December 14, 2016

December 11, 2016 - Isaiah 61:1-3

Theme: Christmas Breaks Captivity
1) From earthly enemies
2) From spiritual enemies
3) From eternal enemies

It's better to give than to receive… Is that true? Do we really believe that giving is better than receiving, especially around Christmas? It’s pretty nice to receive. I think when we use that phrase what we mean is that is more important to give than to receive, or maybe it is morally better to give than to receive. Anyone who says that they don’t care about what they receive in life is most likely lying. We do care, and it’s okay to care. Having a desire to live and survive simply means that you do care about receiving. Receiving doesn’t have to be a matter of over-indulgence and selfishness.

Okay, there may be more than one angle to the notion that it is better to give than to receive. But, I’m willing to guess that if I proposed to you that it is better to receive than to give, that would a lot harder to accept. If I went around the public, telling people that, I would be met with some resistance. To suggest that we should be more concerned with getting rather than giving, especially around the holidays, is not very popular. People may act like they care about getting more than anything else, but they probably wouldn’t advocate for it or wear it as a badge of pride.

But, isn’t that precisely what we should believe about God? To receive from God is always better than giving. Without receiving first from God there is nothing of value that I can offer to Him. My life depends on what He gives to me, in fact, my life began with what He gave. If we are not Christians who defend and promote receiving over giving, when it comes to God, we are not Christians. I want you to think about that now, as I read our text for today from the prophet Isaiah, in which He describes what the LORD God gives us:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of our God's vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the LORD to glorify Him.

Part 1 – From earthly enemies

Isaiah’s message is one freedom. Freedom from oppression of enemies to be sure, but freedom from things like: sorrow, worry, hurt, and any other limitation. This message was important to God’s people for many reasons. First of all, they would need freedom from enemies here on earth. In the immediate context of these verses, Judah was at peace. But, this would not last long. In an effort to protect the kingdom from the threat of the Assyrians, the very nation that conquered the northern tribes of Israel, King Hezekiah became friendly toward a distant nation called Babylon. In a moment of folly, Hezekiah invited Babylonian envoys to Jerusalem and showed them the extent of the kingdom and all the riches they had, probably in an attempt to impress them. Isaiah prophesied a message of judgment because of this in chapter 39. After Hezekiah’s reign, Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians.

The people who first read these words would have had to experience this oppression. A message of coming freedom and liberty would have been most welcome. However, this message of deliverance from earthly foes would also resonate with another generation. In Luke chapter 4 we see Jesus quoting these very verses and at the conclusion saying, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” The people listening to Jesus in the synagogue that day would not have been thinking about the Babylonians, but the Romans. They, like Isaiah’s original audience, were a people under oppression. They desired freedom and they believed Jesus would provide it as the fulfillment of these words. The tragic part of this story, as we know, is that the majority of the people limited God’s liberty to the earthly realm. True enough, with the peace of forgiveness that Jesus brought also came deliverance from all earthly oppressors, but not in an immediate, literal sense. Jesus taught that a person could be free even if an earthly nation ruled over them. True freedom is the knowledge of sins forgiven. If a person’s heart is cleansed and purified by the Holy Spirit, what does it matter what the rest of the world does? It’s the same attitude that David wrote about in Psalm 56: “I trust in God, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me?” That’s freedom.

While Jesus did not come as an earthly Savior, He does neutralize all worldly threats. His promise of “Because I live you also will live” can indeed be true even if our mortal lives come under threat or death. So, yes, this message of a coming Savior, fulfilled by Jesus through His birth and death, is a message that breaks captivity under earthly enemies. But, it only does so by first breaking the spiritual bonds of our slavery.

Part 2 – From spiritual enemies

The fact that Isaiah continually points to the gifts which God will give reminds us that we can’t give enough by ourselves. God is the one who gives us the ability to preach the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty and the year of His favor, to comfort all who mourn, and to console the downtrodden. These are amazing gifts, of a spiritual nature, which come only through the fulfillment of these verses, Jesus Christ. Isaiah summarizes at the end of the chapter by writing, I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness. We rightly rejoice at these gifts but we also humbly remember that we are insufficient before God on our own.

Here we see one of the greatest spiritual enemies that can easily keep us captive. It is the inward feeling or desire to justify ourselves outside of God. Think about that definition. It is the complete opposite of the way that the Bible describes salvation. The Bible says that Jesus, God, justifies us freely outside of ourselves. The complete opposite is that we would seek to be justified through our works outside of God. This teaching, as blatantly false as it is, is still a great enemy to our faith.

There’s a great danger present in our lives from this enemy for two reasons. First, we are all captive to the enemy of self-righteousness as soon as we enter this world. We are born into sin and therefore corrupted by it immediately. You can’t state it any simpler than Paul did, “There is none who is righteous, not even one.” The second danger is this. We may be freed by Christ from the clutches of this enemy through baptism and faith, but it stays near us for all our days. The fallen nature is an enemy that sits on the doorsteps of our hearts and the only thing to keep it at bay is the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament. So, even after being set free, we can at any time slip up and fall victim to the unregenerate flesh. We cannot let up or get any feeling of self-confidence or that could be it.

The Christmas season has its own peculiar variety of this ancient enemy. We know it as the danger of materialism. Isn’t materialism the reason why we remind ourselves that it is better to give than to receive? We don’t want to become selfish or greedy, for good reason. In this way, giving is a good protector against materialism. But, it’s not a total fix. Swinging too far into the domain of what we must do in order to protect ourselves can lead up right into the trap of the sinful flesh; namely that we block out any thought of what God has done for us and we focus only on our good merits instead. In the end, it doesn’t matter if our thoughts today are centered on greed and desire or the more pious options of giving and humility; if we do not have Christ in our hearts nothing matters and nothing is fixed.

To have strength and power against spiritual enemies, whether work righteousness or materialism, we need to receive what God gives us – Good news, healing, liberty, comfort, and consolation. Isaiah’s message is a far cry from what we typically hear in Christianity, especially in America. Today, the emphasis in so many churches is on those things which you must give to God. Prayer, Praise, Thanksgiving, Time, Talents, Money. It’s not that any of these things are bad, not at all. It’s not that we shouldn’t be doing any of these things. The problem is when they become the focus of your faith.

Simply put, the Christian faith is not about what we do for God. It’s about what He gives us. If we are conditioned only to give and give and give, and we never think about receiving anything, we have a major problem. Isaiah says, “It is better, it is necessary to receive, rather than to give.” If we don’t take this to heart and believe it, we will remain captive under our spiritual enemies. Only Jesus can liberate us. Only He, the Child born on Christmas, can set us free, as He Himself has said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 "And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 "Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:34-36).”

Part 3 – From eternal enemies

Isaiah first wrote to a people who would be captive under the Babylonians. Jesus spoke these words to those who were oppressed by the Romans. Physical captivity was a reality for God’s people and He promised to free them. Jesus also made clear that His mission was of a spiritual nature; that He sought to free people from the bondage of sin and the prison of their hearts. These things are true of Isaiah’s message, but he also warns us of one, final enemy, the one who would hold us for eternity - Satan.

Thoughts of eternity enter our minds as we read Isaiah’s warning of the Lord’s day of vengeance. God can certainly bring His righteous vengeance to the world in many ways, but there is going to be one final day. I heard a pastor speak earlier this last week about how every belief ultimately is concerned with death. Not in the sense that death is the sum and substance of all beliefs but rather that all beliefs seek to answer something about death. We don’t buy into things and trust them for no reason. We do so because they resonate with us or they answer a question we have. What bigger question exists than what happens after death? Whatever is believed in life, even if it not considered religious, will have something to say about death.

That’s because death is a certainty. No one can escape it and everyone knows it coming. Death is absolutely true no matter what one’s religion is. How amazing it is then, that people choose to believe so many things about death that ignore the matter entirely. People choose to believe that death isn’t important. People willingly plead ignorance about death. People choose to ignore the problem entirely, even though there will come a day that they no longer can. People choose to believe things that can’t be proven in order to help them cope with something that can’t be denied. It’s fascinating in one sense, but also sad. 

Death is Satan’s greatest tool. He was successful in deceptively slipping it into life through Adam and Eve’s sin and ever since it has wreaked havoc on mankind. So much so, that even as wise and advanced as people are today they are nevertheless more dumbfounded over death than ever before. Death, and its eternal consequences, indeed comprise the deadliest prison ever.

What a miracle, that in these few words, and in the humble birth of a Savior in Bethlehem, we have the answer for the questions of eternity. Isaiah gives us the gift of freedom and it’s so simple. All of these amazing promises of God are given to us in Jesus Christ. It’s so simple you can feel it in the words of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus unassumingly enters the synagogue, reads them, sets the scroll down, and says, “Today, these words have come true.”

Do you recognize and believe what that simple sentence means for you today? You are free, to preach, to proclaim, to heal, to comfort, and to console. What wonderful gifts we can give, both to others and to our Lord. But, it all starts as it does in our text, by receiving them in your own heart. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

December 6, 2016

December 4, 2016 - Luke 1:67-80

Theme: Overshadowed and Overjoyed.

Expectations are a big part of our lives. Even though expectations are just ideas, often speculation, they play such a big impact in our lives. Very often, expectations seep into reality and affect what we actually do in life. The problem is, expectations can be like bubbles that burst. Sometimes, we set up expectations that are too high and we are disappointed when they don’t come to pass. Other times, we expect something in a situation where nothing is guaranteed. We can become upset when what we hoped for doesn’t become reality.

Failed expectations hurt and often they can change our mindset of life completely. In the workplace, there’s a certain expectation that if you remain faithful to your employer and you work hard, you will advance and your loyalty will be returned in kind. But, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.

When it comes to school, a similar thing applies. Imagine devoting an entire semester or year to one particular project. You study for hours on end. You research questions, you test theories, and you can tell you have actually learned a lot. But, if your end product does not meet the expectations of teacher, it really doesn’t mean much even though you did learn and grow.

What we continually learn from life is that even more important than expectations themselves, is the way in which you respond to their success or their failure. When life doesn’t seem fair, what is the next course of action? It’s been said that a person’s true character is revealed most clearly when he or she is put to the test. Very often, that revelation is made known through the result of one’s expectations. Hear now, a prophecy from one of God’s priests, about one of God’s greatest prophets. It comes from Luke 1:67-80, where Zacharias speaks about the work of his son, John.

Luke 1:67-80 Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, 70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began, 71 That we should be saved from our enemies And from the hand of all who hate us, 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: 74 To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. 76 "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, 77 To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, 78 Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; 79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace." 80 So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Lord, we ask You to sanctify us by Your truth, for Your Word is the truth.

The one to be born as the Forerunner of the Messiah, the last great prophet of God before Christ, had a great responsibility. You can sense the sincerity and love in the words of Zacharias to his new-born son, especially as he said, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.” Talk about high expectations.

We know how intimidating witnessing can be, especially when it is unpopular. Christian witnesses have the expectation to speak the truth, which means that God cares what is said and how it is said. It goes without saying that we don’t want to upset the eternal Creator of the universe. There’s pressure. Then, we also know that peoples’ reactions to the message of God’s Word can be negative, even dangerous at times. That’s pressure too. It’s tough to be a faithful witness of God’s Word.

Think of John’s position though. He was no ordinary witness. His job was to prepare people for the birth and ministry of God’s Son. This would only happen once. There were no second chances. This was it. If John messed up, it could seriously affect Jesus’ work and mankind’s ability to know and believe eternal salvation. The expectations were never higher. And John delivered. Through his faithful ministry, John would fulfill every one of his father’s predictions in this text.

But, it also meant something on top of all the expectations. John would need to be overshadowed by Jesus. We know how painful it can be to get overshadowed. It’s like the examples we mentioned earlier. You devout your entire life to a certain cause, and you do it well, but very few remember you in comparison to the one who comes after. That was John’s relationship with Jesus, and John embraced it. It’s pretty astounding that this text is really all about Jesus. On the surface, this was John’s time to shine. This was his moment in the Scriptures; the memorial verses about his role in God’s plan of salvation. Could it really be wrong to expect a little emphasis on John, if only for a moment? And yet, in this song of praise at John’s birth, it centers most of all on Jesus, the One to come after.

That’s because John’s life was all about Jesus, both by God’s design and by John’s own actions. Zacharias hearkens back into the annals of Israel’s history to describe the significance of his son’s birth. It was prophesied throughout the ages by God’s prophets. John’s birth was an integral piece to the completion of the covenant promise given all the way back to Abraham and even to Adam. These details were part of the reason why the expectations were so great. But, John also lived to the glory of His Savior in His life.

We see John’s mentality in a very straight-forward story about the transition between his ministry and Jesus’. When John’s disciples come to him with concerns about Jesus’ popularity and how it might affect their ministry, John replies by saying, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said,`I am not the Christ,' but,`I have been sent before Him.' 29 "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. 30 "He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:28-30).”

If John wanted to complain about being overshadowed, he had every right in the eyes of his disciples. He was a great prophet. Jesus Himself said that there was no greater prophet born among women (Matthew 11:11). John could have resisted Jesus’ popularity and influence if he wanted to, and many would have supported him because the expectations for John’s life were so great. But, not every expectation matches reality. John knew, believed, and confessed the truth. His entire life and ministry were present precisely so that Jesus could overshadow him.

John makes it sound easy, but how painful it must have been to be overshadowed. Expectations tell us that we must continually move forward and upward or we’re somehow missing out or not fulfilling our potential. Isn’t this how we feel in our jobs, hobbies, and classes? Isn’t this what the mantra of the world tells day after day; that we should be better tomorrow than we are today? We hear that about church and God’s Word too, don’t we? The world says, if a church is doing what it’s supposed to, numbers will grow, people will come and stay. But is that how it works? John said, I must decrease. How contrary that is to the world we live in.

Imagine John near the end. Imagine him sitting, chained up in the dark, dank prison of Herod’s dungeon. Certainly he would have reflected on his life. How could his father’s words here possibly be true? This end was defeat, was it not? John was God’s great prophet and somehow a spoiled, selfish, and entitled princess, with the queen, gets to take his life in a completely barbaric way? John’s life would certainly seem to be a shattered expectation.

The reality of that proposition depends entirely upon that which overshadowed John. As I mentioned before, the amazing aspect of this prophecy is that it really is all about Jesus. Two titles dominate the section, both of which apply to Jesus. The first is in verses 68-69: 68 "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David. Zacharias makes mention of a “horn of salvation” that God raised up through the family line of David. He would go on to say that the prophets of God foretold of this horn of salvation.

When we trace this title in the Scriptures we see what Zacharias was speaking about. Psalm 132:17 reads, There (Zion) I will make the horn of David grow; I will prepare a lamp for My Anointed. David himself wrote in Psalm 18:2, The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. This “horn of salvation” was Jesus, foretold long ago as the victorious Messiah to come from God.

Old Testament believers used the horn as a symbol for the Messiah because it was a picture of power. Here, we are speaking of the actual horn of an animal, not the musical instrument. When you think of the use of an animal’s horn, it comes down to power. The horns of deer, goats, and other such animals are used to overpower adversaries. There’s also an application here to Old Testament sacrifices. The altar used for sacrifices was built with four horns, one on each corner. The sacrifice would be tied down to the altar with ropes affixed to the four horns. Thus, in Old Testament culture, these horns became synonymous with mercy, for it was at the altar, and through the sacrifice upon the altar, that God shed His grace and mercy upon the people. We even have examples of people who fled to the temple and clung to the horns of the altar for peace after having committed a crime.

In both senses, it fits that Jesus is the “horn of salvation.” In a simple way, He is powerful. He exerts His will over all enemies. As we pray with confidence in the Lord’s Prayer, so we have hope, that God would “deliver us from evil.” He has that power. But, Jesus is also the “horn of salvation” in the sense of a sacrifice. He was the very sacrifice for sins upon the cross but He also chose to die. His love for sinners held Him upon the cross; He was the very horn to which His righteous offering was affixed on God’s holy altar of Calvary.   

The second reference to Christ comes near the end of Zacharias’ prophecy, when he says, “Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; 79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Jesus is called, in our text, the “Dayspring.” Literally, this word simply means the dawn, or the rising of the sun. It refers to the source from which light comes. In our spiritual lives, the light of forgiveness finds its source in Jesus, and therefore He is called the “Dayspring.”

Think of how the Apostle John described this, “In him (Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5).” Through sin, all people are in the darkness. Sometimes, we convince ourselves or others convince us that sin’s darkness isn’t so bad. After all, we are still free in our lives to do as we please. But, the darkness is a prison. We may live and act as if nothing is wrong, but we are still in darkness. A prison is not always about physical bondage and shackles; it can be anything that holds us captive. Without Christ, the Light, we have no hope of escape. We can move and live freely to a certain extent in life, but on our own we will never rise above the darkness. We need Light to show us the way.

This is why we confess what we read from 1 John, This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. Those who refuse to repent before Christ may feel free in their hearts, but they are still in darkness. They are as Jesus described the Pharisees, “blind leaders of the blind (Matthew 15:14).” Jesus offers and gives forgiveness; an eternal gift that lifts us out of the prison of darkness and frees us to serve and glorify God in the light.

In these two descriptions of Jesus, John was indeed overshadowed. But, this was no defeat for he. This did not mean he failed in fulfilling his expectations. For John, to be overshadowed by Jesus was to be overjoyed. John was not overshadowed by darkness, but by light. He, and His important work as a prophet, were completely covered by the light of the Dayspring. This was God’s plan, not to demote John as insignificant, but to exalt him by the death and resurrection of the Child for whom John would straighten the path.

And this is God’s plan for you, too. Being a Christian and living by faith, and not by sight, may carry with it a fair-share of unfair things. You, as well as others, may build up expectations in your mind about what you should do, who you should believe, and how accomplished you must be. But, remember, expectations don’t always equal reality. What God says is greater than what others say. And, to be overshadowed doesn’t necessarily mean you have been conquered. In Jesus, it means you, too, are covered by the Light just as John was. Praise to God, may He keep us humble and faithful! Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.