Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mark's thoughts: The many facets of Holy Baptism

Just as a diamond has many facets that can be viewed from different angles, so also Holy Baptism is a single gift that produces a result that Scripture describes and explains in several different ways.  First and foremost, Holy Baptism works the forgiveness of sins.  From the beginning this has been a confession of the Church based on Peter’s words at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Ananias expressed the same thing when he said to Paul: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). 

We confess this in the Nicene Creed when we say, “I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This same truth was confessed in the western Church by the phrase “the forgiveness of sins” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Quodvultdeus of Carthage was a deacon in Carthage under St. Augustine and later became bishop there.  In his Second Homily on the Creed he explained the creed and he told the catechumens, “[We believe] in the remission of sins. Holy baptism completely destroys all sins, both original and personal: things said, things done, things thought, things known, things forgotten –all are discharged.  He who created the person makes him anew; he who is the one who does not look for merit remits sins: for grace precedes even this second infancy, so that, liberated through Christ, those who were once captives in Adam and bound by the devil are free” (10.1-2)

Holy Baptism is one of the located means that God uses to deliver the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ on the cross.  The forgiveness of sins was won on the cross two thousand years ago in Israel.  However, it is not given out there.  Instead, God gives us the forgiveness of sins through the Means of Grace that take place here and now where we are.

Yet Scripture teaches us more than just the bare fact that Holy Baptism delivers the forgiveness that Jesus Christ won on the cross. Paul told the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5; cf. Colossians 2:12).

We learn that Holy Baptism gives us a share in Jesus’ death and guarantees our resurrection.  When a Christian is baptized, he or she dies with Christ.  We share in Jesus’ saving death through baptism.  The forgiveness that Jesus Christ won through His death becomes ours.  However, Jesus did not only die on the cross.  Instead, He also rose from the dead.  Because in baptism we have been joined to Jesus’ saving death, we also know that we will share in His resurrection on the Last Day.  Holy Baptism provides the guarantee that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we also will share in the same resurrection.  We receive assurance that death is not the final word, but instead that we have been rescued from death and will enjoy the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day.  In Holy Baptism, water is poured on our body.  Through baptism we receive the assurance that our body will raised and transformed to be like Jesus’ resurrected body on the Last Day.

The Paschal candle is a visual reminder of this fact.  This large candle with symbols of Holy Baptism on it stands next to the baptismal font.  It is lit at the Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday as the congregation members remember their baptism.  Saturday is the day Jesus Christ was in the tomb, and so we are reminded that we have shared in His death and burial through baptism.  Yet Saturday evening is also the beginning of the celebration of Easter and so we are reminded that because of baptism we will also share in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day.   The Paschal candle carries the meaning that through baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection throughout the year as after Pentecost it is lit at all baptisms and funerals.

Statements about sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism are only found in Paul’s letters to Rome and Colossae.  Yet this fact has great implications because neither of them were Christian communities that Paul founded (Rom 1:8-15; 15:22-24; Col 1:3-8).  Paul did not teach them, and yet he can assume they share in this understanding about baptism.  Luke Timothy Johnson has observed:

Despite the relatively meager evidence, we must consider that Paul would not evoke this understanding of baptism from two communities (Colossians and Romans) that he himself had not founded, unless it had been part of their tradition.  We may confidently assume, then, that the understanding of baptism as entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus was wider than the Pauline circle and not an invention of Pauline theology (Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary , 95).

We find that this must have been a common understanding about baptism that was shared by the Church in the Mediterranean world.  It was not something that was invented by Paul or exclusive to churches associated with Paul.

Holy Baptism gives the forgiveness of sins.  Sharing in the death of Christ and the guarantee of resurrection are but one more aspect of the gift of Holy Baptism.  Scripture teaches us about others as well.

Next: Blessings of Holy Baptism - New life and the Body of Christ

Funeral sermon for Patrick Campbell - Isa 61:1-3

                                                                        Patrick Campbell funeral
                                                                        Isa 61:1-3, 10

            Every funeral I have ever performed has been a time of mourning and sadness.  It cannot be otherwise.  Death was not God’s intention when he made his creation.  Instead death is the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience – their sin.  Sin brought death for them.  And it has brought death for everyone since, for as the apostle Paul told the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.”
            We know that everyone will die.  We just assume that people will live a long and full life before this happens.  I have been very blessed in my time in the ministry because that describes all of the funerals I have done.  They have all been for people who had lived the life you would expect.  I am thankful that I have not had to minister in the setting of tragedy when a child dies, or a parent with young children.
            On the one hand in Patrick Campbell’s funeral that trend continues.  He lived eighty one years; was married for fifty five years and raised four children.  He served his country on the U.S.S. New Jersey during the Korean War.  He worked in the vocation of an electrician until retiring.  He enjoyed golfing with his long-time buddies from the VFW and American Legion, and he was a member of the Ritual Team for both groups.
            But there is another side to this funeral – something that makes Patrick’s death much more difficult than any I have encountered previously.  And that is the fact that his death cuts short the new and joyous marriage that Patrick and Pat shared. A widower and a widow, the two of them experienced the blessing a new and unexpected time in life.  It was a joy for all of us to see how happy they were together. For three and a half years they truly enjoyed each other’s company.  And yet now Patrick’s death has suddenly brought that to an end.  So while there is always sadness and loss at the death of a man in his eighties, Patrick’s death carries with it far more.
            I have chosen our text from Isaiah chapter 61 because it talks about how God addresses mourning. The prophet writes: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.”
            Isaiah speaks about the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and those who mourn.  He says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him because God had anointed him to help these people.  From what has already been said in the book, we know that Isaiah is not talking about himself. Instead he has been inspired to speak words that are true of the Servant of the Lord.  He is the One who will bring good news to the poor; who will bind up the brokenhearted and comfort all who mourn.
            At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went on the Sabbath to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.  He was making a reputation for himself as a rabbi – as a teacher – and so he was given the scroll of the book of Isaiah.  Jesus read this passage.  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Everyone was looking at him. And then our Lord said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
            Jesus announced that he was the One anointed by God’s Spirit. This had happened at Jesus’ baptism.  He was the Christ; the Messiah – the anointed One.  He was the One anointed, not with olive oil, but with the Holy Spirit.  And in his ministry Jesus began to do these things.  He preached the good news of the reign of God that had arrived in him.  He brought that reign by freeing people from demons and diseases.
            The Lord Jesus was clear that in him God’s salvation was present now. But that didn’t mean everything was already perfect.  John the Baptist knew that.  John had prepared the way for Jesus.  He had baptized Jesus as the Messiah.  But now John sat in prison for saying what was true. So he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Luke has just told us about how Jesus had raised the widow’s son at Nain from the dead.  He lets us know, “In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight.” And then we hear Jesus answer: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            Jesus was the coming One.  And his ministry as the Messiah – the anointed One – moved towards the ultimate event by which he brought God’s reign to us. He was numbered with the transgressors as he died on the cross in our place.  He died to give us the forgiveness of sins.  Yet Jesus had also come to proclaim liberty to the captives and to open the prison of those who were bound by death.  And so on the third day he rose from the dead.  He rose from the dead as he began the resurrection of the Last Day. Then he ascended into heaven.
            By his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ freed Patrick from sin.  He washed that sin away in the water of Holy Baptism.  He brought God’s reign to Patrick and made him a child of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.  And because Christ did this, we know that Patrick is now with the Lord.  No longer does he struggle against the devil, the world and his own sinful nature. No longer does he suffer from cancer.  Instead he is at peace far better off than we are, for as the apostle Paul told the Philippians, his desire was “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
            And the Lord is not done with Patrick.  Instead, his baptism guarantees that Jesus will raise this body to be like his own resurrected body on the Last Day. Indeed Paul went on to tell the Philippians that “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” No longer will it be ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.
            And what of those who mourn his death? What of Pat and Julie who are left behind?  Through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says this morning, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor … to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
            Jesus comes as your Savior.  He comes as the One who died on the cross for you and rose from the dead.  And through his Means of Grace he sends his Spirit to bind up broken hearts and to comfort you who mourn.  He works through his Church in this place to support and encourage you.  He gives you people to weep with you in weeping, so that you can pass through the weeping and move on to rest in the peace and comfort of Jesus our Lord – Jesus our Savior. Because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, Patrick is with him now. And the Lord will comfort you who mourn in order to give you a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.    



Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mark's thoughts: Means of Grace - the same but different

The word “sacrament” is based on the Latin word sacramentum that is sometimes used to translate the Greek word μυστήριον  (mystery) in the New Testament (Col 1:26; Eph 3:9; 6:19).  The term “sacrament” is not found in the Bible. Instead, it is a term that the Church uses to organize how we think about the biblical texts and what they say about Christ’s gifts.  For this reason, the number of sacraments depends on how we define what a sacrament is.

For a thousand years there was no firm definition or numbering of the sacraments.  Though Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were almost always included in the list, the specific items varied. It is only in the twelfth century that Peter Lombard in his work the Sentences provided the beginning of the tradition that firmly identified the seven sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction (today called Anointing of the Sick), Holy Orders and Matrimony. In the thirteenth century this list was accepted and used by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae and received official recognition at the Council of Florence in 1439.

In their foundational statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, the Lutherans discussed Baptism (Art. IX), the Lord’s Supper (Art. X) and Confession (Art. XI).  The Roman Catholic response, the Confutation, demanded that the Lutherans explicitly confess the seven sacraments (pt. I, art. XIII).  The Apology of the Augsburg Confession replied by saying, “But we do not think it makes much difference if, for the purpose of teaching, different people have different enumerations, as long as they properly preserve the matters handed down in Scripture.  After all, even the ancients did not always number them in the same way” (XIII.2).

The Lutherans then proceeded to provide a more Gospel focused definition – one that emphasized the forgiveness of sins.  They said, “If we define the sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking (quae sint proprie sacramenta).  For humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly speaking, because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace.  Therefore, signs instituted without the command of God are not sure signs of grace, even though perhaps they serve to teach or admonish the common folk. Therefore, the sacraments are actually (vere) baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (the sacrament of penance). For these rites have the command of God and the promise of grace, which is the essence of the New Testament” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIII.3-4).  The definition of a sacrament therefore is a rite that: 1) Has been commanded by God (instituted by Christ); and, 2) Has the promise of grace (the forgiveness of sins).  Based on this definition there are three sacraments: Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar and Holy Absolution.

It all seems clear until we read the Large Catechism which says, “We must still say something about our two sacraments, instituted by Christ” (Large Catechism 4.1).  The Large Catechism then goes on to discuss Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.  It mentions Confession and Absolution, but does so using the medieval term Penance and subsumes it under Holy Baptism: “Here you see that baptism, both by its powers and by its signification, comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called penance, which is really nothing else than baptism” (IV.74-75).

We find that the Lutheran Church has two different definitions of the word “sacrament”:
1. Instituted by Christ                                                1. Instituted by Christ
2. Promise of forgiveness                                          2. Promise of forgiveness
                                                                                   3. Uses a physical means

Both include the Christ’s institution and the promise of forgiveness. But the definition in the Large Catechism limits the sacrament to those that use a physical means (water; bread and wine). These two definitions produce two different numbering of the sacraments:
1. Holy Baptism                                                          1. Holy Baptism
2. Lord’s Supper                                                         2. Lord’s Supper
3. Holy Absolution

There is a neatness to Luther’s definition that makes it highly attractive, and in fact it has been dominant in Lutheranism from its earliest days.  Already we find that Chemnitz in his Examination of the Council of Trent lists as the first requirement of a sacrament: “That it have some external, material or corporeal and visible element or sign (aliquod materiale seu corporale, et visible elementum seu signum), which is handled, offered, and employed in a certain external rite” (2:38).  On this basis, Chemnitz states very clearly, “For it is in this way that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are truly and properly (vere et proprie) sacraments of the New Testament” (2:39)

As we have seen above, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states that the numbering and listing of the sacraments is not something to get upset about.  This is a healthy and sensible attitude, and Chemnitz provides an example of what this looks like in practice.  Although he clearly affirms that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are truly and properly the only sacraments, he repeatedly affirms the possibility of calling absolution a sacrament based on Apology XIII.  For example, he states, “Therefore absolution is not truly and properly a sacrament in the same way as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  However, if anyone, with this added explanation and difference [i.e. the lack of a material element or sign], should want to call it a sacrament on account of this peculiar (singularem) application of the promise, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession testifies that it does not want to object” (2:40). In fact Chemnitz readily concedes: “And in order that the salutary use of private absolution may be the more commended to the church from the teaching of the Word of God, our teachers have often testified that they do not oppose but freely concede that absolution, because it has the application of the general promise to individuals who use this ministry, may be numbered among the sacraments” (2:39).

The issue, therefore, is not whether we call Holy Absolution a “sacrament” or not.  In fact I think that in our present context we probably cause ourselves more problems than good if we insist on calling it a sacrament.  After nearly five hundred years of the Large Catechism’s “two sacrament” definition, when congregation members hear the term “sacrament” applied to Holy Absolution it sounds incorrect to them and simply raises unnecessary questions and resistance rather than extolling the gift.

Ultimately, to argue about how many sacraments there are distracts us from what really matters.  It is a fruitless exercise because it simply pits the two confessional definitions against one another (where the weight of history always pushes the scale down in favor of the two sacrament definition that leaves Holy Absolution to the side). Instead we should focus on all of the means that God has given in order to deliver forgiveness and sustain faith.  The term that I normally use for this in catechesis and preaching is “the Means of Grace.”  This is a helpful way to speak since it highlights these unique gifts as a group.  The Means of Grace are:

                                                  1. The Word
                                                  2. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism
                                                  3. Holy Absolution
                                                  4. The Sacrament of the Altar

I list the Word first because it is the Word that makes the other three to be Means of Grace.  They are the Word in its various forms.  The other three Means of Grace are then listed in the same order as they occur in the Small Catechism. In catechesis I explain the different ways that the Lutheran church has defined a sacrament and explain how the two sacrament definition has hindered the appreciation of Holy Absolution.  Though I refer to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, I often speak of the Means of Grace as a whole and the congregation has become used to hearing these four gifts repeatedly listed in the same order. Likewise, Holy Absolution is regularly singled out as one of God’s gifts in order to emphasize its own unique standing.

All of the Means of Grace do the same thing.  They all deliver the forgiveness of sins and strengthen faith.  In this way they are all the same.  However, they are not identical and they do not all operate in the same way.  One of our goals should be then to learn about how each of the Means of Grace is different and unique.  Holy Baptism is not Holy Absolution or the Lord’s Supper.  The Lord’s Supper is not Holy Baptism or Holy Absolution.  Each one is a special gift through which God works for our salvation and we need to appreciate each one as a unique gift from God.   Our God embraces us with a variety of gifts, and in their own way, each one delivers the forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ won for us through his death and resurrection.

Next: The many facets of Holy Baptism

Sermon for Septuagesima - Ex 17:1-7

                                                                                    Ex 17:1-7

            “Is the LORD among us or not?”  That’s the real issue in our text this morning from Exodus chapter 17.  Now on the surface it doesn’t seem like it is.  Instead it appears as if the issue is water to drink.  But if we think it’s only about water, then we have missed the point.  The truth is, we often do.
            Our text this morning tells us about events that happened after the exodus from Egypt as Israel made her way towards Mt. Sinai.  We learn that “Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.”  Rescued from Egypt by Yahweh, the people were now making the journey as God had directed. This was God’s show.  He had brought them out of Egypt.  He had told them the destination toward which they were journeying.
            However, the trip hit a snag.  The people camped at Rephidim, but there they had no water to drink.  Now this was not some kind of manufactured “crisis” like you see trumpeted on social media every day.  It was a real problem.  Let’s not lose sight of that.
            But the bigger problem was how the people of Israel responded to it.  We learn in our text, “Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” The people responded by turning on Moses. For the people, the issue was water.  They needed it.  They didn’t have it.  And so they got angry at Moses and demanded it from him.
            Yet in Moses’ response we learn that there was something more important happening.  He said to them: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”  The Israelites had come in anger to Moses.  They had made demands of Moses.  But Moses wasn’t just anybody.  He wasn’t there because he had put himself there.  Instead, he was Yahweh’s servant.  God had put him there to lead the people.  To quarrel and dispute with Moses God’s servant about the lack of water was to put God to the test.  It was to raise the basic question: “Is Yahweh among us or not?”
            Lest we think that this was just a momentary lapse, our text goes on to tell us: “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’”  The people were all in as they complained.  In fact, Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
            So God told Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”  Moses did this and it produced water, just as God had promised.   Finally we learn in our text, “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”
            “Is the Lord among us or not?”  That’s the question Israel raises in our text.  The occasion for this question is a lack of water.  Let’s be clear: this was a real need.  It was a real problem. Israel faced a challenge that was difficult and frightening.  Their error was not in recognizing this fact.  It was instead the way they responded to it.
            Their response was to quarrel with Moses and say, “Give us water to drink.”  This was not the action of faith.  This was not the language of faith.  To speak to God’s servant in this way was to raise the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  It was to raise the question in a way the asserted a negative answer.  No he is not.  Because if he were, he would never have let us be in this situation in the first place.
            But that is where Israel was wrong. And that is where we are often wrong.  We don’t want to experience hardships.  We don’t want difficulties.  In our way of thinking, we believe that if God really loves us he will use his power to give us nothing but good things.  He will shield us from everything bad.  And conversely, if we are experiencing bad things then God isn’t doing his job.  He has abandoned us. “Is the Lord among us or not?”  The answer is obviously no.
            But the truth is that God uses these moments.  He allows these things because we need them.  We need them because we continue to be sinners in whom the old Adam dwells. Until we die or Christ returns there is always part of us that wants to turn away from God. There is part of us that wants to ignore God.  There is part of us that wants the all the blessings, while taking God for granted.
            We all have seen parents who give their children everything – who spoil them – in spite of the fact they act like ungrateful brats.  We recognize that such giving is not loving.  Instead, it is only fostering behavior that is detrimental; it is not helping them to become mature individuals who can be a blessing to others.
            Scripture teaches us that our heavenly Father acts like a father.  Proverbs says, “My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”  The writer to the Hebrews quotes this text and then adds: “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
            God does allow things to occur in our life that we don’t want. They are things that we don’t like.  They are experiences that crucify the sin – the old Adam – within us. That’s not something that is enjoyable.  But they are also experiences that force us to turn away from ourselves and to turn towards him.  And that is God’s goal – to turn us towards him in faithful trust and dependence.
            In our text God says to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.”  Yahweh tells Moses to take his staff with him.  God had given that staff to Moses when he called him at the burning bush.  Moses had been instructed to use it to bring the plagues upon Egypt.  He had been ordered to use it when God parted the Red Sea and rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian army.  That staff had a history – it was tied to God’s action that had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt.  It had been part of God’s action to redeem Israel.
            Next Yahweh said, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”  We probably focus on the action of Moses striking the rock with the staff. But the most important part of this statement are the words: “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb.”  Yahweh said that he would be there.  “Is the LORD among us or not?”  It was a foolish question.
            “Is the LORD among us or not?”  It is still a foolish question no matter what is happening in your life.  For proof, we look to the cross.  This too has been tied to God’s action that has rescued us from slavery to sin and death.  In fact, it has been the means by which God has redeemed us through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ.
            Before Jesus Christ, the cross had never been a symbol of peace and comfort. But then again, everyone who had ever died on the cross had stayed dead.  Jesus Christ didn’t. Instead, on the third day he rose from the dead.  By passing through death he defeated death.  He emerged from the tomb as the risen Lord, who has now been exalted to the right hand of God in his ascension and exercises all authority.
             “Is the LORD among us or not?”  In the incarnation, the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us.  He was Immanuel – God with us.  And he is still Immanuel.  He is Immanuel – God with us – through the preaching of his word.  He is God with us as he forgives our sins in Holy Absolution.  And in the Sacrament of the Altar he is true God and true man still with us today.
            God is with us through all these means as the Holy Spirit gives us forgiveness and strengthens us in faith.  As God allows experiences to enter our life that demonstrate our helplessness he turns us toward himself, the One who is present for us.  He is present to sustain us.  He is present through his Means of Grace to enable us to grow and mature as Christians – as his children.
            So if you are facing challenges this morning; if God has allowed circumstances to enter your life that reveal you are not in control – circumstances for which the only hope and help is God – don’t be surprised.  This is what God does because we need it. This is what God does because he loves us with a love far more pure than the self-love we lavish upon ourselves. 
            Yet because of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus and his Means of Grace there is absolutely no doubt about the answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not?”  Of course he is.  Come now to the Sacrament where Immanuel will be God with us in his true body and blood.  Through this he will forgive your sins. Through this he will comfort you and strengthen your faith. Through this he will come to us now and provide the assurance that he will come in glory on the Last Day so that we never are tempted to ask the question again.