Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the presentation of Jesus in the temple and do so in view of God’s presence. Amen.
As I talked last week about holiness, I said it’s something that we need to be reminded of because it’s not a category we really think in. As I did that, I made the point that holiness is something that is set apart and distinct because it carries a connection to God and His divinity. I think as we don’t think in that way, we have a real trouble understanding things like what we heard in the Gospel lesson today. By that I don’t mean the song of Simeon. We get that Simeon is rejoicing at the birth of our Savior. We get that he realizes He is looking upon the salvation of mankind in his arms. However, the whole idea of the presentation and the purification doesn’t make sense. I’ll explain the actual command in a bit, but to start, I want to reconnect to the point I made last week about God’s presence, that holiness and presence go hand in hand.
If you recall, I made that point last week that you can’t come into God’s presence if you’re unholy. Nothing unholy can come into His presence, or it will desecrate the presence, and His presence will be detrimental and death-dealing. How so? Because He communicates holiness via that presence. When you come before God His holiness radiates from His being. In fact, all holiness is derived only from Him and is only available by contact with Him. This is a strong OT theme that we have become accustomed overlooking or misunderstanding. You know, we sort of think of the Old Testament as just all these crazy laws and we say Jesus came to overcome them so that we’re saved. And that’s that. But it’s like I said last week. We are made holy by Him, keeping His commands prevents desecration. But this begs for us to ask the question, how can we come into that presence? Sin makes us unholy; if we’re unholy we can’t come into presence. But holiness only comes from contact with presence, so how do we get it?
And as we’re speaking about presence, this is where we think God just comes to us like a laser beam. This is where we don’t think in view of the OT. This is where we have turned God into this lovey-dovey mushy God who is all around us and who we can just know that He loves us because we feel so good about Him. But that’s where I love the statement from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. I think most of you know that and have at least seen the movie. I don’t recall if they actually say the line in the move, but it happens between Mr. Beaver and Lucy, one of the human girls in the story. They’re discussing Aslan, the Lion who is a Christ figure, and Lucy, upon hearing that he is a lion makes the connection of what that means. So, she asks Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe. Fair question, right? I was looking at the lions when we went to the zoo at the beginning of the month. I was thinking of how they are majestic creatures, but how I love animals and I’d like to pet them and the like. But I knew that was a stupid thought, right? You can’t just go up and snuggle a lion. Why not? They could easily overpower you, tear your body to shreds, and devour your remains. So, to answer the question is a lion safe? No! And that’s what Mr. Beaver says about Aslan: “Is he safe? No! But he’s good.”
Christians, that’s the presence of our God. Is it safe? Is our God safe? No! But He’s good. And in His goodness, He’s given us the means to come before Him. He has given us atonement for sin. Like I said last week, that’s what the Old Testament structure taught us. We can come into His presence because He provides means for sin to be paid for. The sacrifices, the shedding of blood made clear that payment. Of course, those were pointing to Jesus, but we’ll get to that in a minute too. So, there’s atonement.
But there’s another part that allows us to enter into His presence. That’s the authorization He speaks in His Word. Think about going to visit a king, or the president, or some other VIP. You wouldn’t just bust into their court, or the oval office, or their office period without permission. You wouldn’t just walk past everyone and speak to the person on your own whim, right? What do you wait for? You wait for some kind of invitation to come into that presence, and then you wait for some kind of invitation to speak what’s on your mind.
And that’s what the Word provides. In the Old Testament, the word provided that authorization according to the commands of the Law. Think about what I said before about this presence of God being like a laser beam, and we sort of think about God just zapping us with presence in a way that’s unmediated, that’s with out mediation. But that’s not what we see. No, there’s the mediation of what the Word says, what it authorizes. This helps things make more sense in the Old Testament too. For example, if you know the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu who were serving at the altar at the tabernacle and were struck dead because they didn’t bring fire to the offering of incense that was authorized. Or the story of Uzzah, who tried to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling, but also was killed when he touched it. These things don’t make sense unless we understand the danger of approaching the holy presence of God apart from the authorization of His Word.
And that word is what we see Mary and Joseph abiding in when they bring Jesus to the Temple in the Gospel of Luke. As Luke tells us, “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 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’).” You see the Law prescribed that there was a period of uncleanness then a need for purification after that at birth. It actually had associations with purity relating to birth, to death, to sex, to things like menstruation. And we hear some of that and think, “Why?” What does that have to do with sinning, why is one impure then? From what I’ve read, it was actually because some of the countries around Israel believed that there was power to be gained from these things. Women had special power in view of their ability to give birth. The blood of menstruation had special power attached to it. Death had it’s own power, as one was thought to be able to manipulate the spirits of their dead loved ones to accomplish the things they desired. And as you hear all of that, where is power not attributed? To the Lord. So, Israel was called to be different. They were called to disassociate those things from their worship. They were to understand that the Lord gave them their provision and power. Therefore, they were to be cleansed from these things before going to His presence. And where was that presence? In the Temple. Specifically, at the Ark.
Now, I said before that I would connect this to Jesus, and here we have to. What’s neat about this presentation of Jesus is that it’s a shift. On the one hand, this baby is being brought to the Temple, He’s being presented for service to the Lord. But on the other hand, look at the response of Simeon and Anna. What are they there to tell everyone? What was promised Simeon? That he would see the consolation of Israel, the Lord’s Christ, before his death. And this promise was fulfilled. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon, revealed to Anna too, that this was in fact that Christ. And so, they gave testimony to that witness of the Spirit. And if you know the Law, you know it was important that they both did it. Why? Because every matter had to be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. You have the witness of Simeon, you have the witness of Anna, and you could say you’ve also got the witness of Joseph and Mary who can confirm their words.
But as we’re talking about presence of God, think about who this Jesus is. What was He named? Well, yes, Jesus, but Immanuel. Immanuel. God with us. God had been present in the Ark of the Covenant. His holiness had been brought out of the Holy of Holies in the Temple and carried to the people via the work of the priests. But there in the arms of Simeon is the new priest, the Infant Priest, holy born. And now the glory of God, the presence of God was entering the Temple in a way that had never happened. There in this child born at Christmas was the presence of God in an utterly unprecedented fashion. God meeting with His people.
Now in the temple, God met with His people to give them His holiness, to bless them with His promises and His life, but now in Jesus this was no longer happening through those men, through the sacrifices on the altar. In Christ, there was a new Ark, and the new altar would be the cross, and the altar in the Heavenly Realms where the sacrifice of the cross would be brought before the Heavenly Father in satisfaction for every sin, every unholy thought word and deed. There in that work at the ascension, the Lord who was presented that day in the Temple presented and continues to present His work before the Father for us.
But as a I speak about the ascension, what do we do with God’s presence now? I keep mentioning how we get this omnipresence wrong and how we think God just connects to us like a laser beam, but that’s not right, so what about it? If this is how God works, where is that presence? It’s that question I’m constantly asking. Where is God? Not as He is everywhere, but where is He for you?
Hopefully, by now you’re thinking of it rightly. He is in His Word. He is in that message of the Gospel that tells you of this priest who sacrificed Himself on the cross for you that in His resurrection you would have holiness to enter into His presence. He is in the waters of baptism. Those waters that wash not earthly impurity and uncleanness from your flesh but cleanse your conscience in the washing in His purity. He is under that bread and wine, His body and blood present for your life and salvation in the forgiveness they won for you on the cross. That is where He is.
And just like there was a liturgy, a rite of how to approach God in the Old Testament, we have a rite centered on His Word to come before Him as He brings Himself to us in preaching, in the Lord’s Supper. Think about the awe of that presence, Christians. As I often say, think about the awe of the Christ here in your presence. Think of the awe that we too can approach Simeon’s song with as we sing it after communion: Lord let your servants depart in peace, according to what? According to your Word! And why? Because our eyes have seen the salvation He has prepared for us! Salvation of holiness. Salvation of mercy. Salvation of love! Salvation by the Christ who was presented in the Temple that He could present us before the Father holy and blameless. And why? That we may stand in His presence there. Not because we deserve or have earned it, but because He has loved us and authorized us to enter by the grace He won for us through His Son this infant in Simeon’s arms. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Today we meditate on Love.
Hope, peace, joy, love- these are the themes we’ll have discussed in Advent here. But, I’m reminded of Paul’s words from his letter to the Corinthians; you know, the wedding passage: “Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” The greatest of these is love. As Lutherans, that passage can be hard to stomach because we like to think that faith is the greatest thing. And it’s true we are saved by grace through faith. We are not saved by the strength of our love—thanks be to God, by the way! But still Paul’s words ring true. The greatest of these is love.
But, to ask that question you likely knew I would have to ask in this meditation: what is love? We throw this word around a lot. And as we do so, I think we do damage to it. For example, I think of when I was in high school and I watched the dating lives of myself and those around me. That would be a big deal when the phrase I love you was spoken, but I think even still it was done in a way that at our age we couldn’t recognize the gravity of those words. In contrast to that, as I’m often critical of things from the Navigators when I was with them in college—that was the non-denominational Christian group I was a part of for my Junior and Senior years. I’m critical of how legalistic we could be in there. And one thing that we were very legalistic about was dating. But while it maybe went too far for many, there was some wisdom in some of it. The goal was to be cognizant that relationships didn’t jump in too quickly and cause undue harm to feelings. The phrase used was to guard each other’s hearts. Which was something intended in love. This at it’s heart had love more in mind than many of us high schoolers as we told those we were dating that we loved them.
But what is love? As I speak of throwing phrases around, we have a phrase in our contemporary parlance: love is love. Of course, tautologies are always true, and so is this one. You know, when you use circular reasoning it can’t go wrong. But what’s meant by that? It’s meant that whoever loves whomever in a romantic way is justified in that action. It doesn’t matter if that love is between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, or now everything in between. And so what is love in view of that? It’s an emotion. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of affection, of draw, of maybe a connection. So, is that what love is?Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God. There we have some insight. Love comes from God. But what do we learn from that? Well, look at how God speaks of love. How do we see Him speaking of it? Well, just like we hear from John here, God tells us to love, doesn’t He? Think of all the times we hear Jesus telling us to love one another. He tells us that as Christians we will be known by our love. He tells us that we are to do this. As He’s asked about the commandments, He says the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, with all of our mind, with all of our soul. And He says the second is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love. Love God and love neighbor.
But still, we hear that we’re supposed to do that, but what does it look like? Do we just follow our feelings about it? Do we just see what spontaneous emotion springs up telling us how to have compassion or to feel bad about other people? Sometimes, sure. Jesus is spoken of as having compassion on people a lot. I’ve mentioned that a number of times. It’s that word that tells us that Jesus looks at people and He feels it for them. He feels it in His guts. But is that all there is to it?
Think about me with my kids. I can watch my kids struggle with something. I can see the littlest struggle with trying to get clothes on. Maybe it’s the challenge of clothes inside out and upside down. And he can get really frustrated, and I can feel bad. And so, I do help, but at a point it will be unloving for me to continue. Or I can watch him melt down because he was hoping to watch one more show at night, but as much compassion as I might feel in that moment, it’s better for me to love him by sending him to bed. In those cases, we see that love isn’t governed by emotion.
No, we see this love from God in the Commandments. Hopefully, you knew I was going here. Those Ten Commandments tell us how to love. Love God by not having other gods, but calling upon His name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Love Him by hearing preaching, not despising His word, but gladly learning it; by going to Church. And love your neighbor. Love your neighbor by honoring authority, both in the positions of authority in which you stand and under which you stand. Love your neighbor by caring for their physical needs and not murdering. Love the neighbor of your spouse, of your neighbor’s spouse by honoring marriage. Love your neighbors by not stealing, not bearing false witness, not coveting; caring for their possessions and reputation. That’s how you love. That’s what love looks like. It looks like overlooking your own wants and desires and caring for others.
In other words, love is a sacrifice in view of those commands. And it’s surprising how inclusive they are. You know, I remember when I was still young in my Lutheranism, and I went on a youth retreat with the pastor that confirmed me. As he spoke to the kids, I remember him pointing them to the commandments to know how to live as Christians. And, of course, on the one hand,
I knew this. There were commands that I knew I needed to abide by. I knew I shouldn’t kill anyone. I knew I shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage. But I also heard Jesus talk about all these ways we are supposed to love and I didn’t get the connection to the commandments. I didn’t get that the call to care, for example, for the poor was grounded in the fifth and seventh commandments. The commandments to not murder and not stealing. I didn’t get that caring for the poor was honoring the commandment to not murder because that commandment meant to care for their bodily needs. I didn’t get that the command to be generous meant that not was stealing from my neighbor, not protecting their possessions and income. And as I phrase these this way, hopefully you hear the catechism in there. Christians, those explanations in the catechism are gold for helping us grasp these things. Learn them again if you’ve forgotten them!
But as I say that, does that still encompass all of love? Well, it gets closer. In fact, it gets close to what Jesus says when He says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” doesn’t it? Those commandments help us to restrain our desires that we would lay them down in the name of love.
But as I speak of commandments, what do we always have to remember about them as Lutherans? Or to draw it out a little more clearly in Lutheran terms, are the commandments Law, or are they Gospel? They are law. Even the commandment to love is law.
You know we hear that call to love and it sounds so good. In fact, if you go to a lot of churches in our day, they’ll tell you that love is the Gospel, it’s the good news, and the good news that Jesus gave us is that we should go love one another. That sounds all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? And to be fair, should we love? Of course, I’ve just spent the last few minutes telling you that Jesus has told you to do precisely that, and making the point that no matter how our society defines it, you need to do it the way that God ordained in the commandments. But it’s still Law. What does the Law do?
Paul tells us. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law shows us our sin. It shows how we haven’t done what God wants us to do. Do we still try? Of course, because that’s what He tells us to do. But we won’t get to heaven by it. Our love won’t save us. But, beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.
Love is from God, and that’s what today is all about. Our love can’t save us, but the love of our God can. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Hear that again. In this is love. NOT that we have loved God. That’s the reality. We haven’t loved God. Well, we try. We fail, but we try. And as John says elsewhere, we love because He first loved us. No, it’s not about our love. It’s about His. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us. He loved us, and what? He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Christians, what a beautiful love we see there. We see the light glowing from the manger. The light of the love of God in the darkness of that night, wrapped in swaddling cloths. As I say it that way, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen art that reflects this, but it’s such a magnificent image, and a fitting one. We were looking at this with my family last week. There was a painting that had Mary and others around the manger, and it was clear that the source of light for the painting was the Lord in the swaddling cloths. That’s this love. The love of the God who sent His Son into this world. The love of that Son who in love gave up all of the riches of heaven to be born to us. The love of that Son who lived the perfect life of love and never broke the commandments; the love of the Son who carried sin to the cross to be our propitiation.
Yes, Christians, as we meditate on love this day, that’s what we see. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for friends. And this Christ child is that love. He is that love born as the light in the darkness at the first Christmas. He is that love that teaches us to love. And He is that love that finally brings hope, brings peace, brings joy, and brings love to us.
That is just what we need in our world. We need that love. Yes, faith, hope, and love; the greatest of these is love. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson, previously read. Especially Mary’s words in the Magnificat: “Holy is His Name.
Of all of the things that are said in this passage, you might be wondering why I would pick that to talk about. Here we are. It’s the last Sunday before Christmas. Mary is pregnant with the Lord Jesus in her womb. We’re going to celebrate the birth of this Christ Thursday and Friday. But of all of the things in this passage pertinent to that, I chose those words, “Holy is His Name.” Why?
Well, to be fair, it’s not a super easy answer to give. But I was reading Luke here and in the passage we have for next week, and I was struck by something. You see, I remembered when I preached on Luke a lot a couple of years ago, when it was up in the Three-Year Lectionary. And I remembered how I was constantly fascinated with how much Luke referenced things pertaining to the Old Testament. Now that might not seem that weird on the surface. But you see the understanding is that Matthew and John are the really Jewish Gospels. But Luke is more a Gospel to the gentiles. But yet it seems like Luke is where you see the closest connection of Jesus to the temple—like when He’s left there at age twelve. And you also see Luke making a lot of strong connections to the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus.
So, I had that floating in my memory, then I read these readings for this week and next, and it struck me all over again. Especially as you look at how Luke does treat Jesus and His connection to the temple. But then you have to understand that you can’t separate the temple from the proper understanding of holiness. You see the Temple is about God’s presence with His people, and that presence is about holiness. To be brief about the connection: because of holiness, when God is present, if the person is holy, His presence is life-giving and beneficial and if the person is unholy, the presence is death-dealing and detrimental. With that in mind, I thought it fitting to talk about those two things over the next two Sundays. This Sunday is holiness, and next Sunday is presence. And don’t worry, I’ll make sure to connect that to Christmas.
So then, holiness. “Holy is His Name.” Was ist das? What does this mean? I know this is something I’ve discussed before, but it’s worth bringing up again, because it’s not a category we really think in. We’ll talk about God’s holiness, we talk about God being holy, about holy communion, about the Holy Spirit, about the Holy Christian Church in the Creed. But what is it? Well, I’ve often heard it described as being set apart. Holiness is a state of being separated from ordinary things, especially in view of association with the things of the divine. But of course, that’s circular, isn’t it? God is holy because He’s set apart in His divinity.
But there’s something to that that’s right isn’t it? Because God is the One who is holy—and Scripture tells us He alone is the One who is holy; all other things made holy receive their holiness from Him—because He alone is holy it makes sense that the proper definition of holiness should center around God. It should center around Him and the ways that He is unique.
But before looking at that, what about this aspect of being set apart? You know one of the words that we still use a fair amount associated with holy things is the word sacred. Sacred historically meant about the same as holy. If something was sacred, it was so because of its unique aspects and how it was set apart. For example, marriage is a sacred bond. It’s unique and set apart—and of course instituted by God. That’s why living together outside of marriage even still isn’t a holy bond. Or what else do we speak of as sacred? Well, we speak of things like family or family time as sacred, don’t we? We sometimes make sure we set aside that specific time for family to ensure that we have that interval of time where our bond isn’t interrupted. Or think of how we treat things like sports or concerts, how we treat entertainment in our day? It’s almost sacred, isn’t it? When I was in Washington, there were more than a few people who would stay home from church when the Seahawks had an early game, because those games started at 10:00 A.M. there. That time for the Seahawks was sacred. And sports fits well too, because we even have rituals associated with it, don’t we? We wear special clothes, we sing special songs, we carve out time in our schedule, we have our feasts together. You can see how we treat it as sacred--sadly many treat it as more sacred than the holy things of God. But these give good examples of things that are set apart. They are treated as holy in some sense because of their uniqueness.
However, what really is important about holiness? Is it just that it’s set apart? No. It’s that association with divinity. As I say that, how can we, then, understand this holiness? I would say it’s something where we associate it not so much just with God
as He is powerful and almighty, and the like. Those things come into play with it. But I think it’s more associated with His goodness, with His purity, with His righteousness. As we sort of reflect on God, it seems appropriate that we sort of categorize all of these together. God is good. God is pure, He is righteous. In fact, He is perfectly good. He is perfectly pure. He is perfectly righteous. All of this is what makes His holiness so unique. To taint that perfection, to taint that goodness, to taint that righteousness, that is desecration.
Or as I say all of that, I often like to draw a very close connection between all of those things and God’s nature as love, that God is love. God is perfect love. He is perfect love and perfectly loving. His righteousness is actually grounded in that love, His purity is grounded in the purity of His love. His holiness is that it is Love’s pure light, as we sing this time of year. We can see this in the summary of the Law. To do good is to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as themselves. To not do those things is sin. It is unlove.
In fact, as we’re speaking of this verse “Holy is His Name,” look at the connection Luther makes with this and the Name of God. Think about the catechism and its description of the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer. “Hallowed be Thy Name. What does this mean? God’s Name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also. How is God’s Name kept holy? God’s Name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity and we as the children of God also lead holy lives according to it.” Thinking about all of this, how God’s Word is taught properly when it teaches about God as holy, good, pure, righteous, and loving. Think about how we who bear God’s Name in our baptism, how it teaches us to live holy, good, pure, righteous, and loving lives. And how it tells us that when we desecrate that Name, we desecrate the holiness of God.
I don’t want to get too far down the path, but that’s something we need to understand. Our holiness comes from God. We don’t make it from ourselves. But our sin does desecrate us. The point being we don’t seek to be moral in order to be holy. We don’t seek to keep God’s commandments that we would be made holy. Instead, we seek to keep them that we wouldn’t desecrate His holiness, wouldn’t profane His Name.
But you see that’s where we see the extent of the depth of God’s holiness. His perfection, His goodness, His purity are so deep that offenses against it are most problematic. When we desecrate His holiness, we make ourselves unholy. Like I said before, that means that we can’t come into His presence with that unholiness, or that will mean death and detriment to us. I always think about the Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you’ve seen that. You know I always joke about the Ark of the Covenant being that Ark, the Ark in the Old Testament temple, but that is what it’s based on. And of course, they Hollywoodized it by making it like the Ark was some kind of magical thing. But the aspect of the faces melting and that sort of thing was drawn from the understanding that if someone came before the presence of God and His holiness at the Ark in a way that was desecrated it would destroy them.
And so how is unholiness made right? By atonement. And hopefully you see where this connects to Christmas. As we look here to the birth of this child, look who He is. Do you remember how Luke described the conception of Jesus? How he wrote of Gabriel’s words? Gabriel came to Mary and told her what was coming, and she said, “How will this be?” And he responded, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
Hopefully, you see the connection. This child, this Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and so also holy, is that Christ born at Christmas. And as He was born holy, He always lived in that holiness. He never desecrated it. He always did what was good, what was pure, what was righteous. He always loved God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength. He always loved His neighbor as Himself. And so, He never desecrated God’s holiness. In fact, as He loved His neighbor, He loved even you. He took your unholiness upon Himself. He bore that unholiness in the gruesome death of the cross. He bore that that you would be given His holiness.
And He does give that to you, like I said. You were made holy in the waters of holy baptism. He sustains you in that holiness in His holy Word. He feeds you that holiness with His holy body and blood in His Supper. You are made holy in Him. He fulfills His own Word, which tells you “be holy as I am holy.”
In fact, as we reflect on the whole selection of Mary’s Magnificat here, we see this exchange. We see the exchange of the One who is lowly being exalted. That’s our Christ. He was made low, but now is exalted in His faithfulness. Those who make themselves low in hearing and trusting Him and His Word also will be exalted with Him.
But this all comes back to that holiness. He came into the lowliness of our unholiness, born into it that first Christmas, that He could give us the greatest gift of all: His holiness. Now, you are set apart in Him. You are perfected, made holy, beloved in His sight. In view of that, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read, especially Jesus’ words, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
I always am intrigued by the interaction John has with Jesus in this portion of Matthew’s Gospel. Here John is as the one who baptized Jesus. He’s the one who saw the Holy Spirit descend up on Jesus as a dove, manifesting Jesus’ anointing as the Messiah. He’s the one who pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And yet, here he sends these disciples to ask Jesus if He is indeed “the One who is to come,” if He is the Messiah, or if they should “look for another.”
Now, what’s interesting is that Biblical Scholars aren’t unified in what this means. There are even church fathers going back to the early church who said that John was merely going through this conversation for the sake of his disciples, that John never doubted. He just wanted his disciples to be led to Jesus. And that’s certainly within John’s range of activity in the Gospels. He is the one who points to Jesus saying that Jesus must become more and he must become less. But at the same time, it doesn’t totally fit with the face of the story here, does it? So, what do we do with it?
Well, on the one hand, I think we can appreciate Jesus’ graciousness toward John assuming the case that John was really wondering. Here, John is asking, questioning, about Jesus. And Jesus still exalts John as the faithful prophet he is. On the other hand, I think we can be sympathetic with this, can’t we? Sure, we might wonder how John could witness all of these things and still question, but isn’t this consistent with the whole of Scripture? You get the Israelites in the wilderness and they saw all of the things that happened in Egypt, in the crossing of the Red Sea, in hearing the Lord’s voice at Sinai. You have all of that, and they still constantly sin. And we’re the same, aren’t we? We constantly hear of our Lord’s grace to us, we see His work among us: His blessings, His mercy, His forgiveness spoken into our ears and placed upon our tongues. And yet, how do we so often respond? I think we can sympathize with John.
And yet what is Jesus’ response? Well, like I said, He commends John. But He also says, look at all that you see. You see all this great stuff, you see healings, and resurrections, blessings, good news proclaimed that the Kingdom of Light is overcoming the Kingdom of darkness. Which by the way, a lot of this is direct reference, and so also fulfillment, of things from Isaiah. Isaiah said these things would happen and Jesus fulfills them in the witness of the people. And then He says those words, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Now, in the Greek that word for offended there could be literally translated “scandalized.” “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.” The word means to be a stumbling block, or in more historical works, a trap of sorts. Blessed is the one who doesn’t stumble in believing in Jesus. Blessed is the one who doesn’t get caught in a trap to not believe in Jesus. Blessed is the one who isn’t scandalized, isn’t offended by Him.
Are you offended by Jesus? Be careful before you answer. The disciples were. Jesus said on the night of His betrayal that they would all fall away, that they would all be scandalized. And they did. Even Peter who, all the more, said he would absolutely never fall away. Even Peter fell away.
Likewise, the Pharisees were offended, they were scandalized by Jesus. In Matthew 15, Jesus offended them in telling them that they didn’t honor His commandments. He offended them by telling them that it wasn’t the food that people ate that made them unclean. Instead it was the sin that came out of their hearts.
And as we look at the scandal, the offense of our Lord, we see both of these, don’t we? We see that there is this scandal the world brings to us as Christians. They see scandal at things the Lord says. And they try to drive us away from Him, try embroil us in the scandal as well. For example, I was reading an interview with a musician who professes to be Christian. In it, the interviewer started making comments about Christianity and the offense he found in it; the offense of Jesus saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” He then also said how he didn’t like Paul’s professing of right wing views. Of course, I thought that was interesting because Paul really had no concept of left and right wing politics, and it’s really anachronistic to categorize him as right wing, but it makes the point. It makes the point that the message that we see in the Scriptures about sin and about what sin is, and how we are all deeply, deeply sinful, showing forth the sin of our hearts by our actions. It makes the point that all of this is offensive, is scandalous to the world.
So, where are you offended, scandalized by Jesus? Does it scandalize you that He tells you that you won’t get to heaven because of your goodness, but His? Does it scandalize you that He tells you that He is the way, the truth, and the life? Or are there other things that scandalize you.
For example, we started a bit of a conversation about gender roles in a Bible Class a couple of weeks ago. You know, the fact that we don’t ordain women is scandalous in our day. As we talk about those things and when I defend what Scripture says on them, I’ll admit there are ways even I bristle. We look at readings like Ephesians 5 where Paul speaks about wives submitting to their husbands. That makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We’re not those who would profess to be a part of what’s often called the “woke” crowd, but it still is something that makes us squirm, isn’t it? And I can explain about authority and responsibility, and what all of that really means until I’m blue in the face. That authority, power aren’t about having control; that even Christ didn’t see equality with God something to be sought after. But the reality is that we, or I’m guessing almost all of us, are still a bit uncomfortable with this. And to prove the point, I’m going to ease us all a little bit and once more explain that those verses don’t justify the mistreatment of women, nor do the give us reason to view women as any less intelligent or capable of so many things or as lesser people than men. But the words still say what they say.
Or look at how Jesus preaches about money. That gets uncomfortable too, doesn’t it? When you see the generosity of the Widow with her mite, and Jesus says she gave more than anyone else, doesn’t that make you squirm? It’s because it scandalizes us. It offends our sinful nature.
These offend our nature that likes to go along with the world and take our wisdom from the world. They offend our nature that wants to grab and grab and grab for our own selfish use and comfort and satisfaction. We too are offended, scandalized by Jesus.
But why? Look at who this Jesus is. Look at who He is in His goodness. Look at who He is in His love. Look at what He tells John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” This Jesus is the One who did all of that. He is the One, like I said, who brought this light into the world darkened by sin and the suffering that goes along with it. He is the One who entered into this world to save us from death in His life, His death, and His resurrection. That’s, of course, the joy of this birth that we’ll be celebrating in a couple of weeks. Why would we be offended at this One who loves us so dearly.
In fact, as we speak of scandal, don’t we see it? The greatest scandal of all? Don’t we see that Jesus is the One scandalized on our behalf on the cross. There He is subjected to that offense, that trap, that scandal of a public execution, the death of a criminal. And for what crime? Not His own, but mine. Not His own, but yours. Why are we offended?
And you see, that’s where John’s example and His preaching is such a wonderful example in Advent. Think about John. Like Jesus says, did they go out to see John because He was like a reed waving in the wind? No! John didn’t adjust His preaching to make sure the crowds were pleased. John was that guy that caused trouble. He was that guy that said stuff, and we all heard it, we’d say, “Well, I don’t think I would have said it that way.” “I don’t think I would have gone so far as to call the Pharisees a brood of vipers, to call them snakes,” but that’s what John did.
And he did this in a weird way too. As Jesus points out, John didn’t come in soft and fancy clothes. No, he came in camel’s hair and a belt. He ate locusts and wild honey. And why did the people go out to see him? For that very reason; for the reason that he was a prophet.
He was a prophet who spoke God’s Word without equivocation. He was a prophet who preached without worry if someone would be offended. He didn’t care if he was called mean, or judgmental or any of that. And as I say that, to be clear, I’m not advocating that you go out and tell everyone just how awful you think they are because of their sin. Or that you yell at them about going to hell because of it. No, John definitely has a role we don’t. But I would advocate that you not be afraid to tell the truth of God’s Word because it is critical of someone else’s sincerely held beliefs. I would advocate that you not worry whether someone will think you’re weird because our church is so “stodgy” and “stick in the mud.” After all, we’re dealing with God and His holiness with these things. Doesn’t that require care and steadfastness? It does, but that’s a scandal.
Christians, in view of John then, hear his scandalous preaching. Hear how He prepares that way before Jesus calling the world, calling you to repentance. Repent. Repent of your sin, turn from it and make straight the path for the King to arrive. Why? Because of this King’s love for you.
Yes, this Jesus is offensive. Yes, He is scandalous. But He was made a scandal for you and for your sin. So, repent of that sin, and cling to Him. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. They are so much better. And in the scandal of His love for us shown on the cross, we see just how good He is, which tells us just how much better we are in Him. Better in His love, in His healing, in His making us perfect again in body and soul. Truly better in Him making us blessed just as He is. Amen.