Blog & News

Below are our most current posts. Click HERE to see previous posts.

 

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.

Posted in: main Read more... 0 comments

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.

Posted in: main Read more... 0 comments

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.

Posted in: main Read more... 0 comments

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

Posted in: main Read more... 0 comments

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

Posted in: main Read more... 0 comments