Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years' Eve 2012

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.

Text: Luke 13:8
Theme: “One More Year”

Dear friends in Christ Jesus,

We cannot plumb the limits of the love of God. In his great prayer for the Ephesians the Apostle Paul asks that they may be able “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”1 His mercy is absolutely inexhaustible. It reaches deeper than we can fall. It extends further than we can flee. It’s more patient than we can press. It’s more gentle than we can reproach. It contains more joy than our sorrows could ever rival. And these things not in some abstract theory but forged in blood and secured in sacrifice. The problem is we don’t always believe God’s love is of such quality.

The problem is a perennial one. At this close of the calendar year things of a perennial nature appropriately occupy our attention. What may seem to be an obscure text appointed for this occasion nevertheless lends itself well for our purposes. The caretaker of the vineyard should perhaps be understood to be Christ Himself who patiently pleads for one more chance for the fig tree- one more year! Of course the greatest perennial problems always involve sin and unbelief. All God’s truths are woven together like a fabric that can eventually be unraveled by pulling on a single loose thread. For example if people do not believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures then the church has a problem. The church does have this problem and many others. But such things are nothing new. The devil is subtle in his undermining of the faith. The frog is boiled slowly. One historical illustration will suffice.

In the early centuries of the church a very pious theologian named Arius was very content to worship Jesus as Lord but not to accord Him the same eternal divinity as the Father. Jesus, according to Arius, was even created (though before the universe) by the Father. Arius claimed support in the Bible. Many dismissed this as a minor opinion about mysteries that were inscrutable anyway. But some astute members of the faith saw the danger. If Christ wasn’t fully God how could His sacrifice be a sufficient ransom for the sins of the entire world? The whole redemptive enterprise was finally compromised. How could His words in John 10 be true, “I have authority to lay it down [His life] and authority to take it up again?”2 Or those of Matthew 9 when He says, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”3

These defenders of the faith understood that the truth of Christ’s being and mission was at risk. The result is the precision of the Nicene Creed describing Christ as, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made.” Our Immanuel is God-in-the-flesh in the fullest sense of the meaning. The Scripture says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.”4 Christian truth must be grounded on the full witness of Christ- the Child of Bethlehem and sacrifice of Calvary- who He is and what He has commanded. Truth is the essential element, the basis of reality.

If there is no truth there is no real faith. Faith doesn’t exist as an independent entity- it has an object. Yes, there can be and is false trust in a countless number of things from the idea that everyone’s destiny is written in star signs and horoscopes to the belief that everyone, regardless of their past, is going to depart this life to a better place. But what are these confidences based on? Wishful thinking? Personal opinion? Jesus Christ is the only proper object of faith. He alone is the way and the truth and the life.

Faith that is cut loose from the word of God has no basis of authority. The fact that we have the gospel- the good news of salvation by grace through faith- doesn’t mean we can dismiss the wider testimony of Scripture. The gospel is the power of God for salvation but the Bible is the authority upon which truth is based. Faith that is detached from the Spirit has no sustaining power. It withers immediately from anemia. It will die for lack of legitimacy. And when there is no faith there are no good works.

If there is no faith there will be no fruits- only barren fig trees. Fruit does not grow on a dead tree. Attach fruit to it and you are only decorating death like the whitewashed tombs of the Pharisees. No matter how splendidly you decorate your artificial Christmas tree it won’t make the tree come alive. Perhaps, spiritually speaking, we spend too much time dressing up- or at least maintaining the outward appearance of- that which is already dead. Sooner or later the decay becomes evident even with the best cosmetics.

When truth is lost love is no longer grounded in the eternal. The moral philosophers from Grecian times, the utilitarians of the enlightenment era, the secular philanthropists of modern fame can all boast of piety and practicality that benefitted the world. But our time here is short and what about the life to come? God, of course, needs no defenders. He will be fully exonerated in glory. Scoffers will be speechless. Believers will rejoice. At His final Advent doubt will vanish and fear will cease.

One more year! Properly understood this is pure gospel proclamation. The Bible says, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”5 And Paul says, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience.”6 Surely the patience of God is one of the great, mysterious, and miraculous qualities of His being.

The vineyard keeper would have deemed it to be a miracle if the fig tree produced fruit the next year. But God has a pretty impressive track record when it comes to miracles. And the most important ones are often the ones we take for granted because they don’t seem flashy. God was cradled by the wood of the manger that He might be nailed to the wood of the cross. Easter validates these miracles; the power of which still comes to us in humble means.

If you want to interact with the miracles of God give rapt attention to His word of absolution. If you want to participate in the mystery of the divine presence receive His body and blood with humility and joy. If you want to know how wide, and long, and high and deep the love of Christ is remember you are baptized into the His death and resurrection; baptized into the name of the triune God. To some this seems to mean very little- a ritual that occurred (perhaps) in infancy and has been relegated to the past. But it means something to God. Had it not Christ would not have commanded it and filled it with promise.

One more Year! If God so wills it. What might happen in the next year? Circumstances may change. Over 20 years ago, a letter appeared in the national news that was sent to a deceased person by the Indiana Department of Social Services. It read as follows: Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away. (So far so good, but then it continued) May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.

Dear friends, God only knows how your circumstances may or may not change. Lazarus, whom Jesus resuscitated, had few peers. Yet, all believers will one day join him in that great resurrection of the living and the dead. Will God grant one more year? Will we be able to cope with the changes and challenges of life? We need not worry because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”7 He said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever!”8 Amen.

+ In nomine Jesu +

New Year’s Eve
31 December 2012
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt

1 Ephesians 3:18-19
2 John 10:8
3 Matthew 9:6
4 Hebrews 1:3
5 2 Peter 3:9
6 1 Timothy 1:16
7 Hebrews 13:8
8 Revelation 1:17-18

Monday, December 31, 2012

First Sunday After Christmas (C) 2012

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.

Text: Luke 2:49
Theme: From the Manger to the Temple

Dear friends in Christ Jesus,

The Holy Spirit always nurtures the faith He conceives. And though it involves mystery, He doesn’t do it magically because it never happens independently from the truth about Christ. That is, our faith is never nourished autonomously, never through our own ingenuity, never without His means. As our appointed readings transition us from the manger to the temple let us be mindful that our faith only matures as it follows Christ, never when it settles in the place of our choosing.

The evangelist Luke moves us quickly from the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem to the family residence in Nazareth. Aside from the family’s flight to Egypt, and their evasion of King Herod and his murderous plan as recorded in Matthew, we know virtually nothing about the childhood of Jesus. Our lone insight is the material of today’s gospel. At age twelve Jesus accompanied his parents to the annual Passover Feast in Jerusalem. One of the three great celebrations on the Jewish liturgical calendar it was expected that faithful Jews within reasonable distance would make the journey. The family of Jesus was no exception.

The Passover celebration reminded the Jews of God’s deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. In the final plague God sent the angel of death to strike down the firstborn of both men and beasts. Only those were spared who had the lamb’s blood over the doorframes of their houses. To be held in perpetual remembrance the Passover’s meaning was meticulously taught to each new generation. It was a central part of the identity of God’s people. This history was the background for John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”1

Joseph and Mary are now served notice about the future of their maturing son. “Didn’t you know I had to be in My Father’s house?”2 Remember that Mary had been pondering all these things in her heart.3 Still, the Bible says, “They did not understand what He was saying to them.”4 Even Jesus’ parents needed time to begin to really appreciate the destiny of their son. We have the hindsight of history and do we fare better? Is the temptation to make Christmas mainly about us not stronger than ever? Christmas doesn’t eliminate the need for repentance but lends to it hope and purpose.

Will you leave go of those things that are not really gifts, but idols? Do you see that you are not really owners of all your possessions but stewards- including your time and talents? You are custodians of God’s blessings meant not for abuse but for the well-being of your neighbour. Do you realize our most entrancing idols are often not physical objects but ambitions of the will? Whether it involves pride, or image, or control the sinful nature seeks to unseat God from His rightful place. Our picture of sin often involves obvious transgressions- immorality of all sorts, dishonesty, theft, slander, violence- yet these are the symptoms. The source is our insistence of having our own way. Perhaps more of our repentance should be aimed at our attitudes as opposed to the obvious offences?

So do not underestimate the stubbornness of your own will. Our agendas, spiritual and otherwise, become quite intractable- but we don’t see it. Believe that it is something you don’t have the power to correct on your own. It requires the Holy Spirit. It requires the superhuman power of God’s Word. Egotism is recognized only in the mirror of the law. Whenever our sins become trivial in our own eyes we can be certain they are very major to God. The more trifling our view of sin the more compromised our spiritual condition. Pride is not a sporadic problem that is easily brushed aside. It is endemic in human nature and has pathological symptoms.

But just when you think your repentance is good enough- you’ve wrestled with anguish of conscience. You find out that absolution isn’t at all contingent or proportional. Now we must be clear, the stubborn and ungrateful heart forfeits God’s grace. For the unrepentant there is only one message: turn from your sin because you are under God’s condemnation. The door to heaven is locked. Grace is a gift that cannot be acquired on our own terms.

But the conscience that trembles with fear over sins great or small never fails to find mercy at the throne of grace. The person who fears he can never be good enough; she can never impress God; the person who despairs of his or her own spiritual merits- this person can be assured the grace of God is meant for them. The forgiveness of Jesus Christ is freely offered with no strings attached. You are declared righteous completely independently from your input. You are baptized into the death and resurrection of the Emmanuel. There is no power of darkness that can finally prevail over you.

And these truths have consequences. St. Paul says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love.”5
What a privilege it is to know we need not be enslaved to the agendas and mindsets of the world. We have confidence that in His time and in His way God looks after our every need. He cradles us in the infancy of our physical and spiritual lives and He carries us through the grave.

Today the boy Jesus has gone from the manger to the temple. He is already questioning the scholars. Yet is He any closer to being the image prophesied and so clearly referenced at Christmas: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?”6
Jesus would go to the temple again. He would overturn the tables of the money-changers. He would rebuke those who turned it into an opportunity for profit, for self-interest. Yet when He offered up His own life for the forgiveness of sins the holy of holies was not in the temple but at the cross.

Dear friends, as His body was rent in death the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The door to heaven was now open. The Israelites consumed the Passover lamb. It was their communion with God and assurance of His blessing. Marked by the blood of the Lamb we also consume it as our source of life. We receive spiritual and immortal food. By this means the Holy Spirit nurtures our faith. By this same means He leads us to eternity.

One of the dangers of Christmas is that Jesus becomes not an object of worship but of magnetic charm. This is both the power and liability of cuteness in infancy. But faith must mature with the maturing Christ. The miracle of Christmas would come to fruition only after Jesus was no longer cradled by the wood of the manger but fastened to the wood of the cross. His mission was not to perpetuate a ‘cult of infancy adoration’, but to resolve the very mature crises of life and death. He came to face the power sin and hell head-on. His resurrection gives the title ‘Immanuel’ new meaning. Glory to God in the highest! Amen.

+ In nomine Jesu +

First Sunday After Christmas
30 December 2012
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt

1 John 1:29
2 Luke 2:49
3 See Luke 2:19
4 Luke 2:50
5 Colossians 3:12-14
6 Isaiah 9:6