Steadfast in the Gospel Meant for All

Text: Acts 15:12-22a; James 1:1-12

Today we’re doing something a little different. It may seem different to us here in 2016, but we’re participating today in a practice that has been celebrated by Lutherans for nearly 500 years. You’ll notice that our altars are clothed in red. As far as Church colors go, purple is the color of repentance, white the color of Christ, green the color of the Church, blue the color of hope; red is the color of the Holy Spirit. The Church’s altars are adorned in red for Pentecost, for the ordination and installation of her pastors, and for the festival of the Reformation. If you know your calendar you know that Reformation Sunday isn’t until the 31st, or the last Sunday in October. So why are we red today? Because red is also the color of blood.

Red is the color of the martyrs, those who die for confessing faith in Jesus Christ, one of which the Church remembers on the 23rd of October. Today is marked as the death of James the brother of Jesus. He is the James who, with the Apostles John and Peter, was a leader in the Jerusalem congregation. He also wrote the epistle bearing his name. Though he did not believe in Jesus until after the resurrection, the faith given to him by the Holy Spirit led him to boldly confess the Gospel of Christ, calling for the reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christians. He preached and confessed the saving Gospel of Jesus for all people, even in his death. In our readings from Acts and James we see that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins and free salvation in Him, produces a Godly desire for reconciliation, even in the face of trials and temptations.

I.

Today we pause to remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James, grace which we have received as well. This is the proper way of going about this subject. We do not honor James as one blessed by God above and beyond us, but as a fellow Christian was connected to Christ in a unique way (such as knowing Him in the flesh) and from whom we could learn much. This is the Lutheran understanding of the saints. If you open to the front of the hymnal, it speaks of the three appropriate ways to honor the saints. I’m going to read the section of the Book of Concord that the hymnal cites.

Our Confession approves honoring the saints in three ways. The first is thanksgiving. We should thank God because He has shown examples of mercy, because He wishes to save people, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the Church…The second service is the strengthening of our faith… The third honor is the imitation, first of faith, then of the other virtues. Everyone should imitate the saints according to his calling.

What that means is we see in people like James, Paul, Peter, John, and the other apostles examples of God’s mercy and grace. These people were gifts of God to the Church and we give thanks to God for the mercy and talents He gave them. By their example we are also strengthened in the faith. Such as, if Peter could be forgiven for denying the Lord and Paul for persecuting the Church and participating in the murder of Stephen, we also can be forgiven. Lastly, we can also imitate them in our own vocations, such as by imitating their faith or, in the case of James, praying for the reconciliation of all Christians.

That said, who is this James we’re talking about? There are a number of them in the New Testament, which is this? We’ll start with who he’s not. He’s not either of the two disciples named James. There was James the brother of John, who was martyred by king Herod Agrippa in 48. James the son of Alphaeus served and preached in Egypt. This James is the one included in the Gospel with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as brothers (or in most interpretations, cousins) of Jesus. In Galatians 1, St. Paul also calls him, “James the Lord’s brother.” What we know from Scripture is that, although with Jesus’ other relatives he did not believe, Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. Having seen the Lord he now believed. By the grace of God he was called to be a leader of the Church in Jerusalem. He was a well-respected Christian and was the final word at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. He also authored the epistle that is called James.

Tradition tells us that James was an old man when some leaders of the Jews came to him. They knew he was a leader of the Church and that people listened to him. They led him to the top of the temple and compelled him to renounce faith in Christ. Instead, he boldly confessed that Jesus is the Lord. Enraged, they threw him from the building. As he did not die from the fall, they stoned him. We have the last words of James as the enemies of Christ were killing him, “I beseech thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” His last words were Christ’s.

II.

We remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James even in the face of death, but what we can we also learn today? Our first reading was from Acts and comes from an event called the Jerusalem council, which happened about 49. We think we have problems in the Church today, but perhaps they were even more serious in the first generation. Sometimes we take the Gospel we’ve received for granted. We understand that the forgiveness of sins won on the cross by Jesus Christ is for the whole world and He calls all people to faith through the preaching of the Word. In regards to salvation through faith in Christ there is no difference between one person and another. As St. Paul says, in Baptism, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Imagine living in world and church that doesn’t see things that way, that excludes entire chunks and races of people from salvation in Christ. Rather than call all to repentance and faith in Christ, suppose we categorically excluded a particular ethnicity from salvation, like Swedes. Yet, that was what was going on. The Jewish Christians were openly and fiercely excluding Gentile converts from the faith. Or, at least they must first become Jews, and only then become Christians. Of course this was contrary to the Gospel, but that didn’t stop men from going and preaching exactly that. It caused a large controversy, and prompted heated debate until a council was called in Jerusalem. A council is a meeting of the whole Church.

Sts. Paul and Barnabas were sent up to Jerusalem to relate to the Apostles and pastors there the work of God among the Gentiles. St. Peter likewise bore witness to the fact that God had also chosen to preach through him not just Jews but Gentiles also. Still, there were some maintaining that pagan converts to Christianity must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Finally, James – who was presiding over the council – spoke. Rather than give a purely human opinion, he turned the council to the Word of God. It had always been God’s plan, as revealed through the prophets, to gather for Himself one holy people from all mankind. God is not a God of partiality, but of free grace and mercy for all, both Jew and Greek. Through the wisdom given him by God and from relying on the plain words of Scripture, James preached that the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no bounds. There is no one for whom Christ did not die. And there is no one outside of His forgiveness.

III.    

Confessing that sort of faith will not win you any friends from the world. James confessed that all people are sinners and are freely forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ. For that, enemies of the Christ and His bride threw James from the temple and stoned him. These sorts of things still happen around the world, even if they are absent from our country. Here our persecution at this time is mostly economic and personal. There are Christians who have been bankrupted for refusing to give in to the demands of society. And who has not received a sideways glance for standing up for marriage, or even daring to talk about Jesus in public? We may even receive ire for stating that we believe Lutheranism is the right interpretation of the Scripture. As Christians, we should expect this treatment and not lose heart.

James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and mature, lacking nothing.” We know how James’ story ends, the persecution and death he endured, yet he would say it was a joy for him to bear the reproach of Christ. He knew the hatred he bore was not against him, but Christ. Those trials produced steadfastness in him, and they will in us. James knew that those who suffer the hatred of the world for the sake of Christ are called blessed by our Savior.

Let us then also learn this wisdom James, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” Today we remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James, which we have also received. We believe and confess with James that Jesus Christ died for all and desire for all Christians to be united as the body of Christ. For that faith, we will also suffer with James. But in our trials, we do not suffer alone. We suffer with Christ. Let us pray that God would continue to grant us the forgiveness of our sins through His Word and Sacrament, and that He would, with James, keep us steadfast in the one true faith until we die and receive with all the saints the crown of life that never fades. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Fulfillment of What Was Spoken

Text: Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation. Technically it fell yesterday, July 2nd, but it’s within bounds to celebrate today. And, it’s fitting to do so, because it’s not a holiday we always get to talk about. In fact, our Gospel reading today doesn’t come up anywhere else in Lectionary. So, it’s possible that we might not remember it very well. Another reason why we don’t talk about the Visitation very much is because it does involve talking about Mary. I think the typical Lutheran response to hearing the name of Mary to shrivel back with a tendency to reject all things that smell Roman Catholic. But, historically, this has not always been the case for Lutherans. Our own Book of Concord says that Mary is worthy of the most plentiful honors. But, in no way is she to be made equal to Christ. We give thanks to God for His grace to her and see in her an example of the faith to follow.

That brings us to the Visitation. What is it all about? It’s not about Mary; It’s about Christ – hence the white paraments. The Visitation is about how God remembers and fulfills His promises. Throughout the Old Testament God promised to send a Savior who would die and rise for the forgiveness of sins. Now this promise is being fulfilled in Christ, before He was even born. Christ, in the womb – in His very conception by the Holy Spirit – is at work to fulfill His promises. The presence of God’s Savior caused John the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb, Elizabeth to prophesy, and Mary to sing the Magnificat. In all these awesome images, there remains a central truth. The Visitation shows us that God makes good on His promises: to Elizabeth, to Mary, to all His people, and to us.

I.

You might’ve noticed that our hymns today pull us back into Christmas. The things we remember and celebrate today are part of that context; they’re connected to the incarnation and birth of our Savior. Our text comes from St. Luke’s Gospel. Both he and St. Matthew give us the infancy narrative of Jesus, but in Luke’s Gospel the Holy Spirit gives us a little more of a backstory. And really, that’s how St. Luke does things. He says in his introduction that he has set out to write, “an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” St. Luke wants to sit down and write an orderly account of things so that we can have a firm record and be confident in the hope that we have. So, the idea we’re operating with today is that Jesus doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus has a context. The context of the Visitation is that Jesus comes as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Today we’ve got two big ones.

The first promise St. Luke covers is the birth of John the Baptist. We do get to talk about John on a few occasions, and his birth was promised as well. In fact, some 400 years earlier God promised through the prophet Malachi that He would send his messenger to serve in the office of Elijah and prepare the way of the Lord. At the time of our text there was an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Even in their advanced age they longed for a child, but Elizabeth was barren. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple and told him that God had heard their prayers – Elizabeth will bear a son. The name of their son will be John. John, Gabriel said, will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and will go before the Lord in the power of Elijah to prepare His way. By giving this promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth, God is fulfilling His promise from before. This is the first promise we need to remember going into the Visitation.

The second promise is the one God made to Mary. When Elizabeth had been pregnant with John for sixth months, Gabriel was again sent by God – this time to Mary. Mary lived in Nazareth and was betrothed to Joseph. Gabriel appeared to her to tell her that she will conceive and bear a son, Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…and of His kingdom there will be no end.” When Mary asked how this will be, since she was a virgin, Gabriel said that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of God will overshadow her, so that the child she is to bear will be the Son of God. As a sign to her that this will happen, Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived, in her old age. For, nothing is impossible with God. Having heard the Word of God, Mary responded in faith. “Let it be to me according to your word.” This is how the Lutheran Confessions speak about Mary – that, as she responded to God’s Word in faith, so we should pray that we do the same.

II.

Now we get to the Visitation itself, Mary meeting Elizabeth and John meeting Jesus. Remember, the Visitation is about God fulfilling His promises: to Elizabeth, to Mary, to His people, and to us. St. Luke writes, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” So, as soon as Mary heard that Elizabeth was pregnant, she got up and went to Judah to see. If you had heard that the Lord had done some awesome thing, you’d probably go see, too. When she arrived in the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth she greeted them. This greeting was probably the typical Hebrew greeting, which would involve invoking the Lord’s blessing on the house and those who dwell in it.

Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb. Though he had not yet been born, he heard the Lord’s Word spoken by Mary and leaped for joy at the presence of the incarnate Christ. This is one reason that we believe children are able to have faith. The Greek word means infant, but it also includes the unborn. At this point, Mary had just conceived, but even then, Christ was at work fulfilling His promises. Recognizing this fact, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, literally “chanted,” “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And, she’s right. Mary is blessed to carry for nine months the holy Son of God and redeemer of the world. But, the word here for blessed is in the passive voice. Mary is not blessed because she is actively holy, but because God is holy and has been gracious to her, forgiving her sins, and blessing her to bear Jesus. In a similar way, we are also blessed when we “bear” Jesus and carry in Him in us as we receive His body and blood in the Sacrament.

Remember, the Visitation is not about Mary. It’s not about Elizabeth or John the Baptist; it’s about Jesus. It’s about how God is fulfilling His Word by becoming incarnate to fulfill the Law and die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. And that work is happening here, even before Christ has left the womb. But that brings us to the question of the proper place of Mary. As the Lutheran Confessions say, we honor Mary and give thanks to God that He choose her to bear the Christ, but then we leave it there. Mary is in heaven, as are all the saints, but we neither pray to them nor invoke them. Instead, we commend them into God’s care, giving thanks for their steadfast faith and work, and pray that God would stir us on to follow their example.

III.

But, like we’ve said a few times: we’re celebrating the Visitation today as an event in Christ’s life and moment where we see God fulfilling His promises. He promised in Malachi to send a messenger before the Lord, and that is fulfilled in His promise to Elizabeth. He promised in Genesis that He would send a Messiah to crush the devil, to David that a descendent of his would sit on the throne forever, in Isaiah that a virgin will conceive and bear the Son of God, and now that promise has been fulfilled. That’s why Elizabeth exclaims that, in Mary’s womb, her Lord has come to visit her. It’s why John the Baptist leaps in the womb and why Mary is led by the Holy Spirit to sing words that have been repeated by the Church for the last two millennia. These words tells us what today means for us.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

and exalted those of humble estate;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
In the Visitation, we celebrate God’s faithfulness to His promise. We magnify the Lord and rejoice in Him, for He has looked on us in our low estate. We have all sinned and deserve to lie in dust and ashes. Yet, the Lord has had mercy and remembered His promise to our fathers. He promised to show mercy to those who fear him, to scatter the proud and bring down the mighty, but fill the hungry with good things and help His servant, Israel. And so He has.

The feast we celebrate today isn’t about Mary; it’s not about John the Baptist or Elizabeth, but about Jesus. In the Visitation we see that God keeps His promises. He remembers His people and has mercy on them. He raises those of low estate, and sets our feet upon the rock of salvation in Christ. To Him be all glory. Amen.