Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Ethnic Jesus

Christmas Eve, 2007
Luke 2:1-20
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
Greenfield, Wisconsin

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    It used to be bother me a little bit when I would see Nativity scenes from other countries that depicted Jesus as being of the same race as that country–in a Chinese painting Jesus looked oriental, in an African portrayal Jesus was black, or for that matter, in a German or Scandinavian portrait Jesus looked like a blue-eyed European.  It bothered me because the Christmas narrative is a true story, real history, and Jesus is a middle-eastern Jew.  To depict the Nativity in some other way seemed to me to be making it into a bit of a fairy tale that we can mold and shape and change to fit our desires and needs.  But the account of Jesus’ birth is no myth.  It doesn’t belong in the same category as flying reindeer and all the fantasy that has become so much a part of our culture’s Christmas holiday.  What I read to you is for real.  Luke emphasizes that point by even giving you some of the historical details about who the Caesar was and the census and the tax and who the governor of that region was at that time.  The Christmas story is an actual, literal account about the real Jesus and His birth.

    And yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that those may paintings have it right, at least in this sense: The angel came with the message of good news for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  The Savior Jesus is born to you, for you; He is yours.  He’s your kind, humankind.  You see, when the Son of God took on our human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, He did not just became a man.  He became man.  He took all of humanity into Himself in His incarnation.  For He came to bear the sins of all humanity in His body.  That includes every nation and race and people and language.  Though Jesus was indeed a Jew, His birth reveals the truth that there is in fact only one human race, the fallen children of Adam.  And in this newborn baby in the manger, every sinner is redeemed and restored to God.  Jesus is the embodiment of all people from every corner of the globe, and in His body all people are put right with God again.  And so when Jesus is portrayed as African or Oriental or European, theologically speaking that’s true.  By becoming man, Christ becomes one with all people to deliver all people.  The Savior is born to you, for you.  He’s one of you, your very flesh and blood, your true human brother.  There’s no one that’s left out of the new life that comes from His holy birth.  He’s like you in every way, except without sin, that you might become like Him in every way and share in His divine glory.

    This alone is the basis for the peace on earth of which the angels sang.  In Christ, God and sinners are reconciled.  We sinners are no longer under God’s wrath; we are at peace with Him again through His self-giving mercy.  The warfare between heaven and earth is now ended.  The case of God against the human race is set aside, and His love for the world is revealed.  Our flesh has been joined to God.  Heaven and earth are at peace.  God and man are brought back together in Jesus, for Jesus is God and man together in one person.  Baptized into Christ, we are put right with God.  And living in Christ, we are put right with each other, too.  The only peace on earth that lasts is the peace of Christ, forgiven sinners united as one in His holy body.

    Whoever you are, the message of this night is that Christ came for you to rescue you, to forgive you.  He was willing to deal with the indignities of His lowly birth and His humble life and His humiliating death in order that you might be dignified and exalted and lifted up with Him in His resurrection to everlasting life. 

    In truth this Christmas narrative foreshadows the reason why Jesus came into this world.  Even as He was born outside of the inn with the animals, so He would be crucified outside the city with common beastly criminals.  Even as He was wrapped in strips of linen and laid in a manger, so later He would be wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb.  Even as the shepherds came to worship Him, so it is that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The wood of the manger would later be traded for the wood of the cross.  As one song puts it, “Fragile finger sent to heal us, tender brow prepared for thorn, tiny heart whose blood will save us unto us is born.”  We must never forget on this Christmas night that our Lord took on flesh and blood so that He might sacrifice His flesh and shed His blood to cleanse us and make us holy, His own special people.  He was born to die for us that we might be reborn to live in Him eternally.

    The place of Jesus’ birth was Bethlehem, which means literally, “house of bread.”  Even as He was laid in a feeding trough, so He is given to be holy food for us, the Bread of Life, which one may eat of and live forever.  Let us then come today to the Bethlehem He has prepared for us, to the swaddling clothes and manger in which He now lies, the bread and wine which holds and which is His true body and blood given for the forgiveness of our sins.  Let us feast on the Living Bread from heaven, that our humanity may be restored in Him who became fully human for us.  You need not go to the holy land to feel close to Jesus.  For this is the holy land, where Christ is truly present for you.  You get to kneel with the shepherds right here at this altar.

    To all of you, whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve done, know this:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  In Him you are forgiven, you are put right with God.  All is well.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Merry Christmas!

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Best Pro-Life Sermon I've Ever Read or Heard

Dr. David P. Scaer
Matthew 2:16-18

            The Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion should be commemorated on December 28, the day of the Holy Innocents.  Churches should be decked in black for the hideous American crime of abortion which matches in its brutality Stalin’s extermination of the Ukranians in the 1930's, Hitler’s destruction of Jews in Germany and Poland in the 1940's, and the near obliteration of the Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's.  Our slaughter is more thorough and covers the 70's, 80's, and now the 90's.  We could very well pray the collect for the Day of the Holy Innocents:

“O God, whose martyred innocents showed forth Thy praise not by speaking but by dying, mortify all vices within us that our lives may in deed confess Thy faith which our tongue doth utter; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

            With these words we are at the very foundation of Christian truth–not that we speak the right things and sigh in horror at the abominations of others, but, as the collect says, “that our lives may confess” that which “our tongue . . . utters.”  For the time comes when the Christian faith is only inadequately expressed by words and must be brought to perfect completion by action.  The slaughter of the holy innocents is for the church an unrefusable crusade call to repentance, faith, and action.

            Our opposition to abortion is part of our confessional commitment.  With Luther in his explanation to the Fifth Commandment, we say that we should “help and befriend our neighbor in every bodily need.”  And no bodily need of our neighbor’s has a greater claim on us than the unborn who die their deaths not by their own desire or God’s, but by the will of those whose bodies have given them life.  Though burdened with inherited sin from Adam in their conception, they have not been born to a life of sin.  Though they are among those who are redeemed by Christ, they hear not the Gospel of that redemption.  Their infant bodies, washed in salt, never are comforted by the saving flood of baptism.

            Thomas Jefferson said that: “A single human being is of infinite worth.”  This non-religious principle is sufficient to oppose abortion with every fiber of our bodies and every thought of our souls and every emotion of our spirits.  But the sacredness of human life has been raised to an even higher dimension by the coming of the Son of God in the flesh.  “In Him was life and this was the life which lightens everyone who is coming into the world” (John 1:9).  Now through the incarnation, the Son of God shares in the life of every man, woman, and child; and not only those children who are born, but those who were conceived and never born.  The incarnation is bound to one place and time, but it has a universal dimension infiltrating every life, filling every place, and affecting every time.  We human beings are not a collection of individuals, but we are all taken out of the flesh of Adam so that we are part of one another.  By His conception the eternal Logos permeated all of humanity, and all of humanity became part of Him.

            In the moment of our conception we are all without visible race or gender, without culture or inheritance, without language or skill.  We stand coram Deo, before God, with the first Adam to hear a verdict of condemnation and death: “in sin did my mother conceive me.”  And more importantly we stand coram Deo, before God, with the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, to hear a verdict of righteous acquittal and justification, of holiness and innocence, of life and resurrection.  “This was the light which lightens everyone who comes into the world.”

            If life which exists between the conception of one simple cell and a fully developed baby is so insignificant that it can be arbitrarily snuffed out for whatever reason, then our Lord’s life within His mother’s womb was equally unimportant and we would be without hope and salvation.  But life within the womb is the most significant of all lives, and our Lord’s conception of His pure mother and His life within her womb raised to a level of perfection that life already sacred before God.  The womb of the virgin was, as Luther says, the throne room of God.  It was here as St. Paul says, that the man Jesus saw Himself with all of the attributes which are God’s.  The womb of His mother was the temple of God where Christ ruled the world and still offered Himself in continual prayer to God and His Father not for His sake, but for ours.  Here even He before He received the adoration of the shepherds and the worship of the magi, He received the worship and adoration of the Baptist, who though still unborn was already the greatest of all the prophets and in whom all the prophets from Adam to Malachi were present.

            We are here to commemorate those who were once alive, but are never born.  Yes, we offer our prayers for ourselves and for a nation which permits the holocaust to continue and even for the mothers who out of ignorance or willful design or simple inconvenience or apparently legitimate financial reasons abort their own children.  These, however, still have time to pray for themselves, to perform their own penitential vows, and to cry their own tears of sorrow.  But let us shed our tears for those who were never able to shed their own tears of repentance.  Let us ask God to remember in His mercy those who will never be able to ask mercy for themselves.  As did Luther and the fathers of Lutheran orthodoxy, we pray that God in His mercy would provide a way for those who forever remain unborn in this world to be born into the next world.  For if John the Baptist could at the voice of the mother of God confess the faith by leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, perhaps God in His infinite grace and mercy may provide a word of redemption which these children may hear and believe before their lives are snuffed out.  They no less than the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod are entitled to be called innocent and deserve our commemoration on this day of remembrance.  “Rachel is still weeping for her children, because,” as Jeremiah says, “they are not.”

            If their lights are not permitted to shine on earth before men to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, perhaps they can still shine in heaven.  God can perfect praise from unborn babes, as easily as He can from sucklings.

            If with these words we trespass into the land of divine mysteries, we have done it not only out of a sense of our own frustration, but out of the knowledge that these children have been redeemed by the one who lived His life in the womb specifically for their sakes.  When the church confessed, “incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine et homo factus est,” “He was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man,” let the church not only genuflect in devotion to this greatest of mysteries, but may her corporate heart bend in sorrow and contrition for those who go from conception to grave without birth, for those whose mothers’ wombs are not temples of safety but halls of slaughter.

            Will He, who reigned over heaven and earth from His mother’s womb and who in his infancy escaped the butcher’s hand of King Herod, not hear our prayer and join His prayer with ours before God and His Father in heaven even now for those for whom no way of escape is provided?

            I am not one for drawing banners.  But I would be pleased to march with the community which is Concordia Theological Seminary this Saturday morning at the City-County Building behind a banner which said, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  Let us pray.

O almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength and madest infants to glorify Thee by their deaths, mortify and kill all vices in us and so strengthen us by Thy grace that by the innocency of our lives and constancy of our faith, we may glorify Thy holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

I ran across this sermon early in the 1990's (though I don't recall exactly where).  A very similar sermon is included in “In Christ: The Collected Works of David P. Scaer — Volume 1, p. 282. Published by Concordia Catechetical Academy. Used by permission.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Choosing Between Science and Christianity?

It is incredibly frustrating when people stay away from church and Christianity because they think embracing it means they have to leave science behind.  I’ve been watching the National Geographic docudrama on Mars, and one scientist who was interviewed made this revealing comment, “There’s almost a religious belief that we will find [life on Mars] eventually if we just keep looking, and it’s based upon faith and not knowledge, in the same way that religion is based upon faith and not knowledge.”  What a statement! It’s interesting, first of all, that the scientist admits that much of what passes for (pop) science today is not really science at all.  But it’s especially troubling that anyone would think that the Christian religion is not based on knowledge, that it’s pure blind faith in fairy tales or something. 

The fact is that Christianity is thoroughly grounded in history, in reality.  It speaks of real people and real places that archaeologists have studied.  It is based on historical events and eyewitness testimony.  Now it’s true that faith is required to believe what those events actually mean, but the Christian religion is most certainly based on knowledge.  You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that Jesus existed or even that He died on a cross.  Those things, that knowledge can be demonstrated pretty convincingly through both Biblical and non-biblical documents.  What takes faith is to believe that a man who received the death penalty is the Savior of the world and that salvation was accomplished precisely in that shedding of His blood.  But the writers of Scripture are very clear that what we’re dealing with is real, tangible, knowable stuff.  “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).  For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). 

It is precisely the Biblical and Christian worldview that makes science possible, the belief in Laws of nature that can be consistently applied from place to place and time to time, which of course presupposes a Creator of those laws, a unchanging Creator who has dominion and authority over all places and times.  And who really is being un-scientific in today’s cultural context anyway, the Christian or the “scientific” agnostic or atheist?  It’s not Christians who are denying the biological reality of the full humanity of the unborn.  It’s not Christians who are denying the reality of the DNA in every single cell of our bodies and claiming that men can become women, and vice versa.  It’s not Christians who hold to the irrational belief that life can randomly arise out of non-living things if given enough time—something which has never been observed or reproduced in a laboratory or anywhere else. 

It is perfectly rational and logical to believe in the existence of a Creator (Romans 1:20).  For life always comes from life.  Either matter is eternal and somehow has no beginning, or God is eternal and is the source of life and all that is.  Science is simply the study of God’s creation and how it operates.  The Bible is not in contradiction with real science, though it most certainly goes well beyond what science can look into or explain.  Our God is the God of creation, of wisdom and knowledge, of Wisdom made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who redeemed and renewed creation by His life and death and resurrection (Romans 8:20-23). 

Anyway, all of this is meant as introduction to this helpful video.  It has to oversimplify some things for the sake of time (for instance in the “how” and “why” portion).  But it’s a reminder that while the Word of God is the highest revelation of knowledge and wisdom, science is a good gift of God to learn about and rejoice in His good creation.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Best Argument for IVF

Children who come into this world through in vitro fertilization (IVF) are precious human beings, of the same value and humanity as anyone else. But this is exactly why IVF is so problematic. For IVF almost invariably involves the destruction of other precious human beings to attain the desired result.  Therefore, from a Christian and Biblical perspective, the case against in vitro fertilization (IVF) is pretty clear cut.  Since the process of IVF virtually always causes the loss of individual human lives, embryonic children with a soul and their own unique DNA, it is not a moral option.  (See this article for an explanation of how IVF works.)   

However, some have attempted to justify this loss of human life by saying that even when conception occurs in the normal way through a sexual union, some human life can be lost.  Embryos that are naturally conceived may fail to implant in the uterus, and the woman's cycle will continue normally without her even being aware that conception had occurred.  In other cases, miscarriages can take place through no fault of the woman or anyone else.  Why should the loss of life that occurs in the process of IVF be considered to be any different?

The answer, very simply put, is that the above examples occur within the natural order that God created.  They are not usually attributable to something we've done.*  What happens, then, is in God's hands.  It is for Him to give and sustain life, or not, as He sees fit within the one flesh relationship of man and woman that He created.   It's His decision, His doing.

IVF on the other hand makes the loss of life our decision and our doing.  It's something we've willfully decided to pursue. That makes us responsible and accountable for the loss of life that occurs as a result.  In IVF the process both of conception and of implantation is not natural but artificial; it goes well beyond medicine's proper role of healing and helping the body to function properly. It is outside the natural order that God created.  Therefore the loss of life is on us.  

Especially from a Christian perspective, this is a matter we can't ignore.  For at the heart of the Christian faith is the reality that our Lord Jesus went through all the stages of human existence and made them holy.  The Son of God Himself was once an embryo.  Therefore, every embryo is of the greatest worth, not only because human life is created in the image of God, but also and especially because God Himself shared fully in our humanity from the very moment of conception.  To say that some embryonic human life can be manipulated and sacrificed in this way is ultimately to undermine the truth of the incarnation of our Lord and the very Gospel itself. 

At the end of the day, every justification of the process of IVF is just that--a justification, a rationalization.  Christians who are facing issues of infertility should consider this honestly as they seek to follow and do God's will. 

*Although see here for how hormonal contraceptives and IUDs can work against implantation of an embryo in the uterus