Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Sermon: The Grand Miracle

+ Christmas Eve – December 24th, 2011 +
Matthew 1:18-25

In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

            Like most fathers, Joseph was clueless as to what was about to happen to him 9 months later. The birth of a child is supposed to bring joy. But before there was joy, there was confusion, unbelief and a scandal…Mary is pregnant. And Joseph is not the father. So Joseph – being a righteous man – quietly plots to save Mary public humiliation, not to mention the threat of stoning for adultery, by resolving to divorce her quietly. Joseph, for all the right reasons, was about to do the wrong thing.
            Joseph needed to hear that Jesus is the first and last word at Christmas. That in the womb of Mary God was doing something unexpected, undeserved and completely new under the sun: a woman is pregnant with God, by God. The one whom the world cannot contain was found in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He who bestows fatherhood upon men is born in their family tree. Miraculous. Marvelous. Mysterious.

            No wonder Joseph needed to hear what the angel had to say: “Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Tonight – with Joseph – we behold the wonder and the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. Divine defection: God crosses enemy lines, takes on human flesh, to put on our weakness and mortality.

            What began in utter scandal, turned out to be the best Christmas ever for Joseph, for Mary…and for all people. The cross works the same way too: what is an utter scandal to the world turns out to be the very best thing for all people – Christ Crucified.  The Son is born to pay for the sins of all his fathers…indeed, of all people. “You shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus’ name and purpose – his work and his identity – go hand in hand. Jesus. Savior. The first and last word at Christmas.

And what about you? You are not Joseph, waiting for God to be born. Christ has come; He was born. And you probably didn’t have any angels visit you last night in strange dreams. But you are like Joseph in this way…you too need to hear that Jesus is the first and last word at Christmas. 

            Who or what gets the first and last word around your home at Christmas?
News of sorrow, illness or death? Arguments with a spiteful tongue? Words of hatred toward the ones we love? Sinful desires that are never satisfied? Or perhaps there’s just silence. There are no words to speak of. God can’t get his word in edgewise because we’re too busy having Christmas our way. You, see whether it’s a good day or a bad year, we’re professional at selective listening; turning a deaf ear to God’s Word, God’s promises God’s life. We, like Joseph, need to hear that Jesus is the first and last word at Christmas.

            This Christmas, leave your grief and sorrow at the manger. Leave behind your anger, hatred, lust and sinful desires. Put your sin and all its sadness not under the tree, but on Christ who has taken all your sin…and placed it on his tree. For the greatest Christmas gift of all is not found under the tree but adorned on it…Jesus crucified for you.

            God comes to do what we cannot – and will not do. His Name is Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. For all that you aren’t; Jesus is. For all that you have failed to do, Jesus has done, everything. And the sin you have committed – the sinner you are – he redeems you too. The cross hangs heavy over the manger. It’s all in Jesus’ name – Yahweh is Savior. You shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.
            He is all that we are and yet without the one thing that doesn’t belong – Sin. He is like us in every way – bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh, born of woman yet without sin, without Adam’s curse. He is all men, all people, every child of Adam and Eve. His humanity is our humanity; His poverty is our poverty; His weakness is our weakness; His life is our life; His death is our death.

            God has done what we cannot do. God has come to us in the manger. We cannot ascend to God in our thoughts, our prayers, our dreams, or our faith. We cannot reach up to God, but in the clinched arms of infant Jesus, God has extended His holy right Arm to us. He sent His Son into our Flesh. Gone are any pious notions of our seeking God. God has sought us and found us in the Flesh of His Son, conceived in a Virgin Mother and laid to sleep in a manger. There is no other God for us than the One who hangs on a cross and nurses at the breast of His mother.” (Luther)

            This is what separates Christianity from all other religions of the world…take the miracles out of Christianity and you have nothing left. And no other religion makes the kind of claims that Jesus does. That God becomes man. That God takes matters into his own hands, literally, even though it means death. That baby in the manger has the whole world in his hands yet is held in the hands of Mary.
            “The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle…that what is beyond space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again bringing nature up with Him” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock).

            You can take away all the tinsel, mistletoe and family parties and endless expectations and have nothing more than two or three poor, miserable sinners huddled around the Word of Christ, and there you will have everything you need at Christmas. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. God is with us – Immanuel; Jesus come to save you from your sins. And nothing in this world can take that away from you.
            This is what was missing from the Grinch’s Christmas ephiphany…

And the Grinch, with his grinch feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling. "How could it be so?

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!"

He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!
           
            You want something more in Christmas? Good because that’s all that Jesus ever wants to give you. More of himself. More life. More forgiveness. More salvation from sin and death.
            Warm fuzzies are nice…but they aren’t Christmas and they certainly won’t save you. It is not that we loved God but that He loves us. And sends us Jesus, our a swaddled Savior, our diapered deliverer, our infant Immanuel come to rescue, save and deliver you out of your death into His life. At Christmas – and all year round - Jesus is the first and last word for you.
            It’s all in his name. Immanuel. God with us. God became an 8 pound, 6 ounce squirming child kicking in Mary’s lap. God became a helpless baby to help those who cannot help themselves.
            Think about that next time you see a little baby. God was a blastocyst. God was a zygote. God was an unborn child, a bump in Mary’s belly. God was born. God cried and nursed and dirtied his diapers. God became man. God bled. God died. God rose. Immanuel. God with us in sorrow. In sickness. In death. In life.

            Jesus works the same Christmas miracle for you that He did for Joseph: child like trust in the Child of the Manger. Through His word – by His life and death – Sinners, deader than a lump of coal are made alive. 
            Jesus proclaims his first and last word of forgiveness here for you, where Jesus is making Christmas all year round – God with us in the water. God with us in the Word and absolution. God with us in the bread and wine. Come to Bethlehem and see Christ the Lord swaddled in his house of bread and wine. Immanuel. God with us. God for us.

Christmas is definitely a holy night; however, it’s anything but a silent one. For Christ is born! His name is Jesus and He has saved his people from their sins, from your sins. Jesus is the first and last word over sin and death. Jesus is the first and last word at Christmas for you and for all.

A Blessed and Merry Christmas to you…

In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent Midweek Sermon: When God Loses, You Win

+ Wednesday of Advent 4 – December 21st, 2011 +
Text: Genesis 32:22-23

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

            The last time Jacob checked in at the Hard Rock Hotel, he had a dream – angels ascending and descending between the throne of God and earth. No sweet dreams this time. He was afraid. And for good reason. Tomorrow’s the family reunion. But this was nothing like the Waltons. The last time he saw his brother Esau, he had tricked his father, stolen the birthright, and hit the road for fear of his life.
            So there’s Jacob beside the river, all alone in the dark, wondering if the generous gift of animals was enough to appease Esau’s wrath, worrying about the next day being his last…when God comes to pick a fight with Jacob. But this was no dream.
            “A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak.” It took Jacob fighting all night to figure out what we, the reader, know all along: this man was the Lord.
            But all Jacob knew was that he was in a fight for his life. So, he fought tooth and nail. As darkness turned to daylight, Jacob was still holding his own. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob he touched his hip socket and put Jacob’s hip out of place as he wrestled Jacob. The only way the fisticuffs came to an end was when Jacob’s “stranger” played the divinity card. God doesn’t always fight fair.

Here is the remarkable thing:  not that God appeared as a man, not that he picked a fight with Jacob, but that God lost.  The ant bested the elephant.  Jacob whipped the Almighty.  Even after the Lord dislocated Jacob’s hip, he held on like a baby to its favorite toy.  He outhit, outwrestled, outdid God. And here is the even more remarkable thing:  not that Jacob won the fight, but that God delighted in losing. 
            Not so with man…we don’t like to lose. Not on the playground. Not at work. Not our petty arguments around the dinner table. Not our pride at church meetings. Not ever. Losing is weakness. No one wants a loser on their team. And we certainly don’t want a god who can lose either. Strong. Powerful. Mighty. Your wish is my command – now that’s a god I can believe in. So it goes with man.  So it goes not with God.  When it comes to fighting with and for his people, God is the biggest, and the happiest, loser.

For when God loses we win. And when we win; God wins. That’s the way it was for Jacob. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with God and have prevailed.” Jacob is given a new name – Israel, the God-fighter. It was a fight for his very life. And he won. He saw God face-to-face and lived. A new name. A blessing and even a limp, that in his body he might carry a constant reminder that when God loses His people win.
            God works the same for you. When God loses, you win.

            But you will not you behold the victory until you see God’s power and majesty hidden in weakness and foolish humility.
            You will not find God in the highest heavens…but in lowliness. In a branch shooting forth from the dead stump of Jesse’s tree. In a humble Virgin betrothed to a carpenter. In losing his life from the moment he’s born. For the glory of God in this world is not found in the courts of earthly kings, but in humanity’s deepest abyss. In the manger. In suffering. On the cross.
            That’s what his first Advent is all about. Jesus is the new and greater Israel who’ll lose much more than a wrestling match. He fought and struggled with them year after year, but finally they prevailed.  They would not let him go, but pinned him down, hands, feet, everything.  And when dawn broke after his loss, he stepped forth to proclaim his people’s victory.  Now he crowns you, his people with a new name, a new nature, a new life.  In the crucified and resurrected Jesus, all people see God face to face.
            So, you could very well call the Sacrament of the Altar, your Peniel, for here you see greater things than  Jacob – God face-to-face in the bread and wine; here your life is delivered.

            That is our joy in Advent and Christmas. Christ comes ready to fight for our very lives. And once again it is not only remarkable that God becomes man, that God comes to fight with and for his people, but it is most remarkable of all that God delights in losing. He is not content until He has wrestled away every last sin from you and given you every last blessing of his. Take it all; it’s yours. Strip him of everything He has…God withholds nothing from you: a new name; his blessing and a crucified mark upon your forehead to remind you that when God loses you win.

Unlike Jacob, Jesus is your perfect brother. He gladly gives you his birthright: “All that is mine is now yours. Look at my scars; gaze upon the wounds of hands and feet; I have fought with God for you and prevailed. I have lost my life that you might gain yours.” Unlike Esau, Christ seeks no vengeance; but satisfies all God’s wrath. Unlike Cain, He truly is your brother’s keeper, and more: your brother in human flesh. Before he bore the cross for you; He was given skin and shoulder blades to place a sinful world upon his back. So that he could go to the cross and lose it all for you…to give you everything.

And when the day breaks again…it will be the dawn of the Day without end. The day of victory. The day when you will see God face-to-face in Jesus, your brother. He’ll stand before you with his scarred hands and feet and side and bring you before the Father for the greatest family reunion ever. The fight is over. The night is ended. This is no dream. Welcome home.
           
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

E-nklings Cloud of Witnesses: Cranach Blog and The "God Particle"

Thanks to Gene Veith for posting an excellent little piece on the so-called "God Particle", aka the Higgs boson. It's been in the news again recently as a result of ongoing work on particle acceleration. Anyhow, click here to go to Veith's blog, Cranach, for some high fallutin (but useful scientific) explanation on the physics involved in the process. And how, in the end, the mathematics behind this all actually help strengthen the case for an intelligent Mathematician behind the mathematics.

Christmas and Apologetics: A Very Merry Mithr-Osiri-Saturnalia-Solstice-Mass to You!



Yesterday on the Michael Medved show his guest, David Silverman (president of American Atheists,) began his discussion on why wishing "Merry Christmas" to secular people was intollerant with a rather slippery argument regarding the historical dating of Christmas. Now, there are plenty of good resources to help sort all this out in a well-reasoned manner and with plenty of historical/apologetic related information. Before we get further on to Silverman's argument here they are:
  • In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church by Paul L. Maier.
  • Christmas is Not Pagan by Dr. Richard P. Bucher; a four part article available at the following links: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.
  • Is Christmas Pagan? By Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason, available here.
And now back to our regularly scheduled post. Silverman made the claim that the sole reason Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25th was because of the pagan festivals surrounding the worship of the unquenchable sun-god, that it's all really a copy of pagan myths about virgin births and celebrations of the winter solstice. Therefore, as he argued, the real holiday (a word he ironically used and stuck with) that should be celebrated is the winter solstice because that's the real reason for life on the planet and the ultimate answer to the mystery as to why Christians date Christmas to December 25th, namely, they had co-opted the pagan festivals for their own use.

However, this is only partially true. And even it were, what does it really matter? Two separate historical events can have similar dates, circumstances surrounding their events (assuming the events in question are real and not mythical) and still remain. For example, there are many historical pecularities (of a factual nature) surrounding the life and death of presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (For example, they both had a lazy eye, both died on a Friday before a holiday, both had a child that died during their presidency). And yet no one is claiming that the Lincoln story was plagiarized to create a 20th century mythical American martry named, John F. Kennedy. Nor does it mean that JFK ceases to exist because of similarities (albeit odd and bountiful ones at that) in historical events surrounding these two presidents.

The other mistake so commonly made by skeptics of Christianity when connecting the wild theories of conspiracy with pagany myths is one simple fact. Myth and history are two entirely different things. Hopefully you don't watch Family Guy or Southpark for your nightly news. And you may not even depend on the nightly news these days either. The point being, that the myths of the ancient world were recognized as such. And furthermore, the Gospels do not carry with them this mythic sort of genre about them. Luke 2 does not read like a fairy tale, but a history lesson: places, names, and so forth. Which reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis - someone who knew a thing or two about myths and legends:

“When a man tells me that the Gospels are myth, or legend, or romance, I should like to know how many myths, legends, and romances he has read, and how well he is trained in detecting them, for he would seem to lack necessary literary judgment  about the texts he is reading.  I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life.  I know what they are like. And I know that not a single one of them is like the story found in  the Gospels.” 

Now, back to the date of Christmas. Again, even if the early Christians did select the date for Christmas near the celebration of the winter solstice they did so not to co-opt pagan worship practices but to replace them with the celebrations of the true God who actually had taken human flesh and skin and bone and had entered human time and history, unlike the gods of the Roman pantheon. In this way the Christians counteracted (and acted counter-culturally) the pagan celebrations of "light and sun" with the true Light of the World (John 1) and the Sun of Righteousness that whom we confess in the O Antiphon for December 21st, "O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." For he dwells not in unapproachable light but in the flesh and blood of the man Jesus that we might "behold his glory" (John 1) and see and touch and bear witness to him (1 John 1).

But this may not be the only reason for the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. In recent years another explanation has come to light (pun intended). In his recent book, Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service, Dr. Arthur Just reports the facts:

"In the ancient world, it was uncommon to for people to know the date they were born. But the day of death was recorded, especially for people of renown. As early as the third century, many Christian communities thought March 25 was the day Christ was crucified, the day of the spring equinox. March 25 was also considered the first day of the new year, for many thought that on this day the creation of the world began. This united the creation and the redemption in their minds. The next logical step was to suggest that Christ died on the day He was conceived, as was the custom in this culture where birthdays were not known but the date of the death of a great person was always celebrated. It seemed natural that the day you left the world was the day you entered by conception. Good Friday, the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, and Christmas all belonged together, or at least they did for the ancient world, for this combined Jesus' incarnation, birth and atonement. Thus Christmas falls on December 25, nine months after His conception and His crucifixion." (emphasis added).

It would have been nice for both the host and guest of radio show to have been familiar with the facts before commencing to argue about them in circles for some time. Anyhow, that's all the time we have for today's installment of Christmas and Apologetics. A blessed feast of Christ's mass to you all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Issues Etc. Interview: Joy in Narnia

When I get around to it - hopefully sometime this week - I'll post the actual article that appeared in the most recent issue of Higher Things Magazine entitled, Joy: The Serious Business of Narnia. This happened to be the occasion that brought me an honored guest appearance on Issues Etc., talk radio for the thinking Christian...Cross-centered, Christ-focused.

Anyhow, click here for the link to the interview. Enjoy.

Under the Mercy...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas in the Trenches

+ Friday of Advent 3 – December 16th, 2011 +
Servants of the Word Confessions Study Group
Text: Revelation 4:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Revelation 4 might seem like a strange text for a Friday this late in the season of Advent. Against the chaos of the Christmas culture wars we might long for a little flashing lighting and pealing thunder around Santa’s throne at Macy’s. But the war on Christmas is best waged – not in the courthouses or the culture wars, but in the Church. God’s barracks in this world.

To quote Lewis, “Enemy occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.” (Mere Christianity, Book 2, Chapter 2, p.46)

            Revelation 4 makes perfect sense. Holy is the Lord God Almighty – who was, who is and who is to come. He came. He conquered. He will come again in victory. Like old MacArthur, only better: “I shall return.”

            And as we await…it’s easy this time of the year to get complacent; let your guard down; fall asleep at the watch. Turn your back on the enemy for just a moments’ rest. The military can teach us a lot about Advent & Christmas.
            Semper Fi. That works for pastors as well as Marines. But most of all, our Lord – the Always Faithful One. “Worthy are you, our Lord, to receive glory and honor and power”…and remarkably, he gives that all away to men who are inglorious, dishonorable and impotent. Sinners.

            You serve people who are tempted – as we are – to search for the glory of Revelation in the artificial light of this world. To strive for honor and power in the thrones we have set up for ourselves. You see it in your pews, in your meetings, among your people… in yourself. Pastors are susceptible too during these holy days – it’s hard to observe the holy days when you’re the one preaching, teaching, one service after another. And your people feel it too. Stress. Broken families. And the list of emotional scars grows as long as a child’s Christmas wish list.
            But they’re all the symptoms of the same curse. What God had created in Genesis 1 is shattered by Genesis 3. And so the flashing light and pealing thunder of Sinai still works its deadly fear. Yes, pastors bear a unique burden: your own burdens and the burdens of the people you serve – a disciple is not above his Master. And yet a disciple is never without his Master. You do not bear them alone. In the fullness of time Christ was born of a woman, born under the the Law to redeem you and your people from the Law. Christ is the burden bearer for you and all his people in his death on the cross and it begins at his birth. That’s why at Christmas we hear again the good news of great joy…that the greatest gift of Christmas is not found under the tree, but hanging upon it for you. In advent – at Christmas…Christ comes to rescue us from ourselves. 

            Narnia once had a 100 years of winter without any Christmas. That was until Aslan was on the move. The cursed winter was melting away. Narnia was free again. The spring was coming. The Witch’s reign was coming to an end.

            That’s our Advent hope. Christ the King is on the move. He has invaded. He comes to us – not in the glory of heaven but in the lowliness of the manger. Christmas in the trenches. The curse is melting away. The spring is here. Now the prince of this world is cast out – not by gladiator might – but by a helpless little baby. Disguised in human flesh; hidden in the womb of Mary until the appointed time.

            Jesus is born in a Genesis 3 kind of world so that we and all creation might be restored to him in a world like Revelation 4. The world as it was meant to be. Revelation reveals the Advent we all wait for – the endless summer; the last chapter of the greatest story ever told  in which each chapter is greater than the last. It’s all in Revelation.
           
            For the honor and glory of Revelation is found in Christ at Christmas. During Christmas it’s not so much that earth grasps heaven as it is heaven bending down to grasp earth. It’s not so much God made small as it man made big. One small leap for God, one giant leap for mankind. Who for us men and for our salvation…the eternal Word is made flesh. The Creator becomes a creature. The Potter becomes the clay. The Author becomes part of his own story. Revelation 4 shows us the fulfillment of what Christ came to do.
            Christ who ends the curse by becoming the curse for us. He destroys sin by taking on our sin. He crushes the devil by letting the devil bruise his heel. The last enemy to be destroyed has been defeated by Christ for you on the cross. You show him your scars and he’ll show you his.
            That’s the message we declare for his people tomorrow and the next day and the next day, until we join the elders and living creatures, not at Christ’s stable-side, but before his throne in glory and joy.

            Christ on the throne – that is Advent and Christmas all rolled into one: Christ rules in weakness and humility from the throne of his crib and the cross; He rules in joyous majesty and power from his throne in heaven having conquered all things and as we await the final gathering around that throne, He rules from his throne here in bread and wine. Here you bow down before the Lord who comes before you in greater ways than the shepherds. And this will be a sign for you: you will find the infinite wrapped in the finite, and lying in bread and wine. From his manger to his altar to his glorious throne, this Lamb of God rules for you.

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field,
His tiny breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.

His camp is builded in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His army makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps the charge now sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to His tents, the place of might.
Within His crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy Guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
And flit not from this heav’nly boy.

A Merry Advent and Blessed Christmas to you who are in the trenches.

In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Christmas According to the Peanuts

Linus is right. And though I repeatedly tease my dear wife about watching Christmas shows on TV that we already own on DVD, there is one Christmas show I always look forward to watching on TV: Merry Christmas Charlie Brown. Now, I am sure that ABC plays it out of sheer sentimentality. And that's fine to a point. There's nothing wrong with a little fun this time of the year. Christians are free to enjoy some of the trappings of the holy days, especially in good fun. However, that's not the chief reason I like watching Charlie Brown's Christmas on TV. This is the one place on TV where you can hear the Gospel according to Luke, the second chapter read on air without editing (at least until I heard a portion of the same reading from Luke 2 on Glee this week). And the bonus at the end of the whole show: the thought police at ABC have yet to scrub out the words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing which include this fantastic line heard loud and clear by all who watch:

Hark! The Herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!"

Linus is right. That - Charlie Brown - is what Christmas is all about.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Higher Things Radio: Themes of Advent

Last week I was a guest on Higher Things Radio, talking about the themes of the season of Advent. Not much else to say about that right now. But if you want to listen to it and find out the awesomeness that is HT Radio, here's the link.

http://www.higherthings.org/radio/shows/2011-12-09.html

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Battle Hymns of Christmas

The front lines of the war on Christmas are not, as you might think - spread across the battlefield of pop-culture, i.e. Santa vs. Jesus; Merry Christmas vs. Season's Greetings; "We Believe" signs vs. "Get-That-Nativity-Out-of-My-Courthouse" protests. These are but minor skirmishes (a flank at best and a 5th column at worst). Although these are the talking points that occupy 99% of the news this time of the year (as it does every year), while the 1% gets left behind.

The real battle for Christmas is (as it must be) waged inside the church not outside. If it's true that wherever Christ plants his church the devil raises a chapel, then it's also true (and perhaps more so) around the holy days where Christians get all bent out of shape over the wrong thing. For example, instead of boycotting stores who don't say "Merry Christmas," Christians should boycott churches that don't preach the Gospel during Christmas (or any day of the year for that matter). Self-help sells but it's not the Good News the angels were singing about to the shepherds. The announcement that a "Unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord" is not something you'll find in the purpose driven aisle of the bookstore or the church. People need good news this year - the Gospel, that Christ has set you free from the demands of the Law; he has taken your sin, your guilt and your death and he did it all by his holy blood and his innocent suffering and death on Friday afternoon - not that you must live your best life now, have forty days of purpose or any such nonsense. At Christmas people (in and out of the church) need the Gospel, not the Law disguised as Good News.

Or take another example, fighting to have the nativity scene in front of public buildings during the holidays. Do you have one in front of your house? Why not? Wouldn't that be an opportunity to be a witness to the Good News of Christ's birth, life and death with the neighbors in your own community? Let's remember the two kingdoms. It's not the government's job to celebrate Christmas properly, but to give us the freedom to do so. That's what the Church should be doing in these Last Days - preparing our members and a world in need of Good News, for Jesus coming by proclaiming the Gospel.

Finally, after those tangential points...here's the main point: What's going on in your church during Advent? What about Christmas? How are you preparing at home with your family or in church with your congregation? Has your church had more of an influence on the culture or vice versa? I'm especially interested in the hymns we sing this time of the year. Don't get me wrong...Easter hymns are phenomenal - and there are too many good ones to list - but the hymns of Advent and Christmas are some of the most sublime, 200 proof Good News out there; and ironically they are some of the most overlooked and neglected hymns of the season.

Take, for example, the following smattering of hymns: when was the last time you heard them sung at Christmas? If your reply is never...you should demand them to be sung! And I know what you're thinking...Yes, all fifteen verses of Luther's Christmas hymn! It's as joyous as it is easy to sing; you'll be glad you heard and sung the whole story.
  • From Heaven Above to Earth I Come  - Martin Luther
  • Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming - Michael Praetorius
  • All My Heart Again Rejoices - Paul Gerhardt
  • O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is - Paul Gerhardt
  • Come, Your Hearts and Voices Raising - Paul Gerhardt
  • We Praise You, Jesus at Your Birth - Martin Luther
Of course there are many others that should be added. But these six hymns all have several things in common: 1) they were written by Lutherans (not that Charles Wesley doesn't write a good hymn once in a while...but that's not the point); 2)  they were written somewhere in the 16th and 17th centuries (time isn't the important issue, however, the Lutheran chorales of this era are unsurpassed precisely because of their depth, breadth of Christian doctrine and their application of such into the seasons of the church year. It's time for a re-discovery of these lost treasures, especially in the Lutheran church where they came from historically); 3) and most importantly, they illustrate the best of hymnody in the church - not for the sake of sentimentality, but for the sake of the Gospel.

We all know the old favorites: "Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, etc." Sometimes that's the problem...they are so familiar that we lose all sense of meaning (what they say or don't say, what they confess or don't confess) and we sing them simply because we've always sung them on Christmas - and for no other reason. Now of course one can fall into the ditch on the other side of the road and sing the old Lutheran chorales for all the wrong reasons too, but the former, I have found is more often the case in recent years.

This is why I'm not suggesting a coup of these popular Christmas carols. Nor am I suggesting that there be a regime change. Perhaps a prisoner exchange. When it comes to Advent and Christmas hymns in the church, it should not come down to an either/or scenario: the old sentimental favorites vs. the lesser known yet richly theological hymns. It should be both/and. To paraphrase an old nursery rhyme: "sing new hymns but keep the old!" The more quality - Christ centered, cross-focused hymns we sing in church (throughout the church year) the more we receive the Gospel and the more we carry the Gospel with us on our lips - just as the shepherds did - declaring the Good News to our neighbor.

If you've got some favorite unsung hymns of Advent and Christmas...post them in the comments below. Sometime in the days ahead, I'll try and update the list as well as provide some commentary on a few of them too. A Merry Advent and Blessed Christmas to you all in the Christ who occupies the crib and cross for you!

O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word
Made flesh for us; here in Thy grace forth shineth.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent 3 Sermon: John the Monomaniac

+ Third Sunday of Advent – December 11, 2011 +
Isaiah 61, John 1:6-8, 19-28
In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

            He’s back. That’s right. You thought you could get rid of him after last Sunday. But here he is again with his one-tracked message, repeating like a broken record: “a voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare. Repent. Make Straight. Jesus is coming.”
            John seems to keep hanging around like one of those annoying people, you know the type – all they want to do is talk about themselves: enough about you, let’s talk about me - Wait. What? John doesn’t want to talk about himself? The nerve of this guy...Who do you think you are, John?
            “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord.”
Now that you’ve had a week to think about John’s Advent message. What do you think of him? His message? Would you have him over for dinner? Sit next to him at church? Friend him on Facebook?
            Truth be told, John makes you uncomfortable doesn’t he?
            Of all the messianic messenger “tricks up His sleeves,” God doesn’t use a dream, a vision or an angel…just a man – or rather, a voice; how uncivilized.  There’s John with locust legs stuck between his teeth.  Disheveled hair.  And his wardrobe!  Someone tell this camel-hair-clad, leather-belted, crusty desert preacher what not to wear. He’s the kind of guy you make apologies for when he shows up in the Sunday readings: “Oh yes, John the Baptizer, he’s a little…well, you know…different.”
            Why does John make you uncomfortable? Be honest. It’s not the diet. The hair. Or the clothes. It’s that he has nothing to say about himself. John only wants to talk about Jesus. While we’d rather talk about ourselves. Whether we admit it or not – that’s the ugly truth. Sure, we’re good at pretending in public. But we’re phonies. Hypocrites. When we’re not busy talking about, thinking about or acting for ourselves –we’re busy comparing ourselves to others…much like, I am sure, the Pharisees were doing as they were talking with John in the wilderness.
            Not only does John makes us uncomfortable…he calls us to do the very thing we hate to do, the very thing we are unable to do: to turn away from ourselves.
Who are you, John?  “I am not the Christ.”  Are you Elijah?  “No.”  “Are you the Prophet?”  “No.”  “Who are you?  What do you say about yourself?” 
John has nothing to say about himself. He is a voice. Yahweh’s mouth-piece.  It’s not about John; it’s about Jesus. So the prophet Isaiah speaks for him: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Christ is the Word.  John is the voice. The advent man, preparing you for the Coming One.  Repent. Make Straight. Jesus is coming.  John fits the definition of what most psychiatrists call a monomaniac – someone with an excessive interest and an irrational obsession with one subject: yes that’s John, a monomaniac about Christ. He’s content simply to announce the coming of the Lamb of God.

“I baptize with water. But among you stands One whom you do not know. It is he who is coming after me, who is before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”           John is called the Baptizer, but even his name is greater than he is. John knows it too, “I baptize with water..but He baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Christ is the real baptizer. He’s doing all the work – for John and for you. Oh yes, John pours the water. But Christ is the one Baptizing, pouring out the Holy Spirit in the water through the Word. John is just the voice. The hand.

It was the same for you at your Baptism. The pastor is God’s hand. God’s voice. Jesus is doing the real saving work. Jesus is in the water. He’s your life. You see, it’s not about John or you or me. It’s about Jesus for you.
           
            That’s why John calls us out to the wilderness. That’s what got the Pharisees all riled up. John leaves no stone unturned out in the wilderness, including the one we try to hide our sins under. John points us to Christ and calls us to leave behind the devil’s lies. Leave behind your false humility. Leave behind our obsession and excessive interest is ourselves. John’s repentance calls us outside of ourselves to Christ.
            John uses God’s Law like sandpaper, laying us bare.  In the wilderness we’re open to the elements.  Exposed. Uncovered. Naked. Left for Dead.
            But you are not alone in the wilderness. John calls us out of our death into life in Christ. Jesus goes out into the wilderness before you – on your behalf - the perfect scapegoat foretold in the Old Testament; He bears your humanity and He bears your sin. Jesus is everything that you – and John – are not. We must decrease. He must increase.
            This is the One who caused John to leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb and still causes infants to leap for joy in the font; the womb of the Church. Because even though John was born before Jesus; John knows what we celebrate at Christmas…Jesus is the Word made flesh. He is the Word through whom John and you and I and all things are made.
           
Just look at what this One has come to do. He came not to be served, not even to have his sandals latched…but to serve us and to give His life as a ransom for many, for all, for you. This One whose sandals John was not worthy to untie stoops down to wash his disciple’s feet in humility the night before his own feet are pierced in death on the cross. Behold the Lamb of God. For we who think only of ourselves, He died thinking only of others. For we who live selfishly; He lived and died selflessly, for you.  He takes our false humility and suffers our humiliation.  He takes our shame and wraps Himself in it.  He takes our guilt, our sin, our death and makes them His own.
            He whose sandals we are not worthy to untie, stoops down to wash you with his own blood and water.
            That is why, during the season of Advent, Jesus sends John again and again, to call you out to the barren desert, where your only life is found in the water. 
            That’s John’s sole purpose: to get you to the river.  And once he’s got you in the water, he’s done his job.  Because John’s identity is all wrapped up in Baptism and so is yours.  
            For there in the oasis of the font stands Christ: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away your sin.  The font is your River Jordan where all of Jesus’ promises are yours and all your sin is His. 
Behold the Lamb of God who pours a river of life into the desert of your sinful flesh, drowning your sin in flood of forgiveness. There, your conscience which burns with the heat of guilt finds the soothing coolness of sins forgiven.  There, your sinful heart cracked under the Law’s blazing sun finds rest in the shadow of Christ Crucified. 

There in the desert Christ prepares a highway for Himself paved by the Holy Spirit.  This is what Jesus came to do… bring life in the desert…bind up your broken-hearts, release you from captivity, proclaim good news for you who were poor are now made rich in Christ.

And now, we go where John goes: Wherever Jesus calls us.  To the wilderness for Repentance.  To Font for forgiveness.  To the Table for healing in Jesus’ body and blood…We, like John, now point to The Water.  To the bread and wine declaring: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away my sin.”

            For in these last days. These Advent days. The church is John the Baptizer, calling sinners to repentance and baptism, preparing the way of the Lord in advance of His second advent in glory. You too are witnesses to the Light who shines upon you. It’s not about you, or me…it’s about Jesus. You too are a voice in this dark wilderness, calling to a world that needs so desperately to hear. “The Lord is near. Prepare His way. Repent. Make Straight. Jesus is coming. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who takes away your sin.” Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Very Tolkien Advent

You've probably all seen silly posts such as the following on Facebook (wikipedia's great cousin of scholarly information): "You never can trust quotes on the internet" - Abraham Lincoln. Or something along those lines. Usually when a quotation comes along that seems to bare resemblance to a genuine quote of the author it piques the interest. The following quotation is one of those:

We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature...is still soaked with the sense of exile. - J.R.R. Tolkien.

I found this on a post from Pastor Gregory Alms on his blog, incarnatus est I am quite thankful he posted this quotation. I had read it before on the in a few places on the internet and had also wondered about its authenticity (incidentally, he found it on Twitter). Naturally, my Tookish curiosity took over until I found the source of this quote, fabricate or factual. Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter. In fact, this is only part of a quotation included in a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Christopher in 1945. It is found in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 110. It was sitting on my shelf all along. Here is a bit more of the extended quotation from the same letter.

...I do not now feel either ashamed or dubious on the Eden myth. It has not, of course historicity of the same kind as the NT, which are virtually contemporary documents, while Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its very best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of 'exile.' If you come to think of it, your (very just) horror at the stupid murder of the hawk, and your obstinate memory of this 'home' of yours in an idyllic hour...are derived from Eden.

Not only is this quotation a perfect summary of the Christian way of hope and expectation during Advent - we are constantly yearning, we and all creation, groaning for the return of the King and an escape from exile, the new heavens and the new earth - but it also is written in the way of a major theme of nearly every fairy story, or at least the good ones, Tolkien would argue. This is the point he makes in his essay, On Fairy Stories, when writing of 'escape.'

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not
disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which
“Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism
give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently
as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it
fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced
by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if,
finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he
thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?


...And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.
Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this—which might be called the genuine
escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific
inspiration), and so do other studies. Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The
Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. But our
stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few
lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or
rather endless serial living, to which the “fugitive” would fly. For the fairy-story is specially
apt to teach such things, of old and still today. Death is the theme that most inspired George
MacDonald.
On Fairy Stories, Tolkien.


This is why, as Tolkien concludes Fairy Stories, we await consolation - the kind that is only hinted at and foreshadowed in good fairy stories. We 'fugitive spirits' (he calls us) await eternal escape from the valley of shadow of death and everlasting consolation. This is the promise of Advent. Christ has come - as Isaiah 61 declares to us - to release the captive, bind the broken hearted, declare good news to the poor and to comfort all who mourn. In Advent, the Church is reminded that for we who are captive, Christ dons the fetters of the Law and is imprisoned in death's dungeon for three days, only to burst the bars of death. In Advent, the Church is given hope, for we who were broken hearted have received a new heart, made ready by the Holy Spirit who comes forth with the blood and water pouring from Christ's side into the font and chalice. In Advent, the Church is given true and everlasting consolation for we have heard the good news: Unto us is born in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord...Immanuel, God with us. God for us. God who is one of us. His name is Jesus and he saves his people from their sins. In Advent, we who mourn are comforted by this coming King. He came to save. He comes to heal by water, word, body and blood. And he will come again to bring the hope of a new Eden prophesied.

What hope! An Eden prophesied 
Where tame live with the wild;
The lamb and lion side by side, 
Led by a little child!
A shoot will sprout from Jesse's stem,
A branch from David's line,
A Prince of Peace in Bethlehem:
The fruit of God's design.
As banner of God's love unfurled,
Christ came to suffer loss,
That by His death a dying world
Would rally to the cross.
Come, Jesus, come, Messiah Lord,
Lost Paradise restore;
Lead past the angel's flaming sword -
Come, open heaven's door.  LSB 342


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mona Planted, I Watered...

This week a guest, named Johnny, showed up at Redeemer for the Advent midweek service. Immediately I recognized him. I had met him on campus at Golden West College - our local community college where Redeemer sets up a table once a month for on campus outreach. We had talked over a month ago about the church and cars and a whole host of other things. And then, low and behold, who comes through the line at the end of the service, but Johnny. The blessed irony of this all was that even though I had invited him to church and join us for services, that was not the reason he showed up this particular Wednesday evening. Another friend of ours at Redeemer, Mona, had invited him. The temptation for me was clear...rejoice in my efforts to reach people on campus and look at all I've done...it works! But of course that would be foolish. This whole event demonstrates quite clearly that neither I nor Mona nor anyone else is really the one giving any growth or life (And a side note should be mentioned here since this event flies in the face of the absolute foolishness and rubbish known as the Church Growth Movement). For Mona planted, I watered, but God gave the growth. From our perspective, you couldn't have predicted how Johnny showed up last Wednesday night at Advent services. But then again, from the Holy Spirit's perspective, it's just another day's work through the Word that goes out and does not return void or empty. Thus, any boasting is made by boasting in the Spirit who works through Christ's Word from tables on campus to friend's conversations to the midweek services to wherever Christ comes to us by water, word, bread and wine.

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.