Sunday, December 28, 2014

Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs

 Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.  In the attempt to kill the infant Jesus, King Herod the Great murdered all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger (Matthew 2:16-18).  Since they were killed because of Christ, the Church very early honored these babies as “the buds of the martyrs,” killed by the frost of hate as soon as they appeared.  The Holy Innocents remind us of the terrible cruelty which sin has brought into the world.  Their deaths point forward to the death and resurrection of the Innocent One, Jesus Christ through whom God has conquered sin and death.

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.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise not by speaking but by dying.  Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

                                  Holy Innocents

                                                                                     Mt 2:13-18


     Today is the fourth day of Christmas.  Although the world is finished with Christmas as soon as it wakes up on Dec.26, it is not so in Christ’s Church. We spend the four weeks of Advent getting ready to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus.  After preparing for four weeks, we are not finished with Christmas in an evening and a day.  Instead, we celebrate Christmas during the course of twelve days – during a time that is known as Christmastide.

     However, this year, no one is celebrating Christmas today in Mosul, Iraq.  Nobody celebrated Christmas in Mosul yesterday or the day before.  In fact nobody in Mosul celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  This is surprising, because Christianity has existed in Mosul for somewhere between fifteen hundred and almost two thousand years.

     No one is celebrating Christmas in Mosul this year, because there are no longer any Christians in Mosul to celebrate Christmas.  For nearly two millennia, Mosul had been a center of Christianity in northern Iraq.  However, everything changed in June and July this year.

     At the beginning of 2014, the events that have unfolded in Iraq were not expected.  In January, hardly anyone in the public knew the acronym ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  During that month they captured the city of Fallujah. This event caused a strong reaction among many veterans of the Iraq war, because some of the most costly fighting by U.S. Marines had taken place in retaking the city in 2004.  Famously, in an interview President Obama dismissed ISIS at that time as the “J.V. team” – the junior varsity who was not a real threat.

     Yet in a series of stunning victories, ISIS routed the Iraqi army in June and July and swept into Mosul, as they established control over a large swath of land that extended from Syria to Iraq.  As they moved into Mosul and other Christian areas, ISIS soon demonstrated that they had a very clear plan that would eliminate Christianity. 

     ISIS declared that every Christian had to either convert to Islam, pay a tax that very few could afford, or be killed. Those who didn’t want to abide by one of those options had to leave.  It soon became clear that ISIS was deadly serious about the threat. They began marking the homes and buildings of Christians with an Arabic “N” for “Nazarene.”

     In what has unfolded, ISIS has desecrated and destroyed churches and Christian buildings. They have robbed Christians leaving the area of everything of value.  They have killed Christians for refusing to convert. They have driven Christianity out of Mosul, and now hundreds of thousands of Christian live as refugees in camps in other areas.

     While this is terrible, it’s not even the worst that ISIS has done.   They have perpetrated unimaginable evil in mass executions of captured soldiers, along with beheadings and crucifixions of their enemies.  They have engaged in the practice of giving and selling non-Muslim and non-Christian females as sex slaves – many of them nothing more than girls.

     We are in the midst of celebrating Christmas and at the same time this kind of evil and savagery is going on the in the world – evil directed at God’s own Church; his own people. The presence of this evil is enough to make us question whether God is really at work; whether Jesus Christ is really all that Scripture claims he is.

     When the world does Christmas, everything turns to sappy sentimentality.  When the Church does Christmas, the Church year does not allow you to avoid the hard questions about what the birth of Jesus Christ really means.  On the first day after Christmas, Dec. 26, we have the Feast of St. Stephen, the first person martyred because of faith in Jesus Christ.  And now on the fourth day after Christmas, we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents – we think about the young boys who were killed because of the birth of Jesus.

     Our Gospel lesson for today deals with events that occurred after the visit by the magi to King Herod the Great.  The magi had seen a star at it rising that they believed announced the birth of the king of the Jews.  They went to Jerusalem looking for this king, and found Herod.  He sent them on to Bethlehem to look for the child, with the instruction that when they found him they should send word to Herod so that he too could worship him.

     Herod the Great was a ruthless and cunning leader.  He was a survivor who against great odds had assembled a kingdom that was basically as large as the one ruled by King David.  He wasn’t going to let anyone threaten his rule – not even his own children whom he killed on several occasions.  My favorite anecdote about Herod that reveals his character is the one about the plans for his death.  Herod knew that he was not loved by many people.  So to make sure that there would be mourning in the land when he died, he had given orders that that leading citizens were to be gathered in a stadium and massacred at the word of his death.

     God warned the magi in a dream not to return to Herod.  In our text we learn that after they had left 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 obeyed and we learn that this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

     Herod finally realized that he had been played by the magi.  Herod had not acquired his kingdom by leaving things to chance.  He was furious and had all the little boys in Bethlehem killed who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Matthew tells us, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

     There are no other ancient sources that mention the Bethlehem massacre.  That’s not really surprising because in the grand scheme of Herod’s rule it was insignificant.  Estimates of the little boys killed usually run around fifty – certainly less than a hundred.

     Yet while the numbers may not be great, the personal tragedy of the parents who lost children is incalculable.  The pure evil on display is breathtaking.  And this happened when Jesus Christ was born.  It happened because Jesus Christ was born.  What does this say about Jesus?  What does this say about the way God works?  What does this say about what Jesus means for us?

     In our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that God did not avoid evil.  In the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, he subjected himself to it.  It is Jesus who is carried away in the middle of the night to Egypt because Herod intends to kill him. God subjects himself to the evil of this world, and yet the evil does not hinder his saving plans.  Instead, God uses that evil as the instrument to fulfill his plans. 

     Matthew tells us that the flight to Egypt fulfilled the prophet Hosea’s words: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  God had brought his son the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt in the exodus.  But Israel had failed in its role to be a light to the nations as she disobeyed Yahweh and worshipped false gods.

     Now, Jesus the Son of God had entered into the world in order to be “Israel reduced to One.”  He had come to fulfill all that Israel was meant to be.  And in the unexpected mystery of God, the action by Herod becomes the means by which Jesus goes to Egypt in order to recapitulate – “to redo” – the role of Israel.  He goes to Egypt so that he can be called out of Egypt just as Hosea described of the nation.  He goes to Egypt so that the purpose of the nation can be fulfilled.

     The Son of God enters into an evil world in order to fulfill God’s saving purpose. And this purpose is fulfilled by suffering at the hands of evil.  The death of Jesus Christ is an evil event.  The sinless One – the One who loved and helped others – is tortured and crucified because his enemies plot against him and the Roman governor has no backbone.  He dies a horrible death as merely one more victim of the brutal might of the Roman empire.

     Yet this evil too, becomes the means by which God accomplishes his saving purpose.  Jesus goes to the cross as the sinless sacrifice that wins forgiveness for all people – even for those who torture and kill him.  He dies on the cross as the sacrifice for you.

     In the darkness of Good Friday there was nothing but evil to be seen.  And yet God was at work, using this evil to defeat sin and evil.  It was only on the morning of Easter, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, that all became clear.  God had been at work.  Forgiveness had been won. And now, new life had begun – resurrection life.

     For the present, Jesus Christ changes nothing.  And he changes everything.  We see this in the murder of the children in Bethlehem.  The Son of God is present in this evil world in order to bring salvation, and because he is here Herod kills the little boys.  Evil did not disappear when Jesus was born.  It did not even disappear when Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead.  Instead, Stephen became the first of so very many who have suffered and been killed because Jesus lived, died and rose again.  The same thing happens today to the Christians in Iraq and Syria; to Saeed Abedini and other Christians in Iran; to the Christians in Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, China and so many other places around the world.

     The “not yet” of the continuing presence of evil may make it look like nothing has changed. But Matthew wants us to know in our text this morning that this is not the case.  He says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

     Matthew quotes words from Jeremiah chapter 31 that acknowledge the horror of the people of Judah being taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Yet this is the lone negative statement in a chapter that announces that God’s people will experience restoration and something even bigger.  Yes, they experience evil now, but God will bring them back.  And he promises that he will in the future make a new covenant through which his people will know him and he will forgive their sins.

     The message of Jeremiah 31 is that yes, there is evil in the world. But this evil cannot change the fact that God will bring his salvation.  Matthew says that yes, the Holy Innocents were murdered.  But in Jesus Christ God was doing something to overcome this evil, and these children will share in this salvation too.

     The murder of the Holy Innocents; the destruction of the Church in Mosul – these are things that force us to acknowledge that evil is still present in spite of the fact that Christmas has occurred.  Yet our Gospel lesson also encourages us with the knowledge that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has accomplished the saving purpose of the incarnation.  And because he has done this we know for certain that we already now have forgiveness, and that the Holy Innocents, the Christians who have fled Mosul and all who are God’s people will share in the final victory when Jesus Christ returns in glory and annihilates evil completely and forever.






Friday, December 26, 2014

Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr

Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr.  Stephen is mentioned in Acts chapters 6-7 as one of the seven deacons appointed by the Church to provide for the needs of the poor in the Christian community in Jerusalem.  Because of his powerful witness to the Gospel, Stephen was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin, where he boldly confessed Christ.  Infuriated, the Sanhedrin took him outside of the city and stoned him to death.  Stephen was the Church’s first martyr (a word which in Greek means “witness”) as he died for the faith.  He is remembered for commending himself to Christ in death when he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and for forgiving those murdering him with the words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).

Scripture reading:
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me….

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
(Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60 ESV)

Collect of the Day:
Heavenly Father, in the midst of our sufferings for the sake of Christ grant us grace to follow the example of the first martyr, Stephen, that we may also look to the One who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Day

                                                                                    Christmas Day
                                                                                    Ex 40:17-21, 34-38

            Camping was not part of my experience in growing up.  It think I only did it on two occasions – once with the church youth group and then on a train watching trip to Wyoming and Colorado that my dad and I took with my best friend and his dad. And we only went camping on that trip because it was something that my best friend’s family did all the time.
            Now the reason for the absence of camping is not hard to understand when you look back at the previous generations in the Surburg family.  My Grandpa Surburg grew up on the north side of Chicago, within walking distance of Wrigley Field.  His family lived in the city – a world of the “L” and streetcars – and so camping was just not part of their life. 
            Things were the same for my dad during his years of growing up.  Before going on to teach at Concordia, Seward and Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield and Fort Wayne, Grandpa Surburg was pastor for many years in Brooklyn, NY.  Like his father before him, my dad lived in the city – a world of the subway, elevated lines, streetcars and stick ball in the city streets – and so camping was just not part of my dad’s life either.
            The experiences in Chicago and Brooklyn had shaped the way the Surburgs lived.  And so camping was simply not part of our family life.  We didn’t do it for recreation, or even as inexpensive lodging while traveling.  Our idea of “roughing it” was a hotel that didn’t have a swimming pool.
            In our Old Testament lesson for Christmas Day, we find that God – the creator of the cosmos – “goes camping.”  He commands Israel to make a tabernacle – a tent – for him so that he can dwell in their midst.  This choice of using humble located means to dwell with his people points forward to and finds fulfillment in what we are celebrating on Christmas Day.  And in the description of the tabernacle in our text for today, we also find the reason that the Son of God came to dwell with us in the incarnation.
            In the book of Exodus, God rescues Israel from slavery.  He frees them from the Egyptians as in the tenth and final plague of the Passover he forces Pharaoh to let Yahweh’s people go. When Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army to pursue Israel, Yahweh wins victory over the Egyptians as the people of Israel crosses through the midst of the Red Sea on dry ground, while the Egyptians are drowned in the midst of it.
            After bringing Israel to Mt Sinai, Yahweh enters into a covenant with Israel.  He declares that they are his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  He gives them the Book of the Covenant that begins with the Ten Commandments and describes how they are to live with God in the new relationship.  And then in chapter twenty four the covenant is set in place.  Moses reads the Book of the Covenant in the hearing of the people and they respond, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”  Moses makes an offering to the Lord and throws some of the blood on the people saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”  In this way the people are included in the covenant.
            Next, beginning with chapter twenty five all the way through to the end of the book, Exodus focuses on the tabernacle.  Yahweh calls for a contribution by the people to build a tabernacle.  He then says, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” He provides directions about the construction of the tabernacle, its furniture and all that will be worn by the priests who serve there.
            At the heart of the tabernacle – which itself was a tent sent within a courtyard that was marked off by a fabric fence - was the ark of the covenant. This wood box overlayed with gold had poles on each side for carrying it. The most significant part of the ark as the cover which had the cherubim – angelic figures – stretching out their wings over the ark.
            The cover itself was called the mercy seat.  It was called the seat because Yahweh announced that it would be his throne when he said, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”  It bore the name mercy because once a year on the Day of Atonement blood was sprinkled on it that cleansed the tabernacle of all of the people’s sins so that Yahweh remained in their midst.
            The tabernacle wasn’t much to look at – certainly not when compared to the permanent temple structures that were found in the ancient near eastern world.  However, as our text narrates, it was unlike anything else because it was the place where the glory of Yahweh – the perceptible presence of God – dwelt.  When it had been set up a cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of Yahweh filled it. This cloud over the tabernacle then became the sign that signaled whether Israel was to move on or stay put.
            The tabernacle was the means by which God dwelt in the midst of his people and gave them forgiveness through the sacrifices that went on there.  Though Israel knew that Yahweh - the creator of the heavens and the earth - was everywhere, his promise was the he was located there for them. Through the tabernacle he comforted them with this saving presence and provided forgiveness.
            The tabernacle was a type. A type, as I have mentioned recently and as our catechumens know so well, is something in the Old Testament that points forward to what God is going to do in the New Testament.  It was a type of the incarnation of the Son of God.  The Gospel lesson for Christmas Day from John chapter one is absolutely clear on this point. 
            John begins the Gospel lesson by talking about the Word – the Son of God. He says that the Word is God and was active in creation.  And then he tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Greek verb “dwelt” that is used here has the same word root that provides the translation for tabernacle.  We could just as easily translate it as, “he tabernacled among us.”  John says that we have seen God’s glory in him.  He tells us that what had been true of the tabernacle is now true of Jesus Christ, the infant who lay in the manger on Christmas morning.
            In the incarnation, the Son of God became human without ceasing to be God.  God came to dwell with us.  Yet he didn’t just come to be here.  He came to do something.  He came to provide the final and complete answer to sin.
            We were created for fellowship with God – that is what it meant to be created in God’s image. Yet the fall has robbed us of the ability to live there.  Instead now as sinners the presence of the holy God brings fear and death.  When Isaiah encountered Yahweh in the temple he exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
            This reality has not changed, even if our world chooses to ignore it.  The world says that you can do what you want and there aren’t really any consequences.  Where actions produce unwanted consequences, the reaction often is to claim victimhood and blame another. The line is that now we are “owed” something.
            Yet God says otherwise.  He says that there is right and wrong and that your sin is sin committed against him.  He says that sin has consequences, and that you are to blame for them.  Instead of making excuses, he calls you to confess your sin and repent of all the ways you put God second.  He calls you to confess and repent of the anger, and lust, and jealousy and coveting that infects your life.
            It is because of those things – it is because sin prevents fellowship with God – that the Son of God entered into the world in the incarnation. The cover of the ark of the covenant was called the mercy seat and was the focus of the day of atonement.  In Romans Paul uses this very word – usually translated in the context as “propitiation” - in order to describe what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  He writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
            Jesus Christ - the Word become flesh – was given as the sacrifice that removes sin and restores fellowship with God.  Because of his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead we are now justified.  We have been declared “not guilty” and we know that this is the verdict that will be declared on the Last Day.
            In doing so Jesus has begun the new covenant.   Just has there was a blood of the first covenant, so there is also blood of the new covenant – the blood of Jesus Christ poured out on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.  And just as the sprinkling of the blood of the first covenant meant that Israel was included, so now the reception of the blood of the covenant in the Sacrament of the Altar means that you are included and are God’s forgiven people. 
            In the Sacrament the One who rested in the manger on Christmas, now rests on the altar in his body and blood in order to give you the benefits that he won through the incarnation.  And in the Sacrament he also provides the guarantee of what awaits you.  The Son of God became man in the incarnation as the second Adam who came to put all things right. As the risen Lord gives you his true body and blood, he provides the assurance that your body will be raised too – changed and renewed to be like his glorious resurrected body.
            On this Christmas Day, we hear in our Old Testament lesson about how God dwelt with his people through the tabernacle.  This action by God found its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In his first coming at Christmas, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in order to give us forgiveness and renewed fellowship with God.  It is the blessing that the incarnate One continues to impart to us as he comes to us through the Sacrament of the Altar.  And in each celebration of the Sacrament we are reminded that we are expectantly awaiting our Lord’s second coming on the Last Day.