Bless God for Christmas

3 01 2010

 Luke 1:68-75

Lk 1 68-75 Bless God for Christmas

Luke 1:68-75 (NIV)

 68“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
      because he has come and has redeemed his people.
 69He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
      in the house of his servant David
 70(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
 71salvation from our enemies
      and from the hand of all who hate us—
 72to show mercy to our fathers
      and to remember his holy covenant,
 73the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
 74to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
      and to enable us to serve him without fear
 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 

Footnotes:

  1. Luke 1:69 Horn here symbolizes strength.

The English Bible quoted in your bulletin translates the first verse of our text, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel.” A number of older translations say, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” I like that, not necessarily because it’s a better translation per se, so much as it is a more thought-provoking one. We talk about praising God all the time. He is most worthy of praise. That’s a good thing. But how do you bless God? How do you give anything to him that isn’t his already?

First let me settle any confusion there may be about the word bless. This particular word is not the same one you find in the Sermon on the Mount, where God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek,” etc., etc. That word certainly does mean what we tend to think of blessed as normally meaning, which is “favored with gifts from God” and such.

But the word in our text for “blessed” (“praise be to”) actually means something more like “spoken well of.” So when Zechariah says, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel” here, what he’s saying is that he would like for people to speak well of the Lord, to say good things about him. Why? “…because he has come and has redeemed his people.”

In other words, bless God for Christmas. Speak well of him because he came into the world to be born as one of us. Say great things about God, because “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through the prophets of long ago).” And since a horn was, for them, a sign of strength and might, that’s as much as saying that God has just sent himself into battle as the ultimate weapon against the enemies of his righteous people. Only God himself in human flesh could fight this battle. Bless God for Christmas!

So who doesn’t bless God for Christmas? We might well think of Herod, of course. He’s the king of Judea who slaughtered all the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate the Christ before he became a threat to his precious throne. He’d be an easy one, although I doubt any of us would compare ourselves to him. More likely than not we really wouldn’t compare anyone to him.

So think of the people who got angry with Jesus most often. Think of the religious officials from Jesus’ day. They certainly didn’t speak well of Christmas. They didn’t bless God for sending Jesus into the world. Now, you may be thinking, “Yes, but they didn’t understand him. They weren’t angry about Christmas because they didn’t know that Jesus was the actual Christ.”

If you’re thinking that, I would only ask that you reconsider one word, and that is understand. And I only ask you to reconsider it because there were many occasions on which the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law understood perfectly well that Jesus was absolutely right in what he was saying. That was what made them so infuriated, in fact: They couldn’t trap him in his words. Also, they understood that he was doing legitimate miracles, as well. They had investigated his claims and his powers many times and had never been able to discount anything.

So to say they didn’t understand who he was is surprisingly inaccurate. The word you’re looking for there is believe. They refused to believe he was the Christ, evidence to the contrary.

That’s an important distinction when it comes to blessing God for Christmas. We all pretty much understand what God did at Christmas. We know the story well. In fact, we have to remind the student in the Christmas program every year not to look bored when they tell it just because the know it so well!

But the point is that understanding isn’t really the issue when it comes to blessing God for Christmas. Faith is. In fact, a better example of blessing God or not blessing God for Christmas is Zechariah himself, the man who originally spoke the words we have recorded here. Do you remember how he originally responded to the Christmas announcement? He responded in disbelief, and the angel Gabriel got upset with him and took away his ability to speak. In fact, as far as we can tell, these inspired words were the first words out of his mouth once his ability to speak was restored! And what does he say once his ability to speak and his faith are restored? “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” Bless God for Christmas!

But people often ask, “So what was the difference between Zechariah’s “How can this be?” and Mary’s “How can this be?” In short, the answer is faith, but I want to point out that that is exactly the right question to be asking this morning when you’re trying to understand what it means to bless God for Christmas. And not only is it the right question because it gets to the heart of the matter (faith vs. understanding), but also because both Zechariah and Mary were believers. So we’re not talking about faith vs. sheer unbelief when we’re talking about truly blessing God for Christmas. We’re talking about trusting in him all the more, having strong enough confidence in him that we are outwardly moved to bless him for Christmas.

You see, Zechariah called Jesus “a horn of salvation,” which, as we discussed a moment ago, describes him as an offensive weapon in the fight against the enemies of God’s people: “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” But think carefully about those words and tell me: What enemies is Zechariah talking about?

You see, now, Zechariah got it. He was truly blessing God for Christmas. He knew this was about being rescued in the sense of being able to serve God “without fear in holiness and righteous before him.” The enemies his words have in mind are sin, death and the devil—not just people who don’t like you.

Are we going to bless God for deliverance from sin, death and the devil? I know your instinct is to immediately say yes, but think carefully about how subtle the difference was between Mary and Zechariah’s reaction. Look carefully for subtle signs of disbelief, not just in outward action but in inward attitude.

Often the obviously two go hand-in-hand. For instance, you’re not really blessing God for Christmas if you are not outwardly and actively fighting against sinful actions in your life. Christ was not sent into this world to tell us that sin was okay and God doesn’t really care about it. He was an offensive weapon in the fight against sin—”a horn of salvation” against sin! He came to take sin and temptation on and to destroy them! There is no tolerance for sin in the story of Christ. Sin is a horror and an insult in the eyes of our holy God, and Jesus’ mission specifically included dying for that offense because that was the only way to set things right between us and God. You’re not blessing God for Christmas when you say that the gift of his Son in mortal flesh was really unnecessary and barbaric, when you say that sin is really okay and that people shouldn’t make such a big deal of it.

The difference between blessing and not blessing for Christmas can also be more subtle, like the difference between Zechariah’s and Mary’s response to the words of the angel Gabriel. Sometimes we do not respond to the Word of God with the proper joy because we don’t trust every word of it to be absolutely true. Outwardly our response to it may not seem very different because we’re going to church and singing hymns like everyone else, but inwardly we are torn up by some of the things that God says in his Word, looking for a way around them and uncomfortable with what God is really saying.

Fellow Christians, throw these worthless doubts and unhealthy attitudes toward sin behind and rejoice all the more loudly and proudly in the gift of a Savior from sin this Christmas! We have only proven how much we need it, and yet God was still faithful in providing him! What love! What graciousness! What faithfulness, that I can say to a room full of sinners with years of evil practices, “You are forgiven.” We are forgiven! That is our Christmas gift! Bless God for that!

Others may not like it because they think God should just tolerate our sin and accept it. Others may not like it because they want to believe what they believe and not be told what is true and what is not. And even we have felt that horrible, distrusting attitude always trying to get a deeper foothold in our own hearts, but don’t you worry. God has sent a horn of salvation to deliver us from sin and unbelief. We are washed, we are clean, we are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Bless God for Christmas! Amen.

Christmas 2                                                                   Bless God for Christmas 

 January 3, 2010

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Luke 1:68-75

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I Am Is Not New

31 12 2009

Exodus 3:13 

Ex 3 13,14 I AM Is Not New

Exodus 3:13

Listen to this passage 

 13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 

Exodus 3:14

Listen to this passage 

 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am . [a] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 3:14 Or I will be what I will be

So, are you guys ready for 2010? What do you think it’s going to be like? They say the economy is turning around. Do you think that’s true? And even if it is true, do you think it will be true for Michigan?

Of course, Michigan just got on the map as being the latest target for terrorism. And what with my grandmother’s funeral in Minnesota and all, I was even more aware of the threat level than I usually am. How’s that going to affect us in 2010? Is this the year for another 9/11? And will our troops ever be coming home to us?

Then there’s the continuing pandemic scare. Then there’s this new health bill. Then there are the new technologies that make every day seem different and confusing when compared to the last. And people die. And relationships grow sour. And innocence is lost. And everything changes. It almost makes you wonder if a phrase like “Happy New Year” started as an ironic joke.

Well, one thing isn’t new, and it’s cause for celebration. One thing isn’t new, and, thanks to that truth, you can be certain that your ultimate future—and even your immediate future—will be full of blessing. All sorts of things are new, but I Am Is Not New.

And when I say, “I Am,” keep in mind that I’m not just referring to a couple of words strung together. I’m talking about the personal name of God. Remember me mentioning that a week ago on Christmas Eve? When we considered the name of Jesus, that no other name would be as sweet, we looked at what Jesus’ name meant: “The Lord Saves.” And we talked about the fact that the Lord is a reference to God’s personal name. So no name could be sweeter for the Son of God in human flesh sent to deliver us from the consequences of our rebellion than “The Lord Saves.”

But, as I just said, the Lord is really just a reference to the one, true God’s personal name. It is not the name itself. The personal name of the one, true God that he chose for himself and revealed to the world in his Word is Yahweh, or, as we often say in English, Jehovah. It sounds something like the Hebrew word for “He Is,” and a little like the word for “He lives.” In our text he explains it not by saying Yahweh, but Ehyeh, or Ehyeh a’sher Ehweh: I Am or I Am Who I Am.

Could there be a more perfect name for the one, true God? He is. He is and that’s just the way it is. He is and no one can change that. He is even if people don’t want to believe that. He is without need for anyone else to make him be or to sustain his existence. He just is, and that’s all there is to it.

Some people say that’s not a good enough explanation, but those people are not listening to the name well enough. He doesn’t require your explanation. He is whether you can explain him or not, whether you can understand him or not.

Besides, such people ultimately know that something has to just be. They understand it both instinctively and logically. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is ask them!

Those of you who have been in my Bible Information Class or my catechism classes, bear with me for a minute while I share this with the rest of the people who have not heard it before. You see, I used to be sort of embarrassed to argue that God simply is without any explanation. I went to public school through eighth grade, and there was no end of text books, articles and people who were willing to argue that belief in a God who simply is is illogical. That it is dumb, shallow, superstitious thinking.

But then I started carrying the conversation out logically with people. Note, I said logically. I didn’t have the benefit of a Lutheran Elementary School education, so I didn’t think I had the passages on hand to argue it any other way.

The conversation would generally go like this. Someone would say, “Where do you think everything came from?” And I would say, “God made it.” They would say, “Oh yeah? Well, who made God then?” I would say, “No one.” And they would smile at me like they just proved what a fool I was.

Then I would say, “Where do you think everything came from?” They would say, “It evolved over billions of years. Everyone nowadays knows that. It’s a proven fact.” I would say, “What did everything evolve from?” They would say, “We can’t say for sure, but life seemed to start in the oceans, or perhaps in some mud.” I would say, “Where did the mud come from?” “Earth and rain,” they’d say. “Where did the earth come from,” I’d ask. “It formed from cosmic dust and matter that was drawn together through the natural forces of gravity and attraction.” “Where’d the dust and matter come from,” I’d say. “From a hyper-concentrated, infinitely dense ball of matter that blew up into the emptiness of space long, long ago.”

“And where did the lump of matter come from,” I’d ask. Their answer? “It was always there.”

You see? Everyone knows that something has to have always been there. They just need to decide whether they believe that to be a loving God of order and providence or a super-dense lump of stuff that blew up a long time ago. I think you know where I stand.

I Am, God says. “Before Abraham was,” Jesus said, “I am” (John 8:58). They wanted to stone him for saying that, you know. They wanted to stone him because he was equating himself with the one, true God. He was saying that he existed before everyone, that he existed before everything, but they didn’t believe him and thought that he was mocking God.

But they were missing the most basic truth of all Scripture. They were forgetting this conversation between Moses and the one, true God, who had appeared to him out of the burning bush. They were forgetting that God identified himself by his personal name not just to show that he was real, that he existed, but especially to show that he had always been there for his people! God told Moses to go deliver the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’”

They didn’t just need an existing God. They needed a helping God, a delivering God, a faithful God, a saving God. And that is what the unchanging, unbreakable, self-sufficient, independently existent, one true God is. He Is a Savior.

Now back to the matter of this evening. Have you figured out what this sermon on the name of God has to do with you and this little New Year’s Eve commemoration tonight?

Think back to all the things that have changed, all the things that are worse, harder—more evil, treacherous and scary than ever before. The economy has gone south. Retirements are disappearing. The health care system is in trouble. Terrorists are trying to blow us up. Why do I want a new year when each new year seems to be worse than the last one?

Because of the one thing that is not new and that does not change: I Am. Because the science can change and turn our whole understanding of the make-up of the universe over on its ear, but the Lord still is. Because the Lord was there for Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, John, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Luther and all those who trusted in him no matter what the age and no matter what the trouble. This is not new, nor will it change.

And if you have betrayed him, changed on him, turned your back on him, sinned against him? Well, you sure can’t excuse it. You’ve turned your back on the one person who will always be faithful to you, the one person for whom even death is not an issue when it comes to keeping his promises. Disobeying him is turning your back on the I Am, turning your back on the very source of goodness and life. An eternity with the death we choose when we turn our back on that is the only appropriate punishment.

But when does the Lord say that we understand his name best? It’s when we need deliverance. It’s when we need help and protection. “The Lord Saves.” That’s what Jesus’ name means. “The Lord Saves.” As he did for Moses and the Israelites, as he did for you, me and the whole world when he died on the cross under the punishment our sins deserved: “The Lord Saves.”

This is not new, and a new year won’t change it, either. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:2,3,7). This is not new and will never change. Amen.

New Year’s Eve                                                                     I Am Is Not New   

   December 31, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Exodus 3:13,14





Unashamed Weakness

29 12 2009

Hebrews 2:10-18

 Heb 2 10-18 Unashamed Weakness

Hebrews 2:10-18 (NIV)

 10In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. 12He says,
   “I will declare your name to my brothers;
      in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”[a] 13And again,
   “I will put my trust in him.”[b] And again he says,
   “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”[c] 14Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for[d]the sins of the people. 18Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. 

Footnotes:
  1. Hebrews 2:12 Psalm 22:22
  2. Hebrews 2:13 Isaiah 8:17
  3. Hebrews 2:13 Isaiah 8:18
  4. Hebrews 2:17 Or and that he might turn aside God’s wrath, taking away

 

It was really my brother who talked me into playing football. I think I can fairly say that I never would have done it if he hadn’t pushed me. I just had too many reasons to feel embarrassed about it. I mean, I never played real football. It was always two-hand touch out on the Kinney Elementary playground. And even then there was always some argument on the field about the actual rules of football, and I never had any idea what they were talking about. Downs, receptions, touchbacks—I pretty much had end zone and touchdown handled, and that was about it. I couldn’t even imagine trying to figure out a real position with real pads and real tackles and real rules. I figured that I would be too ashamed of my ignorance, too ashamed of my weaknesses.

No doubt there’s been something in your experience that has produced much the same feeling. Perhaps you struggle with multiplication or fractions, so you’re ashamed to do math in front of the class. Maybe you’re no good at public speaking, so you’re ashamed to get up in front of people. Perhaps you’re really out of your element watching over little kids, so you don’t like to get caught doing any kind of babysitting—or even watching over little tykes for just a couple of minutes.

We’re ashamed to admit when we’re weak, ashamed to admit that we need help. We would like to believe that we can take care of ourselves. Our heroes are self-sufficient because that’s how we want to be. We want people to turn to us when they need help, not the other way around. Who looks up to a person who needs help from them? Thus we become ashamed of weakness.

In that sense it’s understandable that the Jewish people to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed had a hard time seeing Jesus as a hero. You may not feel that way yourself, but when you consider how much shame there is among us—especially among the adults—when we appear before people all needy and desperate, you may understand how these descendants of Abraham struggled with that baby being more important than angels. He was helpless. He needed to be fed, coddled, changed and bathed. This baby couldn’t even bring the blessings of a warm hotel room to his parents on the night of his birth!

You know, we may well understand their reluctance to honor him in his weakness better than we think. Check out your bulletin cover, for example. It sports a feature of religious art that I was really trying to avoid when I looked for a fitting picture on Friday. See the little glow around the boy Jesus’ head? That’s called a halo, as you are probably aware. Why is it there? Did Jesus’ head really glow like that? Of course not. But we can’t help but think of his power and holiness when we picture him in our minds, so we think of things like that.

And what about the people who lived in his time, who knew him by name and saw him day to day? You see, they wouldn’t even be able to picture a halo being there. Do you know why? Because it wasn’t there. What they knew wasn’t even a particularly good-looking kid. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” Isaiah prophesied, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:3). The people who knew Jesus by sight knew someone who was so normal in appearance that he was not physically noteworthy at all. No glow of power. No attractive outward qualities. Just a baby (or a kid or a guy).

Besides which, we do the same thing with his Word. It’s not flashy or full of pictures, so we have great difficulty paying attention to it, despite the fact that it is the powerful Word of Life. I doubt we would enjoy seeing a tally this year of how many hours we have spent studying God’s Word versus reading news stories, novels, or even watching TV.

Somebody who didn’t know us might well think that we were ashamed of this plain-looking guy and his boring, old book. Yet he as God was not ashamed to have his infinitely wise and powerful thoughts expressed in plain, human language for us. Likewise, the book of Hebrews says, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect [reach his goal] through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy [referring to Jesus, the Savior] and those who are made holy [us] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” And he has three Messianic quotes to demonstrate it, too.

The Jews that the author of Hebrews wrote to had some trouble with that, as evidenced by the fact that they were having difficulty ranking the all-too-familiar and all-too-human Jesus of Nazareth as more important and powerful in their minds than the bright, flashy angels who announced his birth and appeared and disappeared all over the place throughout the salvation story. And we have trouble with Jesus of Nazareth being as weak as we are as evidenced by our inability to imagine him not looking handsome or glowing or doing a miracle—despite the fact that the Word of God speaks of only three years that he actually did miracles but ten times more where he just ate, drank, slept, studied, learned a trade and was generally just human.

But he was not ashamed. Despite the fact that saving us meant being the Almighty God on his heavenly throne ruling all things and then in the very next moment becoming a helpless, thoughtless, microscopic, single-celled fertilized egg, he was not ashamed of that weakness. Even though saving us meant being so weak that there were times when his strength actually reached its limits and he had to be helped by angels (whom he created and whom he sustains by his very will!), he was not ashamed. Yes, even though our salvation meant that he would have to subject himself to death—“even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)—he was not ashamed. He was not ashamed because that was the only way to “make men holy,” to set us apart from the sin we were born in and the death we are by nature destined for. He was not ashamed because being clothed in our weakness was the only way he could be faithful to his own Word about sinners deserving eternal death while still having us live with him forever in heaven.

There is a lesson in this about ourselves that is hard to learn. It’s about our pride and about the ridiculous foolishness that follows it. It’s about that desire I spoke of earlier, about the desire to be self-sufficient, to not to have to need help from anyone else because we can figure things out for ourselves, handle things ourselves. We want to be important by being strong and heroic, and, you know what? This is going to be hard to hear and you may not immediately understand it, but I’m going to have to say it anyway: Our heroes are self-sufficient, independent and always able to think their way out of their own problems because we are still tempted by the original deadly desire that Adam and Eve allowed themselves to fall prey to back in the Garden of Eden. And do you know what that original deadly desire was? It was the desire of creatures to be like God, to be independent of God, to not need God. It was being ashamed of our weakness and wanting to have God’s unique, almighty, completely independent way of being. We want to be gods and resent that he “took the job” first.

It’s just so evil. And it really makes no sense, but it’s the way we are. We are so corrupted by that evil that we need his help now even more than we needed it before our race fell into sin. We not only need him to supply for our existence, which we always needed, but now we also need him to supply deliverance by joining us in our weakness, living the perfect life of trust in God that we owe him but never at any time actually provided him, and we need him to provide a way out of the eternal separation from him that wanting to live independent of his power and providence truly deserves.

And that is why he was not ashamed to show up in our world just as weak as we are. That is why he was not ashamed to be a helpless, cold little baby. That is why he is not ashamed to call us brothers. For “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I tell you, by all outward appearances, that boy in the temple was truly just a boy—a weak, normal boy. But we needed true, human flesh and blood to destroy sin and death. We needed it for our salvation, and God, without shame, provided it. Amen.

Christmas 1                                                                    Unashamed Weakness    

 December 27, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Hebrews 2:10-18





Historic Joy

27 12 2009

Luke 1:39-55

 Lk 1 39-55 Historic Joy

Luke 1:39-55 (NIV)

Mary Visits Elizabeth

 39At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

Mary’s Song

 46And Mary said:
   “My soul glorifies the Lord
    47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48for he has been mindful
      of the humble state of his servant.
   From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
      holy is his name.
 50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
      from generation to generation.
 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
      he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
      but has lifted up the humble.
 53He has filled the hungry with good things
      but has sent the rich away empty.
 54He has helped his servant Israel,
      remembering to be merciful
 55to Abraham and his descendants forever,
      even as he said to our fathers.”

There’s a certain kind of joy that you can’t bring about by yourself. Let’s call it historic joy. It’s the kind of joy that comes from recognizing that you’ve suddenly found yourself within a historic moment, that the moment that you are personally experiencing right then and there is a part of history that people will write about, wonder about and contemplate for generations to come. It’s the joy that brings people together for a church dedication or out to an event like our first black president’s inauguration.

Usually those moments of historic joy are pretty powerful even if we’re nothing more than a distant witness to the event through television broadcasts, like the joy the world felt when everyone crowded into their living rooms to see the first man in history to set foot on the moon. But the joy and excitement increase as you actually get closer to the event, even more so if you are actually privileged to become a part of the event.

That’s historic joy. And Historic Joy was the only phrase I could think of that would describe what Mary, Elizabeth, and, I suppose you could say, little John the Baptist must have felt as they all came together in a single little room in the hill country of Judea just over 2000 years ago. Historic joy explains why venerable, old Elizabeth would be so humbled at the greeting of a common young girl that she knew as a relative. Historic joy—and, of course, the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit—also explains the rich and powerful words that poured from Mary’s mouth as she responded to Elizabeth: 1. Joy that springs from historic deeds and 2. Joy that springs from historic faith.

Now, you may well be one of the rapidly increasing number of Americans who are not terribly familiar with history, let alone biblical history, so some of this might escape you at first. But, I’m telling you, if you took the time to really drink in the words of Mary’s song, you would understand more about the historic deeds of the Lord our God than some of the world’s most famous scholars of Scripture do.

So drink it in with me. “My soul glorifies the Lord….” Mary knows exactly who this moment is all about. She calls on the God of Israel personally by name: the Lord, the Great “I Am.” And she also knows just what a big deal this is to her personally, which is why she restates that thought like this: “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” My Savior!

“…for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” Notice how Mary is starting to turn to God’s historical record already. The Holy Spirit is leading her to see a pattern in that record. You could see it in the way that God has worked in the past, and it was being repeated in her own life at that very moment. God takes the lowly and the humble people—people with no status or influence, people just like Mary—and he gives them extraordinary jobs in life that they don’t deserve. Come to think of it, I’m living proof of that, myself.

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm,” Mary continued; “he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

And, like I said, you may not know your history all that well. You may find it difficult to cite any one particular incident that might fit Mary’s descriptions here. But, I have to tell you, this is like Scripture in one easy lesson! This describes lost and rebellious Adam and Eve finding a Savior God in the Garden. This describes old man Abram and his barren wife being told that many nations would come from them and all nations would be blessed through them. This describes a nation of slaves plundering a nation of Egyptian masters without even needing to lift a sword. As Paul the Apostle, himself a blasphemer before being turned by the Lord, said of the Lord’s tactics, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

This made their kind of historic joy on this occasion special. It was not only the fact that they knew that they were watching history in the making. They also had the kind of historic faith necessary to thoroughly enjoy how much this very same kind of salvation had been offered before, with spectacular results. They were able to rejoice in how often before the Lord had helped out the poor, humbled and defeated, while at the same time being joyfully awestruck that the ultimate version of that kind of salvation was gestating in Mary’s womb at that very moment, and they would both have front seats to the action once he finally came.

But one person in that room felt the joy of that historic occasion a little more keenly. I can’t say he understood it better, because I highly doubt that he understood anything at all. I’m just saying that there’s one person who felt it more… well, more purely. I guess that’s the proper way to say it. Do you know which person I’m talking about?

I’m talking about John the Baptist, still a baby inside Elizabeth’s womb. He probably understood very little. He hadn’t even been born yet. But when inspired Scripture records someone saying something by divine inspiration, you really can’t argue with the accuracy of the words. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.’”

Think about that. The account is inspired through Luke. He reports to us the words of Elizabeth and says that those words themselves were originally inspired by God at the moment they were spoken. Together, they make us doubly sure that this is no joke and no mere figure of speech. The context warrants none of that. John the Baptist couldn’t speak, nor could he understand words. He had never even been able to open his eyes to the light of day! Yet he rejoiced upon hearing the voice of the pregnant virgin, like a newborn responding to his own mom or dad.

Only one thing explains this, and it isn’t a knowledge of salvation history. Yet one thing—specifically, one word—does explain how this unborn child could rejoice at the sound of Mary’s voice. That one word is faith.

I get this question all the time, so I’m not surprised if there’s some variation on this theme running through your head right now: How can a child who can’t even speak yet have faith? It’s a common question and a classic blunder among English-speaking people. Understandable, yes, but a blunder nonetheless.

What’s the blunder? The blunder is thinking of saving faith as a set of historical facts or religious assertions that you accept as true. We use the word faith in that sense sometimes, and that’s why I call it an understandable mistake. But accepting certain statements as true or false is not the essence of saving faith. The essence of saving faith is trust in the one and only true God. The essence of saving faith is summed up in Mary’s Magnificat: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

In that sense the baby in Elizabeth’s womb puts us to shame this morning. His joy was instant, instinctual and overpowering in the presence of his Savior—and not even directly at the sound of his Savior or at the sight of his Savior, but just at knowing he was there by the sound Mary’s voice. And he didn’t even know her name! But here we have a hard time getting out of bed for church when we know perfectly well who we are coming to see! We have difficulty finding time for (let alone finding joy in) studying the Scriptures in our busy, busy weeks! This baby jumped as though he couldn’t wait to have some words with which to express his joy, and we who have full vocabularies can barely open our mouths to speak the Savior’s name in public!

Well put that all behind you this morning, brothers and sisters, and see in the joyful leap of unborn John the Baptist reason for your own spirit to rejoice in God your Savior. You weren’t physically there, but your baptism has joined you to these historic moments of salvation. And God gathered you here this morning to forgive your past coldness and to give you a truly historic faith through that forgiveness, so that we can celebrate our Savior’s birth this week with truly historic joy. Amen.

Advent 4                                                                                    Historic Joy

 December 20, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Luke 1:39-55





Unashamed Weakness

27 12 2009

 Hebrews 2:10-18

Heb 2 10-18 Unashamed Weakness

Hebrews 2:10-18 (NIV)

 10In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. 12He says,
   “I will declare your name to my brothers;
      in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”[a] 13And again,
   “I will put my trust in him.”[b] And again he says,
   “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”[c] 14Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for[d]the sins of the people. 18Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. 

Footnotes:

  1. Hebrews 2:12 Psalm 22:22
  2. Hebrews 2:13 Isaiah 8:17
  3. Hebrews 2:13 Isaiah 8:18
  4. Hebrews 2:17 Or and that he might turn aside God’s wrath, taking away

It was really my brother who talked me into playing football. I think I can fairly say that I never would have done it if he hadn’t pushed me. I just had too many reasons to feel embarrassed about it. I mean, I never played real football. It was always two-hand touch out on the Kinney Elementary playground. And even then there was always some argument on the field about the actual rules of football, and I never had any idea what they were talking about. Downs, receptions, touchbacks—I pretty much had end zone and touchdown handled, and that was about it. I couldn’t even imagine trying to figure out a real position with real pads and real tackles and real rules. I figured that I would be too ashamed of my ignorance, too ashamed of my weaknesses.

No doubt there’s been something in your experience that has produced much the same feeling. Perhaps you struggle with multiplication or fractions, so you’re ashamed to do math in front of the class. Maybe you’re no good at public speaking, so you’re ashamed to get up in front of people. Perhaps you’re really out of your element watching over little kids, so you don’t like to get caught doing any kind of babysitting—or even watching over little tykes for just a couple of minutes.

We’re ashamed to admit when we’re weak, ashamed to admit that we need help. We would like to believe that we can take care of ourselves. Our heroes are self-sufficient because that’s how we want to be. We want people to turn to us when they need help, not the other way around. Who looks up to a person who needs help from them? Thus we become ashamed of weakness.

In that sense it’s understandable that the Jewish people to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed had a hard time seeing Jesus as a hero. You may not feel that way yourself, but when you consider how much shame there is among us—especially among the adults—when we appear before people all needy and desperate, you may understand how these descendants of Abraham struggled with that baby being more important than angels. He was helpless. He needed to be fed, coddled, changed and bathed. This baby couldn’t even bring the blessings of a warm hotel room to his parents on the night of his birth!

You know, we may well understand their reluctance to honor him in his weakness better than we think. Check out your bulletin cover, for example. It sports a feature of religious art that I was really trying to avoid when I looked for a fitting picture on Friday. See the little glow around the boy Jesus’ head? That’s called a halo, as you are probably aware. Why is it there? Did Jesus’ head really glow like that? Of course not. But we can’t help but think of his power and holiness when we picture him in our minds, so we think of things like that.

And what about the people who lived in his time, who knew him by name and saw him day to day? You see, they wouldn’t even be able to picture a halo being there. Do you know why? Because it wasn’t there. What they knew wasn’t even a particularly good-looking kid. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” Isaiah prophesied, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:3). The people who knew Jesus by sight knew someone who was so normal in appearance that he was not physically noteworthy at all. No glow of power. No attractive outward qualities. Just a baby (or a kid or a guy).

Besides which, we do the same thing with his Word. It’s not flashy or full of pictures, so we have great difficulty paying attention to it, despite the fact that it is the powerful Word of Life. I doubt we would enjoy seeing a tally this year of how many hours we have spent studying God’s Word versus reading news stories, novels, or even watching TV.

Somebody who didn’t know us might well think that we were ashamed of this plain-looking guy and his boring, old book. Yet he as God was not ashamed to have his infinitely wise and powerful thoughts expressed in plain, human language for us. Likewise, the book of Hebrews says, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect [reach his goal] through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy [referring to Jesus, the Savior] and those who are made holy [us] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” And he has three Messianic quotes to demonstrate it, too.

The Jews that the author of Hebrews wrote to had some trouble with that, as evidenced by the fact that they were having difficulty ranking the all-too-familiar and all-too-human Jesus of Nazareth as more important and powerful in their minds than the bright, flashy angels who announced his birth and appeared and disappeared all over the place throughout the salvation story. And we have trouble with Jesus of Nazareth being as weak as we are as evidenced by our inability to imagine him not looking handsome or glowing or doing a miracle—despite the fact that the Word of God speaks of only three years that he actually did miracles but ten times more where he just ate, drank, slept, studied, learned a trade and was generally just human.

But he was not ashamed. Despite the fact that saving us meant being the Almighty God on his heavenly throne ruling all things and then in the very next moment becoming a helpless, thoughtless, microscopic, single-celled fertilized egg, he was not ashamed of that weakness. Even though saving us meant being so weak that there were times when his strength actually reached its limits and he had to be helped by angels (whom he created and whom he sustains by his very will!), he was not ashamed. Yes, even though our salvation meant that he would have to subject himself to death—“even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)—he was not ashamed. He was not ashamed because that was the only way to “make men holy,” to set us apart from the sin we were born in and the death we are by nature destined for. He was not ashamed because being clothed in our weakness was the only way he could be faithful to his own Word about sinners deserving eternal death while still having us live with him forever in heaven.

There is a lesson in this about ourselves that is hard to learn. It’s about our pride and about the ridiculous foolishness that follows it. It’s about that desire I spoke of earlier, about the desire to be self-sufficient, to not to have to need help from anyone else because we can figure things out for ourselves, handle things ourselves. We want to be important by being strong and heroic, and, you know what? This is going to be hard to hear and you may not immediately understand it, but I’m going to have to say it anyway: Our heroes are self-sufficient, independent and always able to think their way out of their own problems because we are still tempted by the original deadly desire that Adam and Eve allowed themselves to fall prey to back in the Garden of Eden. And do you know what that original deadly desire was? It was the desire of creatures to be like God, to be independent of God, to not need God. It was being ashamed of our weakness and wanting to have God’s unique, almighty, completely independent way of being. We want to be gods and resent that he “took the job” first.

It’s just so evil. And it really makes no sense, but it’s the way we are. We are so corrupted by that evil that we need his help now even more than we needed it before our race fell into sin. We not only need him to supply for our existence, which we always needed, but now we also need him to supply deliverance by joining us in our weakness, living the perfect life of trust in God that we owe him but never at any time actually provided him, and we need him to provide a way out of the eternal separation from him that wanting to live independent of his power and providence truly deserves.

And that is why he was not ashamed to show up in our world just as weak as we are. That is why he was not ashamed to be a helpless, cold little baby. That is why he is not ashamed to call us brothers. For “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I tell you, by all outward appearances, that boy in the temple was truly just a boy—a weak, normal boy. But we needed true, human flesh and blood to destroy sin and death. We needed it for our salvation, and God, without shame, provided it. Amen.

Christmas 1                                                                    Unashamed Weakness    

December 27, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Hebrews 2:10-18





No Other Name Would Be As Sweet

25 12 2009

Exodus 34:5-7

Ex 34 5-7 No Other Name as Sweet

Exodus 34:5-7 (NIV)

5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

It’s not terribly unusual for parents to put a lot of time into choosing a name. There’s a lot to consider! You don’t want a name that a child will be teased for if you can avoid it. In that regard the middle name is of special note, although you can also use it to hide a somewhat unfashionable name that has otherwise been in the family for several generations. My mother will tell you that you will want to take note of what the initials will ultimately spell, too. Take it, she says, from someone who has spent her entire life with the initials ARF.

We have fun with our names sometimes, but all joking ceases when it comes to the name of that baby in the manger in Bethlehem. You may recall from last night that there was no long, drawn out decision-making process involved in the naming of this child. The angel Gabriel told the young parents precisely what the child’s name would be. It was a nice, traditional Hebrew name as far as that goes. But, more importantly, that name in Hebrew was a sentence—an awesome sentence.

We know it by its Greek spelling: Jesus. In Hebrew it was Yeshua or Y’hoshua. We still use it in English today with the derivative name Joshua. But no matter how you spell it, the underlying sentence, the deep and powerful meaning, remains the same. Jesus means, “The Lord Saves.”

I know they say that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I tell you that no other name for the Savior of mankind could be as sweet as this one. No name could be more appropriate for the deliverer from sin and death that God had promised from the very day of our race’s fall into sin. “The Lord Saves.” No Other Name Would Be As Sweet.

And what makes that name so sweet? It begins, as we see from Exodus, with the personal name that God had chosen for himself to distinguish himself as the one, true God from all the imaginary gods that mankind would invent as alternatives. As the name the distinguishes him from all false gods, he considers it sacred, to be used only for him and for him alone. It is so important that this name not be associated with anyone else but him that right after he declared the First Commandment for the Israelites (that they have no other gods before him), he immediately declared, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7).

What I was saying a minute ago about Jesus’ name, you see, also applied to this special name for God that he chose for himself. We say “the Lord” because we are following an ancient Hebrew tradition of not saying the actual name God chose for himself out loud in order to avoid misusing it. It’s a little bit misguided as traditions go, but even Jesus himself seemed to appreciate the thought behind it to some degree, because he, too, referred to the one, true God as “the Lord” on many occasions.

But, as I said, that’s just the traditional way to refer to God’s name, not the name itself. When God told Moses what his name was back in Exodus 3, he said Ehyeh, which is Hebrew for “I Am.” Elsewhere that same name is rendered Yahweh, which sounds like the Hebrew for “He Is.” Fitting, isn’t it? That name alone is an entire sermon of great comfort for all believers. In fact, it’s our sermon for New Year’s Eve, as it turns out.

But for Christmas morning, the morning of our Savior’s birth, I want to look at more than just what that special name for God is and how a person would normally translate it. I want you to understand Jesus. I want you to understand that special name that God chose for himself as the Messiah in human flesh. I want you to understand the name Jesus and just how sweet “The Lord Saves” is by understanding all that God said to Moses as he expounded on his personal name as the one, true God, The Lord.

Notice first how the request to see the holy God in all his splendor poses a problem: “You cannot see my face,” the Lord told Moses, “for no one may see me and live.”

Many have compared the problem with looking at the holy God in all his brilliance as being something like the problem we have when we want to examine the sun more closely. We can’t actually do that with the eyes God has given us because the intensity of the light that the sun produces is so great that it would actually burn our retinas where the sun would be focused, like an ant being burned up by a child experimenting with a magnifying glass. That’s a scary thought.

Even scarier, though, is the reality of the problem. It’s not just that the Lord’s glory is so bright, like some super-high intensity light bulb. The problem is holiness, his complete separation from all sin, from any and every form of evil. Why’s that a problem? That’s a problem because you and I are evil. Yes, even believers still have sinful minds and hearts, despite the new hearts and renewed minds that God gives us by his Holy Spirit.

You see, it’s a little less like the brightness of the sun and more like a manifestation of power, heat and energy that burns up all impurity. It’s something like a very bright light, but even more like the smelter’s furnace that the prophet Malachi refers to in the last book of the Old Testament. Smelting fire is good for precious metals because the extremely high heat burns off all the impurities inside the metal, leaving you with nothing but pure silver or gold. But understand, brothers and sisters, that a sinful heart, a sinful soul and a sinful mind—these things are impurities. In other words, you, as you are by nature, are an impurity in this universe that needs to be destroyed before Creation can have any value in the eyes of our holy God once again. Lies that you tell, lusts that you feel, selfish ambition, cursing, impatience, anger, worrying, cheating—these things come from our sinful hearts, and they cannot be fixed. They can only be destroyed.

But “The Lord Saves.” The Lord saves! No other name for that little child born in Bethlehem could be sweeter. Do you know what he is? That baby is what Paul called “all the fullness of the Deity liv[ing] in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Do you know what he is? He is God showing us all his goodness, causing all his goodness to pass right in front of us, while that normal, everyday human flesh veils his glory and protects a world of sinners, like the hand of God shielding Moses as he stood in that cleft.

This baby, this Messiah, this Savior, is, as the angel said to the shepherds, “Christ the Lord.” This baby is Yahweh, the great I AM. “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see! Hail th’incarnate Deity!”

This, my brothers and sisters, is the ultimate revelation of the name of the Lord. This, my brothers and sisters, is your salvation. This, by brothers and sisters, is very literally the incarnation, the in-flesh-version, of “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

Yes, he is even the incarnation of “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Do you understand what I mean? As Jesus himself said it as a full-grown man: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

This baby is not God “going soft” on sin or changing his mind about how serious sin is. Sin—all sin—is rebellion against God, and sin—all sin—hurts people, creates victims and leaves this world broken and aimless. This is true and would be easy enough for us to see if we could overcome our pathetic cowardice and open our eyes to the damage we ourselves have done here.

No, this baby is not a change in God’s judgment against sin and the pain and death that it brings to our world. This the Lord still hates, and he promises in perfect faithfulness to punish all sin fully. But for those who trust in the Lord as a Savior God despite being born in sin, this baby is the sweet, sweet truth that “The Lord Saves.” This baby is forgiveness. This baby is the inconceivable truth that our Father in heaven loves the people in this world so much that he is willing to take personal responsibility for the evil we have done. He will punish sin—has punished sin—but he has punished it in himself. This little baby with the sweet, sweet name, is God born in mortal flesh so that he could be our sacrifice for sin. “The Lord Saves.”

No other name could possibly be as sweet. “The Lord Saves.” The Lord saves! Say it loud and say it proud! We have seen the goodness that passed in front of Moses and we have heard the same sermon preached on God’s holy name. It is Jesus, God prepared for our death, that we may have life in his name. Amen.

Christmas Day                                                    No Other Name Would Be As Sweet                                                                                          

   December 25, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Exodus 33:18-23, 34:5-7





Holiness Is Cause for Celebration!

25 12 2009

 

 Nehemiah 8:9-18

Neh 8 9-18 Holiness Is for Celebration 

Nehemiah 8:9-18 (New International Version)

 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.” 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. 13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths”-as it is written. [a] 16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. 18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly. 

Footnotes:

  1. Nehemiah 8:15 See Lev. 23:37-40.

The four Advent candles are, I suppose you would say, shrouded in some mystery. Not the kind of mystery that would stir someone to want to write a ridiculous book like The Da Vinci Code, but there is some mystery there nonetheless. Trying to settle on a single meaning, tradition or order for the candles is difficult. It’s difficult, that is, unless you just grab the first explanation you find and say, “That’s it!”

Take the candle that we lit for the first time this morning. Probably the strongest tradition in the western church says that it belongs in week three of Advent. Others say that it belongs in week four. Some say that it should be a different color than the other four. Others say it should be the same.

I don’t want to do a history lesson in all these different explanations. I just want you to notice that, in accord with the particular tradition that we are following, our third candle is pink, while the other four candles are purple. That’s because purple is the traditional color for repentance. That’s why it is the dominant color both for Advent and for Lent. Both are seasons of preparation that lead up to a major focus on what God had to do in order to secure our salvation, our forgiveness. Repentance is the appropriate response to that truth, since it is our sin that caused him to do this stunning and selfless thing for us. Our sins caused him to take on mortal flesh. Our sins caused God to die as our sacrifice of atonement.

But pink is the liturgical color for joy. That’s the color of the candle we light today. In the midst of a season of repentance, we light a candle of joy. How does that follow? The answer is holiness. It’s the same reason that Nehemiah and the other leaders of Israel told the people to feast and be glad, even though they had just become reacquainted with the Law of Moses and it had brought their horrifying rebellion against our perfectly faithful God into mournfully clear view. Holiness Is Cause for Celebration! And that’s why our Advent candle today is pink, the liturgical color for joy, despite the fact that the main emphasis of the Advent season as a whole is repentance.

It’s not surprising that we would have some trouble understanding this. After all, to discuss repentance in any kind of faithful, biblical sense, you have to lay blame for the sin and pain in the world, and the blame for sin and pain in the world is plainly with us, not with the Lord. We like to blame him, sure, but that just demonstrates the depth of our foolishness and rebellion. We are plainly at fault, but we don’t mind blaming our faultless God.

And I can only begin to imagine how hard that truth must have hit the Israelites that returned from Babylon following the great captivity. The Israelites had generally thought of themselves pretty highly because God had granted them so many privileges. Even though he kept telling them not to think of themselves as better than the nations around them in light of their privileged position in his plan of salvation, they did it anyway.

And do you know what the biggest casualty of their pride was? It was their drive to hear and study God’s Word. For them, the Word of God was built into everything their whole lives through, from their system of daily sacrifices to the Passovers and Sabbath, and even in the very architecture of the Temple itself. God had built his message of mercy and salvation into their very culture so that they would always know who to turn to for help.

What a joy and what a privilege to be treated this way by God, to be set apart from the other nations by such rich and abundant blessings from him! These abundant favors poured out on their people should have fueled the very deepest devotion and faith in their gracious God. But instead, it had caused them to think that they were better than other nations, somehow innately more compatible with God, despite being just as sinful from birth as every other people on earth.

Again, I can only imagine what earth-shaking sorrow they must have felt as Ezra the scribe read the books of Moses to the people, and they realized how very unfamiliar they were with these texts that were the very foundation of their special relationship with the one, true God. How it must have cut them to the heart to hear God’s predictions about their future unfaithfulness and how it would leave him no choice but to try to recall them with escalating levels of disaster, including exile.

Although, at the same time, it is not so hard to imagine. The Word of God that has been so abundantly poured into my life is also the foundation for my relationship with the one, true God. From the message of forgiveness that was poured into my heart at baptism to the body and blood of Christ that are in, with and under the bread and wine served from this very altar, God has built his saving message into my life. From the first day as I child that I can remember rejoicing at the simple message of Holy Week and Easter to the days of awe and wonder that I spent drinking in the deeper truths of salvation presented before me at our synod’s worker training schools, God has given me a privileged life marked by an abundance of his saving message.

And yet, as I read his Word today, despite all the time that I have spent with it in the past, I still hear words that cut me to the quick. As I read his Word today, I discover that, despite the privileges of a lifetime immersed in the truths of my salvation, I have sinned. You have, too, despite the life-changing message of God’s love and salvation being so readily available to you in this building that he has provided us here in Tawas.

So that’s why we should easily sympathize with the Israelites who returned from the exile and suddenly realized how little they understood or followed the Word of God that he had so carefully built into the fabric of their very lives as his chosen people. That’s why we might not so easily understand why there is a pink candle in the season of Advent when the rest of the candles in the wreath color the season with the purple shades of repentance and sorrow over sin.

But what Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites said to the Israelites who heard the Law of Moses being read still applies today: “This day is sacred [literally, holy] to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” “This day is sacred [again, literally holy] to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Do not mourn? The joy of the Lord is your strength? How can he say that when the holiness of the Lord so clearly points out our sin, ignorance, coldness and rebellion? How can there be any joy for me in the Lord when he is so amazingly holy?

Well that, believe it or not, is actually the key to our joy! When you understand what holiness is, you realize that holiness is a cause for celebration, not mourning. That’s because, while holiness can be a word for “sinless” or “perfect,” that’s not what it inherently means. Holy means “set apart for God’s special purposes,” like the special festival day that the Israelites were celebrating in our text or the time that they set aside to live in booths as a remembrance of the forty years when their forefathers lived in temporary housing during their wanderings in the wilderness, waiting for the day when they could enter the Promised Land. It’s the whole reason the the English language calls special days and commemorations holidays (literally, “holy days”), because we set those days apart for a special purpose.

And do you know what you are? You are holy to the Lord. That’s the reason that we can rejoice in the middle of a season dedicated to repentance and preparation. You are holy to the Lord, set apart from the rest of the world through the hearing of his Word of salvation. Even the very fact that you have days of mourning demonstrates this truth. You mourn because you hear the true meaning of righteousness in the Word and recognize how far you fall short. But by sending that message into your life, God is setting time aside with you and thereby setting you apart from the rest of the world. He is choosing you as his own and showering you with grace, mercy, and personal forgiveness from him!

All of this is cause for rejoicing as well as repentance. For just as the season of Advent leads up to Christmas and the season of Lent leads up to Easter, so this call to repentance this morning leads up to a message of salvation: Do not mourn, for the Christ-child is your lamb of sacrifice. Celebrate and be glad, for God has taken away your sin through Jesus’ mission on earth, and has set you apart as his very own by the power of that life-changing message!

In other words, thanks to this message of forgiveness, you are holy, set apart, and that is cause for celebration. True holiness doesn’t mean a life of wailing and deprivation. It means being chosen. It means being God’s special people. Celebrate it! Amen.

Advent 3                                                               Holiness Is Cause for Celebration!                                                                                             December 13, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Nehemiah 8:9-18