Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent - Populus Zion - Rom 15:4-13

                                                                                                Advent 2
                                                                                                Rom 15:4-13

            For someone who had never visited the church at Rome, the apostle Paul certainly knew it pretty well.  You see this in the last chapter of this letter, where Paul spends sixteen verses extending greetings to twenty six different people by name along with others who are related to those individuals in some way.  It’s really not surprising.  In the first century Rome was the center of the Roman world.  It was a magnet that drew people in, and many people that Paul knew had made this journey. 
            When scholars discuss the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans they often identify three things that are going on.  First, Paul was clearly asking for their support in his planned missionary activity in Spain.  Second and related to this, he knew that the church had heard about issues Paul had encountered regarding the law of Moses and Gentile Christians. Paul wanted to set forth carefully what he believed.  At this time the apostle was looking forward towards his visit to Jerusalem as he brought the offering that Gentile Christians in Greece and Asia Minor had given to help the Jewish Christians there.  He would face the same question in Jerusalem, and so Romans was probably also a “dress rehearsal” of what Paul would say there.
            The third reason was related to this second reason.  Paul knew that this very subject was a source of tension in the church at Rome.  The Gentile Christians, whom Paul calls “those who are strong,” knew that the commands of the Torah about food and religious days no longer applied to Christians.  However, there were Jewish Christians, whom Paul calls “those who are weak,” who didn’t understand this. They felt that they were still obligated to do these things and that they would be sinning if they did not. 
            This had created disagreement and division between these groups.  While Paul agreed theologically with the strong ones, he also believed that the strong needed to deal with the weak in ways that showed them love and care – ways that looked out for their well being even if it meant denying oneself.  In the letter to Galatians we see that Paul would never let someone force the views of the weak upon others as if they were necessary for salvation. But when it was a matter of the well being of the weak and how they viewed themselves, he was willing to deny himself to serve them.
            Paul has made this very point in the verses just before our text.  He wrote, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”
            The reason that the Roman Christians were to act this way was Jesus Christ. He had not pleased himself.  He had served us by bearing our reproaches on the cross – the punishment and judgment that our sin deserved. And so now as those who have received this gift, we are to serve others.
            In our text Paul goes on to say, “For 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. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
            Paul has quoted Psalm 69 in the words, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”  The apostle now refers to this and all of the Old Testament as he says that it had been written for our instruction.  It had been written so that we might be able to endure as we are encouraged by the Scriptures. 
            Paul has taken a Psalm written by David and said that it was fulfilled in Jesus’ death on the cross.  He is telling us that all of the Old Testament is about Christ.  All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus.  They have been fulfilled in Father’s saving act in giving the Son as the sacrifice for our sin. They have been fulfilled in the Son’s willing self-sacrifice for us.  In the instruction about how God did this working through Israel’s history, we are encouraged by the Scriptures to endure during this life.
            This is an important theme of Advent.  As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ in Bethlehem, we reflect upon how this was the fulfillment of everything that God had done through Israel.  It was the fulfillment of God’s promises made in the Old Testament.  During our mid-week Advent service the sermons are focusing upon how John the Baptist was the “prophesied prophet” – the prophet promised by the Old Testament as the forerunner of the Christ.  In the fulfillment of God’s word we find encouragement.  The God who has kept his word through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can be counted on to keep his word about his continuing love and care for us.
            But note that in our text this encouragement takes place in the setting of “endurance.”  In fact Paul describes God as “the God of endurance and encouragement.”  The apostle Paul talks about endurance a lot in his letters.  His view is not that the Christian faith frees you for everything to be great – “your best life now” as one television preacher likes to say.  Instead, he assumes that living in the “not yet” of a world that is still fallen, and a flesh where the old Adam is still present, will be an existence that involves challenges and hardships.  It will include things that require endurance on our part.
            This is certainly not what we want to hear.  When circumstances arise that require endurance our reaction is often to complain about God: Why is he doing this to me?  Why is he letting this happen to me?  Yet we can only think and say this if we ignore God’s Word. After all, God tells us clearly that life in the faith will require endurance.
            The reason we can endure is because of the encouragement God provides.  God has provided encouragement in Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Scriptures for us. The Son of God – the creator of the universe – served us.  He put us before himself in order to save us. In his loving action we have received forgiveness and eternal life.  Now that is encouragement.
            And in Jesus we have the reason that we now serve others.  Paul says in our text, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”  Jesus served us to give us forgiveness and salvation.  Because of this his Spirit now leads us to serve others.
            More often than not, this service is not spectacular.  It is not the kind of thing that will gain the attention of others or “go viral” on the internet.  It occurs in simple ways in the ordinary settings of our marriage and family; school and work; and here in this congregation.  It occurs as you choose to do something that helps someone else, even though that action does nothing for you; especially when that action requires something of you to help another.
            In our text Paul says that Jesus served to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament.  He did this not just for Israel, but “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”  As Gentiles we glorify God for this mercy. Paul proceeds to quote a series of Old Testament passages that describe how the Gentiles will do this.  He then concludes with a passage that is very relevant for this Second Sunday in Advent.
            Paul writes, “And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.’” And then he adds, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
            Paul quotes Isaiah chapter 11 as he speaks about the Gentiles hoping in Christ. Then he describes God as the “God of hope” and expresses the wish that by the power of the Holy Spirit the Roman Christians will abound in hope.  Isaiah 11 is the chapter that begins with the words, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD.”
            The prophet speaks of the Messiah – the descendant of David – upon whom the Spirit will rest.   He is the One who “will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”
            His reign will be one in which, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” He will bring the time when, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
            This is the hope that we have.  The Gospel lesson this morning speaks about the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day.  It does so because as Advent prepares us to celebrate Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, it also points us towards his second coming. The Lord who rose from the dead and was exalted in his ascension will return.  He will bring the resurrection of the dead.  He will bring the renewal of creation.  He will bring the the peace that the prophet Isaiah describes.
            And in this, we have hope. Our God is the God of hope.  He has acted to give us hope.  He has acted in Jesus to defeat sin and death. We know that he has already done this and so as Paul says we have “all joy and peace in believing.”  Paul’s wish is that we will be filled with this.  We know that what God has done in Christ points toward a consummation – toward a completion.  And so Paul expresses the desire that “by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
            On this Second Sunday in Advent, this is my desire for you as well, that the Spirit lead you to recognize the need for endurance in the present – an endurance that is encouraged by the Scriptures that have been fulfilled by Christ.  And I pray that the Spirit will support you in this endurance with hope – indeed, that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus we know what we are moving towards.  And we have barely begun to understand how good it will be.  



Thursday, December 7, 2017

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.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

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

                                                                                                            Mid-Advent 1
                                                                                                            Lk 1:5-25

            I know a Lutheran pastor and his wife who are unable to have children.  They are a wonderful couple.  She would be an amazing mother.  He would be a great father.  They want to have children.  And yet for some reason that no one can understand, God has not chosen to bless them with children.  They are physically unable to have any.
            This presents a great challenge to faith.  Because while this couple is unable to have children, there are women who have had children by several different fathers.  While this couple is unable to have children, there are couples expending money and effort to make sure that they don’t have any children.
            Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us that this kind of challenge to faith is not something new.  While the use of sex apart from God’s design makes this situation stand out in our time, in the first century A.D. it was the use of sex as God intended that did the same.  Children were considered to be a blessing from the Lord, not something to be avoided. The more children you had, the more the Lord had blessed a couple.  To have no children was highly unusual.  It made people wonder if you had done something and were being justly punished by God.
            Apart from being childless, Zechariah and Elizabeth were exemplary Jews.  Zechariah was of the priestly line. Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron.  Luke tells us that they were “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”  They were faithful. And yet they had no children, and were now too old to have any hope of this happening.
            The priests were divided up into groups which served at the temple during assigned periods of time. It was the assignment for Zechariah’s division to serve, and the great honor of burning incense had fallen by lot to Zechariah.  The time for burning incense was associated with prayer. As we sang tonight, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense.”
            While the people prayed, Zechariah was in the temple.  But things didn’t go as planned.  We learn that the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah was no different from you and me. Angels didn’t appear to him every day of the weak.  He was troubled and fearful.
            But the angel said to him, "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 angel brought amazing news.   Elizabeth was going to have a son!  What seemed impossible was going to happen in answer to their prayer.
            The angel told Zechariah that he would have joy and gladness about the birth of this son.  Now it didn’t take an angel for Zechariah to know that he would rejoice about the birth of a child.  However, there was more to it than just that.  The angel went on to say, “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.”
            It was not only Zechariah and Elizabeth who would rejoice.  Many other people would rejoice. And they would not do so just because they were happy for this wonderful couple.  Instead, they would rejoice because this child was going to be special.  He would be great before the Lord.  He would live in a way that was set apart for God.  Indeed he would be filled with the Holy Spirit before he was even born – while he was still in his mother’s womb.
            This child would grow up to be a prophet. In fact, he would be the great end time prophet promised by God through the prophet Malachi.  The angel went on to say, “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.” 
            John was going to turn many of the children of Israel to God.  He was going to call them back from their disobedience and would make ready a people prepared for the Lord’s end time work.  John would be a great gift with a great work to do!  But Zechariah’s thoughts were focused elsewhere.  He asked, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
            We immediately learn that Zechariah was thinking about this all wrong. The angel answered him, “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.”
            Gabriel tells us that Zechariah didn’t believe the good news that the angel announced.  This strikes to the heart of the challenge you and I face.  More often than we care to admit, our behavior shows that we don’t believe the good news either.  If we really believed in the One for whom John prepared the way – Jesus Christ – would we be plagued by worry about the future? Would we always have our eyes set on the next thing we want, instead of giving thanks to God for what we have?  Would be really find sports and hobbies more interesting and worthy of our time than Christ’s Word?
            The answer is no.  And in that answer we find the need for repentance – the very thing that was at the heart of John the Baptist’s ministry.  John was sent to prepare the way for the Lord – for Jesus Christ – by turning hearts to God.  This season of Advent that we have just begun is meant to do the same thing.  It too calls us to repentance.  We must face the unbelief in our own lives and repent. Because only in repentance are we prepared to celebrate the gift of God’s Son.
            We prepare to celebrate the gift of God’s Son, as he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  In Jesus Christ we find the good news of God’s answer to our sin.  By his death and resurrection he has conquered sin and death. We are forgiven and in Jesus we have the assurance of resurrection life with the Lord.
            Gabriel tells Zechariah in our text that John will be filled with the Spirit even while yet in his mother’s womb.  You and I are not the end time prophet promised in Scripture.  No such claim can be made about us.  But we do know that we have received the same Spirit, who is now at work in us. We know this because we have been baptized.  We were born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.
            The Spirit who gave us new life has not departed.  Through the Means of Grace he continues to sustain us in the faith. What is more he leads us to walk in Christ’s ways.  The Spirit who gave us new life continues to enable that life in word and deed. 
            Through his leading we confess and repent. Through his leading we resist the sin present around us in the world and present within us. We do this because the Spirit has given us faith – faith in the crucified and risen Lord whose birth we prepare to celebrate.