With the change of the church year and getting out of the festival season we will start to notice the new Gospel reading. Luke is left behind and Matthew and John have the year. It may seem like overkill, but when you’ve read through each enough you can have a epiphany. Each gospel wants to be read on its terms. John’s terms are meditative. They are like an icon through which we see the reality. What this sermon does is attempt to ponder the diptych. The first scene is John the Baptist’s proclamation of the Lamb of God. The second scene is he response of two of his disciples. John the Baptist, the authoritative prophet, gives us the valid answers to Jesus’ question – “what are you seeking?” The sermon examines the uniqueness of that answer. It then looks at the second scene as an image of our response.
Worship note: I left in our opening hymn, an Epiphany season staple, LSB 409, Hail, O Source of Every Blessing.
I think I mentioned that because Christmas was a Sunday there are a bunch of small feast days that end up on the calendar. Today was another, the Baptism of Jesus. These days might seem extraneous, but with a little reflection are often quite deep and meaningful. The baptism of Jesus is connected to our baptism. Because he stood under those waters for us, we receive his baptism of grace. He took our unrighteousness and gives us his righteousness. This sermon meditates on a slightly different theme supported by the Epistle lesson. When we have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to new life – freedom – what is the quality of that freedom. Are we made free to do whatever we want? As Paul answers, by no means. The freedom that Jesus displays is not the freedom to do what he wants but the freedom to become what we are. In Jesus’ case he is the Son of the Father and the savior of mankind. Was Jesus at liberty to proceed right to the fire? Well, he could have, but that would not have been freedom because it was less than Jesus was to be. We also, through our baptism, are free to become Children of God. We are freed from our fear of death and our bondage to sin, free to live as God intended. And we do this by faith. The sermon investigates
These special services I tend to treat homiletically different. If I’m exegetical meaning more surely grounded in the text on a regular Sunday, in the special services I tend to the personal and reflective. Part of that is audience, part of that liturgical settings. One theme of Epiphany is coming to know the truth. We live in an age that is constantly experiencing what it thinks are epiphanies. Also, as a Lutheran minister, I’m the heir to an epiphany of sorts – Luther’s recovery of the gospel. The gospel itself according to Paul is an epiphany – “hidden for the ages and now revealed”. This sermon is my reflections on spiritual discernment. How do I sort out true epiphanies from false claims of truth. As I say in the sermon, I think every Christian must develop some of this on their own, but this is mine.
Whenever Christmas is on a Sunday there are a bunch of minor holidays of the the life of Christ that are also observed because they fall on a Sunday. A couple of them come right away. January 1 is the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus – 8 days after the birth. This sermon tackles that subject.
I hope the really bad joke at the start cleared the air for a stronger consideration of the day, because as I hold in the sermon I think the Circumcision and Naming is a deep strain of the gospel. If we weren’t able to contemplate the day because of snickering, we are missing something that stretches from Abraham to the Eschaton. I’d invite you to listen.
Part of the sermon is the example that prior generations have left us in the hymns. I left in our three hymns today. The first two are referenced directly: The Ancient Law Departs LSB 898 and Jesus Name of Wondrous Love LSB 900. I also left in our concluding hymn, O Sing of Christ LSB 362. The words are modern and the tune is familiar (Forrest Green, the Fancy O Little Town of Bethlehem). That combination makes for a surprisingly good 1st Sunday after Christmas hymn. It moves on from the simple fact of the incarnation to ponder it along with John 1 but including the themes resonant with the Circumcision and Naming – the frailness of the flesh and the wealth of the Name.
Maybe it is just getting older, but two things I experience daily that a younger man wouldn’t think could happen together. It could just be becoming set in my ways, but that isn’t how I experience it. Daily I am more convinced both of basic Christian doctrine and also with specific Lutheran doctrine. I’m a contrarian by nature. It is the last thing I would have expected. At the same time as becoming more sure of that doctrine, I’m becoming less militant. What I mean by that is while I can’t imagine something that forces a rethink on Augsburg Confession doctrine, I’m also much more willing to say with Paul “and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil 3:15-16)” We are all straining toward a goal we have not attained. I save my militancy for those situations where I see people deliberatively leaving the narrow way, and those tempting them off it.
A Great and Mighty Wonder is my favorite Christmas hymn. It helps that it is set to Es IST Ein Ros (Lo, How a Rose is Blooming), but that isn’t everything. When you understand a little of the life of the writer it becomes all the more powerful. This sermon hopefully proclaims the savior’s birth, reflected through St. Germanus, while living in the eschatological hope. Germanus’ life is a life that is incomprehensible outside of doctrine. It is also one that understands how that doctrine itself can deny the hope that is only Christ. His hymn is a moving meditation moving to the great hope when all idols – seen and unseen – shall perish and satan’s lying cease. And Christ shall raise his scepter, decreeing endless peace.
The recording for this night just didn’t turn out. The sermon conceit is a challenge: write the great Christmas hymn from the shepherds’ story. Unlike with the Angels or Mary and the Wise Men or even the night or the town, that song about the Shepherds that everyone has first doesn’t exist. What would it have to include to capture the shepherds tale of the incarnation. Take a read to see.
Instead of the recording, I did take some pictures of the place before everyone arrived. Nobody every believes me when I talk about the quality of the light in St. Mark’s sanctuary at night. These snaps capture the warm yellow glow of it.
The recording is our Children’s Christmas Pageant. There is a short homily by me at the start and then the kids you see in the photos take over and renew the story of the Son given to us. Their bother, Immanuel.
Luke’s nativity accounts are Mary focused. Matthew’s are really involved Joseph more, including the decision about what to do with a pregnant girl when you know the child isn’t yours. The Bible is always more gritty that our romantic construction of it. Our romantic construction is earned by its ending – the dragon is slain and the Kingdom established – but there are lots of adventures along the way. There is an Old English Carol – The Cherry Tree Carol – that captures the same moment that Matthew does. It is a fun Carol, but the theology is horrible. This sermon is a little compare and contrast. The Carol represents our idea of the best way to answer the problem of the pregnant bride. The gospel is God’s invitation to a different way.
Worship note: The opening and closing hymns have been included. LSB 349, Hark the Glad Sound, is on of my personal favorite hymns. It combines the themes of Advent with the ways of talking about justification that resonate most with me, release of the prisoners and enriching the poor and needy. And it does this with a snappy hymn tune. The ending traced the paths of the sermon better than any and summarized the service intended. LSB 333, Once He Came in Blessing, addresses how he is named Jesus. He frees his people from their sins. He does this through word and sacrament flowing from the cross. This sacrificial grace calling for faith looks for its resolution when the day of grace turns into the day of resurrection and triumph. I’ve also included below a version of the Cherry Tree Carol
The season, Advent to be specific but you could say the extended Christmas season, begins for me when I hear “On Jordan’s Bank”. That was our opening hymn – LSB 344. The funny thing is that hymn reflects some of the theological turns that obscure the Baptist’s message. It turns from the direct and present cry of John on the Banks of the Jordan toward a spiritualized understanding. “The Lord is Nigh” becomes “and let us all our hearts prepare For Christ to come and enter there.” Charles Coffin, the hymn writer, was a French Jansenist. What that means is a Catholic Calvinist. The Jansenists eventually were repressed and died out within the Catholic church, but in Coffin and Pascal they remain in the Church Universal. His Jansenism dominates verses 2 and 3, but he returns is verse four to the Baptist’s message which is not a retreat to a spiritual realm, but the coming down of the Lord.
The sermon attempts to get us to hear John the Baptist. True religion is not a matter of choice – something those Jansenists would understand. True religion in the reign of Christ. Today that is the reign of grace. Christ has taken our deserved baptism of fire and given us his baptism. This time the people of God don’t cross into the promised land across that Jordan on dry ground with swords for conquest. This time we cross by water and by our absolute repentance which is our acknowledgement that before the Lord we’ve got nothing. Coming right behind, is the final baptism. The Holy Spirit which we have as the down payment will be set free to recreate everything. Those sealed in the living water shall live, those without perish in the refining fire.
The final hymn – LSB 345 – Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding is a old Latin hymn that captures well that progression. Hear the Baptist; hear the solemn warning. Today see “the lamb of God with pardon. Let us haste with tears of sorrow, one and all to be forgiven”. Tomorrow, “when next he comes in glory, the world is wrapped in fear, He will shield us with his mercy, and with words of love draw near”. The Lord has treated us with love and solidarity. We have nothing to fear in his drawing near. Come Lord Jesus.
The text for the first Sunday in Advent is usually Palm Sunday. The theme is the Advent of the King. There are multiple ways that Advent invites us to ponder the Kingship of Jesus. We can reflect on the first advent in a holy longing for the second advent. The first time in grace and humility, the second in judgement and power. We could reflect on the King as stand-in for His people. In this case the King on the way to the cross and our penitential need. That is Advent as a penitential season. The Isaiah text which is just as much the sermon text of the day invites a third meditation, Advent as the dawning and growing of the light. What this sermon attempts to do is think about what it means to have a King. It posits a couple of forms of human kingship – modern and ancient. It then contrasts those with the Biblical picture of the Kingship of Jesus. It concludes with the encouragement as the natural light grows shorter, to let they spiritual light brighten. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
Worship notes: The other voice you hear is our Seminarian Tim Bayer. He was in town for Thanksgiving and it is always great to be able to include him in the service. Since the break is a short one, he and his wonderful voice handled the liturgy for us. I’ve left in two hymns. At the start LSB 343, Prepare the Royal Highway. At the end LSB 331, The Advent of Our King. Both carry the Kingship theme and explore it is ways similar to the sermon. I love the hymns of Advent. I’ll often try to work some of them in during the year itself because the season itself is made to short. The other reason is that the themes of advent are so deep and worthy of reflection.