Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas - Isa 11:1-5

                                                                                                Christmas 1
                                                                                                Isa 11:1-5

            C'Mon Man!  If you have ever watched the ESPN Monday Night Countdown show that precedes Monday night football, you will recognize this expression and what it means.  First introduced in 2008, each of the hosts shows a video segment from a football game that week.  In all of them, players, coaches, and even fans, are making dumb mistakes and doing things that just make no sense.  At the end of each segment after the host has described the error, he adds, “C'Mon Man!” This is, I should add, one of Michael’s favorites.
            On this First Sunday after Christmas we hear the prophet Isaiah provide a description of the Messiah.  He speaks about a figure endowed with the Spirit of Yahweh who knows what is right.  He judges in righteousness and fairness for all – including the poor and weak.  And he executes mighty judgment against the wicked.
            Yet when you consider this description and compare it to the One whose birth we are celebrating during this season of Christmas, it makes you want to say, “C'Mon Man!” Jesus is a helpless baby in manger.  He is not at his parents’ home because the real world ruler, Caesar Augustus, has ordered a census and they had to obey.  Jesus lives in the world that Caesar runs.  And speaking of running, very soon his parents will flee to Egypt with Jesus in order to save his life from a petty king under Augustus’ thumb, Herod the Great. The words of Isaiah 11 applied to this? “C'Mon Man!”
            I have always had a deep appreciation for this First Sunday after Christmas.  The season of Advent is filled with so much activity and anticipation as we get ready for Christmas.  Then, there is the Christmas Eve service.  The chancel area is decked out with poinsettias and the lit Christmas tree.  We sing the joyous hymns of Christmas that are so dear to us.  We hear the reading of the Christmas Gospel, adorned with a Gospel processional.  And then at the conclusion of the service there is the singing of Silent Night as the darkened church is lit by candles.  Before we return to church the next day, the presents that have attracted so much attention under the Christmas tree, have been opened that evening or in the morning.  And then the Christmas Day service follows with its own warm reverence.
            We do all of this, and then the next Sunday rolls around.  The First Sunday after Christmas arrives.  All of the hoopla, and nothing has really changed.  And if that is true for us, we are reminded that it was all the more true for Mary and Joseph.  The birth of Jesus was a great event.  That is true of the birth of any baby.  Then the shepherds visited at the prompting of an angel on that first Christmas Eve.  But on the Sunday after his birth, there was just a baby for whom they now needed to care. There was just the work of providing for a tiny, helpless infant who was unable to do anything for himself.
            When we hear the words of our text, and consider the infant in Bethlehem there appears to be a great disconnect.  A shoot from the stump of Jesse?  Well, ok, this is a descendant of David through Joseph, and he was born in Bethlehem the city of David.  But what about Isaiah’s words?: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
            The last part of that text – about striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and killing the wicked with the breath of his lips – was one of the most quoted statements about the Messiah when Jews spoke about him in the second temple period.  It’s not hard to understand why this is so.  Isn’t that what we want out of Jesus?  We want him to act in might and power to defeat the enemies of his people – to vindicate those who believe in him in the midst of this increasingly hostile world.
            If Jesus doesn’t seem like the fulfillment of our text from Isaiah a week after Christmas, then he certainly doesn’t at the end of his life some three decades later.  The only thing that rested upon him was a crown of thorns. He was the One who was judged by a Roman governor who knew he was not deciding righteously or equitably as he condemned an innocent man to death.  He was the One who was killed by the wicked as the last breath left his lips.
            There are times when Jesus is not the Christ we want. We think that we don’t want a Christ who allows suffering and hardships to enter our lives.  We don’t want a Christ who seems to be either unable or unwilling to solve right now the problems that are troubling me.  After all, if he were really the Christ – the kind of Christ I want – then that’s what he would do.
            But Isaiah’s words teach us that God works in ways that we don’t expect.  He works in ways that are really the opposite of what they appear.  The prophet begins by saying, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”  Isaiah wrote in the eighth century B.C.  The Assyrian had swept down on Palestine. They had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, destroyed its capital of Samaria, and take the people into exile.  But they hadn’t stopped there, they had continued south as they took one fortified position in Judah after another.  Inevitably, they would set their sights on Jerusalem as they planned on doing the same thing to the southern kingdom.
            The kingdom that arisen under David’s rule had been chopped down.  But when it appeared that there was no hope, Isaiah said, There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”  God was not done with David’s line.  In chapter nine Isaiah had already talked about this One.  As we heard on Christmas Eve, he said: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
            By all appearances, in the first century A.D. these words could not have sounded more hollow.  But then, God sent the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary to tell her that she would conceive a baby in her womb through the work of the Holy Spirit.  He ordered Joseph, a descendant of David, that he was to take this divinely conceived child to be his own, and to make him part of the line of King David.
            Born in the city of David, Jesus did not appear to be anything special – just another Jewish baby born into subjugation to Rome. His parents had to take him out of Israel into Egypt in order to rescue him from death.  Yet no matter how things appeared, God was at work in all of this to fulfill his word – in the conception by a virgin; in the birth in Bethlehem; in the flight to Egypt. 
            In two weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  When Jesus had grown to be a man, he went to receive the baptism administered by John the Baptist.  There as he emerged from the water he was anointed with the Holy Spirit.  The words of our text were fulfilled: “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”
            Anointed with the Spirit, Jesus went forth as the One whose delight was the fear of the Lord.  It was his will to do the Father’s will. And so he made his way to the cross.  He did not look to his own interests, but instead he died on the cross to redeem you from sin.  Good Friday appeared to be weakness and failure, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
For by that death in our place, he won the forgiveness of sins. And by his resurrection on the third day he defeated death itself.
            After fulfilling the Father’s will, our risen Lord ascended into heaven.  He has been enthroned at the right hand of God, and on Pentecost he poured forth the Spirit upon his Church. The Holy Spirit caused you to be born again in Holy Baptism.  Now through the Spirit’s work you have wisdom and understanding.  As new man in Christ, you have knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
            The old Adam in you doesn’t want to see what I have just described. He looks at the baby Jesus, at Jesus on the cross and at your life and says, “C'Mon Man!”  But as we listen to God’s Word the Spirit leads us to tell the old Adam to shut up, for instead we understand that with God the reality is far more than the appearance.  And because this was true in Jesus Christ, we can trust that God’s love and care for us continues in the present no matter what things look like.
            The reality of God’s work is far greater than its appearance. The final confirmation of this fact will take place on the Last Day. For the ascended Lord who defeated death in his resurrection will return in glory.  And when he does we will all rejoice to see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words as Jesus Christ pronounces the final judgment righteously and with all power.  He will declare us to be righteous because of his saving work.  He will vindicate us before all and demonstrate that the reality of God’s work in Christ has always been far, far more than it appeared to be. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

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.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today  is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.  John and his brother James were among the first apostles called by Jesus.  He was present with our Lord at His transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  From the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of His mother Mary to John.  He is the author of the Gospel that bears his name, as well as three epistles and the Book of Revelation.  According to tradition, John was banished to the island of Patmos (off the coast of Asia Minor) by the Roman emperor Domitian.  In his later work John is associated with Ephesus and he is believed to have been the only apostle who did not die a martyr’s death as he lived to a very old age and died at the end of the first century A.D. 

Scripture reading:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.  Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)

Collect of the Day:
Merciful Lord, cast the bright beams of Your light upon the Church that we, being instructed in the doctrine of your blessed apostle and evangelist John, may come to the light of everlasting life; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Mark's thoughts: What Jesus does not mean for us

The month of December spans the seasons of Advent and Christmas.  This means that it is a time of anticipation, excitement and joy.  During the four weeks of Advent we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s first coming, and also think about His promised second coming.  Anticipation and excitement about Christmas builds.  Then the celebration of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve.  For twelve days the Church celebrates the joy of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

In the midst of all the hoopla that surrounds Christmas during December, it can be easy to lose sight of the reality that still confronts us as sinners living in a fallen world.  However the last week of December – and indeed the days of Christmastide itself – contain reminders that immediately prompt us to reflect upon what Jesus does and does not mean for us.

The first is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr on Dec. 26.  The first day after Christmas we hear about the Church’s first martyr.  Acts chapter seven tells us:

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 7:58-60)

The Son of God born in Bethlehem brings forgiveness and salvation.  But this does not mean popularity and ease for His Church.  Instead it often brings the cross of persecution as the world rejects the Savior.

Next, on Dec. 28, there is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.  Matthew reports:

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 2:16-18)

Jealous to preserve his power, Herod the Great has the little boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem slaughtered.  It is an event that reminds us of the seemingly random tragedies that plague our world.  The Messiah of the descendants of Israel is born, and yet His birth causes death among the people He came to save.  Jesus the Christ brings forgiveness and salvation. But this does not mean the end of heartbreaking tragedy.

God’s Word does not say otherwise.  But it does say that God has worked through events of suffering to achieve His saving purpose, and therefore we know that we can continue to trust Him when we see circumstances we don’t understand.  Matthew quotes the words of Jeremiah 31:15 about Rachel’s weeping. Yet this verse is the only note of sadness in a chapter filled with hope – a chapter that ends with the promise of the new covenant that God will make as He forgives sins (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  This is the salvation that God was at work to accomplish, even in the midst of the death and tragedy of this world.

The birth of Jesus Christ did not mean the end of sin, tragedy and death.  It did not mean this in the first century A.D., and it does not mean this now.  However, the child born in Bethlehem grew to be a man who was nailed to a cross.  He died for our sins, and then rose from the dead on the third day.  The Son of God Himself passed through suffering and death in order to give us forgiveness and life.  Having seen this, we can trust that God is with us and at work in the present … just as He was even in the midst of Herod the Great’s evil deed.  And because of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, we know that the final victory will be received on the Last Day by St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and all of God’s people.