Where Does The Law Lead? (Christmas 1)

Jesus in the temple

Where Does The Law Lead?

Where is this going? Years ago there was a child who was taking piano lessons. The teacher had the child begin by learning scales and memorizing key signatures. And the child was patient for a little while. But then, finally when the work of practicing was actually work, the child told the teacher, “where is this going?” The teacher had the child scoot aside on the bench and then played a beautiful, breathtaking piece the child had never heard before. The child then knew where this was going. And he threw himself at the work in front of him. This morning we look at two of the ten commandments. But we do so with a goal. We ask, “where does the law lead?” And God’s word will answer that question. In Exodus 20, we read: 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8–11 NIV11-GKE)

In the words we are reading here Moses is with his people at Mt. Sinai. And there, through Moses, the Lord is giving the law to his people. And, as we are taught in catechism class when we are young, the first and foremost task that is getting done when we look at the ten commandments is that these commandments show us our sin. But my dear friends in Christ, that’s only where we begin with these commandments. They lead to an entirely different place.

So, at the foot of Mt. Sinai the Lord‘s people heard these words, that they should find rest in God’s word. But instead, in their hearts what they found was resistance to God’s word in their hearts. For, to them, the sermons that Moses preached hurt their feelings. And they didn’t like that. The bible study classes he taught were too long to them. But has anything changed? Every faithful preacher of God’s word has to deal with people who get angry when Jesus exposes their sin. And even before he gets in the pulpit, he has to deal with his own sin, Jesus poking and prodding his conscience because of his sin. And every faithful teacher deals with people who make time for food for their bodies, but no for food for their souls. There are herds of people who come into church, but hoards of people who rush out of church, not staying to learn and grow in God’s word. We, all of us, are the same as they were. God commands us to find rest in his word, but instead we find resistance in our own hearts.

When we see our sin, our hearts turn to Jesus. And this morning is an amazing example of how Jesus was different than we are. Where does the law lead? In us, the answer is often resistance. But for Jesus the answer was perfect wonder. What you have to picture when you read these words in our gospel for today is the boy Jesus at 12 years old who is amazed, enthralled, and fascinated at God’s word. And his wonder at God’s word is perfect. In fact, it’s so perfect that, when he starts sharing God’s word with the teachers and professors of the day, they are caught up in Jesus’ excitement and wonder at the word.

Where does the Law lead? It leads to perfect wonder—but not yours. The law leads us to see Jesus’ perfect wonder at the word in our place. The Law leads us to see our gracious, forgiving heavenly Father looking down at us and seeing not our sin of resistance, but instead his son’s perfect wonder in our place. That wonder that Jesus had forgives our sins of resistance. But it does more than that. It leads us to have the same awe and wonder as Jesus had. In the Large Catechism Luther says this:

when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For this Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living. Even if no other benefit or need drove us to the Word, yet everyone should be motivated by the realization that through the Word the devil is cast out and put to flight.1

The law starts out showing us our sin. But it leads us to Jesus, who has had perfect wonder at God’s word in our place. But he also, by his Holy Spirit gives us that same perfect awe and wonder. For we have this promise that God’s word delivers forgiveness, drives out fear, and destroys Satan’s work. The law leads to perfect wonder. But leads also to another place. We read: ““Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12 NIV11-GKE)

In these words God was commanding his people to respect their parents for one important reason: God put them there in a position over them. And with this then, God establishes all authority figures. But instead of respecting them, they rebelled against them. At the end of his life, Moses has to call them stubborn and stiff-necked. For they despised his authority, and through that taught their children to despise all authority.

We too have to confess that we are guilty of this sin. We have not shown our parents respect as we should have. When we are young, either because they embarrass us or we think we know more than they do, we rebel against them. When they are old we ignore them because, yes, once again they are telling that story we have heard them say a hundred times. And all of that is the opposite of respect.

So the law starts by showing us our sin of rebellion. But where does it lead? It leads once again to this boy Jesus in the temple. If there’s ever been a time when you’ve been embarrassed at your parent’s weaknesses and failings or thought you knew more than they did, just look at Jesus. Jesus was perfect and omniscient. And yet, at the close of the gospel for this morning, we hear that Jesus stops teaching the teachers. He humbles himself and obeys his parents and goes home. Look at the pleasing work Jesus did for you. He obeyed his Father in heaven. And that work pleased our Father. He obeyed his parents here below. And that work pleased them. Jesus fulfilled this commandment for us, so that when our Father in heaven looks at us, he does not see our embarrassment at or our rebellion against our parents. Instead, he sees the pleasing work our Savior offered up in our place.

But Jesus doesn’t stop at that. Through his word, the Holy Spirit changes our heart so that that where there was rebellion, there is the desire to follow and worship and please our Father in heaven. And here in the fourth commandment is a beautiful way in which we can get that done. For it is not just work. It is pleasing work. God looks down when we respect our parents by listening to them and obeying them and he is filled with joy, wonder, and awe. For one of the best ways we worship God is by obeying the people sets up to do his work on his behalf. Again, we do this not to appease God’s wrath. Jesus appeased God’s wrath by with his pleasing work in our place. No, we do this purely out of thanks.

And so, musical scales and musical keys lead to the making of a musician. But where does the law lead? It leads to perfect wonder at the treasures there in God’s word. It leads to pleasing work—that I can work by respecting my parents and my Father in heaven is so very pleased with that work. Amen.

1 Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 400.

Jesus Is the Redeemer of Time (Christmas Day)


Jesus Is the Redeemer of Time

Time was my tormentor. When I was growing up we used to visit uncle Ferd and Aunt Leoma. And what I remember most about their house was time. To be more specific, they had this monster-sized Grandfather clock. It would ring so loudly on the quarter hour that everyone had to stop and wait for it to stop before they could continue talking. And at night it was even worse. All us kids had to sleep on the carpet floor in the living room. And every hour, on the hour, the ground would shake and your ears would cry out in pain when it sounded the hour. Time was my tormentor. But I’m not alone. In a different way all throughout all the ages, time has been our tormentor. 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.” (John 1:1–3 NIV11-GKE)

John starts here in a very fascinating place. He lets us know that at the beginning there was this perfect communication—the word. And this word was more than just words and thoughts. It was God himself. Now then, remember what happened in the Garden of Eden. In that garden everything was pure and perfect. But then that serpentine Satan came along and tempted Adam and Eve to sin. And they listened. From that time on time itself was corrupted. Time became the world’s tormentor. God stood apart from and outside that time. Now, if we put ourselves in God’s shoes for even a moment, it might have been tempting to stay away from this world and the corrupted time in it. But, instead, the opposite happens. We read: 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. 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.” (John 1:4–11 NIV11-GKE)

In the same way we might want to avoid a long line at the supermarket or the shopping center because of the extreme waste of time waiting, there would have been a temptation to not come down to earth. But that’s what Jesus did. Jesus came to his own. But his own did not receive him. Instead, they rejected him. For about three decades Jesus was growing up as a Jewish carpenter. And the first ones to not believe that he was the Son of God was his own brothers—his own family. He came to his own people, the Jews. And for the most part they liked his fancy miracles, but wanted nothing to do with his teaching. And think of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law who demanded that he prove that he was the Christ. And then they plotted to put him to death. And Jesus endured this rejection over decades!

But, as you’re traveling through the bible, looking for those who did not receive him and instead, rejected him, don’t forget to look at your own heart. Each of us has a sinful nature. And time itself testifies against us. For when our Savior asks us to serve, that sinful voice inside of us says, “not your time, but mine”. Such selfishness we show. But there’s also laziness. We do what we are called to do. But we it with slow hands and a complaining heart. And we waste Jesus’ time by wasting the time of others around us. And that waste of time goes on every day, month and year of our lives. So the people in Jesus’ day aren’t the only ones who have not received Jesus and instead rejected him. Just as much as time torments us, we use time to torment Jesus. Who will lift this weight of wasted years from our shoulders and hearts? Listen to what John tells us: 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 1:12–13 NIV11-GKE)

Jesus is the Redeemer of time itself. And in these words we see how. Jesus takes on human flesh and blood and willingly waits. Oh, how much he must have yearned to be grown up preaching God’s word as only the Divine Word can do. But, instead, he waits. And he does so willingly and wondrously. And my brothers and sisters in Christ this is good news. For, where we wait restlessly and waste Jesus’ time. He waited willingly in your place and in mine. And that patience payed off. For at just the right time he allowed himself to die for the sins of the entire world and make a payment to take away your sin. The result is wondrous and joyous. Your sins of willingly wasting God’s gift of time to you are forgiven by Jesus’ patience and his payment. And all of this is ours through this gift of faith. But there’s more. John writes: 14 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. 15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:14–18 NIV11-GKE)

Jesus is the redeemer of time through the gift of time redeemed. But he’s also our redeemer through the gift of time restored. Here in these words we see the result of God’s grace. The time that was our tormentor now is our ally. One of the great paralyzing parts of being a human is that we fail, feel horrible about it and then are terrified of moving ahead in the future. If you’ve wasted your time and you are there sitting in the classroom or boardroom and you are completely unprepared for the test or report you are called to do, you can be paralyzed with fear for the future. If you’ve said something mean to someone and, despite the fact that you have apologized to that person and repented to God, nevertheless, time is your tormentor. For time reminds that other person what you did. Jesus took on human flesh and blood to redeem you of the torture and torment that time brings you. And he accomplished that through his patience for you and payment for you.

You are forgiven. From that fact flows so much freedom. We do not have to live in the future anymore. We can boldly go ou there into the world and use the time God has given us even if we might make mistakes and even if we might commit sins. We do not need to live in terror of making a bad choice and as a result we make no choice. No, Jesus has redeemed us from the terror, torment, and torture of time. Time now is a gracious gift to us. So, my dear friends in Christ, live in that freedom. Amen.

Live In The Light (Christmas Eve)

Light Of The World

There Was Light, But Darkness Came

How did I get here? One of the details about moving to MN that they didn’t tell me is that, when you are in the more rural areas, your GPS device doesn’t always have all the roads on it. And so, it’s easy to get lost. But when the darkness comes, if you’re already lost, it makes it even worse. This evening in our opening reading from God’s word we start out by asking that question: how did we get here? There is darkness in the world around us. But how did we end up here? At the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, it was completely good. But, as we read, in Genesis 3, Satan entered our world and brought darkness with him. And so, if you want to begin to understand why our world is perpetually broken, here in God’s word is where you need to look. Only here do we read how this darkness of sin came. Only here do we read how thoroughly it affected humanity. If we look to our own experience or to popular opinion, we might conclude that our world is only broken…a little, or in the darkness…a little. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WW I. They called it the “war to end all wars.” It was so bad that no one thought it could be followed by another, even worse war. No, the darkness of sin is real out there. And the darkness of sin is real inside of us. But in these words we don’t just here where where this darkness of sin began. We also hear of the one who will bring it to an end. The Lord promises that there would be a “he” would end the Satanic Serpent, but at great cost to himself. He would be the one would bring light into this dark world.

They Needed Light

How bad is it? Whether you have a broken bone or you have cancer, that’s the question you ask. You need a diagnosis as to how bad it actually is. The words we are about to read give us a spiritual diagnosis. The spiritual darkness that is out there in the world and in my heart—how bad is it? In the words we are about to read, we meet two brothers. By the end of the day Cain had murdered Abel. But what drove him to it? Where did that darkness come from? It came from the inside. Cain murdered his brother with his hands. But the spiritual darkness inside of us is so real that we murder others with our hearts. Jesus said that whoever hates his brother is a murderer.1 And yet, in the midst of all that darkness, light was promised. Adam and Eve fixed their eyes on that promise of at “he” who would come like people looking at a light house on a dark and terrifying night.

The Light Was Promised.

To you. Sometimes the best and most beautiful theology is found in the pronouns. About 800 years before Jesus was born the Lord promised to shine out and reach out his light to Judah and Israel. And what we need to focus on in these words is those two little words, to you. For there was no reason whatsoever why the Israelites could look forward to the Lord shining out to them. They had broken every commandment and every covenant. They had shattered their relationship with him. But when I read these words from Isaiah 60, listen for those words, “to you.” For the Lord also speaks these words to you. The Israelites aren’t the only ones who have broken God’s commands and destroyed relationships. Who of us can say that our hands are clean? With the words we have spoken and the actions we have taken we have shattered friendships and maybe even family relationships. And that’s why those two words, “for you” are so precious and important. Just as Jesus pays for and forgives the sins of the ancient Israelites, so also he pays for and forgives your sins. So when I read these words written so long ago, don’t hear them as dry, dusty words written for people without your problems. Hear those words, “to you” as precious promises spoken to you.

Jesus Is The Light

Look quickly. You might miss it. Some years ago we went on a family vacation and we stopped at McDonald Observatory. And so, we got to look at the stars through massive telescopes. And at one of the stations where where was a telescope, I got to see a twin star. And the lady at that station kept saying the same words to each person: “Look quickly, you might miss it.” In these words the same is true. There’s a very important detail about Jesus, the Light of the world, spoken. But it’s easy to miss. The angels appear to shepherds in the fields. And then there’s a very important detail they add. But it’s easy to miss. The angels says to the shepherds that Christ, the Lord is there. But then, what is this Christ, and where should they look for him? The Lord of the universe is a baby boy. And they should look for him in a manger. That is a detail that is easy to miss. The angels encouraged the shepherds to look for the King of kings in humble places. And the same is true today. Don’t look for the Light in the rumbling thunders of the sky. Don’t look for Jesus in the powerful yearning emotions of your heart. You will not find him there. Look for the light in these humble words, the bible. Why is it that we come to church Sunday after Sunday; why we take our bibles home and read them to ourselves and to our children? Here in these words is where we find the light. And here in these words we learn of the one who keeps all his promises. One of the greatest proofs of this darkness of sin inside of us is what we do with promises. We make them and then are unable to keep them. Sometimes we make them knowing that we probably won’t keep them. Not so with the bible. The shepherds saw the Christ. And everything they saw was just as the angels had told them. Look for Jesus in the humble places. Look for him in his word. There is where he makes his promises. And since he is the light of the world, he will keep them.

Live in the Light

Some descriptions are beyond our imaginations. Before I was a pastor I had a year of internship. It was called my vicar year. And Karin and I spent that year in the Northwoods of WI. And in that area there were thousands of lakes just as there are here. And what I remember is asking the people there what it was like to get up or go to bed with the light shining off the lake. And all the words they used didn’t seem to get the job done. In these final words from the final part of the bible the same is true. Can you imagine a place where there is no darkness? Can you imagine a place where there is no suffering, sin, death, and despair? Jesus won that place of light for all of us. And in these final words he gives us the invitation to live every day with that light firmly fixed in our minds and hearts. And he does so for a reason. Since we do not see the light of heaven right here and right now in front of our faces, it’s so easy to forget that there is where we are headed. It’s so easy to have the stress of school and work, the busy-ness of life, and even have the blessings that are fun here in this life lead us back into the darkness. No, the light that lasts is not here on earth. It’s there in heaven. There in heaven there will be no darkness of sin. There in heaven we will see those who put their faith and their lives in Christ. There in heaven we will see Jesus face to face. So, my friends in Christ, live in the light every day. Do this by repenting of your sin every day and rejoicing that Jesus is the Light of the world who takes your sin away. And keep lifting your eyes to you home above in heaven where there will be no darkness ever again.

1 cf. Matt 5:21 sq.

What Is The Real Present? (Advent 4)

What Is The Real Present?

Somewhere we lost focus. Many years ago there was a bishop over an area of Asia Minor called Palmyra. This bishop became well-known. He became well known because he stood up against the false teacher, Arius at the council of Nicea. He also became well-known because of what he did in his church and in his community. There was a dad with three daughters. He died. And the three daughters would have been sold into slavery. But this bishop and pastor took these daughters in at great cost to himself and his church. This man was Nicolas, Archbishop of Palmyra. What do we know him as today? Santa Klaus. Somewhere we lost focus. That is our trap as humans, for that is our tendency. And there’s nothing new under the sun. Humans thousands of years ago had the same temptation. We see that in our reading for this morning. In Hebrews 10, we read, 1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1–4 NIV11-GKE)

In the Old Testament God commanded the Jewish people to bring forward offerings. But what happened is their feelings took over their focus. They came to Jerusalem pulling behind them sheep, bulls, and goats. And when they got there they were filled with awe and wonder. They saw the amazing temple and said, this is my temple. Instead of being surrounded by a few worshippers of the Lord, they were surrounded by many. And they said, “this is my people.” And they looked down at that animal and their heart swelled with pride and they thought, “this is my offering.” And the feelings made them lose focus on why they were there. The writer to the Hebrews brings that focus back. Those animals they carried in their arms and pulled behind their backs were not the solution to sin, they were the reminder of sin. They were the promise of the good sacrifice to come, not the sacrifice itself.

They lost their focus because their feelings in their hearts overcame the facts in front of their faces. Isn’t the same true for us? It is ever-so-easy to replace the fact of Christmas with the feelings of Christmas. So what does this look like? We put up red poinsettias and bright lights because it makes us feel right. We eat cookies and cakes because it makes us feel good. We go out and get a tree or bring it up from the basement because that’s what we did when we were children. All of this we do to recapture the feelings of Christmas. Now, before I go any farther, there is nothing wrong with feelings in and of themselves. But when the feelings that surround Christmas cause us to loose focus on Christmas, then it becomes a sin. It becomes a sin in two ways. First, Jesus was not born to make us feel good as if he were a potent wine or a rich cookie. No, instead, the hymn we just sang words it correctly:

Come, O long-expected Jesus, Born to set your people free;
From our sins and fears release us By your death on Calvary.

Just as the goats and bulls in the Old Testament should have been a reminder of their sin, so also, Jesus birth should first of all be a reminder of our sin. But so often we lose focus and conclude that Jesus’ birth is all about good feelings like fancy cookies.

But there’s a second way we fall into sin by replacing the fact of Christmas with the feeling of Christmas. What if you don’t have the proper feelings? How many of remember the immense and intense joy of our Children’s Christmas service? But now, years later those same immense and intense emotions are not the same. Is it real Christmas if I’m not fired up? That’s the trap with losing focus and replacing the fact of Christmas with the feelings surrounding Christmas.

So what’s the real present of Christmas? It’s not frail feelings. That much we know. But what is it? God’s word tells us, 5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.” (Hebrews 10:5–6 NIV11-GKE)

The real present of Christmas is Christ’s humanity. Now, notice where God’s word goes in these words. Usually the present we speak about it Christ’s divinity. Here the present our Father in heaven promises is humanity. That is the present we focus in at Christmas: God gives us a human body to bear sin. I came into this world as a sinner. I cannot kill any animal to pay for that sin. I cannot kill myself or anyone else to pay for my sin. But all of those countless animals in the Old Testament that needed to be killed pointed ahead to Christmas: a human body to bear sin. That, my friends is the real present. But Christ’s humanity gives us another gift: 7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, my God.’ ” 8 First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 9 Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:7–10 NIV11-GKE)

An ancient pastor in the church once said that “that which Jesus did not receive, he did not redeem.”1 God gave a human to us as a present to bear our sins. But he also gave us a human to us as a present to obey our God. We so very easily lose focus. We so easily lose focus on the fact of Christmas and focus in on the feelings surrounding Christmas. But Jesus had a human will that was perfect. He not only wanted to obey his Father, he was actually able to doing what his Father commanded completely and continually. And all this he does in your place.

It might be ok to forget who the real St. Nic is. But this morning don’t forget what the real Christmas present is. God gave to us a real human—a human to bear our sins, a human to obey our God. That is the fact that will bring our focus back to where it needs to be. Amen.

1 ⲧⲟⲁⲡⲣⲟⲥⲗⲏⲡⲧⲟⲛⲁⲑⲉⲣⲁⲡⲉⲩⲧⲟⲛ: Gregory Nanzianzen

Perfect Love is Powerful Love (Midweek Advent 3)

Perfect Love is Powerful Love

What is the perfect way of showing love? Months ago I was watching videos on Youtube. And there was a whole series of videos of wedding proposals gone bad. In one, there was a young man who proposed to his girlfriend in McDonalds. And, I suppose it’s not too surprising to learn, that she did not say, “yes.” If there was an image of perfect love in her eyes, that was not what it looked like. What then is perfect love in God’s eyes?’ That’s where God’s word begins here this evening. In 1 John 4, we read: “And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.” (1 John 4:16 CSB17)

Perfect love in God’s eyes means remaining in him. Now, when John says that simple phrase, “remain in love” he means so much more than the bare meaning of the words on the page. Remaining in God is knowing perfectly and completely who God is: his absolute fairness and his absolute forgiveness. And it means holding that complete understanding in our hearts and minds continually. But there’s a problem with that, isn’t there? John tells us what that is: “In this, love is made complete with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17 CSB17)

God asks us to have perfect love. The enemy of and opposite of perfect love is fear. And the huge source of fear for us all is what John speaks about here: Judgment Day. How am I supposed to love the God who knows that I sin and how much I sin? Fear is the opposite of and enemy of love. But this isn’t just true when it comes to God. It’s also true when it comes to others. How can I show true Christian love towards others when there is real fear in my heart? I am afraid that I’ll mess it up. I’m afraid that, if I reach out and give some caring correction to that person, he or she will hate me. I’m afraid that when I show this perfect love towards another person, if that person knows me at all, he or she will say, “You stop sinning, then you can speak to me about sin.” God calls on us to have a perfect and complete love. But fear drives that out. Fear leads us to conclude that we are doomed on Judgment Day when we face our God and demoralized here as we face those in our every day lives. But look, my friends in Christ at what God says next: 18 There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:18–19 CSB17)

Fear drives out love. But notice what God’s word tells us here: Perfect love drives out fear. And then John makes is clear the sort of love that he is speaking about. God’s love for us is the first love. Here, the word, “first” isn’t just first in time, it’s also first in priority. It’s first and foremost. When we start talking about perfect love, where do we need to start? We cannot start here in our hearts. Instead we need to start there in that child placed in a manger. We cannot start here on earth, we need to start with our Father’s love for us in heaven. That’s the priority: first look at God’s love for us in Christ. That love that he has for us drives out our fear toward him. For, if Jesus was born as true God and true man, and if he lived a perfect life in my place and died in my place, then all my sins are payed for and forgiven. And we can look forward to the Day of Judgment with peace and joy in hearts. the first place we go to; the foundation we build on is God’s love for us. And that love is a powerful love. Because of that love we are able to worship our God and lift our eyes above to him with a clean and clear conscience. One of the things we forget is to put ourselves in God’s shoes. That is risky sometimes. But here it is useful and even necessary. God loves us and proves it at Christmas. And because of that he does not want us to be afraid of him. I remember when I was a child there were two things my dad got angry at: fixing the car in the garage and when we children messed up. And I remember him walking into the living from from the garage with that determined look of pain and anger on his face. So I did what every child who wants to survive would do. I cried out in fear and ran into the corner, remembering that I had done something wrong and that Dad had, no doubt, found out. And when he saw me run to the corner, he stopped and stared at me. And the face full of anger became the face full of pain. For no one wants to be the father that is feared and people are terrified of. It’s true of our earthly fathers. It’s also true of our God above. His love for us drives out all fear. We are forgiven. So we can look up to him boldly with love towards him in our hearts. But John also directs our love in another direction. We read: 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20–21 CSB17)

Perfect love is powerful love. It’s powerful as I show that love to God. But it’s also powerful love as I show love to others. How terrifying it is to want to reach out in love toward someone in our lives, but yet realize the problem is me. In the book of James it says, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:10 NIV11-GKE) What happens when, out of love for that person in our life, we say, “you need to stop lying” and then that person says, “you need to stop cussing”? What do we do? How do we show love toward that person? Notice where John directs our focus. We love because he first loved us. Again, not just first in time, but first in priority. Knowing God’s perfect love for us gives to us a powerful love toward others. For we are able to say, “I apologize for my sin for Jesus has forgiven that sin.” And those words are powerful. They are powerful because the person we are speaking to realizes that we are not speaking down to them. Those words are powerful because they show that, if God can forgive a sinner like me, he can reach out and stretch out with his perfect love and forgive that person too. And that sort of love frees us with its power. Instead of being afraid of showing love towards others, we are free because we know that God has forgiven us and God has forgiven the person we are speaking to.

And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, love others just as Christ has loved you. But don’t start out there at home or at school or work. Don’t start with your love for others. First and foremost, start with God’s love for you proved to you in God taking on human flesh. Amen.

This Is Love (Midweek Advent 2)

This Is Love

Christmas is love. As someone who has to work with words as a calling and profession, ads have always fascinated me. You only have 30 seconds (or less). And you have to artfully and concisely tell your audience what you have and why they should want to buy it. Lately, as I’ve been listening to internet radio channels, the ads let me know that Christmas is all about love. And, if were in doubt as to what love is, the ad tells me. Love is buying that product for the person in my family. If I buy that item, then I love my family. But it does bring up a good question though, doesn’t it? What is love? This Advent we have as our theme: \textsc{Lord Jesus, Come To Us…in your love.} And this evening we see what true love is. In 1 John 4, we read: 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7–8 NIV11-GKE)

What is love? Here in these words, notice how the sort of love John is speaking about here is a different sort of love than we speak about in english today. We can say, “I love my wife; I love my dog; I love pizza” and use the same word. Here the meaning is much more specific. We are taught at our Seminary to not drag the Greek and Hebrew into our sermons and bludgeon our hearers with those words. Here, however, is a good exception. This is a word worth memorizing. The word is, “agápe”.1 It means, to bring out the best in the one you love. Now, notice how this is a bit different than how we might use the word today. Because if you show this sort of love, you might sometimes even hurt the feelings of the person you are showing love to. A mom with a two-year-old slaps the hand of the child who has just picked up a candy off of the ground. She hurts the child’s feelings. But she does this for his good. She does what is best for him.

That is what love is. But, as John continues with these words, he is very practical. He lets us know that we don’t just have this love as children of God, we also can use this love. We can use this love as a test. How do we know the difference between true preachers of the word and false ones? Do they do what is best? A televangelist asks for your money. But does he visit you in your home and give you the Lord’s Supper when you cannot get to church? It’s a test for those on the outside of these walls. And it’s a test for those on the inside of these walls. Do we love each other enough to speak the truth in love, correcting each other’s sins? Do we love each other enough to speak those precious words of forgiveness even when the hurt is real? What is love? Love has a definition. Love does what is best for that which it loves. But there’s more: 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9–10 NIV11-GKE)

This is love. Love has a definition. But, as John travels on, we see that love also has a foundation. If you really want to see what this sort of love looks like, you need to look above to heaven and behind you in time to Christmas. True, “agápe” love is the Father sending his Son to take on human flesh and blood to give us eternal life. The foundation of this love is not us loving God. Instead, the foundation of this love is God showing this sort of love to us. God’s love for us is the foundation of true love because before we can love others we need to know that we, ourselves, are loved—and loved in a specific way. We need to know that our sins are forgiven. The times that we should have corrected our fellow Christian, but found it so much easier to say nothing. The times we should have forgiven our fellow Christian but didn’t. We need forgiveness for those sins. And true love is shown to us in this fact: Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for those sins and all the others. This is love. Love has a foundation. The foundation of love is not what we do for God or others. The foundation of love is what God has done for us in Christ. But John continues: 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:11–12 NIV11-GKE)

This is love. Love has a definition: that which does what is best for the one we love. Love has a foundation: God loved us enough to send and then sacrifice his own Son for our sins. But here in these words we see that love also has an effect. As we ponder his love shown to us, then the Holy Spirit strengthens our new person inside of us to show this Christian love to others. And then that love that we show to others ends up be a proof that we are Christians. Now here is where we need to stop for just a moment. The love that we show to others is not the first or the biggest proof that we are children of God. Proof that we are Children of God starts with our Triune God and what he has done for us. But, as the Holy Spirit changes our hearts through his word day by day, we naturally and spontaneously reach out and stretch out in love toward each other. And there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that this is love. But even this love is a gift from God and it did not start or come from us.

And so, my dear friends in Christ. Love has a definition: doing that which is best for the person we love. It has a foundation: God’s love for us. And it has an effect: the Holy Spirit providing proof that we are his children. Amen.

1 “Ⲁⲅⲁⲡⲱⲙⲉⲛ” (1 John 4:7 GNT-ALEX)

The Messenger Will Come Back (Advent 2)

The Messenger Will Come Back

The best stories are the ones you don’t know. One of the great parts about watching a new movie is that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Is it a sad story that ends up happy? Is it the opposite? Is it a story that you know the ending to, but you wonder how they get there? In all of these movies what glues them all together are clues and context. This morning we walk through the first part of Malachi 3. And what glues and binds this part of God’s word together is clues and context. So let’s look at them: “See, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the Messenger of the covenant you delight in—see, he is coming,” says the Lord of Armies.” (Malachi 3:1 CSB17)

The Messenger of the covenant will come back. That’s the main fact the Lord tells his people. Who is this? In order to answer that question we have to put together the clue and the context. In the Old Testament the Angel of the Lord—the Messenger of the covenant appears at many important times. And it would take many hours to thoroughly lay out who this is in detail. But let’s take for as an example what we walked through on Thanksgiving Eve. In our sermon on Thanksgiving Eve we heard about a man named Jacob. And all throughout one dark night there was a messenger who wrestled with him. This messenger was from God, but also was God. This messenger was clearly God. But, in a miraculous way, he was also a man. Now, let’s put the clues together. Can you think of anyone who is both God and sent from God—someone who is both God and fully human? This is one of these beautiful parts of God’s word that shows us that Jesus is the Angel of the Lord. And that this Messenger of the Covenant would come back. But the real question for the Old Testament believers was this: were they ready for his return? We read: 2 But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will be able to stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s bleach. 3 He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord as in days of old and years gone by. 5 “I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the hired worker, the widow, and the fatherless; and against those who deny justice to the resident alien. They do not fear me,” says the Lord of Armies.” (Malachi 3:2–5 CSB17)

These Old Testament believers yearned for and were excited about this Messenger of the covenant coming back. But they shouldn’t have been. For they were not ready. We have these words fulfilled for us in the life of Jesus. Here in Malachi we learn that this Messenger of the covenant would go to his own house. And Jesus did exactly that. And when he went to his Father’s house, what did he do? He wove together a whip with slow-burning anger and drove out all the people from the temple courtyard. And here in these words in Malachi we see why he whipped them. They wanted to be in God’s presence. But they didn’t want to do so with repentance. They lied. They lusted. They lived for themselves—and themselves alone.

All of this I have been speaking about them at that time. But what about us? Jesus, the Messenger of the Covenant, will come back to judge the living and the dead. Are we ready for that? See, the great trap we can fall into as New Testament believers is to pine away and plan for Jesus arrival at Christmas and on Judgment Day the same way they did: without repentance. What about our lies, our lust, our living for ourselves. A friend of mine texted me, letting me know that the church he used to go to in Indonesia fell prey to a terrorist attack. And my first thought was, “I guess that’s what you get for living over there.’” I had this great opportunity to grieve with and pray for our fellow Christians. But instead, my thoughts were only of myself. How easy this is for us, isn’t it? The Messenger of the covenant will come back. But are you ready? Look at where these words go from here: “Because I, the Lord, have not changed, you descendants of Jacob have not been destroyed.” (Malachi 3:6 CSB17)

What is amazing about these words is how they don’t seem to fit at all here. In these words the Lord is getting angrier and angrier. He is listing one grievous sin after another. And we would expect the conclusion to be a promise to destroy. But, instead of punishment, we hear a promise. The reason we are not destroyed is because the Lord does not change. We change. We make promises and do not keep them. But Jesus does not. From the beginning, God made promises—promises that he would keep—promises that would save us from our sin. Think of the promise he made to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Satanic Serpent would kill Jesus. But Jesus would then end Satan. Christmas is the beginning of that promise. Good Friday and Easter are the end of that promise. And for that reason, we are not destroyed. Jesus whipped the people he saw in the temple. But because he kept his promises, he was the one who was whipped for them on Good Friday. The Lord told them that they were not destroyed. And the only reason that was true was because Jesus’ body was the one that would be destroyed on Good Friday. He made a promise to pay for their sin and he kept it. For that reason, we have every reason to look forward to the Messenger of the covenant coming back. And in our final words, the Lord gives us a reason why: “Since the days of your fathers, you have turned from my statutes; you have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Armies.” (Malachi 3:7 CSB17)

The Lord ends with this gracious invitation: Return to me, and I will return to you. This is a reminder to us to look behind us at Christmas, and the baby Jesus placed in a manger. But even more so, we look ahead and above. For the people yearned with such joy to have this messenger of the covenant come back. But my friends in Christ, Jesus will come back. Because of this, our yearning ahead and above should be far more than our yearning behind us. Think, for example, of the Christmas hymn, Now Sing We, Now Rejoice. In the final verse, we sing:

Oh where shall joy be found?
Where but on heav’nly ground?
Where the angels singing
With all his saints unite,
Sweetest praises bringing
In heav’nly joy and light
Oh, that we were there!
Oh, that we were there!

The hymn writer invites us to wish that we were there. And, my friends in Christ, take him up on that invitation. But don’t stay there. For the Messenger of the covenant still has more promises to keep. Look ahead and look above. For Jesus will come back to be with us forever. Amen.

You Have Conquered With The Truth (Midweek Advent 1)

St. John the Evangelist

You Have Conquered With the Truth

How do you know? Just a few short weeks ago we cast our votes and our local and state representatives were chosen. But one of the parts of that process that got to be really frustrating were the ads. You would hear one ad saying “Bob Jones hates you and all people.” And with an ominous voice the ad would tell you how bad that candidate was. And then, the opposing candidate would do the same. And at the end of the month leading up to it you end up asking the question: how do you know what the truth is? The words we find ourselves in this evening have much the same context. But the issue the Holy Spirit brings to us is not politicians, but instead, preachers. In 1 John 4, we read: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1 CSB17)

John the Evangelist tells us that just as we shouldn’t believe every ad we hear or every article we see on the internet, we also should not believe every spirit. And he makes it clear in this verse what he means by the word, spirit. The spirits here are false prophets. And here it’s important also to understand the context in which John is speaking. The false teachers aren’t those on the outside of the church. Those on the outside of the church were a real threat. But that’s not what he’s speaking about here. Here in these words he’s speaking about false teachers on the inside of the Christian Church. And so, what John says is true: We are not to believe everyone who calls himself a Christian and preaches some semblance of the truth of God’s word. Instead we are to test them. But what is the test we should use? John tells us: 2 This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.” (1 John 4:2–3 CSB17)

The litmus test, the knife that cuts through all the confusion is this: Does that preacher present all of who Jesus is? John places in front of us this amazing and massive truth that we celebrate this time of year. If we ask the question, “who is Jesus,” the answer is that Jesus is both fully and completely God and also fully and completely human. That’s the test. That’s the tool we can use to filter out false from true teachers. At Jesus’ conception there was one person, but there were two natures. Jesus was both fully God and fully human. And at the moment of his conception, Jesus continued to be both God and human forever.

Now all of this sounds like simple theology that we know already and can quickly pass over. But it’s not. There are two huge ways false teachers get this wrong. First, they are offended at Christ’s humanity. Long ago, Martin Luther had a long discussion and debate with a man named Ulrich Zwingli. And at the end of their long discussion, Luther and Zwingli agreed on 14 out of 15 theological points. That’s pretty good, right? But Luther refused to be in fellowship with Zwingli. He refused to commune with Zwingli because Zwingli said that, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ body and blood weren’t there because Jesus body was at the right hand of God in heaven. Luther was frustrated that Zwingli couldn’t accept the clear and plain words Jesus spoke in the upper room, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” But what frustrated Luther even more was Zwingli’s lack of understanding of Christology. In Christ, there is one person. But there are two natures. Now think that through for a minute. Where Jesus is, both his divine and human nature are. Jesus doesn’t cease to be human in the Lord’s Supper simply because Zwingli wished it to be that way. Or to put it differently, what frustrated Luther was Zwingli’s lack of understanding of what happened on Christmas, not Maundy Thursday. And how did Luther arrive at this conclusion? He used the tool and test that John speaks about here. If a preacher is a true teacher he needs to know and teach all of the truth about Jesus, that he is fully human.

And this is a temptation we can fall into as well. Just as Zwingli was offended at Jesus’ humanity in the Lord’s Supper we can be tempted to be offended at Jesus’ humanity too. What happens so soon after Jesus is born? Our Savior has to run. And not only does he have to run, he is so frail and helpless as an infant, his parents have to carry him down to Egypt. It’s easy to be offended at how frail and human Jesus really is.

But the other part of the test is just as real. Jesus is fully human. But he is also fully divine. If Jesus isn’t God then you don’t have to be accountable to God. When Jesus says, “do this,” you don’t have to listen. When Jesus says, “stop that,” you don’t have to listen. But if he’s really God, then you have to listen.

So this test of confessing that Jesus is both one who has come in the flesh and is also from God is not just useful for seeing the false teachers out there. It’s also useful for seeing the false teacher in here, my heart. And that’s why the words which follow are so important to us as we prepare for Christmas: 4 You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.” (1 John 4:4–6 CSB17)

You have conquered. What a strange statement to make to people who had been conquered by false teachers out there and the false teaching in their own hearts. They hadn’t conquered anything. But look what John does: Christ has conquered in our place. And now he gives that victory to us. And that’s a victory that we need. We need a Savior was completely and perfectly human to pass this test that we cannot get straight. And that’s what Jesus did. The boy Jesus goes to the temple at age twelve. And in the final verse of that section we hear how he grew and became strong in wisdom.1 Jesus knew who he was and grew in that knowledge—even when we did not. And his growth covers our lack of understanding. And through that growth we can say that we have conquered.

We need a human to grow in wisdom in our place. But we also need a God to die for us. There is no human, no matter how perfect that person might be, who can take away the sins of the world. The only payment that can pay for our sins of not wanting to obey our Good and Gracious God is the payment that only God can provide. And this child that was born grew up and died. And Jesus, as fully human and fully God, died. And God said, “amen” to his payment. And so, because of that, we can say that we have conquered. Amen.

1 “ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐκραταιοῦτο πληρούμενον σοφίᾳ” (Λουκᾶν 2·40 THGNT-T)

What Does Righteousness Bring? (Advent 1)


What Does Righteousness Bring?

Some sentences seem simple, but are really scary. For example, let’s say that you get a letter from the IRS. And in that letter it says that they’d like to have a look at your records. You wouldn’t think there would be any reason to become afraid when you read those words. But all of us know there is more to those words, don’t we? Those words carry the unspoken message with them, “we’re checking your records. And if we find that your records are in error, there will be consequences.’” I mention this because, here, now, at the beginning of a new year, God’s word in our first reading from Jeremiah makes a statement that sounds fine on its own. But if you do even a little more study you realize that these words are actually quite terrifying. In Jeremiah 33, we read: 14 “Look, the days are coming”— this is the Lord’s declaration— “when I will fulfill the good promise that I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a Righteous Branch to sprout up for David, and he will administer justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:14–15 CSB17)

In these words the Lord was promising to come to them with righteousness and justice. And what was terrifying about this is that the people to whom Jeremiah was writing knew what those words meant. For the Lord spoke those sorts of words in their grandparents’ time. In that time, about 722 BC, the Lord had the Assyrians come down and destroy the 10 northern tribes. And he did that in the name of his righteousness and justice. And if they missed the weight and meaning of those words in their grandparents’ time, then they could not miss the meaning of those words in their own time. For, in the name of his righteousness and justice the Lord brought the Babylonians down against the two remaining tribes. Their own armies were killed by the Babylonians. And the rest were enslaved. And thousands were forced away from their homeland to be slaves in Babylon. And all of this happened in the name of the Lord’s righteousness and justice.

Maybe we should take a step back and define this word. What is righteousness? And what does it bring with it? Righteousness is a word that means holiness and perfection. But there’s more to it than that. It’s the sort of perfection that cannot tolerate imperfection in anything it comes in contact with. It’s the sort of perfection and holiness that deals with those who have unholiness and non-perfection in the same way a bug-zapper deals with mosquitoes and moths. It consumes them. That’s why this seemingly innocent statement of the Lord establishing his righteousness and holiness would have been terrifying to those people who had been conquered and enslaved by the Babylonians. For the Lord had invited them to repent for hundreds of years. And for hundreds of years the Lord’s people turned their back on them. So he brought his righteousness against them.

But if we ask the question, what does righteousness bring, it shouldn’t just terrify them. It should also give us pause to ponder the word in our own time and in our own context. The Lord is holy. We are unholy. The Lord is sinless. We are sinful. The Lord cannot tolerate sin. We cannot get rid of our sin. When humans consider this fact, there is a distinct trap they can fall into. The trap is to conclude that the Lord tolerates, looks the other way, and is OK with our sin. For example, one of the statements you can hear churches saying is, “Come as you are.” There is some truth to this statement. God wants—really truly wants all people to come to church and hear and learn about him. But sadly, there many out there who conclude that we say “come as you are,” what we mean is the Lord tolerates my sin, looks the other way, and, at the end of the day, is OK with my sin. But the bible says, “our “God is a consuming fire.”” (Hebrews 12:29 NIV) Righteousness brings wrath. And our temptation is to fall into the trap of not seeing the true terror that is contained in that one word, righteousness, if we are not careful. For if the Lord did not hesitate to kill and enslave his people in the Old Testament twice when they did not repent, he is ever-so-willing to do the same with us today.

What does righteousness bring? It brings wrath. But, my dear friends in Christ, there is more to this word than just wrath. In the first verse we read, the Lord told us that he would fulfill the good promise he spoke. And in our final verse we learn more about this promise: “In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely, and this is what she will be named: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:16 CSB17)

Righteousness brings wrath. When it comes it destroys sin and anyone who contains sin. But what if a miracle happened? What if the Lord shielded us from his wrath? What if he covered our lack of righteousness with his own righteousness? What if the Lord could remove and replace our sin with his own righteousness and perfection? What then? Then the Lord could come to us and there would be no need to destroy us. And that’s the point that the Lord is making in these final words. In an amazing promise the Lord tells desolate Jerusalem and rebellious Judah that the Lord’s righteousness is now our righteousness.1(Jeremiah 33:16 BHS-T)}} This then is another answer to the question. What does righteousness bring. Yes, it brings wrath. But it also brings redemption.

And so, my dear friends in Christ, when you look ahead several weeks down the road to that little baby placed in the manger, what should you see? See God’s righteousness. But also see that his own righteousness is now our own righteousness. See a child that will buy us back for him. See a king that will die like a slave. See a God who is now also a man.

See redemption when you look at Christmas Day. But also see redemption when you look at the last day. In our gospel for this morning, Jesus says, 27 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near.”” (Luke 21:27–28 CSB17)

So what does righteousness bring? The Lord’s righteousness brings wrath. And this moves us then to repent of our sin, not making our Lord accept and approve of our sin. No, we ask our Lord to purify us of our sin and pay for it. And that too is what Jesus’ righteousness brings: redemption. Amen.

1 ”יְהוָ֥ה ׀ צִדְקֵֽנוּ“