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Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany: January 14, 2018

Rev’d Eric V. Kaelberer, Grace Lutheran Church, Rialto, California
✝ sdg ✝

Beloved Saints of the Good Shepherd,

As the hymn for Transfiguration says it so well, ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here! I am truly grateful to be with you this morning as your dear Pastor is in the blessed city of Fort Wayne, serving you and the larger church as he serves and learns. And, just like Peter, James, and John atop the Mt. of Transfiguration, in today’s Word we will hear the voice of God and at His Table we will receive nothing less than He Himself in His true Body and Blood for our forgiveness and renewal. Yes, ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here!

Stained glass...

Stained glass…

Today is the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany. Now Epiphany is that celebration of how we know that our God is for all nations, all people, even you and me, that the Light of Christ shines through… through the darkness of death and sin and the grave… through to life and light and peace!
... projected onto the pew.

… projected onto the pew.

Not long ago one of my members asked me why God would bother with her. She felt her unworthiness very deeply. Joyfully I reassured her that seeing the love of God in the Infant of Bethlehem meant that our unworthiness is answered by this God who has loved us from before the foundations were laid for the Universe! I reassured her that it is His love and His heart that matter, His gift of Christ in our flesh, Christ on the Cross, Christ, Risen and Ascended, Christ reigning and surely returning… all for poor miserable sinners like her, like me, and yes, dear members of Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, He loves poor miserable sinners like you. His call is what matters. It is the effective call of Grace!

This Sunday we have the calling of the first disciples, we also have the calling of Samuel as Judge over Israel. And, by extension, we have the calling of each one of us here this morning – that is what our Baptism means – It is the application of what the Holy Spirit brings for surely we are called, we are gathered together as His family. We are enlightened by His Law and His Gospel. Yes, and as His own, we are sanctified, made continually holy as we are continually living in repentance and His forgiveness as we are fed at His table with His true body and blood!

Are you worthy? Was Philip? You know that his name is Greek, not Hebrew! His name means “one who loves horses!” He was from Bethsaida, a town that is at about 1 o’clock, on the North-East shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was not the center of Jewish life at all. Indeed, five of the 12 are from this remote Northern Galilee town – Andrew, John, Simon, James, and Philip! Nathanael or Bartholomew is from Cana, also in Galilee of the Gentiles. If you want to see someone who did not fit the mold of someone who had the correct pedigree, it would have to be Mr. Horse-Lover! Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother has a Greek name as well. Andrew means “manly.” Simon Peter is yet another of these who while very devout, well, they lacked the right “bona fides” of the “in crowd.” But these men, these Jews in this remote place heard the Word in Synagogue and in the home, and also from the witness of the last of the OT prophets, our dear John the Baptizer!

So here we have this crew of seeming “misfits” who have followed the man who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey – the one whose voice was crying in the wilderness – Prepare the way of the Lord! Now we can add another wrinkle to this scene. John, the Beloved Disciple, he sees Jesus as The One who has come in his flesh to save him, and yes, all! Jesus is here, right here. He doesn’t hover above the earth like a ghost or apparition. John answers the Docetic heresy well. Human and Divine in the one person of Jesus.

That is what makes John’s words in this Gospel so telling. Philip identifies Jesus as being one of them, from their region, this forgotten spot called Galilee of the Gentiles. And Jesus does not correct Philip. Jesus could have said, “Oh, No! Not Nazareth but Bethlehem… remember shepherds, angels, My mom pondering these things… haven’t you read Luke 2!” But instead, hear again how Philip introduces Jesus as Messiah to Nathanael: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (V. 45)

This is Jesus of Nazareth! He is a local boy who happens to be the One written of, spoken of, borne by Prophets and Poets of old, of Moses and all. He is God and He is a local boy. Behold, we know this Jesus as the son of Joseph! God for all is God in our flesh. God as payment for the sins of the world is God in our flesh! Epiphany is all about the revelation of God to man, of the Eternal and Perfect One who is Redeemer, to poor miserable sinners like these Galilean fishermen and their friends! He is the Son of God… oh, and the son of Joseph! In other words… He is the full redeemer of the world! We read over this introduction to Nathanael too quickly. Jesus is presented as God truly with us, with them, in their flesh, yes, even in their dialect and dress! The Almighty Redeemer of the World is knowable to us.

Thus, with this introduction the question of Nathanael makes sense: Nazareth? Can anything truly excellent and praiseworthy (the word is agathos in the Greek) come from Nazareth? It is a great question, not unlike my parishioner’s question of her worthiness. He was asking if God come from “our neighborhood” was for real! While there may have been some skepticism – we don’t want to paint Bartholomew/Nathanael as a white porcelain saint – Nathanael had learned from John the Baptist, as John the disciple recorded earlier, Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (V. 29, 36). Nathanael wants to be sure. He is an honorable man. To know that the Savior of the World is that accessible, that much in our flesh as well as that much “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…”

Well, can anything truly excellent and praiseworthy come from Nazareth, Philip? Philip’s answer is the same as that given by Jesus Himself when He first called Andrew and Simon Peter the day before when they asked, “where are you staying?” The answer is simple: Come! And See!

Nathanael does come and does see. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But it is Jesus who sees him first and who speaks first. Jesus comes to Nathanael and declares, Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! Nathanael’s question of anything good coming from Nazareth is so wonderful, for it is honest. Nathanael isn’t trying to join in the latest Ponzi scheme – he wants the Good Shepherd, he wants the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Jesus acknowledges the very heart of truth that He Himself gave to Nathanael!

Jesus gave Nathanael the heart to believe, and He does the same for you too, beloved. To Nathanael he declares that He knows who Nathanael is, that He knew him before he even Philip called him while sitting beneath the fig tree. Jesus is omniscient, He is all knowing! And soon, when the earthly ministry is completed at Golgotha, the place of the skull, Nathanael will see this omniscience married to our Jesus’ perfect love in service to humanity as He dies in Nathanael’s place, and in your place and mine!

Nathanael will say something that is honest, that is without guile or deceit, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (V. 49) It is true, and like young love, without full understanding. Jesus declares to this guile-less guy, our brother, Nathanael: Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. And He said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

Why has Jesus come? If it is to fortune tell, to put on a good show, then we ought to leave this place and stop wasting our time. Ah, but He has come for something so true, so noble, so honorable, and so unattainable by us or by any other way. He is come for the greater thing, the greatest thing of all, Christ as our access to the Father in heaven.

Jesus is perhaps thinking of Genesis 28, Jacob’s dream at Bethel, the story of Jacob’s Ladder. In that dream Jacob was told that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth and from the four corners of the earth, and in Jacob’s seed, our Savior Jesus, all the descendants of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 28:14). Yes, it is a perfect echo of Genesis 12:1-3!

windows at back...

windows at back…

Yes, this perfect God who is also in our flesh, this God who knows all things and who effectively calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps His Bride, His Church… this God is the Savior of all nations, of all peoples – His light shines to every tribe and nation and people… even folks from Nazareth, from Cana, from Bethsaida… yes, even from Yucaipa and Mentone, from Highland and Beaumont!

... projected on the wall

… projected on the wall

Can anything true and holy and righteous come from Nazareth? Beloved, on this Table, in this His House, He bids you to come and see, to come and eat, without cost and without price, the finest of rich food! Come and see, beloved. Even so, Amen and Soli Deo Gloria!

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

Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred): January 7, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

You may have heard me say that the quintessential preacher for the season of Advent is none other than John the Baptist. His message of repentance and of warning for the coming of God’s righteous judgment fits very well with the preparation theme of the first season of the Church’s liturgical year. Now that the twelve days of Christmas are completed and Epiphany has begun, the emphasis of course turns to Jesus. His miracles, His preaching that announced the arrival of the Kingdom in His flesh, and His unwavering determination to head for the cross, these take center stage at this point in the calendar. The season of Epiphany, however, also has an adopted preacher, if you will. If the themes that are unique to Advent correspond to the message of John, then in whose proclamation do the emphases of Epiphany find a home?

It would seem to be automatic that when you think of Epiphany, that the story of the Magi would come up first in your mind, you know, the Wise Men from the East who came to visit the little Child Jesus. Everyone’s Christmas manger scenes (including the one that you see just as you come in the front door) always includes the Wise Men worshiping Jesus along with the shepherds. In a sense, if you were to think about it more theologically, that is absolutely accurate because the Magi did in fact worship our Lord with the same God-given faith that was found also in the hearts of the shepherds. It is, however, highly unlikely that these foreign travelers made it to Bethlehem to bow down at the manger at the same exact time as the shepherds, especially since the Gospel-writer Matthew makes it plain that Mary and Joseph were living in a house by the time the Wise Men arrived. Since this momentous visit sets off the Epiphany season, the Church at this time of year most decidedly shifts its focus out into the world, that is, proclaiming the coming of Israel’s Messiah for the salvation of the Gentiles.

Who better to extend that invitation to the Gentiles than the Apostle Paul? He definitely has the credentials. Four major trips to see Jews and Gentiles alike all over the known Roman world. Numerous churches founded and pastors trained so that the people who heard the Word in a certain place would be continually fed by that same Word. Paul endured attempted execution, torture, shipwreck, and an unknown affliction that he called a “Thorn in the Flesh” all so that the message of Christ could spread to the nations. This is the major emphasis of the Epiphany season, and that is why it seemed good for the church’s schedule of readings or lectionary to choose the words of St. Paul, writing to the Christians in the provincial capital city of Ephesus, as a fitting Epistle for this festival day.

Now, I must make clear that Paul wasn’t a better preacher of the Gospel than John the Baptist. For it simply is not true that the Apostle who went out bravely to bring God’s Word to all nations was following the Lord’s mandate any more faithfully than the Voice crying out from the wilderness, baptizing only Jews and urging repentance. For just as much as Advent, with its introspection and self-preparation and internal purification, is necessary for your life as a Christian, so also is Epiphany necessary. For it is Epiphany that turns your attention out into the world, so that through your holy calling and life’s vocation you play your particular role in bringing the Good News to all nations. If either one of these two things, internal purity and external outreach, were emphasized to be more important over the other, the result would certainly be disastrous to the Christian’s personal faith and to the existence of the Church. If you think about it, how could you spread the Word of Salvation if your own heart is closed due to lack of repentance? So, having built on the foundation of Advent’s message of repentance, thanks to John the Baptist, now we may follow the lead of St. Paul in His Epiphany sermon that reveals the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Just what is this inclusion of the Gentiles, though? Paul says that God had not made this mystery known to prophets and sons of men in previous ages. Actually, the people before the coming of Christ knew that the Gentiles will obtain a future blessing. What was new was something called the stewardship of that grace—meaning that now, through the Apostles and prophets, namely, through the pastors of the Church, God is handing out His grace earned for us by Jesus Christ.

You see, the Gentiles are now included not because the bar is suddenly lowered and the requirements for going to heaven have been relaxed. There are people who truly believe that’s all that happened. Rather, it was the Lord’s idea—in fact, His eternal purpose finally revealed—to bring in all nations once all of Salvation had become accomplished thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus. If this was all about certain things you had to do, or about certain rules you had to follow to be a godly person, then the Gentiles wouldn’t have had to bother. Heaven would have stayed far off for everyone, never to be attained. You could fool yourself for a while that you could hold it all together and try real hard to remain a good Christian, following all the right principles, making all the right promises. But then the Epiphany message would be completely lost to you. You would find yourself instead following the devil’s lies of works-righteousness rather than giving up on your own spirituality and relying totally on the forgiveness that Jesus earned for your sake.

But thanks be to God, that the Holy Spirit does not allow you to remain in darkness, ignorant of the life-saving Gospel. For on you who lived in darkness, the Epiphany light has shined. Christ the Morning-Star has brightened your sin-sluggish flesh. You along with all Gentiles, now possess this threefold mystery: first, you are fellow-heirs of the kingdom. There’s no longer any difference between you and the faithful nation of Israel. Second, God has incorporated you together with all believers as one body—and not just any body, but Christ’s own Body. Thirdly, you, together with the whole Church, partake of the promise in Christ, a promise that you may access right now with great boldness and confidence.

Finally, the most comforting part of the Epiphany message from St. Paul has to do with the faith that holds on to these revealed mysteries and makes them your own. You get this faith not as a reward. This faith is not a skill that you need to hone first before you can reap any of its benefits. The good news of Epiphany is that the faith that Jesus had—His complete trust in the Father, His undying faithfulness as you will see in the next few weeks as we follow the Epiphany lectionary—this faith that Jesus had is now yours. God counts it as your faith—so that you can be totally assured of your salvation, it’s all up to Him.

Rejoice, O Gentiles who are now members of the new Israel, rejoice in and spread abroad St. Paul’s Epiphany Gospel, which is the stewardship, the handing out, of God’s gifts meant for everyone. And at the same time keep to John the Baptist’s Advent repentance, until one day, O glorious grace, He’ll transport us to that happy place, beyond all tears and sinning! Amen, amen! Come Lord Jesus, Crown of Gladness we are yearning for the day of Your returning!

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

Sermon for the Circumcision of Our Lord (transferred): December 31, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

White Parament

White Parament

For those of you who recently witnessed a baptism ceremony taking place here, you may have noticed that there is a curious little question that the ritual has the pastor ask in the preparation for the act of baptism itself. You may have gotten the impression before, “Why in the world do they do that? It doesn’t make sense.” I have at times felt a little awkward when I came to this question. I’ve looked it up and it is in fact an ancient custom in the Early Church, going back to the time when pagan Romans changed their names when they were baptized. Walther wrote about it, and he said he approves of it being included in the baptismal ceremony. What am I talking about? It goes like this:

How are you named?

Two things: in the case of an infant baptism, the parents and sponsors answer with the child’s name. For an older child or adult, they often give me a funny look and then say their name. Either way, doesn’t it seem strange that a pastor would be struck with a sudden case of amnesia at this critical point in the church service? Shouldn’t he have asked a question like that a little sooner? At least I could take the time to write it down and stick a note in my book. In my son’s case, the pastor was his own grandpa—I don’t think he would forget his name!

Why do they ask for a person’s name before he or she is to be baptized? Well, it was because of this very event in the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus that we commemorate officially tomorrow, namely, on the eighth day of Christmas. Just as there is only this one little question on page 268 in the hymnal, so the Evangelist Saint Luke only speaks of this momentous occasion in little verse 21 of his well-known chapter 2.

The circumcision requirement went back all the way to Abraham, who as we read in Genesis chapter 17 was commanded to initiate this sign of God’s covenant promise both to inhabit the Holy Land and to be multiplied into a throng of descendants that outnumbers the stars in the sky. After a Hebrew boy lived a full seven-day week under the curse of sin that was introduced to this present created world, his family would circumcise him on the eighth day to usher him into the new creation that the Lord has in store for all faithful believers. To be numbered with the countless multitude of Abraham’s children, one needed to hold on with firm belief in the promise of Christ and the new life of forgiveness and eternal salvation that He came to bring. Some sophisticated scholars to this day express their doubts that a belief in heaven could have existed as far back as Abraham’s time, but the fact that he practiced circumcision makes no mistake that he did.

Now, at eight days old, did the baby boy tell his family and comrades that he believed in the coming of Jesus or that he vowed to make of himself a true and committed Israelite? Of course he didn’t. Circumcision placed the helpless child into a covenant of grace with the Lord who created him and promised all of Israel. While it also placed upon the male a solemn reminder of sin, and the impossible Law, and the need for a Savior, the ceremony really looked forward to the time when the true circumcision would take place, which is, as St Paul says, a circumcision of heart and a putting off of the useless, encumbering flesh of the sinful nature. The fleshly, bloody symbol, which the girls were exempt from suffering, indicated the real thing, the salvation in Christ through which there would be no longer any male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. All people, even though they have distinct positions and different means of serving one another, nevertheless they would participate equally in forgiveness.

You are probably already aware that Christmas loses its true meaning if there is no mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. If He is just an example for you on how to live a godly and generous life, so that you become another Scrooge scared straight, then your Christ of Christmas is distorted and caricatured. There needs to be some blood to make it a true Christmas. And with sin and death all around us in this fallen world, there’s a lot of blood. But the only blood that matters is the blood of God’s only Son, the blood coursing through the arteries and veins of this eight-day old child in Bethlehem. He’s taken away for a moment from his mother, who cannot yet make her appearance in public because it’s too soon after the birth. And if the, “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes” part of the song was actually true, well, circumcision is going to put an end to that real quick.

As you just heard, for every other Hebrew boy who was born in the Old Testament era, circumcision was an expression of hope, of a covenant promise of life that was in store in the new creation. But it was the opposite for Jesus. For this little Boy, for God in human flesh, circumcision meant that He was destined for death. This was His first shedding of blood for the salvation of Israel—and by faith in Him, you are now part of the spiritual Israel, that is, the real one. For centuries, the ritual was a rite of passage that designated the infant as separate from the unbelieving Gentiles and part of God’s holy nation. It was all part of becoming one of the family. For Jesus, His circumcision was the first step in separating Himself from the Father, who would then forsake Him at the cross and unleash wrath and judgment upon Christ as though He were the only Sinner in the whole world, and then finally in the Resurrection, the Father would welcome Him back—and you who are baptized in His Name—into the holy kingdom of heaven.

The circumcision ceremony was also the opportunity to bestow the child’s name upon him—that’s the Biblical precedent for the strange little question that we have in the baptismal ceremony. When John the Baptist was circumcised, that was a momentous occasion because instead of following the family tradition and naming their long-awaited firstborn son after Zechariah, the silenced Zechariah himself wrote on a tablet, “His name is John” and then burst forth with singing upon the fulfillment of the angel’s word. Now, roughly six months later, it’s Jesus’ turn to receive His angel-announced Name, and the scene is a little less dramatic. But the point remains nonetheless, the sweet-sounding Name of Jesus that comforts all of your fears, is a Name that cannot be separated from the Blood that He shed. The Name Jesus means, the Lord Saves, but no saving will be done without Blood. You and I were given blood to nourish our bodies and keep them alive. Jesus has blood so that He can give it up and shed that blood on the cross for you and all sinners. Sometimes, children are given names because certain expectations are placed upon the child and the role he or she is to fulfill. Jesus was given His Name so that the Israelite eighth-day hope for a new creation would finally become a reality.

Cultural anthropologists have studied rites of passage for decades, whether it’s had to do with a child being born into a tribe in Indonesia, a girl’s quinceañera in Mexico, a wedding in the United States, or a funeral in Korea. Most of these experts like to spot three distinct elements common to each ritual: a time of separation for the individual, a transition, usually occurring in the ceremony itself, and an incorporation of the individual into the community complete with their new identity and relationship.

Holy Baptism

Holy Baptism

St. Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit to link Holy Baptism for the Christian, to what the Flood was for Noah and his family and the animals with them. First, the water and the ark separated them from the jeering unbelievers who were swept away in God’s righteous judgment. Then the time of transition was the ark floating above the mountains as Noah clung to the promise without knowing what exactly lay ahead for him and his crew. Lastly, the waters receded, the ark came to rest and the land-dwelling inhabitants of God’s creation made their new start in the world that was cleansed and renewed.

The Flood was a real event, and not some myth explaining something that is better addressed by science. Just the same, your baptism was not a mere symbol, nor a cultural rite of passage involving nothing more than human relationships. In fact, as a rite of passage, Baptism is probably the best, most real separation, transition, and incorporation that ever existed in this world! Everything else that calls itself a rite of passage either has a relationship to Baptism or it is a pale comparison to it.

Here’s what I mean: because of sin, you were separated from God, and His commandments that you have broken condemned you and all of humanity to eternal death. Without your cooperation, but solely by God’s grace in the Holy Spirit, Baptism separated you from this fallen world, washed you in water combined with God’s Word and His Triune Name, and welcomed you back to the family of the church. Your constant, daily pattern of repentance, dying and rising with Christ, and being reconciled with fellow believers with the peace of the Lord is an active remembrance of Baptism. Circumcision is not our rite of passage, it was Jesus’ transition from the poor baby lying in a manger, to the suffering Savior dying on a cross. His Name was given to separate Himself from all of us, because no other Name is given under heaven by which we must be saved, but that same Name is placed upon us in blessing and bestows upon us a new identity, as the Benediction does at the end of the church service. He has not forgotten your name; it’s recorded forever in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

So as one year is now coming to a close, and another year is beginning, we again have an opportunity to participate in the rite of passage that our Lord began for us already with His circumcision and naming on the eighth day of His walk among us in the flesh. He has truly separated you, as far as the east is from the west, from your sins, from hurts and your anxieties for the future. He has cut off the spiritual flesh of idolatry that had identified you with the fallen world, and has given you instead a circumcised heart. Your Savior has also incorporated you into His kingdom, made you an heir with Him of eternal life. By His blood you are given a new name—and all of that started from the time of your baptism. Whatever lies ahead for you in the new year, He has already been there, and He has promised you a new eighth-day creation.

The Lord Jesus who shed His blood for you, may He bless you, make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace.

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

Christ-Candle is lit.

Christ-Candle is lit.

Sermon for Christmas Day: December 25, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

White Parament

White Parament

Where does the Christmas story begin? The angels’ announcement to the shepherds? Gabriel’s visit to Mary? Or the prophecies of the Messiah going all the way back to the curse upon the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Well, the Holy Spirit directed the Evangelist John to begin the Christmas Story at the very beginning—even before the world was made. “In the beginning…” sounds like Genesis is being written all over again. Christians had to struggle and fight over these very words of Scripture, and their sensitive minds’ reason being stretched beyond what it can bear. But the truth had to be confessed, and indeed it was: Jesus the Son of God was the Word who was with God, through Whom everything was made in heaven and earth, and the Word who was God from eternity.

His coming in human flesh to this world, John tells us, was a coming to His own, a coming to share His glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. All of creation belonged to Jesus, even before there was a Bethlehem or a Mary or a Joseph. As Christ Himself told His enemies, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” (John 8:58) which means He eternally existed as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, who is worthy to be worshiped as God. Yet as the only-begotten Son, He came to give the right, or the authorization, for mankind created in His image to be born as children of God. Paul wrote in Galatians that we are even called “sons of God” whether we are Jew or Gentile, even male or female, due to our life united by faith in Christ, the Son of God.

While we are not told exactly how things would have been had not Adam and Eve fell into sin, God’s Word does tell us this much, that God had it in mind from all eternity, before creation, to make you His children. It is suggested by several church fathers, and I don’t think they’re too far off on this, that the Lord had it in mind to come among us to be with us as our Emmanuel, no matter what, sin or no sin. But what really matters in this train of thought, is that as great a rebellion as sin is, as great of a destruction there was of God’s perfect creation and His relationship to it, all that mess was not going to get in the way of our Lord’s original, perfect plan to make you His children. Even at the cost of His own life, and the Son of God can only die if He fully takes on our human flesh, our Creator determined to ransom us from our terrorist captor, the prince of darkness. So the eternal Word of the Father, now appears in flesh, and all the world rejoices at the one and only Christmas gift that was promised before time began.

To be sure, the birth of the Baby Jesus is not the first time the Son of God broke into creation. After He spoke into the darkness and void, bringing forth light, then heaven and earth, then everything filling them, then finally man in His own image, He promised His coming as the Seed of the Woman to crush the serpent’s head. The Word before He was flesh appeared several times, and sometimes the Bible names Him the “angel of the Lord.” He made a covenant with Abraham, even performing a portion of the ceremony walking between the sacrificed animals in the form of a cloud of smoke and flaming torch. (Gen. 15) He pushed back the Red Sea so that Moses and about a
million of his closest relatives walked on the dry sea floor between two walls of water. The Pre-incarnate Christ fought the battle of Jericho for Joshua, talked to Samson’s parents, called out young Samuel’s name, consecrated the Temple building, torched Elijah’s dripping wet altar, walked around in a furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, wrote with His own handwriting on the wall, and revealed visions to Daniel and Ezekiel, just to name a few instances.

But as stunning and dramatic as these appearances were in the Old Testament, they all point their finger, John the Baptist style, to the greatest coming—the Christ Child. This is the turning point in the world’s history. This is the incarnation that was foretold from the beginning. This may not be the beginning of the Christmas story, but it certainly is the highest point. And whether the church celebrates it today, or on Epiphany like it used to centuries ago, the event it commemorates is the same: the Word was born of Mary and laid in a manger in Bethlehem.

Take note in this apparently simple detail from John’s Christmas Gospel, and you’ll have to make a special effort because it can sound so familiar that we mistakenly tune it out. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory. There is more in there than I can tell you today or in all of our lifetimes put together. To become flesh does not only mean that Jesus the Son of God put on skin, but it also means that the sinless Victim of His own free will zipped Himself up in a strait-jacket with a big, red target painted on it. That target of the Almighty God’s eternal wrath was not merely flesh, but sinful flesh, namely mankind’s rebellion. Harry Houdini may have made some impossible escapes from death; Jesus launched Himself right at the start into the most impossible death that anyone could ever imagine. When the Word was made flesh, He was right then and there made the Scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He would be the sponge, if you will, to soak up all your sinfulness and suffer ultimate death for it as though He were the only Sinner who ever was. He needed to be true God in order to make the sinless sacrifice, He needed to be true Man in human flesh in order to make that sacrifice for your sake.

No matter what your sin and shortcoming, the Word was made flesh to pay for it. Whatever sorrow or hurt that you feel to this day, your Jesus bears it with the cross on His shoulder. Though the fear of death and the power of the devil leave you powerless on your own, the true Light of Christ has overcome the darkness and will never be quenched. You have added sin upon sin, even when you know you knew better. But the Son of God broke into our world so that He could multiply grace upon grace as His eternal Christmas gift to you. After declaring you fully forgiven and righteous in the sight of the Father, you as a reborn child are united in the flesh with Christ the Word so that He lives in you by the Holy Spirit. This is no mere psychological game that I’m using to change your behavior. As the Lord dwelt long ago in the Temple, so now He cleanses you and dwells within you, and fights for you so that your sinful flesh doesn’t use grace as an excuse to sin, but your new nature rises up with Christ and you are free to give His grace to your neighbor. Your baptism promises that every day, and the Lord’s Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood really does it.

One of the times when Elijah met Jesus way before the time He was born in Bethlehem, this prophet was told to get high up on a mountain top and prepare for the Lord to pass by. A mighty wind, a massive earthquake, and a devastating fire passed by first, but the Lord was not in any of those fantastic forces of nature. Then there came a still, small voice that spoke strength, courage and assurance to the distressed servant of the Lord. Well, as Christmas is now here, what have we seen in the virtual whirlwind of the last few weeks? First there was the cooking, cleaning, baking and buying, but the Lord was not in those things. Then there was the big man with the red cap and the reindeer, and as nice as he is, the Lord was not in that either. There was at last wholesome feelings and gestures of love and hope and goodwill, but the Lord was not in those, at least not quite yet. Where the Lord is found at Christmas, and where He gives the proper perspective to all that we know, and love and endure in the holiday, He is found in the still, small voice from the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We (you and I) have seen His glory, for by His grace upon grace we have the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore rejoice this Christmas, O children born of God!

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

Advent Wreath, 5 candles lit

Advent Wreath, 5 candles lit

Sermon for Christmas Eve: December 24, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Hibiscus, sunlit

Hibiscus, sunlit

As the sun set in Eden’s garden on the day that changed the world, Adam and Eve were afraid. God came to earth perhaps amidst the angels’ heavenly singing and the joyful response of nature to her Creator. (Job 38:7) But our first parents still had much to fear, for they had just rebelled against their Lord. They had eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, counter to the Creator’s explicit warning that on the day they eat that fruit, they would die. God had meant to create so that He would bless; now, due to sin, which has no place whatsoever in His presence, He resigned Himself to curse as He had threatened. Two curses were uttered: the first one was against the evil serpent who deceived Adam and Eve, declaring to Satan that the woman’s Seed would crush his head; and the second curse was upon the ground, reminding Adam, indeed, telling all of humankind that we were responsible for plunging the world into the night of sin.

And so, night did fall on God’s green garden paradise of earth. It was a spiritual night that showed little promise of coming to an end. The sunrise and warmth of the heavenly Father’s shining face was veiled in the blackness of evil. Mankind has since that fateful day devised new and even more hideous ways to propagate the curse of sin, making society darker and more devoid of Divine Light than ever before. You could almost see the tear in the eye of the Biblical author of Judges when he wrote those last words of the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) God’s people were alone, in the dark, the promise forgotten, the curse remaining. Ever since the sun set in Eden, it had been nightfall, with people even to this very day walking about in their spiritual lives with arms out, crashing, stumbling without regard to the light of God’s Word, destroying one another, as well as themselves.

You may be painfully aware of this curse of darkness yourself. You may have been alienated from the rest of your family. You could have lost your job or your means of supporting yourself has otherwise been cut off or cut too short. You could have ended the school term with a load of guilt over not doing the assignments and all the studying that you should have. Parents turned against children, workers turned against bosses, inner-cities turned against suburbs, and sadly, there’s even church turned against church at times. No amount of “Christmas spirit” can shine enough light into this darkness. No parties, decorated trees, stuffed stockings, holiday cheer, donations to the bell-ringers’ buckets, or even night-time visits with three ghosts can reverse the curse. Our sinful world owns up to no king, everyone does that which is right in his own eyes. Your sinful nature and mine are quite at home in the darkness, yet we’re never content with the sins we have, as we’re always craving after more. And so darkness continues for you, inspiring fear in a heart that was instead created to love. It’s something you can feel deep within, and the curse seems to get stronger, and the only thing you think you can do is ignore it, go about your life, look out for number one, and deal with all this spiritual stuff later.

That’s what the shepherds were hoping to do. The sun had already long set, and they were settling in for guarding their flocks during the several night watches in which their familiar fields were always getting plunged into disorienting darkness. But it would not be business as usual for these animal-watchmen on this night. Even though it was the middle of the night, they would witness the dawning of another day, a day that would change the whole world’s history yet again. The shocking appearance of the angel shining with the Glory of the Lord not only gave light to their immediate surroundings, brighter than it would be at noon, but that heavenly appearance also shone God’s holy Light into the darkness of this world’s sinful nightfall.

Just like their ancestors Adam and Eve, the shepherds were afraid on that day that changed the world. The appearance of the angel struck a massive fear into their hearts that the King James Version describes for us as “sore afraid”–you could say they were afflicted with a fear so great that it hurt. But to counter such great fear, the angel messenger greets them with the all-important and often-recurring opening words, Do not be afraid! When the words of God’s messenger say, do not be afraid, then He causes that very thing to happen. Only the powerful Word of God Himself could turn their hearts to hear the Good News. And the Good news is this: Today, on this day above all days, a Savior is born, a Light to shine in your darkness, a Light that will not be overcome by the darkness you and I inflict on this world. Angels sing on earth once again, for God has come to walk among His people in the midst of His creation, this time not merely strolling one evening through the Garden of Eden, but rather walking about in real human flesh. In fact, Jesus has now lived in human flesh as our Lord and Savior for over 2017 years. The incarnation, that is, the coming-in-flesh of Jesus is the good news of great joy that is announced and celebrated by the singing angels. With all of the bad news that assaults us in abundance, He is the Light that our dark world needs.

And so it is also for you, the Good News of great joy is precisely the news of your forgiveness, the news of new life in the midst of death. In a magnificent turn of events, the first curse that was threatened against Satan, the prophecy that Jesus would come to crush his serpent-head, will be fulfilled in the cross. The Baby Boy born at Christmas would on the next great day in history, that being Good Friday, be put to death, with darkness enshrouding the earth, only to arise with the sun on the first Easter morning. What is amazing about all this is that once the first curse is carried out to completion, the second curse that was cast on the ground, as far as, far as that curse is found in this world, it will be replaced with God’s flowing blessings instead. Joy to the World, indeed! If you mourn, if you are sore afraid, if you are stricken with any of sin’s painful fallout, you often find it is most difficult to deal with it at the holidays. Yet, even in the midst of deepest darkness, when even the days themselves lack light the most, the true Light of Christ shines the greatest in the Good News of great joy to dispel what afflicts you in your life with pain and fear.

The sign for the shepherds was that they would find a wrapped-up baby in a manger. Notice that the angels did not need to command the shepherds explicitly: “Stop what you’re doing; go to Bethlehem, do not pass ‘Go.'” All they needed to do was reveal to them the sign. For it is the sign alone that gives them the permission, the invitation, and even the inner compulsion, to go find the Christ Child. How could they possibly stay out there in the fields after all this has been told to them? Here is the very simple sign by which you will behold the world’s Savior—wouldn’t you go to the utmost limits to search for that sign? Wouldn’t you make arrangements, even at great cost, to visit with Jesus if you had the opportunity? The shepherds came with haste, the Scripture says, teaching us well by their example.

Simple ordinary signs of Jesus the Christ Child will point you to Him. Tomorrow when we celebrate the Divine Service, the Holy Body and Blood sitting front-and-center on the altar will take the place of the baby lying in the manger. The flesh that was for a while limited by time and space is placed into the manger of your own hands and fed into your own mouths. May the appearance of this ordinary sign be your encouragement, invitation and inner compulsion to receive the grace of His forgiveness and life. Do not forgo this great joy that is for all people. If you are not yet a communicant united with our confession of the true faith as laid out for us in Scripture, I urge you to learn the faith and confess it as your own, so that you would not remain deprived of this wondrous Christmas gift of all gifts.

Refuse the darkness that creeps in to kill this joy and be welcomed by our Savior and His Bride, the Church into His marvelous light! Rejoice in His coming again for you to see fully the day that is about to dawn upon this dark world. Be confident, knowing that the curse that darkens your life and our world has been lifted by our Savior, Christ the Lord. There is no curse now, only blessing. Let your King turn away the sadness, fear and lack of contentment that prey on you. Bask in the warmth of your Heavenly Father’s love, for His face is shining upon you, the face that was revealed to the world first at night in the smile of a baby boy with a virgin mother.

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

Advent Wreath, 5 candles lit

Advent Wreath, 5 candles lit

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent: December 24, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

epiphyllum leaf, backlit

epiphyllum leaf, backlit

Something just didn’t look right, and David knew it. The enemies were conquered, the kingdom was secure, and he lived in a beautiful palace in Jerusalem. So far, so good: except for the tabernacle. The house of worship for the one true God of all heaven and earth was still merely a tent. It was the same one that had been in use for 400 years, for it was constructed soon after the Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt. King David was now living in a mansion built out of cedar, but the Lord God was still camping out there in a temporary structure. It didn’t look right: to passers-by it must have looked like David was far more important than Almighty God, and David wanted to fix that image right away. He called Nathan the prophet and announced his plans to build a glorious temple, and one can imagine his excitement. Oh, to be there when the building was finished, when the Lord would appear in a glorious cloud, then overshadow the temple and enter inside! It sounded perfect, and Nathan gave his blessing to proceed.

But the Lord said no. He made it very clear– He didn’t want a temple, at least not yet. He didn’t need a temple, either. David’s son, King Solomon, would say it rightly, that even the highest heavens could not contain Him. But as for that building—the house of God— it was designed for the people’s benefit, not His. And God said for now, the building plans would have to wait; but, in addition, the Lord had better news for David. He reminded King David that He had taken him, who was only a lowly shepherd boy, and made him ruler over all of Israel. That is to say, David was king only by God’s mercy and faithfulness. But more important was this: the Lord was going to build a house for David, and that house would last forever. We’re not talking about the cedar palace: no, that would likely decay like everything else. Solomon’s temple would be destroyed in 586 B.C., then Herod’s replacement structure would be destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D. Instead, God announced that David’s household, meaning his family line, wouldn’t end. Ever. While David himself lived in a world of violence, death and re-drawing of boundary lines, the house of David would rule and reign secure for eternity. One of his descendants would sit on the throne forever. And this king would be the promised Savior, the Messiah.

As history would see it, King David would not live to see his son Solomon build the temple; he did not see the Lord overshadow the Holy of Holies in a cloud before entering. For up until then, though it was certainly strange to the eyes, the Lord was content to live in a tent while a human king lived inside cedar walls. David would then be dead for nearly a thousand years before the Savior was born. But while he did not see these things with his own eyes, he still had God’s Word on it. He had God’s promise. It would surely happen. And so he declared a confident Amen that accepted this promise for himself, “Now, O LORD God, the word which You have spoken concerning Your servant and concerning his house, establish it forever and do as You have said” (2 Sam 7:25).

God had said. It would happen. And so it did. God kept His promise; and nearly a millennium later, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Mary, who was pledged to be married to the descendant of King David, was certainly marrying no king. She lived not in the plush Jerusalem palace, but in a humble place tucked away in the out-of-the-way hilltop town of Nazareth. “You have found favor with God,” said Gabriel, “and you’re going to give birth to a Son. He will be the Son of God, and He’ll sit on David’s throne forever.” It wouldn’t be a throne of this world, which would watch this planet spin to its eventual destruction. His would be an eternal throne, not made with human hands, for God’s Son would rule forever.

Mary asked the practical question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Once God had overshadowed the temple before entering in; now He would overshadow Mary and she would carry the Christ child in the temple of her womb. And as David had once added his amen and prayed, “Lord, do as You have said,” Mary faithfully added her amen, saying: “Let it be to me according to your word.”

It was like the palace and the tent all over again. Herod’s kids could play around in the best day care in ancient Jerusalem, that is, warm and secure in royal mansions, while Mary and Joseph would continue their life of poverty in Nazareth, then Bethlehem, then on the run down to Egypt, then back to Nazareth. Herod would sleep in a luxurious bed, but the Royal Son of David would first be laid in a manger. And so it would go: Herod and Pontius Pilate and Caesar would have their proud war horses, but Jesus would ride a colt, the foal of a donkey. They would possess their golden thrones and crowns, but the Savior would have His wooden cross for His throne and a crown of thorns pressed upon His head.

To the passer-by, Jesus would seem like nothing compared to those earthly rulers; but Herod, Pilate and Caesar all died and remain dead. Jesus died. Jesus is risen. And, as the Lord gave His Word to David and later on to Mary, so Jesus reigns forever as King. He is your King—because He died and rose for you.

And so it goes, in the past two thousand years since the birth of Christ, countless kings have ruled and then they died. Empires have risen and fallen, civilizations emerged and disappeared. That is how kingdoms go in a dying world. But Jesus remains King of kings and Lord of lords—for now and for eternity.

But why? Does Jesus hold this title just because Christians say so, and they hold out hope and insist it to be true? Do you have to make-believe all this just because you can’t see it? No. Jesus is King because He says so. His Word has the power to create a believing heart of faith within you. He who gave His Word to David and Mary still gives His Word today. Throughout the kingdoms of the world, in spite of nations rising and falling ruled by just men and evil despots, the Lord still speaks His royal decrees, which means certain pronouncements. You hear Him ruling at the baptismal font, where He says, “I am the King who has conquered even death, which is why I live forever. I share that victory with you now: I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You hear Him speak His final judgment through the mouth of His called and ordained messenger: “I have conquered sin and devil, and I set you free from that kingdom of darkness: I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You hear Him speak His invitation at the altar: “This is the King’s table, and I give you My body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.” That is where the King rules today: by His means of grace. Not just in church, but wherever His Word is preached and His Sacraments administered according to His Word: in the hospital, the battlefront, the nursing home, the school, and the deathbed.

So be duly warned. You’ll always be tempted to look for Jesus in the glitz and glamour, the flash and sizzle of this world—in feelings and excitement and big numbers, fat bank accounts and more. Those things already have their reward and then they’re over. Or other times you’ll be tempted to despair because the world around you continues suffering all those cataclysmic signs of the end times and the Lord still does not return. But when you are so tempted, remember that He has made you part of His household of faith, not some household of sight. Remember the tent, not the palace. Remember Mary in Nazareth, not Herod in Jerusalem. Remember the manger and cross and crown of thorns, for these things tell you that your King comes humbly to save you through suffering, that you might be in His glorious kingdom forever. He is not far from you; He gathers you here to rule with mercy, to speak to you His Word and feed you His Supper.

So like David and Mary, you add your amen that receives the promise into your own heart: “Let it be to me, Lord, according to your Word.” Your King rules and reigns forever, and you are His forever, too: because upon hearing His Word you are forgiven of all of your sins, and highly favored of the Lord. It may not look right, but in reality, nothing can be more right.

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

Advent Wreath, 4 candles lit

Advent Wreath, 4 candles lit

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent: December 17, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Blue Parament

Blue Parament

What has bowed your head down, recently? It seems that especially during Advent, people have their heads bowed down more than at other times of the year. They could be just watching their step, because with less than a moment’s notice, you could find yourself flat on the ground, and Christmas is no fun when you’re spending it in the hospital. Maybe you have your head down right now as you are examining your list of countless things to do and to prepare before that holiday comes in a week’s time, ready or not. Perhaps that particular bell-ringer at the store entrance has a knack for locking in too-direct of a gaze and you just don’t want to make eye contact when you’ve got a busy schedule and no spare change… best to look down!

Do you perhaps have your head down in a different way, because you feel beaten, defeated with tension in your family, hurt because someone sinned against you and won’t admit it? Or maybe you want to clear the air and admit your fault with someone whom you hurt with your words and they refuse to forgive? Our heads ought to be down, at least in a spiritual sense, because we must daily repent of our sins against God and against all our various neighbors in our lives.

You know our world has its head down—you can tell the signs of that are all around us. The difference, however, is that our world’s head is down not in repentance but in self-worship. Those whom we see in this world who reject our only Lord and Savior, are instead worshiping the only deity that they hold most dear—themselves. Their heads are down only because they would rather stare in absolute wonder at their own belly-button! It’s all about my life, my needs, my body, my political party, my set of values, my wants. You are tempted to have your head down in that way, also, as am I.

You know what happens, though, when someone walks around too long with their head down all the time. It could lead to a funny bump on the head when she walks into a pole, or a quite frightful and deadly thing when he gets run over in the street. You are unaware of what is vitally important when you are not alert, and there is no way for you to tell what is right there in front of you. The more you stay bent down, the harder it is for you to get yourself straightened up again. I’m always getting told not to slouch over; I guess I’m not very easy to train in the fine art of good posture.

There was someone else who had his head down. Once again, we are talking about the designated preacher for the season of Advent, John the Baptist. This time, the Gospel records a moment once he had been thrown into prison, somewhere near the Dead Sea, we think, and he sent some loyal disciples of his to ask Jesus a question. It is quite a shocking question, considering that it came to Jesus from John the Baptist. After all, he was the one who pointed our Lord out and said, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Whether he was discouraged, and had his head down in that nasty dungeon, or his disciples were concerned, and John wanted to send them, heads down in disappointment, straight to the source to get the final word from Christ Himself, both were answered in the same way. Jesus gave the perfect response to raise any head that might be bowed down with pain, repentance, sin, and sorrow.

Lift up your heads! So says the Psalm, and a few Advent hymns sing it, as well. Yes, there is a time to bow down in repentance and to sacrifice your personal desires and the world’s self-worship that entices you. However, there is also a time to lift up your heads, to straighten up and see your salvation coming ever nearer. We already heard that when you witness the many frightful signs of the end of the world, those are actually the indicators that your Savior is about to rescue you. What Jesus says to John’s disciples will raise up their—and John’s own—heads. Are you the promised Messiah, the Christ? Or should we be looking for another? Should we keep our heads down and ignore our vain hopes that God is going to fulfill His Word right here in front of us? It is getting tougher, from our human perspective, to believe that Jesus will help us in our day. The world is just getting worse and life as a committed Christian believer and family and within the blessing of a Christian marriage seems impossible. Our heads are down because we feel alone.

Lift up your heads! Look with eyes of faith that trust in the mighty works of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf—He it is who has come into your midst right here this very day. You have heard His Word of forgiveness before, and you have it as your very own gift once again today. You couldn’t lift up your own head, for all of the sin, pain and death that had kept it down. But He raises up your head, since He bowed down His own head in death on the cross for your forgiveness and eternal life. He gave up His Spirit in utter agony and shame so that you would breathe in the blessings of your lasting inheritance in His kingdom. He lifted up His head again to new physical life on the third day so that resurrection for your physical body would be certain. Your weak knees will be strengthened, as Isaiah sings, you of anxious heart– “Be strong” in the strength of the Lord and not in your own strength. You are now known as the ransomed ones, belonging to the Lord forever. He has come through for you to restore what sin and its curse had taken away. Your head is raised up with confident faith, since the Blood of Christ your Savior was shed on the cross to pay for your release, and to ease all of your hurt.

Rejoice, so we hear on this Third Sunday in Advent, and we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath. And you know that this is more than simply to put out an effort to “remember the reason for the Season,” as important as that is. A happy stream of mere thoughts on how I can bring peace on earth, would not do that much good for John the Baptist, locked up in prison. They don’t seem to last that long for you or me, either. You need the flesh and blood forgiveness that Jesus gives you today. That’s the only joy that lasts. You are here for the mighty works of God that happen in front of your face, and give you a reason truly to rejoice. No one else, including yourself, can replace the joy that Christ our Lord came to bring, and we look forward with repentant joy to that Great Day when our heads will be lifted up in everlasting glory, never to be bowed down in sorrow again.

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

Joy Candle is lit

Joy Candle is lit

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent: December 10, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Blue Parament

Blue Parament

He has been called “the great forerunner of the morn.” He called himself “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Most of us know him as John the Baptist. When he runs up against the world’s version of the Christmas season, he might as well be called, “John the Killjoy.” For this is the season of merriment, office parties, and holiday cheer of the liquid variety. We want to put aside any gloom and doom, and it irks us to run into anyone who would ruin our good time. But every year, as predictable as credit-card bills and tax statements, here comes John the Baptist, who may as well be the “Grinch who stole Christmas.” A wild sort of man, a little rough around the edges. Ate locusts and wild honey. Wore camel’s hair and a leather belt. John would be out of place at one of our Christmas parties, where everyone is decked out in their festive holiday attire. Hey, John, you missed Halloween by a few weeks. He might even be out of place in church—the ushers might ask him to leave. And if his appearance and diet were not bizarre enough, John’s message seems to be the ultimate killjoy. “Repent!” he cries out. “Change your whole way of thinking, and prepare the way of the Lord.”

How out of sync he is with the popular view of Christmas! Yet, ironically, if Christmas is to have its full tidings of comfort and joy, John’s Advent message must be heard first. John the Baptist is the forerunner of the Lord, and he knows that in order to receive aright the blessings Christ would give us, we must first change our whole approach. “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord.” Rid yourselves of any sinful barriers to Christ’s coming in your life. John won’t let you off the hook. “Repent!” he keeps on preaching to his dying day, because as long as we’re doing “business as usual,” even when we’re preparing for Christmas, we can ignore the sin that lies within. But in repentance we meet the sinful self, the self we’ve tried to ignore, the self that keeps its distance from God. John would have us confront that sinful self at the banks of the Jordan, before we hike up the hill to meet the Messiah in Bethlehem. We prepare for the joy of the manger by way of repentance at the river.

The church has long recognized this need for repentance in preparing for the coming of Christ. And so Advent is similar to Lent, preparing us for Christmas in much the same way that Lent prepares us for Easter. Advent hymns seem to have either a lilting, dance-like rhythm, or a reflective, yearning quality about them. There even used to be pre-Christmas fasting in preparation for our Lord’s coming. Can you imagine that today–fasting in December in the weeks leading up to Christmas? Many churches have skipped the penitential emphasis in their Advent preparation. They want to jump right to Christmas, without letting Advent be Advent. I’ll be the first to say it’s hard to do—Advent is a much more hectic time than Lent. These decorations and preparations don’t just put themselves in order. The church has a hard time fighting a culture that demands joy–even a shallow, superficial joy–at this time of year.

But John the Baptist will not let us forget. “Repent,” John demands of us. And so today let me suggest a repentance that takes shape in three ways: “An Advent Inventory, Invitation, and Intent.”

First, repentance means that we take an Advent inventory. Each year, at about this time, we raid our storage areas to retrieve boxes of Christmas decorations. We find those long-treasured ornaments, keepsakes, and strings of lights that were hastily stuffed away perhaps sometime after the new year, some of them needing a little fluff-up, repair or even replacement. We dig into these boxes, and often we’re still surprised by what we find, even if we’ve gone through this routine a dozen times or more. The inventory of our Christmas decorations becomes new to us every season.

That’s the way it is with an Advent repentance inventory, as well. You see, the problem is, we become so accustomed to living with our sins that we simply pack them away, with little thought or reflection. We tend not to look at them, or we deny them when others point them out to us. But now, during Advent, as we await our Lord’s coming, John insists that we unpack our spiritual boxes and examine our sins: the pride by which I lift myself up above others, the insensitivity to the hurts around me, the jealousy and anger that keep me apart from others and build up a wall of resentment toward God. Decorating our lives with anger, jealousy, pride, and resentment–like we decorate our trees with Christmas ornaments–that may seem rather silly, but that’s what we do. An Advent inventory, then, helps us to take stock of ourselves, to take an honest look at our lives, and to clean house on the inside.

One way to do an Advent inventory is to use the Ten Commandments as a checklist. As Luther teaches in the Catechism: “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?” This kind of honest self-examination will help you to see your sins in the light of God’s law. Poor miserable sinners actually do poor miserable sins, and taking stock of specifics in this way helps us face the grim reality that we have really offended our God.

So repentance means taking that Advent inventory. It means getting out those boxes of our heart and unpacking what’s inside them. But John the Baptist would have us do something else. Remember that John came preaching a baptism of repentance that was “for the forgiveness of sins.” The forgiveness of sins–that is what repentance prepares us to receive. And so we not only take an Advent inventory, we also receive an Advent invitation. It is an invitation to forgiveness. It is an invitation offered to us by the God who will heal and restore us, who will rescue and redeem us.

Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose

The Old Testament reading today captures it well. Isaiah speaks of our God as a restoring, merciful Lord: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” Here is comfort for troubled sinners! Here is forgiveness given as a free gift! What a wonderful Advent invitation!

The God we meet in Advent is a gracious God, who yearns to redeem his people. He is a God who lifts up his people and comforts them. What we wait for in Advent, then, is the forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ. For what began in Bethlehem’s manger was completed on Calvary’s cross and then announced by angels at Nicodemus’ empty tomb. The herald of good news has proclaimed this gospel into your ears: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.” Salvation won and bestowed by your coming king, Jesus Christ. You and I were submerged into his cleansing grace in our baptism, where we were clothed with the righteousness of Christ. To be washed anew and afresh in that forgiveness, in that baptismal grace–this is the Advent invitation we receive during this holy season.

An Advent inventory, an Advent invitation–third, an Advent intent. Our final response to John’s cry for repentance is a holy intent to live the new life that is ours in Christ.

Sometime over the course of the holiday season you can bet we’ll hear the wish that the “spirit of Christmas” would be sustained all year. It’s a noble wish. Yet we seem to know better. We know that the warm cheer of December will yield to the cold, gray reality of January, in more ways than with the weather.

It doesn’t have to be that way for Christ’s repentant people. The Messiah who comes to us at Christmas will not go away, he will not abandon us. Jesus promises to be with us always, and his forgiving and restoring presence will stay constant in our lives. What remains for us, then, is to remember who we are. We are God’s holy people. So, we turn away from sin. We are God’s forgiven people. So, we forgive. We are God’s loved ones. So, we love. We are those blessed by God. So, by God’s grace, let us be that same blessing to others. Make this your intent, your Advent intent this year. God is faithful, and His Holy Spirit will help you do it.

A bumper sticker in a gift shop read, “Repent!” Underneath, in small letters, it said, “If you have already repented, please disregard this notice.” Well, the fact is, we poor sinners are always in need of repenting. That is the ongoing life of God’s baptized people. Dying and rising, daily. Always taking inventory of our sins. Always receiving God’s invitation to forgiveness. Always being renewed by the Holy Spirit in our intent to live as God’s children. “An Advent Inventory, Invitation, and Intent.”

Today we can say, “Killjoy was here”–John the Killjoy, that is, better known as John the Baptist. John the Party-pooper, the old sourpuss, comes this way every Advent, it seems, crying out in the wilderness, preaching repentance, calling us to confess our sins at the banks of the Jordan. But rather than being a killjoy, I heard a pastor once speak of John as a “fill-joy”–calling us to empty out the junk in our souls so they can then be filled with the joy of Jesus. John is preparing us to receive the joy to come–the joy that comes in the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The hymn puts it well:

  On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
  Announces that the Lord is nigh;
  Awake and hearken, for he brings
  Glad tidings of the King of kings!

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

Second Week of Advent

Second Week of Advent

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent: December 3, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Blue Parament

Blue Parament

Have you ever wished for the good guys to flex a little muscle? Has it ever frustrated you beyond your senses that the bad guys, no matter what you’re talking about—sports, relationships, politics, whatever—that those enemies are always a little more crafty than you counted on, and they always seem to get the upper hand? Why do enemies seem to have all the moves, there’s nothing holding them back when they do their dirty work, and they even use the rules that the good guys have to follow to make it entirely lop-sided in their own favor. It’s easy to consider it these days, since we continue to see a barrage of violence from people who take advantage even of churches trying to be open to everyone. It would be simply wonderful if these and any other bad guys you can think of out there could just get smacked with defeat and humiliation—as long as their demise was complete, they wouldn’t know what hit them, and you could leap into the air for joy and cheer at the top of your lungs.

There are even Psalms in the Bible that yearn for God’s mighty stroke of justice, and they really want it to hurt. When opponents just go away without that decisive blow, it simply doesn’t satisfy. Let the politically correct folks say things like, they should be “made accountable,” whatever that means. Deep down, we want more than that! We want retribution! Condemnation! You could even say, let’s open up a can of Judgment Day itself, and let all those bad guys have it!

Listen again now to the yearning cry that was written down by the prophet Isaiah. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! That the mountains might quake at your presence… to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! Yeah! That’s what I want! I want God to unleash His full power! Show those enemies of yours who’s really boss in this universe. Tear the very skies apart like a curtain, send out a whirlwind of judgment that makes the immovable mountains shake like jello. Break in the door like a SWAT officer with helmet and rifle and shout to the devil and all who do his bidding: drop your weapons! get on the ground! Boy, oh boy, Lord, wouldn’t that be great?

You see, when Jesus first came, He was all weakness, humility, and suffering. He didn’t take charge and execute utter revenge on those enemies of His. He instead let them insult Him, accuse Him of blasphemy and killed Him for making Himself as though He was equal to God. But He really was! Sure, Jesus did some miracles, and they were pretty amazing sights to see, but He was just too complacent for our taste; too willing to let the world walk all over Him. He even said, turn the other cheek when someone strikes you and if they sue you and take the very shirt off your back, let them have your coat too. That just makes us scratch our heads in utter bewilderment. How is that going to defeat any enemies? How is that going to give Him the utter victory? So we echo the cry that we hear from Isaiah, Come down, Lord Jesus! Stir up your power, the ancient prayer says. We await your coming to set things right! Flex your muscles! Get a little angry! Show ’em an Advent that they’ll never forget!

There’s just one thing that we’re forgetting, though, when we start thinking like that. Isaiah catches it, too, midway through chapter 64. When we plead for Almighty God to let loose His wrath and judgment against all evildoers, then it also becomes really dangerous for us. You can’t play with the fire of the Law and not get burned. And it’s not like you risk getting caught in the crossfire, and swept away by accident as collateral damage. It’s His direct blow of utter condemnation that would decimate you, since the Ten Commandments condemn you just as much as they do Satan, Hitler, all terrorists, and even that driver who cut you off on the highway! When you pray for Divine power to tear heaven open, it will be a little too hot to handle for you because of your sins that have offended against His perfect righteousness.

Isaiah even takes the Law one step further. It’s not just for our sins that we deserve to suffer eternal death and complete separation from God. No, it’s our righteous deeds, too—they are a polluted garment, or a filthy rag. Our attempts to impress our Lord with how good we are—think of the vilest thing that would make even a trash man turn up his nose in disgust! As a result of our inner self-pride, we fade like a leaf before the Lord’s justice, and we have every right to simply blow away with the fall wind and be no more. There is no hope for us, if God would ever answer our plea with His magnificent power.

That’s why Advent begins with Palm Sunday. It’s because we need a Savior, not a SWAT team leader. We need Jesus Christ crucified, humiliated, condemned in our place, and then risen from the dead to grant us peace. He came not to swing his arms in destruction and take names. Jesus came to spread out His arms on the cross and write your name in the book of Life in heaven. The blast of judgment would have been unbearable for you, and you would have been lost forever, but that blast was fired instead at Christ, your Savior, and He suffered the wrath that you deserved. Isaiah asked, We have been in our sins a long time, and shall we be saved? Jesus answered, Yes, because that is the reason why I have come!

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the week of His death and resurrection as a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy: Behold, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey. Thus He began His holy mission to rescue the world not with a show of strength, but with utter weakness and the suffering of the cross. The crowds cheered at the presence of their Savior, but it would be the shouts of Crucify Him a few days later that would drown out the praises of the faithful. Because Jesus did not escape death, many thought that He was defeated. But faith rules out over sight, because faith saw the full force and power of God’s judgment condemning His Son in place of the people of the whole world. That was the true victory, the utter defeat of Satan, and it looked the whole time like evil had won the day.

Palm Sunday fulfilled a prophecy, but in riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus did a little prophesying of His own. The procession that was done in lowliness on a colt, a mere beast of burden, was a picture of a grand procession that is yet in the future—even for us! When Christ shall come again, the payment for sins will have already been paid. He won’t need to do that again. Jesus will come to claim you as His own, to raise the dead and welcome those who believed in Him. Everything that was complete ever since the time He said, It is finished! on the cross, will be open and evident to everyone at the Last Day. That’s the coming to which we as His Church are looking forward. Palm Sunday begins our Advent season, not because the Lord needs any help finishing His business, because it is all done! Our Christmas preparations need to include spiritual preparations of our heart to receive Him while He still comes to us in lowliness.

Yes, Jesus Christ, the Almighty God who has assumed again all power and authority over heaven and earth, comes to you today to clean house. But the Law, the smash-and-tear-down condemnation that you so desire, is for now only unleashed upon your sinful heart. Here in this place, though you cannot see it, sinners are crucified and saints are raised up to new life, pure and clean in His forgiveness. When you give up on handing up to God your love, your time served in His kingdom, your efforts to make yourself look good, then you have truly been destroyed so that the Holy Spirit will then make you a new creation. The bad guys are still going to have their shot at you, and they will hurt you, even as they use people whom you thought you could trust. But do not let that discourage you. God’s Word never lies. His promises never fail. He is no longer angry at your sin, and the iniquity, the stain that your sin has left, will be remembered no more. Christ will come again and give you thousands-fold whatever you lost in this life for the sake of His holy name.

Prepare your heart for Christmas this Advent, not merely eager for God’s judgment to show the bad guys who’s really the boss, but joyful that His judgment was spent completely on Jesus Christ for you, and for everyone who has sinned against you. Trust in your heavenly Father as the potter, and you are the clay, and be pleased to let Him form you to be His own dear child, and an instrument of His heavenly peace to everyone you meet in your daily life. Welcome your lowly Savior among you today. Hunger and thirst for the forgiveness, peace and righteousness that He gives you as His precious gift. And look forward with great encouragement to the Day when He will come again in glory to take you home forever with Him and all the blessed saints.

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

First Week of Advent

First Week of Advent

SERMON for the Festival of Christ the King (Proper 29; Series A) November 26, 2017

Ezekiel 34:11-24 (The King as Our Shepherd)

Sheep at Canyon de Chelly

Sheep at Canyon de Chelly

In Nomine Iesu
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. …” By the time of the prophet Ezekiel, those words of King David had already been on the lips of the people of God for at least four hundred years. They would have most likely sung those familiar verses many times in the liturgy of both the temple and the synagogue. The metaphor of shepherd and sheep was certainly not new or foreign to the people of Israel. Even in their faraway land of Babylonian exile many could still recall their former lives of following the flocks and raising the animals that they relied upon for food and religious sacrifice. Today, on the other hand, and especially with our fast-paced, technological lives, you can run into someone who has no idea how a shepherd might lead his sheep to pasture, protect them from danger, or search them out when they run astray. But with a little help, and some of the most familiar words that are found in Scripture—namely, the Twenty-third Psalm—the image can quite easily become greatly comforting—and prophetic of the future at the same time.

However, before Ezekiel can posit the comforting shepherd image for their good, he needs to correct first what had been going wrong among the people of God, the people whom He called the sheep of His pasture. What was going wrong? The Lord had him start with the shepherds, the leaders whom He had placed among them to teach them God’s Word and lead them in the path of His Commandments. They had been given a pastoral task, that is, reveal to them the will of the one, true Shepherd, and keep them diligent in faith as they awaited His prophesied coming in the fullness of time. But instead of preparing the people for Jesus’ arrival, they were taking advantage of these so-called “sheep” for their own benefit. Instead of teaching and preaching God’s Word, they exploited their positions of authority. Rather than humbly leading the people to trust in the promises of the coming Christ, they turned them aside to the favorite gods and idols of their day.

This is not to exempt the sheep from their own guilt, however. The people themselves should have known better, since they have heard God’s Word for themselves. Parents were commanded then, as they are even now, to teach the Commandments, impress them like a seal on their children, to ensure that they would not turn from them to the right nor to the left. But what did these sheep do? They trampled through the pure drinking water with their feet, making it muddy and impossible to drink without getting sick.

What does that mean? It means mixing in falsehoods with the pure truth that gives life straight from God. They made the promise of free forgiveness that is sweet to the believer’s taste, and turned it into a bitter swill of required works that Christians are told to do for themselves, and that leaves a horrible residue of doubt on the conscience. Instead of showing love toward one another and caring for each other’s needs, these sheep preferred to bite and devour at their fellow members of the flock, pushing them away with a selfish shoulder thrust, misusing the horns of their God-given authority and talents that were originally intended to serve and protect instead. Both pastors and people, shepherds and sheep disobeyed the Lord, and they faced a severe judgment, to be rendered from the mouth of the Chief Shepherd Himself at His appearing.

This is the judgment that God’s Law hangs over your head, too. You have resisted the gentle lead of Jesus as you live your day-to-day life. Even if it was only an impure thought in your mind or a little word from your mouth, it still poisons the well for those around you. If you refuse to forgive and assume the worst will always come from your neighbor, then you have become no better yourself. You didn’t have to murder somebody or worship another god—you still stand before the throne guilty in sin. Your heavenly Father means for you to hear about the coming Judgment Day, the magnificent appearance of Christ our King and our Judge, not merely to “scare you into submission,” but to reveal to you how serious He really is about your sin. You must repent, and turn back to the meek voice of Jesus, while He is still available to you as your merciful Savior who sacrificed Himself for you. It’s not that He’s going to change, but the free standing Gospel offer of salvation and the accompanying renewal of forgiveness will one day come to an end. You and I are seldom aware of the great damage that sin causes in our lives, our church, and our families. And when we try our human, imperfect solutions and excuses, our pitiful coping and compensating mechanisms, we make our own lives even worse than they were before.

Look up with great encouragement, however, at Christ your King! Behold the Shepherd who sacrificed Himself on the cross for the sake of you, His sheep. “Behold, I, I myself, will search for my sheep and seek them out.” Before you could even realize for yourself that you were lost, your Lord came to rescue you. “I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak.”

This is quite the dramatic twist, even for Ezekiel, and he was inspired to reveal something more, something beyond all the doom and judgment. “I, (emphasize I) myself, will feed My sheep.” Really? God is going to come and do those shepherd jobs that His appointed representatives refused to do? Yes—He will bring to perfect fulfillment Psalm 23’s little “prophecy:” when God Himself comes into human flesh among us to be our Good Shepherd. This arrival of the Messiah, whom the Lord names here, “My servant David,” will inaugurate a new covenant of peace and a new, secure existence for the human sheep who by faith know the Voice of Jesus and follow Him.

When the time comes for judgment, the Lord reveals to us how that will look. He will take His flock and make distinctions between fat and lean sheep, between those of His people who truly believe, and those who inhibit the faith of the rest. They trample the grass and muddy the drinking water with their feet, but the true shepherds, that is, worthy servants of the Lord, the preachers who have “beautiful feet,” will preach the Gospel of peace.

Yes, judgment will happen, and the fat sheep who are bloated on their own self-righteousness, those who assert their own rules for morality and reject what Jesus says will bring peace on earth, goodwill to men, those imposters will be destroyed. You, however, have no fear for the appearance of Christ the King on Judgment Day—not because you have managed to escape your just judgment, but rather because the Lord, your Shepherd has restored your soul, and led you on the paths of His righteousness.

“For His name’s sake” in the Psalm means that you have received a perfect standing before the throne of God simply and solely because Jesus died and rose to achieve that gift for you. The promised servant David, whom Ezekiel preached to the exiles in Babylon 500 years ahead of time, was actually Jesus, the Son of David, born in David’s hometown Bethlehem, whom we will welcome again in grand procession next week, and one day we will shout Hosanna to our King when He trades in that lowly Palm Sunday donkey for His glorious, fiery chariot. He will usher in the kingdom that He purchased with His blood and rose to triumph in ascension when all became complete.

The entire church year has been laid out for us in a big circle. Today, at the end of the church year, we now see to where Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost have been leading us all along. The Lord who was always true God and in the fullness of time became true and perfect Man will return again to give that same perfection to you. The excitement and expectation that Advent brings to Christmas is part and parcel of the Christian’s eager anticipation of the glory that has been promised at the end of the world. When wise men from all nations worship the Christ Child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they foreshadow a gathering of believers from all nations before the throne of Christ the King. He who once was transfigured on the mountaintop in the sight of His disciples will once again appear bright as the sunlight to bring us to His eternal dwelling place. His suffering, death and resurrection that are revisited every church year are the precise evidence that acquits us of all wrongdoing before the presence of our mighty Judge. And Pentecost also comes to fulfillment at Christ’s return because the Holy Spirit’s work to spread the faith and make the Church grow will finally reach its completion on the Last Day.

Till that time, listen for your Savior’s voice, the Good Shepherd. He will feed you with His Word, forgive your sins and strengthen you in body and soul to life everlasting. Your King does not rule by forcing you to do things that show honor to Him. He prefers to serve others instead, using your loving service as His means to bring blessing to everyone around you. And when your neighbors hear the Word of your Shepherd, they too shall enjoy together with you the Kingdom of glory that will never end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the ✝ Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant sdg
Pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Yucaipa, California