Focus: God’s promises are made real in Christ.
Function: that the hearers find their security in Christ.
Today we continue in our five-part sermon series focused on distinctively Christian hope – Where it comes from, what it points to, what it makes us do now. This is the third of five, Hope Made Real.
What does it take for something to become real to you?
For me, when I think of making something real, I remember my last year of seminary school in the spring. I had been running on the same shoes for about a year longer than I should have and at the end of a run, I ran up the ginormous last hill into campus, I slowed down, stretched and started up the steps to my dorm room. And then I heard it. My right knee sounded fine, but my left sounded like quuuuuukkkkkk… like a rock tumbler. And in that moment I got clued into the reality that had been around me all that time – if I wanted to keep my knees, I needed to treat them nice. It became real to me. If I wanted to keep my body, I had to take care of it.
I tell you that to tell you this, for most of us, or for me at least, it takes us actually getting down into the reality of the situation, bucking heads in the nitty-gritty of the moment, before we have a real appreciation for the reality that’s been there the entire time. For some pastors, it takes putting on the stole for the first time before they understand what it means to be a pastor. For newlyweds, it takes the first major fight to realize that marriage has always been hard work, and it's the hard work that makes it good. For the man sitting in the hospital, it takes getting his first stint put in after his heart attack to understand what he’s been doing to his body all these years and how something needs to change…
When have you been in that moment, where your perception of reality and what’s important comes up against reality itself and what’s actually important? What does it feel like to you? At least for me, when that happens, first I get angry. I think, “This can’t be true. It must be a mistake.” And then I start to feel ashamed. I think, “I don’t want to face this because I never should have let it get to this point.” But then I start to realize that I have two choices, and either I can face reality and do something or I can give up and try to ignore it, knowing full well that it can’t be ignored.
Today is the story of Jesus confronting an ugly and false reality in his hometown. He’s been walking around preaching the same message in all kinds of small towns up to this point, and he travels home to do the same thing in Nazareth. He reads these verses from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind” (that’s Isaiah 61), and “To set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (that’s Isaiah 58).
And then Jesus says these words: Today, this Scripture is fulfilled.
And the crowd goes ballistic. They just go bonkers. You see, these texts from Isaiah were understood to talk about the Messiah, about how the Messiah would come and what he would do to set all things to right, and the crowd had a picture in their mind of the reality that the Messiah would usher in.
Their perception of reality at this point included a hometown boy (which Jesus was) going around (like Jesus was doing) healing people, gaining popularity, and now that he’s come home, he’s going to heal people and gain popularity right there in his hometown. And they’re pretty happy about the whole affair. It’s a win-win situation for them.
Except for the fact that Jesus can see into their hearts.
The hometown boy quotes this against them, he says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’” Those are the same kinds of words they say to him on the cross, “He saved others, why will he not save himself.” And it echoes in our society when people say “We spend X amount of billion dollars overseas. Why don’t we just use it all to take care of our own?” We should take care of our own. And then he uses the examples in the Old Testament about Gentiles that the prophets healed, and they become enraged to the point that they would throw him off a cliff and drop stones on him.
The false reality they held in their hearts was twofold. First, they thought they had a favorable status with Jesus because of things that didn’t matter to him. Second, they confused good things like healings with the ultimate thing: salvation.
And they go ballistic. They just go bonkers. They are confronted with a reality that doesn’t match up with the one in their mind, and their first reaction is to reject the hope that’s made real right before their eyes. In their anger, they choose to follow their own wishes rather than their God.
Jesus says to his people then, your perception of reality doesn’t square with the mission that I have here. My mission is a ministry to all. My mission is a running after the poor, the impoverished, those who have no favored status with the divine. My mission is to first give salvation and then pour out all kinds of gifts on my people, so that they can do the same. My mission is to look you unflinchingly in the eye and see the worst sins that’ve set down deep in the hearts of my people. My mission is to dive down to the bottom of your soul, to dredge up the mucky bottom of your hearts, to pull up all kinds of nastiness, all sorts of failure. My mission is to sink down with the lowest of the low, to die the lowest of deaths so that I can be humiliated with the burden of the whole world’s sin.
Because before all healing, all health, before all social standing, before even food and water and shelter, your need, Jesus says, your need, is forgiveness and salvation. Everything else in this life and beyond flows from forgiveness and salvation. Every day is the best day ever, because you are saved, and you are forgiven. Every night is the best night ever, because you are saved, and you are forgiven. Every success and every failure is ok, because you are saved and you are forgiven.
You’re free to do what God has designed you to do.
Christianity is about strong morals and doing the right thing. It is about being good to your neighbor, and suffering patiently in affliction. It’s about supporting the God-given authority of those in power and assisting them in what is right. It’s about social justice and putting clothes on backs and food in mouths and helping people to stand on their feet.
But none of those is the most important thing.
It is Christ and Christ alone who is offensive to all other religion. It is Christ, the God-made-flesh that sets our Christianity apart from the religions of the world. It is Christ who is the stumbling block and Christ who is the lynchpin of our entire life.
So then, the question is, how then shall we live? How do you live as if forgiveness and salvation is the best thing ever?
First, we recognize that excess in this life is toxic. To the Nazarenes, the best thing in this life looked like having a specially favored relationship with the Messiah, with all the perks that come with it. To a hungry man, the best thing in this life looks like a crust of bread. To a fat man, the best thing in this life looks like a good diet. To a love-starved lonely man, the best thing in this life looks like the companionship of marriage. To a man fed up with his family, the best thing in this life looks like peace and quiet.
The lesson that we learn in each of these is first that excess in any category is toxic. But here’s the greater lesson: even in a life without excess, toxic things still creep in.
Second, we recognize that the very best thing of this life is not in fact of this life. He is beyond this life begotten before all creation, and he decided to come to us, so that in the end, we might go to be with him.
Amen and Amen.
Focus: God reconciles us through Christ.
Function: That the hearer live in the hope of reconciliation by reconciling with others.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today we remember the Baptism of Jesus and the start of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is a season of light and of awakening. It means revealing, and in the next five weeks, we look at how Jesus reveals all kinds of hope in all sorts of ways with all kinds of different people.
So, then, what is hope? That’s our first question. One theologian put it like this: “Simply defined, hope is an expectation of the future…” It’s looking ahead into the unknown with expectations for how it will be. And he goes on: “Hope involves a larger story, as the past, the present, and the future are woven together in a delicate, life-changing balance.” And if that’s too opaque for you, he gets specific: “hope occurs when a past experience generates trust in a certain future that changes one’s … present.” End quote. When the past helps you see a future, and that future makes you change what you do in the present.
Hope happens every time a dying man remembers God’s faithfulness in his baptism, knows it extends past his death and faces that death with strength. Hope happens every time a mom and dad remember past mistakes, look for their children’s future and keep working in the present for that purpose. Hope happens every time a struggling couple remembers their wedding vows, looks to the future of how Christ will come back for his bride the church, and starts acting like Christ for their spouse, starts finding ways to lay down life for his spouse.
So, what kind of hope do we find in our text?
Well, first we should remember what the people gathered around John remembered for themselves. When they saw John, they thought about how Elijah was supposed to come back from the dead. They thought about how the Messiah was supposed to rule like a king and subdue all the nations that had done them wrong. They thought about the promises that God gave to Adam, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, to David, to Isaiah. They saw with their own eyes a man who looked a lot like a Messiah, a man named John the Baptizer, and started to believe in their own hearts that he would lead Israel as an agent of God’s anger toward the nations.
That’s the hope they had, a hope in God’s righteous wrath, God’s punishing wrath, coming for the people who hate. But a hope in the anger of God to punish the nations, it’s a dangerous kind of a hope. It’s dangerous because it expects God to come in the clouds with a scale to weigh others in the balance, to weigh their good and their bad and find them lacking. It expects God to come to smite Israel’s enemies. It expects God to come to exercise his perfect judgment among us, because we know our enemies are lacking.
And, that’s all in the psalms, and that’s all true. If you look at John the Baptizer’s teaching, you see him pile on more of the same when he says, “Whoever has two tunics, you should share. Whoever has food should have meals with others. Whoever deals with money should not extort.” And guess what? That’s not even the end – Jesus revisits this in his sermon on the plain. He says, “You’ve got to do all that, but it’s not only for your friends but most especially for those whom you dislike, not only for people of goodwill but moreover for persons of ill repute, not only when you’re having a good and generous day but especially when you’re having a really, really bad day.” And when you think of it like that, if that’s that standard of perfection, it becomes harder and harder to see ourselves as the righteous few and easier and easier to see ourselves as the guilty many.
But that’s not the only picture we see from the Old Testament. Isaiah pictures the Messiah as a conquering king, yes, but also as a humble servant, one who will turn the tables on justice, one who instead of being glorified, he will be humiliated, a shepherd who will take the stripes that his sheep deserve.
And not just for the lost sheep of Israel. When our God considers to save Israel only, he says, “No, that’s too light a thing.” No, he came so that Israel would be a light for the nations, drawing all peoples to himself. The future is a vision that God didn’t just come as a conquering king. No, he came as a king who is a servant.
Did you notice that little piece in the text? John says, “I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.” As you might know, it was customary when a guest came into your home, if you were a Jew you’d have servants untie sandals and wash feet. And again, by custom, if you had a Jewish servant, this task was too lowly a thing for the Jew to do, so they would have a Gentile servant do it. So when John says, “I am not worthy to do even this,” he means, “I’m not even worthy to do the lowest work of the lowest servant for this man.”
Now, fast-forward to John 13 and take this in: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Jesus does what was too lowly a thing for a Jewish servant to do. It was too great a thing for John the Baptizer to do for Jesus, and here we have the king of all the universe wrapping his outer garment around his waist and washing the feet of those who would disown him, deny him, and betray him. That’s the picture of life everlasting with Jesus. He’s a king who is a servant, who serves us even to our salvation, even when we are still sinners.
So, if the past tells us of the God who is king coming among us and he will judge us for our deeds, if the future reality is that this king is also a servant and he will get on his hands and knees to serve us his salvation, then what should it make you do?
In this present I would ask you to take hold of the picture of God we find in Jesus rising from the waters. Do you see the way the Trinity comes together for this brief and fleeting moment? Look at the Father, who is cracks open the heaven like a door, who declares Jesus beloved, who greatly favors Jesus to live the life that will make all dead men rise. See the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove, sent by the Father to the Son, to be sent by that same Son into our hearts by the very same baptism that all believers share in Christ. See Christ pray to his Father in perfect submission, knowing for himself the path he would have to walk. Look and revel, just soak in this picture of the perfect harmony of sacrifice, submission, salvation, perfection, of the three in one and one in three.
The title of this sermon is Hope Reconciling, and I was listening to a preacher the other day that made the distinction between forgiving and reconciling. He said, Forgiveness only takes one, but reconciling takes two. Forgiveness is burying the past. Reconciliation is looking toward the future. Forgiveness is breaking down barriers. Reconciling is building up trust. Who do you need to build trust with?
And so we see the hope of reconciliation in our text. First in our text we see the way that the Father, Spirit, and Son, are absolutely of one will, they’re perfectly harmonious, without needing reconciliation because they have what reconciliation brings: trust, harmony and an unbroken relationship.
And then Paul in Romans goes there for us: He says, not only does God have what reconciliation brings, but when you’re brought into the body of Christ, you die with Christ and live again in him. In 2 Corinthians, he says it like this: you are a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come. When you become a new creation – when the barriers of sin are broken down by the relentless forgiveness of God – then God begins the work of restoring the kind of relationship that has perfect trust and harmony. And then he says, you’re now an ambassador of that reconciliation. It’s your job to go around reconciling, building trust and harmony, not with the kind of people that believe the same kinds of things that we do, but moreover with all kinds of people that don’t want our kind of trust and harmony.
And John adds this to the end: He says, At this time, we experience brokenness at the same time that we experience harmony. There will be a day when the king who is a servant comes back and fixes all that is broken, heals all that is hurt, reconciles all that is irreconcilable in these days. Have you ever had a bridge you thought was too badly burned for you to cross again?
It’s called the kingdom of Heaven, and our God has brought you in on the ground floor. He’s called you to be part of how the Kingdom of Heaven breaks into this world and associates with the kinds of people that the world says we shouldn’t associate with, and shares food with all kinds of people, for the express reason that we’re all human and we get hungry, and confesses sins alongside the kinds of people that the world doesn’t think are worth forgiving.
In conclusion, when I think of reconciliation in our text, I think about the heavenly banquet table, the one that Pastor Griffin says has only sausage and cheese on it, but I imagine it with all kinds of good things, and I look to my right and to my left, and I see among the saints and the kindly old ladies, I see the people that disturb and annoy me the most, sitting next to me for eternity, and in the here and now, I ask the question, am I glad? Am I glad to be surrounded by murderers, racists, the unkind, the cruel, the angry, the deceitful, the self-righteous? Am I glad to be surrounded by the great cloud of those whose sin makes us like scarlet, so that his blood can wash us white as snow? If, in that day, full reconciliation is joy to the fullest, then it is also the start of joy in this life. Amen and Amen.
Second Sunday After Epiphany
John 2:1-11 and 10:10 I came that they may have life and that they might have it abundantly
Dear Friends in Christ,
This is going to be a really good story someday. (Story of Noah and Jenna’s wedding day, late start going from Siesta Key Beach to church, traffic, needing to locate and stop at Walmart for wine and beer, competing GPS voices, getting lost, and at the peak of feeling lost and late, I reached over and took Debi’s hand, urged her to stay calm, and said, “This is going to be a really good story some day!”
At that point we were sort of kind of hopeful that we would find a Walmart, that we could get some not so expensive wine and middle of the road beer for the wedding and be there on time, but our hope was far from abundant. Hope Abundant is the theme of our sermon today, as we continue in our five part sermon series focused on distinctively Christian hope – what it is, what it feels like, what it looks and sounds like, what it does.
The world defines hope as wishful thinking, but the church defines it as confident expectation. Even as people of faith we can stumble into what has been called a theology of scarcity, as opposed to a theology of abundance. There is hope that sort of comes and goes, some days pretty strong and other days hardly there, and then there is hope abundant, a hope that is given is in the waters of Baptism and grows the older we get and the more of life we live and especially the more time we spend with Jesus Christ, who is the very reason for the hope that is within.
In today’s sermon, the first part will focus on Hope Abundant is a matter of moving from the lesser to the greater, and in the second part it’s a matter of moving from the greater to the lesser. In Part #1, we focus on what Jesus changing 120 gallons of water into wine reveals about Jesus, what it revealed about Mary, we imagine how it may have changed forever the hearts of that wedding couple, and we learn what this, the first of His signs did to the hearts of the disciples.
So what do we learn about Jesus in this story. Jesus took a social blunder and turned it into a (sneak peek) of greater things to come! In Jewish custom, the formal betrothal was the legally binding act of marriage, even though the couple would still live separately for a time, often for a whole year. Then the bridegroom and his friends would go in joyful procession to the bride’s home. She and her friends would accompany them back to his home for the wedding celebration. They would party for up to a week, and then they would live together, often in the home of his parents. Running out of wine would have left the family and newlyweds embarrassed for years to come. And so Mary takes Jesus aside, tells him there is no wine, and let’s Jesus make the next move. He gently reminds her that his hour had not yet arrived, and perhaps with a twinkle in her eyes, she tells her helpers, “Just do whatever he says.” Mary knew what others would know by faith, some sooner and some later, that Jesus was the Messiah. She knew what the Old Testament prophets had predicted was coming to pass, that the day was coming when the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the mute would speak, the paralyzed would walk, the lepers would heal, and the dead would live. One could imagine her saying to those same servants later that night, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
No doubt Mary’s confidence in her Son was (contagious). Yes, a sword would be piercing her soul, but when all the dust had settled, the salvation of souls will have been accomplished. Yes, Jesus would have to be ridiculed and yes he would have to be rejected and yes he would have to be beaten bloody and yes he would have to be crucified until he was dead and buried, but when as soon as the third day came to be, there would be a resurrection. Yes, Mary knew that it would seem to many that the forces of darkness had prevailed and there was no hope worth hanging onto, but in fact a great light had come into this world. No doubt Mary had her moments, and no doubt she had to wonder some days, but in the stillness of the night she kept on expecting that the best was yet to come. One can imagine her saying to friends and family and anybody who would listen to a woman, “you just wait, you just wait, don’t be giving up hope, you just wait and see.”
And then there was the wedding couple. We don’t really know their story, but they sure had a story to tell! No doubt this wedding couple told their story (again and again) A story of how Jesus took their social blunder and turned it into a rousing success. A story of how one of their invited guests took their stone water jars set aside for Jewish rites of ceremonial washing and turned them into jars of expensive wine that has the neighbors talking 2000 years later. A story how Jesus of Nazareth had taken care of them in close up and personal kind of a way. One can imagine them telling anybody who would listen, “Let me tell you, this Jesus is like no one else, ever since He came into our marriage life hasn’t been quite the same, you keep your eyes on him, this changing of water into wine has to be a sign of greater things to come.
At least six of the disciples already had their eyes on Jesus. Jesus had invited them to follow Him, and they had. They heard Him preach and they paid attention to Him teaching, and they were believing in Him. John summarizes this story in this way, “This, the first of Jesus signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” A better translation might be that they put their faith in him. No doubt the disciples’ faith was growing (by leaps and bounds). No doubt their faith grew when John the Baptist cried out Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. No doubt their faith grew when they saw healing a man possessed by a demon and no doubt and their faith grew when he healed Peter’s mother in law, and their faith grew when he healed all kinds of sick people one evening, and no doubt their faith grew when He first forgave the paralyzed man and then made him walk, and no doubt their faith grew the day he raised from the dead the son of a widow from Nain and then He walked on water and then He raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus and then he raised from the dead Lazarus. Every one of these sneak peaks was getting them ready for that dark Friday when Jesus emptied Himself, that we might be full. That day when human hope seemed to be draining away, when in fact, this was the very hour the Triune God had been planning for. This was the hour Jesus came for. This was the hour He gave hope, and he gave it abundantly.
In the hours and days and weeks and months leading up to that appointed hour, Jesus kept on giving them sneak peaks. As He did so, Mary’s confidence just kept on being contagious, the wedding couple just kept on telling their story again and again, disciples just kept on seeing the signs, hearing the truth, and believing the best was yet to come.
Hope Abundant first is a matter of moving from the lesser to the greater, and in the second part it’s a matter of moving from the greater to the lesser things of life. If Jesus has already done the greater things for us, why wouldn’t we trust Him for the (lesser things?) Paul writes to the Romans about these greater things, “What then, shall we say to these things. If God is for us who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also graciously give us all things?
Jesus identifies Himself in John 10 first as the door of the sheep and declares, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” Then as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Christian hope is something so much greater than wishful thinking, it is expecting the promises of God to be fulfilled one day at a time and even into the future, based on historical fact.
Worldly hope vs. Christian hope is the difference between just sort of surviving life and spilling over with life. The difference between a hope that sort of flickers on and off depending on the circumstances and a hope that shines bright most days and every once in a while people have to almost shade their eyes it’s so bright. The difference between hope that we pretty much keep to ourselves and a hope that just keeps showing up in our conversations and attitudes.
Three lessons about the hope that keeps on showing up in way that we think and the way that we talk and the habits that we form. The first lesson comes from Mary. We know that hope has shown up and it’s spilling over when we urge one another to (“do whatever He tells you.”). Hope sounds like a dad telling his son to keep on laying down his life for his bride, even though she doesn’t seem to be appreciating anything he does. Hope looks like a mom telling her married daughter to keep on appreciating her husband, even though he falls short on a regular basis. You’ll know that Christian hope has shown up and is happening when groups of young moms of young children come together and cry together and laugh together and together they find strength to endure.
Secondly, we take our cue from the couple from Cana. Hope happens when we tell the story of Jesus (again and again). Hope happens when older Christians tell younger Christians again and again how God has brought them through depressions years, has brought them through World War II years, has brought them through the 60’s, has brought them through all kinds of trouble. Christian hope has shown up when recovering alcoholics and drug addicts go to meeting after meeting and say it again and again, “Hi, my name is so and so, and I’m an alcoholic, let me tell you my story.” Hope happens when one messed up but forgiven sinner tells another messed up but forgiven sinner again and again how sweet it is that his sins have been paid for at the cross, how sweet it is that heaven is his, how sweet it is that our God specializes in new beginnings and second chances.
Third, we take our cue from the master of the feast tasted the water now wine and couldn’t stop raving about it. Hope happens when we believe that the (really good wine is yet to come). Hope showed up in the flesh when Jesus Christ rose up from the dead on a bright sunny Sunday morning. Hope shows up on our lips as often as we get a taste of the forgiveness of sins at our Lord’s Table and look forward to the feast that is to come. As often as we hear that our sins are forgiven and go looking for someone to forgive, as well. As often as we are loved by God in the preaching and teaching of His Word, and go out looking for some troubled neighbor to help and befriend. As often as we make it through a day that threatened to overwhelm us, but by God’s grace, it didn’t, and then we go looking for some stressed out neighbor to encourage. Hope happens as often as we realize the good old days have not passed us by, but are yet to come.
The rest of the story in Bradenton, Florida, is that we found the Walmart. By this time it was 2:30 or so, and the wedding would start in a half hour. We zipped into the store, and I found a clerk and with all kinds of urgency I asked where the liquor department was. She said, “We don’t have liquor here.” Before I could cry out or say anything, she said, “only beer and wine!” The rest of the story is that we got to the wedding in time, the ceremony was lovely, the reception was beautiful, there was plenty of wine, the loneliness of the single life was vanished by the joys of a Christian marriage, and as much as is possible here and now, they are living happily ever after. I came that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly! Amen.
Focus: God’s spirit gives life to our lives.
Function: that the hearers continue in habits of piety.
Today we’re looking at habits and virtues, and we ask what is the value of habits and virtues? Or maybe more appropriate after a week with all kinds of services, what is the value of going to church?
In our little office area, an often-quoted article comes from Father Chinappa, the Indian priest that was with us here in little Janesville, starting around the time that I got here. He wrote an article that spoke of the difference between value and virtue. Values are intellectually held, where virtues are deeply ingrained. For example, if someone left a gold watch on a desk, a person who didn’t have either values or virtues would look both ways and when the coast was clear, if he wanted it he would take it. On the other hand, a person that had values would see that gold watch, would be tempted by perhaps, but would look at the watch, remember his values and at the end of his struggle, choose to follow his values. On a third hand (apparently I have three hands today), a person who has the habit of virtue would see that gold watch sitting on someone’s desk, and he wouldn’t even think about taking it for his own but instead his first and only thought would be to return it to the person whose watch it is. Over time, when practiced enough, values turn into virtues.
Today we meditate on the lives of two really pious kinds of people, a man and a woman of great virtue, both of whom had spent their lifetimes looking for and waiting for the promised savior that would come into their midst. Three lessons for today as we look at our three Scripture readings.
First, God had prepared for this for a long time. You can see it way back even when he set up the structure of the people of Israel, way back when Moses led them out of the land of Egypt. He commanded that every firstborn son should be redeemed by his parents with a sacrifice so that that family could remember how God had bought them back from Israel, and now for a thousand and a half years, the people of Israel had been keeping their piety by redeeming all kinds of firstborn sons and each of these families had been remembering back to when God had saved his firstborn son, Israel from his slavery.
Now fast-forward to Joseph and Mary. You can see several times in the text that Luke stresses, “This happens because they were fulfilling the law.” For Joseph and Mary, this was first a habit ingrained in their Jewishness, to remember that their firstborn was a gift from God and they would redeem it just like God redeemed Israel from slavery. And so they complete the habit that God had made for his people…
But now something more happens. In our text for today, it’s that structure of pious remembering that becomes the vehicle for present salvation. Let me say that again. It’s piety that becomes the vehicle for salvation. The thing that was supposed to help them remember now God fills it and in filling it makes it more than it was.
Isn’t that wild? That’s the reason this story could even happen. This whole text happens because of the habits that God had formed in his people long ago.
Second, let’s look at Simeon and Anna. What habits did they have? Well, we can see that they came to the temple regularly, they were well-regarded among others, they had a habit to look on the bright side, they were in it for the long-haul. You can see when the Christ-child was set before him, they had the eyes to recognize him (not an easy feat in the gospels, let me tell you!), and they had so studied the word that Simeon bursts out in beautiful song, a song running deep and clear with the Old Testament. St. Paul expands on these habits. In Colossians 3 – put on like the socks and pants you pull on every morning, put on compassion and humility, patience and forbearance. Put on peace, and bind it all together with love. These are the habits you should form, because when you do it becomes easier to be loving than to be jealous, easier to forgive than to take revenge, easier to find hope than to despair.
Now if that’s too abstract, he goes into detail: Forgive because Christ forgave you. Teach and admonish others, and when you are being taught and being admonished by others listen to them. Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs because these remind you on a daily basis what’s most important in your life. The kingdom of heaven is like a bunch of grandma’s and grandpa’s that make a habit of listening as much as they do teaching. It’s like a bunch of husbands and wives being quick to confess and quick to forgive each other because they remember how much God had forgiven them. It’s like a bunch of young people wondering about their identity while still knowing they are first and best children of God. It’s like a bunch of kids learning Christmas hymns in times of joy, so that they chase away the darkness when they sing them in times of sadness too.
Third, we see in Anna and in Simeon today that the fruit of their piety was a long time in coming. Simeon would not see death before he saw the Savior. Anna had been living as a widow for three-fourths of her life. She went to worship in a regular kind of way, and I’m sure that there were days when it was easy and other days when it was hard. There were days when Simeon heard the voice of the Lord telling him that he would see the savior before he died and other days when the readings didn’t speak to him. Days when the preacher was preaching right to Anna’s heart, and other days when he was preaching to her watch hand. Days when the habits of psalm, hymn and spiritual song shined light in the darkness, and days when it was too hard to sing.
For us too, there are days when it seems worth it and days when it does not. But here, we see the fruit of a life of piety, a life full of the habits of kindness and compassion, teaching and being taught, singing and worshiping, the best fruit of that life aren’t the habits you’ve developed. No, the best fruit of that life that…
Your righteousness, your habits, your piety, the best clothes you can put on, as good as they are, are only like filthy rags compared to God’s righteousness, and that’s really good news. Here’s why: it’s only when you try to be kind that you find out how hard it is to be kind. It’s only when you start to have compassion for those who are truly different from you that you realize how difficult true compassion is. It is only when you try to truly forgive that you find out hard it is to forgive. It is only when you remember the truths of our God for the hundredth, for the thousandth, for the millionth time that we start to understand how little we really understand, and how he loves us so.
One song-writer put it like this: “He is jealous for me. His love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy. I don’t have the time to maintain these regrets when I think about the way he loves us.”
On this first Christmas weekend, we remember again the life of a Savior who knew more about us than we know about ourselves, who redeemed more about us than we could confess even if we were able, whose love extends so far that it couldn’t be crushed by the weight of the whole world’s sin. He couldn’t stay dead even after he was crucified suffered and was buried.
The real value the habit of piety isn’t the piety itself. It is like (and stay with me here) a man digging riverbeds in the desert. The value of the riverbeds is not that they give life or make water appear; the value of digging riverbeds is that when the water comes, it has a worn way where it is channeled and directed. The value of piety is not for itself; the value is that when the Spirit of the Living God fills you, you have the words to express his reality.
Amen and Amen.
Isaiah 7:14, 1 John 4:9-10, Matthew 1:23
Focus: God is with us.
Function: that the hearers would rejoice in the depth of God’s presence.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We’ve been working our way through the verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel, translations of the Great O Antiphons, fixing our eyes in this Advent season on Jesus, who is Wisdom from on high, who comes to teach the way of prudence, who is Adonai / Lord of lords coming to save us from slavery to sin, who is Root and Branch of Jesse, doing what he promises to do, who is Key of David with joy in His heart forgiving the sins of the penitent and with tears in His eyes retains the sins of the impenitent, who is the rising sun who chases away the darkness every time He visits and then last week, Jesus who is the King of Nations drawing all people to himself….
And now Emmanuel. Hear the Antiphon, summing up all the other antiphons: O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord / The anointed for the nations / and their savior / Come and save us, O Lord our God.
We speak of Jesus tonight as Emmanuel, which means God with us… and this little word “with.” What does it mean that he is with us?
And when I think of the word, “With,” I first think of my bouncing bubbly baby boy Benjamin, (it only took me a minute to get to him, it’s getting worse) and how in the last few weeks he’s gone from not particularly caring about toys to swatting them around like a pro, how he has gone from not particularly caring what’s around him to getting his head on a swivel, and how in these most recent days he’s has started to recognize his momma and his poppa’s faces and turns toward our voices, which is really cute, except that it means specifically he’s realized at bedtime when he is in the presence of his parents and when he’s not, when they’re standing right next to him and when they’ve tried to creep out of the room because they are certain he’s asleep. Now that he knows us, he desires greatly to be in our presence, to be with us.
Three ways that we think about the word “with” when we hear about Immanuel, God with us, first that he is against us, second that he is for us, and third that he is in us and three lessons, one from each of these ways.
First, with means “against.” In Seminary school we had intramural teams, where you could choose to play the sport of the season, or you could choose sit out. Now, I’m not much of a football player (if you look at me you can see why), but one fall, I decided to go out and play for a day, and they stuck me at receiver and told me to stretch it out. So on first down, the guy opposite to me stayed in close, and, for at least one time in my life, I blew past him, he couldn’t stay with me, so much so that the next down he said “This guy’s fast! He’s got legs!” so he took a couple steps back, and for the next three downs, he gave me a cushion. And because of that he was able to stay with me and keep me from getting open.
The point is, he was with me, and as long as he was with me, he was against me. It was the same thing that happened in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve had sinned in the Garden, God with them – Immanuel -- came among them in the midst of the garden and with him came judgment. When Isaiah spoke to the wicked king Ahaz, the wicked king rejected God’s offer of a sign, and Isaiah said to him he said, hear this, God will give you a sign, and when this Immanuel comes, God will come with him, and it will not go well with you. Your army will be decimated. Your capital will be destroyed. Your land will not be your own anymore.
Lesson number one is to spend your days knowing that God would be near you, and that he does not abide your sin. Just kind of like when you are in the presence of a snarky friend, it’s pretty hard not to talk smart. Just like when your roommate eats salads on a regular basis, it’s hard not to eat salads. He is against our sin. God is absolutely perfect, and when you are in his presence our sinful nature cannot stand.
He will not stop until he is with us, and when he is with us, he would tear away from us all that is broken so that he might heal us. He takes the broom of his justice and would sweep away all the mess of our lives. He is Wisdom and all foolishness turns away. He is the light of men, and darkness flees. He is the redeemer, and all slave drivers get driven into the sea. He is the forgiver and no sin can stand to be in his presence. He will break us of our sin, because that’s who he is, and as much as it might hurt, he does it for your good.
Second, with means “for.” Last year I had been running pretty consistently in the spring, and I wanted to run the Hay Daze 5k, and I asked Laura if she would run it, and for the first time of my life, Laura actually agreed. If you know my wife, you know that she is many things, but a runner is not particularly one of them. To this day, she isn’t sure why she did. But, we found a training program; we trained, and then came the Hay Daze race. Laura, the first thing she said to me when we were at the starting line was, “You know if you want to go faster, you can.” And then after a mile and a half, she said again, “You know you should just go.” And then about two and half miles in she said, “Paul, you’re going to get a bad time. You should just get going.” But I said, “I wanted to run this race with you. I’m running this to be with you.”
The point is, I ran with her because I wanted to be with her. Now look at the God that we’ve been talking about in the last four weeks. He didn’t have to create Adam and Eve. He didn’t have to save Israel. He didn’t have to seek out David. He didn’t have to come to his people again and again and again, but he did. He did it. He follows them around like a shepherd wherever they would wander, even to the point that he’d enter into his creation as both God and man. Matthew writes in chapter 1, Jesus’ title is Immanuel, and that means he is God with us. The one called Immanuel promises in chapter 18, “Wherever there are two or three gathered, I am with them,” The one called Immanuel promises in chapter 28, “I will be with you always, even unto the very end of the ages.” He promises in the water of Holy Baptism and in the bread and wine body and blood of the Lord’s Supper, so that there can be no doubt that when the water touches your head, when your tongue tastes the bread and wine that you are indeed touching forgiveness incarnate that died on the cross, and died that death for you.
Lesson number two for tonight is that you would know that your God is eager, absolutely eager to walk with you in every deep, dark valley where the sun doesn’t seem to shine, and every tall and lofty peak. There is nothing he hasn’t seen before, and he knows your heart even before you do. He is eager to walk with you when you make the worst mistakes of your life, and even when you are better than you’ve ever been. The little one born in a manger was born in order to be tempted in every way that you’ve been tempted; he’s been born to live even to death so that he could redeem every single soul from death itself.
Third, and finally, with means “in.” During premarital counseling sessions, we end the first session with a few questions, first what are the top three qualities you love in your fiancé? What do you see as your three biggest weaknesses? And then, finally, as they get tired of Pastor Muther asking them questions and as they look to pick up their coats, I ask them the last question of the session, “What is love?”
And usually I ask the man first, because he’s the man, and they usually hem and haw a little bit like I did when I was first asked, until they land on something like “She’s really beautiful, I like to provide for her. I like to be with her.” And then I turn to the girl, and usually by this time the girl has something a little more put together to say, and I do remember that the best response I’ve gotten so far is this: “Love is multi-faceted, interconnected dependency.” What does that mean? It’d take another 20 minutes for us to figure that out, but I end the first session by saying this, by saying the same thing that John says in his letter. In this is the love of God made manifest: Jesus Christ.
The point is, for the Christian, love is Jesus Christ. John says, “In this, not that we have loved God but that while we were still enemies he loved us and sent to us his son. In this, that when we love each other, it is not we who love but God who loves others through us. God is love and love is this: Christ has died; Christ is raised; Christ will come again. It is in Christ we find love, and it is Christ who is in you.
Do you remember that final verse of the reading from John’s letter? Love is perfected with us – the word there is the same one that Jesus spoke on the cross, teleo, It is finished. It is completed, it is made perfect and made whole, it is love, fully orbed and fully known. It’s in your baptism that his love sets up shop. It’s in the words of absolution that we stir embers of his love. It’s in the Lord’s Supper that we add more fuel to the fire that is Christ in you.
Lesson number three for tonight is that if you are a Christian, and if you want to know what love is, then you would spend your days following around love incarnate. If you want to learn how to love, if you want to fill your life and your marriage, your friendships with good things, then follow around the man, Jesus Christ, as we see him save his people. Hear him speak truth that hurts to people who need to hear it. Watch him dole out unconditional love when he sits in the dust next to those who’ve really screwed up. Let his grace first wash over you and all your imperfections and then, and then, when you recognize yourself as a redeemed Child of God, then take up your role to look like Christ in the life of others.
As we sit at the edge of the manger tonight, let’s remember that the manger leads to the cross, and the cross leads to the empty tomb, and the empty tomb leads to a people longing for Christ to come back and set all things right. Let’s remember that when God is with us, he breaks us of our sins, he walks with us on whatever path we wander down, and that his love has set up shop within us. Immanuel means God is with us, and for the Christian, that is good news. Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther