St. Sylvester’s Day

 

When I was Assist. Pastor at St. Martin’s in Winona MN. from 1967-1970, the New Year’s Eve service was named for St. Sylvester.  Who was St. Sylvester, I wondered.

In 313 Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan granting Christians the same rights as those practicing any other religion.

Sylvester became pope in 314.  He died on December 31, 335.

He used the freedom granted by Constantine to build several churches in Rome.  In 325, he sent two legates to the Church council in Nicaea.  Out of the Council of Nicaea we now have the Nicene Creed which emphasizes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Sylvester built the first church on the site we call the Vatican.  Much of the information about Sylvester is based on legend.  For instance, that he baptized Constantine and cured of leprosy.  Constantine removed the capital of the empire to the site of the present day Istanbul and named it after himself.  And Constantine wasn’t baptized until shortly before he died.  As far as we know Sylvester never left Rome and likely died before Constantine was baptized.

The Collect for the Day

Eternal God, we commit to Your mercy and forgiveness the year now ending and commend to Your blessing and love the times yet to come.  In the New Year, abide among us with Your Holy Spirit that we may always trust in the saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ, one God, now and forever.

 

 

 

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Holy Innocents of Bethlehem

 

Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, died in childbirth and was buried just north of Jerusalem.  When the people of Israel, during the time of the prophet Jeremiah, were taken into captivity in Babylon (587 BC), the prophet wrote of Rachel weeping in her grave as her descendants were carried off.

Matthew quotes Jeremiah as he seeks to portray the suffering caused by Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys in Bethlehem.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

In the fifth century after the birth of Christ, Prudentius wrote the following.

The tyrant broods uneasily:

A prince is born who shall be king

And rule the house of Israel

And occupy great David’s throne.

Witless, he raves, “We are deposed:

He that shall oust us is at hand.

Go, guard, and draw your skillful sword,

And foul his little nest with blood.”

So fell those flowers of martyrdom

When life was at its dawn for them:

To pluck Christ up he dashed them down,

as wild winds dash the new-born roses.

Are these the first blood-offerings

To come before the Christ-a band

Of babies playing on the altar steps

With palms and coronets?

What use this rash enormity?

What profit in this wasteful wrong?

So many deaths, and Christ alone

Escapes from Herod’s questing hand.

 

Good King Wenceslas

 

Wenceslas, was king of Bohemia in the 10th century.  He was assassinated by his brother Boleslaw.  The tale of Good King Wenceslas arose in Finland in the 1,500’s.

However, the carol was not written until the 1850’s by John Mason Neale.  Neale is listed as the translator of 22 hymns in the LSB, particularly the ancient Latin hymns from the early church.

The carol, Good King Wenceslas does not mention the birth of Christ, but uses the story of the king to illustrate emulating St. Stephen’s work in the book of Acts which resulted in his martyrdom.

On St. Stephen’s Day King Wenceslas saw a poor man gathering wood on a cold and windy winter day.  He asks a Page to tell him who the man is.  He then tells the Page to bring him some meat and drink and to accompany him to give the man something to eat.  As they tread through the snow, cold and wind, the Page comes to the point where he couldn’t continue any longer. The king tells him to follow behind him stepping in his footsteps.  As he follows in the footsteps of the king, the Page discovers that the ground is warm where the king had stepped.

The carol concludes, “you who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”

 

Christmas during a Family Crisis

 

The gospel writer Matthew goes to great lengths to trace Jesus’ heritage back to Abraham.  But then sets Jesus’ birth during a family crisis.  Mary is betrothed to Joseph, though she still lives with her parents.  Joseph will go to her home and take his wife to his home.  There will be dancing, singing, and feasting.

However, Joseph discovers that his bride is pregnant and he knows he is not the father.  Christmas still happens within the context of ordinary life.  Troubles do not take a holiday.  However, the angel of the Lord who spoke to Joseph in a dream had an important message for Joseph, and for us.  The child in Mary’s womb is from the Holy Spirit.  According to his name, Jesus, he is God’s Savior, even in times of crisis.  He is God with us.  He is the shepherd who walks through the valley of death’s shadow with us.  He is the one who bears his cross in order to sustain us in our cross bearing.

Joseph listened to the voice of the angel and took Mary, his wife, to his home and served as Jesus’ step-father.  He listened to the voice of God’s angel twice more, when he was warned to flee to Egypt with his family and again when he was told not to return to Bethlehem but to settle in Nazareth.

Joseph gets only one mention in the LSB hymnal.  It’s in stanza 14, the last stanza in hymn 517.

We sing our thanks for Joseph,

The guardian of our Lord,

Who faithfully taught Jesus

Through craft and deed and word.

Grant wisdom, Lord, and patience

To parents everywhere

Who guide and teach the children

Entrusted to their care

Looking Past Christmas

 

I wanted to be critical of the Post-Dispatch who in today’s issue had their “Go” section listing things to do on New Year’s Eve.  Couldn’t we wait until after Christmas?

Then I realized, I’ve been working on gathering material for a New Year’s/First Sunday after Christmas sermon for the last week.  We will likely have grandchildren at our house several days next week, which is wonderful, but not great for sermon preparation.

What is more since January 1 is both New Year’s Day or in church year the Name of Jesus day when Jesus was circumcised and formally given his name following up on the directions given by the angel before he was conceived. (Luke 2:21)

However, Sunday January 1, is also the first Sunday after Christmas and the Gospel lesson takes along on the Holy family, fleeing into Egypt as they escape mad Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:13-23).

Still one more option would be to celebrate January as Epiphany Sunday and remember the Wise Men coming with their gifts to worship the new King of the Jews. (Matthew 2-1-12).

The whole conversion of days on January 1, this year, reminds me of the donkey caught at equal distance between hay stacks, in this case three of them, starved to death because he couldn’t make up his mind about which stack to go to first.

As for me, I’m going with the Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday after Christmas. (Isaiah 63:7-14) This text allows me to incorporate New Year’s Day, the naming of Jesus and the flight into Egypt as examples of God who is with us in his blessing in the New Year as He was in the year just past.

Making Christmas Happen

 

Bob Reinhardt, my partner in pastoring at Immanuel, Marshfield, Wi. would say that it is our job to make Christmas happen for the people.  He was speaking of the whole church staff.

Of course, pastors don’t make Christmas actually happen, God took care of that.  But when I read of Joseph’s role when God made Christmas happen, his part was like that of a member of a church staff.

Joseph could have copied King Ahaz as we meet him in Isaiah 7.  God said he could ask for any sign he wanted.  Ahaz declined giving as the reason that he didn’t want to put God to the test.  Well, God had said that Israel shouldn’t put him to the test, so Ahaz could claim he was obeying God’s word; though he paid little attention to God’s word otherwise.  Joseph was also following God’s word in Deuteronomy 22, when he discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant.

However, Joseph listened to the word of the angel of the Lord.  He did his part in making Christmas happen.  He went ahead with the completion of his marriage to Mary.  He acted as the human father of Mary’s son.  He protected him when threatened by Herod anger.  He took the child to Egypt and then at the word of the Lord returned.  He helped Mary raise Jesus.

So, when a church staff person approaches Christmas, we put forth our best effort to help the people celebrate the birth of their salvation.

God’s strength to all who play Joseph’s role as we celebrate God’s making of Christmas.

Be Merry, Joseph Married Mary

Advent 4 2016, Staunton, Il Matt. 1:18-25

We are making our pilgrimage through Advent.  In seven days we arrive at our destination where in faith we will approach the manger in which lay the holy Child. To this babe, who is the Son of God, and son of Mary, belongs the earth and all who live there in and upon it.  Years ago, O.P. Kretzmann wrote, “Christmas must include Him whom the manger held and the universe cannot contain…the wonder of the tiny lips that had called to Adam…The mystery of the small hands which once had set the stars in the firmament.”

However, like the pilgrims in Psalm 24, we do well to ask ourselves some questions before we, with the shepherds, go to see this thing which the Lord has done. For one thing, who of us qualifies to stand in such a holy place before the Holy One?  Who of us can claim to have hands clean of any sin?  Who of us have not wished ill on someone, have not coveted, have not lusted, have trusted in the Lord as we ought?  Who of us have made a promise that is yet unkept, perhaps even forgotten and rationalized away? Who of us have such pure hearts that we can say, “Me, I’m innocent.  I demand to see God in the manger.  You can’t deprive me of my rights.”

No not any of us!  And yet here we are. Near the end of our time of waiting.  Advent waiting is like my younger brother who ordered a new John Deer tractor a few weeks ago, with a heated cab and a frontend loader to move snow.  You see he lives in Northern Wisconsin where the temperature won’t break zero today and there is a “for Pete’s sake” amount of snow.  One day this past week he drove by the dealership and noticed the tractor had been taken inside, perhaps to have the loader gear attached.  But it still may be a week before they deliver it.  My 72- year- old brother acknowledged, “I’m like a kid waiting for Christmas.”

It’s okay to be like a kid waiting for Christmas or even to be a kid waiting for Christmas, because our hopes and dreams of salvation are wrapped in that holy holiday.  Our prayer and that of Isaiah the prophet and the Psalmist are all answered in Him.  Isaiah prayed, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.  I wait for the Lord; my soul waits and in his word, I hope.”  The psalmist chimes in, “With you there is forgiveness, hope, never ending love and plentiful redemption.”  And we prayed only minutes ago, “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by your grace and mercy.”

And this is how God answered those prayers .  “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”  But we quickly discover that the way God chose to come, comes with problems. God works through real people who face real challenges.  Matthew writes, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph.”  Joseph was preparing for the merry day he and his friends would go to Mary’s home and take her to his home.  Joseph waited for the day when his marriage to Mary would be accompanied by feasting, dancing and great celebration.  But now a wrench gets thrown into the plans, Joseph discovers that Mary is with child and he has not been with her.

Matthew has already told us that the child growing in Mary’s womb was from the Holy Spirit.  But Joseph doesn’t know that and he is thrown into a quandary.  How should he handle this troubling news?  According to Deuteronomy, scripture allowed him to take Mary before the village elders and the father of the child stoned, if they could identify him.  Or he could make a public spectacle of writing a certificate of divorce signed by two witnesses.  But Joseph was a just man, he was a good man and did not want Mary and her family to suffer from shame.  Therefore, he decided to go through with the divorce quietly.  He would suffer the whispers of the village gossips.

The 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt sets his interpretation of this situation in the stable in Bethlehem.  No animals.  No shepherds. Mary sits closest to the viewer nearly hidden under layers of cloaks.  In front of her lays the baby, also nearly hidden in its swaddling clothes.  She leans to the left.  To her right and behind her sits Joseph leaning to the left against a wall.  He sleeps with his chin in his hand.  They both look disconsolate.  Between them there is a separation, a gulf, they are disconnected from one another.

You see, God comes to be with us as we are.  Not as we should be.  Not as we are trying to be.  Not as we promised ourselves we would or will be some day – but as we are.  We come here this morning dressed in our Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, and for some of us our calm exterior covers over our own disconnection from someone, covers over our fears of what to do about a current situation, covers over the anxiousness of what the future will bring.  We come struggling to trust God that He does work all things for good for those who love him and are called to faith in Christ.  That no power on earth or heaven can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  I don’t know the details of anyone’s life here.  But I know we are humans, I know we are children of Adam and Eve, I know in one way or another we have been in Joseph and Mary’s sandals, disconsolate, disconnected, struggling.

When I was describing Rembrandt’s painting before, I neglected to share an important detail. Remember, a gulf runs between the left leaning Mary and Joseph as he leans against a wall on his right.   Hovering just behind Joseph is an angel of the Lord, decked out in wings and dazzling apparel.  The angel is lightly touching Joseph’s shoulder as it whispers in his ear.  This is what the angel told Joseph, “Do not fear to take Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Then the angel adds, “She will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.”  His name is Jesus, God’s Savior.  He carried that name with him, as a reminder of his mission, for 33 years, all the way to the cross and his resurrection in saving us from our sins.

But the angel had more to say.  “Joseph, that your beloved Mary is with child is a fulfillment of the Scriptures, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name, Immanuel.’”  He is God is with us, throughout our life, where ever our pilgrimage on earth takes us, into whatever circumstances we may find ourselves.

When Joseph woke up he went ahead and completed his marriage to Mary. And when the child was born, “He called his name Jesus.”  So, this Christmas, be merry, Joseph married Mary.  Be like a kid waiting for Christmas, because you are a child of the heavenly Father and Jesus, your brother, lived up to his name. You are welcome to stand before the manger, and welcome him into your life, as you have been welcomed into His life.

A Demand for Money ends in a Gift

 

Isaiah 60 and Psalm 130 – Introit for Advent 4

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.

I wait for Yahweh.
My soul waits.
I hope in his word.
My soul longs for the Lord more than watchmen long for the morning;
more than watchmen for the morning.
Israel, hope in Yahweh,
for with Yahweh there is loving kindness.
With him is abundant redemption.
He will redeem Israel from all their sins.

 

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this; for after his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, intended to put her away secretly. 20 But when he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take to yourself Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 She shall give birth to a son. You shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins.”

22 Now all this has happened, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying,

23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
and shall give birth to a son.
They shall call his name Immanuel”;
which is, being interpreted, “God with us.”

24 Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself; 25 and didn’t know her sexually until she had given birth to her firstborn son. He named him Jesus.

Prayer: Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your Might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

Added thoughts:

Jeanette Winterson from “Christmas Days”

In fact, the Christmas story starts with a demand for money: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

And ends with a gift – ‘unto us a child is born.”

The gift of new life is followed by the gifts of the magi-the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

We give ourselves.  We give ourselves to others.  We give ourselves to ourselves.  We give.

Whatever we make of Christmas, it should be ours, not something we buy off the shelves.

 

 

 

Christ is an Annoying Preacher

 

On the third Sunday of Advent, in 1544 Martin Luther preached on the Gospel lesson, Matthew 11:2-11.  John had sent disciples to ask Jesus is he was the one who was to come or should they look elsewhere.  Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”  And “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Luther:

Yes, truly blessed!  For this King and His Word, in which people should find great joy, are a stumbling-block for all the world.  The world takes offence and is provoked by the Gospel of Christ, because it will not trust in the grace of God, but rather in its own works and merits.  And again, the world takes offence at Christ because His is so utterly poor and wretched.  And again, that, as He carries His cross and lets himself be hanged upon it, He admonishes His followers to take their cross and to follow Him through all manner of temptation and afflictions.  To this the world is especially hostile.

Thus, is our dear Lord Christ everywhere in the world an annoying preacher.  The gospel will never fare otherwise.  It is and it will be a message at which offence is taken, not by the lowly, but by the most saintly and most pious, the wisest and the mightiest on earth, as experience teaches us.  Blessed are those who know and trust that it is truly the Word of God, for they are healed, and they are comforted and fortified against all such offence.

 

 

Santa Lucia

 

 

December 13 marks the day to remember St. Lucy.  She lived in Syracuse in Sicily and died at a young age during the persecutions against the Christians under the reign of Emperor Diocletian in the years following 303.  She gave away her dowry and lived as a virgin until her execution by the sword.  The name Lucy comes from the Latin word lux, “light.”  It’s appropriate to remember her this week because she, like John the Baptist, bore witness to the light of Christ.

Artist’s depictions show Lucy dressed in a white baptismal gown wearing a wreath of candles on her head.  In Scandinavian countries, St. Lucy is celebrated during cold, dark days of winter with bonfires, roaring fires in the fireplace and the lighting of Lucy candles.  In many homes the oldest daughter would rise early to serve the family coffee and sweet rolls.

The fourth stanza of LSB 515 “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers” will provide an ending hope.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear; Arise, O Sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere.  With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see the day of earth’s redemption that sets Your people free!

 Prayer from Treasury of Daily Prayer:

O Almighty God, by whose grace and power Your holy martyr Lucia triumphed over suffering and remained ever faithful unto death, grant us, who now remember her with thanksgiving, to be so true in our witness to you in this world that we may receive with her new eyes without tears and the crown of light and life; through Jesus Christ, our  Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.