Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hebrews 2:18 Sunday after Christmas

Do you envision God as being “Up there?”  Most do.  Medieval paintings show God on a throne, high above, surrounded by angels, and definitely not on our level.  Do you feel comfortable praying to such a God, or is he too high and too exalted?  A lot of people feel you have to ask someone else to pray to God for you—someone really good, like a saint, or maybe a pastor (who might be able to offer a better, more persuasive prayer).
One of the devil’s lies is that God will not listen to your simple prayers, that he will not come down to your level to listen and help.  It can seem like the truth, too—because of the struggles, and seeming lack of help from God no matter how much we pray.
At Christmas we see the truth.  God has come to our level.  He was born as an infant in the Bethlehem manger, a true human being just like us.  He is on our level.
The devil knows how powerful that truth is, and he tries to take it away from us.  He suggests that God, holy powerful God, wouldn’t have become such a truly helpless infant.  He is too perfect to endure all these sufferings of human life—all the sickness, fatigue, and sorrow that come with living here.   He has led people to say that Jesus, the Son of God, only seemed to be a true human being, and that he only seemed to suffer.  What’s the big deal?  Why does the devil suggest such silly thoughts? 
Because so much depends on Jesus, true God, also being a true human being.  The reading from Hebrews this morning proves that he is true man: “he shared in our humanity.”  I want to focus on the verse that tells us why this is so important:

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 2:18

The devil doesn’t want you to have this reason to believe that God will understand, hear your prayers, and help.  From this verse we learn that:

Theme:  God was born as a man to be our friend.

1. Why he will understand.
It isn’t possible for God to be tempted, and we might think that he couldn’t understand when we are tempted.  We might be afraid to confess our sins to him, and try to hide it instead, thinking that he will judge us if he finds out how we have failed.  But God was born as a true man so that he could be tempted, and truly suffer. God wanted to give us this reason to believe that he would understand and listen when we need him.
Some are afraid to tell me about their sins—they tell me that they don’t want to bug me, they think I don’t have time, they are afraid that I will judge them.  You don’t have to worry about that with me—I’m not perfect and I’ve been tempted and I’ve sinned too.  You also don’t have to worry about any of that with God.  Because he was born in Bethlehem, he has experienced all those temptations.  And you can’t say that it wasn’t the same for him, because he is God and he couldn’t have sinned.  It says in Hebrews that he suffered when he was tempted—those were true temptations.
Growing up, he suffered all the temptations that come to a child.  When he was in the temple, he must have known that the other boys were out playing, and I suppose he must have felt in some way that it would be more fun to be playing than to be “in church” so to speak, in the temple.  He must have been tempted to go play with his brothers and friends instead, but he knew that he couldn’t.  He stayed in the temple and listened eagerly, because he knew that he had to do God’s work. 
You have been tempted by things that seemed like more fun than being in church, you had to be dragged out of bed, and you didn’t sit joyfully.  Or maybe it wasn’t worth the suffering and you stayed home—hopefully you feel bad about that, this despising of the treasures that God brings through Word and Sacrament.  But you have a friend in Jesus, who will understand what was so hard about the temptation.  He felt it himself.  You can talk to him about it, and confess your sins in prayer.
As Jesus grew older, after he left his mother and father and began his ministry, we know that he faced real temptations that come to young adults, when the devil took him out into the desert.  “Use your power to give yourself an easy life—you will have plenty of food to eat if you turn these stones to bread,” the devil told him.  He was tempted to question what he knew about God, by throwing himself from the top of the temple to see if God really would rescue him.  He was tempted to take the easy way instead of God’s way, by earning his crown through simply worshiping the devil instead of by suffering, death, and resurrection.  Those temptations were real—Hebrews says that he suffered when tempted, and we hear that he had to be strengthened by an angel after the devil left him.
If you have been tempted to work for earthly things, to the point where you neglect the things God wants to give you in church, and it wasn’t worth the trouble to give up your sleep or give up that great job with all the money, you should feel bad.  But you have Jesus, who understands, because he has felt that temptation too.  If you have been tempted to question God, wonder why he hasn’t helped you lately—or maybe it has all seemed like too much to handle, and so you gave up on the church for a while, and you took out your frustration against God—you should feel bad about that, but you have Jesus who understands, because he has felt that temptation too.  If you’ve been tempted to take the easy way through life instead of God’s way, and it was too much trouble to resist what joys the sinful life would offer, it was too much trouble to control your anger, or to love and forgive those who have done you wrong—you should feel bad about that, but you have Jesus who understands, because he has felt that temptation too.
If, as you get older, you find yourself fearing death, and doing everything you can to avoid it, perhaps you have been tempted to be angry at God for taking your loved ones when they died, or be angry at God if it looks like he is going to take your life in a way or at a time that is not right for you—you should feel bad for resisting God’s will, and reacting in anger to his good decisions.  But again, you have Jesus who understands, because he even felt these temptations, and it caused him great suffering, though he did not sin.  In the Garden, as he looked ahead to the terrible events that were coming leading up to his horrible death, he prayed that there might be some other way.  Who knows how he must have been tempted to think that God had it all wrong, that there must be an easier and more pleasant way to redeem the world.  Even though the temptations were real and made his soul suffer so much that he said he was sorrowful to the point of death, he did not give in and sin. 
You can confess your sins to him, and know that he will understand.  He has felt those temptations too. 
Jesus became your brother, your trusted friend.  You can talk to him.  One of the things you may look for in a trusted friend is someone who is your equal, who won’t look down on you.  While we aren’t exactly Jesus’ equal in terms of his divine nature, he has come down to our level.  But when we pray, sometimes we treat Jesus like he is still high above us, and not on our level where he can understand what we are going through and help us.  When we pray, sometimes we might think that we are informing him of our problems, or persuading him to care.  Rather, when you pray, unload your burdens to this trusted friend, because he has come down to our level and promised to help.  When you pray, take him up on his promise to help those who ask him.  In this verse from Hebrews, it says that he is able to help because he suffered—but what kind of help is it really? 
2.  How he will help.
Our first thought may be that he will give us a boost of spiritual strength when we need it the most, especially if we think to pray to him and ask him for that strength.  And he does work in those inexplicable, mysterious ways, but there are also some very real, very explainable ways that he helps us.
First of all, he gives real forgiveness.  He doesn’t just say, “Don’t worry about it, everyone does that once in a while.”  He is able to actually clear your record before God.  If we look back to the context of our verse, the temptations that Christ suffered have made him a faithful high priest—one who is actually able to erase our sins and calm God’s wrath because he has brought a valid sacrifice.  He sacrificed his perfect life of perfect obedience under every temptation, and God accepted it as the payment for our sins.  Jesus has done what God required for our record to be cleared, and now he is able to give out real forgiveness.  How does he help you when you confess your sins to him?  He listens, he understands, and he wipes the record clean.
Then, he gives us a better opinion of ourselves.  Psychologists and counselors will talk about this as self-esteem, and they will say that it is a key part of improving your behavior.  If you think of yourself as a rotten person, you will be more likely to do rotten things.  When you are tempted to drink too much, lose your temper, let awful words come from your mouth, it is going to be harder to resist that temptation if you have been used to thinking of yourself as the rotten kind of person who does those things.  When Jesus forgives you, he wants you to resist the temptation the next time, and he gives you the self-esteem to be able to do it.  You are no longer the addict, the wife-abuser, the foul-mouthed sailor—God’s opinion of you is that you are a citizen of heaven.  Your sins have been washed away.  The record is clean.  Jesus, your trusted friend, shows you that having you with him was worth his trouble to take on human flesh and suffer all for you.  It was worth his trouble to come down to your level, experience what you experience, be tempted like you are tempted, and then share his perfection with you through Word and Sacrament.  It was worth his trouble to make it so that you belong in heaven with him.  Next time you are tempted, remember God’s opinion of you, and know that it is worth the trouble to resist temptation, no matter how much it hurts, because you are a citizen of heaven.
But what if the devil succeeds, and convinces us that Jesus was not a real human being, or that he wasn’t really tempted like we are?  All of this help that Jesus wants to give us would become meaningless to us.  If his temptations were not real, then he wouldn’t necessarily understand what we are going through, he wouldn’t be able to offer valid forgiveness, and we would have no reason to believe that we share in his perfection or his status as a person who belongs in heaven.  If he had not come down to us to join us in our sufferings and temptations, we would have no reason to believe that we belong with him now in his glory.  But in the Christmas manger, God took on human flesh.  Jesus, true God, was born as a real human being.  He willingly suffered all that we suffer, so that he could help us in every way—so he could understand and forgive, and so that he could give us a real reason to believe that we are better than the things that we do.  We are citizens of heaven through faith in him.  Truly, in Jesus, God has become our friend.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hebrews 1:1-3 Christmas Day

A Christmas card says that you care.  Carefully chosen picture show a warm, caring scene. —warmth of a fire inside of some snow-covered cabin.  Christ-child in a manger, all-aglow; amidst a dark, starry night.  Quiet Bethlehem, big bright star shining down.  The wise men, exotic, far-away kings traveling to see the humble little baby.  Even the Santa Claus—you have to admire the charity, wanting to give gifts to all.  It is, after all, God’s gift to us that has inspired all this gift giving, warmth, and caring.
And yet, it is possible that God’s gifts to you this past year haven’t all been pleasant.  He may have seemed far away, and you may at times have felt forgotten.  It’s nice to get a Christmas card from the people you haven’t seen and haven’t heard from.  We may feel like it would be nice to hear from God, get a Christmas card from him.
The birth of Christ says all of that.  Better than a Christmas card, he has spoken by his Son.  A personal message that conveys the warm caring heart of God.  He shows that God remembers us and cares to help.  If you want to see God, know that he remembers you and cares about you, look no further than Jesus.  In the birth of Christ, we see that God cares.  God was born as a man to help and save.
         In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.           
Hebrews 1:1-3
1.  When a baby is born, people will often remark on the incredible similarity between the baby and his father or mother.  The words here call our attention to the incredible similarity between God the Father and God the Son.  The Son is the “radiance of God’s glory”—just like the light of the sun radiates off of the surface of a lake, and you see the reflection in the water—everything that God the Father is, we see also in Jesus the Son.  All the glory; the power, the greatness, the mercy, and goodness that we expect to find in our God.    The other phrase that caught my eye—“the exact representation of his being”—literally, an exact copy, as if you would take an object, make a mold of it, and then use the mold to make a copy of that object—Jesus is just like his Father.  When you into what Jesus does in the pages of Scripture, you might as well be looking at God the Father.   Everything that the Father is, thinks, and does, Jesus does too.  As he himself said, “What the Father does, the Son does also.”  And, “Anyone who has seen the Son has seen the Father.”  What all of this amounts to is that the manger in Bethlehem held a divine visitor.  It was no less than God himself who came to us to show us that he cares and that he would help.
When important people come to visit, it lifts our spirits, it shows that they care, and that they will help.   Your family may visit you because they care about you.  Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German President Joachim Gauck visit Afghanistan, show that they care, and they promised to continue their support.  Obama visits 10 wounded troops at a medical center in Maryland.  But none of them can truly fix the world or completely help the problems that they visited. 
It might look like Jesus hasn’t been able to fix the world either.  The problem seems to remain; the world really hasn’t changed since Christ was born.  God still may seem far away, and the tragedies of this sinful world still continue.  There is a sharp contrast between the peaceful scene of Bethlehem with its joy that God has come to save us, and the harsh reality of the world that we live in.  This is a world where people are evil.  People fight over Christmas presents and kill each other with hateful words.   Ever hear someone you love say something so awful that it makes you die inside? Worse than that, sometimes people even actually kill each other.
One of my favorite Christmas cards seems to illustrate our world.  It comes in different varieties…there is usually a house, or a church, all lit up inside and warm looking.  Outside it is cold, dark, and snowy.  The warmth and joy inside the house or the little country church reminds me of the Bethlehem scene, and the warmth of God’s loving presence among us in the Christ child.  That cold, dark, snowy world reminds me more of life.  Where is God’s warmth in this evil, sin-filled world?
The Bible describes our world exactly the way it feels—broken, ruined by sin, separated from God.  God through Isaiah, “Your sins have separated you from your God.”  Trying to get out of the cold, trying to fix our world through charity, love, gifts, visits, Christmas cards.  What happens?  Just fight over the gifts.  Just resent the people who don’t show that they care.  Just turn on the news to find more evil.  We can’t fix it.  We are part of the sinful problem.  God knows what is wrong, and he is the one who came to fix it.
2. Because he is true God, the one who was born in Bethlehem to visit us truly can help.  He will fix everything that is wrong.  He is God, the Word who was spoken of in John 1, the one by whom the universe itself was created.  If anyone can fix what is wrong in our world, he surely can.
The Creator knows how this world is put together, and he knows how we are put together.  He saw how the first man and his sin ruined our world, and passed his sin down to us and all the rest of his children.  He knew how to fix it.  The one by whom the world was created has come to restore his fallen creation.
It was just one man, Adam, who sinned and ruined creation by his sin.  All of us have been born from his flesh, shared in his sin, and continued to sin and ruin the world ourselves.  It would also be one man, Jesus, who would live a perfect, sinless life, and then use his creative power to pass that perfection on to us through faith.  In fact, the Bible calls it new birth when a person comes to faith.  Jesus, by his creative power, gave us a new birth from his perfect flesh—through the preaching of his word and through baptism.
Does God care?  Will he help?  He has spoken, and the answer is yes.  The new life that we have through faith in Christ is one that lasts beyond the grave.  In fact, the best of it is still coming.  We don’t get to experience the full blessing of our new life with Christ yet, because we still live in a sinful world.  But when God raises us from death and brings us to heaven…we can only imagine the joy and blessing.
God’s answer is yes, he does care about our sorrows and struggles.  Just look at Christ and what Christ was doing.  All of his miracles of compassion show that he cares, and he will help us in our sorrows.  He healed the blind, the lame, the sick, and the demon-possessed.  He will help us in all our troubles, and through his life we will be rescued from all of this to enjoy a better life in heaven.
Does God care about our spiritual struggles?  He has spoken, and his answer is yes.  Just look at what Christ did, and see how God cares for you.  He commanded a baptism to be given, and by his creative power that baptism gives new life—a life from his life, and a share in his perfection, just as much as being born of Adam has made us share in Adam’s sin.  By his creative power he has put our sins to death with him, and shared his resurrection with us.
Does God care about our continued struggles?  The answer is yes.  Christ gave us his Word, to sustain our spiritual life in him as often as we hear it.  He commanded the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated, so that he could share the body and blood of his death with us—the punishment of our sins, and also the resurrection of the body to eternal life.  Everything that we need for our forgiveness and eternal life is passed down to us, because his creative word has commanded this to happen when we hear his Word and receive the Sacrament. 
No mere man can do all this—he is the one by whom the universe was created.  He is everything that God the Father is.  Jesus is God, the Son of God.

I wrote my Christmas cards a little late this year, and some people might be wondering if I remembered them.  I did, they just haven’t opened my cards yet.  If you are wondering if God still cares, maybe you just haven’t opened his “Christmas card” lately.  Open up what the Son of God brings you in Word and Sacrament.—find the joy of knowing that God comes to you, to help and save.
Later in the service we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”  And we will be joyful, but the joy doesn’t need to end when the season isn’t enough to end the bickering, fighting in families and in the world—or even the fighting inside.  Often, we are our own worst enemy.  But the Lord has come.  He cares, and he has been able to help and save, because the man who was born in Bethlehem for us is God.  Truly, Joy to the World!  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Luke 1:46-55 Advent 4

I wonder if Mary really cared…that people shunned her, and the old women whispered when she walked past.    … that many people would think she had been unfaithful to the man who would be her husband.  I wonder if she cared about anything other than the Savior who was growing inside of her. With good reason, Mary has often been referred to as the “Blessed Virgin Mary.”  The child growing inside of her was such a blessing indeed, that she could not help singing about it. 
Years later, when the evangelist Luke was making his “careful investigations” before writing his account of Jesus’ life, he probably came to visit Mary, by that time an old woman.  As Luke talked with her about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, she didn’t think to mention any of the struggles that must have come for the young mother.  If she had to struggle to convince her friends and family that the Holy Spirit had conceived this child in her, we will never know.  It didn’t matter enough to be a part of her story.  The things she treasured up in her heart were the great honor that she would bring the Savior into the world, and the great blessings that would come from the Savior.  As she told her stories to Luke, she recalled the angel’s visit to announce this miraculous birth.  “Greetings, you who are highly favored,” the angel said.  “You have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son.”  Mary recalled her visit to Elizabeth, whose child jumped for joy as Mary approached with the Savior in her womb.  She told of Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child that you will bear.”  Then she told Luke of the song she sang; she was so moved by the greatness of what God was doing for her and through her.  Maybe she even sang it for him,
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47      and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48   for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49      for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50   His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51   He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52   He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53   He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54   He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55   to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”
Luke 1:46-55
Mary was filled with joy and sang because…
Theme:  Her Son was Born to Lift Us Up
1.  Now, if you would spontaneously burst into song like Mary did, singing of the great things God has done for you, quoting Scriptures from the songs and psalms of the Old Testament—people might think you’re a little crazy.  They would say, “What’s your problem?”  The problem is that we have too many problems to sing like that without seeming like we have gone crazy. 
We have no control over whether the next minute of our life will be pleasant, or painful.  We have no way of controlling whether or not God will take away the things that make us happy.  There is no bribe we can offer him.  A wise man once said that “we are all beggars.”  There is nothing we can give to God.  We can only take what he gives.  And actually, there are plenty of reasons why he would not give us anything good.  Our failures to do the right thing today would be enough, but then there is also the guilt of past sins which keeps coming back.  As often as you say you’re sorry, as many good things as you try to do to make up for it, the guilt comes back.  What are we to God, anyway?
Mary had thoughts like that too, and that’s part of the reason why she burst into spontaneous song.  While we may be tempted to dwell on the guilt and the feeling of being “nothing” to God, she dwelt on the wonderful things that God had done for her, even though she was a nobody.  Think about it—Mary was a young girl, not even married yet, and her husband-to-be was a lowly carpenter.  She would not be the honored wife of some priest or rabbi.  Who was she to God that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, so that she would conceive a son who would be called the Son of God? 
There is a passage in the writings of the rabbis that shows us how they expected the Holy Spirit to do this kind of thing only for the rich, powerful, respected people.  “R. Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, causes His Divine Presence to rest only upon him who is strong, wealthy, wise and meek,” (Nedarim 38a).  It seems that no one expected God to work through a “nobody” like Mary—and Mary marveled that God would do such wonderful things through her, though she deserved nothing from him.
Don’t we expect that God would work through good people, bless them with riches, and do great things through them?  We are nobodies, but God has honored us and blessed us much as he did Mary.  Don’t let the things that you haven’t done or can’t do stop you from being so filled with joy that you might burst into song…you may be a nobody, but God has done great things for you!
2.  Mary was blessed to have a Savior.  He was born to bring God’s mercy to every generation, to perform mighty deeds for God’s people, to lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with food that gives us eternal life.  All the hope for rescue and release from the horrible curse of sin since the Garden of Eden, all the promises of God to rescue his people from every trouble, his promises of mercy and forgiveness all fulfilled in her child.
And that’s the other thing—the Savior was her child.  God chose her to bring the Savior into the world, though she was nobody, though she was just a lowly sinner herself.  And if that rubs your ears the wrong way because you’ve heard somewhere that Mary was sinless, the Bible doesn’t say anywhere that Mary was sinless.  The Scripture here makes the opposite point—that God did this great thing for lowly Mary, the sinful mother who would later forget her child in the temple, and be so out of touch with God’s will that she would have no clue that she should look for Jesus in the temple, where he would be doing his Father’s business. 
That God would give her a Savior whom she did not deserve, and use her of all people to give birth to the Savior—It is no wonder that she sang, “from now on, all generations will call me blessed!”
We are blessed in much the same way.  We don’t deserve any of this.  We scarcely understand what the Savior was all about—and what we do understand is only because God has crushed us and pried our selfish minds open so he can teach us a few things from his Word.  He has taught us to confess our sins, but who really understands what is so bad about most of these sins—what’s a little lie anyway?  Except that we know God hates it so much that he created hell for it and says that liars, and people who disrespect their parents, and all others who commit common understandable sins go to hell.  He gave us a conscience that feels guilty about it, even though we couldn’t help it.  So we confess, because he has promised to take away that guilt.  We try to do better, because that guilty feeling is awful, and we want to feel good about ourselves.  But we sin again anyway, maybe even in exactly the same way.  What is so good about any of this, that we would deserve a Savior?  Nothing.  Yet we have one, because God has been good to us.
Then, as if that were not enough, we find that God has decided to use us to carry the wonderful news of the Savior out into the world.  He could have used his holy angels to do it again, as he did—and what an impression they would make, announcing the Christmas Gospel with “Glory to God in the Highest” sung so beautifully and powerfully that no human choir would ever dare try to imitate it again!  God could have, but instead he thought to use us.  He has truly done great things for us!  He has truly lifted up the humble!  Why not burst into song like Mary did!
3.  Perhaps the sadness of recent days still hangs like a thick fog in your heart.  It may be the Sandy Hook massacre.  It may be the guilt of recent sins.  It may be that you haven’t seen your loved ones in a long time and they are far away.  Maybe you don’t have a reason for it, but you just feel depressed.  Take a lesson from Mary, and fill up on God’s words in the Holy Scripture.
During those anxious months of waiting for her child to be born and enduring untold shame from people who didn’t understand, Mary’s mind recalled cheerful passages of Scripture.  Mary’s song was filled with the words of the Old Testament.  Her song especially echoes the words sung by Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  And it’s no wonder Mary found strength and inspiration from Hannah’s song in Scripture: both women experienced scorn from friends and neighbors who didn’t understand, both women found great joy in the miraculous baby that was given to them and the great things that child would do.
Do like Mary did, and dig into the Scriptures for strength and inspiration.  You will find people who struggled with the same things that we struggle with today—everything from temptations to horrible tragedies.  You will find the answer, as they did, in Christ.  He was born to lift up the lowly.  He has brought salvation—a rescue from this troubled world and our lowly lives.  He has brought righteousness—the perfection God requires given freely to those who can’t do it.  He has lifted us up out of the dust to entrust us with carrying these blessings to the world in Word and Sacrament. 
Fill up on the saving work of Jesus, and all that it means.  Fill up on the forgiveness that God gives for your wrongs, and the new life that he gives, as a person who is no longer worthless and a nobody.  To God, you are worth sending a Savior.  When you were baptized, he thought you were worth his presence to wash your sins away and give you a new birth as his child.  He thought it was worth his trouble to make sure that all these words in the Bible would be written down and delivered to you—and he has honored us with the task of delivering the message of his salvation to others, a job first done by angels!  God has truly lifted us up!  No, you haven’t done anything to deserve it.  God just loves you.  Be cheerful.  This is why Mary was so happy.  Jesus was born to lift us up!  Amen.