Click here for the reading: Joshua 3:1-3, 7-8, 13-17.

The passage of Israel through the Jordan is a people wondrously coming into its own. Preaching on baptism cannot neglect that the reality of God’s wonders happens for a people and that the promise of baptism is most fundamentally forward-looking.

The people are centered on the movement of God’s presence in the Ark. Where it goes, they go. Where it rests, they rest. The announcement of the officers in the camp of Israel is that the Ark will be moving. Since the Lord’s coming, that presence is connected to His Word, not to some object such as a box or an altar. What His Word commands or refrains from commanding, the church carries out or refrains from carrying out. What the Word says, the church says. What the Word does not say, the church does not say. There is always one Lord and one people, not one Lord and many, many individuals with their own ways.

This people necessarily has a leader, but Joshua is not a type of the pastor of a congregation or the president of a church body. His equality with Moses does not fit him merely to speak God’s Word publicly. That is something any priest could and should do in Israel. Instead, Joshua is a type of Jesus, whose Greek name has its Hebrew equivalent in Joshua’s name. Joshua will receive exaltation in Israel’s sight such as Moses had. He will lead the people, and they will listen to him.

He will lead them into a glorious but unknown future. The movement from the Transjordan into Canaan means that the wonder inaugurating Israel’s entrance is not the last wonder they will encounter. When they come into the land, they will find miraculous victories in battle against overwhelming forces and a land prepared for them by the Lord’s providence. The entrance into Canaan is an entrance to a life that is given and found, the unbought grace of life under the Lord’s care.

It is because the Lord is steadfast in His love that His people’s life is forward-looking. Nostalgia had overtaken Israel many times in the desert, leading always to dissatisfaction with the servant of the Lord, Moses, and with the deeds of the Lord in saving His people from Egypt. Life in His ways is forward-looking because it understands the future as determined by a God covenanted to save His people. If He has sworn that the waters of the Jordan would stop and they indeed did so that His people could pass, what else will He not do for His people?

Since readings are usually printed out in bulletins, you should print out the entirety of Joshua 3. Material for preaching that one loses in following the strange excisions of the assigned pericope are: the work of the Levites in leading the people, the admonition to listen to the words of your God, and the enumeration of which enemies God will drive before His people. All these are profitable and contribute to the sense the congregation should have that they are not only individually baptized but are collectively baptized for an inheritance God prepares and leads them to.

Click here for the reading: Matthew 2:1-12.

The world of Matthew 2 is like the womb of Rebecca with two struggling against each other. The Christ Child has come according to God’s promise through the prophet Micah, and like the town of His birth, His reign will not be according to appearances. Throughout His life, ministry, and death, His reign will be known through attending to prophets and through receiving the little ones sent in His name. Like His father, David the king (Mt. 1:6), Jesus’s reign begins inauspiciously in an obscure town of Judah. David began to reign in Hebron and came at last to Jerusalem. Jesus begins His reign in Bethlehem and will come at last to Jerusalem.

His kingship is divine, far surpassing Herod’s. Jesus’s kingship depends on God’s Word, Herod’s on the good pleasure of the Romans. The Magi recognize the firm foundation of Jesus’s kingdom and come to worship Him, knowing His divine office as King but not knowing His divinely given name as Savior of His people from their sins. The conviction drawn likely at least in part from Holy Scripture pushed the Magi from an undescribed eastern location to follow the divine light to the vicinity of Jerusalem. From there the star takes them directly to the Child.

Their gifts are according to a tradition dating back to Irenaeus in the 2nd century AD symbolic of Jesus’s offices as a God, a man who must die, and a king. This is quaint but unsure. The gifts denote neither specifically the number of the Magi nor their intuitions or beliefs about who Jesus truly is. Rather, all three gifts and the bringing of gifts from a foreign land to the King of the Jews are evidence of things unseen in Israel since the glory of Solomon. Now again the nations will come to worship the King of Israel. Now again the glory of the nations will be brought to Jerusalem. Now again Israel has a divinely ordained Son of David reigning over the nation unsullied by idolatry or illegitimacy of any kind.

Herod’s convictions are discovered for him by scribes who consult the Bible he does not know. They discover what the Scriptures have always said about the birth of the Messiah. His convictions drive him to deception because though he knows the Scripture, he does not know its power. Like so many to follow in Matthew’s gospel, Herod’s religion is dependent upon the scribes, not upon the Scriptures and the Messiah Whom they proclaim.

Thus the two kings have two ways. The way of the true King of the Jews is known through Scripture and creates great boldness and conviction and sacrifice in His followers. The way of the false King of the Jews is known through political consultations and creates fear and deceit in him and in his hangers-on. Epiphany is a time of clear revelation and a time of clear division between belief and unbelief, between the true King and all false ones.

Click here for the reading: Ephesians 3:1-12.

Mysteries are not what they once were. When we hear about mysteries in Bible passages, we think of what was done in the library and deerstalker caps and fingerprints on the windowsill. Paul is not speaking about something dark but precisely about something revealed and now very open. A mystery in the Bible is a mystery because only God could have known it and shown it to men. The mystery of the Gentiles’ inclusion in God’s people is mysterious because no one of Paul’s heritage would ever have expected it.

This is strange to us because the inclusion of Gentiles is now a given, presumptive in practically every Christian congregation across the world. We are no longer surprised, and when we read the Old Testament, prophecies such as Isa. 60 or any other about the coming of the nations to the Messiah leap easily from the page. We see with ease what Paul found hard to see. Why?

Again the gap between expectation and reality is a fruitful vein for preaching. The heirship of the Gentiles, their full and confident standing before God for the sake of Christ, was prophesied, but only in Christ are these things now so clear (“now been revealed” in v. 5). It’s not that this was somehow not really there in the text of the Old Testament. The obscurity, the darkness, is in the hearts of men who read and do not understand what they read. People’s expectations are conditioned by any number of factors that may or may not prepare them for the reality of God’s revelation.

Paul’s calling is specifically to call the Gentiles whom God has saved and to bring to light what God’s wisdom has planned and set forth. If something in Scripture is obscure or the Messiah is unknown or someone does not worship He who is Truth Himself, then the apostolic calling is to make Scripture, Messiah, and Truth known. The theme of mission running throughout the Epiphany season is contained here in a nutshell. If God has revealed His Son, then His Son must be made known. There can be no Messiah whose Name is not preached everywhere. How will they hear without someone preaching?

God’s wisdom is made known to individuals a la Rom. 10 but also to the powers and authorities now extant. “Through the church” (v. 10) the world is put on notice concerning its limits and its true Ruler. The boldness Paul displays and the courage he has and encourages the Ephesians to have (v. 13, just outside the pericope) are great because his understanding of what has happened in Christ is cosmic. Anywhere he goes is somewhere Christ reigns over. Anyone to whom he preaches is someone for whom Christ died, whether the listener heeds the gospel or not. A universal gospel for Jew and Gentile demands universal welcome. This is not mysterious. It is now the plainest thing in the world: Christ is the true King of the Jews and of the Gentiles.

Click here for the reading: Isaiah 60:1-6.

Epiphany was once Christmas and Epiphany and all their joy wrapped together. As the celebration of Jesus’s birth became separated from the coming of the Magi to worship the King of the Jews, Epiphany lost some of its luster. The prophet Isaiah restores the gleam to Epiphany in this glorious proclamation.

The advent of the Messiah is a call to awaken to a new reality. The nations without the Messiah are pictured as dwelling in a kind of pre-creation darkness altogether without light. The listener must awake because the Lord’s glory has risen like the sun. Jesus’s coming changes the reality in which the world lives as does the sun’s rising. Nobody can miss it. Nobody can mistake it. Nobody can remain unchanged. The time to wake up is now.

The nations and their kings come to seek these things. Isa. 60:3 is where the traditional attribution of kingship to the Magi is grounded, so that Epiphany prefigures the Last Day when the kings of the earth shall cast their crowns at the feet of the Sun of Righteousness.

The desolation that was once Jerusalem’s is no more because she is the place of pilgrimage for all nations. Now they come to her walls in holy fear rather than as anointed destroyers of an idolatrous nation. Through the Messiah the swords of the nations are turned to plowshares.

The days of Solomon return in the coming of the produce of the sea and the wealth of faraway lands on camels’ backs to Jerusalem. What will they find when they arrive? The difference between expectation and vision, between waiting and arriving, between what is promised and what has come is fruitful ground for the preacher.

It is neither advisable nor possible to preach on this text without mentioning the events of the Gospel reading. The prophecy goes with its fulfillment and is empty without it. The distinctives of this prophecy, however, cast a different light on the events of Matthew 2 than the Gospel reading itself does. The wrath of Herod contravenes the prophetic intention for the kings of the earth. The resistance of earthly rulers and their kingdoms to the advent of the Messiah is not within Isaiah’s announcement. The rejoicing over Jerusalem and in Jerusalem on account on her new Solomon, her dawning Light, is unthinkable in Isaiah. The deep wickedness and perversity of Herod’s sin and the terror earthly Jerusalem felt at the announcement of a new “King of the Jews” are more deeply dark for being absurd now that the Morning Star rises in the sky.

Click here for the reading: John 1:1-14.

Instead of beginning at Bethlehem, John opens his Gospel in eternity. He emphasizes Christ’s divinity, though not at the expense of His humanity. Jesus the Word is God, because He was in the beginning with Him, created all things, and is life and light. Why is Jesus called the Word of God? Why is it important to talk about His divine nature, even if we can’t fully comprehend it? Why does John begin here, and do we see a similar need in our own day? What is the Old Testament background for the Word of God, such as Jeremiah 1?

John the Baptist also came from God, but in a different way. God sent Jesus into the world in order to be the light of the world. John was a witness to the light, so that all would hear and believe. How does Jesus serve as the revealer or witness of God? How does John serve as the witness of the light? Why do we need both in order to believe in the light? What does Romans 10 teach us about the relationship between preaching and the revelation of God?

Jesus the Light came into the world, but the world did not know Him. This seems like an odd thing to say, since Paul makes it clear in Romans that all men know that God exists. However, the world does not know the Lord, because to know Him is to believe in Him. When we know the Lord, we call on His mighty name. When we do not know Him, we turn away from Him. Why is the knowledge that God exists insufficient for salvation? What does it mean for Jesus to give light to everyone? How does Jeremiah 31:31-40 help us understand this passage?

The Jews rejected their Lord, even though He came to them just as He promised. What they did not understand was that being a son of God is not a matter of flesh and blood, but a matter of faith and the Spirit. Therefore, when Jesus came in Spirit and truth, they crucified the Lord of glory. How does this rejection of Christ by His own people shape much of the New Testament? How do we fall into a similar temptation? How do Jesus’ words about the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24 show that salvation comes by faith and not by blood?

Christmas celebrates the Word becoming flesh, God dwelling among us. John points to the glory of the Son, the glory which is full of grace and truth, the glory which leads us to life and light. What is the glory of God? How do we see it? Where do we see it in our own day? Why does this glory lead us to repentance and faith as well as transform us into a new creation? What do we learn about God’s glory in Jesus’ prayer in John 17?

Click here for the reading: Titus 3:4-7.

Paul urges Titus to teach those under his charge to walk in good works. After all, we were once fools and slaves to our passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice, envy, and hatred. Now, however, we belong to Christ. What reasons do people give for doing good works? Do those reasons lead to misunderstanding the Gospel? What reasons do they give for not doing good works or for deemphasizing them? What reasons does Psalm 119 give for walking in good works?

The goodness and kindness of God appeared while we were still in our former lives. Jesus Christ is God’s supreme example of philanthropy, which is the word used in the Greek text. Just as the natives showed kindness to Paul in Acts 28 by lighting a fire for him, the Lord showed us kindness by sending us His Son, welcoming us into the Church. Since we normally associate philanthropy with secular virtue, how does Jesus serve as the supreme example of virtues found in the world? How does the Father sending the Son teach us to walk in kindness toward others? Compare how Paul speaks of God’s kindness in Ephesians 2:1-10.

Salvation, as Paul notes here and elsewhere, is not a matter of our works, but a matter of what God has done for us. Paul emphasizes this point so often in the epistles that it’s easy to overlook it. As Paul noted above, we formerly walked in sin, not in righteousness. Why then does he speak of works and righteousness here? Who is he speaking against? Why does that matter? How do we fall into a similar trap when thinking about righteousness and salvation? After talking about the sins of the world, who is Paul addressing in Romans 2?

God’s mercy expresses itself in a concrete way. Through Jesus Christ, we have received the Holy Spirit. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit regenerates and transforms us, so that we are no longer what we once were. Thus, the Holy Spirit, possessed by few in the time of the Old Testament, becomes the common gift of all Christians through God’s rich mercy. Why should we emphasize the Holy Spirit in connection with Baptism? What is the relationship of each Trinitarian Person to Baptism? How does the gift of the Holy Spirit show God’s mercy toward us? How does the promise of the Spirit in John 14 illuminate this passage in Titus?

Having been washed and renewed through the Holy Spirit, we are justified before God and made heirs of eternal life. Our salvation thus looks forward to the promise of something far greater. God transforms us now to prepare us for what He will do in the age to come. In what ways do some people emphasize either the present or the future reality of salvation over the other? What are the dangers of this one-sided emphasis? How does the birth of Christ, celebrated today, emphasize both? Consider what Paul says about being heirs with Christ in Romans 8.

Click here for the reading: Exodus 40:17-21, 34-38.

Large portions of the second half of Exodus describe the tabernacle and its construction in meticulous detail. As we learn from the book of Hebrews, especially Hebrews 9, this detail serves an important purpose. It is meant to teach us something about what is to come. Why does the Lord use types and symbols instead of “speaking plainly”? What do those types and symbols mean for those to whom they were given? Why should we not simply “jump forward” to their fulfillment when explaining their meaning? What does Paul mean by the former things being a shadow of things to come in Colossians 2:17?

Moses listens to the Lord and sets up the tabernacle just as God tells him to do. Placing the tablets of the Law into the ark, he sets the lid in place and brings it into the tabernacle. What is the purpose of the ark of the testimony? Why does it need to be screened? What is the entrance of the ark meant to teach Israel? How does the Lord express the same idea to the Church? Why does the Lord say that the ark will be forgotten in Jeremiah 3:15-18? How does that help us interpret this passage in Exodus?

Once the final preparations were made, the cloud of the Lord covered the tent. God’s glory filled the whole tabernacle, so that not even Moses could enter. Israel who had been enslaved, to whom God seemed so far off, now has her Lord dwelling in her midst. Why is this a fitting conclusion to the book of Exodus? How is God dwelling among us a comfort in the midst of distress? How do we know that He dwells among us? Why does John compare Jesus to the tabernacle in John 1? How is the glory seen in the tabernacle a type of the glory seen in Christ?

The cloud and the fire show that God is present among His people. Whenever they move in the wilderness, Israel is meant to follow. Thus, the Lord teaches Israel to not only follow the visible signs, but also to follow Him wherever He goes. What other signs did God use to teach Israel to follow Him? How does the Lord teach us? How does He not teach us to follow Him? Compare Deuteronomy 8:1-6 with this passage and the purpose of God’s signs in the wilderness.

The canonical order of the Bible, while important for learning all of the books, frequently exists simply by tradition. However, it is not accidental that the laws and regulations of Leviticus immediately follows. Now that Israel sees God’s glory in her midst, the Lord shows her the meaning of holiness, without which no one will see Him. What is the purpose of holiness? Why is it important to define it, especially with the presence of God in mind? Why does Christ’s appearance in the flesh call for us to be holy? How does John answer this question in 1 John 3:1-10?

Click here for the reading: Luke 2:15-20.

Having heard the message of the angels, the shepherds waste no time deliberating what they should do. “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened!” They listened to the Lord and went to see the child with their own eyes. In what ways are we sometimes just as eager as the shepherds to listen to the Lord? In what ways are we sometimes not so eager? Are there parts of our lives where we are less willing to listen? Why? Contrast the eagerness of the shepherds with the reluctance of the women in Mark 16.

Leaving behind their flocks, the shepherds run to find the child in Bethlehem. While we are not told how long they searched, they found the child just as the angel told them. The sign itself was nothing extraordinary. It seemed to be an ordinary child wrapped in ordinary cloth. Even Zechariah was mute for several months as a sign which showed the extraordinary character of his son John. Why does the Lord sometimes use extraordinary signs and sometimes very ordinary ones? Is there a specific reason for a specific sign? What signs, ordinary or not, does the Lord give to us? Compare the ordinary signs of Jesus in Luke 22:7-13 with an extraordinary one, like the ten steps of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:8-11.

Now that they have seen the Christ child, the shepherds open their mouths to declare all that they had heard and seen. This was not gossip or boasting. They had an amazing message to proclaim about this child! Why does this kind of testimony flow naturally from those who have seen God act? Why do we struggle to tell others about what God has done for us? How do the Psalms serve as examples of this, especially ones like Psalm 145?

Most of those who hear the shepherds’ message marvel at the message. It seems so unbelievable, the kind of thing that seems too good to be true. Very likely, many of them forgot all about it not long after. In what ways are we tempted to simply marvel at what God has done rather than believe it? What leads us to act this way? How do we avoid such a temptation? Why does Nicodemus marvel at the words of Christ in John 3, and how does Jesus deal with it?

Though the others did not believe, Mary treasured all these things in her heart. Long after the birth of Christ, she remembered the message she had heard and pondered what it meant for her and for the world. What is Christian meditation? How is it different from worldly ideas? What are its benefits? How does Mary serve as an example for us of this practice? How does Isaac meditating in the field in Genesis 24:63 or Psalm 1 also help us understand it? What are some practical suggestions for those who struggle with doing it?

Click here for the reading: Titus 3:4-7.

Paul urges Titus to teach those under his charge to walk in good works. After all, we were once fools and slaves to our passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice, envy, and hatred. Now, however, we belong to Christ. What reasons do people give for doing good works? Do those reasons lead to misunderstanding the Gospel? What reasons do they give for not doing good works or for deemphasizing them? What reasons does Psalm 119 give for walking in good works?

The goodness and kindness of God appeared while we were still in our former lives. Jesus Christ is God’s supreme example of philanthropy, which is the word used in the Greek text. Just as the natives showed kindness to Paul in Acts 28 by lighting a fire for him, the Lord showed us kindness by sending us His Son, welcoming us into the Church. Since we normally associate philanthropy with secular virtue, how does Jesus serve as the supreme example of virtues found in the world? How does the Father sending the Son teach us to walk in kindness toward others? Compare how Paul speaks of God’s kindness in Ephesians 2:1-10.

Salvation, as Paul notes here and elsewhere, is not a matter of our works, but a matter of what God has done for us. Paul emphasizes this point so often in the epistles that it’s easy to overlook it. As Paul noted above, we formerly walked in sin, not in righteousness. Why then does he speak of works and righteousness here? Who is he speaking against? Why does that matter? How do we fall into a similar trap when thinking about righteousness and salvation? After talking about the sins of the world, who is Paul addressing in Romans 2?

God’s mercy expresses itself in a concrete way. Through Jesus Christ, we have received the Holy Spirit. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit regenerates and transforms us, so that we are no longer what we once were. Thus, the Holy Spirit, possessed by few in the time of the Old Testament, becomes the common gift of all Christians through God’s rich mercy. Why should we emphasize the Holy Spirit in connection with Baptism? What is the relationship of each Trinitarian Person to Baptism? How does the gift of the Holy Spirit show God’s mercy toward us? How does the promise of the Spirit in John 14 illuminate this passage in Titus?

Having been washed and renewed through the Holy Spirit, we are justified before God and made heirs of eternal life. Our salvation thus looks forward to the promise of something far greater. God transforms us now to prepare us for what He will do in the age to come. In what ways do some people emphasize either the present or the future reality of salvation over the other? What are the dangers of this one-sided emphasis? How does the birth of Christ, celebrated today, emphasize both? Consider what Paul says about being heirs with Christ in Romans 8.

Click here for the reading: Micah 5:2-5.

Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, and the threat of a coming siege places this prophecy in the days of Hezekiah. In his fourteenth year, around the year 701 B.C., Sennacherib laid siege to the cities of Judah and even Jerusalem itself. This was indeed a slap on the cheek of the king, a deep insult as the example of Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:24 shows. He seemed powerless to stand before Assyria. What are some examples of this complete powerlessness in the lives of your hearers? How do they approach those situations? How do the Psalms deal with such a situation, such as Psalm 28?

Yet the Lord would provide help for His people in the face of certain defeat. From Bethlehem in the region of Ephrathah would come deliverance. How odd this seemed, since Bethlehem was tiny and insignificant! It was too small to be counted among Joshua’s conquests. It was too small to even be considered a good levy of troops. Yet from the middle of nowhere would come a king over all Israel, just like David. Does God send help from unexpected places in our lives? Why do we tend to look toward the “obvious” places even when looking for help from God? Consider Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 and how it talks about God’s help in trouble.

God promised to send a ruler, one whose coming forth was from old. This made him like David, since it had been a long time since David’s time and David himself came from Bethlehem. Even though Hezekiah was better than most, there had been no king like David. The Lord thus promised not only deliverance, but restoration. The formerly good days would return and be better than ever. Why does God exceed our expectations when giving us help? Why do we tend to set our expectations so low? Why does God say that David will rule over Israel in Ezekiel 34:11-24?

When Israel returned from her exile, this ruler would shepherd God’s people. They would find the security and peace they sought. Even though they feared that Sennacherib would take everything from them, this ruler like David would restore everything in abundance. How does Jesus fulfill these promises, especially the promises of a worldly peace? How does Jesus give us comfort even in very worldly concerns? How does Paul speak about worldly concerns in Romans 8?

By the time Jesus fulfilled this prophecy in Matthew 2, the Assyrian empire had crumbled into dust. No less than three other empires had risen and fallen within that time period. Yet this prophecy gave Israel hope in the days of Assyria, for God promised here that Sennacherib would fall. Little Bethlehem stood against mighty Assyria. How do God’s future promises comfort us in present troubles? Why should we not spiritualize or generalize these promises? What does Jesus mean in Matthew 13:17?