Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Birth of Jesus - God With Us

The Nativity - Lucas Cranach the Elder
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them" (Luke 2:1-7).
These first several verses from the second chapter of Luke's gospel are my favorite of the Christmas season. These verses always wound up being my part in the Christmas Eve Sunday School program. It's a good thing, too, that I always seemed to get more or less the same verses every year. I wasn't then, nor am I now, one who could memorize things easily. I was always quite nervous right up through the time all of us Sunday school kids were marched up to the front of the church. I didn't like speaking in public, and it was all I could do to not flub my part. 
In fact, I never really liked the Children's Program when I was a child with a part to memorize. I remember spending what felt like endless hours in the sanctuary going over, and over, and over again just exactly where to stand and how to hold the microphone when we were lined up in front of the church. It was excruciatingly boring to sit in the pews waiting for our turn to line up, and nearly impossible to pay attention to anything that happened in the front after our group had finished speaking and sat back down. And, to cap it all off, when we had finished running through the entire program, we'd have to line up in the fellowship hall to march in again for another go-around. Not my idea of a good way to spend three hours, and I always enjoyed church-stuff.
When I look back on those times, being many years removed from them, I was a little surprised to see that two of my absolute most favorite things about Christmas come as a part of the Christmas Eve Children's Program (at least at Immanuel - Hodgkins): singing Silent Night in German by candle light, and hearing the first seven verses of Luke chapter two.
I didn't even realize that I still had them memorized until I started teaching at a Lutheran school and had to prepare a Christmas program myself. Then, as I looked deeper into those words which my childhood pastor and Sunday school teachers had inscribed into my brain, I became profoundly thankful that The Lord had allowed me to grow up in the way in which He did. By requiring us to memorize those gospel verses our Sunday school teachers were giving us the gift that we celebrate on Christmas - the gift of Immanuel, "God, with us".
Faith comes through hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ we are told in Holy Scripture. By having us children memorize the words of the gospel, our teachers put those faith-creating words into us. The author of Hebrews tells us that, in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son. It is through Jesus, his Son - the Word made flesh - that God deals with mankind. He does not wish to deal with us in any other way than through his word and sacraments, which are God's word and promise coupled with a physical element of water, bread, or wine.
By the means of those words of the gospel the Holy Spirit worked faith in our hearts according to his good and gracious will. I am particularly thankful for the words of Scripture I was taught to memorize. Through the years since Sunday School God has continued to teach me and grow my faith through them.
The words recorded by Luke in the beginning of chapter two of his gospel may seem like the standard introductory passage. In television specials about the life of Jesus it usually takes up no more than a few moments of the opening credits to visually portray what Luke has written. His words, however, express something more important than just the desperate attempt to find shelter for Mary in the crowded village of Bethlehem.
Luke's words, "In those days," tell us that the events he relates have taken place in the midst of human history. They do not happen in his imagination, once upon a time, as though this is merely some fairy tale. The story of Jesus is a story that can be pinpointed in time. It happened "in those days", when Caesar Augustus issued his decree. Furthermore, the events of the gospel did not take place in some mythical kingdom far, far away. They happened in a real location to which one can point on a map, and even visit, if one was so inclined. Quirinius was (or was about to become) the governor of Syria. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David. It was there, at that definite time and place that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
This is in contrast to other so-called mystery religions that flourished in the Middle East in the first and second centuries, and to the heretical off-shoots of Christianity that so intrigue people today, forming the basis of such popular entertainment as "The DaVinci Code". These religions were clearly built on fantastic stories written in the manner of the pagan myths of antiquity and meant to be taken as allegory.
For example, Mithra, god of the Roman Mithraic mysteries, is depicted as being born from a rock. He is shown as emerging from a rock, already in his youth, with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. He is nude, is wearing a Phrygian cap and is holding his legs together. An example from heretical Christianity is a resurrection account of Jesus from the non-canonical gospel of St. Peter which features a gigantic talking cross.
Jesus' birth account recorded in Holy Scripture, by contrast, is set against the backdrop of real people and places. There is, of course, debate as to exactly when Luke meant. But it is clear that he was being as precise as he possibly could be in establishing the foundation for his gospel account. While there might be some confusion as to which Quirinius Luke is referring, or which governing office he held, or which census (provincial or empire-wide) is meant, archeology has clarified and upheld Luke's Gospel consistently, and there is no reason to think it will do otherwise in the future. Luke's stated purpose for writing was to compile an orderly account of those things which he followed closely, namely the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though many today would like to count Christianity simply as the mystery religion that won out in popularity and influence in the Roman Empire, it is clear to those who read its scriptures and study its history that Christianity is not merely a Mithra-clone. At the birth of Jesus we witness the God who created the universe clothing himself in human flesh and stepping into human history with the specific goal of being the sacrifice to atone for the sin of mankind in order to reconcile man to God.
In fact, that is what Jesus' name means. Jesus comes from the Jewish name "Yeshua", which is translated, "The Lord [YHWH] saves." Matthew records that, when the angel of The Lord appeared to Joseph to explain just who Mary was carrying in her womb and what he was to be named, this was in fulfilment of what the prophet Isaiah had written, "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel." Immanuel means, "God, with us." To put it another way, the LORD God [YHWH] who saves, is with us.

Mankind needed a savior because he, and all creation along with him, was infected with the disease of sin. Since Adam and Eve's first sin, when they disobeyed God's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, sin entered creation. All people born since then are born suffering from this disease of sin. We are all born without true fear or trust in God. We are all born with the inclination toward sin, to commit actual sinful acts, and away from God. There is nothing we can do to rescue ourselves from this dreadful condition, or reconcile ourselves to God. The disease is terminal. This is why the Lord himself had to save us. This salvation he effected by taking on human flesh, being born under the law, living a sinless life, going to the cross to suffer and die as punishment for mankind's sinfulness, and rising from the dead three days later as the conqueror of sin, death and Satan.
After his death and resurrection, before ascending into heaven to be seated at God the Father's right hand, Jesus promised that he would be with us to the very end of the age. He is our brother, as the Lutheran Confessions declare, "and we are flesh of his flesh and bone of His bone. He has instituted His holy Supper for the certain assurance and confirmation of this, so that He will be with us, and dwell, work, and be effective in us also according to that nature from which He has flesh and blood" (FC SD VIII 79).

Jesus came to dwell among us and be the sacrifice to atone for the guilt of our sin on that first Christmas about which Luke writes. He came to us at a specific time, in a specific place. He is no fairy story, but the central focus of all of human history. He comes to us and remains with us in his holy word, preached and read, and in his holy sacraments, properly administered. What good news for fallen, sinful humanity. May it bring great joy to all who hear it. For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Great Disappointment - Trusting in Man

William Miller (1782-1849)
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life (Revelation 22: 16-17).

After 14 years of studying the Bible, William Miller (1782-1849), a U.S. revivalist who predicted the second coming and earned a large but temporary following, became convinced that Christ would return in 1843. When Miller announced April 3 as the day, some disciples went to mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others were in graveyards, planning to ascend in reunion with their departed loved ones. Philadelphia society ladies clustered together outside town to avoid entering God's kingdom amid the common herd.

When April 4 dawned as usual the Millerites, as they came to be known, were disillusioned, but they took heart. Their leader had predicted a range of dates for Christ's return. They still had until March 21, 1844. The devout continued to make ready, but again they were disappointed. A third date – October 22, 1844 – was set, but it also passed. It is estimated that the Millerites numbered nearly 50,000. Miller recorded his personal disappointment in his memoirs: "Were I to live my life over again, with the same evidence that I then had, to be honest with God and man, I should have to do as I have done I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment." (Memoirs of William Miller, Sylvester Bliss, p. 256).

William Miller came to his strange conclusions about the end of time from his study of Old Testament prophecy, particularly the book of Daniel. The eighth chapter of Daniel records this prophecy:

…Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to him, “How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled – the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, and the surrender of the sanctuary and of the host that will be trampled underfoot?” He said to me, “It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.”

Even more well known are these words from Daniel, chapter nine:

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and build Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” (Daniel 9: 25-27).

The Mayan Calendar

From these passages, as well as others, many Christians have attempted to work out a formula for predicting the end times, just as secular doomsday prophets have attempted to do from they Mayan calendar and the predictions of Nostradamus. All have fallen short of the mark. These Biblical prophecies, according to most Christian theologians, give us a picture of God’s direction of world events. These “sevens” may not necessarily be meant to be computed arithmetically. They may, however, in apocalyptic language, show the full attainment of God’s goal in history – the universal redemption of mankind.

According to Evangelical Lutheranism, the division of the 70 “weeks” into the unequal segments of seven, sixty-two, and one gave the assurance that man’s redemption would take place in a historical setting. The first “seven” weeks were God’s pledge to restore Jerusalem. The next 62 weeks confirmed that the rebuilt Jerusalem would be Israel’s religious center when the Messianic Age was to begin. The last week would bring the consummation of all things decreed and predicted: 1) The death of “the Anointed One, the ruler” to atone for sin; 2) the ratification of a covenant – one without sacrifices and offerings for sin; 3) the destruction of rebuilt Jerusalem, no longer a holy city, but filled with abominations. However confusing these words of prophecy may be to us, we can be certain of one thing: God would (and did) carry out his plan for man’s salvation. Whether or not we understand the details is, quite frankly, irrelevant.

We know from Holy Scripture that Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.”...Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen (Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7).

He will return to judge the world, not to set up an earthly government.

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, with all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Matthew 25: 31-32; John 18:36).

Christ will return on a specific day known by God the Father alone.

You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him…No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father…He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed (Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:32; Acts 17:31).

Finally, before Christ returns, there will be increasing turmoil and distress for the church and the world.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places…The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons (Matthew 24:7; 1 Timothy 4:1).

Christ's failure to appear in 1844 has come to be known as the Great Disappointment. However, it wasn’t really Christ’s “failure” to appear that caused the disappointment. Instead, it was the people’s trust in one man’s logic and reason – rather than faith in Christ to keep his promise – that was the source of their disappointment. Any time we rely on man rather than God, we will be disappointed, no matter what the circumstance. St. Peter realized this, and described this concept in his first epistle:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (1 Peter 2: 4-6).

If you trust in St. Peter, you will be put to shame. If you trust in Martin Luther, you will be put to shame. If you trust in William Miller, or the ancient Mayans, or anyone else who claims to have some hidden or special knowledge revealed to no one else, Scripture tells us that you will be put to shame. A person can have one of two attitudes toward the “Cornerstone” – you can trust in him or reject him. If you reject him, you will stumble and fall:

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and “A stone that causes ment to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for (1 Peter 2: 7-8).

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, the foundation stone upon which our life of faith is built. Even though we may not fully understand now the omniscient thinking and working of God, we can rejoice that Christ – with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death – has redeemed us fully. For what purpose? To quote Dr. Martin Luther, “…that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Mountain of the Lord

Christ the King
In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever (Micah 4: 1-5).
According to many theologians, the phrase "last days" can refer to the future in general terms. However, the term "last days" is usually used, or at least understood, in one of two ways: 1) The end of time at Christ's Second Coming or, 2) The Messianic Era as a whole. These two ideas are unified in the pages of Scripture. Evangelical Lutheranism, in contrast with American "main-line" Protestantism, sees the last days as beginning with Jesus' first coming; these last days will be consummated at his Second Coming. The Apostles certainly viewed themselves and believers to come after them as living in the Last Days, as evidenced by their calls to remain watchful for Christ's return. St. Peter writes in his first epistle, "The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray" (1 Peter 4:7). In his second epistle, St. Peter explains even further.
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." ...Therefore dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position (2 Peter 3: 3-4, 17).
St. Peter understood that the times in which he was living, after Christ's First Coming, were different in nature from the time before Christ came to earth. The previous times (Old Testament times) were preparatory - looking forward to the coming of the King who would sit on David's throne forever. Now, in these "last days" as St. Peter calls them, it is only a matter of time until Christ returns and brings complete fulfillment to what the prophets foretold. He also knew that false teachers would come - they had already shown themselves while the Apostles were still alive - and that Christians must, in the words of the negro spiritual, "keep their lamps trimmed and burning" lest they be caught unawares. While Micah is most assuredly pointing toward the promised ruler's first coming (5: 2-3), he is also describing the entire Messianic Age - the Last Days.
Micah, in his prophecy, goes on to describe what will take place in the Messianic Age. He writes, "In the last days the mountain of the Lord's Temple will be established as chief among the mountains;" (v1). In other passages of Scripture, like Psalm 2:6 and 2 Chronicles 33:15, where God's Holy Hill or Mountain is mentioned, it is a reference to the site of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the earthly counterpart for God's heavenly throne room. Since the mountain is representative of God's throne in heaven, this passage tells us that during the last days (Messianic Age) God's power and authority will be, as it always has been, the ultimate power and authority and will be recognized as such. St. Paul understands this as well, and quotes Isaiah to make the point in his epistle to the Romans:
By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear (Isaiah 45:23).
Micah also says that peoples, or nations, will "stream" to the mountain of the LORD. In Psalm 86, David makes a similar statement when he writes, "All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; they will bring glory to your name" (Ps. 86:9). In Jesus, these passages have been and are being fulfilled. Christ, by his life, death and resurrection, established the mountain of the Lord's Temple as chief among the mountains. All those people who believe - the nations God has made by faith - turn to Jesus, the Messiah. In Old Testament times, believers had faith in the promise of the Messiah. New Testament believers trust in the same Messiah - we, however, know his name. As Jesus himself said:
But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).
St. Peter also explains:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
What can we who are living in the "last days" take away from the words of Micah? In one word, hope. We know that God has created faith in our hearts through our baptism and that he sustains that faith and causes it to grow through Word and Sacrament. We can know that we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever, and that, even now as we believe in Christ Jesus, no one can snatch us out of his hand. Speaking to the unbelieving Jews at the Feast of Dedication, Jesus said this:
...I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10: 25-28).
One of the first adventurers on the mighty oceans who sailed to South America went around a cape on a stormy sea. His ship threatened to go to pieces; so he called the place the Cape of Storms. But Vasco da Gama, who came later, changed the name to the Cape of Good Hope, for the saw ahead of him the jewels and treasures of India. You can call this a life of storms if you wish. But if you can see the glorious redemption of eternity ahead of you, you can call it what it is in Christ - a life of good hope.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Our hope comes from God - it is His gift by his Spirit, given to us through his means of Word and Sacrament. Any hope we may conjure up by our own efforts is merely illusory. We should not, however, live our lives the way the world would have us - focused on worldly things and preoccupied with how to please our human nature. Since we have peace with God as a result of being justified through faith in Christ we, by the Spirit's power, focus our attention and energy on how to please our spiritual nature. That is what we do this Advent season - we focus on Jesus Christ and prepare for his coming. We heed St. Peter's words and seek to, "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!"