And Dwelt Among Us

Text: John 1:1-14

The Holy Spirit caused John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, to prophesy in Luke 2, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies.” I don’t know if I can really sum up the meaning of Christmas better than that, and that was spoken before Jesus was even born. But today, we remember, celebrate, and confess that Jesus Christ has been born. Today we feast knowing that the Savior has come into the world to rescue us from the ruinous guilt of our sins. We see in the text from John 1, that Jesus Christ is not simply a man, but He is the eternal Word and Son of the Father. Though He existed from all eternity and created all things, today He has taken upon Himself our flesh, to dwell among us with His grace and truth.

I.

St. John starts with the beginning of the Bible as the foundation of his Gospel. We read, 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.” Here, and other places in Scripture, we learn the beginnings of Jesus – there are none. Instead, Jesus is the eternal Word of God, for whom there is no beginning. He has always existed as the Second Person of the Trinity, in perfect unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Though He has no beginning, He Himself is the beginning of all things. Praying in the Garden of Eden, Jesus said, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” We also know His words in the book of Revelation, “I am and the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Everything that now exists, including our own bodies, was created directly through the eternal Word of God and by His hand. There is nothing that now exists that was not made by His work and nothing exists that the Jesus did not make. As it says in Psalm 33, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” and as our Epistle text from Hebrews 1 states, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Jesus Christ, the eternal Word and Son of the Father, is true God. He existed before all things and all things were created by Him.

II.

The Gospel text continues by stating that in the Word of God, in Jesus, was life. This life within Him was light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it. We have here a picture of the reality that we live in, a reality being crushed under the weight of sin. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, is Light and Life, but there is also darkness. Darkness, of course, is the absence of light. In the same way, sin is the absence of things pleasing to God. In the beginning God created all things good. He created the earth and all things in it; He created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden. He gave them free will, and they used it against Him. Tempted by the Devil, Adam and Eve doubted God’s Word and rejected Light and Life.

God’s Word says that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The language the Holy Spirit uses says that the darkness tries to grab the light and make it its own, to possess it, and control it. The darkness doesn’t win, but it still tries. Isn’t that the nature of our sin? St. John describes it like this, “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.” John shows a distinct difference between the true light and everything else. The True Light was coming into the world, the world which He made, and yet it did not know Him. The Light of the World came to His own people, and they did not receive Him; instead, they preferred the darkness to the Light.

It’s easy to point fingers at history, at people who obviously preferred darkness; but you know the cliché – when you point a finger, three point back at you. Every one of us has been corrupted by sin. Every moment of every day it’s hiding in the corner, waiting for us to loosen up to catch us off guard; it’s even at work within our own bodies, driving us to do and think shameful things in pursuit of the desires of the flesh. Our natural inclination as human beings is to put ourselves first. We determine what we want. We determine what is right and wrong. We determine what is true and false, and we determine whether or not our truth applies to anyone outside ourselves. We are like the darkness that tries to overtake the light and claim it as our own. We are sinners and deserve the just rewards of our trespasses.

III.

The Gospel continues, “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. 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.” On our own, we are nothing but darkness and sin. Jesus is Light and Life; we are not. The text says that the children of God are not those born of blood, nor of the will of flesh or of man, but those who are born by God’s will. St. Peter writes that those who are in Christ have been caused to be born again by the mercy of God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He says that those born again are not born of perishable seed, but imperishable, through the “living and abiding word of God.”

The natural person is darkness and doesn’t accept the things of God, but the children of God are made so by His action. As we learn in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” This is where the last verse of the Gospel comes in: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The eternal Word of God became flesh. He did this not by changing from God into man, but by bringing humanity up into Himself, becoming both fully God and fully man. The magnitude of human sin, the painful reality of death and decay, made this the only way. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. He lived among us, fulfilling God’s will perfectly, and then was crucified for our sins.

At His death, darkness and the Devil had one last hurrah, thinking that the darkness had overcome. But it didn’t. Christ burst triumphantly from the grave and now lives forever, having destroyed death itself. And now He dwells among us. Christ, the eternal Word of God, never changes. He never leaves, He never forsakes. Instead, He has come to dwell among us with His grace and truth, His free and plentiful forgiveness. In Him is life, and this life is the light of all mankind. Amen.

He Will Save His People from Their Sins

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Tonight we gather together to celebrate the birth of the world’s savior, Jesus Christ. We’ve spent about the last month, the whole season of Advent, hearing the promises of the Messiah through the mouths of the prophets. We’ve heard the assurances of the Apostle Paul that the return of Christ is near, and we’ve heard the preaching of John the Baptist – that we are all sinners in need of repentance and salvation. All of these things, the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in Christ tonight. This evening we meet with joy and expectation knowing that the promises that God has made throughout all time now find their fulfilment in the birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and existed before all time but, in order to save us, has now in our time taken upon Himself human flesh. He did this to be Immanuel, “God with us,” and to save us from our sins.

I.

Our text from St. Matthew’s Gospel begins by providing some background to the birth of Jesus so long ago. Matthew writes, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew is of course writing this after Jesus had ascended, but it’s important that he provides context for his hearers. Scholars say that Matthew wrote his gospel to proclaim to the Jewish people that Jesus is the messiah that they had long hoped for. They knew that the Messiah had to come as an offspring of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the lineage of David – which is exactly what we find as Matthew traces the earthly genealogy of Jesus back 42 generations.

Now, in this list there is a mixture of both good and bad people. Many sermons will focus on that and show that God uses people who aren’t perfect for His perfect plan, and that’s true. But the important part in all this is that it shows us that God keeps His Word, even through 42 generations of sinful men.

But, now at the end of the line, something’s different. A young Mary is betrothed to Joseph, through whom Jesus is reckoned to be descended. Before they had come together she was found to be with child. This child had been conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. Joseph didn’t know that yet, and being a righteous man and not wanting to shame Mary, made up his mind to divorce her quietly. “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”

As just as Joseph may have been, he was still a human. What would you do if you found that your fiancé is pregnant, and you’ve been honoring the Lord and each other with your bodies as you prepare for marriage? He wanted to save Mary as much shame as he could, and so he wanted to proceed subtly. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, assuring him that it was okay to take Mary as his wife. The child conceived in her is not of man, but of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the child was a son, and His name is to be called Jesus. St. Peter speaks of this child before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Never in history has there been a more important name, a more important child. This child is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His name is Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.

II.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” St. Matthew cuts right to the point of it all. This child, conceived by the Holy Spirit and soon to be born of the Virgin Mary, is what has been so long prophesied. This is a clear instance of the Scripture interpreting Scripture, showing that the text from Isaiah 7 is a reference to Jesus. Back then Ahaz was king of Judah. God assured him that though enemies were preparing to wage war against Jerusalem, he need not fear, for God is with them. As proof His promise, He told Ahaz to ask for a sign, but he refused. Therefore, the Lord Himself gave a sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. This son shall be called Immanuel, God with us.

The prophecy has now reached its fulfilment. The child, the savior long hoped for, is now come. But He didn’t come just to be here, but to be with us. This child born of the Virgin Mary is all the power of God to save. He is born fully God and fully man, perfect in every way, so that He can save His people from their sins.

We mentioned Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus just a moment ago. It contains 42 generations, and every single generation, marred by the guilt of sin. Beginning with Abraham, who in various times doubted God’s Word and was yet declared righteous by faith, each succeeding generation was filled with the likeness of sinful man. King David was an adulterer, as well was King Solomon in addition to being an idolater. Each person in the list, a sinner. We are sinners, too.

Sure, we are here this evening, but how often do we find ourselves putting our desires above the needs of others, or pleasing ourselves rather than spending time before the Lord? We are quicker to praise ourselves and those around us than to pray a simple prayer for forgiveness to our Father in heaven. Tonight we gather to celebrate the impending birth of a baby boy, while still, in our country, too many are robbed of birth. These things, and many more, show that we are sinners, living in a sinful world wracked with the guilt of perpetual iniquity.

But, dear friends in Christ Jesus, this is exactly why He was born. He was born to be God with us. He made this possible by His perfect life – His fulfillment of God’s Law at every point, in place of our failures. This He made possible by His brutal suffering – taking what we deserve. This He made possible by His death on the cross – the eternal payment and atonement for our sins. By His death, He has removed the guilt of our trespasses. He won for us the forgiveness of sins. This forgiveness He freely and continually gives to us through His Word, in Holy Absolution, in the gift of Baptism, in His body and blood given to us from this altar. Scripture says that Jesus came to save sinners. This He does and He is true to His promise to never leave or forsake you.

As you depart this evening to be with your families, and as you celebrate tomorrow, you may know that in Christ, sins are forgiven. He is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, yet born of Mary. He was born to be God with us, your Immanuel. His name is Jesus, because, by His death, He saved us from our sins. Amen.

The One to Come

Text: Matthew 11:2-6

The Voight-Kampff machine is a sophisticated piece of equipment. It’s a very advanced form of lie detector machine that measures contractions of the iris muscles in your eyes in response to carefully worded questions and statements. It also has a set of bellows which are sensitive to the invisible  pheromones released from the human body. Like I said, a sophisticated machine. It needs to be, because bounty hunters need to be able to discern whether the subject in front of them is an android or a human. The machine is used in the 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? You might know the film adaptation, Blade Runner.

Rick Deckard is the main character in both. His task as a blade runner is to seek out and “retire” escaped androids. The literature plays on many themes, not the least of which is what makes one human. In the movie the androids are shown to think and dream, to have emotions. In our Gospel text, think of John the Baptist as a blade runner. His job was to point to and show the people the true Messiah, Jesus. The Voight-Kampff machine in Blade Runner is like Jesus’ miracles. The miracles show that Jesus is the One to Come, but there is some confusion. In the movie, the machine can sometimes give false positives – such as, showing an android to be a human. In our text, John wondered whether his machines was giving a false positive, so he sent his disciples to Jesus. When they met Him, Jesus showed through His Word and deeds that He is the One to Come. Blessed is the one who is not offended by Him.

  1.  

The text from St. Matthew’s gospel begins, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ The scene begins with John in prison. By this point he had been there about a year already. In the Gospels, John is active before Christ’s ministry. His job was to preach about the coming Messiah and call people to repentance in preparation for His arrival. The time came for Jesus to be baptized by John. He had no need of forgiveness, but His baptism for repentance was necessary to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus said. Immediately at His Baptism, the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove while the Father spoke from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

It was revealed to John there just whose way He was preparing – Jesus’. Jesus is the One to Come, who is now here. But John’s in prison now. He’s there for his faithful witness to God’s Word. He rightfully called Herod to repent for his adulterous marriage and was thrown in the king’s dungeon. Now, John is starting to creak. The old house isn’t falling down by any means, but when the wind blows hard enough, it moans a little. Most commentators on this text are very pious and say that it wasn’t John who doubted Jesus, but his disciples. I don’t really think it makes a difference. John sent his disciples with a simple task: find out whether Jesus is the “one who is to come,” (the Messiah), “or should we look for another?”

I think it doesn’t make a difference whether it was John himself who wanted to know, or his disciples, because the reason is the same. Jesus did not conform exactly to their idea of the Messiah. Hear some examples of John’s sermons: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” “His winnowing fork is in his hand…the chaff he will burn with fire.” See, they were expecting the Messiah to come and deal with sin immediately. He was supposed to come and burn away the dross, to put away the evildoer and cast him into eternal fire. John saw the dove and heard the voice at Jesus’ Baptism, but maybe the machine was broken. Maybe the Voight-Kampff machine identifying Jesus was throwing a false positive.

  1.   

If John was a blade runner, whose task is to seek the Messiah, then we are blade runners, too. And, just like John the Baptist and his disciples, we sometimes get the wrong idea. See, we all want the perfect lives. Who came blame us? All we ask for is health, a comfortable amount of money, a warm home, a stable family life…we look for these things and expect them from the Messiah, but we don’t always get them. We get disheartened and disillusioned. Sometimes, like John, we’re not sure either.

But, what does Jesus do when the disciples ask Him? He doesn’t rebuke them. Instead, He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. Jesus does not send them away in anger or despise them, but He them tells to convey what they’ve heard and seen. They’ve heard Jesus preach that the kingdom of God has now drawn near to them. They’ve heard Him say that He has come to bring the free forgiveness of sins. We learn in the Catechism that where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. In the presence of Jesus, not only are sins forgiven, but the blind now see, the lame now walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor in spirit receive Good News.

These things are all actions which were prophesied by the Lord through Isaiah many centuries before. Jesus is the One to Come. Jesus shows this not just in words, but in deeds which only the Lord God Himself could do. The man who was born blind and yet healed by Jesus put it this way, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Jesus showed Himself to be a tree that is known by its fruits. He is the One to Come, whom God’s people had long awaited, and now He’s here. Only, He is not here primarily to judge and destroy. There will be a time for that, but not yet. In our text Jesus has come to bring forgiveness, to release those held captive in the bondage of sin by healing their diseases and infirmities. Their healing is a small picture of the healing which we will all receive in the resurrection of the dead.

III.   

Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” In Blade Runner they have a machine called the Voight-Kampff machine, which is used to determine whether the subject in front of them is an android or not. John and his disciples had a machine that they were using to determine whether Jesus was the one to come; They had the miracles. But they wondered whether their machine was giving them a false positive. In the movie, one android is able to make it through over 100 questions that were designed to tell androids from humans. Maybe John and his followers were mistaken. Jesus had the miracles, but He wasn’t displaying the wrath and fire, the immediate punishment of evil that they were expecting.

Instead, Jesus was forgiving sins and healing. He was showing mercy and preaching the Gospel, not desiring that any should perish, but that all come to repentance and faith. John and his disciples put Jesus into a box, expecting Him to conform to their idea of the Messiah. Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” That statement applied to John, but its real focus was the scribes and pharisees. They, likewise, were looking for the Messiah. They saw Jesus and the signs that He did, and yet they rejected Him. John did not, despite his struggles. Jesus speaks to us as well.

We can all get behind Jesus. In hindsight it’s easy to see that Jesus is the Messiah. He heals the sick, makes the deaf to hear, raises the dead, even rising from the dead Himself. He is the One to Come, the Messiah who brings with Him the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and the healing of all ailments in the resurrection. But, beyond that we also put Jesus into a box. We compartmentalize Him into just a section of our lives and ignore the demands He makes on our entire being. Jesus calls us to a life of repentance, not just Sunday mornings. He teaches us to cast out the old leaven of sin, and yet often we aren’t too serious about avoiding sinful behavior. Jesus teaches through the mouth of the Apostle Paul to mark and avoid all false doctrine, and to prize the true teaching above all things, but that’s too much work – and on top of that, it’s often seen as not “nice.”

Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” These words apply to us as well as to John and his disciples. Jesus, however did not rebuke or belittle their question. Rather, Jesus showed through word and work that He is the One to Come. He is God in the flesh, come to release us from the bonds of sin. The title for the Third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete, which means “Rejoice.” This comes from our antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Therefore, let us rejoice at the coming of the Lord. He has shown through His words and deeds that He is the One to Come, who has come and released us from our sins. When John and his disciples were offended on account of Jesus’ not fitting their ideas, He did not turn them away in anger but showed mercy. In the same way, may He grant us grace not to take offense at Him or His Words by lighting the darkness our hearts with His gracious visitation.

 

The Righteous Branch, Advent Midweek I

Text: Jeremiah 23:(1-4) 5-8

The Lord declared through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” These words are quite similar in tone to the words of John the Baptist, and they should remind us of him. John the Baptist, you remember, came ahead of Jesus to prepare the way of the Lord. Jeremiah also came preparing the way of the Lord, though in a different way. Jeremiah came as the weeping prophet, whose ministry contained harsh words of judgment against Judah and the resulting destruction coming its way. And yet, with these words of judgment came also words of promise. In our text today Jeremiah proclaims the coming of the Righteous Branch, the shoot from Jesse’s stump. The days are coming, says our text, and are yet here, when Jesus the Righteous Branch will cause His people to dwell securely.

I.

For us to understand the idea of the Righteous Branch, this king who will come and will deal wisely and execute justice, it’s important to understand the context of our reading. Jeremiah’s ministry lasted a long time – from the reign of the good king Josiah until fall of Jerusalem – over 40 years. His time was a very political time. Assyria in the north, had control of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was declining. In its place Babylon was rising. Now, throw Egypt into the fray as a world power and it all became one big powder keg. Jerusalem, and the kingdom of Judah, sat in the middle of it all – quite literally, geographically speaking. And they got nervous. Everyone had different opinions about what to do. In all of it, the Lord consistently and faithfully sent them prophets to show His people the way. These prophets told the people God’s will, but they ignored it. Everyone had an idea about what to do, and none of them were God’s.

This refusal to submit to God’s will resulted in a very high turnover of kings. Egypt would come and displace some, Babylon some others. Thus, in absence of true kings, the nobles of Judah gained much power; but, rather than use it to lead God’s people wisely, they abused it. God had spoken through Jeremiah that Babylon was going to come and destroy Jerusalem – though complete disaster would be averted if they would just listen to the Word. Instead, they allied with Egypt – an alliance that ended poorly. Because of all this the Lord says in the verses leading up to our text,

You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.”

The kings and leaders of God’s people were poor shepherds. They did not listen to God’s Word nor teach the people to. Instead, they substituted their own thoughts and dreams. God would later chastise them for not seeking the council of the Lord. Therefore, He would attend to them for their failure to attend to His people. He will fix it all Himself by gathering His flock from all the countries where they have been driven and by placing shepherds over them who will care for them. Under His care they will fear no more, nor be dismayed, and none shall be missing.

II.    

This is how the Lord will fix everything. He says,

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

This is what the Lord says. He will deal with the poor shepherds of Israel and care for His people by fulfilling the promise He made to David in 2 Samuel 7, that an offspring from David’s line will sit on the throne of the Lord forever. The “forever” part rules out Solomon as the fulfillment of that promise and makes it squarely about the Messiah. The Lord says the days of the Messiah are coming. He will reign as king and deal wisely with the people. The Scripture teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That is how this Righteous Branch will rule and reign, through the wisdom of God’s Word. The result will be that, in His days, Judah and Israel (the whole Church) will dwell securely and call upon the Lord, who is our Righteousness.

The Lord speaks again of the coming Righteous Branch. He says,

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”

The days are coming, says the Lord, when His people will no longer look to the past for the mighty deeds of the Lord, for they shall forever be in His presence.

It will not be like how God’s people would celebrate the Passover to remember His mighty deeds of old. Instead, this passage brings us to the end of Scripture, to the new heaven and new earth, where at His return Christ recreates all things as they should be. We get a picture of this in Eden, but even that doesn’t compare to the glory that awaits us in the presence of Christ. This Advent, let us then fix our eyes on Jesus our Righteous Branch. We remember and celebrate His incarnation in the manger, but we pray for His glorious return, where He will gather all His people and cause them to dwell in security and joy forever.