EPIPHANY 2018

SCRIPTURES – Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12; Ps. 72

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came…” With that brief introduction I’ll bet that you could tell the rest of the story of the Magi’s visit. I’ll also bet that you would get some of the details wrong. Did you listen carefully to Matthew this morning? He tells us Jesus was in a house in Bethlehem, not a stable, when the Magi visited. They bowed before a boy who was probably 1-2 years old, and not a baby, for King Herod found out from them that the star had appeared 1-2 years before. So: why do we picture the Magi there with the shepherds on the night Jesus was born, bowing before a baby in a manger? Well, this is what you see in crèches. It’s tradition! – one that goes back nearly 800 years, to St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 set up a manger with hay and two live animals in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio and then invited the villagers to come and look upon it while he preached to them about Jesus’ birth. I don’t know if St. Francis included the Magi in his crèche, but they’ve been there for a long time. It’s tradition!

I love tradition and believe that there’s great value in following it, especially in our day when things change so quickly and nothing seems to remain the same. This is why I love seeing crèches, even though they have the shepherds and the Magi together. Tradition, with its repetition of words and songs and sights and rituals, not only teaches us. It anchors us and binds us together, which is increasingly important in our ever-changing, and more and more divided and broken, world. But: if a tradition obscures the Gospel, the teaching of and about Christ, then that tradition needs to be reconsidered, and perhaps even changed.

The Christmas season that we are concluding with our Epiphany celebration today holds before us not only tradition. Above all, it holds before us the bare bones, the nuts and bolts essentials, of the Gospel. In the babe born in Bethlehem, the very Son of God whom God the Father sent, we see that God offers Himself and His salvation to all people, no matter who or what they are. God does not offer His Son to you and receive you and bless you because of your age; or sex; or because of how good you are and are considered by others. It’s not your race; or heritage; or intelligence; or anything else about you that causes God to accept you and bless you in Christ. Salvation is totally God’s gift. Neither you nor I deserve it in the least. It is a gift that is freely offered to all people.

We see this in the Christmas story which the figures of the crèche illustrate. For instance: Mary and Joseph. Holy Scripture makes clear that Mary’s pregnancy was a miracle, for she was a virgin. Her virginal conception and birth emphasizes what Isaiah 60 says: “darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” The darkness of our sin is so great that it corrupts our very nature, and so all that we do. No sinner can on his own bring forth God’s good or gain God’s favor! And so, God sends us a Savior without the help of a sinful husband, by the work of the Holy Spirit in a virgin. The Son of God is born like us, but with a flesh and nature that is holy and without sin. Even so, this holy Child is given to sinners, no matter who or what they are. Lowly shepherds are the first to hear the message of His birth and worship Him. 

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!” (Is. 60:1) Jesus the Savior shines upon us all, that in Him we might receive a new life and bow before Him as one! That’s the Gospel. Christ’s coming breaks down the barriers that separate us from God, and also from one another. His coming even breaks down religious customs and norms that had been followed for centuries, that we might worship Him as one.

This is what we learn with the Magi and see in the crèche. The God of Israel blesses them with a sign – the star – and then by the prophecy of His prophet Micah directs them to Bethlehem. He accepts their worship and blesses them by warning them in a dream not to go back to Herod. Who were those Magi? They were foreigners; Gentiles. Were they even circumcised? Who knows? Matthew doesn’t say, for it no longer mattered. Even circumcision, that most ancient tradition of Israel that was commanded and given by God 2,000 years before through Abraham, Israel’s father, is set aside. God sets it aside. The Magi are received because they believe; and that is all that matters. God is in the flesh for all; period. No heritage, no culture, no tradition can exclude from Him those who fall before Him in faith. Faith alone receives Christ and in Him makes a person one with God. It’s that simple.

This faith that receives God’s blessing and unites with Him is no simple and easy thing, however. It isn’t because it bows before Jesus; and He is no simple and easy Savior. He came down from heaven to sacrifice His life to save you from your sins, from the death and judgment they bring! And so, your faith will involve sacrifice. Following Jesus and bowing before Him as your Savior will result in God challenging you and making you move. Jesus didn’t come to give you safe spaces but to move you to God’s spaces.

Ø  Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem; and then, because of Herod’s desire to kill their child, had to flee to Egypt for 3 years.

Ø  The Magi had to travel a great distance, and for a long time – years – to see and bow before Jesus and present Him their gifts.

And now today we are making a move, a change in tradition. Today we are moving away from a Lutheran tradition that most of us grew up with and that has been around for more than a century: of not communing children until they are around 13-14 years old and are confirmed. We are returning to a far older tradition, one that Martin Luther followed 500 years ago and that was centuries old then: of beginning to commune the faithfully worshiping children of the congregation when they are younger and before they are confirmed. Now, we are not doing this lightly, and not without first instructing them. I met with these children a number of times over the past several months. We are doing this because of the Gospel; because Christ came for all, no matter who or what or how old they are, and is received by faith alone.

Although this practice of communing the younger children of our congregation is new to us, we are not saying anything new by it. The Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of Jesus, offered and given to His children. Not one of us is worthy of it: not you; not me; not any of these children. We are invited to receive it by God, and by grace alone. It is pure gift, plain and simple. This is as true for you as it is for the children. Their worthiness, and yours, consists of their baptismal union with Christ and their faith in Him.

“Lift up your eyes all around, and see,” says Isaiah. “They all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult… and [you] shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord!” In the blessed name of Jesus. Amen.

 

Martin Luther on Holy Communion

From the Large Catechism:

            “Suppose you say, “What if I feel that I am unfit?” Answer: This also is my temptation… Then nature and reason begin to contrast our unworthiness with this great and precious blessing, and it appears like a dark lantern in contrast to the bright sun, or as dung in contrast to jewels.

            For this reason we must make a distinction among men. Those who are shameless and unruly must be told to stay away, for they are not fit to receive the forgiveness of sins since they do not desire it and do not want to be good. The others, who are not so callous and dissolute but would like to be good, should not absent themselves, even though in other respects they are weak and frail… People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. We are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we come to confession pure and without sin; on the contrary, we come as poor, miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy.

            In this sacrament he offers us all the treasure he brought from heaven for us, to which he most graciously invites us in other places, as when he says in Matt. 11:28, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you.” Surely it is a sin and a shame that, when he tenderly and faithfully summons and exhorts us to our highest and greatest good, we act so distantly toward it, neglecting it so long that we grow quite cold and callous and lose all desire and love for it. We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body has benefited also. Why, then, do we act as if the sacrament were a poison which would kill us if we ate of it?

            Let this serve as an exhortation, then, not only for us who are grown and advanced in years, but also for the young people who ought to be brought up in Christian doctrine and a right understanding of it. With such training we may more easily instill the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer into the young so that they will receive them with joy and earnestness, practice them from their youth, and become accustomed to them. For it is clearly useless to try to change old people. We cannot perpetuate these and other teachings unless we train the people who come after us and succeed us in our office and work, so that they in turn may bring up their children successfully. Thus the Word of God and the Christian church will be preserved. Therefore let every head of a household remember that it is his duty, by God’s injunction and command, to teach or have taught to his children the things they ought to know. Since they are baptized and received into the Christian church, they should also enjoy this fellowship of the sacrament so that they may serve us and be useful. For they must all help us to believe, to love, to pray, and to fight the devil.

From his Table Talk (LW vol. 54:58): [When asked whether the Lord’s Supper should be given to children.] “I reply: When in I Corinthians [11:28] Paul said that a man should examine himself, he spoke only of adults because he was speaking about those who were quarreling among themselves. However, he doesn’t here forbid that the sacrament of the altar be given even to children.”