Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Child Who Was Lost--and Found

Texts: Hosea 11:1-11 ; Matthew 2:13-23

YOU MAY REMEMBER A COUPLE weeks ago, hearing on the news about three teenaged children who went missing in the Northern California woods, on an expedition to look for a Christmas tree.

They and their dad were lost three days in the mountains, in a heavy snowfall, with no food supplies or special clothing. The reports say the search helicopter spotted them at the last possible time-- the weather conditions were getting so bad all the copters would have been grounded for the next few days. The children and their father could have all died of starvation and exposure.

But at just the right time, they were rescued safe and mostly sound. And the rejoicing was great from their friends and family, because the children who were lost have now been restored to them.

It's always an anxious thing to hear about lost children. It's worse than anxious when that child belongs to someone you know. And I can only imagine the agony when the lost child is your own. And it's a matter of great joy when the lost child again is found.

Our readings from Hosea and Matthew are a story about children lost-- and children found. And the way it turns out should make us rejoice greatly at this Christmastide and all the year through.

We don't think of the child Jesus having His picture on a milk carton with the headline, "Have You Seen Me?" But for around five years, Jesus was lost to His people Israel. Our infant Savior was born, the angels sang, the shepherds saw Him and told everyone the great good news, the Magi arrived and presented their worship and their gifts-- and then due to the murderous cruelty of King Herod, Jesus just disappeared! It was as if He had never come!

And to make things worse, while Jesus is making His escape, Herod slaughters all the infant boys in Bethlehem and all that region!

Whenever a child goes missing or turns up dead because of violence and abuse, it's only natural to ask, "God, what were You thinking? Lord, what could You have had in mind?"

It's hard to find a ready answer. But when it comes to our little Lord Jesus Christ, lost for five years with His parents in Egypt, Scripture does tell us why: Jesus went missing as part of God's plan to find and rescue--us.

Look at verse 15 of our Matthew passage. It says, "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'" Jesus was God's Son, and it was essential for God's plan that Jesus go to Egypt and be found from there again. Why? Because of another child of God that went missing in Egypt a long, long time before. Another child, whom God rescued from Egypt, but who somehow, even after he was rescued, wanted to stay lost, and didn't want to be found.

"Out of Egypt I called my son," Matthew quotes the prophet, and that prophet is Hosea, speaking by the Holy Spirit in chapter 11 of his book. What is the story of that missing child?

That child was the whole nation of Israel. They first came to Egypt because of a missing child, Joseph son of the patriarch Israel, or Jacob. Joseph was kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers. Many years later, he is found there, prosperous and well, and Israel and all his sons and daughters move to Egypt because there they can get food for themselves and pasture for their cattle.

But you know the story. Years and centuries went by, and the Egyptian rulers began to oppress and abuse the Children of Israel. They enslaved them and forced them into bitter labor, building the storehouses of Pharaoh. God had promised the Land of Canaan to Israel His son, but there the Israelites were, missing in Egypt!

But the Lord God sought them and found them by the hand of His servant Moses. He called them out from their slavery and restored them to His heart by His covenant made with them at Sinai. God brought His son Israel into the Promised Land and lavished on that people every good thing, houses they did not build and cisterns they did not dig and lush hillsides for their sheep and fertile fields for their grain.

But what happened? Israel's body may have been with God in the Promised Land, but their hearts and minds were still lost to the gods of Egypt and to the idols of all the pagan nations around them. We read in Hosea how distressed the Lord is by this, distressed as a father whose child is missing in the cold deep woods with a blizzard coming on. He cries out, "The more I called Israel, the further they went from me! They sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to images!"

Why did Israel run away? Was the Lord a hard master or an abusive father? No! He showed every tender, loving fatherly kindness towards them. Verses 3 and 4 describe Him as a tender parent, patiently teaching his little child to walk, supporting it and kissing its skinned knees should it fall. But Israel rejected the Lord's care. They kept wandering off and getting themselves lost again, making alliances with Egypt and Assyria and all the pagan cultures and the pagan gods that could offer them nothing but lostness and slavery.

So the Lord in His loving anger says, "Is this what you really want, Israel, to return to Egypt? You will get your desire! But you won't like how it'll happen. I'll let you lose yourself again through war and famine, through destruction and danger and sword!"

But see the tenderness of our God! Even with all their rebellion, even with Israel's determination to turn from Him and be lost, their Father in heaven will not give them up. His compassion, His love, His faithful promises will stand. He swears by Himself that His wandering child will be found again. As the prophet says, "His children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. "I will settle them in their homes," declares the Lord.

The Old Testament is one long report of how God's chosen people Israel kept getting themselves lost and how merciful God was in finding them every time they did. But know this: There's nothing particularly perverse or difficult about the Jews. They simply give us a picture of how all of us behave towards the Lord our God. It's human nature for us to get ourselves lost from the God who made us and loves us. And that includes me and you.

Some of us get lost from God because of the cruelty of others. If you were abused as a child, physically or psychologically, it can be hard to believe in a God who loves and cares for you. It's particularly hard if your abuser did his or her evil in the Lord's name, or in the name of the church. You want to run away and hide from anything that looks like religion or divine authority. Even if you believe that God is good, your abuser may have convinced you that you're so rotten and ugly and undeserving that the Lord of all would never love or welcome you. So you stay lost. You keep away.

Some of us get lost without thinking about it. We just get distracted by the activities and attractions of this world. We go to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, and before we know it, we're far away from our Lord and we have no idea how to return. It's like the young girl in that lost family in California told her mother, "Mom, we just kept going from tree to tree, trying to find the perfect one, and by the time we found it, we were turned around and couldn't find our way back to the road!" We might want to be found, but we can't do a thing to make it happen.

But most of the time, we get ourselves lost from God by our own deliberate fault. We don't believe God when He says He has the best plans for us, when He says He's our only true source of life and happiness and peace. We think we know better than He does what's good for us. The way we naturally are, when the Lord brings us back and gives us another chance and another chance and another chance, we just take it and then go back to doing what we want in spite of Him.

In our hearts, we're all rebellious children. We all wander away from the God whose offspring we are, and we do it on purpose! How can any of us, Jew or Gentile, be found and stay found?

We can only be found and stay found if there should be a perfect Son of God, a new and faithful Child of Israel, who does what Israel should have done and obeys as Israel should obey and who has the power to apply the divine rewards and benefits of that obedience to the earthly, lost Israel. We can only be found and stay found if that perfect Son of God has the power to open up the promises made to Israel to us, who weren't born Jews and who have no natural right to the benefits of God's covenant love at all.

St. Matthew tells us that perfect Son of God, that new and faithful Child of Israel, is Jesus Christ our Lord, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. It was essential that Jesus suffer a period of being lost in Egypt, so that when the Lord called Him forth and restored Him to His own, everyone could see how the true Son of God, the Boy who was the new and faithful Israel, would grow and prosper and learn to do His heavenly Father's will.

Incidentally, I can't help but marvel at the trust God had in Mary and especially in Jesus' foster father Joseph. He called on these fallible human parents to be faithful in behalf of their divine infant Son. And through the Holy Spirit's guidance and provision, they carried out the task the Lord laid on them. Even now, if you have small children or grandchildren, the Lord gives you the responsibility to make wise and godly decisions on their behalf, until they're old enough to affirm the promises made in their baptisms for themselves.

What we read today from Matthew sets a pattern for Jesus' career as the new Israel, as He develops as the perfect human Son of God. All through His life Jesus had to lose Himself in order to be found in the glory promised Him by His heavenly Father. Every day He had to deny Himself, to lay down the perquisites and prerogatives of being God, so He could reveal the good news of God's kingdom to you and me. And finally, Jesus God's Child had to be lost-- lost in death-- so we could be rescued from the lostness of our sins and found in God's love and life and remain there always.

But how is our situation different from Israel's? They keep wandering away from God and His law. Aren't we just as likely to wander away from God and His Christ?

No, because when you belong to Jesus Christ, staying put is no longer up to you. You don't have to work and struggle to keep close to God by keeping His law. No, Jesus Christ Himself has bound you closely to Him, and He will never let you go. You might experience times of doubt, times of difficulty, times when your old human nature and the attractions of the world make it tempting to go off and give up this Christianity business altogether. But once Jesus the new and perfect Israel has claimed you for His own, you are a child of God and you can never truly be lost again.

But what of those poor little boys whom Herod killed, the Holy Innocents whose blood was shed while Jesus and His parents escaped to Egypt? Were they lost, never to be found? Will Rachel weeping for her children refuse comfort forever?

No, because the searching eye of the Lord can find and rescue even those innocent little martyrs. They lost their lives in testimony to what the evil ones of this world will try in order to prevent the goodness of God from destroying their power. The infants of Bethlehem died in the place of the Christ Child who would grow up and one day die for them. His death and resurrection are strong enough to give glory to their sacrifice and restore them to life eternal. And so they, too, will be found at home with God and share in His fatherly kindness.

This promise is not only for them, but for you and for me and for all whom our Father shall call. Jesus was lost to earthly Israel for awhile, until it was time for Him to be revealed. Jesus, God's new Israel, was lost for a time in death, until God brought Him forth glorious from the tomb. The Jesus who was forced to hide from Herod for a time has now triumphed over the powers of evil and death. He makes a joke of all earthly powers that would keep us lost in the darkness of sin-- whether that is the power of others, the power of our carelessness, or the rebellious power of our own selfish wills.

It's always a time for rejoicing when a lost child is found! So rejoice and be glad, for now we see Jesus, Lord and King over heaven and earth! Rejoice and be glad, for that same Jesus has rescued us out of lostness, misery, and sin! He has found us and made us the happy children of God.

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us: unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

1st Sunday in Christmastide 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Dinner

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-92; Revelation 3:20-22

ALL OVER THE WORLD THIS coming Tuesday, people will be celebrating Christmas. They’ll be doing it in different ways in different lands. Some nations put up Christmas trees; others don’t. Some nations have house-to-house processions, bringing greetings or carols. Some nations have singing-making contests and even joke-telling contests. In one place, children expect Santa Claus, in another, they look out for Der Kristkindl or La Befana.

But Christmas celebrations everywhere have one thing in common, and people do it whether they actually believe in Jesus or not: All over the world, people will sit down together for Christmas dinner.

It may be a banquet with the whole clan, or an extra-special meal with just the immediate family. It may be a couple dining together, alone. A solitary person can sit down for Christmas dinner with guests who join him only in memory or spirit. However it is, we all sit down to Christmas dinner. We take it for granted that when we get together on Christmas Day, it should be over a plentiful, good-tasting meal.

Of course, that doesn’t apply only to Christmas. Whenever two or three human beings are gathered together to socialize, we seem to do it over food and drink.

A couple weeks ago, I heard a diet doctor on the radio who questioned that. She said, "Food is only fuel to keep our bodies going! When we get together, it should be enough for us to talk or share some activity! Other animals don’t eat to socialize! Why should we?"

That diet doctor can talk like that, but she’s wasting her breath. And not because people are greedy, or gluttons, or because we don’t know what’s good for us.

No, she’s wasting her breath because God Himself has hard-wired the connection between food, fun, and fellowship into His human creation. It’s not just part of our physical and social make-up, it’s part who we are spiritually.

Because after all, we are human beings. We’re not just physical bodies, some kind of organic machines that need fuel only to keep running. No, we’re people! We’re not just one more species of animal, that only eats to survive-- we’re human beings who can relate to one another and to the Lord who made us. All through Scripture, God commands His people to come together to share the appointed feasts, because they remind us of what and who we are. We’re physical, and spiritual. Not one or the other, but both. We don’t "have" bodies, minds, and spirits; we are bodies, minds, and spirits, all wrapped up into one package. God gives us special meals together to satisfy the needs of all these parts of who we are.

In fact, those needs are why God the eternal Son had to be born on earth as a human being. If we were nothing but bodies, we’d just be animals. We wouldn’t need a Savior, or rather, we couldn’t benefit from one, because whatever we did wrong wouldn’t be sin. Sin requires a creature with a mind and a spirit that can rebel and say Me and Mine and I Will This and I Won’t That.

But if we were only minds and spirits, we wouldn’t need our Savior to take on a physical body and be born among us. There are some false religions that claim that that’s how it is, that Christ only pretended to have a body, and that His mission was to convince us that our bodies are just fakes, too, and our real selves are purely spiritual.

But we are truly physical as well as spiritual, and Jesus Christ really was born of the Virgin Mary, as the Scripture says, and lived among us in human flesh. He ate and drank and had fellowship with us, and by what he did in His body; that is, by His life, death, and resurrection, He accomplished everything His heavenly Father gave Him to do.

What He did, in fact, is make it possible for us to sit down and have Christmas dinner with Him.

I wonder, will you will celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Christmas Eve? If you are, remember that above all, that feast is where He meets with us for food and fellowship. Christ has put His special blessing upon His Holy Communion, and He promises to be present with us in that meal in a way surpassing any other way He meets us on earth.

But every meal we share on earth is an echo of that sacred supper, and of the eternal banquet to come. And we can use the ideal Christmas dinner as a symbol of how it is when we share food and fellowship with our risen Lord. So how would it be to have Christmas dinner with Jesus?

Jesus says in Revelation, chapter 3, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me."

Christmas dinner with Jesus won’t be one of those disrupted meals where the football fans are antsy to go watch the game, and the cooks are lamenting because the meal took two days to prepare and ten minutes to gobble down.

No, it will be an everlasting, continuously joyful feast. Our reading from Isaiah 25 shows us what it will be like when Jesus our Savior dines with us and we dine with Him.

First of all, in verse six the Lord says that He will make a glorious feast for all people. The Lord Himself is the host, He Himself is the cook! We tend to think of Jesus knocking at our hearts’ doors, asking pretty please, can He come in and share our rancid peanut butter on mouldy bread and last week’s dried-out french fries? We think it’s up to us to serve the meal. But this is the risen Lord speaking in Revelation. This is He to whom all power and authority have been given! When Jesus offers to come in and dine with us, He’s got a great big caterer’s truck parked out there by the curb. He wants to bring in a banquet that will make our eyes pop and our mouths water. Isaiah says it will be like drinking the most mellow aged wines and eating the most succulent prime rib.

But the reality will be even better than that, for the food Jesus brings is His very self. It is His body, broken on the cross for us, and His blood, shed to take away our sins. The Christmas dinner Jesus spreads is all the benefits of His being born as a man among us, that is, eternal life and joy and everlasting communion God our Father. You’ve heard it said that heaven will be sitting on clouds playing the harp: Here in Isaiah we taste that heaven is like a continual Christmas dinner!

But Christmas dinners here on earth-- they’re not always about joy and harmony and good fellowship. Just the opposite.

I’ve only just met you. So I’m going to assume that wherever you’re having Christmas dinner, you’ll be glad to see everyone around the table. But you know how it is, the conversations that go on in households all over the world as the holidays come closer. The ones that go like, "Blast it, do we have to go to your mother’s again? She’s an interfering old biddy!" Or, "I hate having to go home for Christmas! My dad bullies me and whatever I do is never good enough." Or, "Son, I don’t care if you think you love her! You are not bringing that little tramp to sit down at our table!" You can be physically present with those you should love, but your fellowship is broken by anger, envy, abuse, strife, and every kind of sin.

But what if the unhappiness at Christmas dinner comes from another cause? What if you don’t feel like eating, let alone socializing, because someone very dear to you has recently died, or is suffering in the hospital, or is away fighting in Iraq? What if you can say, "The Psalmist was right. My tears have been my food day and night, and I just don’t feel like eating turkey and pretending everything’s ok!"?

Then for you Jesus stands at the door and knocks. He not only brings the banquet, He brings the medicine and healing that will enable you to enjoy it. Verse 7 says the Lord will destroy the covering or shroud or veil that covers all people. In our modern parlance we might say He will remove every wet blanket from the party. Not the people we call wet blankets, but every cause of depression and misery, every effect of sin and the death that comes from sin, every negative thing that could keep the Lord’s guests from enjoying the feast He has prepared.

Verse 8 goes on to say that He will swallow up Death forever. Think of that! While we’re swallowing down the Christmas feast of His life, Jesus is consuming the bitter meal of our death. But where His life in us means more and more life, our death in Him means death will be gone forever.

And at this promised feast, the Lord will take away the rebuke and disgrace of His people.

For our sins do deserve His rebuke. We have disgraced ourselves before Him and His holy angels, and we are not worthy to sit and eat in His presence. But our Savior Jesus Christ took our rebuke and disgrace when He hung on the cross. He paid the penalty we deserved for our sins, and made a laughingstock of any creature, human or demon, who would try to hold them against us. By His death and resurrection He has made us worthy to share in the banquet He brings.

In this life we have to go on dealing with the effects of the covering shroud, of death that stalks us and those we love. We have to live with the repercussions of the wickedness we ourselves have done. But we don’t have to be defeated by them. I’m not saying, Try real hard and live the victorious life. No. The Scripture says, trust the victory Jesus has already won. Sit and eat of the provision that He has already made. Rely on Him to give you Himself for food and drink, when you’re starving for hope or despairing over something you have done. He was born for you, He died for you, He has risen for you. Feed on Him, and be at peace.

Jesus says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me." We tend to think He’s talking to unbelievers who need to be saved. But no, He’s talking to Christians who think they have it all together, to Christians who think they can provide themselves everything they need by their own money and their own efforts. The Christians in Laodicea thought they could feed and clothe and doctor themselves by themselves. We fall into the same trap when we think it’s up to us to make Christmas happen by the presents we buy or the tasks that get crossed off our lists.

Oh, no, brothers and sisters. Christmas will come even if you get nothing done at all. The great Christmas dinner will be spread even if no one touches a pot or a pan. For it is Christ who spreads the Christmas feast. God was born as a Man at Bethlehem to eat and drink and have fellowship with us awhile on this earth, so we might have eternal communion and fellowship with Him when all things are made new. He has provided everything we need, and He dearly desires to come in and feed us with the bread and wine of His body and blood and refresh us with the water of His word.

So since we’re His guests, what should we do? Should we get up and ask our Lord if we can help Him in the kitchen? As you live your daily life, should you work really hard to earn or deserve the Christmas dinner of His salvation? No! You can’t add anything to what Jesus achieved for you on His cross. You have only one thing to do: Sit at His banquet table and enjoy what He has provided for you. Accept the redemption He has bought you by His blood. And be grateful with joyful praise. With all His redeemed people say, "This is our God, we trusted in Him and He saved us! Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation!"

Christmas dinners in this age often can be disappointing. But Jesus our Lord has provided a Christmas feast that will give us eternal satisfaction, communion, and joy. We’ll know that joy perfectly in the life of the world to come. But we can get a taste of it here as we feed on Jesus and what He has done for us. He stands at the door and knocks! How shall we invite Him in?

With trust and humility; with hungry hearts and grateful love. How shall we receive Him? Through His Spirit and His Word, through His holy Supper, Christian fellowship, and prayer.

Come, Lord Jesus, come and feed us
Come, Lord Jesus, and with us dine.
We starve for your presence,
We thirst for your Spirit.
Come as a Child, born in humility,
Come as a Man, strong in obedience,
Come as a Sacrifice, removing our sins,
Come as the Victor, swallowing death and Hell.
Come, Lord Jesus, set the table, prepare the meat and wine:
For you alone can spread the banquet,
On you alone can we truly feed,
You are, alone, our Christmas feast.