Sermon for Palm Sunday April 14, 2019 (Luke 19:28-40) – “In Lowly Pomp, Ride on to Die”

“Вход Господень в Иерусалим” (2016), by Andrej Nikolaevich Mironov. Shared under Creative Commons 4.0 Share-Alike License..

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


In the name of Jesus, amen.

Today is Palm Sunday, which means that today is also the beginning of Holy Week.  We remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem today, and with that, the beginning of the “end” of his ministry prior to his crucifixion.  So there is a lot “riding” on today’s commemoration. Jesus, the King of the Jews and of all Creation, is entering into his capital city, and his subjects are receiving him with loud shouts of “Hosanna” and with palm fronds waving.  He’s here! The king is coming!

What would we have seen, were we there that day?  Jesus, a man with little to distinguish him, riding on the back of a colt, a young donkey; no saddle, just robes cushioning the ride.  And in front of him, people laying their cloaks on the road before him. No red carpet here. And the crowds, cheering out, “Blessed is the coming King in the name of the Lord; peace in the heavens, and glory in the highest places!”  Cut palm leaves waving. But not a procession with pomp and circumstance, at least not by the standards of the first century (or of our century, either). There was nothing very kingly about this procession, nothing opulent or triumphant, even though many of our Bibles title this section of Luke’s Gospel “The Triumphal Entry.”  For an outside observer, there was little triumphant about this procession at all. Instead, they saw a carpenter riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, surrounded by his followers.

“A Roman Triumph” (ca. 1630), by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). National Gallery, London. Creative Commons.

Those of you who are students of Roman history probably know what I mean when I say “triumph,” but I want to define it more clearly for those of you who don’t.  A triumphus was a special kind of Roman military victory parade, originally awarded to victorious generals and later reserved only for emperors once Augustus had been awarded the title for life (and thus would have been for the emperor alone by the time of Jesus’ ministry).  The parade would have gone through the city of Rome, ending at the temple of Jupiter, where the victorious conqueror would dedicate the spoils of his victory to the honor of that god. The emperor would have been dressed in a costume that made him look like statues of Jupiter, too, wearing a purple and gold toga, red boots, red face paint, and a wreath upon his head, and he would have ridden in a four-horse chariot decked in charms to ward off envy.  Before him would march the captives and slaves he had taken in his campaign, as well as men carrying the booty and spoils he had seized, and behind him would march his armies for the whole city to revue. The closest modern analog I can think of is a on old ticker-tape parade after the World Series or a Soviet military parade in Red Square. And amid all the cheering of the crowds and the accolades, the victorious emperor would, it is said, have had a slave or companion riding next to him in the chariot, whispering or declaring to him, “Remember you are mortal!”  A triumph was the closest a Roman general or emperor could come to being a king, or even, a god, for a day.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem lacked all the pomp and circumstance of this sort of procession.  He didn’t look like an emperor, he was riding a donkey rather than in a beautifully appointed quadriga, “no tramp of marching soldiers’ feet” behind him or humiliated captives in chains before him.  He wasn’t dressed up, either. So what made Jesus’ coming into the capital triumphant?

“Entry into Jerusalem; Christ (played by Anton Lang) and John, with donkey; at the Oberammergau passion play, Bavaria, Germany, 1900.” Library of Congress.

Triumphs aren’t a Jewish thing, but other observers would have seen the parallels between Jesus’ entry and the description of Solomon’s coronation:

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.  (1 Kings 1:38-40 ESV)

But even noting those similarities, to the observer on the ground, Jesus’ entry still is not the same as that made by a Davidic king back in Judah’s glory days.  There was no visible passing of authority to him from another king, no anointing with oil by a high priest. If bystanders expected something of an earthly king here, it would have been harder to find.  The Pharisees took it to be a mockery. What did Jesus mean by this procession? Who was this Jesus? How dare he act like some sort of wannabe king?

Who did Jesus think he was by doing this?  Who did the people in the crowds think he was?  A king or warlord, come to kick out the Romans and reestablish a Jewish kingdom?  To “Make Judea Great Again”? The wrath of God coming with his winnowing fork to destroy the status quo and initiate a new world order in the here-and-now?  A mighty prophet come to call out Jerusalem’s wickedness and the wickedness of its new Italian overlords?  I’m sure that many in the crowds ascribed these titles and functions to Jesus when he came in to the city. They wanted him to be someone who fit their hopes and dreams when they saw him riding into the city.  They wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, or they saw him for who he was but could not accept him as such (for example, Judas Iscariot).

But, more importantly, when we see Jesus going into Jerusalem, who do we think he is? Folks in modern America (and throughout the world, for that matter), try to fit Jesus into certain moulds that make him into someone or something he isn’t.  Sometimes we make Jesus into a therapist who is there to make us feel better about ourselves. Other times, we make him into some sort of patron or sugar-daddy— we expect him to give us things when we ask for them (but there’s no guarantee!).  Or, we make Jesus into a moralist or a security blanket. You might have seen posts online that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular American political categories or camps— pictures of American statesmen bowing before Jesus as a sort of admission that America is, by design, a Christian nation, or posts demonstrating how Jesus would be a fan of single-payer healthcare or building the wall, among other political postures.  Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do. And in addition to these false views of Christ in American Christendom, there is also the view held by those who deny Jesus outright, which holds that he’s a nobody or a loser and certainly cannot be God because God doesn’t die.

And who thinks this way?  A few months ago I was having dinner with an elderly friend who is agnostic, and he told me of an experience he had seeing a roadside crucifix as a child growing up in France.  When he saw the image of Christ on the cross, he thought to himself, “This is supposed to be my God? And he can’t protect himself? This can’t be my God.” I’m not sure my friend realized that he was holding opinions in common with Friedrich Nietzsche and the prophet Muhammad, but this is the world’s view of Jesus.  The world doesn’t think that God can become a man or die and rise for the remission of sins. It’s as C.S. Lewis once wrote: Jesus is either a liar, a madman, or exactly who he claims to be, the son of God. And the sinful world sees him as the first two options. But only the third option is the correct one, and we often get led astray into creating a false Christ who conforms to our hopes and desires, or into listening to the world’s appraisal of him.  And when we do that, we’re like those Pharisees at his entry into Jerusalem, who didn’t recognize their Lord for who he actually was and who told him to shush those disciples of his who did. To cling to a false Christ or to deny him in toto is to reject him wholly and to deny that he is indeed the king, the coming one.  To deny him like this is to replace him with an idol of our own making.

“No. 26 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 10. Entry into Jerusalem” (1304-1306) by Giotto di Bondone (d. 1337), Scrovegni Chapel.

But Jesus always defies our expectations of him.  Just because his entry into Jerusalem isn’t a military triumph or a procession akin to Solomon’s coronation parade doesn’t make it lose its triumphant tone, nor does it deny that Jesus, the king of the Jews and indeed of all people, makes the beginning of his redemptive work here in his entrance into Jerusalem.  Indeed, this entry into Jerusalem is the beginning of the end of… the END. The “big exit.”  Death.  And though Jesus hasn’t yet been crucified, sin, death, and hell’s days are numbered.  Jesus rides on in lowly pomp to die and destroy death by its own mechanism. He’s the king, coming incognito, to take back his kingdom from the inside, coming directly to his people who need him and have been waiting for him to come to them.  The moment his foot crosses Jerusalem’s threshold, it’s game over for the forces of darkness, and his disciples know it.

If you’ve spent any time online in the world of Japanese animation or memes, you’re probably familiar with the protagonist’s signature phrase from the anime series, Fist of the North Star, Omae wa mou shindeiru!”– “you’re already dead!”  In this series, the protagonist is the practitioner of an ancient martial art that, when used, causes an opponent to literally explode from the inside.  One touch from him, and his unsuspecting enemies are truly “already dead.” Three steps, and *pop*, they’re no more. The same is true of the powers of sin, death, and hell when Christ comes into Jerusalem.  The powers of the Enemy and the world see Jesus coming in and they try to cast him as a pretender or a guru or a mere man, but Jesus’ entry spells their doom, and when he comes into Jerusalem and his disciples proclaim him with loud cries, “Blessed is the coming one, the King, in the name of the Lord,” he comes as he is, as the Son of God, and no matter how hard they try to cast him as something or someone different, he is still the Son of God, the Blessed One, the Coming King.  Even the stones would proclaim this were God to command them to do so, and when Jesus dies and rises at Easter, all who rejected him and his heavenly kingship will receive a correction to their folly. But his disciples who trust in him will see the fullness of his triumph. They will receive the fullness of life in him, and will be his people forever. They trust him to be their king and God in the flesh, and so he is.

“Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” (ca. 1150), by the Master of the Capella Palatina in Palermo.

And Jesus is our God and King, too, though here on Palm Sunday we don’t see his coronation.  His entry is not triumphant in the sense that it marks the full completion of a battle or war, but in that it marks the beginning of the successful final campaign against the enemies of God.  And we now live as beneficiaries of this triumph, and have seen Jesus, risen from the grave, as he is, the One who has destroyed the hold of sin, death, and the grave, and who gives new life and salvation to sinners, among whom we are numbered.  When we look to Jesus riding into Jerusalem, we see him as he is, coming in a manner that defies our expectations, riding in lowly pomp, not to be crowned with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. Not to sit upon a golden throne, but to be nailed and hung upon a cross.  Not to offer sacrifices, but to be sacrificed, our sacrifice.  Not to sit above his people, but to go to them, serve them, and die for them.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes to us and shows us his power made perfect in his humility and weakness, as our king who comes to us, seeks us out, and brings us to live with him through his final, triumphant battle of which this is the opening salvo.  That is where the triumph lies today, and it is a triumph we now all celebrate with him. So let us sing with Henry Milman:

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.

 Amen.


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, February 10, 2019 – “We’re Not Worthy!” (Isaiah 6:1-8)

“Isaiah’s Vision” from Luther’s Bible, 1534 (Lucas Cranach)

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


In the name of Jesus, amen.

When it comes to comedies, I personally enjoy films that have a good degree of absurdist humor mixed into them, and one of the weirder ones in my list of favorites is 1992’s Wayne’s World starring Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey as the eponymous Wayne Campbell and his hapless buddy Garth Algar, respectively.  In probably the best scene in the film, circumstances find Wayne and Garth being given backstage passes to see Alice Cooper and his band play in Milwaukee.  When they go to meet Alice (or Vincent Damon Furnier, to use his Christian name), he gives them a short spiel on the history of Milwaukee, leaving Wayne and Garth confused and speechless.  When Wayne and Garth figure they’d better get going, Alice stops them. “No, no, no,” he says, “stick around, hang out with us.” Wayne and Garth, overwhelmed by star power, fall to their knees and prostrate themselves in a worshipful pose before him, crying “We’re not worthy!  We’re not worthy!”, while Alice holds forth his hand toward them, like some sort of Louis XIV in black mascara, entreating his subjects to kiss his ring.

Wayne’s World, 1992

“We’re not worthy!”  Goofy behavior in a goofy scene in an even goofier film, but the sentiment expressed by Wayne and Garth in the face of greatness brings to mind what Isaiah says to God in this morning’s Old Testament reading.  “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Is 6:5).

“Isaiah’s Vision” (12th Century), Meister der Predigten des Mönchs Johannes Kokkinobaphos,
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Isaiah is not overwhelmed by star power when he says this— no, instead, he is overwhelmed by the glory of God and the fear it induces.  Imagine the scene. Isaiah finds himself in the Lord’s throne room— he calls it the Temple, but whether or not Isaiah finds himself in the Holy of Holies or in heaven is unclear— regardless, Isaiah is standing before God, who is seated in front of him, the train of his robe filling the space.  And positioned above God’s head are the seraphim, six-winged angels that perhaps look like fiery serpents, calling back and forth to one-another in booming voices. They cry, “kadōsh kadōsh kadōsh YHWH Sabaōth, m’lo chol ha’aretz  ch’vōdō” – “holy, holy, holy is YHWH of Hosts, the earth is full of his glory,” and their words shake the room and cause it to be filled with smoke.  It’s an apocalyptic scene that calls to mind descriptions of the Day of the Lord in other Old Testament prophets, especially Amos and Zephaniah, who proclaim that God’s judgment will be accompanied by quaking, darkness, and fire.  Says the Lord in Zephaniah 1, “The great day of the Lord is near…A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements….In the fire of his jealousy all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph 1:14, 15-16, 18b).  With this smoke and shaking, is God going to mete out his judgment?  It’s a scary place, the throneroom of YHWH, and Isaiah shouldn’t even able to witness this alive.  No man living can withstand seeing God in all his glory, and yet here he is, seeing God face-to-face in his fullness.  What does God want with him? How can he stand here?

“King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy” (1639), by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Old Masters Drawing Cabinet, Chatsworth House

In the face of God’s pure glory, seeing his Lord as he is (some commentators even think the three “holies” refer to three persons of the Trinity), Isaiah becomes painfully aware of his inadequacy.  In fact, even more than that, he becomes painfully aware of his sinfulness and his uncleanness. He knows that God cannot abide sin— he cannot let sin coexist with his glory and ultimate goodness. Sin must be wiped out, and Isaiah, a sinful Judaean among sinful Judaeans, is on the target list.  His people had forsaken God and did not wish to hear God’s word for them or follow him. Isaiah, prior to this meeting with God, may have been like them in that way, too. King Uzziah, who had died the year that Isaiah received this vision, had been struck with leprosy when he tried to usurp the authority of the priests and attempted to offer incense to God in the temple.  If anyone was a good mascot for a people of unclean lips, it was he. His father, Amaziah, had set up the idols made by the people of Seir and worshiped them, and King Ahaz, Uzziah’s grandson, even burned his own sons as offerings to the idols of the Ba’als. The people saw their kings’ examples and copied them, following, as the chronicler says, “corrupt practices” and seeking false gods (2 Chron 27:2).  The kings and people of Judah were wicked in thought, word, and deed. How could Isaiah, one of their number, ever hope to stand before God, being party to such wicked inclinations? Had God made himself known to Isaiah in this way because Isaiah was going to experience his wrath? “Woe is me!  For I am lost” indeed!

But God has a surprise for Isaiah son of Amoz.  One of the angels, one of the seraphim, flies to the altar and takes a glowing coal from it with a tongs and places it against Isaiah’s unclean lips.  This seraph proclaims to Isaiah: “Behold, this [coal] has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for,” or as it is in another translation, “your sin has been forgiven” (Is 6:7).    Isaiah’s sin no longer counts against him.  It is gone, wiped out, forgotten. He has received God’s forgiveness, and he can stand before the Lord his God without fear.  Furthermore, he can stand before God and God can entreat him to do work that is pleasing to him. In the sight of God, Isaiah is no longer unclean in any sense.  Instead, Isaiah has been justified, he has been made righteous, and he is now worthy to be in God’s presence.  He can do the good work God has set up for him to do as a prophet. No longer does he need to say, “woe is me! For I am lost!” God has saved him from his sins.  Isaiah is found.

“Profeta Isaia” by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740), Castelvecchio Museum

We also, like Isaiah, are members of an unclean generation, and by reason of our sinful natures, we, too, are people with unclean lips and unclean hearts.  Our rulers, however you want to define them, are no moral paragons— we’ve seen enough of that demonstrated in the news concerning state politics this week. Our magistrates try to usurp the place of our priests, legislating new moralities that we are to live out rather than that which is the will of God— I am looking at you New York, and you too, dear Commonwealth.  We may not have made an altar to the Ba’als like Ahaz, but we certainly are trying to offer our sons and daughters as tribute to the god of convenience and eugenics. And we ourselves chase after the false gods of sports, sex, fame, and the almighty dollar. Just this past weekend we all spent a good three hours watching the Superbowl. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching football, but we all know why we really watched the game.  It wasn’t for the Pats or the Rams— it was for the advertisements! (And Roy, I think you were cheated since they didn’t include you in the 100 Years of the NFL ad!) We spent three hours waiting for little videos of people trying to sell us stuff to pop up on the screen. Would we were so excited about the word of God or spending time in church. But I digress. The main point I wish to make is that just like the Judaeans, our priorities are confused.  We are inclined to seek for things other than God, to do things contrary to his will, even when we know what he would rather have us do. And think, just think, what would it be like if God were to reveal himself to us, right now, in this place as he did to Isaiah, sitting on the altar, with his robes flowing down the dais and smoke filling the sanctuary? Would any of us measure up to his statutes? Would any of us be worthy of being in his presence? Would any of us be able to stand before him on the basis of our actions and our sinful nature?  Not likely. Certainly, none of us can stand before God in this way on our merits. In our sins, we deserve the sort of destruction Isaiah, Zephaniah, and other prophets foretold.

But we don’t stand before God on our merits.  How could we?  We are not worthy to stand before him in his presence.  Instead, God covers us in his merit in Christ.  God desired to bring humanity back into a right relationship with him and so he became one of us in order to turn a whole species with unclean lips into a people who could live with him.  When Christ died on the cross and rose again on the third day, his sacrifice made a new covenant between God and man. He atoned for the sins of mankind with his death and redefined man’s relationship with God.  Christ’s blood works just like the seraph’s glowing coal— it washes away the stain of sin, bringing purification and righteousness. The promise of Christ’s death and resurrection given to us in faith and in our baptism justifies us before God, just like Isaiah.  Christ makes us his own, and he makes us worthy to stand in the presence of God because he forgives  us our sins.  Even though we are still plagued by sin and its barbs in this life, Christ’s forgiveness declares us “not guilty.”  His righteousness helps us to stand before God without fear.

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
“The Miraculous Draught of Fish” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Furthermore, Christ doesn’t just make us able to stand in God’s presence by forgiving our sins— he comes to us and invites us to live with and in him.  This is how Christ approaches Simon Peter when he realizes that he is in the presence of God and says “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, o Lord.”  Christ comes to him in spite of his unworthiness, and he invites Peter and his companions to join him— not merely to hang out with him, as does Alice Cooper, but to be his disciples and to be his redeemed children.  This is the invitation Christ gives to us.  He may not call us to necessarily be fishers of men like Peter or Andrew or James and John; he may not call us to be prophets to a people who won’t hear us like Isaiah, but he does call us to be his friends, his brothers and sisters, and his children.  We are all called to be his, and as his we have life and worthiness.

“Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” (1509-1510) by Raphael (1483-1520), Vatican Museums

You know how I earlier asked— perhaps rhetorically—  if you could stand before God like Isaiah, sinners that you may be?  What if I told you that you have done this every time you have come to the altar to receive the Lord’s body and blood?  Our God has forgiven us, calling we who are sinners saints, and invites us to stand before him and receive his gifts to everlasting life.  And when you struggle with sin; when that Old Adam who lives deep in your bones entices you to do that which you know you should not do, remember that God calls you to this table for forgiveness of your sins and the medicine of eternal life.  Run to it! Here, we receive the love of Christ, and he makes us worthy again. He has made you worthy, and in him you are not lost! Amen.


Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 20, 2019 (John 2:1-11), “Master of the Feast”

“The Wedding at Cana: Jesus Blesses the Water” (1641-1660), by Jan Cossiers (1600-1671), Saint Waldetrudis Church, Herentals, Belgium

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The party had been going on for hours.  After fulfilling a number of formalities required to end their betrothal and finalize their marriage, the bridegroom had brought his bride into his home at Cana.  The dowry was paid and they would now seal their union with her entry into his house. All their friends and family were there to witness their marriage and celebrate it.  And celebrate they did! There was a banquet of rich foods, and the wine…well, the wine flowed like water. Everyone was partaking in the nuptial joy, and people were invited from far and wide.  There was music and dancing, games, flirtations, and merriment, laughter, and cheer.  The bride and groom and all their guests were looking forward to a week of wedding revelry.

Then, disaster struck.  A celebration that was meant to go on for a few days was going to draw to a premature end.  Someone–either the bridegroom himself or his caterer, the master of the feast— had made a miscalculation.  They were going to run out of wine!  The revelers had consumed almost all of it, and their reserves were dry.  No wineskins hidden off in some corner of the cellar. No old amphorae forgotten in a cabinet somewhere.  They were going to be out.  And how would that look to the guests?

Can you imagine how the master of the feast felt at this discovery?  This is first century Judea— you don’t not have enough wine at a wedding!  Providing refreshments for a wedding feast was an important way to show hospitality to family and friends and to make a good impression on all in attendance.  How could they have been so short-sighted? How could they have so royally messed this up? This was a huge faux pas, and would damage the reputation of the groom and his family.  What were they to do?

***

It often seems like we have everything figured out or squared away, that we are in control of our plans, that we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls.  That’s how we make plans, isn’t it?  We lay everything out and expect what we do to go according to our plan.  Follow the plan, and life will work out just as we desire it to.  Stick to the itinerary and your trip will go well. Follow the recipe and your dish will be perfect.  Set up everything just right, and your party will go off without a hitch. We’ve all been there. We all think this way.  We make plans, and very often, we put our trust in ourselves to carry them out. We’re like Clark Griswold, who just wants to give his family the best Christmas ever.  But very often, things don’t go according to plan, and if we didn’t make additional plans to deal with those snags in our execution — those squirrels in the Christmas tree, our cousin who shows up with his Winnebago in the front drive uninvited — then we’re up a creek without a paddle, and our machinations fall apart.

“Robert Burns Turning Up a Mouse in Her Nest, November 1785,” The Robert Burns Gallery

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” writes the Scottish poet Robert Burns in his poem “To a Mouse.”  The success of our best-laid schemes is never given. There is no guarantee that they will come out the way we intend, and depending on the situation, they may not come out well for us at all.  It’s like the “Reset with Russia” that happened early on in the last presidency. The State Department made a little button, kind of like the famous Staples’ “easy button,” that Secretary Clinton and the Minister Lavrov could symbolically press to indicate a “reset” of relations with Russia.  It was only at the press conference where the button was unveiled, though, that a terrible mistake was uncovered. Minister Lavrov saw the button and laughed. The button didn’t say “reset” — it said “overcharge.” Someone didn’t check to make sure the Russian word on the button was correct! The State Department thought they had everything covered and had carried out their plan to a “t,” but someone trusted his or her ability with the Russian language a little more than they ought to have, and in the end, what was supposed to be a great diplomatic moment ended up making the American delegation look silly.

The Infamous “Overcharge” Button.
Meeting between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland, 2009.
U.S. Department of State.

And when we make plans, we tie our success or ability to adapt to changing circumstances to where we put our trust.  Very often we put our trust in ourselves to make our plans or schemes happen. But when we do this, when we see ourselves as the captains of our fate and masters of our souls, we forget that we aren’t actually in control.  God is, and when we forget that he’s the one who makes our life possible, literally the one from whom all blessings flow, from whom we receive all that we need “to sustain this body and life,” we make ourselves into little gods, and we sin against him.  And when our plans fail and things go poorly, we can be tempted to despair because all our faith has been in ourselves. Indeed, when we put our faith in ourselves to accomplish certain ends— even to do the will of God— we will be sorely disappointed. Our modern humanist tendency to make man the measure of all things causes us to ignore the God who made us and sustains us, and so in this, we sin.  The “promised joy” we set our sights on, like Burns’ mouse, is replaced with “grief an’ pain” when we make ourselves our own masters. Sinatra may have sung “I did it my way,” but when we do it our way, in our sin we find that our way generally leads to failure rather than success, and sometimes, to destruction.

***

“The Miracle at Cana” (1887), by Vladimir E. Makovsky (1846-1920), Vitebsk Regional Museum of Local Lore, Russia

Going back to the wedding at Cana, the feast was in jeopardy.  Where would they find enough wine for the guests at this hour? Was anyone really aware that the wine was out?  Suddenly, and miraculously, out of nowhere, more wine was found. 120-180 gallons worth, by modern estimates.  And unlike the lower-quality wine that you would usually serve at the end of the night when everyone was too far gone to really appreciate the finer vintages, this stuff was phenomenal.  It was even better than the really good wine that was served at the beginning of the feast. But where did it come from? The master of the feast didn’t know. Neither did the bridegroom, though I suppose he didn’t say anything about it.  After all, who would want to disavow great wine that appeared at your wedding as something you didn’t supply?

But there were some who did know from where this new wine came, and in such abundance.  Jesus had been invited, and Mary had asked him to help. He responded to her that he would deal with the problem in his own manner and in his own time.  When he told Mary, “what does this have to do with me? My time has not yet come,” Jesus wasn’t saying that he didn’t want to help, but that he would use the occasion for his own purpose, to demonstrate that he is the Lord of All.  And so he did. The servants were told to do whatever he told them to, and they heeded him. They poured water in the jars and it became the finest wine anyone had ever tasted. And in doing this, he gave the servants proof that he was no mere man, but in fact the Son of Man, the Messiah.  He gave them a sign, a “semeion.”

“The Wedding at Cana” (1870), by Carl Bloch (1834-1890), Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg Slott, Danmark

That is why Jesus performs signs according to John in his Gospel— so that those who see and hear about them may know that he indeed is the Christ, the one who conquers sin, death, and the grave.  Signs like this attest to Christ’s being the true Master, and not just the Master of the Feast (because at Cana he helps the master of the feast save face by doing his job), but the Master of All Things.  He is the source, the one through whom all things were made, and from whom all things come. He is the one who gives all people value in the sight of God, upon whom all people rely for the promise of life.  This miracle of the 180 gallons of wine is more than just a miracle pointing to who Christ is: it points to the fact that Jesus is the one upon whom all people should rely and in whom all people should put their trust.  Those disciples who saw this sign and believed in him accordingly received the promise of everlasting life.

When the servants listened to to Mary and did whatever Christ told them to do, they were trusting in him. It was an act of trust on their part because they didn’t know what he was going to tell them to do or knew who he necessarily was. He could have told them to do any number of crazy things— perhaps making some sort of concoction of dirt with toads and bats wings— or just told them to run down to the wine merchants’ or go over to a neighboring vintner to pick up more wineskins.  But by trusting in Jesus and listening to him, they ended up receiving an immeasurably greater solution to the problem than anyone could have imagined. It was better than what anyone may have thought the feast needed. Indeed, for those who saw and believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the promise that accompanied this faith was far better than anything they had ever received in their lives. And so it is with us in our walk with Christ.

***

When we trust Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we realize that we receive everything from him.  We receive eternal life and forgiveness of sins. We receive forgiveness for the times that we forget him and what he has done for us, when we forget that he is truly the Lord of All.  And we are able to trust him to be our Lord, who cares for us and gives us what we need. And when we trust in Christ because he has saved us, we can confidently approach God our Father in any situation and ask him for anything we need.  In fact, he wants us to do this— when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking him for those things that we need and that his will will be done.  God may not always give us what we want, but he does give us what we need and what is best for us, and what he gives is us always better than what we, in our limited human experience, can imagine.  His will for us, after all, is that we live with him forever in perfect harmony, and nothing we can think of even compares to that. That is what he has promised to give us in addition to what we need in our daily life.

So in your own life, in your own plans, remember what Christ has done for you and how he has given you all you have, and has made you and all that you are.  Remember that he is not just the true master of the wedding feast at Cana. He is the master of your life as well, and he will use your life to further his kingdom and bring you to himself as he sees fit and in his own time.  So do not be afraid to ask him to bless your work. Do not be afraid to ask him what you should do. Do not be afraid to pray for his guidance. He wants you to. You are his by faith and in baptism, and he will provide for you, even if your plans fail.  For our Lord is the master of all. There is no need to despair when things go wrong, when our own strength is not enough to achieve the desired results that we want. Our Lord is in control. His plans never fail, and he will bring you to join with him in his ultimate victory on the last day.  On that day, we shall be partakers in a feast greater than that at any earthly wedding, when Christ will rejoice over his bride, the church, and delight in her. Amen.


Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, December 30, 2018 (Luke 2:41-52)

This sermon was originally delivered at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Herndon, Virginia.


In the name of Jesus, amen.

Have you ever had someone make an assumption about your identity, or assume they knew something about you while being drastically wrong?  Have you ever made such assumptions about someone else?  Our Gospel reading this morning in many ways has to do with an inability to understand who a person actually is, even when presented with proof.  Specifically, how Jesus’ identity is misunderstood even at the young age of twelve.  In our reading, Mary and Joseph seem to have certain misconceptions about who their son is, and, upon further reflection, so do we.  Christ’s adolescent visit to the Temple reveals that we, in our sinfulness, fail to grasp the truth of his identity.

But first of all, on Monday night we heard the familiar story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem during the Augustan census.  We know the story well— Joseph and Mary, no room in the house for the birth, the angels, the shepherds— it lies at the heart of the Christmas season.  And thanks to our Nativity creches, we mentally prepare for the coming of the wise men from the East to come next in our holiday sequence.  So it’s a bit of a surprise to see Jesus showing up as a twelve-year-old in our lectionary for the first Sunday of the Christmas season.

There is good reason for the inclusion of this narrative from the early years of Jesus’ life, though, because it rounds out what some theologians call “the infancy narrative” (not that Jesus is an infant at the age of twelve— he’s quite close to manhood), which recounts scenes from Jesus’ early years.  Why we have so few scenes from his early life is a discussion for another time.  The next time we see him in the Gospels and in the church year is when he is roughly 30 years old and coming to John to be baptized in the Jordan.  Jesus’ going to the temple is the last time we see him as young right before his ministry begins, before he starts being known to the world.  And it also shows us that Jesus didn’t jump from being a baby to being a man.  It gives us insight into who he was in the intervening years between the manger and his baptism in the Jordan in Luke 3.

And what were Jesus and his family doing in this final episode of the infancy narrative?  Luke tells us that they were going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  They apparently did this every year, even though only Joseph, as an adult man, was required to make the journey to Jerusalem to observe the feast, and even then, was only required to be in the city for two days to fulfill the rite’s obligation as defined in Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16.  The rites at the Temple would have included the ritual slaying of a lamb and a family meal made of that lamb in order to commemorate the events of the historical Passover recorded in Exodus, where God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  Mary and Joseph it seems also traveled with friends and neighbors, and perhaps while Joseph and the other menfolk were attending the rites at the Temple, Mary and the women and children did things in the city together.  It brings to mind a big convention, the sort of place where every year, friendships are made and strengthened, where families meet and catch up on the year’s happenings.    

And after the rites were observed, it was time to go back to Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph likely traveled in the company of friends and family and assumed that Jesus was going along with his friends.  But when they stopped for the night, Jesus never showed up.  He wasn’t with his friends or his other family members.  So where was he?  Can you imagine the fear, the worry that engulfed Mary and Joseph?  I’ll grant you, they lived in a world where a boy of twelve had to grow up much more quickly than any of today’s children do.  The life of a child in first century Judea was hard.  Half of all children died before their tenth birthday.  Young boys would have started learning how to help with the family trade early, and may have been more mature than their modern counterparts, such was their world.  So to not see Jesus for the whole day would not have been terribly concerning— he very well could have been with his friends in the caravan.  But to not have him show up at night?  That was cause for worry, and I imagine that any parent here today can sympathize with Mary and Joseph and can imagine the urgency with which they searched for their son.

And after three days— three days! — they found him in, of all places, the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law and impressing them with his depth of knowledge and insight.  One might think that Mary and Joseph would have been filled with pride— their little boy a Wunderkind, speaking authoritatively with the most learned men in all of Judaism.  But their actual reaction is more realistic— they had just spent three days in a panic searching high and low for their son, and wowing the great theologians of the day didn’t erase the fact that he was missing and that they were run ragged emotionally.  He had some explaining to do, this son of theirs.  “Son,” says Mary, “why have you done to us thus?  Behold, your father and I, being in great distress, were seeking you” (from Arthur Just’s literal translation of the Greek).

And then comes the kicker.  Jesus answers his mother, speaking the first words we ever hear him say in the Gospel of Luke, and they’re a rebuke.  “Why is it that you were seeking me?  Did you not know that it is necessary that I am among the things of my Father?” (or as some translations say, “in my Father’s house”).  This was a strange thing to say.  Mary and Joseph couldn’t understand his meaning, even though they both knew that Jesus was the Son of God.  But they seemed to have forgotten just who their son was, just what it meant for him to be the Son of God.  He wasn’t like the other boys in Nazareth, nor was he like the other boys in the rest of Judea, or the world for that matter.  He was the Son of God, and he had a different purpose, a different mission than other boys, a mission to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and to preach a Gospel of repentance; a mission to take on the sins of the whole world and to die and rise again in order to fulfill the law; a mission to be “among the things of his Father,” God, in Jerusalem, where his once-and-for-all sacrifice would be made.  Mary and Joseph seem to have forgotten this.  They thought they knew who their son was and what he was about, but they were mistaken.  They thought they knew what God had planned for them and for Jesus, and they were wrong.

Just like Mary and Joseph, we often think we know who Jesus is and what he is supposed to do, who he is supposed to be.  We try to mold him to fit our expectations.  It’s a bit like the dinner-table scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby and Carl Naughton, Jr., describe how they like to imagine Jesus.  Ricky begins saying grace, preferring to imagine Jesus as he was in the manger:   

Dear Lord baby Jesus, lyin’ there in your ghost manger, just lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors….Dear 8 pounds 6 ounces… newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet….

On the other hand, Carl can’t seem to make up his mind (in both the scene and bits from the credits):

I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party….I like to think of Jesus like with giant eagle’s wings, and singin’ lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I’m in the front row hammered drunk….I like to picture Jesus as a figure skater. He wears like a white outfit, and He does interpretive ice dances of my life’s journey….I like to picture Jesus as a shapeshifter or changeling.  Ya’ll seen that show Manimal?

And then Carl’s pièce de résistance:

I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger. 

We laugh at these statements because we know that the versions of Jesus that both Ricky and Carl come up wildly miss the mark of describing who Jesus actually is.  Sure, Jesus is a baby when he is born, but he doesn’t remain a baby for very long and he ascended bodily into heaven as an adult.  And what baby born in antiquity would be watching “Little Einstein” videos?  Carl’s depictions of course are especially way off— Jesus isn’t some sort of party bro, nor is he a performer playing for Carl’s entertainment, nor is he some sort of ice dancer whose interpretive dance is supposed to be all about the story of Carl.   And Jesus certainly isn’t a “mischievous badger.”  But what makes it funny, and I might even say makes these clips good satire, is that we do the same things with Jesus ourselves.

We come up with wrong ideas about who Jesus is because, as sinners, we cannot understand who he is of our own accord, and our own pride and self-absorption prevents us from really listening to him and taking him at his word.  Instead of letting Jesus be the Son of God, we try to make him look and act the way we want him to.  We make idols out of who we think Jesus is; they’re vaguely Jesus-shaped, but they are not the real Jesus.  Rather than looking to the actual Christ, we carve our own personal Jesuses.  Rev. Matt Richard in his book, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, names twelve false views of Christ that we can find perpetuated in modern culture: Christ the mascot, Christ the option among many, Christ the good teacher, Christ the therapist, Christ the giver of bling (or as I like to call this one, Christ the sugar daddy), Christ the national patriot, Christ the social justice warrior, Christ the moral example, Christ the new Moses, Christ the mystical friend, Christ the feminized, and Christ the teddy bear.  Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do, and to go through them all would take more time than this sermon can allow.  But for example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen memes on Facebook that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular political camps or schools of thought, mainly posted by friends who are trying to prove that, were Jesus doing his ministry today, he would support either the Democrats or the Republicans; that Jesus would support single-payer healthcare or that Jesus would build the wall (among other positions).  These fail to understand him— he’s not a Democrat or a Republican, he’s above them!  He’s the king— the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy, and the miracle of the story of Christmas is that the King of it all, God himself, became one of us while also still being God.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” Matthias Stomer (1632)

This is the mystery of the incarnation— God took on flesh and dwelt among us, becoming one of us in order to defeat the sin that corrupts us, his children, and makes us unworthy of being with him.  And even weirder, that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”  Our Savior, just as the third verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” states, grew day by day from childhood to adulthood; he was born little, weak, and helpless, but he became a man, and he shares all our sorrows while also rejoicing in all our happiness.  He was truly human; he grew.  But at the same time, he is not like us— he is both God and man.  In the words of the 17th Century Dutch theologian David Hollazius, in the miracle of the incarnation, Christ “now subsists forever as the God-man, in two natures, divine and human, most intimately united.”[1]  And we aren’t comfortable with this.  It’s incredibly hard to wrap your head around the idea that Christ can be both true God and true Man, that the finite can contain the infinite, and so we dress him in other guises, either making him a different kind of God, or removing his godhood from the equation entirely, preferring that our God be some distant, indefinable, unmeasurable, and inscrutable entity, sitting like Crom, Robert E. Howard’s deity in the Conan stories, on his lonely mountain, whose attention is best not attracted.  It’s easier that way, pretending that Jesus is just some guy and that God is someplace else.  But it’s not correct.  It ignores who Jesus is— who the angels revealed him to be, who John the Baptist recognized in utero, and who he himself knows he is, even when he is a mere twelve years old.  But in our pride, we replace him with another god that approximates a crude imitation, but fails to be the real thing.

So how do we properly understand Christ?  How do we come to know him?  Our own senses and modes of inquiry cannot really approach who Jesus is— our understanding of the world is constrained by our own physical limitations.  A wise biologist once wrote:

“Science is limited to the study of the physical world.  [It] cannot address spiritual, moral, aesthetic, or emotional issues.  Because we can know only a portion of this world that our senses can perceive, scientists restrict their attention to the physical world that can be directly or indirectly observed.  Even so, the observations that characterize scientific inquiry are not perfectly objective because of the limitations of our senses.  Science does not, however, deny the possible existence of nonphysical worlds; it simply takes no position on issues it is not equipped to investigate.”[2]

Our own attempts at using reason to approach Jesus cannot find him.  Like Mary and Joseph, our fallen brains cannot understand him and his mission.  As Luther states in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, we “cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, [our] Lord, or come to Him.”  But the mystery of the incarnation shows us that Jesus didn’t leave us to flail wildly.  He didn’t leave us to create our own rough approximations of him or to worship certain aspects of himself without seeing the whole of him.  The incarnation shows us that Christ didn’t want us to find him (we can’t) but that instead Christ came to us, to work among us and to speak to us and to demonstrate his being our Lord and Savior, our God in the flesh, by his fulfillment of the words of the prophets, by his dying on the cross to erase our sins and the curse of death and hell, and by his rising again on the third day.  We have his words and deeds as proof of who he is.  He shows us that he is not some teddy bear or American patriot or social reformer or giver of stuff, and certainly no mischievous badger.  Christ is our God who saves us from our sins.  And he has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell with us to remind us of who he is, who, as Luther says in the Catechism, has “called [us] by the Gospel, enlightened [us] with his gifts, sanctified and kept [us] in the true faith.” 

When we trust what Jesus tells us about himself and have faith in what he has done for us, then we see who he is and what he has done for us and the whole world.  We can have faith that it is indeed for us, because he came among us to save us from our sins and has forgiven us.    When you and I listen to Christ and trust him, we can indeed say that in baptism, he has washed away all our sins and marked us indelibly as his own.  When we trust him, we can say and believe with confidence that we receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal here at the altar when we partake in the Lord’s Supper.  When we trust him and take him at his word, we know that this is who our Jesus is.  We may not fully comprehend him in this life and on this side of the resurrection, but we can trust that he is who he says he is and does what he says he does and will do.  When we trust what he says in faith, we know his true identity, and we can take much joy in that knowledge this Christmas season and into the New Year.

So rejoice, our light has come!  He has come for us in spite of our inability to grasp him, and he has grasped us to bring us into his kingdom.  In this New Year, may our Lord strengthen your faith to ever more greatly trust in him and his words and work.  Amen.


[1] Schmid, Heinrich, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles A. Hay, Henry E. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1876): 324.

[2] Glick, D. Marvin, Myra Mergler Niemeier, Nancy C. Aiello, Seven Studies of Life: The Process of Science, 3rd Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Hunter Textbooks, Inc., 2003):3-4.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 23, 2018 – “Christ comes to the Lowly” (Luke 1:39-45)

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.


A common theme in many of the readings we have for the season of Advent is how Jesus comes to us in ways we don’t expect; how he defies our human ideas of what our Lord and King looks like.  But while today’s Gospel lesson deals with Jesus defying human expectations, he doesn’t just defy expectations in the way that he has before— though he does come as a baby and not as a king in robes or in his full glory and power as God.  Jesus’ coming in this text from the Gospel not only defies expectations of how he comes, it also defies expectations with regard to whom he comes.

When we think of how we expect a king to arrive, we expect him to come to dignitaries, heads of state, important people.   He’d probably be met with an official delegation, perhaps a military fanfare, parades, and revues. He would get a special motorcade to zip him off to important meetings with important people, no time to stop.  He’d be surrounded by security. He would be received by ambassadors or embassies, and he certainly wouldn’t think of going to visit the peasantry or lower-class civilians first. They’re not that important, they’re not movers and shakers.  And depending on the kind of king we’re thinking of, he would treat those lower than himself with some degree of contempt, treating or thinking of those in the upper classes as “better” than those below. This is, after all, where the idea of the “aristocracy” comes from.  Its Greek meaning is, “rule by the best.” Those of low-estate are generally not on a monarch’s visitation schedule, as they are not “best,” however you may want to define that.

But of course, the grand irony is that no one, not even any of our kings or queens or presidents, is truly good or the best or even worthy of a visit from this particular King.  Nothing about Queen Elizabeth or President Trump or Chancellor Merkel or President Putin, leading lights of our modern global aristocracy, makes them worthy of him at all.  Through Adam’s sin, the whole of humanity is undeserving of God’s love and attention. By making himself a god and trusting in his own judgment rather than listening to the One who made him, Adam cursed everyone to suffer sin and its effects, and we cannot free ourselves from it.  It’s bred into us— as Luther puts it in his festival sermon for the conception of Mary, “In the same way that a man who looks Bohemian married to a Bohemian wife gives birth to sons and daughters that look Bohemian, with the same flesh as their parents, so we all are born in sin from our sinful parents.”1  We follow our first parents in their sin.  Once perfect and in that right relationship where God did associate freely with mankind, thanks to Adam, the relationship is broken.  Now, we are pretty good at destroying and misusing the world God made for us through pollution and mismanagement of resources, and we are especially good at destroying and misusing each other through war, slavery, abortion, and exploitation.  We violate the law of God in every way imaginable, and so, as outlaws, we are undeserving of the love of our God, whose law demands that we live it perfectly. We don’t deserve a visit from our God and King. Rather, because of what we are and do, we deserve destruction.

Certainly, there was nothing terribly special or deserving about Mary, likely in her early teens, possibly orphaned if church tradition is correct.  She was just a Jewish girl from a small town that was itself seen as a backwater, a place from which allegedly nothing and nobody worth anything comes from (John 1:46).  She may have had ties to the House of David through her ancestors and Joseph, but that familial connection hadn’t meant much for several centuries. Few people would probably have taken much notice of her.  There wasn’t much that was special or deserving about her cousin Elizabeth, either, even though she was the wife of a priest. Her lifelong infertility may have made her appear cursed and pitiable to others, though now pregnant with John, that image may have been changing.  But in a world where other families had children but she could not for so many decades, there were surely whispers about Elizabeth, surely looks of suspicion or pity. And Mary and Elizabeth were just like the rest of us with respect to their humanity. Their social station was lowly, and with respect to the law, they were lowly as well.  Both women were sinners in need of a savior. Both were inheritors of Adam’s sin and the curse.

And baby John, as yet unborn, had nothing inherently special about him apart from God’s stated plan for his life (though it was only known to Elizabeth and Zechariah).  Roughly half of all babies born in the Roman Empire did not make it to the age of 10, so from the perspective of others, the cards were stacked against John. As a baby, he was vulnerable, another mouth to feed, likely to die from myriad diseases and accidents if he even managed to survive childbirth.  Though a joy to his mother and family (as all babies are), first century Judean society would not have had a lot of hope for John’s survival or “viability.” As an infant, in the eyes of the world, John wasn’t worth much. Best not get too attached to ones like him. And like all babies, John was, like us, conceived in sin and would be born in it.  Though so little, he still bore the curse of sin, and he, too, needed his Savior.

And this is where Jesus upends expectations.  The King of Glory comes to these three lowly, undeserving people as a tiny baby in the womb, promised first to Mary his mother by the angel Gabriel and then conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He comes to them, people who earthly kings would scarcely notice, both because of who they are and their station in life. What earthly king regards “the lowliness of his handmaiden?” What earthly potentate “exalts the lowly?”  Jesus does not act as an earthly king, but he comes to these three undeserving people, first his mother, and then his cousins. And he comes to them in spite of the fact that they do not deserve him. In fact, he comes to them precisely because they do not deserve his coming.  God in the flesh is coming to them because they need him— only he can end the curse of sin— and he gives them the faith to receive him.  He gives it first to his mother, then by the Holy Spirit to the infant John who recognizes him and leaps, who filled with the Holy Spirit passes the Holy Spirit to his mother, Elizabeth, who cries out with joy and speaks those familiar words to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And how to me is this, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…And happy is she who believed that there would be a completion of the things spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary deserved none of this, and yet by trusting what God had told her through Gabriel, she received her Lord and King in her womb. A lowly, undeserving woman, born just like you and me, has been given the gift of bearing the one by whom all things were made.  She is the mother of her savior, and she and her family are given faith in him that will save them from the predation of sin, death, and hell.

Professor Norman Nagel (formerly at Concordia Seminary), one of my favorite preachers given his clarity and ability to cut to the heart of things, describes what happens at the visitation in this way in a sermon from 1971:

“Elizabeth agrees with Martin Luther in recognizing the greatest miracle in all this.  There is the miracle of the angel’s message to Mary, the miracle that God should love us who waste and destroy His world, each other, and ourselves in rebellion and disobedience against Him.  That God should love us so much that He joins us in our world to get under the burden of the misery we have made, as one of us, to free us, love us love’s way all the way to the bottom, and chooses a maiden, whom no one thought of any importance, to be His way to join and rescue us, born of a virgin.  Then there is the most staggering miracle of all— that Mary believed it. She was given to, she received beyond thought and imagination, and simply acknowledged the gift. ‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.’ Here is the miracle of faith. Into her nothingness the gift, the nonentity of Mary becomes the ‘mother of my Lord.’”

Nagel, Norman, Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel: From Valparaiso to St. Louis (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004): 278.

Our Lord came to his mother and cousins of low degree to save them from sin, death, and the devil in a way that was unexpected, and they were given the miracle of faith to believe that this baby not yet born would be the one who would save them, even though they did not deserve him because they were sinners.  And we are in the same position. When Christ came into the world, conceived in Mary’s womb, he came for us, too, and we are also privy to the promise of salvation through him. The Virgin-born savior is ours as well, and just like Mary, Elizabeth, and the infant John, we don’t deserve him. We are lowly in the eyes of God because of our sin, but he comes to us anyway to raise us up in faith, to exalt us to be with him again, and he does so in Jesus.  We who live with the war of sin raging inside of us, we who in our sin are all the lowest of the low, now can live again with God thanks to our Savior who comes down to us and becomes one of us, who takes on flesh and tents among us, and who beats death at its own game in order to give us eternal life with him.

Because of this work that Christ has done for us, we can sing confidently with Mary that hymn of joy and thanks that she sang to God for his gifts of grace and mercy in saving his creation through this lowly infant king, coming to lowly people:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things to me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Luke 1:47-55, translation from the Lutheran Service Book.

Just as Mary trusted and believed that God would save his people through her child, and just as John and Elizabeth recognized and trusted in their coming Lord who would bring to fulfillment God’s plan of salvation, let us then finish this Advent season by taking comfort in God’s promise that we lowly people are his saved children, and furthermore by taking comfort in his promise to never abandon us to the predations of the world, but to destroy sin, death, and hell in full.  Indeed, our Lord who came among us as a little child has saved us. Let us wait with expectant joy, looking to the completion of his work when he comes again to his kingdom. Amen.


1 Luther, Martin, Festival Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, trans. Joel R. Baseley (Dearborn, MI: Mark V Publications, 2005): 46.