Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas 1 of Series A (Isaiah 63:7-14)

“In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: Where would we be without our memory? Can you imagine being unable to remember what has gone before in your life? We expect memories to fade throughout time- none of us has a perfect memory- but it would be a tragedy if we lost all of our memories. Medically we call such a condition amnesia, and it afflicts people for a variety of reasons. While medical amnesia is unfortunate, spiritual amnesia is even worse. When we have forgotten God’s past deeds, we can’t believe that He will help us here and now. Even more terrifying is amnesia on God’s part. If He forgets His past acts of salvation, then there is little reason to believe He will ever act to deliver us again. Isaiah knows this, he knows that we can trust God saving now because He has saved in the past, and so He calls on both us and God to remember. “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

God has acted to save His people in the past. In His great love, He established Israel as His treasured possession, the nation by which all other nations would be blessed. He said about them, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Because they are His children, they will not deal falsely with Him. They will follow the covenant that He established with them, worshipping the true God, serving Him with their words and their deeds. They will remember who they are, His treasured possession, His people, His children. Their obedience doesn’t make them His children; instead, because they were His children, He called them to obedience. So when they were in trouble, in bondage in Egypt, Isaiah tells us that “He became their Savior.”

God saw their slavery and their suffering under Pharaoh’s taskmasters, and in one of the more beautiful phrases in all of Scripture, Isaiah tells us that “In all their affliction He was afflicted.” God Himself was afflicted because His people were afflicted, and His compassion and love moved Him to do something about that affliction. He identified with their need and acted to fulfill it. “The Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity he redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” The Angel of His presence came among them and delivered them; He was God’s instrument of salvation, in Him the Lord fulfilled the title of Savior. The Angel of His presence led the people out of bondage, He carried them into the wilderness on the paths that led to the Promised Land. God saw their affliction, and He acted in salvation.

Just like a fairy tale, we would expect everyone to live ‘happily ever after.’ Having received such a great salvation, what more can the people do than obey this saving God and follow Him all their days? But even deliverance from Egyptian bondage does not rid them of their sin. Isaiah tells us that “they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.” God mourns over the sin and rebellion of His people, it is a tragedy that moves Him to tears. It is the same grief that He had in the days of Noah, when the wickedness of mankind was so great that He send a devastating flood. Christian friends, what about you and me? How have we grieved the Holy Spirit like God’s people of old? He has given us such a great gift of salvation, but yet we still dwell in our sins. We come here on Sundays to drink of the deep well of the Gospel, and then live the rest of our lives as if what we do here matters little at all. The Holy Spirit has created faith within us, but so often Christians and Israelites trample on that faith with our thoughts, words, and actions. We can’t look down on God’s people in the wilderness for they are us. They have been given a great deliverance, as we have, and both of us have grieved the Holy Spirit. What is the consequence of such sin and rebellion? Isaiah tells us: “Therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”

We don’t like to think of God as an enemy, but because of mankind’s sin and rebellion, that is what He is. Who else could a just and holy God be than the one who punishes sin? In the wilderness, God turned around from leading His people and fought against them. He disciplined them for their grumbling and rebellion, teaching them that He is a God of justice, a God who cannot tolerate sin. God loves His people, but because of their rebellion, He became the enemy of the ones He loved. He must punish sin, and for us, those who have sinned, those who are corrupted by sin to our very cores, this is a scary thought. Sin brings justice, sin brings judgment, sin brings punishment. Our sin condemns us to join the Israelites as those whom Isaiah describes: “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”
A God with amnesia is a scary thing. A God who does not remember past acts of deliverance has little reason to deliver in the future. Therefore, the words of Isaiah in verse eleven of our text are among the most comforting in all of Scripture: “Then He remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people.” In the original Hebrew text it is even more striking and sudden. “Then He remembered the days of old: Moses! My people!” He calls out the names of His beloved; He remembers. God remembers His past acts of salvation, He remembers His promises. But for God remembering isn’t some passive activity of the mind, instead it leads to activity, it causes Him to do something.

God was afflicted by our affliction. He saw our sin, our rebellion, and it grieved Him. And His response to our sin was remarkably similar to His response to the affliction of His people of old in Egypt. “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in his love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Once again He sent as our Savior the Angel of His presence. This individual is known throughout the Old Testament as the Angel of the Lord, the Son of Man, the anointed one. We know of Him through the proclamation of the angels one winter’s night in Judea: “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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’” This baby, dressed in rags and laying in straw, is the Angel of God’s presence, He is God truly present among us, Immanuel, God with us. And as He did in Egypt so long ago, the Angel of God’s presence has come to save.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus reenacts the Exodus. God sends the holy family to Egypt to flee the persecution of Herod, and then when the time is right, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus come out of Egypt and back into the Promised Land. Matthew quotes from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” The One who has come to bring the greater Exodus goes through His own exodus, proclaiming that He has come to lead us out of bondage. God remembered us, He remembered His love for us, He remembered His past acts of salvation, and He acted. Christmas is God’s answer to our sin, to our rebellion, as He sends once again the Angel of His presence among us, this time in our own human flesh. On the cross this Jesus will be afflicted by our affliction, as He paid the price for our sin and rebellion. The Father turned toward His Son as an enemy, because the Son bore all of our sin. The judgment rendered on the cross was that our sin has been paid for, death defeated, Satan crushed. The verdict is the same one that Isaiah declares in verse eight of our text: “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Because Christ, His Son, the Angel of His presence, God Himself in the flesh, died for you, you are now God’s children. That is why Jesus was born as a child in Bethlehem, so that we may become God’s children. St. Paul puts it so well: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” God made Israel His people, His children in bringing them salvation from bondage in Egypt. He makes you and me His people, His children, in bringing us salvation from the bondage of sin.

In His love and compassion, Jesus carries you and me out of that bondage, and He leads us to the Promised Land. This child, whom shepherds guard and angels sing, is the Good Shepherd, leading His people like a flock to the green pastures of eternity. “Then He remembered the days of old, of Moses and His people. Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused His glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for Himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name.” He leads His beloved flock from the bondage of sin to the rest of paradise, to the fertile fields of the Promised Land. That is their destination, that is their goal. He will lead them, He will carry them, He will shepherd them each and every step of the way. Like a horse galloping through the desert, they shall not stumble. You are that flock, the sheep of His pasture, and the Angel of God’s presence, the child born Immanuel will lead you to the destination that He promised to you. God has remembered you, and He has become for you a Savior, the Savior from sin and death. “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn king!’” Amen.

Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-14 (15-20))

“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.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Christmas Eve comes from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: A decree went out, affecting the entire world. Now, great swaths of our planet did not live and die under the Caesars, North America, South America, much of Africa, much of Asia, and Australia, but for those living around the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire was the world. Decisions made in the gilded halls of Rome could reach out and touch the lives of poor peasants in North Africa, Eastern Europe, or Palestine. That is how a carpenter from Nazareth and his betrothed ended up making the nearly one hundred mile journey from Galilee to Judea. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

No exceptions could be made for hardship cases. Caesar Augustus wanted the world registered, and so you had to go. No matter that you had to walk for several days. No matter that your wife was at the end of her pregnancy. Caesar said it, and you had to obey. As soon as they read the decree, Mary and Joseph had to know that their child would be born in Bethlehem, if they made it that far. That wouldn’t be too bad. The entire house of David was assembling there, so there would be plenty of help and support from Joseph’s extended family. But something went terribly wrong that first Christmas Eve. Luke tells us, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” With just a few words, Luke has given us a detail that has shaped our understanding of Christmas ever since. The first part of the verse goes as expected, but suddenly we encounter the word “manger” and the terrible phrase “there was no place for them in the inn.” ‘Manger’ makes us think of a stable, inspiring Christmas displays for centuries, but perhaps they didn’t even have that much shelter; it may have been just a feed trough under the open sky. ‘No room in the inn’ makes us complain about money-hungry business owners, unable to give a place for a poor woman to have her child.

This is the point where we today like to puff out our chests and say, ‘If I was in Bethlehem that night, I would’ve given them a place to stay!’ That is probably true, because you know exactly who this child is. But what if you didn’t? The word we traditionally have here as ‘inn,’ is probably more accurately ‘guest-room.’ That changes things a bit, doesn’t it? Now we aren’t talking about greedy innkeepers, but instead about all the citizens of Bethlehem. They refused to open up their homes to this young couple that they didn’t know, but instead decided that it was safer to not get involved. Still feeling confident that we would’ve done differently? We have people in need placed all around us, and how often do we simply look the other way, keeping the guest room for ourselves? How often do we decide that it’s better to stay away from those situations? Do we extend a helping hand to strangers in need? Would we have welcomed a pregnant teenager into our home, or simply directed them somewhere else, making them another person’s problem? In Matthew chapter twenty-five, Jesus tells a parable about the Last Day. “The King will say to those on His left… ’I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” Jesus teaches us that those in need around us are the masks of God in this world, and when we refuse to serve them, we are refusing to serve God Himself.

Jesus’ rejection at Bethlehem was only the symptom of a greater problem, our sin. Our sin is the reason why we fail to help our neighbors, our sin is the reason why Mary, Joseph, and Jesus found no room. Our sin forms a barrier between us and God; because of original sin we have no room for God, not in our homes, not in our hearts, not anywhere. We are born enemies of God, with only a shut door toward Him. But it was precisely for that reason that He came.

Jesus came because there was no room, He came because the doors were shut in Bethlehem, He came because the hearts of sinful men were closed against Him. Jesus came because we fail to help our neighbors in need, He came because we fail to show love to the masks of God in our lives. Jesus made Himself poor and rejected for our sake. He did not come dressed in royal garments, but instead in the rags of a poor virgin mother. He was not born in a palace, but He was born where cattle ate, rejected by all. He did this all because of your sin, because His only desire was to see that sin done away with. It was in love that He came into this world, such deep love for you and me that He was willing to lay aside all of the glory that was rightfully His and taken on our human flesh and blood. The Lord and Creator of the universe became man- for you! And not any man, but a man born in the poorest of circumstances, a man born in humility. Can you imagine what the shepherds thought? The angel appears to them and says, “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.” Wow, a child is born this very day, who is a Savior, but more than that, He is Christ and indeed the Lord, God Himself! After hearing such a pronouncement of who this child was, it must’ve puzzled them to hear about where they would find Him: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The Savior and Lord of the universe is in a feed trough? This was not the Messiah we expected, but it was the Messiah we needed.

For our Lord came in humility, He came not to march in triumph, but instead to walk the way of suffering. One day He would trade His manger for a cross. Instead of swaddling cloths He would be wrapped in burial cloths. One day He would exchange the stable for a tomb. That is how He would fulfill the names the angel gave Him on that first Christmas Eve. He is the Savior, the Savior from sin, and He would perform this great work by giving up His life for our sake. The rejection of the holy family in Bethlehem only pointed to a greater rejection. There was no room in Jerusalem for a Messiah, and so He was killed, crucified for the sin of the world. That is why He was born, to die for you and your sins, to bring you salvation. But He did not stay dead! The joy of Christmas is the joy of Easter, that Jesus was born so that man no more may die. The angels brought a message of joy to the shepherds that winter night, and some thirty years later they would bring a message of joy again to some women outside of an empty tomb. Christ was born to die, but He was also born to rise again. He was born to conquer death, to raise us up on the Last Day, forgiven and restored, to stand before the Father forever. He is God’s anointed one, the one appointed to bring salvation. He is the Lord of all the universe in human flesh, here to take on the sins of all men. That is why we have joy this Christmas season: God has provided a solution to our sin, He has removed the barrier between Himself and His beloved creation, He has acted to open closed hearts.

In our sin and rebellion we were unable to make room for Christ, but in His grace He comes to us, breaking down the barrier of sin through the forgiveness that He won for us, creating faith which grasps onto the Christ child. He opens our hearts to see those in need around us as an opportunity to show the love that He first showed to us to others. We don’t serve others in order to gain favor before God, but instead as an overflowing of the love that Christ poured out on us by becoming man and walking the way of the cross for you and me. He went there to fulfill the song the angels sang that first Christmas Eve. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Because of this child, there is peace on earth, peace between God and man, the peace that the world cannot give. This is the peace of heaven, the peace that will characterize our existence for all eternity. He is pleased with you because He died for you, and because of that you truly have peace on this beautiful night.

The peace that the angels sang of is for the whole world. Caesar Augustus thought that he had the world in the palm of his hand. He simply said the word, and a young family traveled from Nazareth to Judea. But some events are even bigger than the Roman Empire. The birth of this child was a worldwide event, indeed a universal event, an event that brought heaven itself near to this earth. He was born not just for those shepherds in the Judean hills, not just for the Jewish people, not even just for those who lived and died under the Caesars. He was born for all men, Jew and Gentile, Roman, Chinese, African, and all the rest. He was born for you and He was born for me. He was born to bring you salvation, to reconcile you with your God. He was born so that you need not fear death, He was born that you will dwell forever with your God in peace. Thanks be to God for the gift of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ! Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent 4 of Series A (Matthew 1:18-25)

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, we are definitely more familiar with Luke’s Christmas narrative than Matthew’s. From Luke, we hear of angels and shepherds, inns and stables. We find out exactly why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, with all the needed historical details. Luke’s Christmas narrative is a thing of beauty, with songs of praise and wondrous imagery around every corner. Matthew’s Christmas, on the other hand, seems a bit disappointing. The actual birth of Jesus, that event that Luke spends so much time describing, is almost an afterthought in verse twenty-five of our text: “But he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.” Matthew is recording the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection during a time when people are questioning every aspect of the Christ’s life, and he wants to set the record straight. He wants to faithfully demonstrate Jesus’ origins, proving that a miracle did happen, that Jesus was conceived of a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit. Songs, shepherds, and stables cannot provide much help here, but instead he needs to tell the story of a pregnant teenager, and the scandal that resulted.

Listen to how Matthew lays out the situation: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew carefully gives us the relevant details. Mary is betrothed to Joseph, which means that they were engaged. For a virgin, the period of engagement was to be one year, during which Mary would be considered Joseph’s wife, but they would not have marital relations. Matthew emphasizes this by telling us that “before they came together” she was found to be pregnant. Now we know that Mary is pregnant “from the Holy Spirit,” but no one else does, and I’m guessing that it would be hard for her to convince her parents or Joseph that she was carrying the Messiah. Can you imagine what Joseph felt? If she was pregnant and it was not his child, then it seemed to him that the only other option was a violation of the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Joseph probably felt betrayed, angry, disappointed, or perhaps just profoundly sad. But he does not act on those emotions; instead, what does he do? “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Even though Mary wasn’t guilty, there is good reason why she would’ve been exposed to shame: virginity is praiseworthy and sex outside of marriage is sinful! I think that we have lost sight of both of these facts today, even in the Church. We don’t praise virginity and chastity enough from the pulpit or in our private conversations, and because of this, we have lost the ability to proclaim God’s Law effectively. We forget or ignore the words of Paul, who declares that for those who have been given this gift, virginity is better than marriage! The apostle writes in 1 Corinthians chapter seven: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” God gives that gift so that people can dedicate their lives to serving Christ and His Church. Of course, not all people are given the gift of life-long virginity, but we should never look down upon those who are given that gift, instead encouraging them to use that gift in service of the Church. And while the majority of us are not given that gift, we can all still live chaste lives. Despite what the media bombards us with, despite what everyone else is doing, despite what our sinful natures want, God has given sex as a gift only within the bonds of marriage. That is what chastity is, living a life in obedience to the Sixth Commandment, whether we are married or not. And God does not only call us all as Christians to a life of chastity, but He commands us to encourage it amongst our children and our friends and neighbors. That is where we are failing as a church and as Christians. We do not praise chastity and virginity enough; we do not give the positive side of the Sixth Commandment as a model for living our lives before God.

But we have the whole shame thing down pat. Joseph had to work quietly and quickly to avoid bringing shame down on Mary, because he knew that once the word got out, Mary would immediately become the subject of gossip. Oh, yes, we’re good at that. We’re great at talking about violations of the Sixth Commandment amongst our friends or neighbors, we’re very good at making someone the ‘talk of the town.’ But where we fail as the Church and as Christians is in going to fellow sinners privately and proclaiming to them both God’s stern Law and His sweet Gospel. We are much more ready to tear down a person’s reputation than to look at leading them out of their sin and to the loving mercies of God’s forgiveness.

Joseph knew this; he had a firm grip on human nature, he understood how small towns like Nazareth, Kiron, and Deloit operated. So how does he plan to resolve this situation? Matthew tells us: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” It was well within his rights to expose Mary’s adultery, leaving her to the punishment of the crowds, a punishment that at the least included public disgrace, at the most death by stoning. He could’ve retained her dowry and even taken back from Mary’s father the bride price. And who would’ve blamed him? He had been sinned against in the worst way; she had betrayed his trust and the vows they made to one another. But instead of acting out of anger and betrayal, Joseph acts in grace. He wants to protect Mary, he wants to keep her from the shame that is sure to come when this ‘teen pregnancy’ is revealed. Matthew describes Joseph as ‘just,’ a word much better translated as ‘righteous.’ Joseph is a righteous man, and because of that he wants to reach out to Mary in mercy, protecting her from the penalty for her sin.
This is all unexpected and wonderful for Joseph to do, except for one thing: Mary hadn’t sinned! Joseph is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, but fortunately God is quick to correct him. “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Joseph’s original plan protected Mary at his expense, but now God’s angel was telling him to go a step further. Joseph was to take this pregnant young woman into his home before the betrothal was completed. Think about what this would signify to the people of Nazareth; in taking Mary into his home early, Joseph was proclaiming to the world that it was he who had committed adultery. He was the one who broke the Sixth Commandment, who had violated the rules of betrothal. He was taking Mary’s shame upon himself, making himself a sinner in the eyes of the world when he had done nothing wrong. He would take responsibility for her supposed sin, and bear himself the blame and the shame that would be sure to come. This involved much more personal sacrifice than his original plan, but the angel of the Lord told Him “do not fear,” and so he did not. “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.”

Joseph named Mary’s Son Jesus, the name given to him by the angel. The angel had also given to him the definition of that name: “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” But little did Joseph know that Jesus would fulfill His name by following in the footsteps of His earthly father. Jesus committed no sin; He was the perfect one, fulfilling every aspect of God’s holy Law completely. He is the righteous One, the beloved Son of the Father. He had no sin of His own to be ashamed of, but we did, we still do. We are ashamed of our disobedience to the Law, especially our violations of the Sixth Commandment in thought, word and deed. We are ashamed of our failure to praise chastity or work to bring sinners to repentance. Jesus had no such shame, but just as Joseph took Mary’s shame upon himself, so Jesus took our shame upon Himself. He, the righteous One, the One without sin, proclaimed to the world and His Father that He was the sinner, the sin-bearer. He presented Himself before God covered with our sin, with our shame, and He paid the required price.

Joseph could take the shame of Mary upon himself, but he could not do away with that shame. Jesus did what His earthly father could not; He bore our shame and He eliminated it. He did not bear our sin and shame to identify with us in some act of solidarity, but He bore our sin and shame to remove them forever. His shed blood and death, the righteous One in the place of sinners, rids us of all shame forever. Now our shame is replaced by the forgiveness of Christ, which cleanses us and restores us to our Father. Jesus’ righteousness is now ours, and by being joined to Him we do not need to stand trembling in shame anymore before God, but instead we stand boldly before His throne of grace, because our shame has been taken care of by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. That is how He will save us from our sins as the angel promised, by removing all shame from us so that we may live in the Father’s presence forever. Jesus removes shame by His forgiveness, the forgiveness that He freely pours out upon you whenever you fall into sin.

God knew what He was doing when he selected Jesus’ earthly parents. He directed all the events of His Son’s birth, just as He had been guiding history to that point. God orchestrated our salvation, demonstrating throughout Scripture that His only goal was the deliverance of you, me, and all people from sin and shame. God’s great love for you is shown on every page of His Word, and we celebrate His careful planning this Advent season. The same God who ordered all history for your salvation will preserve you all your days, cleansing you with Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness until you stand before Him clothed not with shame but with Christ’s own righteousness. In the name of our sin-bearer, our coming Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent 2 of Series A (Matthew 3:1-12)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, John the Baptist is the star of Advent. This is the season when we make the transition from the Old Testament to the New, and John encapsulates that shift perfectly. He has the look of the Old Testament, dressed in his camel hair while eating locusts and wild honey. When you think of a wilderness prophet in the Old Testament, whether it is Amos or especially Elijah, this is how you would imagine their appearance. But John also clearly has his bare feet in the New Testament as well. The Gospel according to Saint Mark begins with John in the wilderness, and that makes sense, for his work inaugurates the new thing that God is doing by sending His Son into our world. John’s work is that of preparation, making roads straight, clearing paths. He is a highway contractor for the way of the Lord, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” What are his tools, how does he prepare the way of the Lord? John makes straight pathways for God by preaching repentance, because REPENTANCE PREPARES US FOR CHRIST.

‘Repentance is the reason for the season’- I’m guessing you’ve never seen that on a Christmas card. The season of Advent is one of repentance, a season in which we acknowledge our great sin and our need for a Savior from that sin. The two great festivals of our Church Year are Christmas and Easter, and both of them are preceded by seasons of reflection and repentance, to prepare us to celebrate God’s mighty acts in Christ. For the world, on the other hand, the holiday season is a time of busyness, scurrying about making preparations and enjoying the parties that come throughout the season. The world does not want to reflect during Advent, it doesn’t want to repent, it wants to celebrate. And then, on December 26th, the parties are over and the world starts thinking about New Year’s Eve. But in the Church, Advent is the season of repentance and preparation, and when December 24th rolls around, the festival begins! We rejoice and revel in Christ’s birth for twelve days, up to the festival of Epiphany. John is the ideal Advent preacher, because he declares that the only way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is through repentance.
He calls on all Israel to repent, and they respond, confessing their sins and clinging to the mercies of a God who is preparing to break into their world with His great acts of salvation.

Now, John could play nice and assume that all those coming to him were truly repentant, but he’s just a little too combative and fiery to make that assumption. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance." John is the expert on repentance, and so he can spot false repentance from a mile away. These guys are only going through the motions, trying to look good for the people, but as John says, they are bearing no fruit. He makes a vital point here: repentance bears fruit. If you acknowledge your sin and beg for God’s forgiveness, then logically after receiving that forgiveness you would then try with the Lord’s help to avoid that sin in the future. You would attempt to reform your life. That is all that bearing fruit is- the life of faith that flows from forgiveness. Fruit is not a prerequisite for forgiveness, but instead it comes as a natural result and outgrowth of it.

Some bear no fruit because they think they need no repentance. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they had it made because of who they were, but John squashes that idea. "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham." Simply sitting in the pew or being from a Christian family may bring you close to where God gives His gifts, but such outward acts ultimately matter nothing before Him if you refuse to acknowledge that you have any sin that needs repenting of. Some bear no fruit because they don’t take their sin seriously enough to really change. Changing my life now is inconvenient, it’s expensive, it’s too much work. God will forgive me anyway, right? There is a great difference here between the person who struggles mightily with a sin each and every day, wanting to be rid of it, and the person who treats God like a forgiveness machine, not wanting to make the effort of bearing fruit. This is what pastors hear all the time: “Yeah, I know it’s wrong, and I really hate it, but I can’t change now.” If living together without marriage is a sin, move out! If filthy language and gossip are sins, then watch your tongue! If verbal or physical abuse are sins, then get some professional help! As John says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!”
False repentance arrogantly tells God that His forgiveness is cheap and easy, that it is something that really has no affect on my life. God does not deal lightly with those who despise His forgiveness and treat it as worthless. He is sending His Son into the world to win forgiveness for repentant sinners, but for those who reject this forgiveness, Jesus is also the righteous judge, as John declares.
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Trees made good through the forgiveness of Jesus are to bear good fruit, but those who arrogantly refuse to bear such fruit will be cast into the fire. That is the reality on the Last Day: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear his threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Repent of your rebellion against God, repent of your false repentance and clinging to your sins!

John’s work shatters the illusion of false repentance for you and me, he preaches hell to us so that we see our great sin and our need for a Savior from that sin. John is making paths straight for the reigning of God to break into this corrupted world. As I taught the bible classes this fall, the kingdom of the heavens is not primarily a place, it is an activity. It is God beginning to reestablish His rule over His fallen creation. John’s cry of ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ therefore means ‘God is beginning to act!’ That is what Jesus came to do, to deliver all creation, along with you and me, from the bondage of sin, and bring God’s righteous and just rule over all things once again. He will do this by allowing Himself to be cut down, the righteous judge falsely accused and condemned for sins He did not commit. He was the only human that ever did live or ever will live that had no need of repentance, but He in His great love for you and me made Himself the sinner, bearing all of our sin to the cross. That is why He came, to win forgiveness for our sins by His shed blood. John shows us that we need a Savior, and thanks be to God that we were not left out in the cold without one, but instead Jesus came walking in the way of the Lord, a road that led to the cross. There He paid the price for all of your sin, all of my sin, all of the sin of the world. He won forgiveness on that day, the only solution that could suffice for our sin. God took our sin seriously, seriously enough to abandon His only Son to His furious wrath on the cross. The redemption price was steep, but Jesus paid it in His great, sacrificial love for you and for me. Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness then makes trees good; it enables them to bear the fruit of repentance that John talks about. It even covers our sins of false repentance, delivering you and me from the wrath that John spoke of in our text.

If there was no hell, then we would not need deliverance from it, but John tells us of the reality of the judgment that Jesus will carry out. He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, but that is not His proper work, it is only made necessary because people reject His forgiveness. Instead, His proper work, the work He delights in, is gathering His wheat into the barn. You are that wheat because you have been forgiven by Christ Jesus, His blood paid for your sin. You are the wheat because the Lord has claimed you as His own through faith, applying His death and resurrection directly to you in the waters of Holy Baptism. He has made you a good tree, and good trees bear good fruit. It is not the other way around, you do not bear good fruit in order to become a good tree, but instead Jesus works within you to create faith, making you a good tree that now cannot but bear good fruit. The harvest may not always be bountiful, because we remain sinful, but Jesus is there to nurture us, to water us with the reminder of our baptism, to fertilize us with His forgiveness. He does not abandon His crop until it has been gathered into His barn on the Last Day.

For the Last Day is the culmination of all of Jesus’ work. Then He will bring to completion the victory won on the cross, by renewing all creation and removing the scourge of sin forever. That is also what makes John the great preacher of Advent. He makes the paths straight for Christ’s first coming by preaching a message of repentance, but He fast-forwards all the way to the Last Day, preaching repentance for all people, for you and me, as we approach Christ’s second coming. You see, for John the first and second comings of Jesus were almost indistinguishable, for the forgiveness and salvation won by Christ’s first coming will deliver us from the judgment of His second coming. What Jesus inaugurates by His birth in Bethlehem is brought to completion when He gathers all of His wheat, you and me, into His barn. His righteous and kingly rule will be extended over the new heavens and the new earth, and there we will dwell in peace, as Isaiah describes: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This Advent season, we look toward Christ’s first and second comings, as with them God brings us from the wilderness of sin to the paradise of the new heavens and the new earth by reestablishing His kingly rule over His beloved creation. The kingdom of heaven is at hand- thanks be to God! Amen.