The Peace of the Lord – Sermon for December 29, 2013

The Peace of the Lord

Luke 2:33-40

Christmas 1

December 29, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “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.”  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 among those with whom he is pleased!” [Luke 2:8-14]

             It is still the Christmas season.  The trees are still up.    But now that the Christmas dust has settled a little, a strange thing happens in the church calendar.  On December 25 we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, but on December 26 we commemorate the Stephen, the first Christian martyr, a man who was executed for preaching Christ crucified.  On December 27 we commemorate the Apostle John, a man exiled to die in captivity for his proclamation of the Gospel.  On December 28 we take time to remember the slaughter of the Innocents, all those male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who were mercilessly executed by Herod in his effort to slay the one who was born King of the Jews.  It seems appropriate to consider why the angels were bringing tidings of peace when this child whose birth they were announcing would lead to so much bloodshed, when he himself would grow up to say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matthew 10:34]?  In today’s Gospel reading, the man Simeon says that this child Jesus “is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be opposed.”  Then, to make matters worse, he tells Mary that Jesus will cause a sword to pierce through her soul also.  So which is it?  Did Jesus come to bring peace, like the angels sang?  Or Like children playing telephone, did their message get jumbled somewhere between heaven and earth?

Well, as I mentioned during the early service on Christmas Eve, the problem is not with the angels’ message.  The problem is with our understanding of the word peace.  The peace the angels announced is not a slogan from a T-shirt or bumper sticker.  It is not the mantra of a hippie or some teenager who hasn’t experienced true loss yet.  It is not political stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the United States.  It’s not political parties reaching across the aisle to work together in finally balancing the budget.  It is not relief you feel after you’ve washed and put away the last dish from that tremendous holiday banquet.  It is not the silence and calm that falls over the house in January when all the relatives have finally gone home.  It’s not even that moment of inexpressible serenity waiting for you when you finish your taxes a few months from now.

As with so much of our Lord’s Word, the world around us cannot understand true peace – and as our Lord’s children, we must be vigilant so that we do not allow a false understanding of true peace twist our Lord’s promise.  Peace according to the world is nothing more than the absence of anything troubling or agitating.  But peace as the absence of bad things is no true peace, for there will always be more bad things threatening to wrench this so-called peace away from us.  The world’s peace is fraught with uncertainty.  True peace, the peace that the angels announced on that first Christmas, is the Hebrew word shalom, and it means much more than the simple absence of strife or conflict.  Shalom, true peace, includes the presence of everything that our Lord would give to us.  It is the establishment of the life that our Lord would have us live.  The angels, those messengers of the Lord announcing peace at the birth of Jesus, are announcing that the greatest gift of the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ whom our Lord has promised, has arrived.  And with the Christ comes shalom.

Don’t forget, our Lord created us to live in peace.  Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived at peace with the Lord.  In Eden, they had everything that the Lord created for them.  But once sin entered the picture, the peace was lost.  Adam and Eve no longer lived in the perfect garden with all their needs provided.  Now they lacked things, and were forced to toil and struggle to survive.  Each and every person born since the fall has been missing that important piece of humanity, born without that shalom.

 

Our sin has separated us from all that the Lord would give us.  It has made us enemies of our Lord, and we are left toiling and struggling in our life of enmity to him.  Our Lord tells us in Leviticus that when his Law is fulfilled the friendship will be restored, and he will give us shalom, or peace [Leviticus 26].  Yet because we are unable to keep the Law, we are unable to find peace with the Lord by means of it.

But thanks be to God that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  Or, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” [Matthew 5:17].  Every kid who comes up here for children’s messages can tell you that Jesus died for our sins, and his death and resurrection are indeed our life and salvation.  But there is more to the story of our salvation than just the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Remember, Jesus didn’t appear out of nowhere as a grown man to die for our sins.  He was born as a baby, born under the Law, to redeem us who are under the Law.  Not only did Jesus die for us, but he lived for us too.  From the time he was a baby, Jesus was working for our salvation, working to restore our peace with God by keeping the Law of God perfectly as we could never do.

Today’s Gospel reading tells us that Jesus was brought to the temple when the time came for him and his mother to be purified according to the Law of Moses [Luke2:22].  He was purified on our behalf, purified for you.  He himself is the pure Son of God and didn’t need purification.  He did it for us.  Luke also mentions the circumcision of Jesus according to the Law of Moses.  Jesus was circumcised and purified according to the Law in order to fulfill the Law for us.  He voluntarily subjected himself to the entire Law of Moses, the Law that he himself had written, a Law which he was above and immune to, he voluntarily placed himself under its authority and accomplished it for us who are unable to accomplish it for ourselves.

But the accomplishment of the Law comes with a price.  As the book of Leviticus makes so clear, the shedding of blood is required for the fulfilling of the Law, “for it is the blood that makes atonement for your life” [Leviticus17:11].  In the shedding of his blood on the cross, Jesus completed his fulfilling of the Law on our behalf, and thus cried out, “It is finished!” [John 19:30].

Jesus did everything required in the Law, and yet he still suffered death.  He fulfilled the Law perfectly for us, but was punished as a Law-breaker.  He took our failure to keep the Law upon himself, and freely gives his perfect fulfillment of it to us.  Because of this exchange, the Law has been fulfilled and we can be at peace with our Lord, as he promised in Leviticus.  As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” [Romans 5:1].  Jesus is our peace.

By the gift of the Holy Spirit, Simeon recognized this peace.  Simeon acknowledged that this baby was the peace announced by the angel chorus.  He saw in the baby Jesus the savior who would bring shalom to YHWH’s people.  So he took the baby in his arms and thanked the Lord that now he would depart in peace, for the salvation of the world had arrived.  Simeon spoke about departure in peace not because he expected to be dead within a week, but because he recognized that in the baby Jesus the salvation from above had truly come to Earth.  Simeon knew that now no matter when it came time for him to depart, he would do so at peace with the Lord because of the baby in his arms.

That is why Simeon’s song is our song too.  Like Mary’s Magnificat recorded in the first chapter of Luke, Simeon’s song from chapter two is treasured in the church.  Like Simeon, we too are greeted with the peace of the Lord when Jesus, the salvation of the world, stands among us in his body and blood in the bread and wine of his altar.  We may not hold the infant Jesus in our hands, but when we have held that body and blood in our mouths, in our stomachs, in our hearts and in our lives as Simeon held him in his hands, we sing out with Simeon:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

In the Lord we have the peace that the world cannot give.  It is true peace; it is shalom.  In Jesus we have been given all the blessings of our Lord, blessings which this world cannot take away from us.  It is the peace that allows Stephen, even in the midst of his own execution, to commend his spirit unto the Lord and pray for the forgiveness of his executioners.   Such peace and calm of spirit is possible only when we know that our salvation is secure, and that there is nothing in this world strong enough to wrench it from the hand of faith.

This world will never give true peace, for in this world moth and rust decay, thieves break in and steal, there is always the threat of one more war or disaster or tragedy looming just over the horizon.  As we celebrate the birth of our Savior and prepare for the beginning of another new year, we do so with the joy of knowing what else is looming just over that horizon – the return of our Lord Jesus to take us to spend eternity with him in paradise.  And we know that when he returns it will not be in judgment over us, but to claim us as his own treasured possession, and we know this because we are at peace with God.  Jesus has fulfilled the Law. In a world that is in such disarray, filled with wars and scandals and chaos, we are given the gift of the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts [Colossians 3:15].  So as we enter the new year, may the peace of our Lord guard our hearts and minds in the true faith unto life everlasting.

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Christmas Eve Meditation #4 – Luke 2:8-20

The theme of reversal has run through our meditations this evening.  We have contemplated our Lord’s overturning of the world’s understanding of peace.  We have seen our Lord’s complete disregard for the accolades of any culture.  We have pondered the vulnerability with which our Lord entered this creation.  Nowhere is the reversal as frustratingly clear as in the history of the shepherds.  Think about what you’ve just heard from the Gospel of Luke.  These men, who were tending their flocks by night, are suddenly greeted by the heavenly host to announce the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  How quickly and easily they must have believed, for they immediately left their flocks to go and find the place where the child lay, that they might worship him.  Unfortunately, it seems as if Christians have been trying to recreate this experience for centuries.  Maybe we can’t call down angels from heaven, but there is always a temptation to do something so grand, to present an experience so moving and influential that all sinners would fall down and worship the Christ.  In the midst of our own doubts, we often ask the Lord for a special sign or indication, like Gideon with his fleece.  We are tempted to think that it would be easier for us to believe if only we were greeted by angel choirs as were the shepherds on that fateful night.

But we don’t get the angels.  We get the shepherds.  The shepherds who have been out tending their flocks for days on end, not showering, not brushing their teeth, surrounded by the smell of animals and manure.  Shepherds are not desirable people in the eyes of the world.  I’d imagine they are much like the truckers of ancient Israel – people whose work and appearance tends to alienate them from the supposedly civilized folk.  And yet these are the very people who are first given the task of spreading the good news of great joy.  These are the ones dancing through the streets of Bethlehem glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.  These are the first heralds of the Gospel.  And these are the type of people God sends into our lives.

The messengers of the Gospel are often unimpressive by the world’s standards.  Take me, for example.  Who am I, that my Lord would use my voice to bring his word to you.  I’m no angel.  I don’t stand before you tonight surrounded by the light of God’s holiness.  There will be no multitude of the heavenly host to sing background.  All you get is a simple guy in his 30s, a father of 3, with his own bad habits and idiosyncrasies that drive his wife and kids nuts from time to time.  But in spite of me, what you also get is the holy, precious, unchanging Word of our Lord.  For as impressive as the angels may have been, it was the word they delivered that created faith in the hearts of those shepherds.  As undesirable as the shepherds were, the words they were proclaiming were the words of God, living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  And as pedestrian and mundane as you average pastor is, we too are simply the messengers bringing to you good news of great joy.

So don’t focus on me, don’t believe in me or any other pastor, hear the word of God for you.  Likewise, don’t ignore me or any other pastor simply because the church is full of sinful, unimpressive, everyday people.  Hear the word of God for you.  Don’t wait for the angels; you already have something greater.  For unto you is born in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Cling to the Word.  Cling to the promise, and your heart will be filled with the peace of Christ.

Christmas Eve Meditation #3 – Luke 2:1-7

Tonight we are here to celebrate the birth of our Savior.  We are also here to ponder the mystery of the incarnation.  And mystery it is.  Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.  Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand, Christ our Lord to earth descending, comes our homage to demand.  It is difficult for us to comprehend God becoming man.  We tend to present Jesus as if he was born a baby without tears or diapers, perhaps even arriving in the manger as if he was dropped by a stork, delicately drifting back and forth as a falling leaf lazily carried along by gravity and the gentle breeze.  While such images are nice, they are not likely reality.

Martin Luther poignantly put it this way: “Think, women, there was no one there to bathe the baby.  No warm water, nor even cold.  No fire, no light.  The mother was herself midwife and maid.  The cold manger was the bed and the bathtub.  Who showed the poor girl what to do?  She had never had a baby before.  I am amazed the little one did not freeze.  Do not make of Mary a stone.  It must have gone straight to her heart that she was so abandoned.  She was flesh and blood, and must have felt miserable – and Joseph too – that she was left in this way, all alone, with no one to help, in a strange land in the middle of winter.  Her eyes were moist even though she was happy, and aware that the baby was God’s Son and the Savior of the world.  She was not stone.  For the higher people are in the favor of God, the more tender they are.

Let us then meditate upon the nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies.  I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his flesh.  Look upon the baby Jesus.  Divinity may terrify a man.  Inexpressible majesty will crush him.  That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.

Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother . . . Look at the Child, knowing nothing.  Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him.  Doubt nothing.  Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden.  Laugh with him.  Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. [. . .] You cannot fear him, for nothing is more comforting to the sight of a man than a babe. [. . .] Trust him!  Here is the Child in whom is salvation.  [. . .] There is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became a man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother.  Who is there whom this sight will not comfort?  Now overcome is the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to judge this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come not to judge you, but to save.”

(From Martin Luther’s Christmas Book)

Christmas Eve Meditation #2 – Micah 5:2-4

In case you missed it, there’s apparently a war on Christmas again this year.  Social media is flooded with Christians bemoaning the fact that the unbelieving world has supposedly hijacked this holy day, taking Christ out of Christmas.  Maybe I’m just being overly cynical, but why are we surprised when an unbelieving world does not acknowledge Christ at Christmas?  Do they ever acknowledge him?  Christ and his word have been abandoned by our culture a long time ago.  So the unbelieving world may not speak much this time of year about the birth of the Savior, but the unbelieving world has never spoken of the birth of the Savior.  Those words have been given to the Church, given to us as God’s people to speak.  We are the only ones who have the ability to take Christ out of Christmas.  Take stock of your own home.  How many Christian kids across the country know about Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch but have no idea what an Advent wreath is?   Is it government or retailers who have taken Christ out of Christmas?

Even more significantly, I often wonder why we are so desperate to see the celebration of our Lord’s incarnation validated by a culture that rejects him at every turn?  Why do we want television stations and retailers to wish us a merry Christmas one minute when we know full well that the very next they will continue to produce movies, shows, and music that run completely contrary to our Lord’s Word at every turn?

To me, it seems a simple and obvious truth that the unbelieving world does not understood Christmas.  How could it?   It never has, all the way back to the first one.  There in Bethlehem was born the Savior of the Nations, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Yet there was no parade.  No city officials or governors or kings or emperors were there to greet his arrival.  He was instead greeted with the stink of the barn yard, by donkeys and cows and camels and whatever other animals were unceremoniously forced to share their lodging with the source of their very existence.  The unbelieving world missed the first Christmas, and it’s missed every Christmas since.  But why should that surprise us?  Our Lord has never shown much interest in the world’s opinion.  He was never swayed by the pretensions and accolades of his creation.  He has never sought approval and acceptance from the popular crowd.  He rather goes about the business of being savior, whether the kings of this world revere him or not.

What a comfort this provides for us.  Even as the ancient world ignored the first Christmas, God was doing something great.  Even as the world today ignores Christmas, God is doing something great.  Even as the world today mocks the Church and belittles us for believing in what it considers superstition, our God is doing something great.  Bethlehem was a no nothing, Podunk, backwater town of little to no significance to the Roman Empire, yet from there was born one who is to be ruler in all Israel.  The world views us as being as insignificant as Bethlehem.  We are labeled as ignorant simpletons for holding to the truth of our Lord’s Word.  But where would the world have us turn?  To the opinions of politicians? Celebrities? Professional athletes or musicians? The world eagerly dinks in these opinions as if they were the Gospel truth, all the while rejecting the true Gospel as antiquated, outdated, and old fashioned.  We who continue to believe it are held in no regard.  But you, O People of the Living God, though you are considered least among the people of earth, from you comes forth something great, the truth of Salvation.

So let the unbelieving world have its own commercialized holiday season.  They cannot take Christ out of Christmas, not while there are still Christians all around the world today gathered around our Lord’s Word.  The world cannot take Christ out of Christmas, for neither Christ nor Christmas belongs to the world.  And even though the world is not impressed with us, take comfort in knowing that our Lord has never been one to cater to the world’s ideas of greatness.  He used Bethlehem as the beginning of your salvation, and we know how that turned out.  Likewise, he has historically and will continue to use unimpressive people like us to bring the news of that salvation to a world that doesn’t think it needs to hear it.  Our Lord is not obsessed with the ever changing opinions of a sinful world.  Let us find our own peace in the promise of his word

Christmas Eve Meditation #1 – Isaiah 11:1-9

There is much talk of peace this time of year.  I believe Stevie Wonder was the first artist to sing his hopes that “someday at Christmas men won’t be boys playing with bombs like kids play with toys.”  Since the song’s initial release, several popular recording artists have reiterated the hope that “someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars, when we have learned what Christmas is for, when we have found what life’s really worth, there’ll be peace on earth.”  Peace on earth . . . now there’s a thought.  In the song, peace is identified as the absence of war.  It’s also equated with the absence of hunger, the absence of fear, and the absence of hate.  When the world speaks of peace, the world speaks of absence, for that is the only peace the world understands.  But even in the absence of war and hate and hunger, the world will not know true peace.  For the world is selfish.  We are selfish.  Typically when we think of peace, we want peace for ourselves regardless of what that means for others.  We live in a world where people are constantly clamoring for their own rights, crying out at perceived injustice.  Christians are quick to object when they are portrayed as if they are trying to force religion on someone by wishing them a Merry Christmas as they exit the check-out line.  Non-Christians are quick to cry foul at the suggestion of setting up a nativity on the front lawn at city hall.  Everyone wants everyone else to stop what they are doing so that we might finally have peace. The world seeks peace through the removal of all annoyances, but in order to pursue such a course of action one must first seek out all the annoyances.  And so we find ourselves in the midst of a culture looking for all the times that we have been wronged, searching high and low to find the ways that the government, our neighbors, our employers, or some guy from Duck Dynasty have treated us unjustly.  This, dear friends, is not the peace of Christmas.

            The peace of Christmas is the peace that passes all understanding.  It is not found by removing annoyances, but by looking past them to the greater reality.  As the prophet Isaiah says, it is not one that can be judged with the eyes or the ears.  It is the peace that comes from the knowledge of the Lord.  And the knowledge of the Lord, the knowledge that the Lord gives is this: God showed his love of us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  The babe in the manger is the savior of the world.  To put it quite simply, with my salvation firmly secured, what can this world do me?  It’s almost comical how frustrated I get watching live sports on TV, especially football.  I am a Michigan fan and a Lions fan, so I have had my share of frustration over the last few years as I helplessly watched my teams commit stupid penalties, give the ball away as if they were playing hot potato, and regularly stumble all over themselves in the biggest games.  But a funny thing happens when I watch the classic games on the Big Ten Network.  When I watch an old game that I already know my team is going to win, the penalties and turnovers and missed opportunities don’t bother me in the same way, because I know how the game will end.  They’re still irritating, but I have an easier time looking past them because I know what the final score will be.  That, dear friends, is the peace of Christmas – the peace of knowing the final outcome even in the midst of trial and frustration.  It is not the absence of frustration or trial, as if we will ever be free of it in this life.  No, it’s the knowledge that for all of this world’s headaches, the life that awaits us is one in which the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the predator with the prey, at peace with each other.  It is one in which the nursing child will play safely with the cobra, and there shall be peace between them.  It is the life that awaits all the baptized, so let the world rant and rave and foam at the mouth all the perceived injustice around us.  We will be at peace, for we have an eye on eternity.  We will be at peace, for a little child leads us.  We will be at peace, for we belong to the Prince of Peace.  We will be at peace, for we know the rest of the story.

Tiny Coffins and Bitter Tears – Advent Meditation

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Tiny Coffins and Bitter Tears

Matthew 2:13-18; Jeremiah 31:15-22

Midweek Advent 3

December 18, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            There is no shortage of villains to be found in the pages of Holy Scripture.  Wicked Queen Jezebel left her imprint on the Old Testament to such a degree that she is held up as the personification of unbelief and false worship in the book of Revelation.  The Iscariot betrayal was so unthinkable that very few, if any, parents today choose to name their sons Judas.  Caiaphas and Pilate will forever live in infamy for the role each played in the crucifixion of our Lord.  But few names in Scripture are so vilified as the name Herod.  After all, there was a Herod involved in each of the two most commonly known events in Jesus’ time on earth.  There was a Herod involved in Jesus’ execution, the same Herod who beheaded John the Baptist.  And the father of that Herod, known by the same name, was the one who bathed the streets of Bethlehem with innocent toddler blood and rinsed them with mothers’ bitter tears when he learned that the Magi had not upheld their end of the bargain and the young Christ had escaped his clutches.

             It’s an ugly part of the Christmas story that typically goes unread.  It’s not likely to be included in the kids’ Christmas pageant where we instead place our focus on the inn and stable.  We hear each year of the shepherds and the angels.  We honor the arrival of the Eastern Astrologers bearing their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.  We know that, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their country by another way.  But we’d like the story to stop there, with the young Jesus safely delivered from the evil plot of a wicked king.  It’s uncomfortable to continue reading, to hear that Herod was so enraged by the betrayal that he order the murder of all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who were two years and under.  It’s one of those sections of Scripture that we’d rather sweep under the rug, one that we hope doesn’t come up in casual conversation with unbelievers.

But take heart.  For as with so much of Scripture, the main message is clear at first hearing, so clear that a preschooler can understand what is basically happening.  The clear message of the story is that Jesus got away.  He was not killed as a baby in Bethlehem.  No, the Word of God accomplished the purpose for which he was sent, making it all the way to the cross to die for the sin of the world.  That main message of this story is understandable, but the details also provide some helpful insight.  You see, although he was King in Jerusalem, Herod was not an Israelite by birth.  He was an Edomite, which means he was not a descendant of Jacob, but rather of Jacob’s older brother Esau.  Think back to the book of Genesis, and you will remember that Jacob was born grasping the heel of his older brother Esau.  But even before these brothers first breathed outside air, they were fighting in the womb of their mother Rebekah.  Rebekah was told by the Lord that there were two nations battling in her womb, that the descendants of these two sons would be divided, and the older brother Esau would serve the younger Jacob.

You remember, no doubt, how Esau sold his birthright to the younger Jacob for a bowl of soup, and how he intended to break that deal when the time came for their father Isaac to actually impart that birthright.  You remember how Jacob deceived his father by dressing up like Esau, receiving himself the birthright that the blind old man thought he was bestowing upon Esau.  You remember how Esau was so angry that Jacob had to flee for his life.  You may even remember that the two brothers eventually reconciled before they died.  However, while the brothers themselves may have been able to put aside their differences, their descendants could not.  Esau’s descendants, known as the Edomites, are present in the Old Testament as a thorn in the side of the Israelites, who are the descendants of Jacob.  Apparently, the Edomites resented the prophecy that the younger would rule over the older, and hated the Israelites for Jacob’s deception.

And so 500 years after the lives of Jacob and Esau, when the Israelites left Egypt on their way to the Promised Land, the King of Edom would not allow them safe passage through his territory. He chose to force the Israelites to walk hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid setting foot on Edomite soil.  In any Old Testament list detailing the enemies of Israel’s kings, you will no doubt find the Edomites.  In the Psalms and Prophets, words of judgment are spoken against Edom, who serves as a representative of all the enemies of God’s chosen people.  And yet for all Edom’s antagonism, they did not prevent the Israelites from reaching the Promised Land, and they could not prevent God from fulfilling his promises through the descendants of Jacob.  The kings of Edom have no control over God himself.

What a contrast between the kings of this world and the King of Kings.  Even though at the birth of Jesus it is an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, who sits on the throne of Jerusalem and seems to have all the power, Herod the Edomite is not the one born King of the Jews.  Herod got his title through bribery and manipulation of the Roman Empire, and when he saw a threat to that self-made title arise he did whatever he could to wipe it out – even if that meant the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem and the surrounding region.  He desperately lashed out in a vain effort to prevent our Lord’s word concerning Edom and Israel from coming to pass.  But that should not surprise us, for that is the way of evil.  That is the way of sin.  That is the way Satan works in this world.

Satan is a foe who has been defeated.  He must have known on some level that he would not ever be able to stop the Christ of our Lord from accomplishing his purpose.  He must have known on some level that the true Passover Lamb would indeed be his undoing, that this newborn King would bring peace on earth and mercy mild as he God and sinners reconciled.  Satan must have known this, but that knowledge didn’t stop him from fighting.  That didn’t stop him from pulling out all the stops in a vain effort to thwart God’s plan of salvation.  And so just as a toddler thrashes and flails about when they know they can’t escape the stronger grip of their parent, Satan violently fought against the Lord’s Christ, using King Herod to do it.

Yet Matthew makes so abundantly clear that Satan and the evil kings of this world have no power over the Christ child.  Satan is not stronger than God.  Sure, Herod would not take defeat lying down.  He would not sit idly by as the descendant of Jacob rose to take the throne from this Edomite.  Herod would do everything in his power to fight, but Herod had no control over the Christ child.  The infant Jesus was delivered safely to Egypt before Herod even knew what was happening.  Even to this day, Satan has no control over the Christ, so in frustration he will lash out at what he can hurt or harm.  He will do anything possible to take our eyes off of Jesus, trying to distract us with every manner of injustice and tragedy.  He maliciously interjects himself into the Christmas story, a story that should be good news of great joy for all the people.  He barges into the mix in an effort to upstage the birth of the Savior, reminding us that for those children who were murdered in Herod’s effort to kill Jesus, for those families who lowered tiny coffins into the ground and covered them in bitter tears, the glad tidings of the babe in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes did not fill them with great joy.  “Where is your peace on earth now?” he hisses.  “Look at this tragedy!  Look at this bloodshed!  Look at this senseless violence!”

But we must not let Satan take our eyes off Jesus, for even in the midst of a tragedy such as this, the Savior of the Nations was protected by faithful Joseph.  We must not forget that those children who were buried in tiny coffins, if they had been spared, would have been spared only to find themselves in larger coffins someday, that if they had escaped the villain Herod they would not have escaped death by disease, starvation or some other means.  Those mothers who shed bitter tears at the death of their children were themselves one day the source of similar tears as their families were forced to bury them.  Neither Herod nor his rage is the real enemy here.  The slaughter of the innocents is not even the real tragedy here.  Death is the real problem.  Sin is the real enemy.  It is Satan who must be dealt with.

And dealt with he is.  Yes, tragedy still exists in our world today.  Tiny coffins are still lowered into the ground as heart-broken parents weep bitterly.  Families are blind-sided with unexpected grief when their loved ones are struck down by car accidents or heart attacks or other callous acts of violence.  But as heartbreaking as these events are, they are at their core simply a more hasty arrival of the fate that awaits us all.  You will have a coffin of your own one day, as will I.  But death will not have the last word, for the Christ Child escaped Bethlehem.  The boy Jesus escaped Herod’s wrath and was later called out of Egypt to die in our place in order that we might have new life in him.  The heaven-born Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness who light and life brings, is now risen with healing in his wings.  Mild, he laid his glory by; born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth.

Do not be surprised that the wicked kings of this earth rage against you, for this earth is all they have.  Do not be surprised when Satan barges into your life uninvited as he did in the Christmas story, leaving a trail of sadness and death behind him.  Do not be surprised that he tries to suffocate your faith in torrent of grief, for he knows that the sting of loss and grief do not fade quickly, but linger like the smell of campfire in your clothing.  In the midst of these attacks, “Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears,” declares the Lord.  “There is hope for your future, and your children shall come back to their own country.”  For even though Satan and the kings of this earth will continue to cause suffering while they can, rest assured that your eternal victory has been won.  Jacob has triumphed over Esau.  Israel has triumphed over Edom.  Jesus has triumphed over death – first as a child when he escaped Herod’s sword, and later as a man when he fell victim to the sword of a different Herod to win life eternal for you, for me, and for all those children of Bethlehem.  Now that he is victorious over death, risen to life eternal and seated at God’s right hand, he will on the last day unearth every coffin and grant eternal life to all believers.  He will wipe away every bitter tear from their eyes, from your eyes.

This is the true joy of Christmas.  This is the birth we are celebrating, the birth of the one who spares us not merely from earthly heartache, but from the ultimate enemy.  Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth is the beginning of your salvation, Him who conquered the great enemy Death once and for all.  Come, adore on bended Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

The Christ is Coming – Sermon for Advent II (Populus Zion)

The Christ is Coming

Romans 15:4; Luke 21:25-36

Advent II (Populus Zion)

December 8th/9th, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 The emotion of anticipation is one that we all experience.  Many of us probably felt the anticipation of family members coming to visit for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Now that Turkey Day is behind us, the anticipation switches to the Christmas Season, the Christmas parties, the Christmas cookies, the eggnog, The Holly and the Ivy, the lights and decorations.  Maybe you are waiting to see if that one special gift is under your tree this year.  Maybe instead of visions of sugar plumbs, your dreams are teeming with thoughts of this year’s desire, like little Ralphie and his Official Red Ryder 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle.  Maybe it’s not any particular physical element to the Christmas Season that has captured your interest, maybe it’s just the time with your family.  After all, for students and teachers alike, thoughts of Christmas bring with them the promise of vacation.  Sleeping in just a little later, staying in your pajamas just a little longer, and having the freedom to do something special like sledding on a Tuesday afternoon.

But not all anticipation is positive.  Maybe you are looking at your schedule for the rest of December and realizing that you have almost no free time at all.  Maybe thoughts of Christmas morning fill you with anxiety rather than joy, knowing that there will be fewer boxes and packages under the tree this year.  Maybe the memory of a loved one who has passed away makes the holiday season especially difficult to handle.  Maybe your son or daughter is planning on spending Christmas somewhere else for the first time, and the thought of Christmas without every member of your family under one roof fills you with sadness.  Maybe the very mention of every member of your family under one roof fills you with dread and the anticipation of wondering who will fight and argue with whom this year.  Or, maybe you’re just terrified that you’ll wake up one morning to find Cousin Eddie’s RV out in your driveway.

But one way or the other, whether it excites you or terrifies you, the fact that Christmas is only two short weeks away likely fills everyone with some sense of anticipation.  It’s coming, one way or the other, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

That’s the message of Advent, the season of anticipation.  The word Advent comes from a combination of two Latin words, Coming and To.  Advent is the season of Jesus coming to, or coming toward, us.  It is a season where we prepare for his coming, where we prepare to meet Jesus.  But as with the holiday season, the question isn’t really is he coming, for he is.  The question is: what kind of anticipation does that reality give you.  Does the impending coming of the Christ fill you with excitement, or with terror?

Perhaps the best thing we as Christians can do in answering that question is to remember the words of the Apostle Paul read just a few moments ago: “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” [Romans 15:4].  Paul is referring specifically to the Old Testament, but his words can be easily applied to the New Testament too.  Look to the Scriptures to see what they say, says Paul, and you will find your faith strengthened.  One of the chief purposes of Scripture is to instruct us, not with mere facts and data, but to instruct us in the way of our Lord, to show us clearly the pattern of his behavior.

Look to how God has acted in the Old Testament, and your will see a God who keeps his promises.  In the book of Genesis alone, God kept his promise to Noah that he would survive the flood.  God kept his promise to Abraham that Sarah would have a son.  He kept his promise to Jacob that he would bring him safely home after he fled from Esau.  On a larger scale, we see God keep his promises to Abraham when the Israelites grow to a great nation and take possession of the Promise Land.  The Old Testament is filled with God making and keeping promises.  This, Paul says, should give us comfort and hope that he will fulfill the promises he makes to us too.  He has a track record of being faithful.  He has a track record of being consistent.  And so as we consider the arrival of Jesus, one thing we can do is look at the other comings of Jesus recorded for us in the Scriptures, for in them we will find encouragement and have hope.

It’s especially appropriate this time of year to remember his coming in the manger, as a child born in human flesh.  We all know the story.  Mary and Joseph travel back to Bethlehem in order to be counted for the census, thus fulfilling Micah’s prophecy that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem.  When they arrive, there is no room for them in any of the establishments, so they are forced to sleep out with the animals, and it is there, among the filth of a barn floor, that the creator is born into his creation.  No grand palace.  No regal pomp or circumstance.  Only a baby, born without a home, without a place to lay his head.

Looking at the life he would lead, it is only fitting that he be born homeless, for as he would say later in his life, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  He would live his life as an outcast, a nomad wandering from town to town proclaiming the day of the Lord’s Salvation.  Some would listen.  Some would not.  It certainly was not the reception one might expect for the creator of the universe.  He deserves recognition.  He deserves honor.  He deserves praise.

And so he had all of these things, for a moment, as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey that Sunday afternoon, as we heard last week.  For a brief, fleeting moment, the King of kings was surrounded by crowds of people shouting his name and praising him as the messiah: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”  But when it came time for his people to fully acknowledge the royal presence among them, when the day of coronation arrived they did not give David’s Son a crown of gold as David would have worn.  Instead they crowned him with thorns, beat him, mocked him, and sent him to his death.

Little did they know that this is exactly what he wanted them to do.  For when the Christ came into the world the first time, it was to be a sacrifice for the sins of his entire creation.  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  The baby born in a manger, the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head, the King of the Jews riding on a donkey, came into the flesh for the sole purpose of sacrificing himself to pay for your sin, and for mine.  And so Jesus came into his own, in order to free his own.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:17].

So also he comes to us today.  He comes to us in flesh and blood, not to be crucified again, but to feed us and nourish us, to strengthen our souls in faith toward him and in fervent love toward one another.  Jesus comes to us here, at this altar, and as he arrives we greet him with the same greeting that the Jerusalem crown gave him, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the Highest!”    The Lord has fulfilled the promise he made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  The righteous branch has sprung up, and now we feast on the fruit of that branch, on the flesh and blood of our Savior himself.  He comes to us to set us free.

And he will come again.  Learn the lesson of the fig tree, Jesus says.  Mark the time.  Just like the presence of Christmas lights on your neighbor’s lawn and Christmas themed commercials lets you know that December has arrived, so also the signs of the time let you know that Jesus will come again soon.  But this next time, there won’t be any mistaking his identity.  There won’t be any confusion regarding who he is.  For this next time he will not come hidden in bread and wine.  He will not come as a humble baby born among the animals.  He will not come as one with no place to lay his head.  He will come on the clouds, with the trumpets of heaven announcing his arrival.  The heavens will be pulled back, the seas will roar and foam, the mountains will crumble and the earth will shake, and there will stand Jesus, creator of the universe.

How do we look forward to that coming?  With what sense of anticipation?  Fear?  Terror? No, for our Lord has come before.  In his first coming he won for us forgiveness of sins.  He lived a perfect life in our place.  He died an innocent death in our place.  He rose again to new life in our place.  And through our baptism we are united to this very life, death and resurrection.  His victory is ours.  Because when he comes to us now in his body and blood, at his altar, he does so forgiving our sins and renewing us to a life of service to him, we need not fear his final coming.  He has come before to save us.  He comes now to save us.  He will come again to save us.  Whatever was written in former days was written for our encouragement and hope.  In the Scriptures we see written time and time again a God who is active to save his people.  That is your God, active to save you.  Let that reality fill you with encouragement and hope.

The Holiday season brings with it an inherent sense of anticipation, and talk of the coming of Jesus carries its own sense of anticipation.  So as we prepare for his coming, we do so as a child prepares for Christmas.  A child knows that when Christmas comes, so do presents.  So does eggnog.  So do Christmas Carols and grandma’s house.  For all these things have been part of Christmas for as long as that child can remember.  As today’s closing hymn will so beautifully remind us, we too can look how God will act in the future by looking first at how he has already acted in the past.   Once he came in blessing to save us from our sin, now he comes to feed us and gently lead us.  And so we anticipate the next coming of Jesus on the basis of his previous comings, knowing that whenever Jesus has come before, be it at manger or altar, it was to save us.  So also we know that when he returns it will be to claim us as his own, to take us to live with him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

Until that day, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” [Romans 15:13].  In Jesus Name.  Amen.