Monday, December 31, 2012

Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas : "Christmas With Simeon"

+ Sunday after Christmas, December 30th, 2012 +
Series C: Exodus 13:1-15; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40
 In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Merry 6th day of Christmas! Yes, you heard right. Outside these walls Christmas may be done. Everything is labeled “after-Christmas”. The music fades. Unwanted presents are returned. Christmas comes down and the New Year’s signs go up.
But while the world winds down the Church’s Christmas celebration is just getting started. Christmas is a day and a season. Twelve days of feasting after the Advent fast. Try saying Merry Christmas to someone between now and January 6th.  See what they say. I’ve received some pretty funny looking faces. But it’s a good opportunity to share Christ’s never-ending Christmas joy. In Christ’s Church, it’s still Christmas. And if we take Jesus’ promises seriously – Christmas never ends.
This overwhelming sense of continuance is also found in the readings for Christmas and Epiphany. They’re arranged somewhat like our family holiday schedules: a few hours one evening with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem – everyone has to see the baby! The obligatory time with your gruff, oddly dressed uncles, the Shepherds. Next weekend the Magi’s visit; because even God’s family table has room for outsiders (and thanks God for that).
 So today’s reading is a bit like visiting Grandpa and Grandma. Simeon has wisdom to share. And Anna leaves the temple like grandma scurrying about the delivery room, phone in one hand, camera in the other: did you hear the good news? It’s a baby boy…and he’s the Messiah! The wait is finally over.
Simeon was waiting… Not twiddling-his-thumbs or yawning away the hours, but the kind of waiting that knows that, sooner or later, God will make good on his promise. And this was the Lord’s promise: before he saw death, he would see the Lord’s Christ. The Seed that Adam longed to see sprout. The Rest Noah longed for. The everlasting King on David’s throne. The child born of a Virgin whom Isaiah prophesied. This One, Simeon cradled in his arms.
 Even Simeon’s name marks the momentous occasion. Simeon means, “He has heard.” Simeon’s name comes from the same word in the great OT creed: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

           The Lord had heard Simeon’s cry for rescue. And already at 40 days old, your pleas for mercy, your cries of distress at sin’s torture and the prayers of the faithful – “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” – fill the ears of the Child held in Simeon’s arms.
And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
Luke doesn’t say, but I can’t help but think that Simeon’s eyes became a wellspring of joyful tears and his wrinkled face a riverbed of rejoicing. God’s promise was fulfilled. The Christ had come. No more waiting. He was free to die in peace. And though the Christ came as a weak and despised, lowly and dependent little baby, everything in heaven and earth – sin’s atonement, death’s defeat, overthrowing the devil - and everyone, including Simeon depends on this little Child.

                       Simeon’s song was more than beautiful language; in his arms he literally held the Light that reveals God’s goodness and mercy to the Gentiles, the outsiders and outcasts, you and me. Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile, no sin, no curse of Adam, guilt or sting of death. And yet he is Son of Mary and Son of God; Son of the Most High and Son of Adam. And that day the glory of the Lord returned to the temple in human flesh and blood. Christ, the Glory of God’s people, Israel, not the Savior of some…but all.
Yes, there is marvelous joy in Simeon’s words. But Simeon is no fair-weather prophet. He knew that waiting comes before fulfillment…falling before rising. Jesus’ cross is the heart of Christmas.
Falling and rising. Those were Simeon’s words to Mary. Some congratulation card. Here’s God’s blessing…and oh, by the way: “This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
        Those are rather terrifying words.  For they reveal the King Herod in us who doesn’t want to worship this infant King and the Pharisee in us stumbles, trips and falls over this Rock and Sign, speaking and plotting all kinds of evil against him and our neighbors.

           Simeon wields God’s two-edged sword skillfully, piercing our hearts and slashing away everything that stands between you and Christ. We must be like Simeon, ready to die. It’s the only way we depart in peace. Drop the charade of self-devotion and self-righteousness. For you cannot cling to sin and hold the Christ in your arms with Simeon. Repent. Fall, that you might rise. Die that you might live.

          At first, Simeon’s words don’t sound very Christmasy. We’d rather pack him and his words up and send him out to the curb along with all the Christmas clutter. But as the world tries to forget Christmas, Simeon comes along to remind us that hidden under that weak and helpless baby in his arms was the truth about Christmas: this Child was born to fall and rise for you.
             That’s what Jesus was doing in the temple that day for Simeon and you. His cross bearing began at conception. His name is Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. He sheds his blood at 8 day old, bearing the Law in his flesh. At 40 days old the Firstborn who needs no redemption comes to redeem you. The Lord of all becomes the Servant of all. The Law giver becomes the Law bearer. Jesus does what you cannot and will not do, crawls under the Law’s demands and curse in order to lift them off of your shoulders and onto his. And all while being held in the arms of Simeon.
Where the world only sees a powerless infant, Simeon holds the power of God hidden in human flesh. Jesus has all the power he needs, but he hides his glory beneath its opposite – utter weakness and humility. He came this way for you as an infant and he goes this way for you to the cross. Once again, the world sees only lowliness and shame. That’s no way to be Savior they mocked. What a lowly, weak and beggarly Messiah.
And yet there in God’s lowly, weak and beggarly ways…he hides his love and mercy for you.

Behold, this child is appointed for the falling and rising of many – for Simeon and for you. And that is good news. Christ falls in order to raise you up.  For all that we have spoken against…he speaks for us: Father, forgive them.  For all of the sinful thoughts of our heart revealed by his Word, Jesus reveals God’s heart of mercy and peace and redeeming love.
The sword that pierces Mary’s soul and ours first pierced Jesus with nails and spear. Christ departs in shame and guilt and sin so that we depart in peace made by his blood. Jesus’ eyes are closed by bloody, sweaty death so that our eyes are opened to find salvation in this Child and his cross.  Jesus is held in the arms of the cross in darkness in order to embrace you and all nations in the everlasting light of Christ’s salvation. Jesus becomes the despised, scorned and rejected in order to make you a people of his Father’s glory.
This is the way God works. He hides himself in the opposite. The eternal God is hidden within the flesh of an ordinary, helpless baby. Simeon embraced the Savior of the world who came to embrace his death and bring salvation to all, to you. God’s greatest glory is found hidden in the weakness and suffering of the cross.
And Jesus works the same today: Ordinary words of sinful preachers are vehicles for Christ’s eternal absolution. Ordinary water is blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin. Ordinary bread and wine hide the flesh and blood of Jesus your Savior.
 That’s why we sing Simeon’s song after communion. Here, you stand on heaven’s threshold and hold the Christ Child in your arms, in your ears and in your mouth. At the Altar you see the Lord's salvation, which He has prepared before the face of all people.
Here in Christ’s Church, Christmas isn’t packed away and saved for next year. There are no such things as “after-Christmas” sales. Here at Christ’s table, in His Supper, it’s always Christmas.
And having received Jesus’ Body and Blood, we depart in peace. “For we go to the Sacrament as though we were going to our death, so that we might go to our death as though going to the Sacrament.” (Ken Korby).
In that way, we’re all 21st century Simeons and Annas in the temple, watching, waiting for that Day when Christ’s salvation becomes visible to our resurrected eyes. And as we wait, God gives us his signs to cling to - Baptism, His Word, His Body and Blood. We embrace Him as old Simeon and Anna once did.  And we take up Simeon's song and make it our own: "Lord now let your servant depart in peace according to your Word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people. A Light for revelation to the Gentiles, the Glory of your people Israel."

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sermon for Advent Midweek 3: "The Magnificat and Preparation"

+ Advent Midweek 3, December 19th 2012 +
Guest preaching atTrinity, Whittier
Luke 1:46-55

 In the Name of  + Jesus. Amen.

Advent is a season of preparation.
As we have seen and heard tonight, the children have prepared well these last few weeks: learning songs, memorizing Scripture, preparing for Christmas.

And undoubtedly, you have been preparing at home too: Cards to send. Shopping to finish. Presents to wrap. House to clean. Cookies to bake. Parties to attend. Make a list and check it twice…after all, it’s only 5 days till Christmas.
As hard as it may seem, with all of the hurrying and scurrying around we do this time of the year, we can still be caught unprepared for Christmas. Because despite all the preparations we have in mind, Christ has more in mind for you in Advent and Christmas than cookies and glitter and ornaments – fun though these may be.

Tonight, Mary’s song – the Magnificat – reminds us that our preparations are not complete until Christ has prepared us for His Advent and His Christmas. For without Christ’s incarnation, all the other trappings of the holy days aren’t worth the cardboard tubes or boxes they came so carefully wrapped in.
Mary’s song prepares us for Mary’s Son, Jesus. He comes for us, to rescue us from sin and slavery, to defeat the devil and bring us home with him. Jesus comes, that’s what Advent means.

Jesus came in human flesh, the Mighty One was born in a lowly manger. God his strength in the delicate arms of an infant. The King of creation made his throne room in a feeding trough. The Savior of the world came swaddled in the things of his creation, a diapered divinity. He is Emmanuel, God with us. God for us. God who is one of us. Mary’s song prepares us to meet her Son, your Savior and hers…at Christmas and for Jesus’ second coming.
Yes, Advent is more than preparation for Christmas. In Advent we hear John the Baptizer’s warning cry: repent, prepare the way of the Lord. Leave behind your former way of life. Turn away from sin and death. Return to the Lord. The world may not end on December 21st in Mayan calendar madness but it will end someday. Christ’s first coming was in lowliness and humility; his second coming will be in glory and power. But for the Christian there is no fear. Christ’s return is good news; we welcome his return. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, we pray. That’s why Advent is a season of waiting.

And as we wait, Christ comes, even now. Jesus comes to you in the Lord’s Supper, wrapped in the swaddling clothes of bread and wine, the bread of life is laid in the manger of your mouth. The Word made flesh continues to speak his word to you through the Scriptures and through the pastor’s word of absolution. Christ came as a child to make us his children in Holy Baptism. Christ comes for you here in this place, right where he has promised to dwell with you.
And as even as Mary was singing her song, God was preparing her to be the Mother of God. Don’t be fooled by this young woman’s humble upbringing or social status. There is more to Mary than meets the eye. For hidden under her humble flesh is a yet more humble Savior. And by his humiliation on the cross, we are exalted. Hidden under her lowly flesh are the mighty arms that will bear your sin and death on the cross. Hidden in her womb is God in human flesh. God has eyes and ears, toes and a real body.

As we continue to grieve the death of 20 children last week in Connecticut, Christ’s incarnation reminds us that God too was once a child for us and for all who suffer. God sucked his thumb. God dirtied his diaper. God learned his A, B, C’s; God was a teenager; God walked, talked, cried and laughed, lived and died – all so that we who sit in darkness and the shadow of death might have light and life by his innocent suffering and death.
Mary’s song prepares you to meet her Son. For she sang this song not for herself alone, but for us to sing after her. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Tonight, that’s your song as well.

Because if you are lowly and downcast in guilt or shame– Christ has come to raise you up by taking your guilt and shame on himself.
If you are in need of mercy, seeing none around you in the world, Christ comes to be your mercy, for he has taken all the world’s hatred, sin and death on himself for you.

If you are broken by sin and suffering, your pride shattered by the terror of judgment, Christ comes as your Great physician of body and soul to bind your wounds in his and give you a new heart and a new hope, not in the world’s preparations, but in His coming for you in Bethlehem, on the cross, and the Last Day.
For he has helped his servant Israel and Mary and you in remembrance of His mercy. And in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection – you are prepared for whatever today or tomorrow brings.

 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Nativityof Our Lord, Midnight: "Light in the Darkness"

+ Nativity of Our Lord – Midnight Mass – December 24th, 2012 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series C: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

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

Darkness is the enemy’s territory. Darkness brings out the worst in mankind; sin increases like a swarming plague of cockroaches. Wicked men cloak themselves in shadows intent on chaos, confusion and calamity. Darkness, sin, and death go together.
Darkness deepened as Eden’s radiance shrouded Adam and Eve, and all of us in temptation, doubt, sin, and death, exiled in the valley of the shadow of death.
Darkness thickened as Cain murdered his brother and became an outcast.
Darkness saturated the world wit flood and judgment for man’s heart was a heart of darkness.
Darkness covered Mt. Sinai while the children of Israel carried on in lawlessness below.
Darkness filled the land for centuries as God’s prophets proclaimed and prepared the way of the Lord and then fell silent.
But all of that changes tonight. The lamp of God’s Word is not snuffed out. The smoldering wick bursts forth with light. The night of sin and death are over. The pure Light walks the earth; the Light of the World comes to sit in darkness and thereby swallows it up. The darkness is cast out by uncreated Light.
And so it’s no accident that God’s shines forth in the night, foreshadowing Christ’s divine rescue.
Into the dark and formless void of the deep, God’s first recorded word in Scripture breaks into the chaotic nothingness : “Let there be Light.”
In the midst of gloomy judgment clouds and murky abysmal waters, God’s holy ark was a floating city of light set upon the hills of the deep.
Into the night of Abraham’s despair, YHWH enlightened him with an everlasting promise: “Look up toward heavens, and count the stars if you are able to number them…So shall your descendants be.”
In the center of the camp of Israel the Lord dwelt with his people by the holy firelight of his presence.

Into the camp of the Midianites, Gideon – God’s faithful judge of old – beamed forth the light of deliverance with simple jars of clay while God routed his enemies.
And tonight, the fulfillment of God’s promises come to pierce the darkness of sin, death and the devil. Once again, God dwells with us in darkness.
For in the shadowy hills surrounding Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their flocks by night.
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 
Do not be afraid. We need to hear those words as much as the shepherds did. Christ’s holy light also reveals and exposes all of our lawless, sinful deeds. God’s fiery wrath blazes hot against sin. The radiance of God’s Law blinds us. But you need not cower in fear. Kneel in repentance, yes. Then rise in joy. Do not be afraid. Not tonight. Not ever again.
For tonight the Word made flesh speaks, breathing his Holy Spirit into the void and deep darkness of our sinful hearts: “Let there by life.” And it is so. 
Tonight, Jesus is his brother’s keeper; he is your keeper and brother, born in your human flesh to keep you from sin and death, sprinkling, washing and redeeming you by his blood that speaks a better word than Abel’s.
Tonight God’s holy ark is still surrounded by animals and straw, but it rests not upon the cresting waves of judgment, but beneath a baby, whose arms embrace your judgment in order to give Noah and you and the whole world, eternal rest in his holy ark, the Church.
Tonight, the light of God’s Law that exposes our sin is reflected in Christ’s perfect life lived on your behalf.  The fullness of time has come; Christ is born under the Law to redeem you from the law and to give you adoption as sons.
Tonight Abraham’s promised Son, the King of the nations is born and through baptism into his death and resurrection you are his descendants, his holy offspring – children of the Light.
Tonight, the Greater Gideon goes forth from his crib to route our Satanic oppressor, to break the yoke of sin’s burden and to trample death under his feet once and for all.
Tonight the Lord encamps and dwells in the midst of His people – not in the tent or the pillar of fire and cloud – but in the tabernacle of human flesh and in His holy temple of bread and wine.
Tonight, Christ is born in the darkness of a cave in order to bring the whole ruined world up again with him. To call us out of sinful darkness into His marvelous light.
And here’s the most remarkable thing of all: that this God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God comes down to earth from heaven in order to take earth into heaven with him. He becomes what you are – a child; so that you can become what he is – sons of the Father and heirs of heaven.
But don’t be disgusted that his first bedroom smelled of manure and hay. Don’t be scandalized by the weakness of this lowly infant. Of course, God could have come, incarnate as a majestic earthly king. But instead, he chose to be incarnate as man who weeps at Lazarus’ grave. Who sweats blood at Gethsemane. Who mourns over Jerusalem. Jesus bears your human weakness and frailty; your sin and death…for that is the kind of God-Man you needed.
Yes, this Christ child is no stranger to darkness. For that is why he was born. The light of Christmas shines all the way to the cross.  And there in the pitch black night of Good Friday – God works his greatest work for you. The Light of the world swallows up our darkness. Death is dead. Satan is cast out. Sin is defeated. And you are Forgiven. Redeemed. Rescued.
The same child laid in a manger for you was laid on the cross and in the tomb for you. But even the darkness of the grave could not hold him down. The Light of the World dawns once more from a cave with glorious resurrected light, victory over sin and death, and joy, the serious business of heaven.
The Advent season of sober reflection, expectation and waiting is over. The fast is ended; the feast is here. Raise your voices. Blow the trumpets. Sound the bells. Christ is born. God became Man.
No wonder the angels sang. But they do not sing alone; they sing for you…and with you. Tonight our voices join the angels and shepherds in triumphant joy. Tonight the vault of heaven sings with unrestrained joy. Heaven cannot contain its jubilation: Christ’s glory breaches the skies and fills the night and lights the earth. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.
Now, come, let us go…Not to Bethlehem of old…but to the new Bethlehem, Christ’s house of Bread… filled with His life-giving flesh and His precious blood given for you.
Come, let make haste to receive this holy food and this holy Savior – whom the Lord has made known to us.
And as we go, we sing the ancient hymn of evening light:
Joyous light of glory: of the immortal Father; heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. We have come to the setting of the sun, and we look to the evening light. We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever. O Son of God, O Giver of life: the universe proclaims your glory.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led Your people Israel by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path; for you are merciful, and your whole creation, and we, your creatures, glorify you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A blessed Christmas to you…
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sermon for Advent 4: "Where Is God?"

+ Advent 4, December 23, 2012 +
Redeemer, HB
Series C: Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

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

Where is God?
            A lot of people have been asking that question lately. Maybe you’re still wrestling with that question this morning: Where was God in Newtown, CT that Friday morning when 28 people, 20 of whom were children, were murdered for reasons we’ll never know? The politicians, pundits and religious zealots all have their opinions – personally, I’m tired of them all; no one has answers, at least none that will silence the questions.
            Maybe you’ve asked the same question for more personal reasons: as friends or family suffer in the ICU or on chemotherapy or recovering from surgery…or not. Maybe you’ve attended a few too many funerals this past year. Or maybe it’s all you can do to pay the bills and or keep your health insurance payments manageable. Here we sit, overwhelmed by the darkness of sin and surrounded by the shadow of death.
Where is God?
            We’re not the first ones to ask; look at the OT. Noah had the rainbow and Abraham Isaac. Moses had the burning bush and Israel had the tabernacle, the Ark and the pillar of fire and cloud. And David had the promise of an everlasting throne. But after hundreds of years in and one wicked king after another, after the temple was razed and Israel exiled, after the prophets’ preaching all the waiting, so much waiting…the question remained the same: Where is God?

            The world out there has all sorts of answers for you: “There is no god; why else would bad things happen to good people? There is no god; Jesus is just another myth, a crutch to make you feel better.” But that doesn’t answer our questions either. But here’s God’s unexpected answer: Mary was pregnant with God. God became man. Myth became fact.

            We don’t live in a world of mythological sin or make-believe evil; sin, death, and the crafty Serpent are all too real. And we don’t live in a world with an absent God. Hidden – yes. But not gone on endless vacation. No, not this God. Sin, death and hell are all too real for him as well.

            What would you do if your beloved creation and creatures that you pronounced “very good” were suffering? You’d want do what any parent would do if it was their child in trouble. You’d move heaven and earth to save them. You’d give your life – trade places with your child’s – if that meant sparing them from agony. You’d take a bullet for them. Well, so would Jesus. He already has, for the world…for you.

            For behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us; He became a child so that we should be called the children of God.  He moves heaven to earth, his throne to Mary’s womb and takes human flesh into God. He trades places with you in birth, life and death. And He rose from Adam’s dust to embrace you in his death and resurrection.
            This world is a lonely place – full of sin and death and dark deeds. You are not alone in the darkness. While we’re busy looking up to heaven, asking God, “Where are you?” God is busy coming down to us. God answers through Micah’s still, small prophetic voice:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
One who is Ruler in Israel,
Whose coming forth is from of old,
From ancient days.”

            Christ comes to us, not in the halls of Herod or the courts of Caesar, but in the darkness of Mary’s womb. Christ descends to our deepest abyss, the manger and the cross. He dwells with us in death’s dark shadows. The night will soon be ending; for Mary’s stomach grows like the rising sun. Elizabeth greets Mary’s womb as one greets daybreak after a long, dark night. John leaps for joy as the Light of the world dawns on men, himself a man. God one ups himself. Out of the nothingness of Mary’s womb, the Word who makes all things, makes for himself a human body. Once again, God calls forth: “Let there be Light”…and it was so. Light and Life in human frame. Behold the Light of God who takes away the darkness of the world. The Light that no darkness can overcome. And behold, He is very good.

            Where is God? Just ask Mary or Elizabeth...or better yet, John. From the watery pulpit of Elizabeth’s womb, John delivers his first sermon with his feet. Even in utero, John is the forerunner. He answers our question with an exuberant kick as if he was going to wiggle right out of Elizabeth’s womb - he leaped for joy. And well he should…and well should we.

            For if seas roar, and rivers clap their hands; if mountains and hills sing together; if the mouths of infants and nursing babes and unborn prophets shout for joy – if all these, with one heart and mouth, glorify God on the day of His visitation, how much more should we? For Mary’s song is the song of the redeemed. The Mighty One has done great things for Mary and Elizabeth and John and you. (Chad Bird).

            God is no longer in a burning bush, nor in a pillar of cloud, nor seated between the cherubim. The old things have passed away and new things have come. The God who in days of old brought forth Eve from Adam’s flesh now brings forth the New Adam from the New Eve’s flesh. “This One is now bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh; He shall be called Man, because He was taken out of woman.”(Bird).
            Although he is a week old and roughly the size of a blueberry, Jesus is both God and zygote, God and blastocyst, God and Man. Jesus is breathing, kicking, wiggling, death-defeating, devil-crushing life.  O sing unto the Lord a new song, for a woman is pregnant with Yahweh.

            Where is God? He sits enthroned in the womb of Mary. He is a growing child. He stands in the sinner’s stead in the Jordan. He is the dinner guest of tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. He is your humble, suffering servant who lovingly placed your life and the world’s before his own. A lowly messiah who refused to use His divine power to feed his hunger or establish his kingdom. A meek messiah who endured the beatings of a world who didn’t want him. A crucified messiah who conquered the darkness by diving headlong into the darkness, who defeated Death by being swallowed up into Death, and took the world along for the ride. God is pleased as man with man to dwell. Emmanuel. God with us. God who is one of us. God for us.

            For under the cover of darkness, on a Friday afternoon, the innocent Son of God died for you and a world hell-bent on destroying itself. On the cross, Jesus is your fear and doubt, he is your guilt and sorrow, he is your sin and death; he is the beggar, the cancer patient, the homeless and hungry, he is the thief and liar and murderer. He removes the curse by becoming cursed. He fulfills the Law by bearing it for you. He takes your place in judgment. And he is the one crying out with you and for you: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”  Where is God?

            But don’t be fooled or scandalized by his weakness. For beneath Jesus’ weakness is power. Under His bruised heel is the crushed head of devil. Under the wounds of His hands, His feet, His side is the healing of the nations. Under his crown of thorns is the healing of Sin’s insanity. Under His cry of abandonment is the embrace and love of God for a world gone mad.
            This may not be the kind of God the world looks for, but this is the God who looks for you; who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried. And on the third day he rose again.

            All so that when people ask…Where was God at Sandy Hook? He replies, “I was in the teachers and principal who gave their lives to save others. I was in the first responders, protecting and caring for those in distress. I am in the neighbors and friends serving and caring for their loved ones and neighbors.”

Where is God today?
            “I am with you always…right where I have promised to be: My creative Word again makes something out of nothing, saints out of sinners, the old man is drowned and a new man arises.” Today you will be with me in paradise, for you are baptized in My Name.”
            “John and Micah, my prophets and apostles point you to me, the Lamb of God, your Shepherd, your King, your Savior. My merciful absolution is yours from generation to generation.”
And once again God moves heaven to earth. Here the Bread of Life comes to you in his flesh to feed your flesh and satisfy your hungry bellies with good things: his holy body and blood.
            And God is in you for the neighbor. Christ hides himself in your words of compassion to the neighbor. Christ’s hands are hidden in your hands of mercy. You too are Christ’s manger where he comes to dwell with you in humble, sacrificial love for others.
            Why do we ask lament and ask such questions; is it because we doubt His Word or because we cling so tightly to Christ’s promises we don’t see how we can survive much longer in this world, or is it both? Simultaneously doubter and believer – yes, that’s us. It's ok to ask God where he is; to hold him to his promises. We may have more questions answers. So bring those questions, along with your doubts, fear, sin, guilt, death, sorrow and all that weighs you down – bring it all to the foot of Christ’s manger and his cross. There is God, for you.
And blessed are we who believe that there is a fulfillment of what was spoken to us from the Lord. 

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Keep the Merry...and the Myth

atheist christmas billboard

“Keep the Merry…Dump the Myth.” According to a recent Fox News article, that’s the message the New Jersey chapter of American Atheists being shared with visitors in Times Square this Christmas, er sorry, winter solstice celebration season.

In recent years, various forms of atheist “evangelism” have become like Aunt Mable’s fruitcake: a regular scheduled holiday staple (my apologies to all fruit cake lovers and Aunt Mables out there). Not only that, the frequency of these messages have increased both in the size and scope with particular antagonism toward Christianity.

According to Silverman, a private donor gave over 25k for the sign to remain in Times Square until January 10, 2013. Now, I’m not going to so say the charitable atheist doesn’t exist. But I can’t help but wonder how that 25k could have been better spent elsewhere, say a homeless shelter in New York City or the struggling victims of Hurricane Sandy, a sleigh-full of toys for tots or one Big Apple size bell-ringing bucket full of change. To be sure, this isn’t the main thrust of the Christian apologetic – nor should it be. However, there is something to be said for an apologetic of mercy. [endnote 1] It is worth noting that this further illustrates the deep chasm between the Christian and the atheistic, naturalistic worldviews. What would most Christian churches you know do if they were given a gift of roughly 25k this time of the year? Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Or, as C.S. Lewis once said, “If you read history you’ll find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 134).

All that aside, here is the primary point: Christians should expect these kinds of messages in the public square to increase. We know they’re coming.
Here’s my take on this.

Avoid blazing the culture warrior warpath over whether or not we should say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” That will only leave you spinning your tires in the verbal snow.

Similarly, avoid the First Amendment issues of free speech and establishment clauses. Yes, it’s important to know the language and history of the Constitution, but this discussion will lead you down the wrong reindeer trail, away from Christ and closer to Caesar. That’s great if you’re in a political discussion. But if you’re trying to proclaim the Gospel, this will shoot your eye out.

Also, leave the debate about whether or not the United States is a Christian nation or not for another day. You only have so much time in a conversation with a skeptic. And so what if you can prove that the U.S. is based on a Judeo-Christian value system; that’s nowhere near the Gospel or saving faith in Christ and it doesn’t help one bit in demonstrating the truthfulness of the Christian claim that Christ’s death and resurrection is an historical event.

And finally, avoid beginning with emotional arguments such as, “I’m offended, therefore it should be taken down,” or appealing to nostalgic feelings of festive and holiday cheer. Offense, nostalgia and emotion have no bearing whatsoever when it comes to the truthfulness or falsehood of an assertion. For example, I thoroughly enjoy watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas but can’t stand Frosty the Snow Man, and yet, in either case, I have not demonstrated the truthfulness about either character’s existence.

Rather, Christians should deal with this billboard’s assertions head on: is it true that Christianity is just another myth to be dumped along the curbside with Santa’s sleigh and all the decorations on December 26th? And, when compared to the Christian worldview, does the atheistic, naturalistic explanation of the universe offer a better and more truthful explanation for the major questions in life (Where did I come from? What happens when we die? etc.). Of course, it is entirely possible that both the atheist and Christian worldviews are wrong, however, they cannot both be right. Questions of this nature simply cannot be answered on a billboard.

Atheists are quick to throw Jesus onto the island of misfit myths along with the likes of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, leprechauns, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Easter Bunny, and the like. You can understand why; it’s far easier to paint Jesus – and the Christian faith – as a foolish caricature and throw out a 25k “gotcha” message than it is to come meet the Christian claim on an intellectual, factual, evidential basis. Billboards like the one in New York have no interest in an open, honest debate. They are meant to poke fun and make assertions without examining any evidence for the Christian claim.

But Jesus is entirely different than any of the aforementioned mythical characters. It would be like comparing the nightly news to my daughter’s favorite cartoon world of Bubble Guppies.  In fact, the sign has it backwards.  The commercial version of Santa Claus is the myth. Whereas every reputable historian, from Tacitus forward, has acknowledged that Jesus existed as a historical person who lived and was crucified in Jerusalem.

Unlike any other world religion, the core message of Christianity is objective and uniquely historical: a specific guy lived at a specific time in history, and did specific things that were heard, seen and recorded by eyewitness. What’s more, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence, both from Christian and secular sources, by which we can investigate this claim. Jesus is qualitatively, empirically, and historically different than the atheists’ definition of myth.

If Christianity really is a myth – that is, a fictitious lie –  Christians would agree with the billboard (1 Corinthians 15). However, contrary to atheist dogma, Jesus is not a myth. He was a real historical figure who claimed to die on the cross and vindicated his claim by rising on the third day. Therefore, Christians can and should make a well-reasoned case for the truthfulness of the Christian claim that Christ was born, lived, died and rose.

You see, Christmas and apologetics go hand in hand. These events didn’t occur “once upon a time” or in a galaxy far, far away” but out in the open for all – skeptic and believer – to see and hear. It happened in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Caesar Augustus decreed a census. To be sure, Luke (like the other gospel writers) presents the facts in historical narrative form. But the characters are nonetheless real historical figures: Caesar, Quirinius, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, John, Jesus, Mary, Peter, James, Paul, etc. These are real historical figures and real historical events. The facts of history simply do not fit the assertion made by this recent billboard.

The Christmas story reads more like an historical document at times than a proclamation of cosmic rescue from sin and death. In reality, it’s both a declaration and a defense. Proclamation was always accompanied by evidence for the veracity of the events themselves. Just read Acts, also written by Luke the historian and apologist. But don’t stop there. Examine the reliable eyewitness testimony. Look at the veracious historical records – both of Christian historians and secular. Study the numerous archaeological findings. Paul Maier spends almost ninety pages in his book, In the Fullness of Time going over the historical, archaeological, geographical and scriptural evidence for the empirical reliability of the events surrounding the Christmas story. [endnote 2] And Lee Strobel has also written a brief, but helpful book titled, The Case for Christmas.

Also, consider using the following pieces of information when shaping your opening statement in the courtroom of skepticism:

First, begin with a few basic principles historians utilize in establishing the credibility of historical claims: [endnote 3]

1. Multiple, independent sources support historical claims.
2. Attestation by an enemy supports historical claims.
3. Embarrassing admissions support historical claims.
4. Eyewitness testimony supports historical claims.
5. Early testimony supports historical claims.
In every case, the Christian claim passes the historical test easily.
Second, continue the apologetic discussion by using a “bare minimum facts” approach, which builds a case using those facts that demonstrate a high degree of certainty among both Christian and skeptical scholars.

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
5. The tomb was empty.

The war on Christmas isn’t going to stop anytime soon. So, we need a little apologetics, right this very minute! Read the atheists’ books and tackle their arguments with critical thinking, answer their objections in truth and love, challenge your atheist friends or neighbors to be open-minded enough to look at the evidence, and continue steadfast in defense and confession of the orthodox Christian faith.
Christianity doesn’t ask us to check our brain at the door; rather, it is a faith founded on fact.  This message – Jesus died for your sins and rose again – is true. It is the greatest story ever told because it is also true.

And it shouldn’t be lost on us that this is also a story. Myths are stories that explain the world around us; but myth need not be a word defined purely by fiction or falsehood. A story that is true does not cease to be a myth and a myth certainly can be a true story, such as we find in the historic Christian faith.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be a myth: that is the miracle…For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar and the philosopher.
christmas icon

Lewis’s words remind us that the Christian Gospel – that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – answers both the intellectual and existential questions of man. All of our questions about life and death, about God’s existence and his care for creation and our life after death are finally answered in the most unlikely places: Bethlehem and Jerusalem. God became man for you. God was in the manger for you. God was on the cross for you. So, this Christmas you can keep the merry and the myth, for the myth has become fact 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; herein Thy grace forth shineth.
LSB 372:1

Endnotes –
[1] Here I have in mind books like Alvin Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed the World and Arthur C. Brooks’ Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divine, Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters.
[2] Paul Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, And the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1991.
[3] The following lists come from a book by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004.