Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sermon for the third mid-week Lent service - Jn 3:1-8

                                                                                                Mid-Lent 3
                                                                                                Jn 3:1-8

            The world is all mixed up about when life begins.  In its support of abortion, the world denies the obvious scientific reality that life begins at conception.  Their own language betrays them.  No one says to a pregnant woman, “When is your fetus going to become a baby?”  Instead they ask, “When is your baby going to be born?”  Sadly, the only thing for the world that differentiate between a baby who is alive and a baby who is too be killed and is not considered to be a human life, is whether the child is wanted or not.
            Yet once the baby is born the world – and even many Christians – are still confused.  In the baby who has been born they see all the life that is needed.  They see a completeness that only needs to be complemented by the effort of that individual as he grows and is able to make decisions.
            And here they fail to understand that while that newborn baby is alive, it is actually dead.  Spiritually it is dead – in fact it is worse than dead.  A dead person doesn’t do anything.  But instead from the moment the child is conceived he is actually someone who is rebellious towards God and turned in on himself. What is needed for that individual is rebirth – spiritual rebirth that transforms an enemy of God into a child of God.
            These themes are abundantly present in our text tonight.  Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is described as a “ruler of the Jews,” comes to Jesus at night.  Nicodemus is a man who is very serious about God’s Word.  And the good news is that he seeks out Jesus and expresses a belief about Jesus that is true. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 
            However, Nicodemus also comes at night. This means that not only is his interest in Jesus something that he wants to keep hidden – it also means that he is still in the dark.  What he says is correct, but insufficient.  It is correct, but it falls short of the whole truth.
            And so Jesus begins the process of leading him to the truth by spinning him around and showing him that he doesn’t have it yet.  He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Our Lord says that a person cannot experience salvation unless he is born again.  And in the frequent characteristic of John’s Gospel his statement is expressed in Greek a way that means two things at once.  Jesus says that a person must be born “again” and that he must be born “from above” – he must be born by God’s action.
            Nicodemus was confused and didn’t hide it.  He said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”  Nicodemus was thinking purely in physical terms. So Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
            In our text tonight Jesus expresses both why it is necessary to be born again and how it happens.  It is necessary because that which is born of the flesh is flesh.  That which is born of the sinful, fallen nature is sinful fallen nature.  As Paul told the Corinthians, “But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised.”
            Since the fall of Adam and Eve, everyone person conceived by two human parents has been born spiritually dead. Worse than dead, they have been selfishly directed toward sin.  I don’t know of any parent who has ever sat his son or daughter down and said: “Today I am going to teach you to be jealous.  Today I am going to teach you to be angry.  Today I am going to teach you to be selfish.” Instead, it’s just there in the child.  In fact the more their abilities grow, the more they demonstrate this.
            Jesus says that in order to change this, the Spirit must give birth – rebirth. And the Spirit does this by working through water.  A person is born again – born from above – through water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. This is the same thing that the apostle Paul expresses when says in Titus chapter three:  “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
            Jesus grants that this talk of being born again through the work of the Spirit is mysterious.  After all he says to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
            The Spirit creates faith – he gives regeneration - through the word of the Gospel.  Peter tells us that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”  The Spirit continues to give rebirth as he strengthens faith all through life.  He does this through the Word and the other Means of Grace.
            But in the Scriptures God leads us to look to Holy Baptism as the foundational manner in which he does this.  No matter whether it happens as an infant or later in life, the Holy Spirit works rebirth through baptism and we are called to look upon our baptism as the source of assurance that we have been reborn – that we are the forgiven children of God.
            It is the Spirit of Christ who is at work in baptism.  Through the Spirit, Christ works to apply his death and resurrection to us.  Through the Spirit he strengthens and deepens the rebirth that he has given through the Word. The infant being brought to the font no less than the adult candidate for baptism has received the Word of the Gospel.  God’s word creates faith, and faith comes to baptism to receive the gifts of forgiveness and life that are present there.
            What is more, Holy Baptism is not just water but it is water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.  It is therefore God’s water.  It is a wet Word.  This word creates, renews and sustains faith.  And so when Small Catechism asks, “How can water do such great things?” it goes on to answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism.  But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St.Paul says in Titus chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit.’”
            You have received regeneration through the work of the Spirit in Baptism.  You have been born again.  In Christ you are a new creation.  But in yourself you also continue to bear the contamination of the Old Adam.  And so it is that you still find it possible to turn away from God and toward sin.  So it is that you continue to be plagued by sinful thoughts and actions that you don’t desire or even understand.
            And so in faith you return to your baptism because it continues to be the source of rebirth and regeneration.  God’s word of promise about our baptism has not changed.  You believe God’s word about your baptism and thereby you receive not only forgiveness and but also that other gift of the Spirit – being born again. He renews and strengthens the life of faith so that as the forgiven child of God you can go forth to live by faith.
            Your baptism may have been a long time ago - mine was forty seven years ago this past Wednesday.  But you can trust and know that you are forgiven and are a child of God today because of that baptism.  As Jesus says in our text, you will see the kingdom of God because you have been born again – you have been born from above – through water and the Spirit.  It was true then.  It is true now because you believe God’s promise about baptism.  The water and the Word used by the Spirit then continue to renew and strengthen that new life today.    

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Feast of St. Joseph, Guardian of Jesus

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph, Guardian of Jesus.  St. Joseph has been honored throughout the Christian centuries for his faithful devotion in helping Mary to raise Jesus.  Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, who followed the angel’s instructions and took the already-pregnant Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:24).  In the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55).  This suggests that Joseph had building skills with which he supported his family.  He followed the angel’s instruction in taking the Mary and Jesus to Egypt in order to escape Herod the Great’s murderous plot (Matthew 2:14).  Joseph last appears in Scripture when he and Mary faithfully take the twelve-year-old Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2:41-51).  Joseph, the guardian of our Lord, has long been associated with caring parenthood.

Scripture reading:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
(Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, from the house of Your servant David You raised up Joseph to be the guardian of Your incarnate Son and the husband of His mother, Mary.  Grant us grace to follow the example of this faithful workman in heeding Your counsel and obeying Your commands; who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sermon for the Feast of St. Joseph

                                                                                                St. Joseph
                                                                                                Mt 2:13-15, 19-23

            My introduction to being a father was rather traumatic.  This past Wednesday we celebrated Timothy’s sixteenth birthday.  Amy and I were reminiscing about what a difficult experience his birth was.  As I have mentioned in the past, two attempts to induce labor failed.  Next labor then went on for around thirty hours.  I came away from the experience with an understanding of how in earlier times mother and children regularly died in childbirth.
            Finally, Timothy was born and emerged into the world. I got my first look at my son … and thought Amy had given birth to an alien.  The labor had been so long that Timothy’s head been molded into a long cone shape.  The nurse assisting saw the look on my face and immediately assured me that everything was fine.  And as you can see today, she was right.
            We brought Timothy home and I will never forget how the realization came upon me that now there was this tiny human being who was completely dependent on me.  It fully dawned on me that life had changed forever.  The needs of this little person were now always going to come first.
            It also didn’t take long to figure out that while I was dad, Amy was mom.  She had a unique connection with our new born son and an aptitude that I didn’t have.  If it had been important to seek the welfare of my wife before the birth of our son, now it was even more necessary.  Being a father would mean putting my wife and son before myself as I worked to support Amy and care for Timothy.
            Today is the Feast of St. Joseph.  Joseph is always overlooked, always overshadowed. How could it be otherwise?  His son was the incarnate Son of God – conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  His wife was the one used by God to bring the incarnate Son of God into the world.  She was as the early Church called her, the Theotokos – the God bearer.  And of course all of this means that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception and birth of Jesus.  Initially, the only thing Joseph contributed was his lineage.  As a descendant of King David, when he took Jesus to be his own son, he made Jesus part of the line of David.  He made him into the son of David.
            Though overlooked and overshadowed, Joseph certainly did have a role.  He had a God given role that was tremendously important.  His role was that of caring for Jesus and Mary.  We hear it in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Matthew tells us that after the magi had departed, “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”
            Joseph did as the angel commanded.  He immediately took Jesus and Mary by night and fled to Egypt where they remained until the death of Herod. And it turns out that this action not only protected Jesus, but also kept God’s word, for Matthew tells us, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
            Obviously, Joseph teaches us about the vocations of father and husband.  But he also teaches up about vocation in general – about what it means to be in a calling where God has placed us. God has created vocations – offices and stations in life – through which he cares and provides.  And he puts us into these vocations in order to use us as his instrument. We become the means he uses to care and provide for those in our life.
            We learn from Joseph that service in vocation involves action on our part - action that puts the needs of others before ourselves.  It begins the very first time we hear about Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel. We learn that Mary had been betrothed to Joseph – a binding and legal agreement that preceded marriage.  However, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
            Joseph was a just man.  He was not the father of this child, so obviously Mary had broken the Sixth Commandment. Before they were even married, she had been unfaithful!  There was no way he was going to marry a fornicator. But Joseph was also merciful and not wanting to put her to shame, he resolved to divorce her quietly.   
            But as he considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  He took Mary as his wife. But his wedding night was not what he had planned.  Instead, Matthew tells us that he did not have intercourse with Mary until she had given birth. And as commanded he called the child’s name Jesus.
            Joseph obeys God as he takes up the vocations of husband and father. This means putting God’s will ahead of his own.  Every time we hear about Joseph in the first two chapters of Matthew he is being told to do something.  In fact the commands use the exact same verb in Greek.  He is to take Mary has his wife.  He is to take the child and his mother in the middle of the night and flee to Egypt. He is to take the child and his mother and return to Israel.
            And it’s not just the big stuff.  We learn in the Gospels that Jesus is described as the “carpenter’s son.”  God the Father didn’t miraculously provide for Jesus Christ.  Instead, he gave him Joseph who worked as a carpenter each day in order to support his family.
            Joseph wasn’t only faithful in providing for the physical needs of his family.  He was also faithful in providing for their spiritual needs.  Luke tells us that Joseph brought Mary and Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices commanded by the Law of Moses for her purification and to redeem Jesus as the first born son.  And then we learn that it was their custom to go up to Jerusalem ery year for the Passover.  Joseph brought his family every year to Jerusalem just as God’s Word directed.  Scripture tells us that Joseph was a pious and faithful father who led his family in the ways of the Lord.
            We know what Joseph did.  We are not told how Joseph felt about it.  But I think we can figure it out.  Joseph was a person like you and me.  He was a sinner.  There had to be times he didn’t want these roles. I’ll go out on a limb and say he wasn’t happy with the way his wedding night went.  I am sure that there were days he didn’t want to go to work as a carpenter.  Surely there were times he didn’t want to take his family to the synagogue or to go up to Jerusalem yet again.
            This was sin for sin is anything that violates God’s will in thought, word or deed.  But the picture that we receive of Joseph from Scripture – and the reason we take him up as a model of faith – is that he obeyed God in doing his vocation.   He put the direction of God’s word first.  He put the needs of Jesus first.  He put the needs of Mary first.  He carried out his role of being God’s instrument in providing and caring for them.
            Jesus told the disciples that the life of faith is one of service to others. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  This life is one of service to others because it follows Jesus who gave himself in service to us.
            Jesus Christ offered himself as the sacrifice on the cross in order to give forgiveness to his people.  He did it to provide forgiveness for the times you grumble about the responsibilities of your vocations and for the time you fail to carry them out.
            Jesus died on the cross as he bore God’s judgment against your sin. And then on the third day the Spirit of God raised him from the dead.  It is the Holy Spirit who has worked faith in Jesus Christ.  He has made you to be one who is in Christ.  And now the Spirit is the One who leads you to see in Jesus the reason that you serve others … just as Jesus said.  The love you have received through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial service, is the love you now share with others.
            For the most part, this doesn’t happen in spectacular actions that stand out to others.  But for that matter, neither did Joseph’s vocations.  He looked like a father providing for his family by going to work each day.  He looked like a father caring for the spiritual welfare of his family as he led them in hearing God’s Word and remembering God’s saving actions.
            Yet in doing so he was the means that God used to provide for Jesus and his mother. God is using you in the same way.  It doesn’t look big.  It doesn’t look impressive to the world.  But as the baptized child of God you are able to embrace God’s view of things.  In faith you can now see that in these ways of service you are actually God at work to care and provide for others. Nothing could be farther from the mundane when the Creator of the cosmos has taken you up as his instrument!
            And in Jesus Christ you have the reason you are able to do these things.  His service through cross and resurrection has given you forgiveness, peace and salvation.  His love has given you what you could never earn. And his Spirit now sustains faith and sets it in motion to love and serve where God has placed you.