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 God’s Word seems like something that might work, but it is also kind of old, outdated, seemingly irrelevant.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 Like the clips, the old, outdated, seemingly irrelevant word of God is in fact the only thing that will work in our lives and in the lives of others.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.


Unworthy, But Favoured

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

Our text this morning is the gospel reading that we just heard from the Gospel according to Luke, but before we get to that I want to bring up something from our gospel lesson last week. Last week in our gospel lesson from the Gospel according to John we heard about John the Baptist. John, when asked by the Pharisees and others about his identity said this, “Among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” John is talking about Jesus in those words and he is saying that Jesus, the one who comes after him, is so much greater than he that John would not even dare to stoop down and untie His sandals like a servant might. John knows that he is not worthy of even such lowly service to Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

What John says there is truly remarkable because of something that Jesus says about John in another place. When Jesus was asked about John the Baptist one time He said this about John, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus says that John is the greatest human being to ever be born, essentially. That really is saying something considering Jesus Himself was born of a woman. But what really matters is John, who according to Jesus is the greatest to ever be born, is not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus.

By now you are perhaps wondering what all this has to do with our readings this week and why I did not bother to preach about all of this last week when our Gospel reading actually was about John, but this is where the connection is. If John, as lofty and great as Jesus says that he is, is unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus where does that leave Mary?

Mary, as the mother of Jesus, will be doing much more than simply untying His sandals. She is going to carry Him in her womb for 9 months. She will give birth to Him. She will nurse Him, change his diapers, toilet train him, teach him to walk, talk, and, yes, even tie and untie His own sandals. If John is unworthy of such a simple thing as untying Jesus’ sandals does this mean that Mary is somehow more worthy of such a lofty calling? Is Mary more worthy than any other woman who ever lived?

The simple answer to that question is no. The story of the angel appearing to Mary and announcing the good news to her that through her God is bringing the Saviour into the world is not a story about the greatness of Mary. Nothing in this story talks about any qualities in Mary that make her worthy of being the mother of the Son of God. Instead, this is a story about the gift of God’s grace as He bestows His favour on those who are unworthy and works through an unworthy woman to bring His Son into the world and with Him the salvation of all mankind.

As the angel appears to her in her home Mary, I think, is keenly aware of her own unworthiness. There she is, likely just a teenager, sitting in her home minding her own business when an angel of the Lord appears to her suddenly in her living room. Like any of us would be, Mary is taken aback by this rather startling situation and is afraid that this might end terribly for her. She knows that she is not worthy of having such a distinguished guest in her living room. The angel greets Mary joyfully, however, and calls her the “favoured one.” “The Lord is with you,” the angel assures her. Still trembling, Mary wonders what this might all be about. She cannot forget how unworthy she is. Then, knowing that Mary is still terribly afraid the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God!” He uses that word again, “favour.” He then goes on to explain that she will bear the child who will be the Son of God. Jesus will be His name and He will reign over an eternal kingdom as Saviour of all mankind. Then, after the angel has explained to her how this will all happen, after he has told her that the Holy Spirit will conceive this child in her, and after she is reminded that nothing is impossible for God, Mary says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to you word.”

As she sat there in her home staring on of God’s holy angels in the eye, Mary must have been keenly aware of her own unworthiness. That is why she was afraid of the angel. She knew she was not worthy of such a visitor. Even more so, when the angel started talking about how she would conceive a bear a child who would be the Son of the Most High God, surely Mary became even more aware of how unworthy of such an honor she really was. No one could be worthy of such an honor, but that’s the point.

That is why when the angel repeatedly calls Mary the “favoured one” and insists that she has “found favour with God.” He means that even though she, like the rest of us, is totally unworthy of such a distinguished calling and is, like us, a sinner who needs the salvation that this child brings, God has, for the sake of Jesus the child who is to be born, shown favour to her. He has grace for her. He takes her, unworthy though she is, and bestows on her this gift of a child. A gift that comes for the salvation of all mankind.

And so it is with us. Though we are unworthy in every respect. Though there is nothing in us worthy of such a gift, God, out of His grace and favour, bestows on us the greatest gift of all, His Son. He gives to us, unworthy though we are, a child conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary. He give to us, in all of our unworthiness, a Son lying in a manger. He gives to us a Saviour who will give His life for us on a cross and pour out His blood to earn the grace and favour of God for us for all eternity.

That same Saviour comes to you today. He comes to you to dwell in your heart. Even though your heart is filled with unworthy thoughts He comes. He comes to you today in His supper. Into your hands that do unworthy deeds, into your mouth that speaks unworthy thoughts He gives the gift of Himself to you to pour out His grace and favour for you again.

The remarkable thing here is that Mary believes the whole thing. “Let it be to me according to your word,” she said. To put it another way it is as if she said, “Even though I am unworthy, I believe that this thing you have promised to me is going to happen and I rejoice in this good news for me.”

How could Mary trust this good news? How could she believe it? Well, it is a miracle. The miracle of faith. The Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who conceives that child in her womb, gives Mary faith to believe. Every human instinct in Mary is telling her to reject such far-fetched promises and ideas, but the Holy Spirit it works in her to say, “Yes, these promises are true and they are for you.”

Again, so it is with us. The promises of God’s grace and favour, the promises of a child born for unworthy sinners like us, the promise of forgiveness for us through His death on the cross, the promise of eternal life in His name, the promise of God’s eternal unending love for us, and all the other promise made to us through Christ seem completely and utterly impossible.

When we, like Mary as she sat in her living room looking the angel Gabriel in the face, are aware of our own unworthiness these promises become even harder to believe. Could God really love someone like me that much? Could He really send a Saviour for me? Is there forgiveness even for me? The doubts rage in our minds.

But there again the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to make faith, to cause us to trust, to make us believe so that, like Mary, we say to our Lord and our God, “Let it be so to me according to your word.” In other words we say, “God, you say that you forgive me. I don’t see how that could be possible, but let it be so anyway because I need it” or “God, you promise me the body and blood of Jesus in this bread and wine. I don’t see how that could be possible, but let it be so to me anyway because I need it.” That’s how it is with faith, the miracle that it is, as it trusts God’s Word of favour for sinners like us.

What a blessed faith that is. Faith that trusts and believes that though we are unworthy God would call us His favoured ones. And so it is. In Jesus name. Amen.


Divine Restoration

Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

Ever since my childhood one of my favorite stories has been C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. When I was a kid I think I just liked it because it was an entertaining story with plenty of imagination, excitement, and action. As an adult I love the story because of the many ways in which it reflects the Biblical story of God’s salvation for us through Christ. Often when I am reflecting on the Scripture readings assigned each week I am reminded of scenes from The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.

If you haven’t read the novel, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is the story of four children, all siblings, who are magically transported to a magical land filled with talking animals and fairy tale creatures. This land, as enchanting as it seems at first, is under a curse. It is ruled by an evil queen, the witch from the title, who has put that entire land under a curse so that it is always winter, but never Christmas. For children reading this story imagine how devastating that would be, always winter, never Christmas. Could there be a worse fate than that?

As if that were not bad enough, this evil queen also turns anyone who opposes her, speaks out against her, or threatens her in any way to stone. The courtyard of her castle is filled with what look like statues, but really are good creatures who were turned to stone.

As the children enter this magical land everything is about to change, however. Around the time that that children arrive another visitor appears on the scene. Aslan, the great Lion who created this land in the beginning, has returned to bring an end to the evil witches rule. Wherever Aslan goes the winter begins to break. The temperature rises. The snow melts. The rivers run free. Plants start to grow again. And the sun shines more warmly and brightly than it has in years. Not only that, but St. Nicholas, Santa Claus himself, appears bringing the first Christmas that this cursed land has seen in many years. Finally, in one of my favorite scenes from the whole book, Aslan the great lion storms the witches castle and breaths on all those that the witch has turned to stone with her magical powers. They are transformed in an instant from stone, statue like figures and returned to life. They are free from the witch’s evil magic. They are restored to what they once were.

These parts of the story of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe are all what comes to mind for me when I reflect on our Old Testament reading today from the prophet Isaiah. There in the words that the prophet records we hear the words of Jesus Himself.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”

Even though these are Old Testament words they are the words of Jesus. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” the voice says. The Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, descended on Jesus when He was baptised in the Jordan River by John. This is Jesus. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me.” The word “Christ” literally means “Messiah” or “anointed one.” Jesus is the Christ. He is the Messiah. He is the anointed one. This is Jesus talking.  Even here in the Old Testament we hear Jesus talking about what it is that He has come to do, what kind of Saviour He has come to be. He comes, Jesus says here, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to open the prison of those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and to comfort those who mourn. In other words, Jesus comes to set us free from the powers of evil, to save us from them, and to restore us to what we were meant to be from the very beginning. As Aslan romps through the magical land of Narnia and brings an end to winter, the joy of Christmas, and sets free those entrapped in stone he does the very same thing.

Jesus comes to you and me today to do this very same thing. As we consider these Old Testament words there is a very important reality that we need to realize. The world around us, the world we see out the window and the world we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror, is not the way it was meant to be. Like a land trapped in and eternal winter without the hope of Christmas, like poor creatures trapped in evil magic that turned them to stone, we are trapped in a world broken by sin and trapped ourselves in sin itself.

By his deception of Adam and Eve the devil has trapped this whole world under an evil curse. A curse that separates us from God. A curse that separates us from one another. A curse that separates us from this world. A curse that even separates us from ourselves.

Under this curse we are poor both physically and spiritually. Though by worldly standards we may be wealthy in reality we are always lacking, needing something. Under this curse we are broken-hearted. Hurt by this world, by other people in it, or by the loss of someone in it. Under this curse we are in prison. Bound by the same evils our fathers and mothers committed. Bound by the reality of death that waits for all of us. Bound, unless freed by someone far greater than us, for eternity in prison. Under this curse we mourn our own existence and the loss of our existence. Under this curse things seem utterly hopeless.

That is, however, until our Saviour arrives. He comes to restore what has been lost. He comes to undo the curse that we have lived under for so long. He comes to bring the joy of His salvation to every heart who will trust in Him. He comes, our Saviour, to us in a manger. He comes, our Saviour, walking on water. He comes, our Saviour, healing the sick, the lame, and the blind. He comes, our Saviour, to put Himself under the curse and die under that curse and then rise from the dead defeating the curse itself with its own most powerful weapon. He comes and the curse is defeated. He comes and we are restored to what we were meant to be from the very beginning.

Christ comes to you today to heal and restore you. In the beginning man and woman were created in the image of God, but that image has been all but destroyed by sin. But now in baptism Jesus comes to you and restores the image of God to you. He put His own image, His divine image, on you and covered you with His righteousness.

In the beginning God talked in the Garden with Adam and Eve directly. Now the prospect of God talking to us directly seems terrifying. The people of Israel at Mount Sinai when God was about to make His covenant with them were terrified by the thunder and smoke they saw rising from the mountain. The insisted that Moses talk to God for them, they did not want to speak to Him directly. But now Jesus comes to you today to talk to you face to face in His Word and proclaim His love, mercy, and forgiveness for you.

In the beginning God fed humanity directly from the fruits of the earth, but now only through our sweat and labour is food produced. “By the sweat of you face you will eat bread,” God said to Adam after he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But now Jesus comes to you whenever we celebrate His supper to feed you again with food you can’t make or earn with your labour. He feeds you with His own body and blood. Jesus comes to you, even now, to restore all things, renew all things, and make all things the way they were meant to be.

That means as we look at the world around us and as we look at ourselves and see the dismal state of affairs that we sometimes see there that we ought not to be discouraged. Instead, despite all evidence to the contrary we have good reason to rejoice. As we witness first-hand the brokenness of this world we have the joy of knowing that a Saviour has come into the hopelessness of this world and sin to us to restore us and give us hope.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” Jesus says, “because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to you; he has sent me to bind up your broken heart, to proclaim liberty to you, and to open your prison; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to you,; to comfort all you who mourn.”

Having heard these words from Jesus Himself the prophet responds by saying, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” I will rejoice, Isaiah says. I will rejoice. We too can rejoice. Even here. Even now. We can rejoice that a Saviour comes to us to heal and restore. To set us free. To give us life. The curse is broken. The battle is won. Thanks be to God. In Jesus name. Amen.


Comfortable in Christ

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

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

The text for our sermon this morning is the first two verses of the Old Testament reading we just heard. There prophet Isaiah recorded these words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins.”

I want to start out this morning by asking you a question. It’s a question that I’m almost afraid to ask because I already know what the answer likely is. The question is this: Have you ever, while sitting in church listening to a pastor (me or someone else) preach, wondered what the point of all this preaching really is? To put it another way, have you ever wondered why Sunday after Sunday, week after week, service after service, pastors like me get up and preach a message to you that sometimes is eerily similar to the one you heard last week and the week before? Have you ever wondered what the point of this preaching really is? Why do we bother?

Like I said, I think I have a pretty good idea what the answer to that question is. You have, more than likely, thought thoughts like that at some point in your life while sitting in church listening to the pastor drone on and on. How do I know? Because I’ve had those thoughts myself. I’ve sat in the pew thinking the same thing. Even as the one up preparing sermons and up here preaching them I have sometimes wondered what the point of all this really is.

Believe it or not, however, there is a rhyme and a reason to Christian preaching. There is a purpose to all of it. It may seem as if pastors just step into the pulpit every Sunday without any purpose, without any goal, and just talk until their tired of talking about things that the average person does not care about, but deep down there is a purpose behind what we do. The purpose is this: To afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

Let me explain what I mean by that. The purpose of a Christian sermon is not to make you feel good or to uplift you, to energize you or to pump you up, to teach you how to live the right way or to give you instructions. A Christian sermon might do any or all of those things, but those things are not the main point or purpose. The main point or purpose of Christian preaching is to show us our sinfulness (to afflict the comfortable) and then show us our Saviour (to comfort the afflicted).

This pattern for preaching is not something that we have just made up on a whim. This is how the Bible talks and preaches to us. This is how people in the Bible preach. The best example of that is John the Baptist.

We meet John in our gospel reading today from Mark chapter 1. Mark doesn’t give us a ton of details about John here, but the other gospels do. John is a preacher and a baptizer out in the wilderness of Judea. People from Jerusalem and all over flocked out into the wilderness and down to the Jordan River to hear and see John. There, in the wilderness, they found a preacher who afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.

Almost everything about John was kind of uncomfortable. He wore clothes made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Even in those days that would have been quite the outfit. Today if we saw someone like that walking towards us on the sidewalk we’d seriously consider crossing to the other side of the street! He ate locusts and wild honey, the Bible tells us, strange food to be sure. Just being around someone like that has to make a person at least a little bit uncomfortable. But John’s physical appearance and the food that he eats really doesn’t matter. It’s his message that is designed to make people uncomfortable.

When John saw some Pharisees and Sadducees coming out to him to be baptized John called them a brood of vipers, the children of snakes. They were comfortable in their sin and so John afflicted them. He called what they were. He called them sinners.

It wasn’t just them, however. When the crowds came out to see him John called them to repent too. He told them that if they have any extra clothing or food they ought to be more willing to share it rather than hoarding it all to themselves. To some tax collectors who were there he said that they ought to start being honest in their dealings and stop stealing from people. When soldiers came out to him he said that they ought to treat people more fairly and be content with their wages. To all these people who were comfortable John preached repentance. He called sin, sin. He called on them to change their ways. He afflicted the comfortable.

That is only the first half of John’s preaching though. John did more than just make people uncomfortable, afflict them, and call them sinners. He also preached the good news, the good news the comforts the most troubled and afflicted heart, the good news that Christ has come to save sinners like us. One day when Jesus walked by John and his disciples down by the Jordan River John pointed at Jesus and shouted, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This preacher who called out sin, who afflicted the comfortable and called them to repentance, now comforts the hearts of those who have heard his preaching. Look, behold, the one who saves you, the Lamb of God who takes away all of your sin.

The pattern is still the same today. Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist pastors step into their pulpits every week and try to do the same. Admittedly, we do it better some weeks than others, but the goal is still the same: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

So which are you? Are you comfortable? Have you become so comfortable with mistreating others with thoughts, words, and actions that you don’t even notice you’re doing it anymore? I have. Have you become so comfortable with the ways of this world and the ideas of this world that there suddenly is little room for God and His Word? I have. Have you become so comfortable with loving yourself that you have convinced yourself that loving yourself is more important than loving other people? I have. I’m pretty comfortable. How about you?

If any of that applies to you then you are comfortable and need to be afflicted by God’s Law. You need to consider your life according to the Ten Commandments. You need to look at that first commandment that says that we should have no other gods and you need to realize that you have not loved the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. You have not kept God’s name holy. You have not loved and cherished His Word the way you should. You need to look at the other commandments too, in particular commandments four through ten. You need to realize that you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. You have not honored everyone who has authority over you. You have not done everything you can to help your neighbor keep his possessions, income, and life. You have become preoccupied with yourself. You have covet what other people have. You have not always loved others. You and I we are sinners, it is true.

When we realize that. When all the comfort that we think that we have is stripped away. When we have been thoroughly afflicted by God’s Word we can finally get to our sermon text today. To afflicted people like you God says this: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

To troubled hearts, to burdened consciences, to broken spirits God has one word: comfort. Not comfort that you can find for yourself. Not the comfort of a nice warm bed, a soft sweater, or a pair of slippers. Not the peace of mind that comes from temporarily forgetting our problems only to have them come rushing back again. But the comfort that comes from Jesus Himself. The comfort of knowing that our struggle with sin, our struggle with our own thoughts, words, and deeds that so often leave much to be desired, is over. The struggle is over. The warfare is finished. The victory is won. Christ, our Saviour who is coming to us born in a manger, has won that victory and has given that comfort to us. Our warfare in ended. Our iniquity is pardoned. We have received double from the Lord’s hand for all our sins.

That last part, the double part, might be my favorite part of this whole text. What have we receive “double” of from God for all our sins? Double punishment? Double consequences? Double judgement? Nope. Double comfort. “Comfort, comfort (twice over!) my people says your God.”

Are you afflicted? Is your heart troubled? If it is take this to heart. Your God comes to you to give you comfort. This is what we are celebrating in Advent and Christmas. This is what the Saviour in the manger is all about. He comes to give you comfort, double comfort. He comes to take the sins that burden and afflict you upon His shoulders and to die for them so that you can live. He comes to take you up out of the afflictions of this life into the comfort of His presence eternally. He comes to life you into His arms and carry you into life everlasting. He comes to give you His comfort. Comfort, comfort my people says your God. He has done it. Thanks be to God. In Jesus name. Amen.


Wonderful Counselor

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Matthew 21:14-17

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

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” You don’t have to go very far to hear those words at this time of year. Weeks ago already I heard those lyrics ringing through the speakers at different stores and shops. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

It’s true, isn’t it? It is, in many ways, the most wonderful time of the year. The song says it all, there are “kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’ With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call. There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow. There’ll be much ‘mistletoeing,’ and hearts will be glowing when love ones are near.” Truly, there is much that makes this the most wonderful time of the year.

It is the most wonderful time of the year, however, until it’s not anymore. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until the stresses of preparation and meeting the expectations of others become overwhelming. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until those long hidden family conflicts and arguments are bubble up to the surface during what should be a season of peace, joy, and love. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until we start to wonder why we bother with all of this stuff still. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until the bills start to roll in and we wonder how we spent that much this year when we were trying to cut back. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until there is an empty place at the dinner table for Christmas dinner. An empty place that really represents an empty place in our hearts, a gaping hole left by the death of someone we loved. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until reality comes in and crashes the party tearing down our delusions even before the stores have turned off the Christmas music and the “most wonderful time” comes to an end for another year. It’s a wonderful time until it’s not.

And yet, in the midst of our delusions about what makes one time of the year more wonderful than another there is a concrete reality grounded in the truth of God’s Word that makes this time of year a wonderful time. It has nothing to do with our holiday traditions, our gatherings with friends, the gifts we give and receive, or anything else that we think might make the Christmas season wonderful. It has nothing to do with how we celebrate the holiday. Instead, it has everything to do with what our God has done to cause this time, even these gray and latter days that we live in, to be the most wonderful time.

“To us a child is born,” Isaiah says, “to us a son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulders. And His name will be called: Wonderful Counselor.” In the weeks to come leading up to our celebration of Christmas we will work our way through some of the names that Isaiah presents for us here. Names for the Messiah. Names for Jesus. Wonderful Counselor. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. Today: Wonderful Counselor.

Depending on who you ask, there might actually be two names there. The old King James Version of the Bible says “Wonderful, Counsellor” with a comma in between so that they are two different names. Bibles today often say “Wonderful Counsellor” without a comma meaning it’s just one name. Either way the point remains the same: this promised Messiah is wonderful.

By calling this Messiah, the Christ child, “wonderful” Isaiah means more than just “he’s really great” or “super special” or that we really “like” Him. When the Old Testament talks about someone being wonderful it means that the one being called wonderful literally does or performs wonders. It is God Himself who does these wonders. He alone is truly wonderful. The “wonders” of the Old Testament are God’s acts of salvation on behalf of His people. God saved His people from slavery in Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea on dry ground. He fed them in the wilderness with bread from Heaven. He led them into their new land. He conquered their enemies and established their kingdom. He acted wondrously on behalf of His people.

Now, Isaiah says, a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, who is literally wonderful. He Himself is a wonder. He is God in human flesh born of the Virgin Mary. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and in Him the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. In a bag of skin and bones like you and me dwells the fullness of God Himself. He Himself is a wonder and He does wonders. The people in our second reading today saw it. Jesus was there in the temple in Jerusalem and the blind and lame came to Him. Jesus healed them. He gave sight to the blind and caused the lame man to run and jump like a deer. He did wonderful things in the sight of the people. They saw these things and they praised His name. “Hosanna, save us now, Son of David!” they shouted. This is the Christ, He has come to save us.

This “Wonderful Counsellor” has done wonders for us and for our salvation as well. By His death He has set us free from our slavery to sin. By the water of Baptism He has brought us through the flood and made us His people. By His rising from the dead He has brought us up from the grave to new life in Him. By His Word He leads us through our lives in this world. Through His Supper He feeds us on this journey. And, when our last hour comes, His promise carries us into life eternal where we wait for the day when He will raise us and all His saints to life everlasting. He truly is wonderful. He has performed wonders for us and through us all the days of our lives and will continue to do so even now as we prepare to celebrate again His birth and wait for Him to come again. He is our wonderful Saviour.

Does it feel like a wonderful time of the year to you? If it does that’s great. Rejoice and be glad. Your Saviour has done wonderful things for you! This is a reason to celebrate!

If it doesn’t, if the wonder of the holiday season is wearing thin, I don’t blame you. You are not alone. But remember this, your God has come to you in human flesh. He has come into a world where the wonder seems to be all worn out, into the misery we know all too well. He has come to save you. By His death you have new life. There is wonder in Him. He is the Wonderful Counsellor born to you. In Jesus name. Amen.