Friday, December 30, 2016

Some thoughts on the coming year

Happy New Year?

The new year holds no promise of its own.

There is nothing to look forward to.

The only change that's likely to happen is that the world will get worse.

After cheers and celebrations at midnight of wherever you are, what promise is there? Possibly a vague hope that the new year will be better than this last year, either financially or personally? Doubtful.

As each year closes, a review of major events puts into perspective that the tragic far outweighs the joyful.  Each year we can look back on assassinations, war, riots, threats, terrorism, foreclosure, hunger, poverty, natural disaster, general panic, political bickering, agendas.   Those years where America can look forward to presidential elections often do little more than put a knot in the stomach, and many anticipate them with as much dread as a serious and painful life-threatening illness.  I don't even think people are even trying anymore, just re-elect the person who is already in to postpone having to decide for another four years.  We have become like parents whose children bicker and fight so incessantly that we just want to turn them off, and so we do.  Let them go at it, spending,  mandating, conniving, and we'll bandage it after the bloodshed.   Our "representatives" have put this country on a steep decline.

But I am not perfect either, am I? I sin often. I entertain fears for the future of my children when I know that I should not be afraid because God has his good plan for the world.
So many people are terrified of global warming, that one would seem like a fool not to believe it. We must always remind ourselves of God's promises made back after the flood that as long as the earth continues, there will be a season for planting and a season for harvest. Beware of anyone who calls himself a Christian and believes in global warming as the doom of the earth. And if you can't believe what it says in the Word of God, then try to remember that back in the 1970's they were telling us that we were headed into another ice age. Remember that?

So many people are afraid of running out of oil and the effects of oil consumption on the environment. Oil companies are creating panic to raise the prices. I am not afraid of running out of oil as much as I am afraid of running out of money to pay for the oil. The quantity of available oil is another page, but I understand that the region around Sodom and Gomorrah was very rich in this type of natural resource and part of the problem that God was seeing when he destroyed that region, was the greed on the part of those who owned that resource and the gouging of the poor. Beware of anyone that calls himself a Christian that is getting that rich off of the suffering of others. If you can't believe what it says in the Word of God, then try to remember back in the 1970's when they were telling us that our oil reserves were going to dry up by 1990.

Chicken Little. In this fairytale everyone believed that doomsday had arrived. Then, on the way to tell the king, they were all eaten by a fox. There was a real danger present in the world, but it wasn't a falling sky.

Neither is global warming.

Nor are oil reserves.

But these galactical "problems" put everyone's attention on their immediate physical survival and they are not seeing the fox slipping in to devour their souls. That fox, the real danger, is a roster of symptoms so enormous that for me to list them here would possibly drive you into a feeling of utter despair and hopelessness and that is never my intention.
Suffice it to say that the only problem is that we believe that after the 6,000 or so years that have passed since the creation of this planet, we still know more than the God that made us. We think the world would be a better place if human beings stopped using it so much and just let it be natural. This includes raising children to be "natural" via government interference in the family. And when they are too natural, our good and wise schools stick them on Ritalin. We think that global relations would be better if we all just combined our resources and became one big happy planet all speaking the same language and having the same form of government. Sounds like Babylon. Or the United Nations. And we view progression of civilization as giving up everything that we believe is right so that we don't offend anyone who might believe otherwise.

Year after year the story is the same, played in reruns that no one ever seems to learn from.


I don't claim to know what will happen in in the coming year, but from history, it appears that we will not learn a thing.

But I know that Jesus is coming some day to judge all of us. I don't know when, but next year is closer to the year of His return than this year and that gives me some hope. As I said before, I sometimes worry for my children. I worry that they have learned enough to stand up for the truth and not be afraid even if it means the end of their lives here on this earth. I wonder if each child's faith is strong enough to trust that Jesus has covered their sins with His own blood and saved them from His judgement. I wonder it about myself.

The Revelation of Jesus to John is a terrifying story of where the path of this world is taking us and God's judgement for the war that has been waged by the world against Jesus. It is written and there is nothing that any of us can do to stop it. All of the summit meetings about global warming and environmental issues as well as conferences about religion and treaties and peace on earth cannot stop the terror that is coming to this earth. Many theologians argue as to whether this is figurative, or prophetic language or if the events will be just as stated. I don't really care. It is plain enough that God's judgement will be terrible for anyone who has denied Christ; all those who brag about their sins and those who say terrible things and believe themselves to be witty; those who have treated the poor as if they were filthy and felt superior about it; those who have robbed the poor and called it "interest"; those who sin sexually and encourage others to do so.

It is not God's will that any should be lost, however. Yes, his judgement will be terrible, but God is so full of mercy, that if you are reading this, He is reaching out His hand to rescue you. Sinner, this message is for you. The one who knows he's been bad as is not proud of it. It is not God's will that you should suffer on that terrible day. And the blood of Jesus is shed, not for people who are good, but for people who are bad. Your hurt and shame belong to Him now. The things that you have done are not more powerful than the blood of Almighty God. Confess your sin to God who hears and receive His forgiveness. Let Him free your worried mind not only of your guilt, but of the "Chicken Little Syndrome" and experience the joy of a life that trusts God and not the real danger of evolutionary science.

When you know the truth, this could just be a good year.


~GG

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Immanuel: God with Us

GREAT IS THE MYSTERY



ST. JOHN'S heraldry has always included the eagle.  In The Divine Comedy, Canto 19 of Paradise, Dante has the blessed souls fly in the shape of an eagle as he is introduced to St. John.  The reasoning behind this is John's Gospel draws our attention to heaven.  From the first verse of his Gospel, he confronts the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Whereas Matthew begins with the patriarchs,Mark with the voice in the wilderness, Luke with Zachariah burning incense in the temple, John begins in eternity with the unity of God and the Word.

Imagine that we're among those shepherds who first heard the Christmas Gospel. We're on a hillside just outside of Bethlehem. We are with ordinary men, we meet them at the synagogue, we visit their homes. They know something of the Scriptures. So as we see the angel, shock though it may be, we can make sense out of the message. He must be talking about the Messiah. We conclude that the Messiah is far more important than our daily work, so we grab our staffs and run down to the inn. That's not where the Messiah is. Oh yes, the angel did mention a manger. So we look in the barns. There we see the Holy Family. We are amazed that they are so poor. Could the heavenly host have been singing about this? We go over the checklist: a baby, check. Swaddling cloth, check. In a manger, yep. It's all there. Moses was a helpless infant once, so why not also the Messiah?

You and I know even more of the story. We know that this baby is God Incarnate. If Jesus were only a human child, then our coming here is a mistake, in fact, twenty centuries of Christian history have been a mistake. How difficult it is to say those words -- this Baby is God. Fine gold has yielded its purity to be mixed with mud. That is why St. Paul calls the Incarnation a mystery. No other religion makes such a claim. Reason recoils from it. But all depends on the truth of it - God is a particular Baby in a particular place.

Many of the doctrines of the Bible make pretty good sense. Take creation, for example. When we look at the organ we know all the tracks and pipes, keyboards and boxes, did not come together by themselves. So when we look at a man, a far more marvelous structure, reason demands that we attribute his existence to Intelligent Design. Or take original sin. One thing foreign missionaries have little trouble teaching people is that they are sinners. All we have to do is consult our consciences, think of our many errors, of the days we would like to live over. The Bible tells us the specifics, but the fact that we are sinners we know. Likewise, all people seem to know that somehow a conscious existence continues after death. Ancient Greeks put a coin in a dead person's mouth to pay the ferryman; American Indians buried their chiefs with weapons so he could hunt in the next life. All who have seen injustice prevail know that some day real justice must be done. The Bible tells us a lot more about the next life, but we would know that it existed anyway.

But that God should become man! Outrageous! It's contrary to nature. As Christians we certainly agree. This is contrary to nature. We call it a miracle. It was not an act of nature; it was an act of grace. Where there is grace, there is also the miraculous. Nature is utterly tragic. Where nature is invincible, the Law has the last word, and it ends in death. Grace, not nature, provides the resurrection, the miracle, the intervention that overcomes the tragic. By grace God led His people through the Red Sea, fed them with manna, brought forth water from the Rock. By grace Jesus led Peter to walk on top of the sea, multiplied the loaves and fishes, and washed away our sins with His blood! No one could figure this out without divine revelation. Deep is the mystery of godliness!

That is what God was doing at Bethlehem. Here God was making His love for us real. Here God set in motion the events that would culminate in the victory of grace over nature. The world declares God's power, history His rule, personal experience His tenderness, but to see the height and depth of God's love, we must come to the manger. The Son of God left behind the celestial spheres of power, descended to the limitation of the womb, the frailty of human childhood, the discipline of human education.

Yes, our Redeemer had to be both God and man. No mere man could redeem even himself from sin, let alone everybody else. When you are trying to solve a mystery you look for both motive and opportunity. So when you ask who redeemed the world, ask those same questions. Only God could have such unconditional love so as to lay down His life for the world. Only a man could have the opportunity to suffer and die. A mere man might die, but there the story would end because he would be tangled in the net of sin. To have both motive and opportunity requires God Incarnate. God was in Christ. He could die, and He could rise again.

The collective human race will always be frustrated by evil. It can invent new culture, new education, new technology. All this merely exchanges new evils for old ones. Evil in the world is a consequence of sin. The solution requires grace. Wherever there is grace we will see miracles and mysteries, we will see energy which nature and the Law cannot account for. But we know it was there. We can repeat the fantastic story of the Gospel. The way from man to God was blocked by the barricade of sin, far too high for man to cross. So God came over it in Christ, and made a passage through it with His flesh and blood. That is the mystery of godliness.

In the Iliad, Homer tells of Hector, the hero of Troy. As he prepared for his last battle, Andromache, his wife, came as far as the gate to bid him farewell. She was followed by the nurse who carried Hector's infant son. The mighty Hector, with his marvelous armor and plumed hat, was terrifying to the baby. The little one clung to the nurse's neck. Then Hector took his helmet off, and the baby began to smile. He hugged his father. So when our heavenly Father appears as the volcano God, as He did at Mt. Sinai, we tremble with fear. We recoil from the holy because He is holy. Remember, the Polynesian word for "holy" is taboo. We have innate fear of such things, but as He lays His power by, as He comes in the form of a Servant, even the guiltiest of sinners can embrace Him. Yes, we needed a hero, a superstar, but we also needed a Savior we could approach. In Jesus we have the answer. Great is the mystery of godliness! AMEN.

by: Rev. Lloyd Gross

Monday, December 26, 2016

Look at the soft-skinned little Baby upon whom we've laid our sins, what those sins will do to Him; and what his broken flesh will do for us!

IT BEGINS WITH THIS GIFT
But the vineyard owner answered and said… "I want to give to this last person the same as I gave to you. Do I not have the right to do what I wish with what is mine?" So the last shall be first, and the first, last. Matthew 20:14-16


THROUGH the blessings of the church year we'll once again make our annual journey from the joys of Christmas and light of Epiphany to the hard realities of the penitential season. In Lent we'll once again come face to face with our sins. We'll feel like the cancer patient whose x-rays are held before his eyes and told, "there's a spot, there's a spot and there yet another." But we'll also be reminded of the gracious Savior who cured our disease on the cross, and of His Holy Spirit who put us into remission by faith in Jesus Christ the day we passed through the baptismal waters. In Lent we'll once again humble ourselves before God; not by kneeling on prayers rugs and bowing to the east, but by confessing that we're "poor, miserable, sinners" in need of God's steadfast love. Whoever makes himself last in this way, will be made first by the Lord of the Vineyard. During this solemn season, before we taste the unspeakable joys of the resurrection, we'll view the appalling price that the Son of God paid to satisfy the charges which the Law lodges against us. In Lent we will view the Lord of Life arraigned. We'll see Him, and not ourselves: stricken; smitten of God; and afflicted (Is. 53:4). We will take note of His suffering and shame, His bleeding and dying, and know all the while that it's our sentence carried out on Him: the just for the unjust, as St. Peter writes: that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). This, in a phrase, is the Gospel!

There are three Sundays we mark before the rigors of Lent begin called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Those words simply mean 70th, 60th and 50th. They count down the number of days till the Sunday of Resurrection. The purpose of these days is to plant the Gospel firmly in our minds, so that in the mortal anguish of Lent, which is symbolic of the mortal anguish of our lives, we won't lose hope; won't forget that we have been called into the vineyard of God for glorious purposes, larger than our tiny minds can presently conceive.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons appointed for this Sunday remind us of the power and the grace of God as they are active in our lives today. These are things that we don't easily retain unless the church does her job and regularly preaches them to us, but why do we need to be constantly built up? Simply because thick darkness envelopes the human heart as regards what is true and what is false, what gives life and what leads to death. We're like the children of Israel. Though they were all baptized into Moses when they safely crossed the Red Sea, many of them fell away. They had received every grace and blessing from Christ, but though he'd performed mighty miracles in their sight and shown them love that would melt the hardest heart, theirs were not melted. They were a stubborn and stiff-necked people, representative of us all as we rush aimlessly through life; non-thinking, emotional beings ruled by our passions, looking for whatever meager prize we might gain for the moment and let the devil take tomorrow, casting the Holy Spirit aside so that we might excel in life by our own wisdom, might and riches; little interested in spiritual discipline or the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14) and all that that means for us.


Yet the Father's love is greater than our rebellion! Hear this again and let it melt your hearts: the Father's love is greater than our rebellion. He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103)! He knows how we've been compromised by sin and the devil, but this doesn't drive Him away. Instead it makes Him all the more zealous to preserve us in the one, true faith and never rests till His beloved children are safe on heaven's shores. His love for shiftless sinners drives Him to come out into the marketplaces of life, not just once but repeatedly like the vineyard owner who deliberately kept going out, finding those who had no purpose in life, no present or future prospects, and no reason to live, and bringing them into His marvelous light.

There's no greater pain for parents than to see their children going astray, doing things which can only lead to their downfall, and having no power to stop them. Though we as human parents are often helpless to do anything about it there is a Heavenly Father who does intervene. As He saved us He'll save our children, so don't despair. We can't salvage ourselves, we'll have less success with our children and even less with the world at large. In spite of what pious meddlers tell us, earth will never be heaven. Green technologies won't do it, nor will stimulus packages. There will always be pollution, poverty, courts and orphanages, but there are three words which Jeremiah uses to renew us: loving-kindness, justice and righteousness. Without getting into great theological detail, those words mean that God reconciled us to Himself through Christ and will, in the end, set all things right and terminate every sorrow.


Now that's a lot of good news for one morning but there's still more in this outstanding parable. It teaches us the liberating truth that we can't do business with God; that He who created us and sustains us, who knew us, loved us and called us to Himself in Christ before the foundation of the world, doesn't do business. There's no quid pro quo with God on the upside or the down, There are no bargains to be struck. God has only one mode with us and that's to pour His gifts on us generously. He doesn't "treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10). God doesn't do business but delights in exercising loving-kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth, and because of that fact we know that the words of Romans 8:28 are undeniably true: that all things; all circumstances; all conditions; all crosses of life however distressing, will and must change direction, and come out for our good. Nothing is as it now seems O Vineyard workman, and "the fears that now annoy, shall be laughter on the morrow" (TLH 409).

The parable's climax is when the Master of the vineyard says to the whining workman: I want to give to this last person, this nobody, who has contributed nothing, but believed everything I told him the same as I gave to you. Don't I have the right to do what I wish with what is mine? So the last shall be first, and the first, last. We are the "last" people of the parable, who've been made "first" by the grace of God. We've been called into the vineyard of God, which is a symbol of the church, which is the house of God and very gate to heaven (Gen. 28:19). We've been called to wonders, blessings and benefits more extensive and far-reaching than words can possibly express. Isaac Watts says it like this in his memorable hymn, Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun: In Him the tribes of Adam boast More blessings than their father lost. No we don't get the temporal and eternal punishment we worked for. Instead we get what the Lord of Life earned by His perfect work on our behalf, righteousness and life!


As Christians needed to remember these things in the past, so we need to immerse ourselves in them today. This is why God gave the church and commissioned her to preach the Word, to baptize, absolve and to administer the Holy Supper… so that we might have our sins forgiven, our wounds salved and our hearts strengthened.

Hard days are ahead. This Gospel message which the world hates, the devil cannot abide and which is offensive to human reason cannot stand unchallenged for long periods of time in any one place, not even in a land such as ours which was founded on religious freedom. As the world hated the Lord it hates us too. The Jesus of the Bible, who died not as a martyr for a cause, but to atone for our sins, is the largest possible offense to human pride. His death reminds us that sin is our real problem and that only His righteousness counts before God. We need to remember and immerse ourselves in the Gospel. We need to have the Word of God dwell in us richly (Col 3:16) so that we might survive these evil days and extinguish all the fiery darts of the devil, but there's one thing we don't need to do, and that's be afraid -- ever! At this time Christ's people are last in honor, last in importance, last in success-stories, last in statistics, last in our own righteousness and last in anything the world values. Like St. Paul we are considered: the scum of the world and the dregs of all things (1 Cor. 4:13), but we know how the story ends. God generously gives us what is His own to give! His Son, His Kingdom, His loving-kindness, His righteousness. He makes the ones who seem first to be last and we who are now last, to be first, so don't think as the world thinks. Don't judge things by human wisdom, strength or resources, but trust God's Word that Jesus was made last on the cross so that we might be made first with Him in His resurrection. Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, December 25, 2016

What is the significance of the Son of God lying in a manger?

O JESUS CHRIST, THY MANGER IS...


...But now, in these days of the end time, God has spoken to us by His Son.  Hebrews 1:1-6

THE opening of Paul Gerhardt's hymn O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is my paradise at which my soul reclineth says exactly what our meditation is about and what our intention is.  The  reclineth in verse one suggests a picture of  banquets in ancient times.  Guests did not sit at table.  Rather, lying stretched out on couches reclining on one elbow, with feet extended away from the table and heads in toward the table, they contentedly ate and conversed.  Hence, the title of this sermon is, O JESUS CHRIST, THY MANGER IS MY PARADISE AT WHICH MY SOUL FEASTS CONTENTEDLY.

According to the prophet Micah 5:3, the descendant of David would be born in Bethlehem from which would come forth He who was to be ruler over God's kingdom forever.  Bethlehem means "house of bread."  How fitting!  He who called Himself the  bread of life is born in the house of bread.  The eternal Word of God takes flesh, and that flesh is the life of the world.  Whoever eats this bread -- this flesh of the Son of God -- will live forever.  He said so!  He, the one who made cleansing for our sins; He who now sits down at the right hand of the Father to rule forever, He said so!  What He offered for our purification was His own body, His own blood.  In the manger at Bethlehem lies that One who is the Father's Word in human flesh for us.

You will find Him in a manger, said the angels -- a manger, mind you -- where the cattle eat.  Consider, now:  this bread of life from heaven is the gift to us of our feeding God to nurture us on the food of eternal life and to intoxicate us with the drink of eternal joy.  Like the shepherds, we have come this morning to worship Him.  With single minds and hearts, let us come to feast our souls at the manger of God's Son, for from the One in that manger, joy streams.  Let our hearts be single in intent, full of glad sounds, crying out our amazement and ecstasy:  O Jesus Christ, your manger is the paradise at which my soul feasts contentedly.

The feeding God gives is not only feed for wild animals.  He gives not only food for the stomach and drink for thirst, but this God also gives us His Word -- the eternal food for our souls to live in joy forever.  When first our ancestors Adam and Eve -- standing before Him in their shame and burdened with the unbearable debt they had incurred and passed as inheritance to their children -- heard the word of the descendant of the woman who would come to crush the serpent's head; ever since that time, the Word of promise has been like appetizers for believing souls.  In various ways and in different styles, God spoke in times past by the prophets.  By that Word, God fed faith and nurtured hope in His faithful people,  But now, in these days of the end time, God has spoken to us by His Son.

Moreover, what a word God speaks!  The coming of Jesus Christ is not merely the coming of the one who came at the end of the days.  With Jesus Christ, the days of the end have come.  Now is the end time, for now is the day of salvation.

Reflect on what the Holy Spirit says about Him in the Letter to the Hebrews read this morning.  (1) Jesus is the heir of all things.  Whatever power and riches lie in the Word of God -- Jesus is the heir. (2) Whatever there is of life or hope -- Jesus is the heir.  He is heir and owner  by right of sonship.  (3) He is not a creature to be elevated to a position of honor.  He is the very reflection of God's glory and the character of God's very nature!  Very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. (Nicene Creed)

Furthermore, this tender and pure little Jesus in the manger is the mighty Word by which all things are created and still hang together.  This God is man, our brother.  This man is God, our Savior!  By His Word, the whole universe hangs together and serves His purpose.  He is God's right hand man, the arm that God makes bare, when He rolls up His sleeve to get into the fight to save us.  Sitting at God's right hand, Jesus rules by the forgiveness of sins for your benefit, for your blessing, for your joy in eternal life.  In that manger lies the man, God's right hand, coming to us because we could not come to Him.

He enters the flesh as a naked and helpless infant.  He needed to be fed by His mother, to have His infant needs attended to by His parents, to be wrapped in receiving blankets to protect Him from cold.  And as we shall learn on Holy Innocents, three days from now, He needed to be carried in the dark to Egypt when Herod determined to kill Him.  Willingly He enters into our flesh for the purpose of making a sacrifice, a sacrifice that will save the lives of the condemned brothers and sisters He joins.  The sacrifice will not be some other creature - some goat or bull.  Neither will He, as some do, sacrifice the child of their bodies for the sin of their bodies.  He does not "off" another for sacrifice.  He is the priest who offers Himself in sacrifice.

He sits at God's right hand.  He did not get to this throne of power with a political power play by which He outfoxed His enemies.  He did not rise to this rule merely by outlasting His opponents, or out-campaigning His competitors.  He sits at God's right hand as the man from God who paid the price for our redemption, the one whom the Father elevated to rule all things for the Church.  Luther's addition of the third stanza to the medieval hymn "Now Sing We, Now Rejoice" says it clearly:

Now thro' His Son doth shine, The Father's grace divine.
Death o'er us had reign'ed, Thro' sin and vanity;
He for us obtain'ed Eternal joy on high.
May we praise Him there!  May we praise Him there!

Indeed, praise Him!  The Holy Spirit plainly teaches us in the reading today from Hebrews to worship Him alone.  The shepherds give you the perfect example.  Listen to the Holy Spirit, and follow that example. Where shall joy be found?  Where but on heavenly ground?  He from whom joy streams lies in this manger in Bethlehem -- the house of bread.

Did I say Bethlehem?  Yes, I did, but don't think you must now buy a plane ticket to the Holy Land.  Your house of bread, your Bethlehem, is where the bread of life comes to feed you.

The amazing wonder of the birth in human flesh and blood of the Son of God lies at the basis of this amazing wonder that here, in Christ Lutheran Church by His own Word, this Lord exercises the power of God's right hand.  His right hand is wherever He is with His sure Word of grace to give and to do for you what He promised.  The priest of the sacrifice of Calvary is alive to administer to you the benefits of that sacrifice.   He brings to you -- in this lowly place -- the body of your redemption and the blood of your forgiveness.  Here is the manger of Jesus to feed our souls.

He is begotten eternally of the Father; He is Son by birthright.  He is born of Mary for you and me, whose births were under the cancerous death of sin.  By Him, you are begotten anew -- born again -- to be sons of God by right of His rightness.  The feast is for you.

Come to the feast, for all things are now ready.  The days of the end are here.  Now, fully, perfectly, and for all time, God has spoken by His Son.  The manger in which He lies among us is indeed the paradise at which our souls feast contentedly.  Your paradise is that manger of Jesus.  There you rest in the peace from heaven, in sweet conversation with the Lord of the feast and with all the fellow-believing guests to feast contentedly, even though there may be conflict, turmoil, temptation, sin, confusion, struggle, and failure around and within you.  Not one of you may live in ideal conditions, but where He feasts with you and where you live with Him it is turned into paradise by Him, now, for you, until A crown be thine and honor in full measure.  Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The LORD is near to all who call on Him ... in truth.

THE LORD IS AT HAND


Let your forbearance be known to all, the Lord is at hand!  Philippians 4:5

THE common mistake Christians make today is to think that the celebration of Christmas is a mere remembrance of past events; a psychological recall of historical happenings.  If that's all Christmas is then we have little reason to rejoice, but in fact Christmas is much more!

The Lord's incarnation, death, and resurrection are only past events in their historicity, but for us they are an ever present reality, not just in our hearts and minds, or by an annual celebration, but most especially in this gathering we celebrate each Sunday.  The Jesus we worship here is not the historical Jesus of the past, but the heavenly High Priest who intercedes for us constantly before the throne of the Father as we read in Hebrews 7:25 that "Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us;" and in Romans 8:34 that "Christ Jesus our Lord intercedes for us at the Right Hand of God."  That exalted Jesus is the one whom Christians worship and wish to make known to the world.  That is our mission, and we are doing it now.

Yes, the incarnation, death and resurrection that Jesus accomplished "for us men and for our salvation," are past events historically speaking, but they are eternally present among us in the church.  Our Blessed Savior does not exist "back in the day" as people like to say, but He lives here and now among us, actively presiding over the world, His church and over the lives of His faithful people.  You are those people.  This is why St. Paul can say in today's epistle lesson, "The Lord is at hand," and why today's gradual says, "The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth."

Jesus is that Lord.

Jesus is that truth.

When Paul says, "The Lord is at hand," or when the Psalm says, "the LORD is near," they are talking about the very thing we are engaged in at this time:  divine worship, Holy communion with Christ and by implication, then, with the Holy, Heavenly, Immortal Father, and the Spirit of Truth as well.  By baptism we are "delivered from the domain of darkness," and incorporated into the realm of the Thrice Holy Lord.  This is why Scripture calls us the baptized Saints, which means Holy Ones; not due to our stellar performance to be sure, for Scripture declares, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," but by the Lord's perfection, by His virgin birth, His obedience to the will of the Father, His death and resurrection, all which were graciously accomplished for us to purge us from our sins, and to give us life in a world without end.

Jesus is present now.  This is why Christians must never say:  Christ was born, but rather, in the words of the Byzantine Christmas liturgy, "Christ is born, glorify Him!  Christ comes from heaven, go forth to meet him!  Christ is on earth, exult!"

The fifth century Saint, Leo the Great, said it this way:  "What was visible in our Redeemer has passed over in the sacraments."  This means that all that Jesus did during his earthly ministry, his teaching, his miracles, and redeeming sacrifice -- all these remain visibly and tangibly available to us in the mystery of the church's worship.

What does this mean?  It means that our celebration of Christmas must not descend to the level of sticky sentimentality, but rather that we should hear and heed the Versicle from today's epistle to rejoice in the Lord always, which is nothing other than an invitation to the altar, which in holy worship symbolizes the manger of Bethlehem, for it is here on the altar that Christ is born and reigns among us.  You see, when St. Paul declares to the Christians at Philippi that "the Lord is at hand," he is not speaking about the Second Coming, but about the Lord's Supper, because what people call Paul's epistles were not dead letters but rather inspired words of God, written to be read aloud in the church, to the people, on Sundays during their worship, even as they are today.  When Paul wrote these words he was serving as the Philippians' voice declaring that the bread they were about to eat and the cup they were about to drink are in fact the exalted body and blood of the Lord.  In so many words he was saying that the Lord was about to commence another feeding miracle in their very presence, even as He does in ours.  That the five loaves and two fish could never be depleted, even so the Lord's body here given is without limit however many hungry souls it feeds, nourishes, cleanses from sin, consoles and imparts the power to live a holy life, one in keeping with the high calling to which we are called as Christians.  Neither does St. Paul leave us wondering what that holy life looks like and what deeds it requires.  Here, particularly, he focuses on the forgiveness that Christians must extend to one another, the "forbearance" that is required of those who participate in the Lord's Altar, or in the words of St. Peter, "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins."

Wherever people live together there is trespass, there is sin, slight, insult, injury, injustice, and wrong-doing.  To be married is like two porcupines living in a shoebox, and so it goes with life. Therefore forbearance is required, first because the Lord who forbears with us teaches us to do the same, and we must never close our ears to him; and second, in order for life to exist on earth.  Without forbearance, without over-looking the multitude of sins people commit against people, the human race would soon vanish in a homicidal rage, but with it we can live.  With it we can move on and enjoy earthly blessings, but above all we can receive the Lord's pardon for our blacker sins and know that when He returns we will rejoice like there is no tomorrow.

Therefore rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say, rejoice.  Let your forbearance be known to all.  The Lord is at hand!

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, December 11, 2016

It was a time for repentance, it was a time for hope

THE TALE OF TWO ADVENTS


ONE of the greatest blessings we inherited from our fathers in the faith is the Liturgical Year.

Its chief benefit is that it brings order and structure to Christian worship, which is Christian life.  It has seasons we celebrate year in and year out that trace human history from our fall into sin which still plagues us today, to the salvation that is ours by grace through faith in Christ, who was crucified and raised again for us, but it doesn't stop there.  The Liturgical/Church Year takes us into the future as well, to the end of the age when the Lord will return to make His dwelling with men, and then all things will become new!

Presently we celebrate the seasons of the Liturgical Year called Advent, which historically has two focuses.  Until the ninth century it was a season of hope, a time of great expectation that God would fulfill His promise to redeem our fallen world, that as our Lord once came in human flesh, that He would quickly come again in glory to cut off the thorns of sin and death, but beginning in the ninth century Advent took on a different tone and became a season of repentance, much like Lent, but in our lifetime Advent is both.

The historic lectionary prescribes violet, the color of repentance, as the color for the season and to observe the season as such is a good thing.  It reminds us of the stygian darkness that covered the earth "till He appeared and the soul felt its worth," and of the message of John the Baptist that repentance and faith are always necessary until the Lord's Second Advent, the one we enact and earnestly hope for when we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday.

Indeed, any religion that does not cry out against sin as the Baptist did, and call hearers to repentance, for which he was imprisoned and beheaded, is a defective church and has no Gospel to preach.  From this preserve us, heavenly Father!

Yet in the last 30 years nearly all LCMS churches have changed the color of Advent to blue, returning to its original focus as a season of Hope.  This, too, is good because St. Paul writes in Romans 8:24 that, "We are saved by hope."

We cannot say which is a better theme, but neither need we, because the lessons this third Sunday in Advent provide both a word of repentance and a word of hope.  It is this:  Comfort, comfort ye my people says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.  Cry out to her that her warfare is ended, her iniquity is pardoned, and that she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this prophecy is that Isaiah gives it before it is ever needed or accomplished!  He lived in the middle of the 8th century before Christ, but this prophecy was uttered to give hope to Israel in her Babylonian captivity which was still 150 years in the future!

What does this mean?

It means the same thing that St. Paul does when he says that God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world!  It means that long before trouble ever begins our Lord has planned and devised salvation for us!  It lets us know that He is ever at work on our behalf, ever interceding for us, ever making all things work together for good for those who believe and are baptized, so don't ever despair.  Don't ever give up hope because the storms of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us.

"Comfort, comfort ye my people says your God."  When we hear such words they should fill us with confidence and joy because God who pronounces them is faithful, but at the same time we should not think of them as mere verbiage alone; as simple sounds formed by the tongue and lips and lungs, but as the Word of God made flesh, as Jesus who is the Hand of the Lord, the Glory of the Lord, the Mouth of the Lord, and who brings all the promises of God to fruition, so that all flesh shall see it together.

This goes to the heart of Advent and of Christmas which is so close we can almost taste it, because when God speaks, His words don't remain mere words only, but they take on shape and form, flesh and blood; the very thing we celebrate now:  that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; grace and truth of which you are the blessed object, despite your present sadness, your sorrows, troubles, fears or sins.  Our Lord Jesus Christ was not a phantom or a holograph, but "was made man" for us.  He "put on our humanity, and raised up our mortality" as an ancient liturgy of the church proclaims (Addai & Mari), thereby sanctifying every person, and raising up all of human existence.

What God promised when He said, "Let us make man in our image and likeness" Christ accomplished by coming into the world.  By His incarnation, life, cross and resurrection, He makes us beloved sons of God.  By His victory over the devil our warfare is over.  Our iniquity is pardoned.  Our judgment is canceled.  This is the Christian faith and the deepest joy of our lives.

From Jesus, who is the Lord's hand, we have received not only adequate salvation to cover our sins but double salvation, remission twice over, so that we might never think of ourselves or any other person as beyond hope, beyond salvation, beyond redemption, or anything less than fully acceptable and beloved sons of God in Christ.  It is as St. Paul says, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more."

Therefore today let us look to the One whom John preached by whom "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  Jesus is that Lord.  We are those people!  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Are you ready to take matters into your own hands because the waiting is too long?

A PRINCE YOU CAN TRUST


Be patient, then, my friends, until the Lord comes. See how patient farmers are as they wait for their land to produce precious crops. They wait patiently for the autumn and spring rains. You also must be patient. Keep your hopes high, for the day of the Lord's coming is near.
Do not complain against one another, my friends, so that God will not judge you. The Judge is near, ready to appear. My friends, remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.  James 5:7-10

GARDENING can certainly keep you humble.  When you plant a seed, does it help for you to command it to grow?  There are many things you can do that will help it to grow, but there is no way to be sure you will get results.  Growth is not under your control, but God's.  When you think about it you will see that there are far more things that are outside of your control than within it.  It may be pious to say that prayer puts all things within reach, but reach is not the same as results.  We cannot answer our own prayers.  We have to trust Somebody else, and when  you have to trust Somebody else, you also have to be patient for He will do things according to His own schedule.

In the Old Testament, in the Second book of the Kings, we can see a stark contrast between two monarchs of Judah, Hezekiah and Zedekiah.  The names may have a similar sound, but after that the similarity ends.  Hezekiah had faith.  He saw the Assyrian army besieging his city, so he sought out the prophet Isaiah.  He knew that God had placed prophets among His people to answer the really difficult questions.  They reminded God's people of the Covenant God had with them, which He had made with their fathers.   Hezekiah was perplexed.  He thought about making an alliance with one of the neighboring kingdoms -- maybe the Edomites, or the Hittites, or even the Egyptians who were starting to recover from their most difficult years.  He asked the prophet.   Isaiah promised Hezekiah that God would send relief, that he should not trust in mortal princes who might tell you one thing then do another.  After all princes are just politicians who frequently say one thing and do another.  Hezekiah trusted Isaiah's word and God delivered Jerusalem in an amazing way!  Over night the Angel of Death killed 185,000 Assyrians.  There was no more siege.

The story of Zedekiah is the story of faithlessness.  He had a similar international situation about 100 years later.  This time the enemy was Nebuchadnezzar, king of Chaldean Babylon.  This was the guy that built the hanging gardens which are one of the wonders of the world.  The prophet this time was Jeremiah.  He had a poor relationship with this king.  His last prophecy was so ill-received that the king burned the scroll it was written on.  Jeremiah warned him against alliances, against trusting in princes.  Zedekiah thought he knew better, so he made an alliance with the Egyptians.  Soon after that Nebuchadnezzar thoroughly defeated the Egyptians.   When the cat was dead, the kittens were in real trouble, including Zedekiah.  There were no more princes to trust in.  The Temple was destroyed and the Ark was lost.

So, is there such a thing as a prince you can trust?  Let's hear the Apostle James as he counsels us to wait patiently for Jesus to return, to pray for His help, and not to trust in ourselves or any other mortals.  Trying to bring about results on our own is just as futile as commanding your garden to grow.  Neither are there any allies.  The world is full of evil powers that are clamoring for our attention.  Do you know who's behind all this?  The worst prince of all, the Prince of this World.  He would love to make a treaty with you, but the only thing you can trust him to do is lie.  James is calling for us to imitate Hezekiah rather than Zedekiah.  This is a time for boldness and courage, a time for patience when things look discouraging.  There is one Prince you can trust, and He is on the way.  That is the Prince of Peace, our Lord, Jesus.

It has been a long time.  The Apostles thought that Jesus would have returned by now.  He has delayed, and we have started to doubt.  How much longer is it going to be?  We are besieged the way those Judean kings were.  Actually, we are a rebellious enclave within Satan's very castle.  Even within our own ranks Satan has a few partisans, but we must not despair.  God has determined the times and the seasons.  It's pointless to worry about things over which we have no control.  The illustration James gives doesn't sound like farming around here.  It isn't.  In the Mediterranean there are two rainy seasons, a  heavy one in the fall and a much lighter one in the spring.  Both of these must be complete before the harvest can begin.  Thus we must wait for all of God's seasons to be fulfilled and all of His signs.  He does not want us to speculate about dates.  That's nothing but useless talk, but that doesn't mean we should settle for what we can control either.  Nothing less than the return of Jesus can satisfy the longing of His Bride.  Nothing that happens within the system of the world can bring the kingdom of God any closer.  All of the famous progress that liberal humanists talk about has only led to more and more destructive policies -- adultery, divorce, abortion, the right to be perverted -- all impious and godless opinions.  No one has the right to have those opinions.  They are sin in themselves.  The Church has sold her birthright if she speaks of "human rights."  The kingdom of God is an absolute monarchy.  There is One Prince; all rights are His rights.

Does it make you uneasy that everything is up to the Prince?  I have two things to say to that.  One is that if it were up to you, you would fail.  The other is that this Prince is good.  Do you know how good?  Good enough to give Himself up to the most dreadful death to rescue sinners like us.  He permitted His body of flesh to be broken with whips and nails, but He kept us, His spiritual body, in fellowship with Him and our heavenly Father.  After He died and rose again He united His scattered flock around the sacred mysteries of peace.  When I say "peace" I do not mean worldly peace.  Jesus gives us a far better kind; peace with God, peace in our hearts, peace that is sure of God's forgiveness; His strength and comfort, and hope for eternity.  He is the Prince we can trust.

James tells us to establish our hearts, that is to be sure that Jesus will come, to have deep roots of faith constantly fertilized by Christ's Word and Sacraments, learning from His teaching and example.  At the foot of the cross established hearts flourish.  The cross is the fountain of genuine love, the source of all courage.  There His grace covers us.  He is a Prince we can trust.  The best thing we can give our children for Christmas is an established heart.  We lead them in using the Word, reading to them the life-giving message of God's love in Christ.  We are patient with them as they try to follow with uncertain early steps.  Under the cross we live as people who are watching for the returning Savior.  We and our children then have a well-grounded hope that some day a Prince we can trust will come and end the siege. AMEN.
~  Rev. Lloyd E. Gross