “The Lord will provide so I may cease to pray.” You dare not believe, “the Lord owns all things so I will cease to give.” You dare not assume “the heavens declare glory of God so I need no longer confess with my mouth the Christ.” Those who believe such things will be rightly condemned, though they cry out with all of the best intentions, “Lord, Lord, Lord.”

And yet, while we must be sober in the face of this danger, greater danger still is on the fool who would look at what the Lord has done to punish the unfaithful rejection of his Word by the “Church” in America, and then think that somehow he can stop it by any act of sacrifice or mission. No amount of telling ourselves that we fix it if we just try harder can stop Jesus from putting his Church on the cross as he says he always will. Peter cried, “No, Lord, this shall never happen,” and the Lord said, “Get behind me Satan! You do not see with the eyes of God, but you look on this world as a fallen man. You call me the Christ, but you do not act as if you actually believe I’m the Savior.”

If the sifting of the Kingdom in this land of the free is God’s doing, and so it must be for he is sovereign, then there is nothing to be done to stop it, any more than there is anything you can to stop your own death. The Church has only one option – the same option we have ever had: preach the cross of Jesus Christ, for it is forgetting the centrality of that cross which is killing our churches dead.

Yet, today it seems impossible for us to see that the mission is not to teach mission, but Jesus. We do not worship worship, but Jesus. We do not believe in faith, but in Jesus. Salvation is not about salvation, but about Jesus! And because Jesus’ is the author of our reality, if we believe and act as if we can hold back his mighty arm of the Lord from cleansing the temple, then no matter how many times we may say the word mission, we do not partake of the mission of God, but of the mission we ourselves have preferred God to have.

It is saying, “We will ascend to heaven and bring the grace down in a great flood.” But the more we try to do that, the more we incur the wrath of God which has clearly condemned such vanity. The more surely then we curse ourselves by forgetting deeper still the reality that the gates of heaven have already burst apart. The Son of Man has already been born in the most fantastic of ways, carried along by the Spirit, and heralded not only by angels but by the very voice of the Father which burst on the sky like thunder. And the Father said, “Listen to him,” and he says, “Baptize and teach my Word.”

Yet, the deadly trend, my friends, is more akin to Peter, lunging forward with a sword to cut of the ear of the soldier in the garden. “Deeds not creeds” was the theology of Gethsemane, even though it found its substance in a band of fools who slept rather than keep the simplest of commands.

Is that not what happened here? How many of you here can recite even the ten commandments? How many of you can tell me what the Apostles’ Creed means? How many of you would be willing to die rather than deny your Baptism? How many of you once this week talked your children about the forgiveness of sins? Is there even one here who will give up mother and brother and father and sister on account of the Words of the Son of God?

It is such a lack of knowledge that Isaiah condemns. It is unbelief which scoffs at the simple catechetical truths which are the very power of God, and prefers Egyptian horsemen and Assyrian chariots who will fix all the problems with the power of men, yet such unbelief is the precursor to total destruction. It is to spare us such an end, that St. Paul warns that the branches of the tree, if they persist in withering by refusing nourishment from the vine, will be broken off and cast into the fire. And this is why St. Peter hails us with caution, saying “Judgment has already begun in the world, and it is most evident in the household of god, where there is always a fiery trial testing the confession of faith, and tempting us with the offering of more bread, and better-looking works, and the power to accomplish that which we desire, if only we will budge just an inch, from what the Lord has said.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The devil is loosed in this world, loosed upon your workplaces, loosed in your homes, beaming from the TV, blasting from the radio, pulling at your wallet and creating subterfuge in your heart, all in order to destroy you and your children, to devour you and your children, and he rejoices to see you become drunk with the wine of the nations, losing your sober-minded bearing founded on the Word of God in order to trust the glimmering angels who present “what if” theologies and a Gospel that is different than the one we have received.

Do you know the Gospel? The Gospel is that Jesus saves. Period. Yesterday, today, forever.

Yet the flesh, our flesh, longs for anything but that. We cannot bear to hear a voice crying in this wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight a highway for our God” because our human nature does not want to prepare, or change, or suffer the deep humility that is forced upon us by our reliance on something beyond ourselves. But Jesus, sweet Jesus, will not have it that way. He sends Elijah. He sends the prophets. He sends the Apostles, and they cry with one voice to us who would otherwise insist on straying: Repent. You are not the answer. Repent. Jesus is the answer.

Whenever we face what we cannot handle, the Christian answer is not “I can do it if,” but “look at what I have done! Oh Lord, forgive and save.” “Look at the mess I have made, oh Lord, forgive and save.” “Look at the chaos my sin has deserved, oh Lord, forgive and save.” “God, it is clear that you don’t want me to be happy at this moment in time because you want me to cry out, Oh Lord, forgive and save!” And all because you want me to see and believe that Oh Lord you have forgiven and you have saved already in the flesh and blood of your Christ on the cross.

Dear friends, our troubles will come and go, our lives will rise and fall, while all along the Word of the Lord endures forever, and this word is the good news that was preached to you. The good news that God has said, “Comfort, comfort, to you, my people. Hear my tender words. Know that your warfare is already over in the man on the cross. Know that your iniquity is already pardoned in the empty tomb. Know that they have received in your savoir, double for all their sins – not double punishment, but double blessing. And though you may not see it, you are free to believe it and wait upon me as I come to renew your strength and mount you up on wings like eagles to soar over the chaos that you do see.” Oh, get you up to a high mountain, oh Zion, and herald that this Christmastide. Lift up your voice with strength and sing, O Zion, of that this Christmastide.

You were like sheep that had gone astray, but now you have returned. Once you were not a people, but now your are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. You have come to the cornerstone, to the rock, who makes by his mighty arm a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, given the great joy of confessing to the world the mighty works of Christ who called you, and how he has brought your heart and mind out of that horrid darkness in which you dwelt, and into the light of waiting on the mercy of the one true God.

“Comfort, comfort, you, my people. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. No if’s, and’s or but’s about it. In the Name…Amen.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Advent II - Mostly Malich 4, but also, dag nabbit, on th concept of Christmas and Christ Mass which is a much needed proclamation

(wma Audio file download here)

Are you ready? Your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation. Are you ready?

Are you getting ready for Christmas? I am. I’ve got more than enough to do. It’s a good thing I started planning services back before Thanksgiving, or I’d be dead in the water now. And my guess is, I’m not alone. There’s lots to do to get ready for Christmas. It’s a big day.

We gotta string up lights. We gotta kill a tree. We gotta hang some stockings that everyone knows won’t get coal in them no matter how our children behave. “It’s the most wonderful time, of the year.”

So much to do to get ready that one almost wishes it were all over. So much to do in anticipation, that one might be tempted to think the celebration is secondary. For most, the celebration is secondary, in fact, it’s worse than secondary – it simply isn’t worth it to most people, because most people, no matter how chatotically they have prepared for Christmas, will not be in Church on Christmas day. Now isn’t that just the strangest thing for a Christian not to do.

It was either last year or the year before, (I can’t remember which) that Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago Illinois, one of the largest congregations of God-worshipers in the United States of America canceled Christmas. To some it seemed a bizarre rendition of a Dr. Seuss book breaking into reality, though with a lot less green fur. To others it was a beautiful tribute to family values and the things this country should stand for more often, because, after all the, the real meaning of Christmas is the American dream, Grandma, apple pie, the free market, yada yada yada.

But to me, well, I wasn’t really all that surprised when Willow Creek canceled Christmas. They weren’t the first to do it, just the biggest. But it’s been happening for years here in America. And actually, it really makes a whole lot of sense. You see, when you believe “Church” is really about you worshipping god, especially in as heartfelt a way as possible, and when you judge all forms of worship by how much you enjoy them, because you can only be heartfelt about the things you enjoy - then why waste a perfectly good morning of spoiling the kids in order to go sing the Christmas version of “Shine Jesus Shine?” You can get all the real Christmas carols you want on Christmas Eve.

So it’s like this: When the closest you can ever get to Jesus is singing the you personally songs you like best, feeling the best emotions about God that you can by any means possible, then there is no good reason to break away from that parade of crumpled up paper and ribbon, which we all enjoy, and which gives us those good emotions. That can be about Jesus too, right? Why not?

You see, the sectarians, those who like to play church by themselves without the rest of history, the sectarians really believe that you do have to try hard to find God, either inside of yourself, in your experience and emotions, or somewhere out here, in the air or something. And when they gather and sing songs together, they think the emotions they feel out here are the Holy Spirit. And, by and large, they also really begin to believe that anywhere they experience those same emotions means the Holy Spirit is at work there too. And so, hanging out with family, if it feels good, is where they can be certain to find God.

Now I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it wasn’t completely without any support whatsoever from the Bible. Don’t get me wrong: the Bible is all for time with family, and beautiful music, and striving for joy and contentedness and such. But the Bible is pretty darn clear that your feelings are not proof that God is there. Your feelings are about as subjective and fleeting as the wind. And without something to moor you down, you will be tossed to and fro by every wave of teaching, human cunning, and the craftiness of the devil’s lies. That’s what the Bible says.

And so, it should really come as no surprise to us whatsoever that a giant congregation that teaches and believes that human experience is the primary rule of worship, life and doctrine, after finding that getting up and coming together on Christmas morning is a bit of a downer after the previous nights festivities, which, because they’re night services, always feel more special – it should come as no surprise to us that their spiritual guides figured, “why waste the effort?” We had a better turn out and a far more personal experience with God last night anyway.

It really comes down to this. When coming to Church is about the emotional high you receive, then you’re bound to eventually get really bored with a symbolic eating of a little bread and wine. When you’ve had the band work themselves into a trembling sweat, and the preacher cast down holy fainting spells upon everyone who’s got the flu, and the Christmas pageant last week took all your energy and time, and the last packages for tomorrow still aren’t wrapped yet, and you just want a little time to find some rest and relaxation, if this meal God coming to you to find you without a shadow of a doubt or an ounce of subjectivity or a chance of not being real, then there is no good reason to get up on the morning of December the 25th. None, whatsoever. All the churches should close down so that people can try to find God in their own way.

Yes, this is ignoring the reality of our original sin, and the fact that none of us can find God no matter how hard we try, which is precisely why God must come to us in objective means that can’t be missed or misconstrued, than can’t fail to do what they say, like bread going down your gullet to buy for God. Yes, Willow Creek was ignoring this because they, like all of the great movement of charismatic-leaning American Evangelical theology denies the sacrament, physical flesh of Christ as the meaning of Christmas. For them, the Christmas sacrament is the charismatic sacrament that they all serve as if it were a great big stone statue named baal: “personal experience.”

Again, the only problem I have with it is that it is entirely contrary to what the Bible says, and, it is entirely contrary to what the Church fathers said the Bible says, and, it is entirely contrary to what the Lutheran fathers say that the Church fathers say and the Bible says, and, to boot, it is entirely contrary to the entire structure of every bit of tradition which is in the least bit catholic, and by that, I mean universally Christian, historically authentic, and, more importantly, more concerned with what the Bible says than with what you or I personally experience.

Do you get it? Do you see? Its kind of like St. Paul says in Romans chapter 15: whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

What the Bible says, Old Testament or New, is important…more important than any experience you will have this holiday season. And you know what the Bible says about that manger scene and those shepherds and that star in the sky? It says that that was the incarnation of the Lord God into human flesh. But it also says that that happened a long time ago and for a reason. It says that that baby came to save people from their sins. It says that he then grew up into a man. It says that then, the night before he was betrayed, he took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat, this is given for you…for the forgiveness of sins. Do this often in remembrance of me.” Then he went away, saying “I’m coming back, soon.”

See, the Bible says that every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we participate in the incarnation of the Christ. The same incarnation that was that baby in the manger is this bread and wine today. The mystery, the wonder, the shepherds (who were the poor), the wise men (who were the nations,) the star (that is the sign of prophecy), the angels and archangels (that sing holy holy holy, Lord God almight) all of that incarnation celebration still happens in the True Church where Jesus Christ is more than just your own personal experience or a nice emotion or a memory or a dream or a wind of teaching or a moment of heartfeltness – See, your King actually comes to you, this year, righteous and having salvation through his word and sacraments.

Are you ready? Are you getting ready for Christmas as a Christian? Are you getting ready for Christmas as a holiday that is all about Church, because Church, Word and Sacrament, are all about Jesus? Will you even be here? Or will you, like Willow Creek and so many others, cancel the real meaning of Christmas for what you’d rather be doing?

Don’t get me wrong. Christmas Eve is going to be beautiful here. It’s going to be great. It is going to be a worship experience like you possibly have never had before.

But you know what, as great as that experience will be, Christmas day is going to be better. Because on Christmas day, regardless of how you feel, regardless of whether you enjoy it or get an emotional high, regardless of your subjective, personal experience, your King will be incarnate for you, coming for you, righteous and having salvation for you, once again, because that is what your King, the Christ, who was born, grew up, lived, died and didn’t stay dead – that is what He does for you and will do for you until the day you die because he really wants you to live forever and He knows better than the rest of us that that only happens if you stay connected to Him.

That is the meaning of Christmas. Jesus Christ in the manger of bread and wine is the most important thing in life, the one thing needful, the one thing our children must be taught, and learn, and remember from this time of year: Christmas day long ago Jesus was born a babe in Bethlehem. Christmas Day, 2006 Jesus will be born again in you, as the freely given seal and mark of eternal life.

And this is important for you and your children because the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be made into stubble, into chaff, into dust and ashes. This is no symbolic talk, this is real fire and brimstone like that which destroyed the ancient kingdoms of Sodom and Gomhoraa. This is real life damnation that shall set everything that is not in Christ ablaze. On that Day being on fire for Jesus will take on a Biblical meaning, and friends, you do not want your children to live to see that as their future.

And this is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news. For you who fear his name, for those of you who tremble at the sound of his coming and the destruction he brings, for those of you who know that giving up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing is a dangerous step closer to thinking there is really nothing to fear, for those of you know you sin, for it is ever before – Christmas is the greatest day in the year, second only to the Easter morn which proved its value. Christmas day is the day that for us men and for our salvation Jesus Christ was incarnate of the virgin Mary and was made man so that he could suffer for us under Ponius Pilate.

He may not have held a cross in that manger, but he was already carrying it, carrying sickness and infirmity, carrying dirty diapers and hunger, carrying cold chills and stinking stables, bearing up the sins of the world in himself so that he could take them all and nail them to the cross, and so the blood that flowed from that nailing could go out into all the world, literally, by the power of God, through Christ’s Mass, through Christ’s Supper, to give the Christ Mass present he came to give, free, eternal, covering-like-a-blanket righteousness and salvation which on the Day of his appearing will send you forth leaping like a new born calf.

Are you ready for that day? Yes. Jesus makes you ready, right here, not by your eating, but by his giving. Not by your drinking, but through is pouring. Not by your listening, but by his speaking. Extra nos. Outside of you, out side of your personal experience, outside of your heartfelt intentions, outside of your sick, wicked, lazy flesh – your King comes to you so that on the Day when Christmas will be canceled once and for all, on the day when all who have rejected Christ’s appearing will find their perdition, on the day when all who have despised the incarnation of God in flesh to save from sin, you, my friends, and your children, whom this promise is truly for, will find that every last drop of mystery eaten and drunk from the palms and feet of the Son of God is worth more than all the most priceless experiences you’ve ever had, because that free gift, that free grace, that free pardon which the Word of the Lord comes to you endures. Yea. God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Why? Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day – WHY? To save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy! Tidings of comfort and joy. Here they are: Take eat. Take drink. For the forgiveness of your sins. For life and salvation in the world to come. This gets you ready! Tidings of comfort and joy.

In the Name…Amen.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent I - Romans 13 and then some

(wma audio link) - as for typos!

Are you ready? Your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation. Are you ready?

According to the world out there, it’s “Christmas” time. I’m not sure what that means. Toy soldiers, shiny balls, angry drivers, and overtly intrusive shopping music? Presents, presents, lots of presents, and gosh darn it, its so frustrating trying to buy them all, trying to ship them all, trying to pay for them all.

Sounds great. Where do I sign up? It’s even a good reason to miss Church, to put to the side the one thing needful, if only for a moment. To cancel the way the Christians have celebrated the incarnation of their Lord for millenia. We’re all so busy after all. Too busy to live forever.

Do you want to live forever? Are you ready to do more than just call yourselves Church? Are you ready to be a body, a living, active breathing body, with hands and feet and eyes and every member absolutely essential to our own well being? Are you ready to commit to each other, to say to your neighbor in the pew – you are my mother and my brother and my sister, and this world will pass away, but we, we will never pass away because we, together, are in Christ. We together come into Christ, here. And that, this, is eternal life.

Are you ready for that?

Are you ready for a Christianity that is worth more than $25 a week? Are you ready for a Christianity that is worth more than “whenever I feel like it”? Are you ready for a Christianity that is no mere club of like-minded, semi-religious do-gooders, but is active, sharp, cutting-edge, saving, real? Are you ready? Because that kind of Christianity is ready for you. It’s coming you. It’s here, right now.

It’s brought you here, gathered you here, by the Spirit, through the Word, called and elected you out of this world, whether you knew it or not. It has connected you now to each other. It has connected you to me. We have been connected together to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And as his sheep for the slaughter we have been placed into the fray of a mighty war between the cosmic power of light and darkness. We have been clothed with the armor of light which is the man Jesus Christ himself, born into us through his own flesh and blood, flesh and blood which was pierced for us, which ran for us, which became finished for us, in order that we might live forever, beginning right now and that’s not just some fuzzy talk about a bunch of clouds and harps in heaven. That’s about real life, real pain, real love, real forgiveness, real suffering, real answers, real Jesus.

But maybe you think this congregation isn’t worth it. Maybe you are captive to the mindset that predominated this body only a short time ago, a mindset which gradually convinced itself that this congregation couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t do anything, was victim of time and despair and basically was best off throwing a fit and pouting in a corner until the rains came and swept away. So maybe you’re still just kind of hanging back, wondering, watching, waiting, maybe even hoping it all falls apart. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry for you, because if that’s the case then you don’t believe in God. Either that, or you don’t believe that this is God’s Church. Because, you see, God’s Church never dies. God’s Church never dies because God, the real God, the one that actually exists, is strong enough to deal with whatever barriers we face, and to believe anything less than that, anything other than that is a horrible, wicked, and wretched sin. That is breaking the first commandment. And as often as you or I may have done that very thing in the last few minutes and hours and weeks and months and years, friend, that thing just ought not be so because this is God’s Church.

And God’s Church, God’s gathering, God’s assembly is bound up in His Son, who Himself begotten before all worlds, Light of Light and Very God of Very God, one with the Father, one with the Spirit, for us and our salvation came down from heaven and became man. And he suffered, once for all, under Pontius Pilate. He died and was buried. He died, but he didn’t stay dead and now he will never die again, because death has lost its mastery over him, and since we, His Church, are his body, since we, gathered here to listen to his Word, and to live from his flesh are his creation, and since it is He who is here and who has gathered us, there is no way in heaven or on earth or under the earth that this congregation will fail…unless, of course, it is because we simply choose to not believe He is who He has said He is – because we choose not to listen to his Word – because we prefer instead to cling to our worldly, worthless opinions.

But since He is who He said He is, and since I believe what the Word says, and since I’m your Pastor, then I’m going to tell you what the score is right now. You, dear people, have come farther and accomplished more in the last four months than is humanly imaginable. You’ve taken gutsy, hard, painful steps, bold steps that, frankly, many outside this congregation didn’t think you were capable of. And, honestly, you weren’t capable of it, but Christ, your Christ, has refused to leave you incapable. Because He has called you in baptism, and chosen you to be Church, He has refused to leave you stagnant in unbelief and despair, tied to the thorns and thistles of this world while you die of thirst.

It’s because of that work of his, that Word of his, that in the last four months you have seen cast aside much that entangled you. Some may refuse to believe it, but when I walked into this assembly for the first time what I found a group of people who were so downright cruel to each other, hating each other and being hated, that I could hardly believe it. And not one of you in this room should sit high on your horse as if you weren’t a part of that askance-eyed, whispering-in-corners culture of secrecy and clique, for you too have, you have harbored grudges against those who sit and who sat in these pews. And if you want to know what killed this congregation slowly over 10 years, over ten long years, it wasn’t that old pastor, or the changing world around you – it was that gossipy, backstabbing, power mongering culture which sucked up every single one of you right into itself. Eye contact was scarce. Voices raised in anger easily and often. Battle lines were drawn and left up so that eventually everyone knew their place and stayed in it for fear of retaliation. And visitors, if they came, they knew quickly that they where they did and didn’t belong, which left most of them convinced that they didn’t belong at all.

That is what I, a young, eager seminary graduate walked headlong into, and, somewhat like a bull in a china shop, put my foot down right into, pretty much before I realized it. But for better or for worse, that is not what I see now. No matter how it happened, this community forced itself through the hard as nails steps it needed to begin healing, to begin finding here not fear and frustration, but comfort and consolidation, friendship and reconciliation.

And how did you get there? It started here, Word and Sacrament. And, it still ends here, in Word and Sacrament. But from here and to here this Word and Sacrament go and come, not on the winds, or in a fleeting dream, or a nice fuzzy feeling, but through you, in you, for you, real, ordinary, sinful people, real, wretched, regular sinners who have now despite your best efforts been caught and changed by Christ, been coerced and prompted by Christ, been challenged and molded by Christ into a young, but truly living, authentic, Christian community. We’ve got a ways to go, but wow! What a start.

It started here and it ends here week after week, but this Christianity IS having its way with you, not only here, but everywhere. It is moving your heart and your mind, and with heart and mind made new in the Spirit, in real, sin-convicting, Christ proclaiming ways, your life is changing in more ways than one, even if all you notice is that little nudge urging you get to Church just a bit more often.

And look what is going on at Church. Look around you. Look at all the people who are here. This is your family. Did you know that? They love you, each and every one. Did you know that? They love you not because of your worth, not because of what you have or haven’t done, not because you give or because you serve or because you’re rich or because you’re cool. They love you because you come to this altar too. They love you because you’re a sinner too. They love you because you feast on the Lamb of God to have your sins covered too, and that is a bond closer than a brother because that bond is forged by the blood of God.

Little children, your sins are forgiven. You have known the one is from the beginning. You have overcome the evil one. You know the Father. You know the One who is from the beginning. You are strong. You are strong because the Word of God abides in you and therefore you have overcome the evil one.

Do you think after all of that, the Lord Jesus Christ is going to turn his back on you and let you rot? Do you think after he walked this thorn-invested, sick soil for thirty years only to be beaten and nailed hand and foot to a God-cursed tree - do you think that after Jesus Christ endured the damnation and punishment of all the sins of the world on one dark Friday afternoon, to the point of losing his very own spirit into the bonds of death – do you think after all that that he’s going to let the fact that we only have 25 people decide to show up on any given Sunday stop him keeping His Church alive in New Jersey? The congregational hurdles that we face in the here and now are pop-tarts compared to descending into hell and rising on the third day.

And, not to burst your bubble or attack your old idols, but look, he has already provided everything you need. You have a Pastor, - a priest and teacher, trained by the fathers of the Church, and, for all his failings, vowed to teach according to your own sworn Confession of faith and committed unto death to the right handling of these Sacraments on your behalf.

And you have each other, a rag-tag group bunch of no good sinners, who, because you’re in Christ are a whole lot more than worthless - you are the people of God, a city on a hill that cannot be shaken, a light on a stand for the nations to see, a family and a body where life simply isn’t fair because grace rules here.

And there’s more. You have a vision. It’s growing and it’s coming, and it still needs to be voted on, but it’s your future nonetheless. In spite of the groans and pops that come with stretching after a long sleep, this congregation is in the process of refusing to be trapped by the shackles of secondary things. This Project we’re calling congregational Resurrection is something to be darned excited about.

And finally, I’ve got to say it. You’ve got the money. You’ve got lots of money. You’ve got it at home. You’ve got it in your bank account. And you’ve got it in your land.

You simply need to know this. You simply need to stop listening to the lies and wake up to the light of day: If you had to, if you were pushed to the wall, if you had no other choice – right now, you as a congregation can easily survive another 10 years without putting one more dime in the offering plate. It’s true. You have that much money sitting under your own feet as you listen right now.

And that means that you, as an assembly of sinners living grace, and me as a pastor sent to be your father in the faith, and Project Resurrection and all that it entails, is a guaranteed reality for the next decade. This congregation is not going to die. This assembly gather to feed on the deep deep love of Jesus is not going to fade slowly away into oblivion. Yes, things will change. Things always change. But rather than letting the change change you, you’re going to change it, and you’ve got the time and money to make it work right because ten years is a lot of time in downtown Clinton or anywhere else we might find space. Ten years is an eternity in this culture.

Ten years ago it was 1996 and I was a freshman in college who wasn’t even a Christian. Ten years ago the most powerful computer was an IBM 486, and the internet consisted mainly of America Online chat rooms. Ten years ago no one had ever heard the name Monica Lewinski, and Star Wars was only a trilogy. Ten years ago people carried pagers, and used film in their cameras, and tape in their VCRs, and the price of gas hovered down around $1 a gallon.

You think that ten years in a storefront authentic Christian assembly committed to the Word of god, and therefore committed to each other, and therefore committed to excellence, will find us to be nothing but 40 angry and chagrined people afraid that the sky is falling. That is not the Christ you know. The Christ you know doesn’t let his Church die. The Christ you know dies for his Church. The Christ you know rises for his Church. The Christ you know feeds and sustains his Church. And you are his Church: look, he has already provided everything needed to be Church until Rachel and Emily and Caitlyn are all off at college, and Chloe and Kaden are the same age as that Leigh Anne is now.

I call that hope. I call that a future. And this is to say nothing of the rock solid fact that Jesus Christ is coming again.

No, this congregation is not going to die anytime soon. We have a decade and beyond to put into practice an Advent life of community centered around communing on the Word and Sacraments of Christ and looking for his return. Let’s open our eyes to that reality. Let’s wake up, like the Apostle Paul said today. Let’s recognize that we do not wear ourselves as we weigh into this warefare against demons and darkness and lies and hate. We wear Christ, and Christ never fails. Even when He dies, He lives!

So this “Christmas” shopping season, do yourself a favor. Look at the broken, fading, killing, dying of this world, and know that that’s not you anymore. Look at the hedonistic, self-centered, merry-made, frivolity of waste that people think is the meaning of Christmas and remember that that’s not you anymore. Look at the lies, and tell yourself the Truth. And then come worship in that Truth, bathe in that Truth, eat that Truth, and goodness, gracious, sing that Truth because the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. We are her new creation, by water and the Word. From heaven he came and sought us to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought us, and so we might live, he died.

See? Yes. Your King comes to you. Righteous and having salvation, to prosper you, and not to harm you. To give you hope, and future. That’s what Advent is all about. Wake up to it. It might even feel good.

In the Name…Amen.

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