Saturday, December 23, 2006

God Is Pleased with Men

The earliest version of this sermon was preached in 1979 at my vicarage church in Lincoln Park, Michigan. I have been adapting and reusing it ever since. It comes a day early, as a gift to any preacher who still needs to come up with a sermon for Christmas.

Let us consider again the message from the angels to the shepherds. If you were one of them you would surely never have forgotten. You would have heard a message that would have been seared onto your memory forever. Because the grand proclamation made to those Judean shepherds was made by a multitude of angels. What sort of message could require all those angels? If on this one occasion, God sends not one, not two or three, but a multitude of angels, He must have something of utmost importance to say. In fact, it must be the most important thing He ever said to men, because nothing else ever required the presence of so many angels. What was the message of the unanimous and glorious chorus of heavenly messengers? Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men; or, to put it another way: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men, with whom He is pleased. The message from that multitude of the heavenly host of angels was clear and simple: There is peace on earth, dear shepherds, because God is pleased with men.

For thousands of years after this grand proclamation, men would go on supposing that peace on earth is something accomplished by the ending of all global conflict, when at last all weapons are laid down. If only they had heard and understood the message of the angels, they would have known that peace on earth has already been accomplished. It isn’t something to be hoped for, it is something that is. For the message of the angels was clear: God is pleased with men.

But at this point the objections of reason will sound forth at once. This can’t be right. Some men are wicked, heinous, tyrannical, cruel. Some are murderers, thieves, adulterers. How can anyone say that God is pleased with men, or that there is peace on earth? There must be some mistake.

But to the shepherds there was no hint of a mistake; it was angelic. In fact, even if one considers the absurd impossibility of an angel being mistaken, the message didn’t come from just one angel; it came from a multitude of angels. Could a whole countryside full of angels all bellowing out one unanimous message be mistaken? Listen to the angels, o shepherd in the field: God is pleased with men.

But Satan must also raise an objection to this: How can this be? I have done my work well, I have caused many to fall deeply into sin, I have made them all sons of hell; I have filled them with all manner of wickedness, so that their thoughts are only evil continually. I have trapped them in pride and self-worship; I have made them sell me their souls. This message can’t be right! It’s far off the mark! It’s foolishness! Don't listen to it! It must have come from the mouth of a lunatic!

But it didn’t. It came from the mouths of angels.

And thank God for those angels. For if there are some men with whom God is not please, then surely we are among them! And if you were one of those shepherds, you might easily find yourself wondering—in fact you might be wondering right now—whether these objections may have a point. What about me? I am not worthy of God’s good pleasure, am I? Conscience pricks, and I know I have sinned. I know I am guilty, foul, and unclean. A thousand years of tears would not suffice for once worthily lamenting my wretchedness. How much more am I poor wretched man, who daily sin, continue without amendment, and approach God in sin. And the truth is that if God is not pleased with all men, he could never be pleased with me!

O thank God for those angels! And thank God for all the lights and tinsel of Christmas, and all the carols and cheer, and all the bells which ring out the news which every sinner needs so badly to hear: Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled! Here we see the reason there is peace on earth, and why God is pleased with men. It isn’t because of what kind of men they are that God is pleased. In fact, it has nothing at all to do with the nature of man. The reason is this: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord. And He didn’t come to be Savior of part of the world; he came to save it all. And if He is Savior of the world, then it makes all the sense in the world to say that God is pleased with men.

Those Bethlehem shepherds undoubtedly never forgot the angelic message on that first Christmas Eve. Would that you might remember it as they must have; that it might be seared into your memory, your heart, and your conscience, that you too might never forget the grandest angelic proclamation ever heard on earth: Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace among men, with whom He is pleased!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Just Give the Poor Lady Her Chair Back

A ninety year old shut-in I visited was crying in her bed. This woman had had a number of strokes which made communication difficult for her, but if you listened carefully you could make out her words. So when I asked her what was wrong, it took a little while and then it came clear. She was upset because they had taken her wheelchair away and given her another one. And, she said in the best way she knew how to frame her words, she liked the old one because it had a tray, and a place to put her drink. Hmm, thought I, that's odd. Why would they do that? So I promised her that I'd check into it for her and let her know.

I went to the nurses' station and, yes, they knew about her complaints. Evidently she had lost some weight so that her old chair was a bit too large for her and now she needed a smaller one. OK, I can follow that, but what about the tray, I asked. Well, said the lady, I'm going to look around for one, and if we can't find one within a day or so, well then I guess we'll have to give her back her old chair. But, she said, the reason she wants this is because she wants to have her place to set her glass, and, well, that's not really safe. I said, oh, I see, and, trying be congeniel, said I understood, but, of course, to this poor lady who is very upset, that chair is her whole universe. Yes, they said, we don't want her to be upset, and we'll do our best. I thanked them and reported back to her, encouraging her to be patient, and that they really did care about her, and would do their best, etc. She thanked me, though was still visibly upset.

Not angry, really. Crying. Very sad.

As I drove home, I got to thinking that I could have done better by her today, and I'll certainly have to follow up. I doubt if she has anyone else as an advocate with the people there. What I should have said was: Oh, so she's been spilling her water lately? And then they'd probably say no, but she might. Or even if she had been spilling, I thought, and I could have said, so what? A safety issue? After all these years, a safety issue? Or is it really a convenience issue? I mean, how dangerous can a little water spill be? They're plastic cups, for heaven's sake.

The world will continue to turn, and presidents and world leaders will negotiate treaties. Wars will be fought, and momentous events will continue to take place on a grand, cosmic scale. But to this poor old woman, none of that mattered. Here was a lady I have been visiting for ten years. She never complains, and she usually has a pleasant disposition and a smile, even if she can't talk much. Maybe some of her mind is gone, too, though she still seems lucid enough to me. She is consigned to a nursing home for the rest of her life. Very little if any family remains in her life, as is sometimes the case with nursing home patients. And yet she has never complained about it, which I find amazing. Very little work goes into making this woman happy, it seems to me. I mean, I wonder how I'd do in such a case. She really is a sweetheart, as even the nurses agreed. But today, she was all broken up. Not because of life and death matters, or gut-wrenching, earth-shattering events. She just wanted her chair back. It was her house, in a way.

I don't mean to beat up on nursing home personnel. I think most of them probably deserve medals for the work they do, for which many others (myself included) don't have the stomach. I only mean to offer this little suggestion to anyone who might find himself in a situation where so very little would be needed to brighten up a person's whole day. A word of advice: just do it. Just do the Christmas thing. Ma'am, might I suggest you put your manual aside for a moment, and just give the poor lady her chair back. It may just make this her best Christmas.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Who Is Zacharias?

In the middle of some reseach on the matters pertaining to the nativity of our Lord, I ran across a fascinating bit of information. There can be found in the Protoevangelium of James, which may be the oldest of the apocryphal Gospels (which never gained any recognition as to their authority), quite a number of items which seem to be the source of much of the extra-Biblical tradition concerning Joseph and Mary.

For instance, it is this document which speaks of the ass for Mary’s journey, the cave for Christ's birth, Salome and the midwife verifying a virgin birth (utero clauso), and even the Marian colors of dark purple (blue?) and scarlet (Mary was given these colors of linen for spinning).

In addition, there is an account of the murder of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, between the porch and the altar in the temple, by Herod's men, when Zacharias would not (or could not) produce information concerning his son John's whereabouts (John and his mother Elizabeth had gone into hiding in the desert, where a mountain was miraculously cleft to receive her and her son).

The research provides an interesting take on Jesus’ reference to the murder of Zacharias in St. Matthew 23:35 (cf. St. Luke 11:51): "Upon you [shall] come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar."

If this is the Zacharias to whom Jesus refers, then the reference in the Protoevangelium of James is to an historical reality. Others who hold to this theory point to the fact that none of the other three Zacharias figures to whom it could refer is as likely. The priest Zacharias of 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 has the wrong father (Jehoiada), the prophet Zechariah seems to have been obeyed and not martyred (Zechariah 6:7), and Zechariah the son of Baruch, though slain by Zealots in the midst of the temple, was not slain until A.D. 67 (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 6, Section 4), which would require the admission of editorializing on the part of the Evangelist. None of the books of Esdras contain any evidence of any crime so heinous committed in the Temple court.

The account given in the Protoevangelium of James is actually quite believable, in view of the likelihood that Zacharias would have met trouble at the hands of Herod’s men searching for Bethlehem’s Holy Innocents, if indeed his wife and child had gone into hiding from them.

This would certainly help to contextualize Jesus' invective against the scribes and Pharisees: perhaps they were not only guilty of saying bad things, but of murder: it was after all the scribes in Herod's court who first brought Bethlehem into the madman's mind. And when Herod was troubled at the wise men's words, it says that "all Jerusalem" was troubled with him, a likely reference to the scribes and Pharisees in particular. So it is likely that when Herod sent his murderers to Bethlehem, it was with their blessing. Their last act of murder, literally, could well have been the murder of John's father. Jesus is saying that their murderous line began with Cain, as they fill up in their own time the cup that began with Abel's murder.

I'm still pondering all this, so I'm not quite sure, but it makes sense to me for the time being.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Gottesdienst rooms for the Symposium

The annual feel-good-about-being-a-confessional-Lutheran fest is nearly upon us, id est, the Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, from January 15-19. In case you haven't heard, the real excitement that happens there during the week is the annual Sabre of Boldness ceremony held right after the seminary's Thursday night banquet.

So please pay attention to this announcement, all you who so love that event (we've been getting over 200 packed into the room in recent years), all you who can't wait to see who will be the honored awardee, all you who get teary-eyed with excitement when we make known our Acadamy-Awards-like presentation. Yes, yoo-hoo, all you who like this so much: listen up:

This year (Hark!) the Gottesdienst Hotel has moved. We are at the Hilton, downtown. That's right at the Grand Wayne Center, where the banquet will be held. The price is the same as the Marriott would have been (a special rate of $89 per night), but for the best hotel in town. The Marriott is remodelling and could not accomodate us this year. OK, fine, so we got a better hotel!

And we need your patronage, because we need to secure a certain number of room-nights so that they'll let us have the ceremony room for our Sabre awarding. Sign up at the Hilton, folks. Call (260) 420-1100 and be sure to tell them you're with Gottesdienst.

While the Hilton is a few minutes farther from the seminary, the upside is that it's a splendid hotel for the same price and it's right at the place where the banquet will be on Thursday night. Cool, huh?

Join the Gottes-gang again for a great week of Symposia events and the great Sabre of Boldness Award.

Say, speaking of the Sabre Award, you may nominate anyone you like for that, even on this blog if you want. Give us the person's address, and the reason for nominating. It's an award which is given for steadfast intrepidity in the confession and defense of the Gospel and at the greatest personal risk. Know anyone who fits the bill? Let me know and we'll consider . . .

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Epiphany Choral Vespers and A Day of Reflection

Coming this January:

A Winter Retreat for a day and a half

at St. Paul’s in Kewanee

Sunday and Monday, January 7-8, 2007

Sunday: Choral Vespers: At 7 p.m. January 7 our annual Epiphany Choral Vespers will be held. Join us in song, and to hear our fine choir sing traditional Christmas and Epiphany carols. This year will also feature the repeat of our own cantata “Shepherd of Israel.” Following Vespers, join us in the cafeteria for a wine and cheese reception. Join us, to make glad your hearts during these holy days. (Snow date: Wednesday, January 10, 7 p.m.)

Monday: A Day of Theological Reflection (Eighth in the series), from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on January 8, led by our pastor, the Rev. Fr. Burnell Eckardt, Ph.D.:

“Assuredly Solomon shall reign”

The Christology of the Line of David

There is no charge, but a freewill offering will be taken.