Old and New Covenants

Sermon preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church on 04/14/2022.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study is taken from our Old Testament lesson for tonight, Jeremiah 31:31 – 34. Tonight, we pause in our march towards the cross to stop and take in a meal with our Lord and His disciples. But, in that meal is a word that we don’t use outside of the church. And that word is “covenant.” If we had to search for a word in modern English that comes the closest, it would probably be “contract.” But that doesn’t really capture the idea of a covenant. If you break a contract, you incur a penalty, sure. Usually, it’s a monetary thing. At worst, you have some jail time for breaking a contract. Covenants were more serious than that. They were sealed in blood and required blood as a price for breaking them.

God has made many covenants with us in history. The one that’s easiest to remember is the covenant God made with Noah and his sons right after the flood, where He promised that He would never again send a flood to wipe out all life on earth, and for a sign, He put His bow up in the clouds. But He made “the” covenant with Moses and the people of Israel after he led them out of Egypt. If you’re curious, it begins in Exodus 19 and is finally wrapped up by Exodus 24. So what does that covenant look like? How does it differ from the one Jesus instituted in the upper room? What does any of that have to do with Jeremiah 31? Those questions and a few others I hope to answer for you tonight.

Let’s start by asking a few questions, what do you think the purpose of that first covenant with Moses and the people of Israel was for? It was a covenant that established the terms and conditions for which God would continue to be the God for the people of Israel and how they would then live as His people. The purpose was to set the people of Israel apart from the rest of the nations as God’s chosen people. This was a fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But it was more than just God keeping His promise; God had set these people apart to bring forth Jesus. This means that these people had to be a people set apart; they couldn’t be like everyone around them. So it wasn’t just a pure gift. It was an agreement between God and the people of Israel that as long as they would keep His Word, they would be His people. And it was sealed by the blood of numerous bulls thrown upon the altar, the book of the covenant, and the people themselves.

Jeremiah contrasts this covenant in our reading, so let’s look at the first two verses of our Old Testament lesson. Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. The Lord is speaking to Jeremiah in the last days of the kingdom of Judah. She has not had a faithful king for a while, and no more will come. Judah has time and time again whored after other gods and abandoned the Lord. The Lord also promised her that she would be cast out of the promised land if she forsook His covenant. The same Lord who rescued her from slavery in Egypt brought her safe through the Red Sea and destroyed Pharaoh and his armies. And delivered her time after time from the Midianites, Philistines, Assyrians, and all other nations that oppressed her. But even though Judah was faithless, our Lord is faithful. He preserves His people through an exile and keeps His promise that He will send a Messiah from the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

And this Messiah will come with a new covenant; that’s what God promises through Jeremiah in verses 33 – 34. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” There is so much good news here to unpack, but let’s start with the promise that God will put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts. We see this word “law.” Immediately our inner Lutheran flinches, looking for where we’re going to be hammered by the reality of our sins. But that misses the point of what God is saying; He’s using the Hebrew word “Torah.” Which is better translated into English as “promises” rather than “law.” God isn’t promising us an endless life of “do it right, or else.” Instead, He’s promising an everlasting life of “I’ve done it right for you.” 

And what does God mean by how we won’t need to teach our neighbor? Does that mean that we should just cancel all Sunday school and confirmation classes? I’m sure some of our middle school students would enjoy that. But that’s not what Jeremiah is promising. Jesus continued to teach the disciples after the night when He instituted the new covenant. He kept teaching them for 40 days after He rose from the dead. So what is Jeremiah saying? He says that you won’t have to teach some abstract concept of God, but rather you will know what God looks like. And in this new covenant, He’s given all of us something to point to, something concrete. When the world says to us, “where is your god now?” You can say, “Here, under the bread and wine given for us to eat and to drink.” And sure, they’ll mock you for it, just as they mocked our Lord Jesus when He was hanging on the cross for us. But we know that their mockery is a lie and that Jesus’ words are the truth. 

How can that be, you ask? It has to do with the last words that Jeremiah says tonight. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. Here’s the thing about God, He’s omniscient; that’s a big word for “knows everything.” And I mean everything. There is nothing that exists that He doesn’t know everything about. So how can He claim to forget about our sins? It means that it is a conscious decision to forget them and that when He does, they are destroyed as if they never happened. And this is the ultimate promise of the new covenant, that God will forgive the sins of His people. And that level of cosmic power can’t be fueled by something as common as the blood of a bull, or even a thousand bulls, or a million bulls. It is Jesus’ own blood shed for us on the cross. His blood covers our sins so completely that they are washed away. And that same blood is here for us to drink. So come, let us approach the table where our Lord gives us His body and His blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins. Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Cover Image: Book of Exodus Chapter 25-1 Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Where Is Your Country?

Sermon preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church on 03/13/2022.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study this morning is taken from our Epistle lesson for today, Philippians 3:17 – 4:1. While it hasn’t been a topic in our news cycle for a while now, legal immigration was definitely a big point during the 2016 and 2020 elections, and probably elections further back than those as well. There are people from all over the world who want to come over to America and become an American citizen, with all the benefits and responsibilities it entails. Yes, many people don’t want to wait in line but want to enter illegally and claim the benefits while not having citizenship. And if those people are found by the authorities, they don’t have any protection that a normal citizen would have. Some people who travel or work extensively overseas have dual citizenship in two countries simultaneously. Why am I bringing this up? Because citizenship was important in Paul’s day, he uses it to make an important point in our Epistle lesson for today. So we’re going to take a look at what Paul says, the point he was trying to make, and how that point still applies to our lives here today. With that said, let’s go ahead and get going with our lesson for today.

Now I’m going to bring in some context for our Epistle lesson for today, so if you’d like to follow along in your Bibles, go ahead and turn to Philippians 3. I’ll give you the greater context of the letter while you’re turning there. Paul is well acquainted with the congregation in Philippi, for he was there when it was founded. You can find the story in Acts 16, including the recognizable account of Paul and Silas in the jail, where they saved the jailer’s life by remaining, and the Holy Spirit brought him and his family to faith. At the end of Acts, Paul is imprisoned for his faith and appeals to the emperor. During this time, the congregation of Philippi sends a member who delivers gifts from the congregation and stays to care for Paul while he is under house arrest in Rome. Paul sends this letter to the congregation as a thank you and encouragement. Much different than his other letters dealing with controversy. Here he is simply encouraging the Philippians to continue in their walk with the Lord Jesus. He points out some problems facing congregations all over the Roman world at the time but doesn’t have any scathing rebuke of a particular problem at Philippi.

So, if you’ve turned to Philippians 3, let’s go all the way back to verse 2, and we’ll start reading. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. St. Paul is going back and forth here throughout this entire chapter, warning the Philippians about false teachers and false confidence, and then showing people the true teaching of Jesus Christ and the confidence that can only be found in Jesus’ own works. 

And that’s important because it helps us better understand what Paul says in the first verse of our Epistle lesson, Philippians 3:17 Brothers, join in imitating me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. Paul is not lifting himself up as some sort of super Christian that you have to imitate before being saved. Rather he’s encouraging you to imitate him in not caring about what you look like to the world around you and focusing entirely on Jesus and what He’s done for you. It’s all about Jesus.

And now Paul will switch back to a warning in Philippians 3:18 – 19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. These people should have known better, either Jews who refused to hear that Jesus was the Messiah that they were waiting for or even former members of the church in Philippi who had left the faith and left the church. And now, instead of being brothers in Christ, they are enemies of the cross. Their god is their bellies, and this isn’t just about gluttony. It’s about the seat of the emotions that they don’t think with their minds; they only think with their feelings. And boy, howdy, doesn’t that sound familiar? Jesus says that homosexuality is wrong. And then someone says that their feelings are more important than God’s Word and that we better change our teaching to suit their feelings, or we’re the ones being hateful. Glorifying their sin, their shame? Mindset on the things of this earth instead of the things of the world to come? It checks all the boxes. And it’s not just homosexuality; that’s just the easiest one to point out. Our culture loves to celebrate sin and mock virtue. And without repentance, they will get what they deserve. Their end is destruction.

And the contrast to this is found in the next two verses, Philippians 3:20 – 21 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it, we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. The Christian’s god isn’t his belly, for he knows that even if his belly is full, his body will eventually fail, and he will die. As Jesus said last week, man does not live by bread alone. Death is not the end for the Christian. Death is a defeated enemy. God’s Word is not subject to the whims of creation. Rather it will radically change creation by its speaking. For the same Jesus that was crucified for us on the cross will come back and will change our lowly bodies into glorified, perfected bodies that will never die, just like Jesus has already. And this is why Paul says that this citizenship is worth more than even the Roman citizenship that had saved his life in Philippi. For our heavenly citizenship saves our eternal souls and redeems our body through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. And that’s something we need to hear right now. In a country that increasingly hates us, we continue to pray for and work for the good of our country and neighbors. We also admit that when push comes to shove, this earthly nation can burn, for our citizenship is in the world to come and is bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus.

And I know that time is getting the better of us right now, but there’s only one more verse to look at this morning, the first verse of Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. Paul urges the Philippians who have shown him such gracious concern to stand firm in the Lord, even though tough days are ahead. And Paul speaks the same to us. Difficult days are ahead for our congregation, our town, our state, our nation, and our world. It’s not going to get easier; it’s going to get tougher. But take heart, for our Lord has conquered sin, death, and the devil. And He promises that He will be with us, so let us stand firm with Paul, the Philippian congregation, and all our brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing that our home is where Jesus is, and nothing can snatch us out of His hand, Amen. 

Photo courtesy of https://ccnull.de/fotograf/marco-verch

True Repentance

Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2022 at St. John’s Lutheran.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study is taken from our Old Testament lesson for tonight, Joel 2:12 – 19. The Bible constantly calls for those who love the Lord to repent. The Old Testament prophets call for it, John the Baptist calls for it, Jesus Himself will even call for it. Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses start with this thesis, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” But do you know what that word means? If I put a gun to your head tonight and told you that you had to accurately define that word, or you die, would you survive? Here we are in the season of Lent, a penitential season, a season steeped in repentance, and most of us struggle to understand what that even is. So we’re going to look at repentance today, why God has called for it specifically in our Old Testament lesson for tonight, and what this call has to do with us still tonight. So, with that said, let’s get started.

We’ll start by defining repentance. Repentance has two parts; the first part is contrition. It’s a church word that means that you feel sorry for your sins. This can be hard for us to do, not simply because we don’t want to admit that we have sinned, but because some of the things we actually like to do are sinful. That we don’t get to define what is a sin and what’s not. It’s easy to say that murder is wrong. It’s harder to say that abortion is wrong. It’s even harder to say that it’s wrong to use cloned aborted baby cells for medical testing. But contrition is just the first part. The second part of repentance is the actual repenting part. You see, the word “repentance” is derived from the word to turn around and go in the opposite direction. So it’s not just feeling sorry for our sins, but it’s actively turning away from those sins by changing our behavior. Now, before you think that I’ve gone and abandoned Lutheranism and faith alone, just hold your horses. Yes, this doesn’t mean that we can become sinless by our own reason and strength. Rather, it doesn’t mean that we give up and just keep on sinning. We acknowledge our sins and turn from them with changes in our lives. That is repentance. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at our Old Testament lesson.

Joel is one of the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly when he was prophesying, but we do know that it was during the divided kingdom and probably sometime between 848 – 800 BC. The book is about the prophet calling the people to repentance because God is about to send judgment upon the land of Judah. And that judgment is unlike many of the other judgments He sends upon the land. Instead of an invading army coming in and taking the people captive, God is about to send a plague of locusts upon the land. In Joel 2:3, the prophet describes the coming swarm in this language, “A fire devours before them, And behind them a flame burns; The land is like the Garden of Eden before them, And behind them a desolate wilderness; Surely nothing shall escape them.” Joel has been sent to God’s people to call them to repentance, which Joel is doing in our Old Testament lesson. Let’s take a look at the first few verses, Joel 2:12 – 14 “Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him— A grain offering and a drink offering For the Lord your God?

God urges Judah to turn away from their evil and turn towards Him. It’s not enough to just turn away from evil; you have to turn towards God. Because if it’s not of God, it’s evil. It’s as if you’re watching your young son, and he is running towards a busy road, and so you scream for him to turn back, and instead, he turns towards a neighbor’s leaf burning pile that’s unattended. And so you scream from him to turn back from there too, only he doesn’t turn back towards you, he turns toward the strange man in the white van with the tinted windows offering him candy if he just gets inside. Danger is dangerous no matter what form it takes. Sin is sinful, no matter what form it takes. Be it lust, anger, pride, sloth, envy, gluttony, or any other sin. If God has called it sinful, then it is, and it’s not God-pleasing. But God urges us to turn towards Him, for he wants to forgive us. Joel can’t even fully fathom how much God wants to forgive us. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and abounding so much that He will not let the Devil have us, even if it costs Him the life of His only begotten Son. So He sends His Son to the cross to atone for our sins and leaves a grain offering and a drink offering. We know it better as the body and blood of His Son. 

And Joel continues in Joel 2:15 – 17 Blow the trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the people, Sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and nursing babes; Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber And the bride from her dressing room. Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, Weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Joel calls on them to hold a special service of repentance. And this service is to be important, it’s not to be missed. It’s so important that even children and nursing infants are a part of it. It’s so important that even weddings that are preparing to take place should be put on hold so that both the bridegroom and the bride can attend. In other words, every one of Judah is being called to repentance. Just as every son of Adam ever has been. 

But consider this, if we were to hold a special service for repentance for our nation, who would come? Could we get the whole town to come to something like that? Could we even get both our congregations to come? Could we even get everyone who is here tonight to come? I doubt it. I’m sure I’d hear plenty of excuses, from calving season to Covid worries to “we’ve got a game/rodeo that day” It’s the same excuses that I hear about why people can’t make it on Sunday mornings. As if there is somehow something more important than God. We expect God to always accommodate our schedules, but we can’t ever move or miss something for God. Oh, the Burwell Boys basketball made it to state? Fantastic, I’ll go ahead and skip church on Sunday so that I can get a head start on the drive. And it doesn’t matter; Pastor will record it and have it on the Livestream later. That will be just as good. God is calling us today to repent. To turn from our selfish ways and turn towards His selfless grace that is on display on the cross.

And we don’t have much time, but let’s finish our lesson with Joel 2:18 – 19. Then the Lord will be zealous for His land And pity His people. The Lord will answer and say to His people, “Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil, And you will be satisfied by them; I will no longer make you a reproach among the nations.” God hears the cries of His people, has mercy on them, and does not destroy them for their iniquities. God saves them from this famine caused by the locust swarms. But even greater than that is that He forgives their iniquity. God forgives their sins because of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. And He desires to forgive us our sins too. This Lenten season, let us heed His call for repentance, and turn toward Him, for He is gracious and merciful, Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

The Lord is Our Shepherd

Sermon preached at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Chambers NE on 02/26/2022

Dear family, friends, neighbors, and loved ones of Gail Owen Payne, the comfort of our Savior Jesus Christ who has risen and conquered the grave be with you, Amen. Today is a day that none of us expected to come so soon. A day when we lay the body of our brother in Christ, Gail, in the grave. While Gail had been sick for an extended time and we always knew that this might happen, it wasn’t the first thought in our minds. I thought that he was in for a long road, but one that lead to recovery. So I was shocked when I heard from Marie that Jesus had taken Gail to His side. And I’ll admit, I’m still a little shocked by it, as if it’s not quite real. But then I look here at this body, and I’m forced to confront reality. That death is real.

Of course, as a rancher, I’m sure that Gail was all to familiar with that reality. You can’t avoid that when you care for animals. Especially as so many of our ranchers are getting ready to start calving season, where there is always the worry that one mistake can cost the life of both calf and cow. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of one family, let alone a single man. Yet our ranchers do it every year, and I honestly never hear them complain about it. I’m sure they do grumble about having to wake up again after just having laid down, but none of that makes it to my ears. And I suppose that’s a big difference between the rancher who owns the cows vs. the hired hand. And Jesus talks about that in our Gospel lesson today, so I’d like to read that again for you, if you don’t mind. John 10:11 – 16 [Jesus said] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

I know it’s hard to picture it, but Gail is actually a sheep here. And he’s in the care of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And Gail’s been in His care since he first heard the Good Shepherd’s voice. Through all the good times, Jesus has been there. Through all the rough times, Jesus has been there. Because you don’t abandon your sheep just because the going is getting rough. Now, I’ve never been either a shepherd or a rancher, but I’ve been told that they are very closely related. So I’m betting that those of you who know what it is to be a rancher, absolutely understand what Jesus is saying here. The Good shepherd/rancher is going to sacrifice so much of his time, his energy, and his care over his herd. And he’s going to do it because their his. He bought them. Well, we are Jesus’ own flock. He has bought us, but not with something as simple as money. He bought us with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. We are that valuable to Him. Gail is that valuable to Him.

And yes, I do mean Gail is, not Gail was. For Gail is now with that Good Shepherd. He is now being fed and cared for by Him in heaven, in peace. Just look at how David describes it in our Psalm. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Those green pastures where the lion lies down with the lamb. Those still waters where the cow and the bear drink together without fear. All being looked over by the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for Gail, for all of us on the cross. He laid it down so that we don’t have to fear death, He’s already defeated it. So in the coming days, I urge you all to take comfort in the words of the Good Shepherd who says, “I have called you, you are mine.” Amen.

“Blessed Is the Man …”

Sermon preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church on 02/13/2022.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This morning’s text for our study is taken from our Psalm assigned for today, Psalm 1. If you want to follow along, you can either grab out your Pew Bibles or even grab the hymnal and turn to the Psalm section at the beginning of the hymnal. And while you’re turning there, I’m going to ask you a question? Have you ever been in the “inspirational” aisle in either a Hobby Lobby or a Michael’s store? Apart from some of the 678 different versions of “live, laugh, love” in different fonts, this is one that I remember, “Too blessed to be stressed!” I wonder how well that one sold over these last two years? But what does that even mean? I know the intent behind it is an echo of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:34. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. But that’s not what it actually says. It says that you are too blessed to be stressed. Too blessed by who? Too blessed with what? What does it even mean to be blessed? Can you answer that one for me? Because I don’t think we have any idea what it means. Today we’re going to take a look at being blessed, even in these days filled with stress. 

So, to start with, what does the Hebrew and Greek word for blessed mean? Its root comes from the verb to enlarge, to add to. So being blessed is having more added to you. But what is being added to you? Well, that’s where the rubber really meets the road in regards to blessing. So let’s start by taking a look at Psalm 1:1 – 3 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law, he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. This Psalm gives us a nice comparison and contrast. We have in these first three verses a description of a righteous man. Verse one starts by describing the righteous man in the negative, in other words, by saying what he isn’t. He does not follow the advice of the ungodly; he doesn’t walk on the same path as sinners, nor does he sit and mock God. Some will try to take this and go way too far with it. So let’s take a look at these three things, and see what they are and aren’t.

If I have a question about small engine repair, something I know nothing about, I’m not afraid to look up a video on YouTube and not worry about whether the person making the video is a Christian or not. I will take counsel on small engine repair from one who knows about it. But when it comes to important things, those things on which counsel is needed, it is important that you avoid the ungodly advice. Think about marriage, for example. The ungodly will tell you that it’s good for a couple to live together before they get married, yet that is not what God says, nor do the facts even back it up. But what about not even being able to stand on the same path as a sinner? This isn’t just talking about walking down the hallway; this is talking about something more. This is one of the Bible’s metaphors when talking about religion. So blessed is the man who doesn’t worship the same false god as the sinner. And the last one makes it very obvious. The seat of scoffers, those who mock God, those who scoff at the idea that there is an all-powerful God who made heaven and earth and sent His only Son to die for them. 

But not so with the righteous man. Instead, his delight, the source of his blessing, is found in the Torah of God’s Word. Yes, we’re bringing back this point from two weeks ago. I told you that it was all over the Old Testament. We aren’t blessed because we’re so good at keeping the commandments of God; we’re blessed because we receive the promises of God. The promises culminate with God sending His Son to die for us on the cross. And so the righteous man will dwell upon this reality day and night. It’s not just something that we think about on Sunday morning and never the rest of the week; it’s something that forms how we live our day-to-day life. And verse 3 makes that plain. That those promises of God are the water that feeds us. This allows us to produce good works. The tree doesn’t receive water because it produces fruit; no, it produces fruit because it’s been watered. And this is exactly what we as Lutherans confess. We aren’t saved by works, but we do works because we’re saved. 

But the wicked are not so, as both the Psalmist and Jeremiah attest. So let’s take a look at Psalm 1:4 – 6. The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. And let’s also look at Jeremiah 17:6 For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, And shall not see when good comes, But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, In a salt land which is not inhabited. The wicked aren’t fed and strengthened by the water of life, the promises of God. They are dead, which is exactly what chaff is. Chaff is the dead husk surrounding the kernel that needs to be peeled away, along with other dead pieces of grass. They are not permanent; they will not endure. And that’s one of the hard things to see because the wicked are often the ones with the most power in this world. They hold power and build large homes and strong institutions that seem to endure long after their death. While the righteous men and women seem to be trampled down, exiled from the places of power, exiled even from society itself, it seems. I mean, let’s be honest, we who believe that Jesus has died and risen from the dead and His Word is true entirely, we’re seen as the enemy by our current President and his staff. And we’re doubly so if we voted for former President Trump. 

But success in this world isn’t what the Psalmist or Jeremiah is talking about. That’s not how God blesses us. Look what Jesus says in Luke 6:22 – 23 Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. Blessing is growing in God’s grace, in the gifts that He gives us. And we grow in faith every time our hearts are strengthened by hearing His Word and receiving the forgiveness of sins. But we’re also blessed when our suffering grows here in this world. And it will. Just look at Jesus, the one who suffered on the cross in our place. We will suffer, but like Jesus, that suffering is not in vain. God will use our suffering to build us up, strengthen our trust in Him, and even serve our neighbor. For the righteous man, the one who loves the promises of God will never perish but will endure these temporary afflictions, knowing that a greater life, eternal life awaits. May we all continue to be fed, strengthened, and even blessed by our gracious God, Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

The Magi Received the Best Gift of All

Sermon preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church on 01/09/2022

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study this morning is taken from our Gospel lesson for today, Matthew 2:1 – 12. Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. Typically this is celebrated on January 6th, after the last day of Christmas, but rather than skipping over it this year because it fell on a Thursday, I decided to move it to today. The word Epiphany means “to shine forth.” And throughout the season, we’re going to see Jesus shine forth His divine nature through various miracles that He will perform. Today, we see a literal light shining forth, the star that leads the Magi to the infant Jesus. So who are these Magi? What is the significance of the gifts that they bring? Why does any of this matter to us here in Nebraska? Well, these are some of the questions that I hope to help us answer as we work through our Gospel lesson this morning. So, let’s go ahead and get into our Gospel reading for today.

Our Gospel reading opens with these verses in Matthew 2:1 – 2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod, the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” Matthew doesn’t spend much time on Jesus’ actual birth, rather simply noting in the last verse of chapter one that He was born and Mary didn’t have any relations with Joseph before the birth. And then he jumps right here, to a time approximately two years later. How do we know that it’s two years later? Because of what follows after our reading for today, where Herod goes berserk and kills all the male children in Bethlehem that are two years old or younger. 

But here, two years after the birth of Jesus, come the Wise Men, the Magi, the three kings, Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. So who are these guys? Well, they aren’t kings, sorry to those of you who love the song “we three kings.” They are literally called μαγοι, which is transliterated into English as Magi. They are not sorcerers or magicians or other sorts of charlatans, most likely. The office of “magi” was found in the Babylonian kingdom, which, if you’re familiar with Daniel, you’ve heard of before. It’s one of the groups of advisors that advise king Nebuchadnezzar. The same group that Daniel will eventually be the head of. So these are the “learned” advisors of a foreign king, probably in Babylon, and probably stemming from the tradition of Daniel. While they didn’t follow Daniel completely and worship God alone, they still knew that Daniel was a smart guy who knew some things that nobody else did. So even if they didn’t believe the same way theologically as this guy, he was worth studying. And now, studying the stars, they determined that the King of the Jews, Daniel’s Messiah, had been born. So they go to the most natural place to find the king, the king’s palace in Jerusalem. 

But Herod isn’t the newborn king of the Jews, nor is he happy to hear about him, as we see in Matthew 2:3 – 8 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” So Herod gets the official answer from the chief priests and the scribes, even though most Jews probably knew that answer already, and when he confirms the answer, summons the Magi to him. But he does it in secret because he doesn’t want anyone to know that the Messiah is born since Herod isn’t going to willingly give up his kingdom. And so he lies to the Magi, hoping to enlist their unknowing help in killing this latest rival to his power. And this is completely in character for Herod. He kills members of his own family, including several of his sons and a wife, without blinking an eye if they get in his way for more power. 

But notice the Magi, for wise men they certainly had difficulties here. First, they showed up two years late, then they came to the wrong town, and now, having the right address, the Magi still need help finding it as we’ll see in these next verses, Matthew 2:9 – 10 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Divine GPS. Instead of Google maps and a nice voice telling you, “You have reached your destination,” literal light from the heavens shines down on their way. And this is a point that was brought out in my reading concerning this text. For as smart as these “wise men” are, they couldn’t find the savior independently. They needed God’s help every step of the way. They needed the seeds planted by Daniel in Babylon, then they needed the help of the scribes in Jerusalem, and now here they need God Himself to guide them with a star. 

And this is important to take note of. No matter how smart we think we are, how advanced we think we might have come, we cannot save ourselves. We have not and won’t ever get to a point where we can do the work and save ourselves from our sins. These men were some of the best and brightest of their day, but even with all their learning and education, they couldn’t find the savior by themselves. Because nobody expects to find a savior dying for you on the cross. Nobody. That’s pure foolishness. Yet that’s how God chooses to save us, in a way that we can’t understand no matter how smart we get, how small of computers we can design, we can’t grasp this one simple fact by ourselves. That Jesus’ death for us on the cross saves us from our sins. But God guides us to it, just like He guided the Magi, through His Word and His promises. And we have it so much easier than the Magi. We have God’s Word in our pockets on our smartphones. We don’t have to journey to Jerusalem to find God’s promises. We can open up our phones and say, “Alexa, open my bible app,” and there is God’s Word right in front of us. Yet, how often do we neglect this great treasure? A treasure that is more valuable than all the ones brought to Jesus on that day. 

Speaking of those treasures, we see them in Matthew 2:11, And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary, His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some scholars don’t think that the actual treasures given here are that important, that the Magi are just giving expensive gifts that are fit for royalty. And yes, Jesus is utterly deserving of royal gifts, but I think Matthew has a more important reason for including these specific gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is a gift fit for a king, and Jesus is the king of the Jews, the king of kings in fact. Frankincense is exactly what it sounds like, incense burned in a temple. In other words, this is offered to a god along with your prayers, and Jesus is true man yet very God. And finally, myrrh is a gum-like paste that can be made into perfume. But raw like it’s described here, it’s used as one of the “spices” that anoint the dead, pointing to the fact that Jesus has come to die. 

The Magi’s story ends with Matthew 2:12. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Whatever these Magi came hoping to find, they found so much more. They came to find the king of the Jews and instead found the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They came as Gentiles and left as children of God. And that’s one of the great messages of Epiphany, that Jesus isn’t just for the Jews. He’s for us Gentiles too. That He welcomes us with open arms, the same arms that are scarred from the nails of His cross, He uses to embrace us as brothers. From the cross shines most brightly the light of the world, shining in the darkest of hours, but the darkness cannot overcome it. May we always be surrounded by His glorious light this Epiphany season and always, Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

No Sermon?

For those who have been following just the written sermons appearing here, you may have noticed that there are some Sundays when there just isn’t anything here. Well, I’m preaching more from my notes and less from a fully written manuscript. That isn’t to say that I’ve stopped writing them, and so that’s why manuscripts are still being placed here. But sometimes there isn’t anything typed up, just notes in my notebook. And those won’t appear here. If you still want to hear what I’ve said, however, you absolutely can. We livestream the service from St. John’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/stjohnslutheranburwell) at 10:30 AM CST. And if you’re looking just for a recording of the sermon, I still record them as they’re being delivered on St. John’s website (http://www.stjohnslutheranburwell.org/page/180019535/180121418/St-Johns-Digital-Church-Service) Merry Christmas and God’s peace be with you!

– Pastor Jon Franson

Blood and Christmas

Sermon preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church on 12/26/2021.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study this morning is from our Epistle lesson for today, Acts 6:8 – 7:2a, 51 – 60. “Good King Wenceslas looked out On the Feast of Stephen When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even Brightly shone the moon that night Though the frost was cruel When a poor man came in sight Gathering winter fuel” Pastor, what does the song “Good King Wenceslas have to do with your sermon for today? Well, I’ll admit that while I was growing up, I had no idea what the song meant by the “Feast of Stephen.” No clue at all. But I knew that I heard this song all the time around Christmas but couldn’t see how this Stephen guy was connected to Christmas. Was he one of the Shepherds? Was he one of the Wise Men? Was he one of the angels? I had no clue. It wasn’t until much later that I connected that the Stephen from the book of Acts is the same St. Stephen who we remember today. So, who is Stephen? Why do we remember him on the day after Christmas? And what does he have to teach us about Jesus all these years later? Well, these and a few other questions I hope to help you wrestle with this morning, so let’s get going.

So, who is Stephen? We don’t know. Very little is said about Stephen before our text for this morning, simply that he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He was among those chosen by the Apostles to handle the mundane everyday tasks taking away time from preaching the Gospel. So is he a Jew or a Gentile? Is he one of the seventy-two disciples of Jesus, or is he a recent convert? We don’t know. If you put a gun to my head and told me to guess, I’d say that he is one of the seventy-two who has heard Jesus himself preach, but I can’t concretely back that up. Simply that the part of his testimony that we aren’t reading for today sounds so much like Jesus’ teaching about these same things that I think the Holy Spirit is calling to mind that which Stephen had already heard Jesus say. In the end, it doesn’t matter where Stephen came from because he was so focused on who he was now, a baptized child of God. He couldn’t help but share the Gospel with his neighbors.

And that’s what we see in the opening verses of our Epistle lesson, Acts 6:8 – 15 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. Obviously, there is a parallel here between Stephen and Jesus. Both of them were arrested on false charges, had false witnesses testify against them, and the parallels are only going to keep going. 

Our Epistle lesson continues with Acts 7:1 – 2a. Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: What follows is a tremendous sermon by Stephen. He will walk these supposed learned men and teachers of the Law through the history of Israel and show them how they continually rebelled and abandoned God’s Word and killed His prophets. This culminates with their killing of the Messiah, the very Son of God. Yes, the Romans technically crucified Jesus, but it wasn’t Pilate’s idea. To put it in another way, while the Romans may have held the gun and pulled the trigger, it was only because the Jews were begging them to, alternating between flattery and threats to see Jesus dead. 

And we have the conclusion of that sermon in Acts 7:51 – 53 “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” Stephen didn’t mince words. He didn’t use a “winsome” voice with them. He called out their evil behavior to their faces. He called a spade a spade. And as hard as it is to hear, that’s what needs to happen, especially for hardened hearts. If Stephen were alive today, he would be condemned by the Church for being too controversial. One of the worst sins in our culture is to be mean to someone and hurt their feelings. Well, maybe we need our feelings hurt a little bit. Maybe we as a country need a collective kick in the pants and be told that we are on a one-way course to destruction unless we repent. Think about it, we’re more worried about the vaccination status of our neighbor than whether or not that same neighbor has been baptized! How backward are our priorities? We have the promise of eternal life, and we’re terrified of dying, so terrified we won’t come to church. 

But we’re not done yet. Stephen’s story is coming to an end here with Acts 7:54 – 58 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. Stephen’s words landed; they cut his hearers to their hearts. But notice how they responded. Instead of repenting of their sins like the crowd on Pentecost, they literally put their fingers in the ears so that they wouldn’t hear anything else Stephen had to say. They were determined to murder Stephen for the heinous crime of pointing out their sins. 

And Stephen’s response? He responded just as His savior did when He was killed. He forgave them, Acts 7:59 – 60. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. He didn’t condemn these people with his dying breath. Instead, he forgave them. I have a hard time forgiving someone who cuts me off in traffic; I can’t imagine this. With Jesus, at least you could say that He’s the sinless Son of God, so of course, He’s going to be able to forgive people that I wouldn’t be able to forgive. But Stephen? He’s just a normal guy, like me, like you. He wasn’t born of a virgin to fulfill prophecy. He didn’t have a star announcing his birth or the heavens being torn open at his baptism, of any of that. Yet, Stephen forgives these hardened sinners. These same sinners were responsible for the death of Jesus. These sinners were killing him. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that each of us receives a gift of the Holy Spirit like Stephen did because we will need it in these days ahead. Forgive us, Lord, for our sins, and teach us to be more like your Son, Jesus, just like your servant Stephen was. Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

The Word Became Flesh

Sermon preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Bartlett NE on 12/25/2021.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This morning’s text for our study is taken from our Gospel lesson for today, John 1:1 – 14. Merry Christmas! Here we are on Christmas morning with the few, the proud, the ones who actually understand the true meaning of Christmas. While family is an important gift given to us by our God, it isn’t the most important gift. Rather the most important gift is that little baby born for us on Christmas morning. It’s His life, death, and resurrection that is the ultimate gift. Anything else pales by comparison. But you who are here have chosen what is best, and so today, we get to dive into a text that is more advanced than the one we read last night, a text that requires more than just a surface acquaintance with the Scriptures. “But Pastor, I don’t think I’m ready for that level of study.” You might be thinking something along those lines right now. But that’s why we’re looking at this lesson together so that I can show you the places where John is connecting things to the Old Testament that you might not have known, and to help put into simple words all these titles and phrases that John throws around like seed on an empty field. So, with that said, let’s go ahead and jump right in.

John 1:1 – 3, In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. So, who is this Word? Well, to give you the short answer, it’s Jesus. But why the Word? There are many reasons that the Holy Spirit used “the Word” instead of something easier, like Jesus’ own name. The first is to connect Jesus to creation, to show how nothing could have been created without Him. And so John uses language just like you find in Genesis to draw our minds there and then identifies Jesus as the Word. Since God created through speaking, He spoke the Word, and the Word was carried by the Spirit, and creation happened. It also ties Jesus to all the writings of the prophets. Before they begin their work as a prophet, you will hear the phrase, “And the Word of the Lord came to this prophet.” And it is quite possible that Jesus before He was born of the Virgin Mary, did come to those prophets and tell them what to prophesy. And, this also connected the Greek audience to John’s Gospel, as this was how they talked in their philosophies. So we’ve already got a deep connection to both Jew and Gentile, that Jesus had come for both. 

John continues with John 1:4 – 8. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. So, now John is moving from the Word to light. And once again, by doing so, he’s connected Jesus to creation. What is the very first thing that God creates? Light. But when does God create the sun and moon? It’s not until day 4 of creation. So, where does the light come from? John makes it clearer in his last book, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, where he says in Revelation 21:23 The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. This theme of light and darkness is a theme that is all over John’s Gospel and his letters, and it also connects back to the Old Testament. Isaiah 9:2 The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined. John the Baptist is the one who came to bear witness to the light; that one’s an easy one at least.

We continue with John 1:9 – 13. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 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, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Now we have the light entering the world and this part about becoming children of God. As has been the case so far, we’re still connected to creation. That the God who created the world also came into the world. We’ll dwell on that fact a little bit more with the next verse, so let’s keep moving. 

He is rejected by His own people. All of mankind is His own people, but John is talking about the children of Abraham, the children of Israel. These were the people that God had chosen for His own people out of all the nations. The reason he chose them was for Jesus’ own birth, yet they reject the very reason they are chosen. But not all, there are some faithful, both Jew and Gentile, who receive Him, and they become the children of God. Children that God has chosen, that He has willed, that He wants. There is no wondering if God wants you to be His child. You never have to wonder about the love of our Heavenly Father. He chose you. 

John finishes our Gospel lesson today with John 1:14. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Now there are two ways that God can fully enter His creation. He either can tear the rules that bind it apart to allow Him to enter, or He can become subject to those rules. And this first time, God became subject to those rules. He took on human flesh, gave up His divine authority, and took on the form of a servant. And He dwelt among us. Our God isn’t one who doesn’t understand human suffering. Our God knows what it is to be human. He knows what it is to be tired, to be angry, to be frustrated, to be sad, to be lonely, to be human. Jesus understands you because He’s human now too. And He has chosen to dwell among us. Now that word for dwell connects us back again to the Old Testament. This time not to creation, but to the first covenant. The Ark of the Lord, the place of His presence, was surrounded by a tent. This tent was called the tabernacle. Well, the word for “dwell” here is simply the verb form of “tabernacle.” So the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. Here now is where God has chosen to be, where He has chosen to reveal Himself to the world, in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

The glory of God is something fascinating in John’s Gospel. Most people see this verse and immediately jump to Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John go up onto the mountain with Jesus. There they see Him in all His majesty, the light of the world shining forth from His face and clothing. But there’s something else about John’s Gospel that you find the more you study it. John doesn’t talk about the Transfiguration. Instead, the glory of Jesus is revealed on the cross. If you want to check it out, it’s in John 11:27 – 33. Jesus has been born of the virgin Mary not to grow old, not to rule the world like any normal king might, but He has come to this world to die on the cross for our sins. This little baby boy that we remember today is a sacrifice for us. And He has planned this all along. That’s why this is His glory. The cross reveals the glory of God. And on the cross, we see the salvation of our God. That is the gift we receive this Christmas, a gift beyond all silver or gold. The gift of the precious Son of God, who dies for our sins. May we continue to treasure this gift above all, above any pieces of plastic or shiny jewels that this earth may hold. Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Christmas Peace

Sermon preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church on December 24, 2021.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our study this evening is taken from our Gospel lesson, Luke 2:1 – 14. Merry Christmas! Tonight we are gathered to celebrate that our God who created heaven and earth took on human flesh and was born of a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. And this is one of our favorite stories of the Scriptures, that God would come down to His people, not as a mighty conqueror or an angry parent, but as an innocent baby silently cuddling in the arms of his mother. It’s peaceful, it’s serene, it’s tranquil, it’s truly a silent night. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we love this night so much above all others. Because when is the last night you’ve had a peaceful, serene, tranquil, or even silent night? I know it’s been a long time for my family and me. I imagine that for many of you, that is true as well. So how can we capture this Christmas peace that God has promised for us? Well, let’s take a look at our Gospel lesson for this evening and try to see how we can carry this peace with us throughout the year.

Luke 2:1 – 7 reads: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when [Quirinius] was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. So, to start with, we’ve got a family traveling on foot while the wife is very pregnant, we’ve got taxes, we’ve got a problem with the hotel reservation, and we’ve got the delivery of a baby. None of this screams “peace.” In fact, when you talk about it that way, I’m seeing stress upon stress. And yet, we call this a silent night, a peaceful night. Hardly the word I would use at this point. 

Well, maybe it gets better as we go along, let’s take a look at the next section, Luke 2:8 – 14. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” If I ask you to close your eyes and picture an angel in your mind, what do you see? Do you see something that looks like those precious moments angels, a small childlike being with a beaming smile in a nicely pressed white robe? Yeah, that’s not what angels actually look like. The appearance of an angel is frightening. Some are described as having multiple faces, some with wings full of eyes, and others with multiple animal heads. There’s a reason that an angel’s greeting is “Fear not!” They are scary-looking. And so we’ve got first one dropping by to announce to the overnight shepherd crew that their savior is born, and then a whole army of them appear out of seemingly nowhere. Again, doesn’t sound peaceful, doesn’t sound serene. It sounds like the shepherds might need to check their drawers after an event like that. 

Let’s look a little further than our text and see if that’s where we find the peace of Christmas, Luke 2:15 – 17 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. Mary has just given birth, and all of a sudden, there’s a commotion going on outside of town that you might or might not be able to hear, and then some local shepherds come barging in to see your brand new baby boy. Not finding very much peace or tranquility here either. I guess Isaiah misspoke when He named Jesus “The Prince of Peace.”

And our lives aren’t exactly filled with peace either, are they? Worries over omicron variants and supply lines and critical race theory are added on top of the normal holiday stress. It’s a wonder any of us can get any sleep these days. Isaiah’s words seem to ring a little hollow right now, don’t they? Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. Increase of peace? No, we’re in a decrease of peace. We’ve got a country that is divided against itself. We’ve got evil people worldwide wanting to kill and destroy. We can’t even peaceably disagree with each other anymore over something like an injection. The only “sleeping in heavenly peace” that the world wants to give us is the sleep of the dead. Just like it did with Jesus.

Yeah, that’s a hard thing to remember on Christmas. That the little baby we’re celebrating the birth of, He’s come here to die. And His death is the source of our peace. The real peace of this Christmas season. Not peace between sinful human beings or between Christians and the world. That peace will not happen until Jesus returns again in glory to remake this world free from sin. No, the peace that the angels proclaim is peace between God and man. That peace had been broken when sin entered the world when our first parents rebelled and followed Satan rather than God. But now God has taken on human flesh. And with His death for us on the cross, we are at peace with God once more. Our sins are nailed to the cross and remembered no more. And this is true peace. This is lasting peace, a peace that can’t be broken. For it was forged with the very blood of the Christ child, Jesus Himself. And it is that peace that He gives to you here this Christmas. What a precious gift. May we treasure it always, Amen. Now the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.