Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Radio Interview on KFUO's Cross Defense: The Hobbit and the Christian Faith

I was pleased to hear that there was a new radio show on our Lutheran Church's radio station KFUO, called Cross Defense. And I was also pleased (and joyfully honored) to be a guest on their show yesterday discussing all things related to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Thanks to the good folks at KFUO - Rod Zwonitzer, Craig Donofrio and many others I don't know by name - you can listen to this hour long segment on their archive at their website. I've copied the link here for anyone who may want to go have a listen.

I had a thoroughly good time discussing one of my favorite intersections in theology: literature and apologetics. And Lord willing they'll have me back on the air sometime. I'm working on a a mental outline for some more Tolkien stuff as well as Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sermon for Christmas Eve Midnight: "Unto You"

+ Nativity of our Lord, Midnight - December 24th, 2013 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: 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.

In the beginning of C.S. Lewis’s beloved book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the reader enters a wardrobe into the magical world of Narnia. But the wonder of this discovery is quickly overshadowed. There is a White Witch and Narnia is covered in a curse: it was always winter, but never Christmas.
Let that thought sink in a moment. What that would the world be like without Christmas? 

That would be like a ship at sea whose captain is never able to chart a course to safe harbor though surrounded by islands.
Or a hiker traversing up a mountainside only to find that when he ascended the top of one peak there was an endless mountain range on the horizon.
Or a person who finds themselves in a library packed floor to ceiling with the greatest books of all time but is incapable of reading a single word.
Think of Moses dying before entering the Promised Land, or Simeon waiting without any hope of fulfillment. Or, the words of Isaiah, had 8th century prophecy of Christ not come true…we would still be a people walking in darkness; living in sin; dwelling in a land of death.

No Christmas means no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds or angels, just an empty stable full of straw and animals. No Christmas, no God in human flesh. No Savior. No one living a perfect life for you, no one obeying the Law’s demands on your behalf, no one healing disease and casting out demons, no one preaching the Gospel and no Good Friday. No cross. No suffering. No death. No forgiveness. No resurrection. No life.

Take away Christmas – take away Jesus’ incarnation - and there’s nothing specifically Christian left.
What would the world be like without Christmas? Always death and no life. In a word…darkness.
Thankfully for us, God works his greatest rescues at night, out of the darkness. Have you noticed that as you read the Scriptures? It’s no accident.

God spoke the words, “Let there be light” into the darkness and void of creation.
God promised a rescue from the darkness of sin and death even after Adam’s fall.
God proclaimed that Abraham’s offspring would deliver all nations, as he gazed at the immeasurable night-sky.
God led Israel out of captivity and bondage to slavery as they sat in darkness preparing and eating the Passover meal.
God brought victory to Israel by twilight as Gideon’s lamps filled the Midianites with fear and confusion.
God sent his angels to the shepherds as the light of glory pierced the shadows of Bethlehem’s hillsides. 

Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people. And you will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Christ’s incarnation is the grand miracle of the Christian faith: the uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, bringing nature up with Him (C.S. Lewis). The Creator becomes the Creature. The Infinite takes up residence in the Finite. The fullness of the Deity dwells among us bodily. God and Man are reconciled. The image of God is restored to Man. Uncreated Light comes to cast out the darkness of our sin.

Of course, this means saying the politically incorrect and impolite thing and owning up to our sin. Calling our sin what it is: darkness, damnable, and death. Isaiah was also prophesying about us. We sit in deep darkness. But that’s only half of the prophet’s words. Don’t stop there. There’s no need to sit in the darkness holding onto your precious sin anymore. Unto you a child is born! 

Oh, come, ye unfaithful,
Broken and polluted!
Oh, come ye, oh, come ye,
To Bethlehem!
Come and behold him,
Born the friend of sinners:
Oh come let us adore him,
Oh come let us adore him,
Oh come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!
(Chad Bird)

We must do away with any pious notions of “God up there” and “we down here” or of our reaching up to God. What we cannot do, God has done. God has come down to us in the Child of the manger. We cannot ascend to God, either in our thoughts, prayers, dreams, or faith, but God has come down to us. We cannot reach up to God, but God has extended His right Arm to us. We cannot crawl our way out of sin’s fell darkness, but God crawls his way to us.

Luther once said, “I know no other God than the One who hangs on a cross and nurses at the breast of His mother.” This is the profound miracle of the Incarnation. No other world religion can make – or dares to make – this historical, monumental claim. God and Man are One in the person of Jesus. God of the eternal Father, Man of His virgin Mother, Jesus brings God and Man together as one unique Person, a new Adam, a new Head for humanity. Unto you is born a Savior.

So if you think about it: Jesus isn’t the reason for the season. You are. Jesus wasn’t born for himself. Jesus didn’t live for himself. He had no need to die for himself. He did it all for you. Christ became man for you. Christ lived a perfect life for you. Christ paid the debt of your sins, suffered for you, bled for you. Christ hung on the cross in darkness for you. Christ delivered you from the shadow of death by dying for you. All of God’s night-time rescues of old – for Abraham, Israel, and Gideon - all lead down to the cross. 

All because Christ was born for you.
Unto you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
Unto you is born the Light of the World to scatter the darkness of your sin and death… far as the curse is found.
Unto you is born the true Fountain of Life who baptizes you with living water and sacred blood, flowing from his pierced side.
Unto you is born the One who speaks a word of absolution over your sins as quickly and surely as he spoke creation into being.
Unto you is born the Word made flesh who gives His flesh for you to eat and his blood for you to drink. 

Here is the true Christmas celebration – a Christmas feast - where Christ’s Word is preached and heard, where His Body and Blood are given and received, where the Word made Flesh continues to dwell among us.  

Tonight, there’s no need to wonder what the world would be like without Christmas ever again.
Here it is always Christmas and never winter. For sin’s curse is broken, Hell is defeated, and the shadow of death is lifted, pierced by the holiness of newborn light from a cave in Bethlehem. It’s Christmas and the Christ-child is on the move. All darkness flees at his birth while hasten to join the shepherds in rejoicing. 

For unto you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

A Blessed Christmas to you all…

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Theology Goes to the Movies: "Frozen"

I was delightfully surprised by Frozen. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, a good story is hard to find these days. Now, the cast is not as star-studded as the Toy Story trilogy, unless you're a fan of Glee as of late. But all the necessary ingredients were present to make it an enjoyable movie: superb story-writing, the cinematic genius of John Lassiter, wit and humor, vivid animation, quality singing, memorable characters (personally Sven the Reindeer was my favorite), the fictional world of Arendelle (it had what Lewis would call a certain "northerness" about it), love, and my favorite cinematic theme, sacrifice.

And that's where I was most surprised. I went expecting a good, family-friendly movie for my wife and two-year old daughter. Consider that expectation met in full. What I wasn't expecting, however, was the stab of joy (as Lewis called it) that resulted in finding an unexpected Christ-figure in Frozen. The irony about Lewis's idea of joy is that the harder you try to manufacture it yourself or cling to it artificially, the more joy is hidden. That is simply because joy is not the end in and of itself, Christ is.

Of course, a good story doesn't necessarily need a Christ-figure to be a good story. (There are plenty of good stories without them. But it does make a great story even better. And what's more, it points a great story to the Grand Miracle of Christ's Incarnation and the Great Eucatastrophe of his death and resurrection. All good stories are glimpses of the one true story of the Gospel.) But this story had a clear Christ-figure.

And before I continue on any further, I must issue a...


This was one of those rare cases where the movie was better than the book. Frozen was (loosely) based upon The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. The only parts that bore resemblance to the original fairy tale were a few names, the words "snow" and "queen," and the idea that a small speck of something can be used by people for good or evil. I'm glad Disney departed from the original in this case. I actually happen to think they made a better story in the end. (Although it would've been fantastic to have heard the characters saying the Lord's Prayer as they approached the Snow Queen's palace.)

At its heart, Frozen is about Love and Sacrifice. In the beginning of the movie we find a royal family with two daughters,  Elsa the elder and Anna the younger. We learn quickly that Elsa has a gift. She can  summon snow and ice by means of magical power. However, she discovers early on that her gift is like most things in this life: it can be a great blessing or a great curse. It really depends on how one uses the gift, and if that gift is used with love in service of others or of self.

Now, it would appear to the viewer that Elsa and her parents kept her away from Anna for her protection. And that is partially true. There was a significant ice incident that happened while building snow men in the palace - just another day in fairy land - which is how Anna received the white streak in her hair. After a brief visit to the trolls (which I found intriguing and wished they had developed more) the sisters quickly grew apart, for reasons unbeknownst to Anna. I think Elsa and her parents misunderstood the trolls words. They kept Elsa away from Anna and vice versa. And what began with the idea of loving protection actually ended up being a fearful escape, and a selfish one at that. They had  forgotten love altogether. Fear had consumed them.

As we come to find out in the course of the film, only an act of true love could break the curse. And the curse spread. At Elsa's coronation the gates of Arendelle were open for the first time in years, many foreign dignitaries were present, and conflict (naturally) arose. I'll keep it brief. The sisters had a fight. Elsa's icy powers came unleashed and Arendelle was frozen solid in an eternal winter (I hear overtones of Lewis!). Elsa fled her home ind order to isolate herself and make her own ice palace on the Northern Mountain. Naturally, adventurous and impetuously optimistic Anna went after her. Meanwhile the whole land awaited an act of true love to break the curse.

Thankfully, (and as you should expect in a good fairy story) that act of true love came. But it did not come as we might expect it to as it has in other Disney fairy tales. The prince, Hans turned out to be a snake-tongued, two-faced, power-hungry boy who manipulated Anna's innocent (and naive) love. Kristoff, the hard-working, rough and tumbled ice-block salesman was set up as the dark horse (or should I say dark-reindeer) candidate for the act of true love that would save Arendelle from the curse of an eternal winter.

Hans was discovered for the classic fool that he was. Kristoff and Anna actually did end up falling in love. But it was Anna who finally revealed herself as the Christ-figure of Frozen. As Hans stood over Elsa with sword in hand, ready to strike the fatal blow - and Anna was nearly dead after receiving an ice shock to the heart - she threw herself in front of her sister. She placed her dying body between Hans and Elsa and she was frozen. The frostbitten curse got her just in time for the sword to fall upon her frozen hand. And there's the Christ-figure. True love casts out fear - which was the problem with Elsa. Not the gift; she lacked love. And the love she lacked was the love Anna provided. It was a self-sacrificing love. An act of true love that places others before yourself.

What a marvelous picture of the Gospel. Christ who knew no sin - no frozen curse - became the curse of sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. Christ stood between us and death and took death's blow for us, all the way to the hilt. Christ placed his dying body - full of the curse of our sin - between us and the grave. An act of true love for he is Love incarnate. Self-giving, self-sacrificing love. He placed all others before himself. And then he was placed into our tomb, dead and buried. But he didn't stay there. He arose. He is risen. Summer is near. The curse is gone. Sin's frozen gloom over us is melted. Death's cold, icy grip on us is shattered by the warmth of resurrected light. The love we lack is given to us by another, by Christ's perfect act of true love on the cross. Love and Sacrifice.

Anna the Christ-figure also led us to a glimpse of the resurrection in Arendelle. Summer came back. The snow of the eternal winter melted. Elsa learned to love and not lock herself away in self-loathing fear. And they all lived happily ever after. And this too is a glimpse of the true story, the story of Christmas, the Grand Miracle!

Which is why I couldn't help but think of this poem from The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe as I was watching Frozen.

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bears his teeth, winter meets its death,
When he shakes his mane, we shall have Spring again.

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

A Blessed and Merry Christmas...for Christ is on the move!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sermon for Advent 4: "Jesus' Advent in Human Flesh"

+ Advent 4 – December 22nd, 2013 +

Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Isaiah 7:10-17; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy…

These are no ordinary words. The words of this prayer call our Lord to action: Come. Rescue. Lord, save us. These words call our Lord to be faithful to his promises, promises he spoke in words, promises given to prophets and apostles who fixed these words with ink on papyrus and animal skins and handed them down (faithfully and reliably I might add) through history for our benefit. These words point us to God’s Words.
Words the Lord spoke to Adam and Eve about a Son who would crush the serpent’s head. Words the Lord promised Abraham that from his offspring would come one who would bless all nations. Words the Lord promised David that from his lineage would come a King who would deliver his people and reign forever in mercy.

This should stop and make you think: What would you do without words or language? Of course there are plenty of creatures who communicate without words. But that doesn’t mean we should go running around smelling each other like dogs or licking people’s ears like rabbits. That would be absurd…not to mention disgusting!

Words communicate. Words confess. We live by words: whether it’s a stop sign or here in Church. But especially here in the Lord’s house: “Give me life according to Your word,” the Psalmist prays (119:25). And so do we.

We’ve heard, prayed, and sung a lot of words this Advent season: The Word of God’s  promises through Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus’ birth at the Wednesday services. The words of God through John the Baptizer announcing Jesus’ coming. The words of Christ preparing us to be ready for his coming in glory. God’s word put to music in the sublime hymns of Advent. God’s Word that makes ordinary water a fountain of life. God’s word placed upon the lips of your pastor to pardon all your iniquity. God’s word that makes bread and wine the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing.  

Advent is a season of Words – Christ’s words - leading up to another great season of words: Christmas – the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

This was the same Word of the Lord who came to Isaiah and promised that a virgin would conceive and bear a son who is Immanuel, God with us. God with us in words. God with us in flesh and blood. God with us in Jesus.

The same Word of the Lord which came to Paul and made him an apostle. That he would preach the gospel of God, which was promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David.  

That’s what prophets and apostles do. Hear the Word of the Lord. Speak the Word of the Lord.
But before Joseph could speak the Word of the Lord. He needed to hear it and believe it.

We’re not told how Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, but one thing’s for sure: he didn’t believe Mary’s word about the child she was bearing.  Matthew let’s the reader in on the Divine playbook: “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph, however, had to contemplate…

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

No matter how Joseph found out, And notice what Matthew says Joseph was a just man, a righteous man. He had a rather odd sense of justice, at least by the world’s standards. You see, betrothal – while not yet a consummated marriage – was still a legally binding status in Israel. Joseph’s only conclusion at that point was that Mary had been unfaithful. According to the Law of Moses death by stoning was the punishment for guilty of adultery. That would’ve been justice in the eyes of the world. But Joseph was operating with God’s righteousness, not his own. His action was merciful. A quiet divorce, also allowed by the Law of Moses. A great foreshadowing of the cross: God’s justice satisfied in mercy. 

But all that changed when an angel of the Lord showed up in Joseph’s dream. For as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “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.

There are (at least) two great miracles in the Christmas story. The first, of course, is that a virgin conceives. It’s biologically impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. The second is that Joseph believed it. That’s the miracle of faith. That’s God’s Word at work. Joseph heard the Word and the Word worked faith and the obedience of faith. And unlike King Ahaz, Joseph didn’t reject the sign but received it. He took Mary to be his lawfully wedded wife. And he called His name Jesus, as he was told. Joseph heard and believed, and out of faith he obeyed. He did what the Lord asked of him.

And what about us, where would we be without words? Probably the same place we found Joseph before the Word of the Lord came to him. Doubt and unbelief. 

Without God’s Word we follow our own words. There’s an unbelieving Ahaz and a doubting Joseph in each of us. Like Saul before his conversion our sinful flesh wars and rebels against God’s Word. Like Israel we grumble against God’s Word and disobey his commands, every last word. Like Sarah we laugh at the absurd graciousness of God’s promises. Like Moses and Elijah we doubt whether or not we really are called to speak God’s Word to others. Like Jonah we hear God’s word and pound sand in the opposite direction. Like David God’s Word comes to convict us of our sin: you are the man. 

And like Joseph, God intervenes for you. And he does it the same way he did for Joseph –by His Word. 

You don’t have to go looking in your dreams for Jesus – and I strongly suggest that you don’t - you go to his Word, or rather, He comes to you in His Word. Like Mary, God’s Word comes to your ears and creates faith in his promises. Like Abraham God’s Word declares you righteous. Like Paul God’s Word turns the hearts of sinful men away ourselves and onto Christ Crucified. Like Noah God’s Word delivers you from judgment by water and the Spirit. Like the apostles, God’s Word opens your lips so that your mouth declares His praise. Like the prophet Isaiah, God’s Word comes to you and proclaims that the Virgin’s Son is Immanuel, God with us.

And this is most surprising – God is with us. He should be against us…the way we’ve neglected, stomped, mocked, broken, and ignored His Word. He has every reason to set His Word against us. But he doesn’t. Once again God intervenes. He sends no angel. He sends his Word in human skin and bones. He sends a child. Immanuel, God with us.

That is the great Word of Advent and Christmas. God is with us. And not just with us in a nice figurative Hallmark-card kind of way. No, as close as your humanity. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

Love caused Your incarnation;
Love brought You down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
Oh, love beyond all telling,
That led You to embrace
In love, all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race.  (LSB 334:4)

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

His Name is Jesus, YHWH saves. His Word is as good as his saving name: He saves you from your sins. Your loss is his loss. Your sin is His sin. Your suffering is His suffering. Your death is His death. All so that through the cross Jesus’ life is your life. Jesus’ righteousness is your righteousness. Jesus’ resurrection is your resurrection. Jesus’ Word is your life.

And this Advent the great miracles of Jesus’ Word continually come to you in no less spectacular ways, just as God did for Joseph.

Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us. God with us in the Word of forgiveness. God with us in our sin and doubt, our grief and shame. God with us in our Baptism: faith conceived by the Holy Spirit. God with us in this congregation by the same Word given to prophets and apostles. God with us in this congregation in these times of change and transition. For God is with us at the altar. God with us in the Word made flesh in the bread and wine. And when you leave here, God with us as you proclaim the Gospel to your neighbor. God with us in our vocations, wherever he calls us. God is with us.

For His name is Jesus, he saves you from your sin.

And these are no ordinary words.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sermon for Advent 3: "When is Jesus' Advent?"

+ Advent 3 – December 15th, 2013 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-15

 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation…

Darkness. There sat John, imprisoned in the shadows of Herod’s dungeon. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness now sends his question to Jesus.
John’s sits in the darkness of that prison cell because of his preaching. He criticized Herod’s love-life, for his taking up with the estranged wife of his brother Philip. For that, the greatest of men born of women, the last of the prophets who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, was thrown into prison where he eventually died.

If this were a Hollywood movie, you’d expect the story to end a little differently. Maybe a prison break, Great Escape style. Or some miraculous flash-bang-kapow - glory of the Lord, angels, pyrotechnics, maybe even a dragon - why not?…and then out walks John, not a hair on his camel clothing singed. However, this isn’t the Gospel according to Disney. In this life, the kingdom of heaven lives under the cross.
From the days of John the Baptizer until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.

And there is more violence to come. Even in death John is the great forerunner of Jesus. For now, the man of miraculous birth awaits a humble, inglorious death. The man who proclaimed that the Christ had come to set the captives free, is in captivity. The man who pointed to Christ as the light of the world, sits in the abysmal void of a dungeon.
And out of that darkness John asks: “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

How should we understand this? Who was John asking this question for – himself or others?
If he was asking for his disciples’ sake then was for their reassurance. Even though John was imprisoned, he pointed his disciples to Jesus. Humble and lowly as He was, Jesus really is the Coming One, the Messiah. Jesus must increase; John must decrease.

And if John was asking this for himself, we could understand why. After all, John had faithfully and unflinchingly proclaimed that the reign of heaven was near – the long expected Day of the Lord had arrived at last. Jesus was supposed to come with a winnowing fork in his hand, not a cross. The axe was supposed to be laid to the root of Israel, not the root of Jesse.
Jesus came and so did the reign of heaven. But Jesus came humbly and gently, he submitted to a sinners baptism; he healed diseases, cast out demons, fed thousands and proclaimed that his reign and kingdom had come…but not in power and glory. Rather, in weakness.

If John was asking this question for himself, it makes sense. He’s not the first to wrestle with the Lord’s promises: Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah. So don’t think that John’s doubts detract from his importance – Jesus doesn’t say that, in fact he praises him. And don’t think that he lost faith. In fact it’s quite the opposite. John, in his doubting sends his question to the one person who can truly answer it. Even in his doubt he looks to Christ. Remember the man in Mark 9… “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”
Either way - whether John’s question was for his disciples or for himself - the way of the kingdom of heaven is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the way of dying and rising, the hidden way of weakness over strength. The foremost prophet winds up in a dungeon and loses his head for criticizing the king’s morals; the coming One gets crucified for bringing the kingdom of God.

And either way, Jesus’ answer is a word comfort and consolation.
Jesus’ Word dispels John’s darkness and doubt. His Word is a lamp to his feet and a light to his path, even in death. For that is where Christ completely upends the story. Suffering, then victory. Weakness, then glory. Death, then resurrection. Though John may have preceded Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection precedes all of ours, John’s included. Jesus is the greatest forerunner of all he leads us through the grave to rise again. Christ’s death is John’s death and yours. So too, Christ’s resurrection is John’s resurrection, and yours.

Jesus’ answer to John’s question is a resounding: YES! Let me show you John: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised. See the signs. Just like Isaiah predicted. The Messiah is as the Messiah does. But the greatest miracle of all is this: the poor have good news preached to them. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.
Jesus’ words of comfort to John are also yours…

Because in one way or another, this Advent season finds us all sitting in darkness. What holds you captive? Perhaps it’s the darkness of the holidays. For many families this is not the hap-happiest season of all: illness, grief, sorrow. Close friends and relatives have died recently or in years past – either way the wounds are fresh. There’s darkness in our financial and economic stress, unemployment, taking care of the family, making rent – don’t even mention Christmas shopping lists. There’s the darkness of an uncertain future: what does the coming new year hold for us?
And then there’s the darkness of sinful burdens that weigh us down day and night.

Maybe it’s all of the above. Or maybe we think it’s too bad to mention  – those dark secret sins we try so hard to keep locked away in our own dungeons, out of sight out of mind – like John.
Whatever it is that holds you captive this Advent season – whatever prison you find yourself in. Whenever you find yourself asking the same question John asked: “Are you the One, Jesus?” Jesus has the same confident, reassuring, consoling answer: YES!  Christ's death and resurrection pierce the darkness of our sin. For Jesus’ 3 day prison of earth and stone couldn’t hold the Lord of life. Your doubt, sin, and death are no match for Jesus. Arise! Shine! Your light has come. The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light. On us, the Light of the World shines forth in the darkness of the cross.

So for us, just as for John, the eyes of faith are your ears. You are given even greater signs than John: Jesus’ own death and resurrection. You are baptized, a personal sign from God that His gracious reign has come to you and that you are a citizen of His eternal kingdom, a kingdom of hidden strength. You hear His absolution, spoken with the King’s authority, in His stead and by His command: your sins are covered and paid for. The King Himself has covered your debt and you are free from bondage to sin. And you’re a welcomed guest at the Kingly banquet feast of Christ’s blessing – His own Body and Blood – the fruits of His sacrifice, given and shed for you.
And blessed – saved – is the one who is not offended by me, Jesus says. Blessed is the one who is not offended by the reign of heaven hidden in suffering and humility. Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by this Jesus whose power to save is hidden in weakness.

For there on the cross, under the clouds of thick darkness there is God’s answer to our prayer and John’s questions. Christ’s glory wrapped in the foul darkness of our sins. Christ’s victory hidden in defeat. Christ’s power hidden in humility.
This is the hidden strength of Christ, the hidden joy of Advent. You may not have the “joy, joy, joy, joy” down in your heart on this Sunday called Gaudete. You may feel weak and powerless against the powers and principalities of this world. Your life may feel like a dark dungeon and the Herods of this world may appear to have the upper hand. But the strength of Christ is hidden for you in the weakness of the Virgin, the manger, the cross, the water, the Word, the bread and wine. The power of God for salvation is hidden for you in the weakness of the Gospel preached to all who are poor in spirit. The joyous reign of heaven is hidden in the sorrows of this life just as the joys of Christmas remain buried in this dark, hopeful, longing little season called Advent.

We simply can’t hear Jesus’ answer enough. “YES! I am the Christ who is coming just as John and Isaiah foretold”
“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not!”
Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”

He came in human flesh to save you. He will come again in glory to save you. He comes in His body and blood to save you.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sermon for Advent 2: "John Prepares Us for Jesus' Advent"

+ Second Sunday in Advent – December 8th, 2013 +

Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds…

The collect of the day sets the tone. Make ready. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. And if preparation is the hymn of the day, John the Baptizer is the choirmaster, preparing us for the coming of Christ in glory, in his body and blood among us, in Bethlehem. We can’t get to Christmas without going through John. Repentance, then joy. John, then Jesus. The wilderness, then the Promised Land. The preparation, then Christ’s coming.

But how does John prepare us for Jesus’ advent? That’s the question of the day, of the season.
Advent, as we heard last week, is about Christ’s coming. Which means it’s also about preparing. That’s what John is doing out there in the wilderness. John is the voice crying out in same wilderness that Israel was led into during the Exodus. He’s standing in the same water Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. And he’s preaching the same message Israel heard from the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” An old message to be sure, but with a new twist.

“Repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” At least that’s what most of your English translations say. This of it this way: “Repent, the reign of heaven is near.” If Jesus is the King, what does he do? Kingdoms? No he reigns.

For the reign of heaven isn’t like some magic kingdom utopia on earth, despite our fallen attempts and desires otherwise. And it’s certainly not some kind of emotional experience, as if we had deck-the-halls for the coming King.

No, the reign of heaven is the kingly deeds of God long foretold and long expected. The “reign of heaven” is God’s intervention in creation, his “reigning.” John announces that God is breaking into human history, invading a fallen world to rescue from captivity to sin, Satan, and death. The reign of heaven is God’s gracious activity for you.

That’s what John is doing out there in the desert, calling Israel – and us - out of slavery and bondage to sin and into a new land, a new exodus. For the Day has dawned. The King is coming. The reign of heaven is near

Again, how does John prepare us for this coming King? What does John have in mind for our preparation? It’s a rather simple, yet radical message:
Repent. The reign of heaven is near.

And according to Matthew there really were only two responses to John’s wild wilderness preaching: faith or unbelief. Many in faith heard John’s message and believed. “They were going out to him and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.”
Still others – like the Pharisees and Sadducees - had another answer. But before they could even utter a word, John cuts them off. You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

All of Israel was in need of a bath. They were sinful and unclean. Whether by blood, birth, or obedience to the Law the religious leaders thought they were worthy of being called children of Abraham. They had it all backwards though. True children of Abraham aren’t given salvation as a due or a reward, but as a gift, as promise. Stones were a euphemism for Gentiles. God will raise up from the Gentiles children of Abraham. Children of promise, gift, unconditional grace. Just like Abraham.

So, according to John anything that stands in the way of Christ must be removed, stripped, and washed away. All claims to blood, birth, and obedience are not the height of faith; they are the depths of unbelief and self-righteousness. They needed John’s cleansing baptism, for repentance leading to good fruit. 

But what exactly is repentance? It’s a Greek word, maybe you’ve heard it: metanoia. Literally it means to get a new mind, a new way of thinking. 

In other words, the Pharisees and Sadducees needed a spiritual lobotomy. When it came to salvation they thought they had it all worked out: “Sure we’ve sinned a little here and there - but after all, we’re children of Abraham and we’ve kept the Law.” 

John’s warning is for us too. Repent. The reign of heaven is near. John’s voice is jarring, offensive even. Advent isn’t for the faint of heart. You see, we’ve lost the expectation and hope of Christ’s coming again, or we expect Christ to come on our terms. Either way, John cries out: Repent. Are you good? Then repent of your goodness. You’re not good enough. Are you bad? Then repent of your badness. It’s worse than you think

John’s work is clear: Advent repentance, then Christmas rejoicing. The fast before the feast. John, then Jesus. John’s message awakens us to the urgency of our sinful plight. No procrastination. No delay. The reign of heaven is near. 

And there’s the parallel: John preached a baptism of repentance to prepare for Jesus’ first advent. So too, Jesus gives His Church a Baptism of forgiveness to prepare for His second advent.
Like the Pharisees and Sadducees we need a new mind. And that is precisely the gift you’re given in Baptism. Have this mind of Christ in you, Paul says. And it is, by water and word and Spirit.
This is why John comes. John prepares us for Christ’s Advent. 

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The people of Israel expected the Messiah to rule and reign as king, to conquer and destroy, to judge, and save.

And Jesus certainly does all of those things, just not in the ways they expected the Christ to rule and reign.
They didn’t expect this Messiah to be born in a lowly feeding trough in a lowly town of Bethlehem and grow up in the lowliness of Nazareth.
They didn’t expect the Messiah to conquer and destroy by being conquered and killed in death.
They didn’t expect God’s judgment to fall upon his own Son.
They didn’t expect the axe of God’s judgment to be laid upon the Root of Jesse.
They didn’t expect the Messiah to rule and reign as King from the crib and the cross.

And perhaps we have the same problem in advent. Not that we expect too much from God, but that we expect too little. He wants to rule and reign in mercy and compassion and all we want is to rule our desires and will over others. He wants to make us citizens of his heavenly kingdom and all we want is to be king for a day in our self-made kingdoms.

Thankfully for us, we don’t get the Savior and Messiah we expect or deserve. But rather, Christ gives us the unexpected and undeserved.

Jesus brings us the joy of the Gospel after John’s Law has exposed our valleys of lack and brought our mountains of pride to rubble. Jesus appears humble and meek. He submits Himself to John’s baptism of repentance even though He is the one perfect Jew who has not need for repentance. Instead of an axe and a winnowing fork, He comes with a cross and death. Instead of coming in judgment, He comes to be judged. The King dies and all of his subjects rise from the dead.

“Christ descended to re-ascend. Christ came down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down from humanity; down further still…to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But he came down to go up again and bring the whole ruined world with Him. Jesus was brought low for you; He stooped in order to lift, he died under the load before he incredibly straightened his back, rose from the grave, and marched off with you and the whole mass of humanity swaying on his shoulders.” (paraphrased from C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 179).

And that’s how John prepares us for Jesus’ Advent. He’s the butler preparing us for an exquisite banquet. Off with the old rags of sin and on with the new. Your sin is stripped and you are clothed in Christ. You are baptized, washed, and cleansed. And now you’re ready for the Advent feast.

So, Advent isn’t only about repentance. It’s also about bearing fruit. This Advent bear fruit in the pattern of John’s exhortation: hear the Word of the Lord – in church, around the dinner table with your families, in your Bluetooth connection in the car on the way to work. Bear fruit in confessing your sins and receiving the Advent of Jesus in His body and blood. Bear fruit in showing mercy and compassion to others: a card, a phone call, a visit, a word of encouragement. God loves a cheerful giver. And you know why? Because He is the biggest giver of all. 

John’s words still ring true today: The reign of heaven is near. Today God breaks into human history; heaven invades earth. The reign of heaven comes as Christ feeds you with his own kingly flesh and his royal, precious blood.

You’ve been washed by water and the Spirit. You’re robed and swaddled in the finest garments of Christ’s salvation. All is prepared. The feast is ready. Christ your King draws near.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.