Sermons, Uncategorized

Have You Found Jesus?

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And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.

“Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing Him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for Him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for Him. After three days they found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when His parents saw Him, they were astonished. And His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us so? Behold, Your father and I have been searching for You in great distress.’And He said to them, ‘Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?’ And they did not understand the saying that He spoke to them. And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And His mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:39–52).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

There’s a cartoon that makes the rounds occasionally. Two clean-cut men in dress pants, short-sleeve white shirts, and ties are standing at the open door. They ask, “Have you found Jesus?” The woman who answers the door replies, “We’re Lutherans. We never lost Him.”

But Mary and Joseph did!

It was the annual feast of the Passover, the feast that celebrated the redemption of the people of Israel from Egypt. It was the most important of the Jewish festivals, and the Law required all males to attend. Mary and Joseph and Jesus went up to Jerusalem as was their custom.

At the conclusion of the Passover feast, Mary and Joseph headed back to Nazareth, evidently thinking that Jesus was among the group of pilgrims traveling together. But at nightfall the boy was nowhere to be found. A frantic search began for their missing son, one which ended three days later when Jesus was discovered in the temple courts. These courtyards surrounded the temple sanctuary and were used as a place for instruction and study of God’s Word.

Jesus was making quite an impression on the crowd that had gathered. Here was no ordinary boy; His questions and answers showed superior knowledge and understanding. Mary and Joseph were also astonished—and a bit perturbed—when they found Him. This is evident from Mary’s words: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”

Any parent who has suffered the trauma of a missing child can well imagine what Mary and Joseph experienced. How guilty Mary must have felt for failing to keep closer watch over this son entrusted to her care by the Lord.

The words Jesus speaks to His mother here are the first recorded in any of the gospels. Mary had asked Him a question. He responds with a double question: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” In other words, “I wasn’t lost. I was right here, where I was supposed to be, at My Father’s house. You were just looking for Me in the wrong places.”

And isn’t that true for you and me, as well? The times when it seems we can’t find Jesus, isn’t it always because we’re looking in the wrong places? Places He has not promised to be?

Some look to Mysticism, the belief that direct knowledge of God can be attained through subjective experiences of God or something godlike. Mysticism, then, is nothing more than the worship of your emotions.

You know the problem with that. Emotions are volatile and unreliable. One minute you’re on the top of the mountain; the next, in the bottom of the deepest, darkest valley. Emotions can be manipulated and manufactured with savvy marketing and psychological tricks. Mysticism says you will find Jesus in your heart. But all you ever end up finding if you look there is yourself—your own sinful desires, your own insecurities, your own self-justification.

Emotions are a wonderful gift of the created world. God made them for us. They are part of being human. But there is an enormous difference between believing feelings are a gift from God and believing feelings are God. Feelings can be good, but feelings are never the Gospel. Rules and traditions, methods and disciplines that teach that your emotions are the source of God’s revealing of Himself to you confuse Jesus Christ with you. As exciting as those kinds of promises might sound, ignore them.

Another avenue to which people turn to look for Jesus is Moralism, the belief that access to God can be achieved through self-improvement. The fascinating strategy of Moralism is that he does not tempt you with evil. Instead, he tempts you with good. With your own fondest dreams, with all your best aspirations for a more perfect world, Moralism promises that you hold in the works of your hands the power to make it all come true. No future possibility is too great. There is nothing you cannot achieve.

Eventually, you’ll find yourselves falling into one of Moralism’s two dangerous ditches. Realizing you can never measure up to your own standards (let alone, God’s standards), you may fall into despair, give up trying altogether. Or, perhaps even worse, you may fool yourself into thinking you’re getting along quite well. But even if that were somewhat true, Moralism means you’re trying to clean the outside until it is spic-and-span in the hopes that a shiny exterior will help you  forget that on the inside you are full of curses and bitterness (Romans 3:14).   

Moralism promises you will find Jesus in the works of your hands. But God is never found in what you do. God is found in what Jesus has done for you with His birth, His life, His suffering and death, with His glorious ascension, and with the current preaching of who He is and what He has done for you.  

Another place people mistakenly look for Jesus is Rationalism, the belief that contact with God can be found through the clarity of your observations or the consistency of your logic. Rationalism, then, is nothing more than the worship of reason. It is the belief that the ritual of test and trial will lead to an Enlightenment of all mankind.

We see this today in the elevation of science. “Trust the Science,” we are told. “Don’t be a Science denier.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Science is a good gift from God. The pursuit of knowledge has provided many advancements in quality and length of life. But science is not the answer to all questions. And it makes a poor god, when Science is elevated to the be-all and end-all to all our problems.

Rationalism pushes aside any question of good and evil for pragmatic answers that serve its own purposes. The sad reality is, all science aside, Rationalism will believe anything so long as God did not say it. Postmodern people are willing to believe human life was seeded on earth by aliens billions of years ago. They are willing to say that boy are girls or girls are boys if that’s what they want to be, that life in the womb is only a human baby if it is wanted. They tell stories about how one day man will merge with computer and overcome the grave altogether. Postmodern rationalists will even believe the “secret” that the universe is made up of an energy field holding all things together, which you can manipulate by focusing the thoughts of your mind.

Rationalism, in the end, is anything but reasonable. All these outlandish things are believed, taught, and confessed in the human search for a reasonable explanation for our problems. On this quest, we are no longer merely discoverers but creators. We are the shapers, the makers of our identities, the authors of the future that ought to be, the definers of the image of God. But see. Now, we’re not talking about reason, logic, or science at all. Now, we’re just making stuff up and calling it “true.”

Many seek Jesus in Prosperity. Prosperity is the belief that the way God feels about you is measured by how good your life is right now. Prosperity, then, is nothing more than worship of health, wealth, and success—what was summed up in the New Testament by the name, Mammon (a Greek word for money), a symbol for all forms of idolatry, which is rooted in the coveting of the things of this world.

Given all the bad press of Mammon, we’ve dressed her up and changed her name to Prosperity. And she is more dangerous than ever!

Where Moralism, Mysticism, and Rationalism have certainly wreaked havoc on society, not to mention on authentic Christian spirituality, they were never quite free within the confines of churches. For every Christian scholar whom Rationalism convinced to dismiss biblical inerrancy or the historicity of the Bible, there were five good men who refused to allow such rubbish to be preached from their pulpits. But today, it no longer so. Prosperity has waltzed right into the churches and pastors and laity alike have rushed to embrace her.

Prosperity, is the devil’s same old lie, only packaged more seductively. If she came out and preached, “You can find God in all the many material things of this world,” most people would look at her like she was crazy. “Of course, you can’t find God in stuff. That’s silly and superstitious. My iPhone is metal and plastic. If God exists, He is somewhere else, cheering me on and planning how to help me get the next iPhone as soon as it comes out.”

Outright lies never work as good as half-truths. So, Prosperity doesn’t have to come out on national TV and say something as audacious as “Give Jesus a try for forty days and see if He doesn’t give you health, wealth, and purpose” before you can know she’s taken the lead. You can spot her even when she’s playing it cool and saying nothing more than “Hey! Look at me. Don’t you want to be like me?” It’s always the same enticing tease that, against all odds and contrary to all human history, you can find total, unlimited, safe, health, wealth, and positive energy right here, right now. You can live your dreams. You can make it last.

“That’s right. The Bible says so. You can do all things through God who strengthens you,” her disciples say, twisting Scripture so much out of context that you need to look for a chiropractor.

It should never be a surprise to Christians when we see the world going after such things. What other hope do the children of this age have than to get as much out of this life as possible? But what should surprise us—what should upset us—is to see a vast majority of American “Christian” churches preaching this same utopian quest as if an abundance of wealth and success in this world was the central message of Jesus and His Scriptures. Even the best secular PR agents in the world couldn’t honestly spin that kind of message out of the Man who taught His disciples that friendship with this world is enmity with God (James 4:4).

The lust for Prosperity does funny things to people, and churches are no different. Caught up in the desire to enjoy her company, we imagine that once we get there, once people see us with her, we’ll be even better at winning friends for Jesus. Our congregation will grow like gangbusters!

“It’s all for Jesus and His mission,” we tell ourselves. For even the best of us, this means doing anything we can to hang around with her. If it means selling out an old conviction here or a cherished notion there, then so be it. With a few vague words about “the Spirit’s leading” and “having a heart for Jesus,” an entire congregation—even an entire church body—can willingly jettison their whole history and system of beliefs in hopes of being the one Prosperity smiles at next. Infatuated with dreams of a better experience in this life now, we forget why we are here in the first place. We forget we aren’t here to fit in. We are here precisely because we do not fit in. We’ll never be the popular guys.

We are aliens and strangers (Ephesians 2:19). We will never fit in. If we ever see that we’ve started doing the same things everyone else is doing, and saying the same things everyone else is saying, then we’ve done anything but become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22). We’ve become nothing to no one but ourselves, a shadow cast by the image of the world, when we were supposed to be a city of light set high on a hill (Matthew 4:14).

All human attempts to find Jesus on our own, all of our experiences, all of our studies, all of our sociology and strategy, every new or old measure and excitement, every single thing in this world cannot bring an unbeliever to Christ. Only Christ can bring a man to Christ, and Christ has spoken about how He plans to do that.

Do you want to find Jesus now? Then don’t look for Him within yourself or the things of this world. Believe His words: I baptize you (1 Peter 3:21). Take, eat. Take, drink. I am here (1 Corinthians 10:16). I am the Word made flesh (John 6:55). I am the source of living water (John 4:10). I am the Bread from heaven (John 6:51). I am your root, your portal, your rebirth (John 15:1; 10:9; 11:25). I am with you always (Matthew 28:20). Where two or three are gathered in My name, I am among you (Matthew 18:20).  

Have you found Jesus? He’s never been lost, you know. He’s right here where He has promised to be. In His Word, preached and heard. In Holy Baptism, the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. In His Holy Supper, where He gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through these means of grace Jesus comes to you with His gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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A Lesson in the Art of Dying

“Presentation at the Temple” by Giovanni Bellini

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“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:25-32).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

A man of mystery waits in Jerusalem. We don’t know that much about him. We don’t know his age or occupation or marital status. We do know his name is Simeon. He is righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel. In other words, he is part of a remnant of Israel, faithful men and women, who are still looking for the coming of the promised Messiah, the One who will bring comfort and hope to God’s people.

Simeon is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. The word Spirit is used three times to accent the revelatory character of Simeon’s words. The Spirit is upon him. The Spirit reveals the promise of seeing the Messiah before he would die. And the Spirit leads him to the temple as Mary and Joseph bring Baby Jesus to present Him to the Lord on His fortieth day (Luke 2:25-27). Since the Holy Spirit was with Mary (Luke 1:35), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), and Zechariah (Luke 1:67) at moments of great revelation, this places Simeon in the select company of those who early on receive or announce the presence of God’s salvation in Jesus.

Seeing the Child, Simeon takes up the infant in his arms and praises God with the song commonly called the Nunc Dimittis. We continue to sing this song as part of our communion liturgy and in our Vespers service. “Lord, now you are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Simeon is not really making a request of the Lord—he is making a statement of fact, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace.” Simeon’s service in the temple as a watchman waiting for the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises is at an end. The watch is over; the servant can depart in peace. With the eyes of faith, Simeon sees more than a Babe in arms; he sees salvation for all people. Whatever might happen in his life from now on, no matter how long that may be, he can depart in peace according to the Lord’s Word.  

What would it take for you to depart in peace? I am not talking about exiting the worship service today (although I pray that is the case for you). Neither do have I in mind finally leaving behind 2020. I am talking about dying. Unless the Lord returns first, you and I will depart. Some of us sooner than we may expect. We need to be ready. In this way, we need to become like Simeon. Having seen the Lord, he was ready to depart in peace. His song may be the perfect tune to lodge in your ears and hearts on this first Sunday after Christmas. We will consider it today under the theme, “A Lesson in the Art of Dying.”

In the fifteenth century the Black Death killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. A genre of devotional literature arose called ars moriendi (art of dying). People needed help getting help ready to die. Robert Kolb notes that these works were “…designed as tools for both parish priests and laypeople… that could be used, especially during a plague, to guide the dying to a spiritually satisfactory departure from life.”[i]

The medieval instructions on “the art of dying” before the Reformation presumed believers had to remain uncertain of their salvation to the very end. It was thought to somehow be conceited and arrogant to be sure of your salvation. This is, no doubt, related to the false understanding that man is at least partially responsible for his salvation by good works.[ii]  

Luther’s teaching on the justification of sinners by grace through faith brought about profound changes in death culture. He sought to comfort the dying with the assurance that God’s promise, based on Christ’s work, has restored them to God’s favor. He emphasized that when God promises to be the gracious and forgiving Father of a sinner, He will remain true to His promise.[iii]

To be sure, in line with his distinction between Law and Gospel, Luther proclaimed judgment upon the baptized who were indulging in sin, who were living in impenitence. He afforded them no word of Gospel and grace. But the repentant could without doubt trust in the faithfulness of Christ, who had died and risen to bring them to a life of trust and to the gift of salvation.[iv]

I have (here) an English translation of one of these works. The Holy Art of Dying was written by Martin Möller, a German Lutheran pastor during the late 16th century. Dr. W.H.T. Dau describes it well in his review of this work: “A book of this kind can never outgrow its usefulness in the Christian Church. The sad subject with which it deals is an ever-present reality with mortal men. And Möller is a most excellent companion to the dying Christian. The theology which was able to produce this book three [now four] hundred years ago would obtain scant recognition in our day among ‘theologians.” It is not scientific. Nor is death, nor hell, nor paradise. But this book exhibits the practical habitude of the mind to understand and to apply to men in their sorest needs the correction and comfort of the divine Word, which only God can bestow and which alone constitutes a person a theologian.”[v]

Möller uses a series of questions and answers, Bible passages and simple prayers, to prepare his readers [and us] “to live like a Christian and die [a] blessed [death].”

Let me give you a brief example:

“2. What, then, is a Christian life?

“A Christian life is that a person rightly learns to know God the Lord and himself.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24; Psalm 76:1; Exodus 20).

“First, God the Lord, that He is one God in His essence (Deuteronomy 6:4), and three-fold in persons (Matthew 28:19), namely, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Psalm 67), and that of these three persons the middle one, the Son, was sent into this world, took human nature to Himself, and became our Savior (John 17:3; 1:14).

“Next, each person must rightly learn to know himself, namely, that we are poor, great sinners in God’s sight, and must be eternally lost (Exodus 20; Ezekiel 18:20ff.) if we are not converted, believe in Christ, become new men, and from the heart serve God and our neighbor unto our end.”

And then he closes with prayer:

“O one, eternal, almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, threefold in person and one in essence! I pray Thee, teach me rightly to know Thee and myself, grow daily in such knowledge, so that I may employ this my brief wretched life in praising Thee, serving my neighbor, and not being eternally lost myself, but live a truly repentant Christian life in Thy sight. Amen.”[vi]   

Möller goes on to say: “To die blessed means to conclude life in the true faith, to commend one’s soul to the Lord Jesus Christ, and with heartfelt longings for eternal salvation gently and joyfully fall asleep and depart hence”[vii] and then he refers to our text for today (Luke 2:29-30).

In the rest of the book, Möller, gives detailed instruction on living “a daily, Christian, repentant life,” including:

  1. recognizing one’s sins and repenting of them;
  2. not despairing your sins, but believing in Jesus Christ who has paid for our sins; and
  3. that he also show his faith with new daily obedience, both toward God and men.[viii]

He then offers six chief parts which belong to a Christian, God-pleasing life.

  1. Hold fast daily to God’s Word, and learn rightly to understand it, rightly to divide it, and rightly to use it;
  2. Remember daily your Holy Baptism;
  3. Partake of the Lord’s Supper often and diligently;
  4. Learn to prepare yourself properly for the cross and suffering;
  5. Remain in your calling;
  6. Pray without ceasing.”[ix]

Möller concludes his little book with “many beautiful sayings from Holy Scripture, as well as some devout prayers and sighs which a person should read to the dying. It also tells how the bystanders should conduct themselves who have waited and prayed with the dying.”[x]

Notice how preparing for death and “the holy art of dying” is focused so much on the means of grace, God’s Word and Sacrament. How do you prepare for death? Read, study, and meditate on God’s Word in daily devotions and Bible study. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Come to worship. Hear the Word of God proclaimed, the absolution pronounced. Receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Pray without ceasing. Be faithful to God and serve your neighbor with joy.

Kolb summarizes: “A life lived within God’s callings in accord with God’s commands prepare the baptized to die well.”[xi]

While it may seem a bit of a downer to focus on death two days after Jesus’ birth, the hallmark of Christian preaching is its brutal honesty. The appointed reading about Simeon presents us with an opportunity. Being honest about death, not only at funerals, is part of my calling to tell the truth.

Kolb shows how Luther faced death head-on.

“Although we do not wish to call the life we have here a death,” said the reformer, “nevertheless, it is surely nothing else than a continuous journey toward death. Just as a person infected with a plague has already started to die when the infection has set in, so also because of sin and because of death, the punishment for sin, this life can no longer properly be called life after it has been infected by sin. Right from our mother’s womb we begin to die.”[xii]

It’s not hard to take seriously the concept of death this year. All jokes of moving past 2020 aside, this year has been a global wake-up call about the fragility of life for all ages. This has led to much fear and angst. This is not helped by that fact that we live in a culture that seeks to insulate us from death and tries to hide death and the process of dying as much as possible. We live in a day and age when many assume that science and medicine and money can take care of any problem. But death is no respecter of political or philosophical opinions. It is relentless, cruel, harsh, and horrible. Now, many people are thinking about death seriously for the first time in their life. People are dealing with their own mortality, the possibility of losing their own friends and family members. Many do not know how to do so. It’s no wonder that there is so much upheaval.

The intrusion of death into the lives of people of all ages highlights the singular and central significance of Jesus’ resurrection. Contrary to so many memes, our hope is not in getting to 2021. Even during Christmas, the good news is founded only on the empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15). This was how Luther,  Pastor Möller, and so many other pastors throughout the centuries have prepared their hearers to die well. They proclaimed the promise of resurrection for all who, by faith and their Baptism, are united to the crucified and risen Christ. It is my job (and joy) to proclaim this promise to you. The One who has overcome death has shared His eternal life with you.

This is a lesson in the art of dying. This is what the Holy Spirit did for Simeon before his encounter with Jesus. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). As Simeon sang, let us sing a song of defiant and hopeful confidence to close out a year characterized by death and despair. “Lord, now You are letting Your servant[s] depart in peace, according to Your word; for [our] eyes have seen your salvation that You have prepared [for us] in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”

You have seen the Lord’s Christ. You’ve heard His words of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Depart in peace. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 169.

[ii] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 168-9.

[iii] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 168-9.

[iv] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 168-9.

[v] Dau, W.H.T. Heilige Sterbekunst (Theological Quarterly). (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1910) 254-255.

[vi] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 6.

[vii] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 6.

[viii] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 10.

[ix] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 17-18.

[x] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 57 ff.

[xi] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 169.

[xii] LW 1:196. Quoted in Kolb, 171.

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The Gloria in Excelsis:

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by James Tissot

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Presented to the Lord

“The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” by James Tissot

“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

To better understand our text, we must first go back to the time shortly after the first Passover, about 1446 B.C. The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. But God had not forgotten them. He sent Moses as His spokesman, warning Pharaoh again and again, “Let My people go.” Pharaoh stubbornly refused, so the Lord sent nine plagues to persuade him that rebellion against God is a very foolish thing. Finally, the Lord declared that He would come through the land and take the lives of all the firstborn males of Egypt, both man and beast.

Every firstborn would die… unless. The Lord declared to His people that their firstborn sons could be saved. They were to take a lamb without blemish and sacrifice it. They were to put the blood of the lambs on the lintels and doorposts of their homes, and they were supposed to roast the lamb and eat it for dinner. The people of God followed His instructions about His Passover to the letter; and when the Lord came through Egypt to take the lives of the firstborn males, He passed over every dwelling marked with the blood of the lamb and spared those inside.

The tenth plague—the death of the firstborn—finally moved Pharaoh to submit, at least temporarily. He ordered the people of Israel out of his land. As they left Egypt, the Lord commanded them to remember the Passover every year. He also said, “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is Mine” (Exodus 13:2). The firstborn males of animals were to be sacrificed as an offering to God. The firstborn males of the people were to be redeemed, consecrated to God.

As God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, He gave them His Word in the Torah, often called “the Law of Moses.” These five books, the first five in our Old Testament, tell how God brought His people out Egypt, how He led them through the wilderness, how He made a covenant with them, and how He established and regulated their worship. In addition to the instructions for the consecration and presentation of the firstborn that go back to the Passover, God also gave laws and restrictions for keeping Israel separate from the nations as the people from whom the Savior would come.

Among those regulations was the ritual purification of mothers after childbirth. When a baby was born, the mother was ceremonially unclean. This was not because procreation itself is sinful. It is indeed the will of God, a command and a blessing. God told Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). The inspired psalmist said, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3), and “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:3,4). The Israelites thought of children as a blessing. In fact, in ancient Israel, childlessness was considered the height of misfortune and even a judgment from God. No, it was not the birth itself that made the woman unclean, rather it was the discharge of blood that occurs following birth.

The ritual passage began with the birth of the child. Immediately after that had occurred, the mother remained in social seclusion for a week if she had given to a son or for two weeks if she had given birth to a daughter. Following a ritual washing, she was free to resume her normal domestic role in the family.

This period of social separation for one or two weeks was followed by a longer period of ritual quarantine. If she had a male child that lasted an additional thirty-three days; if she had a female child, it was sixty-six days. During this time, she was not allowed to have any contact with the sacred domain. She was not considered to be unclean, but neither was she considered to be ritually clean because she was not allowed to touch any holy things in her household, such as meat from a peace offering or anything that had been dedicated as an offering to the Lord or, if she was the wife of a priest, any of the holy food from the sanctuary.

The period of religious quarantine was concluded by an act of sacrifice. The woman who had given birth to a child offered a lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove or pigeon as a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6). If she was too poor to afford a lamb, she brought another bird instead (Leviticus 12:8). She entered the sacred precincts and brought the offerings to the priest on duty at the entrance.

These two sacrifices performed two specific functions. Through the rite of atonement with the blood from both sacrifices, the woman was cleansed from any impurity that she had incurred from her flow of blood (Leviticus 12:7). Through the burning up of the lamb on the altar she was accepted by God and reinstated as a member of the congregation. She was once again ritually clean. She therefore had access to God’s holiness and His blessing. That meant, too, that she was once again open to the gift of another child from Him.

The observance of this rite of passage had a profound impact on the life of every mother. It connected her life as a mother with her participation in the divine service and her reception of blessing from God. Negatively, it ensured that she did not become involved as a woman in pagan practices of the fertility cults. Positively, it affirmed her status as a full member of the holy congregation and recognized her role as a bearer of blessing from God. The original language in Leviticus 12:2, literally calling the mother a “seed-bearer,” hints at this connection between her vocation as a mother and her call to holiness. Moreover, the continuity and survival of her family—and, more broadly, of Israel—depended on her and her access to the blessing gained from the presence of God in the sacred domain.

The description of the mother as one who “produces seed” recalls the promise to Eve, the “mother of every living person” (Genesis 3:20), that her “Seed” would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). God repeated to the patriarchs His promise that through the Seed of Abraham all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). The apostle Paul expounded the fulfillment of this promise about the “Seed” by Christ and in all those who are baptized into Christ and thereby become the “seed” of Abraham (Galatians 3:15-29).

Over 1,400 years after God gave His Law to Israel through Moses, the Seed of the woman is born in Bethlehem. On the fortieth day, Mary and Joseph come into the temple in obedience to the Lord’s command. They bring Jesus to the temple for the first time to include Him in her purification. Since Jesus is her firstborn son, He is presented to be consecrated to God at the same time.

That she offers the sacrifice of two birds, helps us to understand that Joseph and Mary were likely of a “humble state” (Luke 1:48), that is, too poor to be able to afford a lamb. On a theological level, no lamb was necessary because already here at forty days old, Jesus is the Lamb brought to His temple for sacrifice.

No mention is made of Jesus’ redemption then or later. Jesus’ life is consecrated to the Lord in the fullest possible way. Luke quite deliberately connects Mary’s purification to Christ’s presentation, for she was purified by her son—as are all the saints—for access to the heavenly sanctuary. The purification of Mary is celebrated on the day of the presentation of our Lord on February 2nd of each year. On this day, the Church prays for cleansing by Christ so that, like Mary, the people of God may be brought and presented to Him with clean hearts.

Jesus is the firstborn in many ways. Colossians 1 calls Jesus the firstborn of creation, for the eternal Son of God is now incarnate, born of Mary. Colossians 1 also calls Him the firstborn of the dead, because the One who was once the Sacrifice for sin is also now the risen Son of God. Crucified for the sins of the world, He lives again to give life forever. And now the Spirit is at work calling you to faith, interceding on your behalf, conforming you to the image of God’s Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).

Like Simeon, you, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Word of God, know of Jesus. You know that the Son of God became flesh, lived, and died for you. By faith, you also know where to find your Savior: as the Spirit pointed Simeon to the infant Jesus in the temple, so He points you to your baptism, to the Word, and to the Supper. There your Savior is found, present with forgiveness and life. You hear the Word. You receive Christ’s body and blood. It’s no wonder that, after the Supper, you sing Simeon’s song—because the Savior is just as body-and-blood present with you as He was with Simeon when Simeon held Mary’s firstborn in his arms. And so you may depart in peace.

As you do, what does the Lord call you? Firstborn.

Hebrews 12:23 calls the Church “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” and you are numbered among them. Like the firstborn sons of Israel in Egypt, you have been saved from death by a sacrifice of blood: the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Like the firstborn of Bible times, the inheritance of the Father is yours: The Lord declares that the kingdom of heaven is yours. This is so because Jesus, the firstborn of creation has joined you to Himself in Holy Baptism; there, you were adopted as sons of God. For the sake of Jesus, you are sons of God, heirs of the kingdom, and God is your Father who works all things for your good, even as the Holy Spirit is at work conforming you to the image of the Son.

It is not your doing. It is not your righteousness or works or obedience or sacrifice that make you an heir of the kingdom of heaven. But it is yours because, as our Epistle reading for today reminds us, Jesus Himself partook of flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy the one who has power over death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. To help us, the seed of Abraham, Jesus was made to be like us, His brothers, in every respect, so that He might make propitiation for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-18) that you and I might be presented to the Lord, adopted as His sons, justified and sanctified, co-heirs of His kingdom that has no end.

Redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, you are among the assembly of the firstborn, for you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.