Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent - Populus Zion - Lk 21:25-36

                                                                                                Advent 2
                                                                                                Lk 21:25-36

            This year the Hallmark Channel is airing thirty six new Christmas movies between Oct. 27 and New Year’s Eve. They even have an app you can download on your phone to help you keep track and watch them all.  And if you missed any from the last couple of years, don’t worry – they’ll be showing re-runs of those too as part of their Christmas movie marathon.
            The Hallmark Christmas movies are very popular.  Critics make fun of their predictability, but that misses the point that the predictability of the formula is part of what makes them so comforting and enjoyable.  There will be a man and a woman who are very easy to look at.  One of them will be unlucky in love, or clearly with the wrong person.  Remarkable circumstances will bring the couple together in a beautiful and festive Christmas setting.  There will be some problem that needs to be solved and this interaction will stir love within them.  Often there will be a moment of mistaken perception, as one of them thinks the other is in fact in love with another person.  But in the end love wins as they end up together at the conclusion of the movie and share in their first kiss. At least, I am told that is how they work.  Not that one has ever been viewed in the Surburg house….
            But what if this year, the Hallmark Countdown to Christmas never makes it to Christmas? What if something completely unpredictable happens and Christmas never arrives this year?  That is the prospect that the Second Sunday in Advent raises for us.  Yes, during Advent we are preparing to celebrate Jesus’ coming as he was born in Bethlehem.  But to celebrate Jesus coming – his adventus – in the first century A.D. is also to consider the fact that when he ascended the angels said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  One cannot think about his first coming without also calling to mind his promised second coming.  We do not know when that will occur.  To be honest, we need to recognize that Christmas may not arrive this year.
            Last week’s Gospel lesson described Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, as Holy Week began.  Today’s Gospel lesson also takes place during Holy Week.  During that week some were speaking about the temple, as they observed how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings. They were right. The temple was an amazing sight.  Although we call it the “second temple” in that it replaced the temple destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C., it was really a completely rebuilt version of the replacement originally built in the fifth century B.C.  Herod the Great turned this rebuilt version into one of the wonders of the ancient world.
            However, Jesus replied, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” So the disciples asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
            Jesus says that the temple will be destroyed.  This was a shocking. It is very likely that talk of the temple’s destruction evoked thoughts in the disciples about the Last Day.  After all, Jesus had already spoken in Luke’s Gospel about the arrival of the kingdom of God and the Son of Man.  He had told them, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.”  Jesus had said, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
            The Lord Jesus told the disciples that the period leading up to the destruction of the temple would be a time of wars, great earthquakes and famines.  He warned that it would be time of persecution. Jesus had already said after entering Jerusalem that a day was coming when the enemies of Jerusalem would lay siege to it – when they would set up a barricade around the city before tearing it down to the ground. 
            Now Jesus said, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.”  He said that the believers would know when the temple was about to be destroyed.  There would be no surprise.  And when they saw that it was about to happen, Jesus told them exactly what they were to do.  He said: “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.”
            The destruction of the temple was something they would see coming, and Jesus told them what they should do.  But Jesus had already said that his coming would be at an hour they did not expect.  It would be an entirely different kind of event. And we hear about it in our text.
            Our Lord said: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
            Jesus describes an unexpected arrival that is accompanied by cosmic signs of distress.  At the center of all of this is the coming of Jesus Christ – his second coming.  Jesus says, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
            The Jesus that we see in the decorations that surround us during the days that lead up to Christmas is cute.  After all, who doesn’t love a little baby?  And of course the crèche scenes in our homes give a romanticized version of the event – a serene Mary and Joseph along with animals and shepherds gathered around the baby Jesus in a quaint stable. There is no mother exhausted from child birth; no stench from the animals.
            Yet it is still a humble scene, and the humility of the manger points to the humility of the cross. There Jesus died as he bore the sins of the world – as he bore your sins. The One who had no sin of us his own became the ultimate sinner under God’s judgment because he took our sins upon himself.
            However the Son of God’s descent as a humble sacrifice for your sin was never meant to be a one way trip down into the grave.  Already at his transfiguration Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his coming exodus. His mission arced down … and then back up.  On the third day he rose from the dead and began your resurrection.  In his ascension he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father. 
            Our text this morning reminds us that when the world sees Jesus Christ again, there will be nothing humble about him.  Instead all will see the exalted Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  The first time he came, Jesus could be rejected.  Now, as he comes through his Means of Grace, he can be rejected.  But when he returns on the Last Day that will no longer be possible.  No one will get to ignore Jesus because all will have to appear him for judgment.
            Again and again in the Scriptures, the return of Jesus Christ is something that the inspired biblical writers say should prompt us to avoid sin and to seek to live according to God’s will.  After all, what we do want our Lord to find us doing when he returns? Jesus says in our text this morning, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.”
            The irony is that in many ways the “Christmas season” – these days leading up to Christmas as the world does them – is a great example of how the cares of life draw our attention away from Christ.  In the last few weeks, which have you spent more time thinking about: your Christmas shopping and plans or Jesus Christ and the Scriptures that tell us about what he means for us?
            All of this is simply an intensification of what happens during the rest of the year.  It is an additional level of what Jesus described as thorns in the parable of the sower.  He said, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”
            Earlier in this sermon I mentioned Jesus’ words “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast.”  In the same place Jesus said, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
            If the world’s “Christmas season” is an example of what draws us away from Christ, what does it means to be ready for Jesus return – to be alert and keeping watch? First, it is to be focused on the way that Jesus Christ comes to us now. It is to place his Means of Grace at the center of our life.  It is to daily remember our baptism in faith and to be in God’s Word.  And of course it is to make the Divine Service the foundation of our Sunday.
            And rather than giving gifts wrapped in paper, it is to give ourselves in service to others.  It is to care for, help and support those individuals that God has put in our lives.  It is to speak well of our neighbor and help his or her reputation whenever we have the chance.  It is in love to warn our neighbors about the sin that is weighing them down, even as we receive the same words of care from them.
            The world’s idea of the “Christmas season” is certainly more fun. The works we create for ourselves to do usually are.  But the life focused on Christ’s Means of Grace and responding in loving service to our neighbor is the one that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem to establish and make possible.  It is the one that we want the Lord to find us living when he returns as the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  

Friday, December 7, 2018

Commemoration of Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter

Today we remember and gives thanks for Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter.  Born in Trier in A.D. 340, Ambrose was one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Church (with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great). He was a prolific author of hymns, the most common of which is Veni, Redemptor gentium (“Savior of the Nations, Come”). His name is also associated with Ambrosian Chant, the style of chanting the ancient liturgy that took hold in the province of Milan. While serving as a civil governor, Ambrose sought to bring peace among Christians in Milan who were divided into quarreling factions. When a new bishop was to be elected in 374, Ambrose addressed the crowd, and someone cried out, “Ambrose, bishop!” The entire gathering gave their support. This acclaim of Ambrose, a 34-year-old catechumen, led to his baptism on December 7, after which he was consecrated bishop of Milan. A strong defender of the faith, Ambrose convinced the Roman emperor Gratian in 379 to forbid the Arian heresy in the West. At Ambrose’s urging, Gratian’s successor, Theodosius, also publicly opposed Arianism. Ambrose died on Good Friday, April 4, 397. As a courageous doctor and musician he upheld the truth of God’s Word. 

Collect of the Day:
O God, You gave Your servant Ambrose grace to proclaim the Gospel with eloquence and power.  As bishop of the great congregation of Milan, he fearlessly bore reproach for the honor of Your name. Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and fidelity in ministering Your Word that Your people shall be partakers of the divine nature; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Commemoration of Nicholas of Myra, Pastor

Today we remember and give thanks for Nicholas of Myra, Pastor.  Of the many saints commemorated by the Christian Church, Nicholas (d. A.D. 342) is one of the best known. Very little is known historically of him, although there was a church of Saint Nicholas in Constantinople as early as the sixth century. Research has affirmed that there was a bishop by the name of Nicholas in the city of Myra in Lycia (part of Turkey today) in the fourth century. From that coastal location, legends about Nicholas have traveled throughout time and space. He is associated with charitable giving in many countries around the world and is portrayed as the rescuer of sailors, the protector of children, and the friend of people in distress or need. In commemoration of “Sinte Klaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas, in English “Santa Claus”), December 6 is a day for giving and receiving gifts in many parts of Europe.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You bestowed upon your servant Nicholas of Myra the perpetual gift of charity.  Grant Your Church the grace to deal in generosity and love with children and with all who are poor and distressed and to plead the cause of those who have no helper, especially those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief.  We ask this for the sake of Him who gave His life for us, your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Sermon for the first mid-week Advent service - Lk 1:5-25

                                                                                    Mid-Advent 1
                                                                                    Lk 1:5-25

            A once in a lifetime event; a tremendous privilege and honor – that is what Zechariah had in store as he prepared to enter the temple and burn incense at the hour of prayer.  As we learn in our text, the priesthood had been divided up among the families of the priestly line into divisions that each served at the temple in Jerusalem for a period of time.
            There were a number of different jobs that needed to be done each day. There was the burnt animal offering; the meal offering; the maintenance of the candlestick; and the burning of incense at the hours of prayer.  How was one to divide up tasks among the priests of the division assigned for that time?  A very straightforward system had been devised in which priests were chosen by lot for the different assignments.
            There was, however, one interesting wrinkle in the system.  The offering of incense was considered a privilege and honor. And so after a priest was selected by lot to do this, he was not eligible again to do it until all the other priests in the division had also done it.  For this reason, it was an opportunity that was most likely only going to happen once in priest’s life.
            Zechariah’s chance had finally arrived!  We know that it was a very meaningful moment for him, because of what Luke tells us about Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. He says that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” This was a pious and faithful couple – the kind of people you would love to have at your synagogue.
            They were the kind of people who would be great parents.  After all they would certainly raise them in the faith of the God of Israel – in the way of the Torah. Yet alas, Luke also tells us, “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
            Zechariah and Elizabeth had not been able to have any children. And they were now well beyond the age when it possible to do so.  The description in our text, “because Elizabeth was barren” captures how the matter was viewed in that culture.  For a woman to be childless in a world that wanted many children was to know not just heartache, but shame.  It invited the question that maybe she had done something to bring this upon herself – that God would treat her this way.  Yet of course, for a woman like Elizabeth, such speculation could not be further off the mark.
            While the people were praying outside during the hour of prayer, Zechariah entered into the temple to burn the incense at the incense altar.  As he did so, an angel appeared standing on the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel he was fearful.  Yet the first thing the angel said was, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
            The divine messenger had incredible news!  Zechariahs’ prayer had been heard!  Elizabeth was going to give birth to a son.  This itself was reason for joy and thanksgiving.  But the angel went on to describe something far bigger than just the blessing received by an elderly couple. Instead this child was going to be an instrument of God in his end time work.
            The angel said, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.”  The angel described not just a child, but a prophetic figure filled with the Spirit before birth.
            Then he added, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”  The angel described the child as a kind of second Elijah, just as Malachi had prophesied in the fifth century B.C. when he wrote: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”
            This was amazing and joyful news.  Yet Zechariah’s response was not one of joy.  Instead, it was one of reservation – even skepticism.  He said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  Essentially, Zechariah asked the angel for some kind of sign that would confirm the authenticity of his announcement.  He asked, because he didn’t really believe the word he was hearing.  It seemed too incredible, too grand.
            We hear about Zechariah’s reaction, and we shake our head.  How could he not believe this great news when an angel announced it to him?  But are you really all that different?  Do you trust God’s continuing love and care for you, or do you doubt him when things don’t go as you want?  When the world makes it uncomfortable to keep God’s word, do you continue to walk in faith in the ways of the Lord, or do you take the easy way and put God second?
            You could say that in your case, you have never had an angel appear and deliver that word to you.  But remember what Jesus taught us in parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  From hell, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers to turn away from their sin. Abraham responded, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The patriarch pointed out that they had God’s Word. When the rich man replied that if someone went to them from the dead, they would repent, Abraham answered: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The means of delivery is not the issue. Even the word of God delivered by an angel can be doubted and received with unbelief. 
            Zechariah demanded a sign – something more if he was to believe the angel’s word. And so the angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
            The angel declared that he had been sent to bring good news.  The verb used here is the same one that is used elsewhere in Luke to indicate the proclamation of the Gospel.  This good news was not just the fact that an aged couple was finally going to have a child.  Instead, it included what God was going to do through this child.  He would be the Spirit filled instrument to turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
            As we will see on the Third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist was the final prophet God used to call Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s reign in Jesus Christ.  He would make ready for the Lord a people prepared, because God was sending his Son into the world in order to fulfill all of his promises to Israel.  The saving reign of God was coming into the world, and God’s people needed to be prepared in repentance and faith.
            During Advent we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Savior.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit, he was born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem.  True God and true man, he was the saving reign of God in the world.  Through his death on the cross God judged your sin in order to give you forgiveness. By his resurrection from the dead he defeated death.  In death and in resurrection his was the end time action that Gabriel’s words recall.
            We continue to hear the word of the Lord in the inspired Scriptures.  We hear the assurance of God’s forgiveness, love and care.  But unlike Zechariah we don’t need to ask, “How will I know this?”  We don’t need to ask for a sign as proof, because God has already given it to us in Jesus Christ. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of the incarnate Son of God.  By his life and ministry; by his death on the cross; by his resurrection from the dead God has given all that we will ever need to believe and trust in his continuing love and care. We have all that we will ever need to believe and trust in his forgiveness and gift of eternal life.