Accepting the Ash Heap

Text: Job 1:8-21

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week we began with the book of Job and we talked about the tremendous losses that Job suffered. Just to refresh your memory here is a quick recap: In a single day Job lost 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 female donkeys, almost all of his servants, his 7 sons, and his 3 daughters. In a single day all of it was gone.

The amazing thing about the first chapter of the story of Job is not, however, the tremendous loses Job suffered or how quickly they happened. The truly stunning thing about the first chapter of the story is how Job responds to it all. When messenger after messenger came running towards him with more and more terrible news the tremendous weight of all of this loss must have been overwhelming for Job. We could hardly blame him if some off color words slipped out of his mouth or at least popped in his head. I can only imagine the kinds of words that could come flying out of my mouth if I were in Job’s place. I dare say I would not want to repeat those words here. But Job says no such words. Job does not curse or swear, there is no foul language, and there is not even a single angry word. Job simply says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

How could Job speak this way after he had lost so much? There is only one explanation. Job’s words here are not really Job’s words at all. These are the words of the Holy Spirit speaking through Job. These are the words of faith, faith created, nurtured and sustained by the Holy Spirit, in Job’s heart that hold fast even in the midst of so much suffering and misery. Though God has allowed the devil to take his shots at Job, though God has allowed everything except Job’s own life to be taken from him, God has not abandoned Job. Even here in the ashes God stands by his beloved servant Job and strengthens his faith so that he can bless the name of the Lord who has allowed all of this to happen to Him. The Holy Spirit give Job faith to believe that though some of God’s earthly gifts have been taken from him and even though he suffers in this life nothing can take away the gifts of eternity that God has given to him in Christ Jesus. It is this faith, is faith in Jesus Christ, which makes Job able to accept the suffering that has come upon him.

Accepting suffering is no small matter. Job’s words and his willingness to accept what has happened to us amaze us because we know we would likely not react the same way. We know that if we were in Job’s place that our words would not likely be so ready to accept this suffering. Perhaps we’d say something like, “Why me? Why is this happening to me? Why are you doing this to me, Lord? What have I done to deserve all this?” This is what Job can teach us here: how to accept suffering.

The first key to Job’s acceptance of his suffering is that by the working of the Holy Spirit he understands that everything he had in life was a gift from God. Even here in the midst of his sorrow he understands that God has given him everything that he has. In the Small Catechism Martin Luther says that,

“God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.

 

Clearly God has given each of us a great deal of good in this life. Everything that we have comes from Him. He gives all of this to us freely as a gift. We don’t deserve any of the good gifts He gives to us and yet, out of Fatherly, divine goodness and mercy God continues to give us our “daily bread.”

Job, strengthened by the Holy Spirit and recognizing that God has given and continues to give us so much, understands that it is only reasonable that if we want to accept the good that our Lord is so eager to give us we will also have to accept the bad that comes from time to time. This is only reasonable.

So often, however, we lose sight of this reality and we begin to think that we are owed something. This is especially true when we suffer. We begin to think that God owes us an explanation or that God owes us a cure or that God owes us an apology. The reality, however, is that no matter what befalls us, no matter how much we suffer, it is us who owe God a life time of thank and praise simply for the life and breath that we have in us.

The second key to Job’s acceptance of suffering is that the Holy Spirit has given him faith to see beyond his earthly suffering and loss and to trust in the promise of Christ Jesus for life everlasting. If all Job knew about God is that He gives earthly gifts for this life and sometimes takes them away there would be little hope there. Who knows whether or not God will give or take today? Where is the assurance? Assurance and hope come from another place, from another gift that God gives, a gift that will never be taken away. That gift, the gift that gives assurance and hope even in the bleakest of circumstances, is our Lord Jesus Christ. God has given us His Son and through Him has given us eternal gifts: forgiveness, life, and salvation. Though so much has been taken from him in his earthly life, though he suffers so much, Job knows that the gifts of life and salvation, the gifts of eternity, which have been to him through Christ will never be taken away.

We can see everyday the gifts that God gives to us: food, clothing, house, home, and everything else. But God our Father gives us more than just earthly gifts for life in this world. He has given us a far greater gift in the gift of His own dear Son who gives life in eternity. Through His death and resurrection we have been given a new lease of life in this world through the complete and total forgiveness of our sins and we have been given the sure and certain hope of a new life in eternity. The Lord has given this to us as well without any merit or worthiness in us. To say that the Lord gives is an understatement!

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered for sin in our place, we have, literally, everything. Though we may be poor in this world we are rich. Though by worldly standards we may be fools we are wise. Though we may be weak we are, in fact, strong in Christ. We have the Kingdom of God. Nothing, no amount of suffering, pain, or anguish in this life can take His gifts away from us. Martin Luther said in his famous hymn, “Were they (that is, the powers of evil in this present world) to take our house, goods, honour, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day, the Kingdom’s ours forever.” Lots of things can be taken from us in this life. We could lose 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys, and all 10 of our children in a single day. We could lose our health, our wealth, and our prosperity and still we would have the good gifts of the Kingdom of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can take that away from us.

“The Lord gives.” He gives a lot, more than we can begin to imagine and understand. He gives us life in this world, forgiveness in this world, and life in the next world. He gives and gives and gives. And yes, “the Lord takes away.” But He never takes His Kingdom and the life that we have in it for the sake of our Lord Jesus from us. As we suffer in this life may these realities remain in perspective. May the Holy Spirit gives us faith with Job to accept the sufferings that befall us and say with faith, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Jesus name. Amen.

 

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Sacrifices

Text: Genesis 22:1-18

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are many reason why I am not and will never be an Olympic athlete. If I started listing all the reason now we could be here until next Sunday. But, aside from the simple fact that I lack the necessary athletic skill required to compete at such a high level in any sport, I think that the biggest reason I am not and will never be and Olympic athlete is that I am completely and totally unwilling to make the sacrifices that Olympians make to get to the highest level their respective sports.

When you watch the Olympics you hear the stories of the sacrifices those athletes have made to get to where they are. Some moved away from their families at a young age to be closer to coaches and training facilities where they could hone their skills. Others had to segregate themselves from their friends and peers as they chose a more rigorous and disciplined life than the average teenager or young adult. All of them put in hours of training and working out to build their strength and skill so that they could compete with the world’s best. All of them had to make the healthy lifestyle choices that we all know that we should make so that their hard work would not be undermined. They all made sacrifices. For me the sacrifices would be too much.

All the sacrifices that Olympians make to reach the pinnacle of the sporting world, however, pale in comparison to the sacrifice that God askes Abraham to make in our Old Testament reading today. God doesn’t just as Abraham to train and work harder in life. He doesn’t ask Abraham to make healthier lifestyle choices. God doesn’t just ask Abraham to lead a more disciplined life than the people around him and shun the frivolities of life. God doesn’t even just ask Abraham to move away from his family. Abraham has actually done that already at God’s command. No, this time God askes Abraham to sacrifice, to kill, his beloved son Isaac. If ever there was a sacrifice that was just too much this was it.

For many, many years Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children at all. God had promised, however, that He would make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants. “They will be as many as the stars of the night sky,” God had promised. And God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be more than just a big family. Through the great nation that would descend from Abraham God had promised to bring a savior for all mankind, our Lord Jesus Christ. One of Abraham’s descendants would be the one who would crush the head of the serpent, break the curse of sin, set free those trapped in the devil’s might, and destroy death itself forever. This is the promise above all other promises! But for many years Abraham and his wife Sarah didn’t even have one child let alone many.

In their impatience and distrust of God’s plan Abraham and Sarah came up with a plan of their own. Abraham had a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Ishmael was his name. But this still wasn’t the descendant that God promised. About 13 years later Abraham and Sarah finally had that child that God had promised. Isaac was born. The child of the promise. The descendant of Abraham through whom the savior would come. Now Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and through Isaac’s descendants God had promised to send a savior into the world. Everything was looking up.

But family tension got in the way. Sarah became jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and she pressured Abraham to send them away. This broke Abraham’s heart, how could he send away Ishmael his son? But God promised to care for Ishmael and his mother so Abraham, broken hearted though he was, sent them away. At least he still had his son Isaac and the promise from God for a savior remained intact. Then the unthinkable happened.

God, the same God who promised to give this child to Abraham and Sarah and who promised to send a savior from Isaac’s descendants, commanded Abraham to make a sacrifice. Take your son, your only son Isaac (remember Ishmael had been sent away already!), whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Think about what Abraham is being asked to do. He is being asked to do more than simply kill his own son. To kill his own son would be an unimaginable sacrifice, but Abraham is being asked to do more even than that. He is being asked to kill his son through whom God has promised to make a great nation and send a saviour. He is being asked to kill the hope of a saviour for all mankind. This is a truly impossible sacrifice.

Each of us, I think, would be unwilling to make that sacrifice. Each of us would be unwilling to sacrifice our own child and would be unwilling to kill the child from whom the saviour of the world is promised to come. But Abraham sees more than we do. At many points in his life Abraham gets a lot of stuff wrong. He does a lot of things that he should not do, but in this moment Abraham gets it right. In this moment Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things. Abraham fears God and knows God’s Word is to be obeyed. Abraham loves God even more than he loves his own son. Most importantly, Abraham trusts God and believes that even in something as terrible as this God can and will bring about good. Abraham trust that even if Isaac is dead and buried God will raise him from the dead and keep His promise to send a saviour through Isaac.

Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God as he sets out with two servants and his son Isaac for Moriah. Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God as he sees in the distance the fateful mountain and commands the servants to stay behind. Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God as he answers his son’s heart wrenching question, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering, father?” Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God as he lays out the wood, binds his son, and prepares to offer the sacrifice. Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God as he stands there with the knife in his shaking hand ready to do something that he will never be able to life down.

What would you do if you were in Abraham’s place? I can only speak for myself, but I know that I could not do what Abraham was asked to do and I imagine that you couldn’t either. And what it comes down to is this: unlike Abraham we do not fear, love, and trust God above all things. That is the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. But we don’t.

There is good news for you today, however. First of all, God has not and will not ever ask you to do what He asked Abraham to do. He will not ever ask you to make that impossible sacrifice. God does not desire the death of any sinner nor does He desire any kind of human sacrifice. Secondly, Abraham didn’t have to actually make that sacrifice either. Instead God provided the necessary sacrifice. Finally and most importantly, the ultimate good news for you is that God has provided a sacrifice for you as well.

As Abraham stood there over his beloved son Isaac ready to do the unthinkable an angel of the Lord appeared and commanded Abraham to stop. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him,” the angel said, “for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Notice the change in voice there. This angel says, “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from ME.” This is no ordinary angel. The angel of the Lord speaking to Abraham is none other than the Son of God Himself. This is Jesus before he took on our flesh and blood in the womb of the virgin Mary. Jesus steps in, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” He says, “because now I know that you fear and love and trust in Me above all things.”

Abraham had passed the test. At God’s request he had been willing to do the unthinkable. He really did fear, trust, and love God above all things. Abraham turned around and there, caught in the thicket, was a ram. Abraham untied Isaac, helped him off the wood pile, and sacrificed the ram in his place.

That ram that was trapped suddenly in the thicket behind Abraham was just a ram, but it symbolizes so much more. While we struggle with sacrifices in our own life and marvel at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son; while we rejoice that God stepped in at the last minute to save Isaac from being killed; while we thank God that we will never be asked to do what Abraham was asked to do we need to realize that God our Father has done this very thing. He has indeed sacrificed His only begotten Son. He sacrificed His Son who just last week we heard God’s voice from heaven declare to be His beloved Son. He laid this, His beloved Son, on the wood of the cross and allowed wicked sinful men like ourselves to kill the Son of God. No one stepped in that day. No one intervened. There was no animal to be a substitute. There couldn’t be. The Son of God had to die for my sin and yours. He was the sacrifice in our place.

There are sacrifices in our lives as Christians. Jesus, the Son sacrificed for us, calls us likewise to take up our cross and follow Him. That is a calling to a life of sacrifice. Like Abraham it is a calling to fear, love, and trust God above all things as we sacrifice things in this life that we value, love, and cherish for the sake of following Jesus. But above all our Christian faith is not about our sacrifices. It is about God’s generous, loving sacrifice that would save us from sin and death. For us, who fail daily to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, He has provided the sacrifice that brings forgiveness and life. Thanks be to God in Jesus name! Amen.

Welcome to the Ash Heap

Text: Job 2:1-8

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Why the ashes? Have you ever wondered that? If you have you are not alone. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are often misunderstood. Some people think the ashes are like a blessing or an evangelistic tool as we go out into the world with ashen crosses on our heads for the world to see us. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I remember getting excited last year at the beginning of Lent because the host of a sports talk show that I like to watch had written an article about why he wears ashes on his forehead on Ash Wednesday. He is a Roman Catholic and for him the Ash Wednesday ashes were so significant that he would even wear them on TV as he hosted the show, so I thought that he might just lay it out once and for all in a way that people might finally listen and understand. When I started reading, however, I was disappointed. He talked about the ashes being an important part of his culture and religious heritage. He talked about it being an important part of his family’s traditions. He talked about it without ever really talking about what the ashes themselves really meant.

When you get right down to it the ashes represent death. Those of you who came forward to receive ashes this evening heard me say the following words to you, “Remember you are to dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words might sound familiar. At the cemetery when we bury our loved ones we hear the pastor say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” as we commit the body to the ground. Those words trace even farther back to Genesis chapter 3 as God speaks to Adam after he and Eve had been deceived by the serpent, disobeyed God, and eaten the fruit from the tree. There God says to Adam, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Because Adam and Eve had disobeyed God they would surely die. They would die and their bodies, which had been formed from the dust of the earth, would decay and return to the dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

So you see, the ashes on Ash Wednesday are a pretty somber thing.  They are not a blessing or a tool for telling people about Jesus, they are a bitter reminder that each of us, just like Adam and Eve before us, have rebelled against the Lord our God and are dying. They are a reminder that life is short and difficult. They are reminder that we all will die. We wear ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind ourselves of these things and to repent, confess our sinfulness, and seek God’s forgiveness.

As we journey through Lent this year with Jesus towards Calvary, the cross, and the empty tomb on Easter we will journey alongside a man named Job. Job lived many hundreds of years before Jesus was born, but he knew well of the promised savior who would die for the sins of the world. Job also knew ashes. He knew ashes really well.

Job was a righteous man in the eyes of God. He wasn’t sinless, but he knew of God’s forgiveness and trusted in that forgiveness. The devil made it his mission to destroy Job’s faith, however, so he attacked Job in every way imaginable. In a single day pretty much everything that Job loved and cared about in the world was taken away from him. First one of Job’s servants came running from the field to tell him that his oxen and donkeys, along with all the other servants in the field, were all dead. Then another servant came to tell him that fire had rained down from heaven and killed all of his sheep and shepherds. Then another told him that all his camels had been stolen and the servants working with them killed. And then, if all that were not enough, last of all Job was informed that his children, all ten of them, had died when a great wind tore down the house in which they eating a feast together. In a matter of minutes everything Job owned, all his servants and animals, and his entire family was gone.

Amazingly, all of that was not enough to shake Job’s faith. The devil had not succeeded in his quest. After all of that Job still worshiped the Lord. So the devil, relentless as he is, took one more shot at Job. There was nothing left to take away from Job now, so the devil attacked his body. In an instant the last thing that Job had left, his health, was taken away from him. He was covered from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head with painful bleeding, itching, cracking, and oozing sores. With every movement a new sore cracked open and started to bleed. There was nothing left for Job to do now – everything had been taken away from him – so we grabbed a piece of broken pottery and sat down in the ash scrapping his sores.

None of us have had it as bad as Job, but we all know a bit of how that feels. We’ve all been those kinds of circumstances that, like Job, drive us to the metaphorical ash heap where we realize that we are frail human beings and everything we love most is fleeting. It is there we see the effects of our own sinfulness and what rebellion against God has brought us. When a loved one dies and we weep and mourn there we are alongside Job in the ashes. When life falls apart and our livelihood is ripped away from us there we are with Job. When our bodies begin to fail and we start to realize that they are breaking down faster than we would like we are right there beside Job in the ashes. Honestly, somedays we hardly need the ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Life does a pretty good job sometimes keeping our frail humanity in view. The effects of sin, the ashes of life, are all around us.

As somber as the ashes are, however, and as much as Job felt the bitter sting of what those ashes meant, there is a blessing in them. As these ashes remind us of our human frailty, the fleeting nature of life itself, and our own sinfulness we find in them a Saviour who came to rescue us from the ashes. This Saviour, the one whose journey to the cross we begin to follow this evening, threw Himself into the ash heap for us. He came, not under compulsion or force but out of His abundant love, into this ash heap of a world and took on the frailty of our human nature so that he could rescue us, sinners though we are, from this bitter life of ashes, dust, and death. And this is what He has done for you and me. The ashes are ashes and they are bitter, but those ashes on your forehead form a cross. The cross of Christ who died to save you from death. You are dust, you are ashes, but from the dust and ashes you will rise with Jesus.

Even Job, as He sat there in the ash heap, knew this truth. In the midst of his turmoil he cries out with hope, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” Job knows his Saviour, his Redeemer, his Jesus lives. He is risen from the dead to give the hope of new life to all who are in the ashes of death.

Today we remember this good news in the bitter ashes. In life, when we end up in the ash heap with Job, we recall this good news as well. It doesn’t end with ashes. The pastor at the cemetery says, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but it does not stop there. The pastor goes on, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus.” We are ashes. Our lives are fleeting. We are all dying. We are all sinful. But we have a Saviour, Christ Jesus our Lord, who has rescued us from this fleeting, sinful life. He has died and risen again to give us life. In His name. Amen.

Like Moses But Better

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our Old Testament reading today is one of the most important parts of the Old Testament. We read from the book of Deuteronomy and we heard Moses tell the people of Israel that God would raise up from them a prophet like himself (Moses) to lead them. “To him you shall listen,” Moses sternly commanded them.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a farewell sermon given by Moses. Moses is saying goodbye to the people of Israel and using this opportunity to teach them one last time the ways of the LORD. The people will be entering the Promised Land very soon and Moses knows that he will not be entering that Promised Land. God has made that abundantly clear to Moses. Despite Moses’s pleas that he be allowed to enter that land God has repeatedly said no. So standing near that Promised Land and knowing that his remaining time on this earth is short Moses speaks to the people to remind them of everything that has happened to them so far and how God has saved them time and time again. Moses goes to great lengths to remind the people of God’s commandments for them. Most of the book of Deuteronomy is a rehashing of God’s law, but in the middle of this farewell speech, shoved in between various laws that Moses is remind the people of, is this promise that God will raise up a prophet like Moses to lead his people.

The very last chapter of the book of Deuteronomy records the death of Moses. When Moses had finished his farewell sermon he appointed Joshua to take over as the leader of the people of Israel in his stead and the he sang a song and blessed the people. After that he went up a mountain where God let him see from a distance the Promised Land that he would never be allowed to enter and there, up on the mountain, Moses died. With Moses gone the people of Israel were left waiting for this “prophet like Moses” that the Lord God had promised to raise up for them. This last chapter of Deuteronomy ends on a somber note as the author of this final chapter of the book laments that “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses whom the LORD knew face to face…”

To be sure, in the years, decades, and centuries that followed God raised up many prophets for His people, but none of them was like Moses. None of them were known face to face by the Lord. None of them went up on the mountain like Moses did time and time again to talk with God. None of them spoke God’s Word with the authority with which Moses spoke. That is, however, until we come to our gospel reading today.

In our gospel today Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. In the gospel of Mark this is the first recorded instance of Jesus teaching. The people in the synagogue that day were amazed when they heard Jesus teach because they had never heard anyone teach like that before. “He teaches with authority!” the people marveled, “Not like the scribes and the other teachers.” Not only that, but when an unclean spirit starts to speak out against Jesus, Jesus simply speaks that the spirit is cast out of the man it has been possessing. Jesus’ word is so authoritative that even the unclean spirits, the demons, obey it! The people are in awe. “Could this be the prophet like Moses that was foretold so long ago?” they wonder. Indeed it is, this Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, is the prophet “like Moses” that the LORD promised to raise up for His people hundreds of years before.

There are many prophecies in the Old Testament about Jesus. Many of them are familiar to us too. But this one, the “prophet like Moses,” might not be so familiar. For us today it is helpful, I think, to ponder a little bit how Jesus is “like Moses” and what that means for us. In many ways Jesus is “like Moses,” but in many other ways Jesus is so much more than Moses.

The similarities between Moses and Jesus start in their infancy. Before they could walk, talk, or so anything else Moses and Jesus found themselves is eerily similar life threatening situations. When Moses was born the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. They lived under harsh conditions and the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, tried to repress the people. Despite his best efforts, however, the people of Israel continued to increase. So the Pharaoh decreed that every male child born to the people of Israel would be thrown into the Nile River. This despicable plan put Moses’ life in danger. God, however, preserved Moses and kept him safe floating among the reeds in a basket until he could be found and rescued by the Pharaoh’s own daughter.

When Jesus was born Magi came from the East seeking to worship Him. They stopped in at the palace of Herod to find out where the child who was “King of the Jews” had been born. Herod, jealous of any other who would claim to be king and paranoid about any threat to his throne, ordered that all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 were to be killed. Jesus and his family escaped to Egypt where they were kept safe until Herod was no longer a threat to the child.

The more significant similarities come when both Moses and Jesus are fully grown and begin to carry out the work that the LORD has prepared for them to do. Moses is sent to Egypt to rescue the people of God from slavery to the Egyptians. Through him the LORD would thwart the evil plans of the Pharaoh and bring His people out of slavery into a new land where they could live as the people of God.

Jesus did not come to set us free from some earthly power or overlord, but He came to set us free from the power of a far more dangerous enemy. Christ came to set us free from slavery to sin and death and to thwart that evil plans of the devil himself who would destroy us. Christ gave His life as a ransom, a payment, to free us from slavery to sin and by His resurrection destroyed the power that the devil would claim to have over us. In Christ, like the people of Israel led out of Egypt by Moses, we are free.

Moses led the people of God through the water of the Red Sea on dry ground and the LORD used that water to wash away the Egyptians who had oppressed them. Jesus rescues us through the water of our baptism where, just like the evil Egyptians who pursued the Israelites, our sins that haunt, plague, and pursue us were washed away and drowned, never to be seen again.

Out in the wilderness Moses went up on the mountain where he saw God face to face (at least kind of…). When he came down from the mountain after 40 days his face glowed with the reflected glory of the LORD in whose presence he had been all that time. The people of Israel were afraid to even look at Moses because they knew that his face shone with the reflected glory of God Himself. After Moses told them everything that God had said to him he put a veil over his face to cover that reflected glory so that the people would not be afraid to look at him.

Jesus too shows us the glory of the Father. His glory, however, is no reflected glory. He shows us the face of the Father Himself. When one of Jesus disciples, Philip, said to Him, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus replied saying, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” And the glory of the Father that we see in Christ is not a glory that causes us to tremble in fear. It is not a glory that we need to cover with a veil so that we will not be afraid of it. Jesus shows us the loving, forgiving, merciful face of the Father as He hangs on the cross bleeding and dying for the sins of all humanity, for our own sins. There we see the Father’s face and we know most clearly His love for us.

Moses came down the mountain with a message from God. That message was carved into two tablets of stone. Ten Commandments spelling out the very basics of their relationship with the LORD their God who had rescued them from slavery. You shall have no other gods. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD you God. Remember the Sabbath day. Honor your father and mother. You shall not murder. And so on. These commands set an un-keepable standard. Even before Moses made it down the mountain the people had already broken the first command crafting an image of gold that they could worship. For such disobedience there would be consequences, eternal consequences. For our disobedience there are consequences.

Christ comes to you and me today with a different message. His message does not abolish the message of Moses, the Law that condemns and punishes disobedience, but instead it fulfills it. Christ Himself keeps the Law and the commandments that you cannot keep. He lives them perfectly throughout His life. And then, according to the will of His Father in heaven, He dies for your disobedience. Taking your punishment on Himself. As a result, Christ comes to you today with a very different message than that of Moses. Christ’s message says, in short, “You are forgiven.”

We could go on and on comparing Moses and Jesus. The similarities are many. But this is the key point. Christ comes as the prophet like Moses, to bring you the authoritative word of God’s forgiveness. Way back when Moses told the people that God would send this prophet like himself he said, “it is to him you shall listen.” Christ is that one, that prophet like Moses, it is to Him we shall listen. Listening to Christ is no burden, however. His message, His Word, is of forgiveness and life. Let us gladly listen to those words and rejoice in Him. For Jesus sake. Amen.

God’s Word Works

Text: Jonah 3:1-10

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

This past Fall I had some poster made for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One was a map of Germany at the time of Martin Luther, the other was a copy of the 95 Theses printed in English. Having never had a poster printed before, I was quite proud of how these posters turned out and because I was proud of how these posters I was determined to find a way to hang them on the wall here at the church without putting any holes in them or sticking any sticky stuff on them that might not come off.

One day at Superstore I found suction cups with clips to hold posters. These were no ordinary suction cups, however. The package claimed that they worked that 1,000 little suction cups all in one. They could hold on any surface, the package said, and they even came in bright fancy colours. I was sold. Surely these will hold up my posters and keep them safe, I thought to myself.

Sure enough, I brought the suction cups back to Christ Our Saviour and when I tested them out they worked. The posters were up on the wall and they were undamaged. However, the next day when I came back to the church one of the posters had fallen. It was a little wrinkled now, but I assured myself that it could be flattened out again. Things got worse when I tried to bring the posters to Redeemer, however. The walls in the basement at Redeemer are not smooth. The suction cups barely held on for a few minutes before the posters started to fall. But then I remembered the little wax clips that we have at Redeemer. Could something so simple, so basic, so old fashioned really hold these, my beautiful new posters up on the wall without damaging them? I didn’t really think it would work, but I was desperate so I gave them a try. Sure enough, they held. They held really well. For weeks on end my precious posters stayed there, undamaged, hanging on the wall for all to see. The simple, old, little clips worked.

I think people sometimes think about God’s Word, the Bible and the preaching of it, the same way that I thought about the wax-backed clips. God’s Word seems like something that might work, but it is also kind of old, outdated, seemingly irrelevant. Could God’s Word really work in our lives and in the lives of others? Don’t we need something better, more relevant? Like the clips, the old, outdated, seemingly irrelevant word of God is in fact the only thing that will work in our lives and in the lives of others. 

This truth is displayed wonderfully in our Old Testament reading today. Today we heard about the prophet Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to a city called Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were the great world power of the day and they were a constant threat to the people of Israel. Kings of Israel and Judah had to pay tribute to the kings of Assyria just to keep the Assyrian armies away. Needless to say, the people of Israel did not like the Assyrians very much. Neither did Jonah.

Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew that if he went there and proclaimed God’s Word to them there would be a chance that God might forgive them. That is after all what God is known for. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Even for the people of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t like that idea, so Jonah hopped in a boat and tried to sail away to a place called Tarshish. On the way a storm came up and the boat that Jonah was in nearly sank. Jonah realized that this storm was his fault because he was running away from God so Jonah told the sailors to through him into the sea. The sailors didn’t want to do that, but after a while they had no choice. The storm wasn’t letting up. They threw Jonah into the sea.

God wasn’t done with Jonah though. God sent a whale to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of that whale before it vomited him up onto dry ground. That is where we meet Jonah in our reading today. He is sitting on the shore, covered in whale vomit, stinking to high heaven, and rejoicing to be back on solid ground when the word of the Lord came a second time to Jonah and said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message I tell you.” This time Jonah went.

But when Jonah gets to Nineveh he remembers that he really doesn’t want to be there and that he really doesn’t want to preach God’s Word to them. As Jonah enters the city he does start preaching, but he makes kind of a half-hearted effort. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Jonah calls out time and time again as he walks through the city. But that’s all he says. No explanation, no interpretation, no application, just this same call again and again. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Jonah, the runaway prophet, doesn’t really want the people of Nineveh to get the message. But Jonah, as unenthusiastic as he is and as much as he doesn’t want the people of Nineveh to hear his message and repent, is preaching God’s Word and God’s Word works.

The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s uninspired preaching. They hear his one line sermon. They hear the call that he does not want them to hear. They hear and they repent, all of them. There are 120,000 people living in Nineveh at that time (a large city in those days) and all of them, from the least to the greatest, repent. Jesus Himself never preached a sermon that had such a great effect on so many people at one time. Even the king, the highest authority in the city, hears about Jonah and his message and he repents too. The king orders that every single citizen in the city needs to fast and put on itchy, uncomfortable sackcloth clothing. The king even orders that the animals fast and wear sackcloth too. The whole city is going to repent. “Who knows,” the king says, “maybe God will forgive us and we will not be destroyed.” God does forgive them. God sees their repentance. God does relent. God does not destroy them.

There are all kinds of things that we can take out of the story of Jonah, all kinds of themes that apply very clearly to our lives, but today what matters most for us is that God’s Word works.

The book of Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word in the Bible or as we hear it preached to us by pastors is a living thing. It is a powerful thing. It is like a sword that cuts us to the heart with the accusations of the law and then binds us up and gives us life through the good news of the gospel that Jesus our Lord has taken our sin upon Himself.

God’s Word convicted the people of Nineveh and showed them their sin even though Jonah’s preaching was not particularly inspired. God’s Word also proclaimed to them the forgiveness of sins as God relented over the disaster. God’s Word worked.

There are two ways in particular that I think this applies to us today. First of all, in the Christian church these days there is a constant desire, it seems, to find new, more effective ways of reaching out to the world around us. While that is an admirable desire, there is a danger that we end up forgetting that God’s Word is the only thing that has the power to change the hearts of people. Our world today is not all that different from the city of Nineveh back in Jonah’s day. It never has been, the world has always been like that. In ancient Nineveh God worked through the boring, plain, uninspired preaching of a discontented prophet and changed the hearts of all the people. For us today, as we seek to reach out to the world around us, God’s Word and the preaching of it is the only thing that will change the hearts of people and bring them to the same repentance and faith.

Secondly, in our own lives we tend to take God’s Word for granted. In the Small Catechism in his explanation of the commandment that says we should “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” Martin Luther says that this means that we should “fear and love God so that we do not despise His Word or the preaching of it but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Have you taken up God’s Word as the life giving Word that it is and gladly heard and learned it at every available opportunity? Have you held it sacred? For all of us answer is inevitably, no. We, like the people of Nineveh, need to repent because God’s Word is not something to be ignored or discarded. It is the living active Word of God that works in the hearts of believers.

The ultimate proof that God’s Word works lies in Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. He, the spoken word of God through whom the entire universe was made, took on flesh and accomplished His work on the cross bringing salvation to the ancient people of Nineveh in Jonah’s day and to you and me today. He works even now in our hearts bringing that same repentance and faith that He brought to the people of Nineveh to you and to me. He works to forgive our sins, even our sins of despising the Word, and to give us life. Like the people of Nineveh, God has relented and turned from the disaster that we have brought upon ourselves with our sinful ways. He has forgiven us for the sake of Jesus and promised us life in His Word.

God’s Word works. May we hold that word sacred and gladly hear and learn it every day of our lives. And may we invite others to hear that word with us so that they, with us and the people of Nineveh, can be forgiven and rejoice in the promises of life through our Saviour, the Word made flesh. In Jesus name. Amen.

Come and See

Text: John 1:43-51

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Daddy, Come and see!” With three small children at home I hear those words with some regularity at home. Very regularly at least one of the kids discovers something that I simply must come and see right away. Most of the time, however, the things that I am invited to come and see are not particularly exciting. A few days ago it was a speck of white paint on the window that had probably been there since our home was built. “Daddy, come and see!” I heard as the speck was discovered. Yesterday it was a truck backing into a driveway, “Daddy, come and see!” And that is just the beginning of it. There is constantly something that needs to be seen right away in our house, apparently. Most of these things, however, arenot particularly awe inspiring. Most of them are not really, truly, things that I must come and see.

Other times, however, there is something that I really must come and see. Other times someone has done something bad like coloring on the wall that really does need to be noticed. Other times someone has gotten themselves into something that they should not be doing. And other times someone has done something truly remarkable that is worth noting and celebrating. I never know if the thing I am invited to come and see will be worthwhile or not, but I get the invitation quite regularly.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel there is a similar invitation. In our gospel reading today as a man named Philip invites his friend Nathanael to come and see Jesus. Nathanael wondered at first if seeing Jesus would really be worthwhile, but he soon came to see that Jesus was more than he had ever imagined.

It all starts, however, with Jesus finding Philip. Jesus went up from the Jordan River where we heard last week about His baptism to Galilee and there he found Philip. As Jesus approaches Philip he says only two words, “Follow me.” Amazingly, Philip does exactly that. Philip believes. Philip follows Jesus. Before he does, however, Philip first goes and finds his friend Nathanael. He invites Nathanael to follow Jesus too. “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip is convinced it seems, that Jesus is the real deal. He is the one that that Old Testament talked about, the one that God promised to send, the one that Moses and the prophets wrote about, He is the Saviour.

Nathanael is not convinced, however. This Jesus fellow that Philip is so excited about is from Nazareth. The messiah is not supposed to come from Nazareth, even Nathanael knew that. Nazareth is basically the middle of nowhere. Not only have no significant people ever come from Nazareth, but Nazareth isn’t even mentioned in the Old Testament. No one ever talked about a messiah coming from that place. No one ever talked about that place at all! “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael wondered aloud.

Now, put yourselves in Philip’s shoes for a minute. You have just found the person that you believe is the messiah, the Saviour of the world, (or, better yet, that messiah/savior has found you!) and you are really excited about it. In fact, you are so excited that you run off to tell your friend before you leave to follow this savior that you have found. Then, when you try to share the good news with your friend who you know is looking for that same messiah and savior his first reaction is to doubt and question the good news that you bring. How would you react?

On the one hand it would be tempting to just walk away. “Suit yourself!” we might say. “At least I tried,” we might say to ourselves. We don’t want to let this doubting fellow ruin our excitement after all.

On the other hand it would also be tempting to try and argue and convince our doubting friend with logic. “You don’t understand, this guy is the real thing,” we might plead with our doubting friend. “How dare you say something like that about my savior!” we might snap back.  After all, we wouldn’t want to let someone talk about Jesus like that.

Notice, however, that Philip does neither of those things. When Nathanael raises his doubts when he seems to rain on Philip’s parade of messianic excitement all Philip says is, “Come and see.” He invites Nathanael to come and see Jesus.

I imagine that you know some people in your life who are kind of like Nathanael. In fact, we are all kind of like him sometimes. I imagine that you know people with doubts and questions. I’m even more certain that you know people in your life who do not believe that Jesus is the Saviour that the Bible proclaims Him to be. What are we, as people who do believe that Jesus is the Saviour, to do about those people? How do we respond to the people who doubt? How do we respond to the people who do not believe? Here we can follow Philip’s example. Like Philip we can invite them to come and see.

What would happen, do you think, if you invited one of those people to come and see? What would happen if you invited them to a Bible Study or to church on Sunday? Well, the first possibility is that they would say no. That would be unfortunate. But what if they said yes? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

What would happen if they did “come and see”? What if they came to church? Well, of course, they might not like the service, they might not feel comfortable, the pastor’s message might not make sense to them, they might not like the songs, or something else like that. Those are all possibilities. But what if did hear the message? What if God’s word spoke to their heart? What if they heard it and the Holy Spirit gave them faith and they believed? What if they were convinced? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Imagine how much we would rejoice to have that person join us a fellow believes in Christ. Imagine how much joy there would be in heaven over that one person who believes. Jesus says that there is joy in heaven over every sinner who repents and believes the good news! The angels in heaven rejoice at such things! Imagine, we, by inviting our friends and family to come and see, could be part of such great joy.

Philip invited Nathanael to come and see Jesus. Nathanael came and he saw Jesus. Nathanael left a believer. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming He called him a “True Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael thought that was a strange thing for Jesus to say because Jesus didn’t even know him. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. “I saw you,” Jesus said, “under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now Jesus wasn’t anywhere near that fig tree. He wasn’t hiding in the bushing spying on Philip as Philip went over to talk to Nathanael. But Jesus, being God in human flesh, sees things and knows things that we do not know. Nathanael, who doubted that anything good could come from Nazareth, now believes. “Teacher,” he said, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Imagine that. Nathanael the skeptical doubter all of a sudden believes.

How could such a simple thing convince a skeptic like Nathanael? It’s not like this was the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed. Seeing someone under a fig tree hardly compares to turning water into wine or walking on water let alone rising from the dead. How does Nathanael all of a sudden believe? The Holy Spirit has worked in His heart to create faith. That’s the only explanation. That is the only way anyone ever believes in Jesus.

“Do you believe because I saw you under the fig tree?” Jesus asked, “You will see greater things that these. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Such a simple thing convinced Nathanael, but Jesus promises much more. He promises that His disciples will see heaven opened. They will see the angels going up and coming down from heaven. They will see the Son of Man, Jesus Himself, die on a cross and rise again. They will see eternal life opened up for everyone who believes in Him.

You and I we come and see today. We see heaven opened and we join in singing with the angels and archangels. We see Jesus our Saviour as He gives us Himself in the sacrament of His body and blood. But greater things even than these He has promised to us. He has promised paradise itself where we will join with the angels in heaven in the feast the never ends. We come and see today so that we will be prepared to see that day. May we, with all eagerness and joy, invite others to come and see so that they may see that day with us. In Jesus name. Amen.

Baptismal Revelation

Text: Mark 1:4-11

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

During my first year of seminary I wrote a paper for one of my classes on the story of Moses and the burning bush from Exodus chapter 3. It’s an intriguing little story, I think. Moses is minding his own business tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when all of a sudden off in the distance he sees a bush that is on fire. The strange thing is that the bush is not being burned up. The flames keep burning, but the bush is not consumed by them. As Moses draws closer to check out this strange situation a voice echoes from the bush and tells Moses not to get any closer. “Take off you sandals,” the voice says, “this is holy ground.”

From there a conversation begins between Moses and the voice in the bush. The voice, of course, is God. God speaks to Moses and sends him back to Egypt to be the one who would lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Moses, understandably so, has some objections and concerns. Finally, however, the deal is sealed when Moses asks the voice from the bush, “What if the people ask me who sent me? What should I tell them? What is your name?” God responds from within the burning bush and says, “I am who I am. Tell them that ‘I am’ sent you to them.” With the name of God given to him and after a few more promises and encouragements are spoken Moses sets off to Egypt.

The paper I wrote on this story focused on what God revealed about Himself there in that conversation with Moses at the burning bush. What did God reveal about Himself to Moses and consequently to us? Unless you are interested in the ins and outs of Hebrew grammar and the forms of Hebrew verbs it is not a particularly interesting paper to read, so I will give you the gist of the whole thing and spare you the effort of reading it yourself. God reveals to Moses there at the burning bush that He is the God of the past, present, and future. He is “I AM.” He is a God who acts for His people. He is a God who saves His people.

Throughout the Scriptures we find time and time again God revealing Himself like this to His people. Sometimes, like it was with Moses at the burning bush, it is through a miraculous appearance. Other times it is simply through how God acted in history. Time and time again God reveals Himself as the God who acts in human history to save His people. We now enter the season of Epiphany where, on the heels of celebrating our Saviour’s birth, we consider what this child born in a manger who has been given to us reveals to us about God.

As I thought about these things this week I kept coming back to that story of Moses and the burning bush. Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a revelation from God? Wouldn’t it be nice if we, like Moses, could have a little “face to face” chat with God (even if it is through a burning bush) so that we could have this kind of revelation about God for ourselves? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have that kind of certainty that would come from an encounter like that? Wouldn’t it be nice to know so clearly, so directly who our God is and what He has done for us? Wouldn’t it be nice if He would reveal Himself like that to us?

It would be nice to have that kind of revelation from God. Better yet, it is nice to have that kind of revelation from God. You see, whether we realize it or not, God has in fact revealed Himself to us in that very way. Like Moses we have received from God a glorious revelation of who He is and what He does for us. We have the certainty of knowing our God clearly and directly. The Lord our God, the same God who revealed Himself to Moses, has revealed Himself to us in our baptism.

This morning our gospel reading takes us to Jordan River to see Jesus baptized by John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t give us a lot of details about how that all went down, but three essential points are there. First, when Jesus comes up out of the water the heavens are opened. Second, from the heavens that have been opened the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove and descends on Jesus. Third, the voice of God the Father from heaven proclaims that this is His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased.

Each of these three points are important to consider on their own. First, as the heavens open we see the reason for which Jesus has come. He comes to take away everything that separates mankind from God. Mark says here that the heavens were literally “torn” open. He uses the same word that he will later use to describe what happens to the temple curtain when Jesus dies on the cross. There the curtain that separated man from God was torn forever. Here, at Jesus baptism, the heavens that have separated man from God since Adam and Eve’s fall are torn apart as Jesus comes up out of the water of baptism.

Second, as the Holy Spirit comes down we see God marking Jesus as His anointed Saviour. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah the Lord says this about the Saviour that He sends, “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon Him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Here, in the waters of baptism as the Holy Spirit come down upon Him, Jesus is marked as the chosen servant of the Lord who comes to bring this justice.

Third, as God’s voice proclaims from Heaven that Jesus is His beloved Son we see that Jesus is, in fact, God in human flesh. The child born of Mary is no ordinary child. He is the only begotten Son of the Father full of grace and truth. He is indeed the one through whom the entire world was made. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River reveals all this to us about Him. But there is more going on here than just that. We could read this story and simply take in the facts and say, “Yes, I believe all that about Jesus to be true,” and we would be doing a fine job understanding this baptism story. We would at the same time, however, be missing the point. Jesus was not baptized in the Jordan River simply to show you who He is, He was baptized in the Jordan to show you who you are as a baptized child of God.

Everything that happened when Jesus was baptized happened to you when you were baptized. When you were baptized the heavens were opened. When you were baptized the Holy Spirit came down. When you were baptized the voice of God in Heaven said “You are my beloved son/daughter, with you I am well pleased.” When you were baptized it all happened. It didn’t happen in the same visible way for all to see that it did when Jesus was baptized, but it happened. Our eyes may not see it, but our faith believes it.

Think about what this means for a minute. When you were baptized God opened up heaven to you. Even though your thoughts, words, and actions ought to guarantee that the gates of heaven be shut to you forever, even though like Adam and Eve before us we deserve to be barred from paradise, God at, your baptism, tore open heaven for you for the sake of Jesus who died to tear it open for you.

When you were baptized God poured out His Holy Spirit on you. Even though we are so often filled with a different spirit, the spirit of self-interest, self-preservation, and self-gain, God would pour out His Spirit on us and make us His own servants.

When you were baptized God called you His beloved child. Can you honestly say that everything you have done today is worthy of God saying He is well pleased with you? Of course you can’t and neither can I. And yet God said it the day you were baptized and for the sake of Jesus says it again today: “With you I am well pleased.”

How often do you think about your baptism? Not often I imagine if you are anything like me. Perhaps it happened so long ago that it hardly seems like a relevant memory (if you remember it at all). Perhaps it seems like just a nice, symbolic thing that we do for little babies to include them in church somehow. Perhaps it seems like just a ritual. Perhaps it seems that way, but it is not. When you were baptized God work through the combination of His powerful Word and plain, ordinary water to bring about a glorious revelation, an epiphany, of Himself toward you. There in the water heaven was opened to you, the Spirit descended on you, and God called you His child. We ought to think about our baptism (whether we remember the details of it or not) much more often. It is not irrelevant. It is not symbolic. It is not just a ritual. It is a miraculous revelation, an epiphany from God, toward us. Like Moses and the burning bush, there in the water and in His Word God performed a miracle and revealed once and for all His love and forgiveness for you. He has opened heaven to you. He has given His Spirit to you. He has called you His own. All of it for Jesus sake.

Think about these things. Remember these things. God has revealed Himself to you when you were baptized and there He showed His eternal love to you. You can be sure of that. In Jesus name, Amen.

On The Verge

Text: Romans 8:31-39

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

Their journey had been long, and they had seen a lot along the way. They longed for this trek to be over and to finally reach their new home. As with any journey there were troubles that arose as they went, but they had made it through those. There had been arguing and complaining, but those things had passed. Finally, they were approaching their destination; finally they would be able to settle into their new home. The Israelites were at last coming to their Promised Land, the land that their God had promised to give to them, a land flowing with milk and honey where they would live peacefully and enjoy prosperity.

In Egypt the Israelites had been slaves and they were worked hard day and night building things for the Pharaoh. Their suffering was great and they called out to God to rescue them out of this slavery. They begged God not to forget the promises that He had made to their father Abraham. And God, of course, had not forgotten. He heard their cries and sent Moses to lead the people out of slavery. He performed signs and wonders before the Pharaoh, but the Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the people go. Even when he did finally relent and let the Israelites leave he chased after them to the Red Sea, but God delivered His people and took them through the sea on dry ground, the sea crashed down around the Egyptians. God’s people were saved. Since then they had been journeying on towards the land that God had promised to give them.

And at last they were very close. They had reached the border of this new land and the excitement was at its peak. They eagerly looked forward to this new land that God had given to them. But before they entered this new land God told Moses to send some men into the land to spy it out and see what it is like. The spies stayed in the land for forty days, determining what it was like, what kind of foods could be grown there, and what kind of people lived there. When they came back to the camp they gave their report to the people. “It’s a good land,” they said as they showed the people the fruit of the land and the things that grow there, “But, the people who live there are strong and mighty, they have powerful cities with walls, if we try and enter this land we will be defeated. They are stronger than us and we cannot win against them.”

Hearing this news the people of Israel went into an uproar. “What are we going to do now!” they shouted, “We cannot defeat these people and take over this land, if we try we will all end up dead, why could we have not just died in Egypt, or at least out in the wilderness rather than being killed by the people of this land.” Then they had an idea, “What if we just go back to Egypt, things weren’t so bad there, I bet the Pharaoh will be happy to have us back.” And they began to talk about picking a leader to replace Moses, one who would lead them back to Egypt.

But one of the spies, Caleb, disagreed with the assessment that the other spies had given. Sure the people in the land are strong and powerful, but Caleb remembered all that God had done for His people already. Had God not shown His power by rescuing the people from Egypt to begin with? Parting the Red Sea was a pretty good example of what God can do for His people. He was certain that if this was the land that God was giving to His people then He would help them conquer it. So Caleb said to the people, “the land, which we scouted out, is a very, very good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us.” Caleb trusted in the Lord and knew that if God was with them no one could stand against them. God would deliver His people against seemingly impossible odds and He would give them this land.

Just as the Israelites stood on the border to their new land, we stand on the verge of a new year. Looking into this new land that God was supposedly going to give to them they were filled with doubt and fear. How do we feel standing on the verge of a new year?  How does 2018 look for you? Perhaps you feel optimistic about the year to come. Or maybe you don’t. The people of Israel saw the obstacles before them that seemed impossible to overcome. Maybe you can relate to that too. From their perspective the odds were stacked against them and there was no way that this was going to work out. It was time to pack up and go home, this journey had reached its end and things had not worked out.

How do things look for the Christian church and us who are in it for 2018? Every year that passes in the world today seems to bring more and more obstacles for God’s people. Our faith is mocked and ridiculed as something ancient that we are delusional enough to hang on to. Not too long ago our country’s governor general said that very thing.

And it is no secret that our churches are shrinking. Churches everywhere are getting smaller and smaller and some have to close. We can see it in our church too. On Christmas Eve I spoke with people who remembered how full the church used to be for the service. They have to set up extra chairs for everyone. Last Sunday evening the church was not so full. It can be discouraging to see and it is getting hard to see sometimes how all of this might work out. Maybe we feel like we are on a sinking ship, or as Paul says in Romans chapter 8, that we are just sheep to be slaughtered. Sheep with little hope and whose end is coming soon. We stand at the verge of another year and wonder what this year will bring for God’s people.

But Paul, like Caleb before him, encourages us to be confident and trust in the Lord, because “if God is for us, who can be against us?” God had been with the Israelites and brought them out of Egypt, He had part the sea for them to pass through, He had feed them with bread from heaven in the desert, and now He had led them to their new home. If God was with them, which He clearly was, how could anyone stand against them? Certainly, God would deliver His people and follow through on His own promise.

In the same way, we can be confident as God’s people because we know that our Lord is with us and that He will deliver us. How do we know that God is with us? Well for starters we just celebrated Christmas, and those celebrations continue on. At Christmas we celebrate the fact that God took on human flesh and lived among us. That is reflected in one of the names that the angel who visits Joseph gives to this baby that will be born of Mary: Emmanuel, which means God with us. Jesus Christ is God with us. And if God is with us then who could ever stand against us? The short answer: no one.

And if we want more proof then we just look thirty some odd years down the line and see what that little child now grown into a man did for us. As he bore the scorn and shame that humanity could dish out and the punishment for our sins was laid upon Him, Christ made certain for us that God is for us. As He died on that cross God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. God and man reconciled through Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of what Christ has done for us God is, with out a doubt, for us and with us. Through Christ God’s grace, His good favour, is ours because Christ’s righteousness has been put on us. Through Christ, God is with us and we can be certain that He will fulfill all the promises that He has made to us and He will deliver us from death.

And so, as we stand on the verge of a new year and make our way through all the obstacles set before us as a church and as individuals, we are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. Through Christ who laid down His life for us and who has sent us His Holy Spirit we are strengthened and built up to face the challenges of this life. We are refreshed through hearing God’s Word and we are nourished through Christ’s own body and blood for the living of this life and for the life yet to come. Against all this opposition that seems to never cease to stand in our way as God’s people we will prevail completely into life everlasting, not because of our own strength, but because of Him who loved us and gave His life for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Receiving the Word Made Flesh

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the Gospel reading for Christmas Day. The Word, the Son of God before He took on human flesh, was with God in the beginning and was God. Everything that was made was made through Him, John tells us here. He was there in the very beginning with God.

But then, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” So ends the Gospel reading for Christmas Day. The Word that was there in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, became flesh taking on our humanity in every respect and came to live among us.

These two phrases, “In the beginning was the Word…” and “the Word became flesh…”, are kind of like book ends on our Gospel reading today. In just 14 verses we move from God the Son being with God the Father in the beginning to God the Son coming down from heaven above to take on human flesh and win salvation for all mankind. These are truly some of the most loaded verses in the entire Bible. It is also important, however, to take a look at the verses in between these two monumental book ends. In particular this morning I would like us to consider verses 11 and 12 where John says this, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”

The first part of that is quite troubling. “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Imagine that, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us and His own people did not receive Him. To be clear, that is not simply referring to Jesus own people, the people of Israel, it is referring to all of us who were created through Him. All of us did not receive Him. That statement, as baffling as it is at first, invites us to consider how we receive Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.

When company comes at to visit at Christmas time we receive them by rolling out the red carpet (at least figuratively) and welcoming them. I remember as a kid all the work that we would do to get ready for family, friends, and other guests who would be stopping by this time of year. We treat our guests to special meals, comfortable beds, deserts and drinks, and anything else we think we might like. Receiving guests becomes about what we do for them to make them feel welcomed and loved. That is how we welcome ordinary human company, but how are we to receive the Word made flesh (God Himself in human skin!) who comes to us in the manger at Christmas time?

Well, if we think we ought to treat Jesus like human company by rolling out that figurative red carpet then we have it all wrong. Jesus emphatically insists in the Gospel of Mark that, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus comes not to be served by us, to be welcomed by us, or received by us, but to serve, welcome, and receive us. He comes to die on a cross where, by His death, we will be served with the forgiveness of all of our sin and the certainty of life everlasting. He comes to serve by taking our wrongdoing upon Himself and suffering the death that is rightfully ours so that we would never suffer that death ourselves. He comes not to be served, but to serve.

Martin Luther once famously quipped in a Christmas sermon that everyone always thinks that they would have done a better job than all those good for nothing Bethlehem folks who could not have been bothered to do anything to make Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus more comfortable. Surely we could do better than to offer them a place with the animals. Surely we could do better than a manger. Surely we would find a place for them and bring them a nice hot meal! Not so fast, Luther said. We look back with hindsight and say that we would have done much better, but the reality is that we would have done the same thing. How did he know that? Because we have people all around us who need homes, shelter, food, clothing, and all kinds of other things and we don’t bother to help them. If we can’t muster up the effort to help those in front of our own eyes what makes us think we would do any better than the people of Bethlehem welcoming this little family, even the family of the Word made flesh? No, our hearts are too self-focused to see those needs, too self-consumed to welcome Him, and too distracted to receive Him.

But again, the Word does not become flesh so that we can receive Him by our actions and deeds that show Him our love. The Word does not become flesh so that we can serve and welcome Him. The Word becomes flesh so that He can serve us.

Our Old Testament reading provides us with a mental picture that can help us understand how we are to receive the Word made flesh. Isaiah speaks to us about a ruined and destroyed city. The “waste places” of Jerusalem. A city left in a heap of rubble. A city where most of the population has been forcibly removed and taken away to a foreign country. A city where those who remain pick through the garbage in the streets looking for something to eat. A city where the once busy markets that used to be full of people are now full of cats, dogs, and all kinds of rodents scampering around. A city where everything is in ruins. This is the kind of city Isaiah portrays for us in our Old Testament reading. The city of Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the place in the year 587 BC. To this kind of city Isaiah says, “The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.”

To the people living among the ruins Isaiah says “Listen to the voices of your watchmen. They have great news to tell. A visitor is coming. The Lord returns to you, His people, living in the midst of this broken, run down, and dilapidated city. He is coming. So rejoice, you waste places of Jerusalem. Rejoice. He is coming.”

Jerusalem, the heap of rubble that it is, has no red carpet to roll out for the Lord as He comes to them. They have not great home or room where He can stay. They don’t have the finest foods and drinks so that they can dote upon Him. They have nothing. All they can do is rejoice at the one who comes to them.

Christ, the Word made flesh, likewise comes to us. We have nothing by which we can properly greet Him. We have nothing that we can offer Him to make Him feel more at home. We have nothing to give in response to His coming. Instead we receive Him by literally receiving from Him the gifts that He gives. We receive Him like the people of a ruined city who hardly have enough food for themselves. We receive Him like people who have nothing to offer. We receive Him empty handed and poor in spirit. We receive Him as a gift to us, freely given, and we rejoice in Him.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us a midst the ruins of this world, a midst the ruins of a world and a life destroyed by sin He comes to live. And you and I we receive Him in the brokenness, in the midst of the ruins, by simply receiving what He gives. By coming with open hands and open mouths to His altar to be fed by Him. By coming empty handed to Him and kneeling before Him. By coming and hearing promises that we could never imagine apply to us. By coming and being forgiven through His death for us. By coming and trusting in His love for us in the midst of this brokenness.

To those who did receive Him, to those who received Him empty handed and open-mouthed, to those who received Him empty hearted and broken, He gave the right to become children of God. To those who received Him in emptiness He gave the fullness of being a son or daughter of the most High God. To those who received Him this way, to us who come before Him today, He gives this tremendous and unimaginable gift, a gift we by no means deserve, to be called children of God. And that is what we are. Come, let us receive Him. In Jesus name. Amen.

A Real Treasure

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Back in May of this year Olivia, Leah and I’s third child, was born. There is a lot that was memorable about that day, but one memory for me stands out among the rest. It happened late in the evening. Our other two kids, Hannah and Rachel, had come for a visit to meet their new baby sister. My parents had come up for a visit too. But now all the visitors were gone. My mom had taken Hannah and Rachel home and it was just me, Leah, and Olivia still there at the hospital. It was quiet. It was calm. The nervous energy and anxiety of the day had largely faded away. Our baby was born and everyone was healthy. All the phone calls to notify relatives had been made. All the visitors had come and gone. There was nothing more that needed to be done. We just sat there, the three of us, in the quiet hospital room thinking about the day that had been. I’ll cherish for a long time, I think, those quiet moments. My life doesn’t have too many of those anymore. What a joy it was just to hold that new born little baby and think about the blessings I had been given.

When I read the well-known Christmas story as we just heard it from Luke chapter 2 I am reminded of that day at the hospital when Olivia was born. We sing about it being a silent night when Jesus was born. We sing that all was calm and all was bright, but it must have been rather chaotic. From the less than ideal living accommodations and the sounds of the animals gathered around to the shepherds rushing in from the countryside to visit it was undoubtedly a day that was anything but silent and calm. And yet, as I did the day Olivia was born, Luke tells us that Mary at the end of it all “treasured up all these things pondering them in her heart.”

I like to imagine Mary sitting there beside the manger pondering these things. The shepherds had probably gone home. Perhaps everyone else was sleeping. And finally, at the end of the chaos this poor mother has a chance just to take it all in.

And my goodness does she have a lot to think about. When I sat there that evening in the hospital holding my new born daughter I thought about which one of us she looks like, whose nose she’s got, what her hair is going to be like, what colour her eyes will be, what she might sound like, what life is going to be like with three kids, how we are going to manage, and all that kind of stuff. Mary may have wondered about all of that too, but Mary has much more to think about. Just nine months earlier an angel had appeared to her to tell her that she, though a virgin, would bear a child. This child would be God’s Son, the angel said. This child would be conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. His name would be Jesus and He would rule over a kingdom that would never end. That right there is a lot to think about.

Then, when Mary went to go visit her relative Elizabeth who was also having a baby, Elizabeth greeted her with joy and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me! When the sound of your greeting came to my ears the baby in my womb leaped for joy!” That baby, the baby that Elizabeth was carrying, was John the Baptist. He leaped for joy in the presence of Mary and her child Jesus.

As if that weren’t enough, shortly after this child was born those shepherds showed up. They tell Mary everything that the angel had told them out in the fields as they were tending their flocks by night. They tell her how the angel said that there was a child born in Bethlehem, the city of David, who was the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord. Then they tell her how the heavens opened and choir of angels poured out and praise God for the miraculous gift of this child. I wonder what ran through Mary’s mind as she heard all that.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what Mary was thinking, but Luke just tells us that she treasured all of these things pondering them in her heart. She treasured them. All the words she had heard from angels and shepherds about her child, all this unbelievable news, she treasured it all up in her heart. It became her treasure.

And that brings me to a question I would like to set before you this evening. What is your treasure? Mary heard the good news about this child laying in a manger and she treasured in in her heart. What do you treasure in your heart? This Christmas Eve night what is the treasure in there? Family? Friends? Loved ones? Traditions? Presents?

On a night like tonight we treasure many good things. We treasure family and time with friends. We treasure those we love. We treasure spoiling each other with gifts and enjoying long held family traditions together. These are all wonderful things. But what do we treasure on other days?

On other days and other nights, when the good intentions and sentiments of Christmas are in the rearview mirror, we often treasure things that are much less pleasant. We treasure money, having more of it than others. We treasure power, wielding it over others. We treasure pride, feeling superior to others. We treasure ourselves, thinking about ourselves before we think of others. Above all, day after day we fail to treasure the gift given to us by God in this child born in a manger. Even on a night like tonight we let the others things we treasure usurp the place of the one real treasure, the Son of God born to us. Unlike Mary we often do not treasure up these things, the things God has done through Him, and ponder them in our heart.

That brings me to another question. What do you think God’s treasure is? What do you think that God treasures up in His heart? The answer to that question is simple, really. God treasures you. God treasures you in his heart. Not because your perfect just the way you are or because you are worthy of being His treasure. No, He treasures you despite all your mixed-up priorities. He treasures you despite all the times that you neglect and do not treasure the gift He has given you. You are God’s treasure for the sake of Jesus.

How do I know that? How can I say with certainty that God treasures you? Because He sent this child for you. Not wanting you to perish and die apart from Him God sent this child. He sent His Son, into your flesh, into your skin, to walk in your shoes, and die your death so that you could live with Him eternally. This child in the manger is a sure sign for you that you are God’s treasure. And an even surer sign will come on the day He hangs on a cross and dies for you. He will die because He loves and treasures you. He will die to purchase you, the treasure of His heart, with His own precious, holy blood. He died to save you from your misplaced treasure. He died to save you from the things that distract you from Him. He died to make you His own. You are His treasure.

It is my prayer that some time over the next day or two of holiday celebrating, maybe later tonight when all is quiet or in the morning after all the gifts are opened or tomorrow evening when the turkey is finished, that you will have some quiet moments to think about the treasure that this child is for you. I pray that our service this evening can be one of those times too. That together tonight we could treasure up that child in our hearts and rejoice that He came to die on a cross to save us. I pray day after day that the Holy Spirit would work through the Word of God in our hearts and make all of us treasure what Christ has done for us because in Him there is life.

He is God’s Son, just like the angel told Mary. He is the Saviour, just like the angels told the shepherds. He is Your God who has come to you this day. He is Jesus who has saved you from your sin. Let us treasure this child together. In Jesus name. Amen.