Tuesday, January 3, 2023

“New Year . . . No Fear!” Romans 8.31b–39 New Year’s Day Jan ‘23


1.                Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen. The message from God’s Word on this New Year’s Day is taken from Romans 8:31-39, it’s entitled, “New Year…No Fear!” Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

2.                Romans 8:31-39 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

3.                There she was in all her glory, sitting on the piano. Not on the piano bench, not on the keyboard, she was sitting on the top of the piano, grinning from ear to ear, clearing off all the knickknacks her chubby arms could reach. Just nine months old and could she climb! She had not yet mastered walking, but when it came to climbing, she was an expert. Stairs were a breeze. The furniture had all been conquered. She would climb anything. When her father came around the corner, he caught his breath as he saw her on her perch. He tried not to frighten her—even though his heart was thumping. If she fell . . . if she hit her head . . . if she was hurt . . . So, her father smiled reassuringly and walked up slowly. No reason to worry about her being frightened. She felt safe and secure. This was her element. She was born to climb! As her father drew near, he held out his hands to her and she jumped right off the piano into his arms. She did not wait for him to take hold of her before she jumped—she did not even wait for him to get all that close—she launched herself while he was still a couple of feet away! Yes, her dad caught her.

4.                Her brothers were always timid about this sort of thing. They had to be coaxed to jump down one step as their dad held on to them. Not this man’s daughter. His heart stopped on numerous occasions as she has taken a flying leap off the top of the steps, just assuming that her dad would be there to catch her. He was, and he did, but what if he wasn’t and didn’t? Such a thought never crossed her mind. He is her Daddy. He can be trusted. He has never let her down.

5.                If a person could read this little girl’s mind, you’d find a job description entitled “Daddy,” and one of the main responsibilities would be catching. It probably comes right after cuddling and tickling. Somewhere, in there she also keeps track of successes and failures, and because her father has never missed, he never will.

6.                This level of trust is awesome . . . and frightening. Having someone look to you with complete confidence is a great responsibility, a burden. We may wonder if we too are fit to carry such a burden. What about failure? What if we miss? What if we neglect our duty? What would go through the person’s head who depends on us?

7.                You can almost hear it. “Daddy can no longer be trusted. Daddy does not care if I fall down and get hurt. Daddy does not love me anymore.”  A father who loves his children could not bear to hear these words! As fathers we want our children’s image of us to be one of perfection, and yet we as man can struggle under that burden. Maybe this is why daddies buy too many presents, allow too many freedoms, and forgive without discipline. We all know that we fall short. So, we struggle to cover for our shortfalls in other ways.

8.                As a father, if I don’t get home in time to tuck the kids into bed and read them a story,  I buy them a book. If I missed the day, my daughter first dressed herself, I buy her some new clothes. 
If I was late for my children’s piano recital, I let them stay up late that night and irritate the one who has to deal with them the next day.

9.                Have you ever desired to be the trusting one rather than the one trusted? What a joy, a relief it would be to have one upon whom we could place absolute, complete trust. Rather than bear the burden, the burden would be on someone else. But there are no perfectly trustworthy people—no perfect daddies—in this untrusting world. We have heard of and seen the flaws and imperfections, the failures, the tarnished images. Still, it would be nice, wonderful, a great relief to have someone to lean upon without a shadow of doubt before our eyes.

10.             Well, there is someone who is for us. There is someone who did not spare. There is someone who sends to stand in our place. There is someone who justifies. There is someone who intercedes. There is one who has withstood every test, one who can be leaned upon with absolute trust, one who catches us every time, one who never misses. Really! Check out his record. When mankind made the fatal leap into sin, it was the Lord God who provided the rescue. The Lord made the move, made the catch, took the responsibility even though we deserved it not.

11.             “If you are dumb enough to jump off the top of the piano, you will just have to figure out how to catch yourself.” Never entered our Heavenly Father’s mind! “If you want to climb on furniture, you had better be prepared to pay the price.” Never occurred to our Heavenly Father! “You are the ones who disobeyed me and ate the fruit. It is your problem! Save yourselves!” Our Father in heaven did not entertain such a thought. He provided the rescue . . . but consider the cost.

12.             The catch, the rescue, was made not with gold or silver, but with the holy, precious blood of his only-begotten Son. God did not compromise his nature. He could have said, “Well, we will let it go this time.” “That’s all right, next time you will know better.” He could have said . . . actually, he could not have said. To do so would be to go against who he is, to go against his just nature. Sin had to be atoned for, payment made. God’s justice demands payment, but God’s love and mercy provides the price. At great cost, at great sacrifice, he who is for us did not spare his only Son. He provided the Lamb for redemption. The Lamb, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the sacrifice on a cross, painfully suffering the agony of hell, pouring out his lifeblood for us. And then the words, “It is finished,” and God declared, “Paid in full!”

13.             What a catch! The greatest catch ever made by a father. One-handed, almost over the wall catch. God the Father continues his error-free streak. Each day, every year, we push it to the limit. We look over the edge, we take the risks. Each day, every year, we find ourselves immersed in tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, under the sword. And each day, every year, our Lord protects, provides, rescues us from dangerous perches. He has never missed, and because he is our God, he never will. Earthly fathers dare not make such a promise, but God our Father can and does. His love and mercy are strong and perfect. He never wants to miss. His power and strength are awesome. Therefore, he never does. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b).

14.             A new day, a New Year . . . what lies in store? The known is frightening, the unknown is terrifying. Yet God speaks to us through St. Paul: Do not be afraid, because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv 37–39). God is for us. Do not be afraid! Amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.



“An Angel Brings Hope with a Sign of God’s Presence in the Newly Born Christ Child” Luke 2.8–11 Xmas Day Dec. ‘22


1.                        Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The message from God’s Word as we celebrate Christmas Day is taken from Luke 2:8-11. It’s entitled, An Angel Brings Hope with a Sign of God’s Presence in the Newly Born Christ Child,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

2.                        After gazing at the glittering angel high atop the altar’s tree, young Daniel walked over to the nativity scene nearby. He studied the various figures in the little rough wooden shed. He found the familiar Mary and Joseph figures, Mary dressed in a blue cloak, the little baby Jesus in a manger, a shepherd, and even three Wise Men bearing gifts, although they actually came later. As he continued to study this scene, he saw atop the simple crèche another angel. In other nativity sets, the angel sometimes stood to the side like the other figures. Regardless, there was always an angel. Again, he wondered why. Why was an angel needed here, far below the lofty heights of that tree, so far from heaven’s glory? What was it doing? Standing as a sentry? But no danger appears. The only one nearby is a kneeling shepherd. Was it just a decoration, a way to show some heavenly splendor in an otherwise rustic scene?

3.                        This angel was none of that. This angel again comes as a heavenly messenger, with a simple but powerful word straight from the Almighty. The message this time involves a sign, to reveal, to guide—and to give hope! The angel brings hope in a sign telling the shepherds where they might find the promised Savior . . . and where we might find God’s enduring presence among us.

4.                        This angel appeared out in the field to the shepherds along with the entire “multitude of the heavenly host.” But its place here, sitting much closer to the other figures in the scene, reminds us of its important announcement. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’ ” (Lk 2:8–11).

5.                        A Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” What an honor to bear that message! And a surprise! Especially that God would make such an announcement to lowly shepherds. But where would these men find such an infant in all the “city of David”? What would such a great person look like? Would he be in the palace of a prince attended by richly adorned servants? Would they see him surrounded by powerful armies in a parade coming through their city? Would his cradle be bathed in a bright holy light shining out in the darkness? If God had come among them, how would they know? So, the angel gives them a “sign.” Hope is kept alive if only we have directions, if we’re shown where to find where God is at work. And the “sign” the angel gives will validate the ancient prophecy when Ahaz was first given “a sign of the Lord [his] God”: “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Is 7:10, 14).

6.                        The Gospel writer St. John records numerous “signs” our Lord gave to bear witness regarding who he was and why he came. Some identify seven of these. He miraculously changes water into wine at a wedding, showing a command of creation and a desire for joy (Jn 2:1–12). He heals an official’s son who is deadly ill, reversing sin’s curse (4:46–54). He heals again, this time a paralytic at the Bethesda pool (5:1–17). He feeds five thousand with only five barley loaves and two fish, showing himself to be the great provider (6:1–14). He walks on the surface of the Sea of Galilee at night during a storm (6:15–21). He restores sight to a man born blind (9:1–7). Then, as a final great sign pointing to the greater miracle to come, he raises his friend Lazarus from the grave (11:1–45). All signs that God is active in Jesus, that the kingdom of God has broken into our time and space.

7.                        But when the Jews demand a “sign” from Jesus, it’s obvious they want something different. He points them to the crucifixion and resurrection, the true signs of God’s love and work. But they don’t understand (Jn 2:18). People often miss the real sign and claim they won’t believe unless they see “signs and wonders” (Jn 4:48). The sign stood before them, but they always seemed to be looking beyond it.

8.                        Part of this came from the fact that the “sign” from heaven was so simple, common, and ordinary, for Jesus came as one of us. And as the shepherds prepare to leave their flocks and head out to Bethlehem, we wonder: Who would look for a newborn child in a manger as a great sign of God? How many would pass right by without a single notice? Just a child? Wrapped in swaddling cloths? Not bathed in glorious rays of light? How many today still look for “signs and wonders” to assure them of God’s work and presence, and miss the one sure sign of where to find him? How many become lost in their own emotions and need for the spectacular and walk right past the God in front of them? So, God sends a heavenly messenger, to show them that this is where God will reveal himself. An angel who speaks with God’s own authority that they should look nowhere else, but see in the face of this ordinary little one the very Savior of the world, the Messiah, God in human flesh.

9.                        And even in its simplicity, this “sign” would be “good news of great joy” to those who found it. The shepherds would head off to Bethlehem to tell the world of the “sign,” and many “wondered” at what they told them (Lk 2:18). The shepherds went back to their work changed men. They return, Luke tells us, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They had seen God’s given “sign.” In faith, they see it: God among them. They know that as unbelievable as it might seem to some, this tiny little newborn child will one day grow to become the deliverer of the world from sin, death, and the power of hell. They may not yet grasp how he’ll accomplish this—by his suffering, death, and resurrection—but they know he will deliver them, because God’s messenger proclaimed it and faith accepted it.

10.                    And now they have true hope. So many in our world today wonder where God is. And because God so often appears hidden under suffering, people are distracted by the evil and hardship and see only darkness and emptiness. Because God reveals himself in common ways, they are put off and wait for another more impressive, convincing sign. The baby in a manger becomes the man hanging from the cross—one looking weak and helpless, the other looking weaker and more helpless. Neither a very impressive sign. So people see the “sign,” but they see it apart from the heavenly messenger sent by God. Water without the Word of God is only water, Luther reminds us. But combined with God’s Word it is a saving water. Any sign apart from the divine Word leaves us looking for more, and leaves us lost.

11.                    To hope truly must have the assurance of God’s presence in Christ. So it was for Zechariah and Joseph and Mary and the shepherds. And we must be able to find that Christ in the midst of the broken, torn-up world, where God’s presence is not always immediately obvious. We must be able to find him through the fog of doubt and evil’s deceptions. We must be able to see him despite our fears and our hesitation to believe the impossible. But we must also listen to the message of heaven as we see the sign the messenger reveals.

12.                    Along with Good Friday and Easter, today is one of the “twin peaks” in the sacred calendar of our annual worship. A high point of revelation. This is the day we first see our God in human flesh and living among us in the midst of our fallen world (Jn 1:14). It is foundational for how we worship, why we worship, and how we encounter God. When we come to this place looking for God, we need to look outside of our own hearts, beyond our own ideas and wishful desires. We need to listen not to the voice in our heads, but to the voice of the angel who speaks from heaven by God’s direction and with God’s authority. And we need to see God in the promised “sign” of his presence the angel reveals.

13.                    It is interesting that in the Book of Revelation God calls the pastors who proclaim his Word “angels,” or “messengers” of this heavenly sign. The messenger in that pulpit may seem ordinary. But listen to the words God has commissioned him to share. Listen to the angel, look past the man. And as you hold within your hands the very body of Christ crucified in the bread you eat, and as your lips taste the very blood Christ shed on the cross in the wine you drink, you see again the “sign” that the angel revealed: Jesus, God made flesh. This is the same one who once laid in a manger newly born. This is the true presence of God who has come not just to Bethlehem, but to our space and our time, wrapped in our very human flesh, in our hands and on our lips and in our ears. Where is God? He’s here among us where the angel said he would be. The sign of the Word made flesh.

14.                    And that, again, is the heart of hope. Throughout these past few weeks, we saw that the angels brought messages that encouraged true hope by addressing first the enemies of hope: doubt and fear. We heard them echo the eternal voice of God by assuring us that with God nothing is impossible, as Gabriel announced the miracle of the conception of our Lord in Mary’s womb. We then sang with a multitude of the heavenly host last night as they announced a true peace for all who believe in this newly born Prince of Peace. Finally, today we are drawn to the place where this hope is to be found and realized: the Word made flesh in Jesus.

15.                    Hope looks to the future. It does not remain in the present or lost in the past. What we have seen and heard then, and even today, will provide a true light for the days to come. And because it is anchored in the certain promises of our holy God, hope can never be disappointed. Hope, even in the worst of times, endures. It endures because it is in Christ, the eternal Son of God, revealed before us to see and hear and worship. In his name. Amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.


“A Multitude of the Heavenly Host Announces a Peace Which Brings Renewed Hope” Luke 2.13–14 Xmas Eve, Dec. ‘22


1.                        Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas to all of you!!! The message from God’s Word as we celebrate the birth of our Savior on this Christmas Eve is taken from Luke 2:13-14, it’s entitled, A Multitude of the Heavenly Host Announces a Peace Which Brings Renewed Hope,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

2.                        And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:13–14) A sea of flickering candles dotted the dark sanctuary as a chorus of voices sang: “All is calm, all is bright.” And for a few moments, it was. Few nights offer such a sense of peace and tranquility as the eve of Christmas, especially when the air is filled with the soothing, almost haunting music of “Silent Night.” There in the pew, we wish that all nights might know this peace. But, we’re aware that just outside the walls of the church exists a world that on a daily basis is riled up with ongoing turmoil. Ours is a world not at peace, not in many places. But, each generation hopes that this year the long-hoped-for peace will finally arrive. Those living now remember cataclysmic wars that engulfed our world—from the bombed fields of Europe over eighty years ago and now again so recently, to East and Southeast Asia ravaged by war on frozen hills and steaming jungles, to dry desert wastelands in the Middle East, to terrorist bombings in countless cities the world over, to civil wars and ethnic strife, to daily shootings in our neighborhoods. Peace seems a rare commodity for which to hope.

3.                        Yet this night we hear of peace. A real and lasting peace. A peace that God announces not just with a chorus of a few weak and hesitant voices, but with a “multitude of the heavenly host” erupting in a thundering chorus of praise. Heaven explodes in celebration: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). In the midst of a world so often marred by violence, hatred, and hardship, a  multitude of angelic messengers breaks into the night to announce a living hope: peace for those on whom God’s favor rests.

4.                        What is this peace that the angels announce with such fanfare in a world still in war, bloodshed, and violence? And how does such peace grant us hope when mankind still seems bent on self-destruction? When our own hearts feel unrest and anxiety? All of the treaties and efforts to stop the turmoil on this planet will ultimately fail. Moments of tranquility will surface, only to descend into the morass of human sin and brokenness. All the counselors in the world can bring years of expertise and words of comfort, but deep down in the heart something will always be missing. The peace the angels so boldly announce this night is different, enduring, and powerful. It doesn’t depend on us. It doesn’t require our efforts. For at the center of our problem, we ourselves are at war with God. We rebel and fight against his will. If God doesn’t bring peace, we are doomed. We have no hope. Yet this very night he does bring real peace by sending his own Son, Jesus. God comes into our world in our human flesh to take our place. To suffer for us, for what we rightly deserve. To die our death. To heal the broken relationship. Yes, he is just a tiny newborn infant at this moment, and it’s easy to miss the significance. And that’s why the angels amass in such grand formation with an overwhelming song of praise straight out of heaven’s glory. This night marks ground zero for God’s eternal peace plan. It starts here. In this place and this time. Now, at this very moment. Hope is reborn.

5.                        But just how might this hope be reborn in such a dramatic way? St. Paul writes that “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). God has declared us holy, who by faith are in Christ, clothed in his righteousness. Paul goes on to declare that “through him [that is, Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (5:2). This peace of a restored relationship with God—the real and only true peace!—is a divine gift that leads directly to a new hope. And not just any hope, but a “hope of the glory of God,” a hope that extends all the way to eternity.

6.                        Many who want peace don’t understand where real peace comes from—and therefore despair when it fails to come. They think they will see it realized in the next political treaty, the end of the latest war or conflict, the right conditions in their own personal lives. But Paul said that the “peace of God” is ultimately beyond understanding (Phil 4:7). At least in the purely human sense. A mystery, of sorts. But not an unknowable mystery. For as Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27). True peace comes only from Jesus, not from governments, not from other people, not from drugs, not from a sense of calm and tranquility which is only temporary at best. Only one person: Jesus.

7.                        So here, in that simple manger, surrounded only by common barnyard animals and a humble Palestinian couple, the heart of true peace lies. Here in a vulnerable little child. Visited that night of his birth only by the sometimes-despised shepherds, not the important dignitaries we might expect. They come to visit this little one who bears the amazing royal title of “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). He is the ruler who brings peace. He has the power to make it real.

8.                        But how can I realize this peace in a broken, warring world? How can I possibly hope to find it in my often confused and troubled mind? This holy night’s special charm will only last so long. In a few precious moments, we will leave to the cold outside. The “all is calm” of “Silent Night”  will be interrupted soon enough. But Franz Mohr, the author of the beloved lyrics, knew that this calm was more than just a soothing song or comforting lullaby. “Sleep in heavenly peace,” the stanza ends. “Sleep in heavenly peace.” He calls for the sleep of peace in this “holy infant, so tender and mild” (LSB 363:1). Where we find the “holy infant,” we find our peace.

9.                        Each Sunday that we gather for worship we are again led to that manger. Led to the one who brings peace. Led to the one who creates peace. Lasting peace. “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the pastor declares to repentant sinners, and peace is again restored. Peace in the assurance of absolution, a declaration that we are again right with God. He is not our enemy. We are reconciled. “Take, eat, this is the body of Christ,” the pastor repeats again at the altar-table of the Sacrament. Peace in the life-giving presence of the Christ. A body broken in death on our behalf. Blood-shed in payment for our sins. Eaten. Internalized. Christ with us. Immanuel. Peace again restored and assured.

10.                    And from this peace comes renewed hope even in an unlikely place. In World War I, the warring sides declared a brief truce on Christmas Day. For a short time, the concussions of exploding bombs ceased. Gunfire stopped. Coming out of the bloody trenches, they dared to sing Christmas carols to each other. They exchanged small gifts. For a moment, peace came. It ended too soon. Yet one has to believe that in the midst of the melodies of those beautiful carols sung over a blackened battlefield, a hint of the real peace endured. The real peace came even in the midst of death and some of the worst horror the world had known. They sang of the Christ Child. They sang of what the angelic multitude announced. Their carols thundered louder than any of the bombs and guns before or after.

11.                    It was a great contrast that day, as it was the first Christmas. Who would expect a “multitude” of angels to announce peace to a bunch of humble shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night? Yet when a multitude of God’s messengers emerge from heaven’s glory into the darkness of night, we pay notice. They don’t speak often, but when they do, we listen. Very carefully. And now we sing their hymn in our own worship: “Glory to God on high: and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” We sing with joy and hope because moments before we heard our Lord declare us forgiven. We cried out for mercy and found God’s care and concern. He was with us. He heard our cries for help. We have hope. Now we sing a song only angels could sing. A song of peace. A song of hope. A song that sounds into the eternal courts of heaven itself. “Glory to God on high.” For a moment again, we are on the borderline of heaven. We stand on the edge between heaven and earth, between our temporal struggles and eternity. We sense its closeness. Soon, soon we, too, will be there. Hope looks into eternity and finds joy of what will be. And in that, we hope again. Peace has come in Christ. In Jesus’ name. Amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.


“This Present Sign” Isaiah 7.10–17 Advent 4C, Dec. ‘22



1.                            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The message from God’s Word on this 4th Sunday in Advent is taken from Isaiah 7:10-17. It’s entitled, “This Present Sign,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

2.                            “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Mt 1:23). God is present with us. That’s an astounding claim, given the common experience among God’s people of his apparent absence. Most of us, at some point or another, have wondered whether God is really with us. We face great difficulties, and we wonder if God cares. We encounter things we can’t explain or understand, and we wonder if God really exists. We cry out to God on our knees but hear nothing in response other than our own sighs. We slog through life, never experiencing much of a spiritual high or low, and we begin to question if God is with us. With a few exceptions, the people of God have often experienced life in a way that makes them think God is absent.

3.                            You’re not alone when you wonder. You’re not the first to question God’s presence. It’s safe to say that very few have never questioned God’s presence. In fact, those who question God’s presence are actually only continuing a millennia-old theme of God’s people doubting his presence. Before the fall into sin, God walked and talked with his human creatures. His presence was obvious. Adam and Eve didn’t doubt that he was there. They doubted his reliability, thanks to the serpent. But that’s a different problem. His presence was obvious.

4.                            But, after the fall, God’s people have often doubted his presence among them. The episode with the golden calf is a case in point. In Exodus 19, God told Moses to meet him on top of Mount Sinai so that he could give him his Law. Moses was gone for a while. The people got antsy. They began to question God’s presence. By the time we get to Exodus 32, they’ve concluded that God doesn’t exist. Or at least, that he is no longer with them. Never mind the 10 plagues that God brought on Egypt to deliver them. Never mind the parting of the Red Sea by which God rescued them. Never mind the manna that God provided in the wilderness so that the people wouldn’t starve. “What have you done for me lately?” the people asked. When God did not respond, they decided he was no longer there.

5.                            That’s what happened in our reading today from Isaiah 7. King Ahaz doubted God was with him. He had a reason to doubt: foreign armies were mounting around him. But God had promised to be with his people forever. God had promised to protect and preserve them. But Ahaz and the people of God looked around at the present circumstances and were not convinced.

6.                            That’s when Isaiah entered the scene. God sent Isaiah to give a message to Ahaz. His message was simple: God is with you, Ahaz. He promised he would be with you. Believe him. If you have doubts, simply ask him for a sign—anything you want—and he will show you that he is with you. Can you imagine that? An invitation from God to ask him for a sign? But Ahaz wouldn’t do it. Why not? Because he had already lost his faith. He had already put his faith in a “golden calf”. This time it was an alliance with a foreign army.

7.                            That’s when Isaiah spoke those words that Matthew would quote seven hundred years later. You don’t trust God enough to ask for a sign? “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). God promises to be graciously present in His creation through Jesus.

8.                            Isaiah’s response to Ahaz’s lack of faith was to promise a peculiar sign of God’s presence. He promised a child who would be born to a maiden. This is hardly the kind of sign that one would expect from the Almighty. But this would be no ordinary child. He was to be called Immanuel—“God with us.” Moreover, God would be with his people to save them from their sins.

9.                            Immanuel appeared as Jesus. The child who was also the eternal Son of God. He is God’s sign. He is God’s proof. He is God’s guarantee that he is with us. That is what makes Christmas such a big deal. That’s why we’ve been getting ready to celebrate Christmas since the day after Thanksgiving. On December 25, we celebrate the fact that God is with us—that he is with us to save us.

10.                        But God’s people of every age question that too. We have our own golden calf episodes. God doesn’t behave in ways that we think he should, and our faith slides. We don’t see God solving our problems or healing our diseases or fixing our families or answering our questions, and we are tempted to conclude that he is not with us. God’s presence in Christ is still often hidden from us. That’s why God gives us another sign. That sign is Baptism. The Lutheran Confessions speak of Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) as signs of God’s gracious disposition toward us. The Augsburg Confession describes the sacraments as “signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us” that “awaken and confirm faith” in us (AC XIII 1–2). The Apology draws on the Early Church: “It has been well said by Augustine that a Sacrament is a visible Word, because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, illustrating the same thing as the Word” (Ap XIII 5).

11.                        When we think of Baptism as a sign of God’s grace toward us, we begin to see the importance Baptism has for every day of our lives. Louis IX, who ruled France in the thirteenth century, was once asked why he signed his name “Louis of Poissy” and not “Louis IX, King of France” (which would have been the traditional way for a king to sign letters and documents). He responded by pointing out that Poissy was the location of his Baptism. Then he is said to have explained, “I think more of the place where I was baptized than of Reims Cathedral where I was crowned. It is a greater thing to be a child of God than to be the ruler of a kingdom. This last I shall lose at death, but the other will be my passport to an everlasting glory.” This saying was etched in stone in front of the baptismal font at the former St. Louis Catholic Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It reflects the Christian conviction that Baptism is the most important day in the life of a follower of Jesus. It identifies a Christian as a child of God who will live eternally with Christ. This identity manifests itself daily—not only in the signing of one’s name, but also in the sacrificial and selfless life of service to others. No question: the sign King Ahaz refused to ask, the virgin birth, was among the greatest signs given to mankind (Is 7:14). But in our Baptism, God has given us the sign that everything the virgin-born Christ accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection is personally and eternally ours.

12.                        Baptism is not only a sign of God’s gracious will toward us. It is also a sign to the world. Baptism signals to outsiders what we are as Christians (AC XIII 1), but it is our baptismal living that makes them stop to notice. As Paul writes in Romans 6, our Baptism means newness of life. This life manifests itself in sacrificial service to others—both to fellow believers in the Church and to those in need outside the Church. When the everyday lives of God’s people are shaped by their Baptism into Christ, the watching world sees the hidden presence of God. God’s presence in the world today is made known through his people as they love and serve one another.

13.                        It’s exactly one week until Christmas, and we all have an awful lot yet to do to get ready for it. As you hurry through all that remaining business, remember that in Christ, God is present with us. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. And just as important, he is God with you. You know that because of your Baptism. You were baptized into Christ.

14.                        Running, scurrying, hurrying on this errand and that, to this mall and that store, as you welcome guests and make your social rounds, remember your Baptism—in the way you treat clerks and other shoppers, in the way you treat visiting loved ones who may be hard to love, in the way you think about the gifts you select for others. Remember your Baptism as a sign that the babe in the manger is not only the Savior of the world. He is also your Savior from your sin, and now he is your strength for faithful living in his name. Amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, until life everlasting. Amen.