Where, Oh Where, Has My Little Joy Gone? – Christmas 1 2012 – Luke 2:(22-32)33-40

30. December 2012
First Sunday After Christmas
Luke 2:(22-32)33-40

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him.

Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving. Christmas gifts come in all shapes and sizes. No matter the gift our expectations can vary. One kind of gift is the surprise. You had no idea it was coming. Another kind is the suspicion. You have some vague idea based the shape, size, or sound of the box. Then there is the expected gift. You know its coming but you’re still surprised when it finally comes.

In today’s Gospel, the young Christ-child of six weeks old was presented to the Lord and redeemed by the coin and the pair of turtledoves. The most precious treasure the world has known comes into the temple. Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. This man was of the third sort of gift receiver. He knew his sin and He knew the promise of the redeemer. He is waiting with hopeful expectation. He longs to see his salvation in the flesh.

Simeon had been promised that he would not die before he would see the Lord’s Christ. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, Simeon took him up in his arms and blessed God and sang the Nunc Dimittis. Simeon recognized that the infant child in his arms was Christ the Lord. He is to be the savior and a light not dimly shining to the Jews but as a bright morning star for the whole world. His piercing light would reach unto the ends of the earth, illuminating the hearts of all.

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. Despite having received each proclamation from the angel Gabriel and having already heard the message of the angels repeated to them by the shepherds, now Joseph and Mary hear the good news themselves. Simeon proclaims the angelic message again. This old and feeble man recognizes and praises the little child as Savior and Light of the World. All else are in darkness and this little child lights them up. All the world is dying and damned and in this baby is salvation.

How could this little man, wrapped in swaddling clothes, born to a poor mother, be the savior of the world? Yet, Simeon’s sermon makes this bold claim. While the angel before him told Mary the child was the Son of the Most High and shepherds repeated the message of the angels, now Simeon has even more to say. “He shall save His people from their sin,” said the angel. Simeon says this light is not just for “His people,” the Jew, but also for the Gentile. At this, the holy family marveled.

Were Joseph and Mary shocked? No, they saw this coming. Their astonishment is a sign of their great faith and profound understanding. You remember Abraham and Sarah who laughed at the gift of their son, Isaac? Both were advanced in age, far past childbearing age. When God announced that they would conceive, both laughed! We wonder if their laughter was doubting but no, this news was of great joy to the two. Abraham believed the Lord and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Gen 15:6; Romans 4:3). This is not laughter of doubt but of joy.

The person and work of Christ brings a similar response today. For some Jesus is an utter surprise. They had no idea they needed a savior. They are ignorant of their sin, happy with their guilt and shame, and content in their misery. The joyous blessing of God made man, born to redeem them is a unexpected wonder. It’s an utter shock and joy.

For others the Law has already done its work. They feel the weight of its burdens and want relief. They believe God is good and gracious and expect He must have provided some means of escape from the terror of the Law. They know they need saving and yet the wonderful way God chose to save them is still a surprise. God saves them by grace alone through faith alone by Scripture alone. Redemption is entirely the handiwork of Christ alone to His glory alone. What a joy!

And then for others, they not only know their sin but also know the promises of God. They live in the hope of redemption in Christ. They have received the Holy Scriptures, been given the faith, and trust that God will do all the redeeming by His own grace and favor. But just like those others, when Christ comes to redeem them they are still “surprised by joy.” They knew of this love of God and yet upon receiving the gift are surprised at the abundance of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus. Oh, what joy!

All three receive the same gift of Jesus Christ, unwrapped and revealed. The quality common to the three perspectives is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” (CS Lewis) This quality is called joy. It is not the same as happiness or pleasure. Joy, happiness, and pleasure are all experiences we want to repeat but that is where their similarities end. Happiness is merely a positive feeling or emotional state due a circumstance. Pleasure is a physical or non-physical feeling that brings satisfaction. Joy is different altogether.

Joy cannot be gained by your own will. It’s not in your power to make yourself joyful. You can please yourself and you can probably even find ways to make yourself happy. But joy comes from a deep longing fulfilled. Joy is not dependent on the circumstances of your life. Joy is not simply being happy. Joy comes from hope received in the presence of Jesus.

This is the uniqueness of the Christian life. The firmer one receives and believes, the more one marvels and the happier one is. Too often those who are sad and lonely absent themselves from church. As their faith weakens, so do they lose the source of joy and its marvel and happiness. “If I were to believe with certainty that the child born to the Virgin Mary is my brother, flesh and blood, and that His righteousness is my righteousness,  His life, my life (as we have heard these last days about the birth of Christ), I say, if I were to believe this with all my heart, then I would so marvel and be so overjoyed that I could not think enough about this infant child.” (Luther)

The key to Christian joy is to recognize in the Holy Gospel all your hopes and dreams fulfilled. This good news should produce such amazement in you that you would cry out: I am baptized into Christ! There is no doubt that in my Lord Jesus I have overcome death and sin. No other possession of mine gives me makes me happy and amazed as my baptismal inheritance in Jesus! On the day of judgment, Jesus will say I am his dear brother and everything that is His is mine, and we all shall live with Him into eternity.

This is gift. If we were to try to believe this of ourselves, we would never fall for it. It would seem that death and sin have the upper hand, the devil is ruling, and our lives are in the toilet. We be frightened and sullen, with no amazement and no joy. This is because Christian joy comes from receiving faith, hope, and love in Jesus. We receive the gift of the Christ Child and by faith we respond with joy. We can’t help it! In Jesus, there is every grace and blessing of the Father! How could we be sad or dismayed when the child has defeated everything that gets us down?

Have no fear, little flock. For in Jesus Christ you have inherited the kingdom. Eternal life and heaven are yours, gained for you by the precious child’s death and resurrection and given to you as a gift. Marvel now, oh heaven and earth, that the Lord chose such a birth! Sing with joy for your hope is fulfilled in Jesus.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

Blood Red Redemption – Holy Innocents 2012 – Matthew 2:13-18

28. December 2012
Holy Innocents
Matthew 2:13-18

Green and Red. The colors of Christmas. I think we can safely add white and gold, too. Have you ever wondered why these colors have come to represent this season? It turns out the inquiring world wants to know. A quick Google search yielded many repetitions of the same answers but never any discussion of their origin. Some say the origins are pagan and others uniquely Christian.

The truth is likely something of both. The most common explanation is that green represents the life of Christ and red represents His blood shed. This simplistic explanation is helpful. Certainly at Christmas time we rejoice at the birth of Christ, who brings life immortal to all who believe on His name. Jesus is the true evergreen, a shoot from Jesse’s stump, the rose e’er blooming. Jesus is the royal branch of David and His cross is the tree of life. All who are grafted into Jesus receive His life, just as a branch grafted onto a good tree.

Christmas is full of signs of life. The mistletoe is hung and a kiss is given among friends as a sign of good will and friendship. In England, the rhyme is said: “The mistletoe bough at our Christmas board Shall hang, to the honor of Christ the Lord: For He is the evergreen tree of Life.” Along with mistletoe is green ivy that perhaps suggests frail humanity clinging to the rock that is Christ.

Some of the oldest decorations for Christmas tide are the laurel (or bay) leaf, the ancient symbol of triumph. Early Christians in Rome decorated their homes with it to celebrate Christ’s nativity. From the laurel wreaths came the use of evergreen wreaths even to this day to proclaim Christ’s victory over sin and death. Another often forgotten Christmas plant is the rosemary. Legend has it that while the Holy Family fled to Egypt, Mary washed Jesus’ swaddling clothes and hung them to dry on a rosemary bush. Since that time the rosemary has delighted mankind with its delicate fragrance of Christ’s life.

Two traditional plants for Christmas are the poinsettia and the holly. The poinsettia is named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1851) who was our ambassador to Mexico. After a visit in 1829, he returned with this plant to his home in South Carolina, where it flourished. In Mexico it is called the “flower of Holy Night.” It’s brilliant red star resembles the star of Bethlehem.

Of all the various plants of Christmas, the holly has the strongest symbolism. One of the little delights of our parish is passing between two holly bushes on the way into our narthex. Early Christians throughout Northern Europe saw in it the burning bush of Moses, the flaming love of God that filled Mary’s heart. Even more so, it’s prickly points is a fitting reminder at Christmastide that the Divine Child was born to to wear a crown of thorns. From those temple points will appears little droplets of blood like the berries.

Green and red. Most of the season of Christmas is spent rejoicing in the life of the Christ-child as He was born into the world. We stand in awe of the sweet Child in the manger but we forget about how He was born not to live but to die. He came to set His people free from sin and Devil, to redeem them from the pits of hell and death. The Holy Spirit has given us clues to see this truth. His infant body is laid upon wood just as His crucified body is laid upon the cross. As Jesus lays in a manger for feeding animals so He comes to feed us with His own body and blood. Every happy Christmas celebration stands with the source of joy in Christ’s passion.

That’s why we’ve spend the last three days observing the feasts of the first martyr, of the evangelist, and now the holy innocents. Suffering and persecution accompany the arrival of Christ into this world. A short time after His birth and the wicked Herod is out for his blood, to slay the newborn King of the Jews. Simeon will say on Sunday that this child was appointed for a sign that is opposed. As we celebrated last year, Christ Jesus already begins to shed His blood for you just eight days as He fulfills the covenant of circumcision.

This theme of red, flowing blood will continue and even swell until it reaches a river of blood flowing from Christ’s hands, feet, and side on Good Friday. It’s bloody business as it has been since innocent Abel blood was shed. And now today, we remember a handful or more young boys, faithful believers in the promise of Christ, whose life is taken to spare Christ of death until His hour has come.

The sting of the death of a child is often to bitter to taste. We are still in shock from the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Like those parents, family, and friends, Rachel is weeping for her children. The blood of the Holy Innocents cries out to us to listen to Jesus. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 16:24-25).

Those little boys bore their little crosses already for the sake of Christ. We want noble martyrs and valiant Christian heroes. Our want is to mourn and grieve the death of those children. And then the Psalmist cries out: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints!” (Ps 116:15) We are horrified at the lives lost and yet thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work… and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future… and your children shall come back to their own country.” (Jeremiah 31:16-17).

The infant boys lost the life granted by their earthly mother but received the eternal blessed life of their mother, the Church. Their death is precious to the LORD because they have been received into his glory, the first fruits of the birth of Christ. What Herod meant for evil, the infant Christ meant for good. Herod intended to slaughter the King and instead became Christ’s devil to welcome home infant saints of God. The King will die under another Herod and His blood too will be shed. The holy innocents already enjoy the freedom of the Gospel through the future shed blood of Christ. His red blood will bring forth vibrant green life. We love the green of Christ’s life to grow amongst us the Christmastide. Let us not forget that the life springs forth from the red of Christ’s blood even as we today observe the blood of the innocents.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

Jesus’ Blood Calls for Faithful Christmas – St. Stephen’s Day 2012 – Matthew 23:34-39

26. December 2012
St. Stephen’s Day
Matthew 23:34-39

Most people hate Christmas. They don’t hate the sentimental Christmas of Bing Crosby, nor the commercialized Christmas of holiday jingles, and not even the cheesy Christmas of baby boomer TV specials. Most people love the Christmas that leads up to December 25th including its anticipation, feasting, and gifts. No, what they hate the Christmas of the Gospel.

Jesus doesn’t care about your feasting, your gifts, your hopefulness. His holy day is not about merriment, sweetness, or nostalgia. Jesus is the reason for the season the church sign reads. And what reason? As the hymn says, “born that man may no more die” or “born as God-man to die and rise that man may die and rise in Him.” If Jesus is the reason for Christmas, then Christmas is about receiving Jesus. If the world truly loved Jesus it would keep His Word sacred and gladly hear it on Jesus’s own feast day. If humankind loved Christmas they would come to His home and dwell with Him there.

It’s not all that difficult to grasp really. Christmas is Christ’s mass—a feast of Christ, given by Christ, and giving Christ. That is, Christmas is about receiving the Christ once wrapped in swaddling clothes, then crucified and buried, wrapped again this time in a burial shroud. When this gift was unwrapped on Easter morning, the good news went to the ends of the world. Salvation is yours in Christ. Forgiveness is yours in His body and His blood. New life is yours in the waters flowing from His side.

Contrary to this reality many have spent decades trying to recreate their idyllic Christmas vision largely inspired by Norman Rockwell. All their family and friends come ready, cheerful, and dressed for the occasion. Their churches are filled with the sound of Christmas favorites. The roast is well-prepared. All the exquisitely wrapped gifts surround the towering tree, glittering with lights abundant. No expense or craft is spared to make this Christmas “perfect.”

It all sounds quite nice. And then life pulls the rug out from under you. Last week a man under my pastoral care asked that we keep a former coworker’s family in our prayers. His wife had died a year ago and now He died, leaving behind two grown daughters. Of these two it was said: “now they are left all alone.” This sentiment rings especially true at Christmas where our celebrations often involve family and friends. For those two children, the death of both parents in a span of year will no doubt “ruin” their Christmas. There is now no hope for the Norman Rockwell vision to be realized. Two empty chairs will always be at the table.

You see how our hopes and aspirations are easily shattered when grounded on some unattainable Christmas perfection? No wonder that a 2010 report noted that “45% [of Americans] are having difficulty getting in the holiday spirit.” (http://witness.lcms.org/pages/wPage.asp?ContentID=1169&IssueID=61) Despite 96% of Americans celebrating at Christmas in some way, the real reason for Christmas often goes unnoticed or worse yet rejected. Unnoticed when overwhelmed by the Christmas schlock and rejected by unbeliever and marketeer alike.

Our own fanciful expectations for Christmas run contrary to what Christ expects. This is the reality of the Gospel. It is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentile. We obstinately prefer sappy carols to bold confession in Christmas hymns. We want a weak and passive Jesus even at Christmas. We’d rather sing songs that even Mormons can sing than let the Gospel ring out in its truth and purity.

The church is always fighting this battle for faithfulness. At times she slips into emotionalism or rationality. And then the LORD sends to her prophets, wise men, and scribes to call the church back to repentance. In effect, these men of God call the church celebrating Christmas to return to Christ. This never goes well for them. Some are killed and crucified. Others are flogged and sent packing (in the LCMS called “CRM status.”) And not too far away and perhaps in the not too distant future here in this land righteous blood is shed on the earth.

Our world is rapidly hurtling toward another non-Christian era. We will likely see and hear of more and more St. Stephens who will be martyred for their faith. Pastors and laypeople alike will be abused, slandered, and even murdered for their confession. These are dear Christians who celebrate Christmas in boldness and truth. They sing “Hark the Herald” and “Joy to the World” before unbelievers. They confess “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” to the secular Christmas world. How will they be received? Poorly.

The city of Jesus’s day understood this truth. The greatest prophet, Wisdom incarnate, and the Word Himself  arrived proclaiming forgiveness of sins and the kingdom of God. His church would have rather the sentimental Passover meal, the speculative songs of their synagogues, and the easy-once-a-year-visit to the temple of the LORD. He comes with a feast from heaven, songs of angels, and an eternal abiding presence. What did they do to Him for not meeting their expectations for a “perfect” Christmas?

They flogged him. Persecuted him from town to town. Killed and Crucified him. His blood was spilled and mixed with poor Abel’s blood. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate.

What did they get for ignoring the real reason for their holy season? The same thing we do. A Christ-less Christmas. If we’d have Jesus meet our traditions, emotions, or fallen reason rather than He conform our expectations to His Word, He’s bound to leave this house desolate. There’s only one “perfect” Christmas and its receiving the perfect one Jesus as He has deigned to give Himself.

It is another miracle of Christmas that Jesus forgives even our misguided attempts to find hope, joy, and peace outside of Him rightly preached and received in liturgy and song. As children of God, we ought to be moved to seek and receive the Word in its fullness and purity. Why? Because the hopes and dreams of mankind always crumble under the weight of the world and shatter in life’s tragic moments. No, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the perfect God-child, our dear Christ. He doesn’t do this with sentimentality but with bread from heaven and body and blood given and shed.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana