Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord

                                                                        Lk 1:26-38

            The news that a woman is pregnant can be met with a variety of responses.  There is obviously the response of joy and excitement.  And even this varies depending on the situation.  Learning that a wife is pregnant with a couple’s first child is a once in a lifetime experience.  The knowledge that the union of husband and wife has produced a new life – a life that will be your child – brings joy and wonder that is hard to describe.
            Couples naturally assume that they will have sex and the wife will then get pregnant.  After all, that is the way things are supposed to work.  It comes as a shock when time passes and it doesn’t happen this way.  Infertility is not something anyone expects.  It is even a common experience that couples who had no trouble getting pregnant with their first child can then experience secondary infertility and they are unable to have another child. There are, of course, things that can be done to help alleviate this problem that don’t present ethical issues for Christians. When couples pursue some of these options and the wife finally becomes pregnant there is joy and excitement that is of a different intensity because it has been preceded by so much frustration and effort – though to be sure not all of that effort has been an undesirable experience.
            Pregnancy can also bring surprise and shock.  A wife may become pregnant when the couple had no plans to have a child.  It may happen at a time in life that they don’t consider to be ideal.  Or it may happen when they don’t even think it is possible to become pregnant. Amy and I experienced the first two kinds of joy and excitement I have described with Timothy, and then with Matthew and Abigail.  And then after trying so hard to have the twins, we experienced the surprise of Amy getting pregnant again when we didn’t even think it was possible for her to do so. It was a surprise, but without that surprise we would not have Michael.  And so the surprise brought another blessing to our marriage – a blessing born on this very day.
            Of course, the news of pregnancy can bring a reaction of fear and worry.  When sex is used outside of marriage the news of pregnancy raises issues that cannot be ignored.  Having used sex in ways for which it is not intended, the unplanned result of a human life brings great uncertainty about the future.
            In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she is going to be pregnant with a son.  She is a virgin – someone who has been following God’s plan and ordering of his creation.  Yet now she learns that something that does not fit the natural order of things is going to happen to her.  Her remarkable response to this news is that of faith and trust in God.  We see tonight that it is because of this amazing news that we are able to live by faith and trust in God as well.
            In our text we learn that the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary, a girl who lived in Nazareth.  No doubt she was a teenager.  As a faithful part of God’s people, she wasn’t married and so she was a virgin.  She was betrothed to a man named Joseph who descended from the house of David.  Her future was quite clear. She would marry Joseph and they would have a family together.
            However, Gabriel had been sent to announce something that she did not expect.  He said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  Mary was no different from you and me.  Angels didn’t show up and talk to her every day either.  She was greatly troubled as she tried to understand what was happening.
            Gabriel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
            The angel told Mary that she was going to conceive and give birth to the Messiah.  The language of our text comes from 2 Samuel chapter 7 in which God promised King David that he would establish his throne forever.  Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to the One who would fulfill this promise. This child would be called great and would be called Son of the Most High.  God would give him the throne of David and he would rule over Israel forever. This language signaled the fulfillment of all the wonderful promises that God had made about the Messiah through the prophets.  It meant that God was going to defeat all the enemies of his people and give them peace forever.
            This all sounded great, but how was it going to happen?  Mary asked, “How will this be, since I don’t know a man?”  She asked how this was going to happen since she wasn’t married and so wasn’t having sex with anyone.  Apparently Mary took Gabriel’s announcement to be a description of something that was going to happen very soon. And if it was going to happen before her marriage to Joseph, how was this going to take place? 
            Mary’s question was obviously bounded by the natural order of things. In that order created by God, a husband and wife come together as one flesh and they produce a child.  Yet God was going to do something very different. Something never seen before.  Gabriel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
            In a clear yet also vague way, Gabriel described to Mary that she would become pregnant through the work of the Spirit of God. The kings who had descended from David could all be called God’s “son.”  But this was something different altogether.  From the witness of Scripture we know that her son Jesus was not only the Messiah; he was – and is – also the Second Person of the Trinity.  He is God.  Mary was hearing the incarnation announced to her.  She would bear in her womb and give birth to the Son of God.  She would be – as the Church confesses – the Theotokos; the God bearer.
            Mary could not have understood all of this in that moment. She was probably struggling to understand what any of it meant. Yet in faith she responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  In spite of the fact that she couldn’t understand it all; in spite of the fact that it obviously would mean tremendous changes in her life, Mary responded with faith and trust in God.
            What about you?  Is your life marked by faith and trust in God?  I know you, and so I can say that sometimes the answer is yes.  But there are also those other times when the answer is no.  Perhaps it seems like that latter is more common than the former.  You worry about things that are outside of your control – forgetting that they are under God’s control.  Mary expressed her faith in terms of service. She said she was the Lord’s servant – literally his slave.  But all too often you aren’t so interested in being a servant for anyone.
            The timing of the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord is unique. It is the timing of this feast that helps provide comfort for the times we fail to walk by faith and trust in God.  And it is the timing of this feast that makes us see why we can do so.
            Today is like a little pause in the midst of Lent.  A note of joy and celebration intrudes into this restrained season of repentance. We celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God -   that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. We marvel at the fact that Jesus Christ is true God and true man at the same time.
            And yet we do this a mere four days before we start Holy Week.  We do this as we are about to watch Jesus Christ suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins.  The One conceived by the Holy Spirit is man, and so he can die. Yet he is also God – and so as God’s Son his death has meaning and significance found in no death before or since.  He came to fulfill a role that no one else could, for he took upon himself the sins of the world and by his death he redeemed us from sin.
            Yet the story of Jesus does not end with Holy Week.  Instead, it continues on into the next week – the week when the new creation began.  For on the first day of that week Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  God the Father raised up Jesus and in so doing he defeated death.
            This is the Good News that God has announced to you.  Sin is not the last word.  Death is not the last word.  And because you know this, the same Spirit who conceived Jesus Christ creates faith and trust in God.  He works this within you.  He sustains and nurtures its growth through the Means of Grace.
            The challenges of this life do not have to be times that cause fear and doubt.  Instead, through the work of Christ’s Spirit they become opportunities to believe and trust in God more deeply.  Rather than seeing them as times when God is abandoning us or ceasing to care, they become times when we see that God is at work calling us to ever deeper faith and trust in him. We can view things this way not because of wishful thinking, but because we know that the One conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary died on the cross and then rose again on the third day.

Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, in which we celebrate the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that the Holy Spirit would conceive within her the Son of God. We observe this feast of the incarnation on March 25, nine months before celebrating Christ’s birth on Christmas Day, December 25.

Gospel reading:
 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Collect of the Day:
O Lord, as we have known the incarnation of Your Son, Jesus Christ, by the message of the angel to the virgin Mary, so by the message of His cross and passion bring us to the glory of His resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent - Judica Jn 8:46-59

                                                                                    Lent 5
                                                                                    Jn 8:46-49

            My vicarage – the year long internship that is the third year of seminary training – took place in Alexandria, VA.  As many of you know, it was also the first year that Amy and I were married.  The vicarage congregation provided housing, health insurance and a stipend, so Amy was able to work as a contract nurse in the area. Thursday was my day off, and so she scheduled herself to be off that day as well.  Every Thursday we went somewhere in the Washington, D.C. area and did something as we took in all the sights.
            We spent quite a bit of time in the area around the Mall in Washington.  When you are there, it is hard to miss the fact that three structures dominate the center of our nation’s capital.  On the one end there is the Capitol building.  In the center is the Washington Monument.  And at the other end is Lincoln Memorial.  The Lincoln Memorial itself is an enormous white building which stands in front of a large reflecting pool.  Inside is a giant sculpture of a seated President Abraham Lincoln.
            The fact that structures commemorating President Washington and President Lincoln dominate the center of the capital is not surprising. Washington was the general who led the nation to victory in the Revolutionary War, and was the nation’s first President.  Lincoln led America through the bloody Civil War as the nation was preserved.  In the popular imagination he is credited with ending slavery in the United States.  In many ways he is treated as a national martyr because he was assassinated while in office.
            Lincoln is a giant figure in our nation’s history.  Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois all have ties to Lincoln. But because Lincoln lived in Illinois during his adult life and political career that led to the presidency, Illinois has the strongest claim.  Lincoln’s home is preserved in Springfield.  He is buried in Springfield – you can touch is nose there.
            And Illinois has made the most out of these ties.  It is the self proclaimed “Land of Lincoln.”  When you enter the state, that slogan along with a picture of Lincoln greets you on state signs.  If you look on the license plate of your car, you will see a picture of Lincoln in the center along with the slogan “Land of Lincoln” written underneath.  Abraham Lincoln is such a significant and beloved national figure that the state of Illinois proudly trumpets this heritage.
            In the Gospel lesson for today, the Jews who are arguing with Jesus do something similar.  They proudly claim the heritage of Abraham.  Yet in their case this claim is even more significant since rather than mere civic pride, it involves the status they believe they have before God. Our Lord tells them that instead of Abraham, their spiritual status and eternal life depends on Jesus.
              Our text this morning is the conclusion of a discussion between Jesus and some Jews that takes up all of chapter eight.  Repeatedly, Jesus asserts he has been sent by God the Father.  He says that he speaks what he has heard from the Father.  He announces that the one who believes and keeps Jesus’ words will never die. The Jews reject all of this.  Instead they claim that Abraham is their father. They are the offspring of Abraham and therefore they can call God their Father.
            At the heart of our text and this discussion is the question of how a person relates to God.  For these Jews, this is a matter of their heritage. Because they descend from Abraham, they are recipients of God’s promise to bless Abraham and his offspring. 
            Before our text Jesus proclaims, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In response they indignantly reply, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
            In our text this morning we find the contrast between those who know God and those who don’t.  We find the contrast between those hear the words of God and those who don’t.  And at the center of this stands Jesus.  Jesus speaks from God.  He speaks the truth about who we are and how we can have fellowship with God.
            Now people in the world today don’t cling to the belief that they are the children of Abraham. But the basic orientation found in our text is everywhere.  It is an easy confidence that spiritually all is well.  Our Lord describes God the Father as the judge in our text, but the world has no expectation of a judge before whom all must appear.  After all, there is no right and wrong, so how can there be judgment? And on top of that, the very idea of a judging God is so unloving. What a downer!
            The way of our world is very tempting.  I mean, no one wants to be wrong.  No one wants to be told that they can’t do something – especially something that is very enjoyable.  No one wants to be told that you have to do something – especially something that is hard, and requires self-control and sacrifice.  We would rather do what we want to do and be affirmed in those decisions at the same time by the world around us. 
            And that is what the world is offering today. That is what you are tempted to embrace. You can go that way, and things will be easy. Create your own spirituality and you can have all of Sunday for yourself.  You can keep all of your money for yourself.  Sexually, you can do whatever feels good.  You can pick and choose what you want to believe about Jesus and the way life should work. And the world – our culture – will love you for it.  TV, the internet, movies, magazines, music and everything else will affirm your decision.
            But there is a problem with all of this – it’s not from God. It doesn’t lead to God.  Instead it’s from the devil and it leads to him.  Just before our text Jesus says, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”
            Repeatedly in this chapter Jesus emphasizes that God the Father sent him. The Father sent him and so Jesus speaks the things he has heard from the Father and does the things the Father has given him to do.  He says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
            Jesus came to do the things that were pleasing to the Father.  He came to do the difficult things; the painful things that carried out the Father’s will and served us.  As we get even nearer to Holy Week, we remember that Jesus was indeed lifted up on the cross.  He told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
By his death and resurrection he has defeated sin and death for us. And so Jesus can say in our text, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 
            Our Lord can say this because of who he is and what he does.  In our text the Jews are offended by this. They say to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”
            Jesus answered that he wasn’t glorifying himself.  After all, if he did that his glory would be nothing. Instead it was the Father who glorified Jesus.  The Jews claimed about the Father, “He is our God.’”  They claimed this, yet Jesus says in our text, “But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
            Our Lord says that Abraham looked ahead to the fulfillment of the promise that in his offspring all nations would be blessed.  Because he trusted God’s promise he knew that it would be fulfilled.  In fact he “saw” it fulfilled by faith.
            We are headed towards Holy Week and Easter.  In that time we will again be reminded that we have seen it fulfilled.  Where Abraham had some vague sense of what God would do, we know the whole story.  We know about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us. 
            In our text Jesus says, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”  You hear Jesus’ words and believe them because you are of God.  You are able to hear and believe because you were born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.  Sustained by his Word, and his body and blood in the Sacrament you live knowing who Jesus is and what he has done.  And because this is so, as Jesus says in our text this morning, you can be sure that you will never taste death.