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2016 Christmas Day Sermon – John 1:1-18

December 25, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“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.”

We have come to the Festival of Our Lord’s Nativity on this December 25. What is to be celebrated on this Christmas Day? Ask that question of our neighbors, even the 15,000 or so people who live in Silver Spring Township, and you’ll get many different answers. Some like several of our immigrant neighbors know little to nothing about Christmas, so they might say that the holiday is some sort of American festival. Others know bits and pieces, and would mention time with family or capping off the year or even Santa Claus. Even some who identify themselves as Christians will speak about the holiday as something concerning gift-giving and charity. But none of those are really the point of the Christmas Festival.

“Jesus is the Reason for the season.” That phrase might not be as popular now as it was decades ago. You might still be able to find bookmarks, cards, or pins containing that phrase. And as much as one can capture a thought in fewer than a ten-word rhyme scheme, that’s correct. But it comes off a little light. We would be better off stating the reason for celebration in the way that the Gospel Writer does: “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.” The Incarnation is what we celebrate on this day. That’s the point of the Christmas festival. It is a time to recall the great mystery of the divine assuming humanity, of the Creator becoming part of His creation.

When the Gospel Writer mentions the Incarnation, he speaks of it in terms of the Old Testament event that took place long before Jesus was born. You heard that in the Old Testament Reading for this day. Moses erects the tabernacle, finishing it just as the LORD had commanded. All the parts were set in their right place, even the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. And then what happened? “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” All of Israel could then point to that tent and say: “That is where the LORD’s glory dwells. That is where the LORD is with us.”

The LORD’s glory filling the tabernacle is how the Book of the Exodus ends. Yet, the description of the event wasn’t solely to speak about the LORD’s glory being present there. No, the author speaks of the purpose behind that presence: “Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.” The Israelites were guided by the LORD who was present with them. He gave them direction. By His presence, the LORD would lead His people to the Promised Land.

But the Gospel Writer tells us that something even greater happened centuries afterward. The LORD once again made His glory present in a local way. But this time, it wasn’t filling a sacred room. No, the local presence of the LORD’s glory happens in an even more miraculous way: “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.” That is the great mystery of the Incarnation which the Church celebrates on this day.

But that presence of the LORD’s glory in Jesus wasn’t for a different purpose than when the LORD’s glory filled the tabernacle. No, He also was present to bring great and needed blessing. John speaks of it this way: “And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.” And the apostle Paul writes: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy….”

This is the point of the Christmas festival that we celebrate. The LORD comes to His people with power and glory and brings His salvation to them. That fact was heard in the statements made about the Son of Mary at the Annunciation: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” The same is revealed to Joseph, when he deliberated over what action to take: “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.” These declarations speak to the nature and work of Jesus. They tie Him to the ancient promises spoken by the LORD. They unveil the mystery of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, so that what was created by Him would also be redeemed by Him.

This truth is what we have received through the preaching about Jesus passed down through the centuries. We continue to confess it, as we will state about Him in the Creed: “…begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man….” We point to Jesus and say: “That is where the LORD’s glory dwells. That is where the LORD is with us.” As we have believed this, the benefit of the Incarnation becomes ours: ”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.” Or as the apostle declares: “being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

How has that benefit come to us? First, that the LORD assumed humanity and dwelt among us. Second, that Incarnate LORD with all His glory suffered for our sake. Third, that the One who has life in Himself, which is the light of men, did not permit the darkness of death to overcome Him, but overcame death instead. Fourth, that the Incarnate LORD places His glory and power in the Gospel that testifies about Him and His work—the same Gospel that we hear, the same Gospel that is attached to water, the same Gospel connected with bread and wine. Fifth, that this Incarnate LORD pours out His Spirit on us through that Gospel, so that we are regenerated and renewed, born of God, made children of the divine household and heirs of God Himself. Sixth, the same Incarnate LORD continues to guide us in the way of righteousness throughout our journey as His disciples to the inheritance of life everlasting.

So we can answer the question: “What is to be celebrated on this day?” The Incarnation is to be celebrated on this Festival of Our Lord’s Nativity. For salvation has come to us through that great mystery that we celebrate on Christmas: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was 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. And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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2016 Christmas Eve Homily – Luke 2:1-20

December 24, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 

The focus of worship on the evening of Christmas is the announcement of the Christ Child’s birth. That’s what most of you are here to celebrate and commemorate again this year. There had better be some of those Christmas Carols with the angels in them: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory. Doesn’t really matter which, but at least one of them has to be sung, preferably more. There’s no Christmas without that.

Some of us clergy or anyone with worship planning experience might laugh at that. But it’s not an overly nostalgic or sappy sentiment. There’s more than a good bit of truth to that idea. The appearance of the angels with their message to the shepherds of Bethlehem is an essential part to the Birth Narrative of Jesus. That’s why the Church has marked Christmastide with mentions of the angels in its hymns, prayers, and artwork. It’s why we have the angel atop the Christmas Tree and above the creche here in our sanctuary.

And once again on Christmas evening, you have heard the message brought by the heavenly heralds: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” That is what the angels told the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plain. The herdsmen are informed about an act that would begin to drive out fright and replace it with gladness. That act is the presence of the Promised Messiah within the world that He created.

The Deliverer whom the LORD had pledged to send had come. He was right there for the shepherds, just down the road from them in the village of Bethlehem. They had the opportunity to behold Him with their own eyes. So they wouldn’t miss it, the angel gives them a way to identify exactly whom the Messiah is. The shepherds can find a baby where they didn’t expect to see one: wrapped in strips of linen and lying in a feeding trough.  And the Gospel Writer tells us: “They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” The shepherds see their Savior, finding Him just as the angel had spoken.

But the sign given to the shepherds is not exactly the sign that shows the reason why this night was one of such great joy. Yes, the presence of the Messiah in the world was a momentous occasion, an event full of divine grace. And the shepherds were privileged to witness it. We can sing about their gladness. We can even mention the invitation that they were given and extended to others: “Come to Bethlehem and see Him / whose birth the angels sing; / Come adore on bended knee / Christ the Lord, the newborn King.” We can even go along with them in spirit to witness what they saw.

Yet, the sign of why this event is “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people” is not “a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” No, it is something different. The allusions to it were heard in the Scriptures about Jesus that were read after the Birth Narrative: “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works….” and “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 

The sign to show us the great joy that Jesus’ birth has for us is found in what happened after the baby was wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. As the apostles’ comments noted, it is found in the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. What is the sign of that? A man stripped and beaten and fixed to a cross. A man wrapped in a burial shroud and laid in a tomb. A man who leaves strips of linen and a funeral veil in a tomb and stands in front of His disciples. All these are the signs of Jesus being “the propitiation for our sins.” They are how Jesus “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” This is why the sign that reveals Jesus’ identity and work isn’t an infant in Bethlehem’s manger seen by the shepherds. No, these other signs are why the apostles can say: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.”

Those signs are what we also commemorate on this night. They may not be the immediate focus of our prayers, songs, and artwork for December 24 & 25. But they are still present here on this Christmas Evening. They show up in the carols. They can be seen in the chrismons hanging on the Christmas Tree. Alongside all the poinsettias and the creche adorning the sanctuary, there is the hidden cruciform shape in the swag hanging above the organ bench. And up front and center is the crucifix that still prominently stands. For the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” goes beyond the manger scene. It continues through Epiphany and Lent and Holy Week and Easter. All their signs point to Jesus, revealing Him as “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And as we hear all that has been told to us about this Jesus, we can glorify and praise God for the good news of great joy in all that He has done.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

LSB Advent 4H Sermon – John 1:19-28

December 18, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“They asked [John], ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize you with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’”

“Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” Those are the questions put to John, “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’” When John is asked, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” John’s testimony is that he is not the Messiah whom the LORD had promised. Neither does he claim that he is Elijah come down from heaven or the foretold Prophet who was to come. None of those is his identity. Instead, John claims only what had been spoken about his work: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Why were these questions asked of John? The priests and Levites want to know why John is out in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That is seen most clearly in the pointed question that they ask after John tells them who he isn’t: “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” Either confusion or outright objection has overcome the priests and Levites as they consider John’s work in the wilderness. Why isn’t John following in his father’s footsteps, serving as a priest in Jerusalem’s Temple? What drives him to dress in camel’s hair and a leather belt, making the desert rocks his pulpit and the Jordan his font? Who has told him to do such radical things?

John’s reply begins to reveal his purpose: “I baptize you with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” True, John is not the Messiah. But he is the one who is preparing the people for the Messiah’s arrival. He is making them ready for Him to be present. That’s what his preaching of repentance and his baptism with water—a sign of penitence—are meant to accomplish. He is clearing the rocks from the road, cutting down the hillsides, filling in the ravines, just as Isaiah had foretold: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” 

John’s answer also exposes the issue with the priests and Levites, with the Pharisees who had sent them, and with anyone else who may be scoffing at his work. His preaching and baptizing brings people back from their wandering ways, pulls them down from pride and arrogance, and encourages acts of piety. It also serves as a test case for what will transpire. If they will not receive the message that announces the imminent arrival of the Messiah, will they welcome the Messiah when He does come?

That ultimately is the major issue underlying this episode. The LORD has sent John as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. But the LORD has another person coming. That was seen in the promise made through Moses, the greatest of the LORD’s spokesmen in the Old Testament: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And whoever will not listen to My words that He shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.”

This is “the Prophet” that the priests and Levites asked about. John points out that Jesus is “the Prophet.” The people are to listen to Him. But if they reject the one who has been sent with the LORD’s authority to get the way ready, will they receive the LORD Incarnate who comes to them? If they aren’t willing to listen to the lesser voice of John, will they listen to the greater voice of Jesus? Acceptance of John leads to acceptance of Jesus. Likewise, rejection of John leads to rejection of Jesus. For what John says about his identity is correct: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord….’ I baptize with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” Jesus Himself will comment about His connection to John: “You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John.”

But the issue that the priests and Levites have with John doesn’t stay in “Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” The refusal to hear the LORD’s message given by John will go further. King Herod will hold similar objections, when John speaks against his adulterous relationship. And Jesus will point out the failure of the chief priests and the elders of the people to receive John when He asks them: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Yet, the even colder, harsher truth of the matter is that the same issue is found in the present day. That happens when the LORD’s teaching spoken by men is not heeded. The same questions raised by the priests and Levites about John are put to those who dare to speak the LORD’s Word now: “Who are you to say such things? Who are you to proclaim repentance and the need to straighten the ways? Why do you baptize? Why do you teach?” The answer to those questions is really the same as what John said: “I am not the Christ…. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” And the great confession is made about Jesus: “Among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”

Even now, that message is proclaimed for you to be ready for the Messiah’s arrival: “Prepare for the Messiah to come. Remove the stumbling blocks to following in His way. Cut down any pride that deceives you into thinking you don’t need a Redeemer. Fill in the gaps where your life doesn’t line up with the LORD’s standard of righteousness.” This is the proclamation that comes every year until the Messiah does return. That’s what this Advent Season which draws to its close is all about.

But even that preparatory preaching points toward Jesus and listening to Him. How is one prepared for His return? It is done by hearing and believing what He has to say. Remember again what the LORD said about whom He would send: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And whoever will not listen to My words that He shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.” The LORD’s promise speaks about the importance of hearing Jesus.

Jesus refers to that in His teaching: “The Father who sent Me has Himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, His form you have never seen, and you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe the One whom He has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life.” The stark importance of hearing and receiving Jesus is made clear. It is just as the LORD said when He spoke about sending “the Prophet” and that those who would not listen will have that failure required of them. But the same Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

So as Advent draws to its close and the Church’s mind is focused on the Messiah’s return, the prayer for this Sunday is quite appropriate: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy.” We have no desire to have Jesus speak to us the way He did to the chief priests and elders of the people, pointing out that we have no life and no hope. So our call to the LORD is for assistance to remove the barriers that would keep us from listening to Jesus. We want divine help to pull off the burdens that make us slow to trust the promises that Jesus makes about His work and its application to us. We request the removal of whatever would prevent us from following Jesus’ teaching.

So we listen to John who prepares Jesus’ way. The Messiah is arriving; the One greater than John is coming. But we do know Him. The One whose sandals we are unworthy to untie made Himself a servant for us. He has died and risen, so that we might live. We can come to Him. It happens as we hear of those great deeds performed for us. We listen to Jesus who has spoken all that the LORD put in His mouth. We do hear Him. We do place our trust in Him.

But what else did we hear this morning? The LORD preserves that which we have heard and believed: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That promise is given to us. So we can rejoice in the Lord always, because “He has caused His wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful…. He has sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever.” And the voices crying in the wilderness that we listen to have made that known.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

LSB Advent 3H Sermon – Matthew 11:2-11

December 11, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“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.”

John’s plight in prison leads to questions about Jesus and about himself. The Forerunner had been faithful in his duties. He had gone into the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He had spoken about the coming Messiah and the great judgment that He would begin: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” John had even met Jesus, noting that he should be baptized by Jesus and not the other way around. When the Messiah stood in the Jordan, John heard the declaration made about Him: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

But now John was in prison, incarcerated for preaching the message of repentance, speaking the LORD’s truth to power: “Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’” John had tried to bring Herod back to the LORD’s ways concerning marriage. He pointed out Herod’s error, just as he had warned the people of their sins: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand…. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” But for his trouble, John was locked up. The voice crying in the wilderness was now silent.

So the question arises: “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 inquiry is based in a desire for certainty. It summarizes other questions rolling around in people’s minds. Had John been faithful in fulfilling the role assigned to him with all its duties? Had he been correct about Jesus’ being the Messiah? Or had all this been a mistake?

Jesus answers John’s question. He strikes right at the heart of the matter. John wants to know whether Jesus is “the One who is to come.” He wants confirmation about Jesus’ identity, whether Jesus is the Messiah whom the faithful were anticipating. So Jesus directs John’s messengers to what they could witness: “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.” With that answer, Jesus essentially says: “John, you know what the Messiah was to do. You know the prophecies about the Messiah’s work. What was said in the past is coming true. I am doing what the LORD promised. There’s your answer: I am the Messiah.”

But Jesus follows up with another statement: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” That declaration is meant to bolster John’s faith, as well as the faith of those who had heard and followed him. Jesus states that as John and his disciples receive Him as the Messiah, even though John is locked up in prison and would not be freed, they are blessed. John is not forgotten by the LORD. He isn’t suffering because of some misdeed. There hasn’t been any failure to fulfill a duty. No, the blessed status that John had is not removed because of Herod’s treachery. And as John commends himself to the LORD and His Messiah Jesus, he will be blessed forever.

Jesus reinforces this after John’s disciples go back, carrying their witness of what they had seen and heard Jesus do. That is seen in His question to the crowds and His declaration: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?… This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus wants the crowds to know that John is not being punished for dereliction of duty. Herod’s imprisoning John did not negate the Forerunner’s work. No, the crowds should know that they had heard more than a prophet when they had listened to John. They should have all confidence that Jesus is the Messiah for whom John had prepared the way.

The Church hears John’s question and Jesus’ response every year on this Third Sunday in Advent. It is good that we frequently hear this, since we bring forth the same questions that John asked of Jesus. Our identity is rooted in a matter of faith: that the LORD has called us to be His people and our salvation has been accomplished through the work that Jesus has performed. But doubts arise, particularly when we are faced with the afflictions that this world and all those opposed to the LORD bring.

What are those afflictions? For some it is literally the same as what John suffered: being unjustly imprisoned for abiding by the LORD’s ways and pointing out that standard of righteousness. But one doesn’t have to be behind bars to have faith pushed to its limits. The comments of unbelievers can be just as hard as iron bars: “You can’t really believe all that Bible stuff! There’s no way that any of it is true. What type of God lets all sorts of bad things happen to people? If Jesus was so wonderful, then why are all His people not like Him?” Such statements put doubt in our minds, whether it be just an ounce or a full gallon.

Besides that, there’s also the doubt that creeps in when we consider and evaluate our own standing. I’m suffering from cancer or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. My home life is a bit of a shambles. I can’t seem to break this addiction or obsession with what I know isn’t right. My church has people constantly bickering and any efforts to improve don’t seem to work. Then those questions rooted in doubt arise: “Are these evidence that the LORD’s blessing isn’t with me anymore? Is my faith in Jesus not actually correct? Or do I not have enough faith in Him? Have I put my eggs in the wrong basket? Is Jesus truly a Savior and Redeemer? Or should I look for and trust someone or something else?”

That’s how we end up having our own John-in-prison moments. It leads us to the appeal that we offered this morning: “Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our heats by Your gracious visitation.” So how does Jesus answer? He responds the same way that He answered John. Jesus’ response includes restating what He has done in the world, fulfilling the prophecies about Himself: “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.”

But Jesus goes further. He speaks about more that had been prophesied concerning the Messiah and His fulfilling of those promises. He reminds us of the suffering that He endured for us, the death that atoned for our guilt. He proclaims His resurrection that obtained eternal restoration for us. He takes the message spoken to ancient Jerusalem and says it applies to us: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” Why does He do so? Because there is a blessed status for all people who put their trust in Him: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” That blessed status is even present when we are in the midst of our afflictions. As long as our trust is placed in Jesus and His work, that blessed status is not removed by persecution or disease or addiction or conflict or any other thing that those opposed to the LORD would throw at us.

Jesus reaffirms His work done for us, so that our trust in Him is confirmed. This brings us the promised future. We may fall into the pits of doubt and despair now, but the pledge is given: “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Our frailty and feebleness can be made clear to us, but the declaration is made: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” The enemies of the LORD may seem to have superiority, but the end is foretold: “Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” Life as one of Jesus’ followers can be lonely and vulnerable, but His vow is repeated: “He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” 

Those are the actions that the LORD will perform for His people. Like John, our darkened hearts receive Jesus’ gracious visitation of His gospel. We are directed away from making wrong conclusions about what we currently go through: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Right belief in Jesus as the Messiah is bolstered. We are kept from falling full victim to doubt. And we so we hear the restating of our status as Jesus’ disciples: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” That is how our questions about Jesus are answered, so that we may know that He is the One who is to come and save us. We need not look for another.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

LSB Advent 2H Sermon – Luke 21:25-36

December 4, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

The signs tell you what is going to come. That’s how Jesus speaks about the Last Day. He mentions the events that will precede the Day of Judgment: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This apocalyptic description speaks of the end times as a period of destruction, a time of great distress. But Jesus wants His people to be prepared for it.

Jesus’ desire to have His people prepared is seen in the parable that He tells about signs: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” He uses nature as an example. The seasons can be determined by looking at the trees. Buds appearing on branches tell us that Spring is on its way, even if a chill is still in the air. The leaves that come out point to the long Summer days ahead. And the Autumn yellows, oranges, and reds that begin to decorate the hillsides give warning to the forthcoming Winter.

As someone knows the signs that precede the event, that person can prepare. They don’t need to be caught unawares. No, they have the key that brings understanding of what is happening. Because Jesus has revealed the signs to His disciples, they don’t need to be surprised when the Last Day comes. Instead, they can welcome it: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

But knowing which signs to look for is only part of the story. There is a second part, which is even more important. Knowing the signs allows you to prepare. But what does preparing for the Last Day look like? What is needed to make oneself ready for the time when the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and glory?

One might consider the signs that Jesus mentions and figure out how to ride them out. Jesus speaks of the shaking of the heavens and the earth, the natural disasters. So the thoughts could arise: “I need to prepare a safe shelter. I’ll need stores of food and water. I should stock up on fuel and heating supplies. A stockpile of non-GMO seeds should be kept secure for future planting. Perhaps I should build a bunker to ride it out.” But that’s not the type of preparation that Jesus is talking about. He’s not telling His disciples to figure out how to survive the signs.

No, the signs are foretelling the arrival of the Last Day. And preparation for that is not done by becoming a survivalist of some sort. Preparation for the Last Day can involve adjustments to how one lives. But even more so, it necessitates adjustments to what one believes. That is seen in what Jesus says His disciples should do since they know the signs that will precede His return in glory: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Jesus exhorts His disciples to pay attention to themselves—to their beliefs and their actions. For the Last Day will be a time of distinction, as the Risen Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. The preparation for that Last Day is to ensure that one is on the right side of that judgment. The LORD warns about the wrong side, as He spoke through the prophet Malachi: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” That is the fate which Jesus wants His disciples to avoid. That’s why He has been straightforward with them about the Last Day.

So how does one get on the right side of that judgment? The answer can be seen in Malachi’s prophecy: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” The LORD’s message calls people to repent and turn back to Him and His ways of righteousness. That requires being hearers of the LORD’s Word, having them strike you and direct your hearts and minds. This is why the messages of repentance are spoken. As they are heard and heeded, the preparation for the Last Day begins.

More than that, the LORD’s Word points out where salvation is found. This is just as necessary to hear, because preparation for the Last Day is not just about cleaning up one’s act. No, it involves faith, trust, and hope. Where is security found? Not in having enough supplies to ride out the storm. Not in having a resumé that one shows to the LORD, saying: “I have nothing to repent of.” No, the security is found in having the LORD on one’s side, having Him be the source of all blessing, having Him as your Deliverer. That is also presented to you.

Think again on what the LORD revealed about the Last Day through Malachi: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.” This is not a negative fate, but a blessed one. But the LORD is specific about who will receive it: those who fear His name. That is a way of speaking about those who trust in Him and love His righteousness. It notes the identity that people have as they belong to the LORD.

That way of speaking is echoed in the conclusion of the Psalm that was prayed this morning: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” The LORD speaks of Himself as a source of help and deliverance. As people turn to Him for salvation, He grants it. That is done as they call on the LORD for assistance. For that act shows where their fear, love, and trust are placed.

So how are we going to prepare for the Last Day? We will see the signs that point to the forthcoming Day of Judgment and know that it will be arriving. But as we do, we will ask the LORD for assistance: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds.” We will ask for the LORD to turn our hearts and minds back to Him and His way of righteousness. We will pay more attention to what the LORD has spoken in His Word, including the instruction that He gives for our way of life and the revelation of His work of salvation performed for us: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” As that is done, the intended results will develop: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What will such preparation mean? It will lead to our participation in the Last Day in the way that our Lord Jesus desires it. As our fear, love, and trust are placed in Him, as our hope is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation, that Last Day will not be a day of trouble, but a day of joy. For us, the LORD’s people, the signs don’t point to a Winter of Destruction, but a Summer of Redemption: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” So let us follow Jesus’ instruction and receive the end that He has provided for us: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.