We Have Come To Worship The King
What is beyond the next mountain? Years and years ago, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the land to the west to see if there was a way to the ocean. And they went up the Missouri river deep into Montana. But then the river thinned out and the mountains stood there in front of them. And they thought to themselves: “All we have to do is climb to the top of those mountains, then it’s all downhill to the other side.’” So they climbed with all their strength and determination to the top of the mountains through feet of snow. And then, when they got to the top, what did they see? They saw more mountains. For the mountains in the west were nothing like the mountains in the east. This evening in Matthew’s gospel we meet men who traveled so very far to get to Israel. But, much like Lewis and Clark, when they thought they were so close to the end of their journey, they realized that there were more difficulties in front of them. In Matthew 2, we read: “1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”” (Matthew 2:1–2 NIV11-GKE)
The Magi were close—so close to arriving at their goal: worshipping their King. But they faced an obstacle. It was an obstacle that actually we have no hint that they stumbled on. But it’s one we wrestle with in our every day life. What guided them from the East to Bethlehem? The Lord provided a star for them. How amazing this star must have been—How bright, how brilliant. There was the real temptation to be distracted by the star instead of be guided by it. And we face the same temptation today. We use earthly aids to help us focus on our King, Jesus. But the problem is when these earthly aids replace our worship of the king. If you remember singing Silent Night with lit candles more than the content of the readings and the sermon, you’re not worshiping the king. If you get frustrated that the pastor didn’t pick out your favorite hymn on Christmas Eve or Day and you miss the opportunity to see through God’s word yet again your king born and placed in the manger, you are not worshipping the king. The magi had a start to guide them. And again, we have no hint that they were led astray by that earthly aid. But if we look into our hearts, we have to admit that we have faced that temptation to find more joy and meaning in lit candles and sung songs than in the hearing of God’s word.
And so, signs are an obstacle to worshipping the king. But there was another obstacle: “3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”” (Matthew 2:3–6 NIV11-GKE)
We have come here to worship the king. One obstacle we face is signs that should help us and instead distract us. Another obstacle is what we find here in these verses: earthly stress. When the magi came to Herod and started throwing around the name, “king,” everyone was shaken and stirred up. They were terrified because all of them knew that Herod the Great had one solution to whatever problem he faced: he killed it. When one of his sons threatened to take over his throne, he killed him. When he heard rumors that his wife—the wife he really, truly loved, was plotting to overthrow him, he killed her. And all the elders and priests gathered there knew this. And so, there was pressure, there was stress to stay away from this little king born in Bethlehem. And we see how real this stress was. For when the Magi asked where the king was to be born, the teachers and priests knew exactly the passage in the Old Testament to go to. They went right to Micah 5. But when the Magi left to worship the true king of Israel, did they follow? What good is it to know the truth of who the king is, but then to give into earthly stress and pressure and then not worship him? This too is a temptation we face today. If you refuse to hand over your artistic expression to endorse same-sex marriage today don’t be surprised if you will be condemned by the world around you and then fined by the government. And this too is an obstacle in front of us that gets in the way of our worship: earthly stress. But there’s one more obstacle to speak about: “6 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”” (Matthew 2:6–8 NIV11-GKE)
Look at all these roadblocks and obstacle that get in the way of us worshipping our king: earthly signs that might allure and entice us away from our Savior and King, earthly stresses that threaten to make us cowards. And here we see our final one: God’s silence. Every year when I preach on these words I am amazed at how blind the Magi are. You can just see Herod standing there, saying to the Magi, “Show me where the king is so that I may stab—urr, I man see him.” And we find no hint that they could see through his lies. In fact, it takes a vision from God to warn them to not turn back to Jerusalem.
And that too is a stumbling block in our way too, isn’t it? God gives us promises. But then he leaves us in the dark. He does not tell us where, when and how he will keep his promises and answer our prayers. He just simply promises that he will. And the Magi showed that they were wise not by seeing through Herod’s lies, but instead by humbly and thoroughly trusting the words that the Lord spoke to them.
Look at all these obstacles: signs, stresses from the world, silence from God. Who will clear away all these obstacle? How great it is that we have a king like the one we have. Look at how Jesus deals with these obstacles. First, he reminds us that his power and forgiveness does not come to us through stars in the sky or candles in the sanctuary, but instead, through God’s word. Second, just like he did with the Magi, he gives us so strong of a faith that we follow him even amidst all the stress the world puts on us to not worship him. Third, he gives us one promise after another in his word and then asks us one simple question: “how many have I broken?” Indeed, he has kept all his promises. So if he keeps all his promises we don’t need to know the when and how. It is enough for us to know that he will keep these promises.
And where does that leave us tonight? Let’s read our concluding words: “9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:9–12 NIV11-GKE)
With all these obstacles removed, we, just like these Wise Men have the privilege of bowing down and worshipping Jesus, our king. And what I love about these words is how simply they end. There are parts of God’s word that call on us to act. But notice here, in these words God’s word does not call on us to take action, but instead to do just the opposite. The Holy Spirit on this beautiful night calls on us to fall down in humble worship. For Jesus is our king. He is the one who has cleared away all the obstacles. He takes moves our focus away from the signs that might distract us and places them on his word. He gives us focus and courage to worship him despite the earthly stresses that surround us. And he reminds us that even though he is silent so much of the time, nevertheless, he has spoken to us in his word. And the promises he makes, he keeps. Amen.
The Light Shines
It’s hard to juggle. When I was in high school I began to learn how to juggle. They start you out with one ball. And you throw it up in the air again and again. Then you add two. Then finally you can add a third and begin juggling. But it’s not easy because you have to have your focus on many objects at once. And I never really learned how to do it. In the words we look at this morning, on Christmas Day, that’s what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do. Through the words of John he is asking us to juggle one weighty and important truth in the bible after another. First we learn that there was this Word—this divine expression and communication of thought. This word was face to face with God.1 But this Word is also himself God. But then, as soon as he drops this massive and amazing truth on us, what does he do? He makes us juggle. He makes us focus on another truth. In John 1, we read: “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1–5 NIV11-GKE)
So this word wasn’t just God. This word was also light. And this light shines out to all people, into the entire world. But what’s the problem? It shines out into the darkness. But what happens? The darkness does not understand this light.2 And, to make matters worse, it pushes back against this light. This is John’s beautiful, poetic way of speaking about the sinful world that we live in and that we are a part of. Every person who is born does not know who God is. And yet, the very little that we do know about God, we hate and push back against.
And so, the light keeps shining.3 But the problem is that that darkness of unbelief tries so hard to drown it out. So then, what is the solution to this problem? “6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:6–13 NIV11-GKE)
How do you deal with the darkness of unbelief? You send out a preacher. You send out someone to testify to the truth. That man’s name was John the baptizer. Through his preaching the Holy Spirit performed a miracle. Through water and word he put his name, the name of the Triune God, on them. He gave them new birth. He made them children of God. And notice in these words how detailed John is. They were born again. But none of this was their work. They were not born “from bloods.”4 We would just simply say, “bloodlines.” Being from a Christian family doesn’t make you a Christian and give you a new birth. They also were not born “through human will”5 Here John is speaking about the fact that we cannot choose to give ourselves a new birth and be born again. No, instead, God is the one who makes us his children and gives us faith in him through those waters of baptism where he puts the name of the Triune God on us and adopts us into his family.
So the light shines. It shines in the darkness. And through God’s word he gives us the gift of faith so that we are God’s children. But in this final verse we discover more about this light, Jesus who shines: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NIV11-GKE)
And now you can see why these words are the gospel for every Christmas Day. This divine word that is also the divine light takes on human flesh.6 And then he dwells with us. The light dwells in the darkness. That’s the fact of Christmas that we rejoice in. But what follows after that is the gift of Christmas: grace and truth. Grace is this amazing truth that, if we ask the question, “why should God love us so much as to adopt us into his family and give us faith in him,” what is the answer? We would like the answer to be, “because I…” But John has gone out of his way to say the words “not you” so many times already, that we know that cannot be the meaning of this word. If we ask the question, “why would God adopt us into his family,” the answer is: “Because God adopted us into his family.” Out of such deep and undeserved love, he reached out to the darkness in our souls and gave us light. He gave us faith in him and made us his children.
That is a gift that he gives to us every day. But there is another gift he gives to us everyday. He gives us the truth. On the one hand, he gives us the truth about our sin. There’s the old proverb: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” (Proverbs 27:6 NIV11-GKE) Friends tell us the truth because they love us. But how do they know what the truth actually is? The real, perfect and absolute truth his found here in God’s word. And that gift that corrects our errors is here for us every day.
But the other part of truth is the truth of forgiveness. Such sins we pile up throughout our lives. We sin when we think we can do God’s work for him, as if we are the ones who made ourselves Christians and give ourselves birth. We sin when we neglect the very tool that God used to create faith in us—God’s word. We sin when we commit this most Minnesotan sin of all, that we are insulted when someone, out of love for us, would actually correct us and tell us when we mess up. All these sins we pile up. And out of love for us Jesus shines out with the truth, showing us what our sins actually are. But he does so much more than that. He also shines out with the truth of forgiveness. On its best day, the world we live in might forget our sins—as long as we don’t do them again. But look how amazing the light of Christ is. His light and love shines out so much and so brightly that he doesn’t just forget, he actually forgives..
And so, my dear friends in Christ, know this Christmas Day that it’s ok to not juggle. Next Christmas we can circle back and talk about what Jesus the Divine Word is. Next Christmas we can talk about the ministry of John the Baptizer in more detail. But today focus in on the fact that Jesus, the light shines. He shines in the darkness of our own hearts and gives faith in him as we sing in our hymn this morning: unasked, unforced, unearned.7 And he gives us Christmas gifts we carry with us every day: grace and truth. Amen.
1 “ⲡⲣⲟⲥⲧⲟⲛⲑ̅ⲛ̅·” (John 1:1 GNT-ALEX)
2 “ⲁⲩⲧⲟⲟⲩⲕⲁⲧⲉⲗⲁⲃⲉⲛ·” (John 1:5 GNT-ALEX)
3 “ⲫⲁⲓⲛⲉⲓ” (John 1:5 GNT-ALEX)
4 “ⲟⲓⲟⲩⲕⲉⲝⲁⲓⲙⲁⲧⲱⲛ·” (John 1:13 GNT-ALEX)
5 “ⲟⲩⲇⲉⲉⲕⲑⲉⲗⲏⲙⲁⲧⲟⲥⲥⲁⲣⲕⲟⲥ·” (John 1:13 GNT-ALEX)
6 “ⲕⲁⲓⲟⲗⲟⲅⲟⲥ Ⲥⲁⲣⲝⲉⲅⲉⲛⲉⲧⲟ” (John 1:14 GNT-ALEX)
7 CW 54:4
A Child Is Born For Us
Old words are hard to understand. Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green. A well-known Christmas carol starts with those words. You sing it and then you ask yourself at some point: “What is wassailing?” Wassailing is when about 1000 years ago the everyday people would bring a gift to their feudal landLord. And he, in turn, would give them a gift. And that carol is a reminder that there are old words out there that are hard to understand simply because they are so old. This evening we run into the same difficulty. In Isaiah 9, we read these words: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2 NIV11-GKE)
The people live in the land of……—Is it “death” or “darkness?”1(Isaiah 9:1 BHS-T)}}
And the word is so old that it’s hard to figure out which context is meant. If the problem is figuring out whether the word means ‘death’ or ‘darkness’, the solution is context. And the context here is Old Testament history. In the Old Testament the Lord asked and then begged his own people, the Jews to worship him and follow him. Instead, they worshipped other gods. Then he threatened them. And still, their attitude didn’t change. Then finally, in 722 B.C. the Lord had the Assyrians come down from the north and conquer and kill the ten northern tribes of Israel. And then so many of those that remained were carried and carted off to the distant ends of the world. And the result is that, where there were towns with the sounds of voices, now there was silence. Where there were towns where there were lights—lamps and torches lit, now there was darkness. For the people who had lived there were either killed or carted away. So if we ask the question: “does the word mean darkness or death” , the answer is that it is the death that brings darkness.
What a strange way to start out a Christmas Eve sermon, isn’t it? And yet, that’s where God’s word precisely leads us to this evening. And it’s a fact that each of us at some point has to deal with. For in every family there are treasured family members who used to be there at Christmas, but now are not. Grandpa used to be there sitting in that chair watching the grandkids open those presents, but now there is silence. Grandma used to be there baking those cookies in the kitchen with her daughter or grandkids. But not anymore. For just as in Isaiah’s day, so also in ours: death brings darkness. Or, to use words we hear in the New Testament: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV11-GKE) And that’s why there can be this strange sadness and guilt, that this time of the year that should be filled with joy and peace instead is filled with darkness and sadness.
My dear friends in Christ, that’s what living in the sinful world that we live in looks like. But thankfully, God’s word doesn’t stay there. We read: “3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. 5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.” (Isaiah 9:3–5 NIV11-GKE)
Death brings darkness. But look where God leads us from there: Light brings joy and peace. Here too God gives us a picture. In the Old Testament there was an enemy of the Israelites called the Midianites. And the Lord chose a leader among the Jews by the name of Gideon.2 Gideon, with thousands, went to war against Midian, with their tens of thousands. But just before he was about to go out to war against them, the Lord told him that he had too many men. With their their thousands of men, the Jewish warriors might conclude that they were the ones who defeated the Midianites, not God. So the Lord then narrowed their numbers down to about 300. And then with 300 men Gideon went out to war and defeated them. And on that day everyone knew that it was not Gideon, nor his men that won the victory. Instead, it was the Lord alone who brought this victory.
That’s the picture. But what is the point? There would be a light that would shine out and bring peace and joy. But the Lord is the one would provide it. If the problem was death that brings darkness, the solution is one that only the Lord can provide. And as the words travel on, we see then what this solution is: “6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:6–7 NIV11-GKE)
Death brings darkness. And a light will bring joy and peace. So what then is this light? God’s word tells us that a child is born for us. A son is given to us. And this son will also be “Mighty God.”3(Isaiah 9:5 BHS-T)}} What is the solution to death that brings darkness? The solution is a son that will destroy death by dying. And in that he will bring us peace.
And isn’t that an important issue to speak about too at Christmas time? This is a time of the year that should be filled with peace and joy. But instead it’s a time strained with stress. Tests are due. Work has to be done before you go away for Christmas break. There are choir concerts and band concerts. There’s shopping to get done and dinners to plan. And in that stress and strain it’s so easy lash out with words against our loved ones that we wouldn’t say if it were the middle of Summer.
And that’s why these words are so beautiful to us this evening. Jesus is the light that brings peace. He is the one who puts death to death by dying. He is the one who gives us joy by rising from the dead. He is the one who gives us peace by promising to us that, for those who die believing in the Lord, they are now at rest with him. He is the one who gives us rest by letting us know that, for those times that we lash out against those we love at the very time of the year when we speak about peace—those sins are forgiven.
And so, death brings darkness. But Jesus, the light brings peace. For to us a son is born. But notice, my dear friends in Christ, where these words close: “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:7 NIV11-GKE)
The Lord was the only one who could defeat the Midianites in the Old Testament. The Lord is the only one who could shine out and conquer the death that brings darkness and then give us the light of peace. He is the only one who could do this. And he is the only one who did do this.
What then is our response to this? Like the shepherds in the open countryside keeping watch over their flocks at night, just like them, we bow down and thank, worship and praise Jesus. For to us a child is born; and to us a son is given. Amen.
2 Judges 6-7
3 ”אֵ֣ל גִּבּ֔וֹר“
Praise God For His Greatness
How do you know if someone is “great?” 300 years before Jesus was born there was a man named, Alexander. And he was great because he fought many battles and never lost one of them. And he conquered the then-known world within his own lifetime. Right before Jesus was born, Herod was the king of Judea. And he was called great because he built up the temple and made it pretty. In the words we look at this morning, Mary can’t help from proclaiming how great her God is. By this time the angel has told her that she will give birth to the Christ-child. And she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. And when she sees her cousin, the baby inside of Elizabeth leaps for joy. Then Mary speaks this beautiful poem, which Christians very quickly set to music and made a song. In Luke 1 we read: “46 And Mary said: My soul praises the greatness of the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant.” (Luke 1:46–48 CSB17)
Mary praises God for his greatness. But why? Why does she praise God for his greatness? What is that makes God so great? Our God is great because he lifts up the lowly. And that makes us ask a question: What does it mean to be lowly? In what was was Mary lowly? First, Mary was lowly because she was a sinner. Notice how she says that she rejoices in God my Savior.1You don’t need a Savior from a bad hair day. You need a Savior from sin.
This is a powerful reminder for us too. The biggest problem you have this morning is not the test you took at school, nor the concerts you practiced for, nor the extra work at the end of the year, nor any of the other stresses that come with this time of the year. The biggest problem is that you are not able to not sin. Every day you get up in the morning and think what you should not. And at the end of the day you have to go to your Father in heaven with a list sins you thought, said, and even did—and those are just the ones you remember.
How lowly we are. But look what we learn from Mary. We too praise God for his greatness. He is great because he lifts up the lowly. Mary praises the God that she will give birth to and hold in her arms because he will be what she is not. He is holy. As she says, “48 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his name is holy.” (Luke 1:48–49 CSB17) He is holy. And his holiness covers the lowliness of our sin.
But my dear friends, there is another way in which we are lowly. And Mary speaks about this too: “50 His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. 51 He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. 53 He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:50–53 CSB17)
In these words we see how lowly we are in that we are humans. Humans are limited creatures. We depend completely on God for our health. We depend completely on God for our wealth. And this too is a reminder of how easy it is to fall into sin by forgetting how frail, limited and weak we are simply because we are humans. Years ago there was a big snow storm in PA. And the power went out. We couldn’t get out of the drive way. We had enough food. And we had a wood-burner stove in the basement. So we all gathered downstairs around the fire eating cold, dry food waiting to be plowed out and for the power to be turned back on. The first day was ok. But after you get past the second day you realize just how dependent you are on the power grid. That fact is so easy to forget. It’s so easy to forget how lowly and limited we are and then take the next step of concluding that we really don’t need God. And we show it by simply forgetting him.
Mary did not forget this fact. She realized that we are lowly simply because we are humans. And she praises God for his greatness in lifting us up. But how he lifts us up is so wondrous. Jesus lifts us up by becoming one of us. In other words, he lifts us up by taking on our frail flesh and living our lowly lives. And he does this in our place, to win forgiveness for all the times we forgot how frail we actually are.
So, my dear friends in Christ, praise God for his greatness. He shows his greatness by lifting up the lowly. But in these remaining words he shows his greatness in a different way: “54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.” (Luke 1:54–55 CSB17)
Our Triune God is so great because he lifts up the lowly. But he is also so great because he remembers his mercy. The Lord had made promises to people in the Old Testament. He did not need to. But he did so anyway, purely out of his love for them and his pity on them. This sort of love that reaches out and loves people because they are so un-lovable and so un-able to earn your love is what we call ‘mercy.’2 That is the sort of love he showed to Abraham and the rest of the people in the Old Testament. That is the sort of love he showed to Mary. And that is the sort of love he shows to us today. It’s a reminder that it’s all to easy to forget why we give presents at all as Christians. If you watch TV or watch movies what you learn about presents at Christmas time is that you get gifts because you have been good enough. But what’s the problem? Every child knows that he or she has not been good enough. Every child has a year of fighting with brothers or sisters and not obeying their parents. Every child has this but yet anyway gets gifts at Christmas. And the reason we received these gifts at Christmas and why we give these gifts at Christmas is to remind us what Mary realized here. The Lord remembers his mercy. He showers this mercy on a world of people who did not deserve it. We give gifts as Christians every year to remind ourselves of God’s mercy and to teach that mercy to our children.
Alexander was great because he never lost a battle. Herod was great because he built up the temple. But learn what Mary speaks here and sing it with her—if not on your lips then in your heart: Praise God for his greatness. He shows his greatness in lifting up the lowly. He shows his greatness in remembering his mercy. Amen.
1 “ⲉⲡⲓⲧⲱⲑⲱ̅ⲧⲱⲥⲣ̅ⲓⲙⲟⲩ·” (Luke 1:47 GNT-ALEX)
2 “ⲙⲛⲏⲥⲑⲏⲛⲉ ⲉⲗⲉⲟⲩⲥ” (Luke 1:54 GNT-ALEX)
Who May Ascend The Mountain of the Lord?
Iwant to see it with my own eyes. There are so many states in our nation that have places that are beautiful. The internet has now figured out that I live in Minnesota. And so, now I see all these pretty places in MN. But evidently the prettiest place in MN is the north shore. You see the light houses and the pretty sunsets and you say to yourself, “I want to be there; I want to see that with my own eyes.” This evening, God’s word takes us to an even better place. Which would you rather see with your own eyes—the prettiest part of the North Shore, or our Triune God who made the North Shore and every other pretty place in the whole world? At the beginning of Psalm 24, we read: “1 The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord; 2 for he laid its foundation on the seas and established it on the rivers.” (Psalms 24:1–2 CSB17)
Climbing up a hill and seeing beautiful lake Superior would be pretty. But that’s nothing to being able to climb up the mountain of the Lord and see the Lord himself—that would be wonderful. But there’s a problem. And in the words that follow we see what that problem is: “3 Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? 4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not appealed to what is false, and who has not sworn deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 Such is the generation of those who inquire of him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” (Psalms 24:3–6 CSB17)
If you want to ascent the mountain of the Lord and see him with your own eyes, what do you need to have? You need to have clean hands and a pure heart. You need to have never ever done anything wrong in your entire life (clean hands). you need to never ever have thought any evil desire in your life too (pure heart.) And just to make sure that we aren’t so foolish as to think we have had clean hands and a pure heart, the psalmist gives some examples. First, he says that if you have ever told a lie, you cannot stand on God’s holy mountain. Second, if you have ever made a promise you didn’t keep, you cannot stand on God’s holy mountain. This is not a small issue, is it? More than anything, when we die, we want to be with the Lord on his holy mountain. But our sin separates us from God and his holiness. But note where these words go from here: “7 Lift up your heads, you gates! Rise up, ancient doors! Then the King of glory will come in. 8 Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, you gates! Rise up, ancient doors! Then the King of glory will come in. 10 Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord of Armies, he is the King of glory.” (Psalms 24:7–10 CSB17)
The Psalmist urges us to receive the King of Glory. And then he asks the question that we all want to ask: who is the King of Glory? Here is where it’s good to know what glory is. The glory of the Lord was that pillar of cloud by day and that pillar of fire by night that followed the Israelites as they made their way from Egypt to Israel in the desert. It settled on the temple and filled it with smoke when King Solomon dedicated it for use. What did it mean? This was God’s special way in which he showed his people that we was with them, but not just in some abstract, distant way. No, instead, he was close to them to rescue them. That is what the glory of the Lord is.
But what else do we learn about this King of Glory? He is also the Lord of heavenly armies. He is the one who goes out and wages war for with angels at his command. For he is their king and commander.
Now, can you think of any time where the Glory of the Lord appeared and angels were present there at the same time? Who is the King of Glory. Jesus is the King of Glory. When he was born Luke tells us that the Glory of the Lord shone around them and the shepherds were terrified. And also we are told that the night was filled with powerful angels. And that was perfect and appropriate because that baby born in Bethlehem was their king and commander.
Jesus is the King of Glory. But, let’s return to the question we first asked: Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? The only one who can ascend the mountain of the Lord is the one who has clean hands and a pure heart. What does Jesus have to do with that? The King of Glory came to us to make an exchange with us. He takes our unclean hands and all the unclean actions they committed and exchanges them for his innocent hands. He takes our filthy thoughts and desires and exchanges them with his own pure thoughts. And the result is that, in those waters of baptism when we are brought into God’s family, God does not see our sin. Instead, he sees Jesus, the King of Glory and the commander of angels. He sees his own Son’s purity and sacrifice in our place.
And that cleanness and purity comes to us in a very simple, but special way. It comes to us through God’s word. Through God’s word he forgives our sins. Notice how that shows itself in our worship on Sunday mornings. Just about every Sunday morning how do we start our our worship. We confess our sins. We honestly confess the fact that our hands are not clean and our hearts are not pure and that our sins have put a wall between us and our God on his holy mountain. And then what happens? We hear that amazing news that the wall is torn down. Our sins are forgiven. And we have the privilege of spending the rest of our time in worship having more of our sins forgiven, growing in faith and encouraging one another.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? The only one who may ascend the mountain of the Lord is the one who has clean hands and a pure heart. Is that you? We started out tonight saying, “no.” But we finish saying, “amen” and “yes.” Jesus the King of Glory and commander of angels has exchanged his glory for our sin and his purity for our sin. And now, whenever God calls us home, we have the joy of ascending his holy mountain and not seeing the North Shore. Instead we see so much more and better. We see God face to face. Amen.
This morning we walk through our first lesson on faith (the importance of faith). Unfortunately, the audio got cut off at the very end of the class. So there’s about a minute or so missing at the end.
If Only the Lord Would Come Down
What do you see? Being back in Minnesota at this time of the year reminds me of the years I went to school in New Ulm. And what I remember about this time of the year is flying back home. I didn’t fly home or anywhere very often. So when I was in that jet, both as it took off and as it descended and landed, I looked down had a good look at everything below me. And what I saw still sticks with me today. I saw snow. I saw all the multicolored lights during this time of the year. I saw the bring, busy places where people lived. And I saw the barren, open places where people did not live. All that I saw from above, flying overhead. In our psalm this evening, the psalmist asks a slightly different question, not what I see when I look down, but instead, what does God see when he looks down at the earth? In Psalm 14, we read: “1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. 2 The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.” (Psalms 14:1–2 NIV11-GKE)
When the Lord looks down, what does he see? He sees a world of fools. And in the words that follow, in a very detailed way, he shows us what a fool is. The fool says there is no god. But even worse, a fool is not just a person who says there is no god. A fool is a person who might say that there is a god, but then, by that person’s own life, he or she shows that they don’t really believe the words they say. For example, there was a pastor who did evangelism work on college campuses. And what he found out was that almost nobody would come out and say that they were atheists. Instead, they would say that they were ‘agnostics.’ They did not know if there was a god or not, but they were looking, hoping that someday they’d find god. The pastor challenged them, bluntly saying that they were lying. For if they were truly looking for God, there would be some evidence of that search in their lives. They might possibly sleep in on one Sunday. But on the next Sunday, you’d expect them to go to church to see if maybe that church have the true God in it. But their actions prove their words wrong. In short, to use the words here in Psalm 14, they are fools. They don’t just say there is no God. They also live their lives in such a way that they show they don’t believe in any God.
But notice where the Psalmist goes next. The Lord looks down and sees a world of fools. But if we ask the question, “how many fools are there,” Notice what the answer is: everybody. There is no one who does good. And if we didn’t get the point he was making in verses 1 and 2, he makes the same point in different words which follow: “3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. 4 Do all these evildoers know nothing? They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the Lord. 5 But there they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous. 6 You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.” (Psalms 14:3–6 NIV11-GKE)
How many have turned away from God? All. How many do any good? No one. How many call on and call out to God? No one. Notice this huge, ever-so-important point God is making to us in his word: Every person who comes into this world is turned away from God, with no ability to call on him and no desire to follow him. This is a fact that we need to keep reminding ourselves of again and again because each of us has a sinful nature, even now as Christians alongside our new nature, that hates it when we hear these words. We want to think that we can do our part. We want to think that there’s at least a spark of goodness in us that we can make use of to know God or earn him. And so, some churches, sad to say, teach that you can make use of this spark of goodness to reach out and choose God. Other churches say that because of this spark of goodness you can prove to God that you are worthy of redeeming. But what God’s word says here is clear and condemning: how many do any good at all? No one. We lie, we lust, we cheat, we steal, we put ourselves above all other people. And if we can’t do this publicly and get away with it, we harbor and tend these thoughts deep inside of our hearts.
In those rare times I fly over Minnesota, I see ice, snow and lights. But what does the Lord see from heaven? He sees a world of fools. He sees a world of people who either says there is no God or shows by their actions that they don’t believe the words they say. These are the sort of truths that drive you ask, ‘Is there any hope for us? Is there any help for us?’ The psalmist cries out these words: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!” (Psalms 14:7 NIV11-GKE)
If only! The psalmist cries out an impossible wish. He says, “If only Salvation would come down from heaven to us.” What right does an abusive father have to ask the abused child to spend time with him? What right does the adulterous wife have to ask the husband she cheated on to spend time with her? What right do we have to ask the holy, perfect and just God to come down to us?
We have no right at all. But, what the psalmist speaks as an impossible wish, the Lord turns into a powerful promise. It is at this time of the year when we focus on the fact that the Lord did come down. Purely out of his own grace—his undeserved love towards a world of fools, he came down. He took on our humanity so that he could not just say, “there is a true God out there”, but instead, he would be that true God for us. He would be the one who would seek God because we don’t. He would be the one who would call on God because we can’t. All this he would do, and in Christ, did, for us, to take away our sin.
If only the Lord would come down. But he did. Where does that leave us here this evening? In our final words, we read: “When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” (Psalms 14:7 NIV11-GKE)
The Lord came down. Jesus took on our flesh and blood to take away our sins. He earned our salvation on the cross. And he delivered that forgiveness to us through his word. In our salvation and in our conversion we have no part. This was all God’s work. Well then, what is our role? We cannot earn our salvation or make ourselves Christians. But we can do what God invites us to do here. We can sing. We can be glad. We can rejoice. For this impossible wish, that the Lord would come down to a world of us fools came true. He came down to us to redeem us and convert us and give us true wisdom from above. So let this time of preparation, this time of Advent be a time of sober reflection on the fact that we, in so many times and ways are fools. But don’t let your thoughts stay there. Also rejoice that Jesus has taken away your sin and given to you his wisdom in his word. Amen.
Where Is Your Focus At Christmas?
Where your head goes, your body follows. Years ago I took a driver’s education class. And in that class we were taught that where your eyes go, your body follows. You could be driving down the road and see a deer way off in a field. So what do you naturally do? Naturally, you look over and see the deer. And even though you only look for a second or two, what happens when you look back? You used to be perfectly in your lane. But now you’re swaying to the right of your lane. Or even worse, you can be crossing over into the other person’s lane. Christmas is a joyous and blessed time of the year. But it’s a time of the year when it’s easy to become distracted. And so, this morning God’s word invites us to ask ourselves the question, “Where is your focus at Christmas?” And the place that teaches us the answers to this question is from the last book in the Old Testament, the book of Malachi. In Malachi 4, we read: ““For look, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will become stubble. The coming day will consume them,” says the Lord of Armies, “not leaving them root or branches.” (Malachi 4:1 CSB17)
So Malachi reminds us what we’ve been talking about for the last several weeks, that Judgment Day is coming. And indeed, it could come at any time. But notice where he goes from there: “2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall. 3 You will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing,” says the Lord of Armies.” (Malachi 4:2–3 CSB17)
Malachi mentions that those who do not repent will be consumed in the fires of hell. But then he speaks those ever-so-important words, “But you.” He let’s them know that Jesus’ righteousness will be their shining sun. God was what they could never be. He was perfect. And sent would send his perfect servant to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. They could not love God perfectly. But about 300 years down the line, when Jesus was born, he could. They could not love their neighbors perfectly. But this coming Savior could. His righteousness would dawn and rise and shine on them. And the healing of forgiveness would be theirs.
But there’s even more. Because Jesus’ righteousness and perfection would be their own, there were effects in their lives. They would be like calves who are let out of the barn. This is the sort of sight that is not too difficult to see at all. You take some calves that are hemmed in and enclosed in barns during the cold winter. And then the spring comes and they don’t just leave the barn. They run and jump around. And if you’ve ever seen this, it’s amazing to watch. For a young calf is not the most graceful animal. If you want to see a graceful animal, maybe a horse might be better to watch. If you want to see joy—pure joy, look at a calf.
Now, my friends in Christ, this is a picture that Malachi paints. And he paints this picture for us. But what does it mean? What is it a picture of? This is a picture of Judgment Day. Judgment Day should be a day of pure, unshaped and unrestrained joy—like calves let out of the barn. But our temptation to sin is that we can can look at the joy in front of our eyes and forget about the better joy in heaven. There is nothing wrong with opening up your Christmas ornaments to put them on the tree and looking to the past to be reminded of your Grandma or Grandpa who gave them to you. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to the very unique worship that happens a week from now when our Children share God’s word with us or on Christmas Eve when we light candles and sing beautiful hymns. But the joy of the present or the joy of the past wipes away your joy of Judgment Day—your joy of the future, there is where the sin enters in.
But that’s how good and gracious the Lord of the Heavenly Armies is. He brings our focus back to where it needs to be. He reminds us that that shining righteousness was not just there for the sinners in Malachi’s time. Jesus’ perfection is our own. For all the times we lost focus and forgot about the joy to come, his perfection and righteousness forgives us and covers us.It is also here for us. And because of that, joy, unshaped and unrefined joy is waiting for us there in heaven, the sort of joy that you cannot wrap in a present or bake in cookies or decorate on a tree.
So, where’s your focus at Christmas? In these words here in Malachi the Lord reminds us to focus our thoughts and hearts forward to Judgment Day. But there’s more. We read: ““Remember the instruction of Moses my servant, the statutes and ordinances I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” (Malachi 4:4 CSB17)
Where’s your focus at Christmas? First, focus on the joy of Judgment Day. But, second, focus on the joy we find in God’s word everyday. Here in these words, notice what the Lord encourages his people to do. He encourages them to remember what Moses taught them.1(Malachi 3:22 BHS-T)}} The word here, “remember” does not just mean to remind someone of something. It’s the sort of action that makes a person take action. When you say, “your hair is on fire”, that’s not just a “for your information” sort of comment. We take action if someone tells us this. Here the Lord of heavenly armies is urging his people to remember God’s word by learning, reading and growing in it. And then he follows up by letting them know why they should remember God’s word: “5 Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.”” (Malachi 4:5–6 CSB17)
The Lord of heavenly armies sends Elijah. In the New Testament Jesus tells us that this Elijah is John the Baptizer. And, as John shares God’s word with the people of Jesus’ day, what happens? The hearts of fathers turns toward their sons and the hearts of sons turn toward their fathers. That is the power of God’s word. It changes people. A guy I once knew, his dad was an unbeliever. And it shouldn’t shock us that his dad acted like an unbeliever. But this son knew his Savior. He knew Jesus great love for him. And that love wasn’t just there for him. It was also there in him. And in that light he was able to look at his dad differently than he did before. And, slowly, as he was able, he shared God’s word with his dad. And then, on his death-bed, his dad confessed his faith in Jesus. And so, through his powerful word the Lord of heavenly armies changed the son’s heart toward his father.
But this too is where we see our temptation to sin. Joy, true, life-changing joy is found here in God’s word every day. But there is such a temptation to replace that joy with different joys. If you find joy lighting candles but find no joy opening up your bibles and finding joy there in reading about Jesus, the light of the world, your focus is in the wrong place. If you study, whether it’s taking out that recipe book to study up and make the perfect Christmas meal or study as you watch Youtube to figure out how to make the perfect Christmas ornament—if you study other books, but find no joy and no time to study God’s word with you pastor, your focus is in the wrong place.
And my dear friends, there is joy, real and true joy there to be found in God’s word. And it’s not just joy that we find at this truly special time of the year at Christmas. It’s joy we find every time we open up our bibles and read them. It’s joy we find every time we sit down with our pastor and go through the details of God’s word. And as we do that, it changes us, for good. But the source of that change is not law. It’s gospel. It’s our Savior Jesus. It’s knowing the great joy he had in taking on human flesh and blood for us, to take away our sins. That is the source of our joy. And the Holy Spirit takes that joy and performs a miracle. The joy that Jesus had for us, as we see that our sins are forgiven, we reach out, forgive and serve others. That’s the only way a man with an unbelieving father could forgive his father and be there for him in his last days. And it’s the only way love will be in our hearts to show true Christian love to others.
And so, my friends in Christ, where is your focus at Christmas? Let your focus be on Christmas on Christmas. But don’t let that be the only place your focus sits and settles. Focus on the joy that will be yours on Judgment Day. And focus on the joy that is yours every day in God’s word. Amen.
1 ”זִכְר֕וּ תּוֹרַ֖ת מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֑י“