Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent 3 of Series B (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

“John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands One whom you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this third Sunday in Advent comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the opening chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: in our world today, finger-pointing is generally discouraged. Right now, Samantha enjoys pointing at anything that catches her attention. Her finger is extended toward puppies, other children, or a toy that is just out of reach. She loves to point, and at her age, it is one of her primary methods of communication. But there will come a time when we will have to teach her that pointing isn’t always appropriate. People don’t like being pointed at, and in our society today, it is consider quite rude, especially when you point at a complete stranger. Pointing is even used to intimidate and bully. Now, as she grows up, Samantha may find herself in situations where pointing is actually required. If she becomes an NFL quarterback, she will need to point out a blitz, to prepare her linemen and receivers for a quick throw. If she serves on a sailing ship, then she may be placed high on the mast, and it could be her job to point to the horizon and declare, ‘Land, ho!’ And as a Christian, she will need to do a lot of pointing, following the example of John the Baptist.

John was a pointer; you can imagine his kindergarten teacher saying just about every day, “For the last time, John, it isn’t polite to point!” But John didn’t listen very well; he loved to point. Not at himself, no, never at himself. He always pointed away from himself. When the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask him “Who are you,” John didn’t answer with who he was, but instead with who he wasn’t. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” When it comes to talking about himself, John would much rather declare who he is not rather than who he is. He is not the Christ, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet, he is not the Light. John does nothing for his own exaltation or advancement. He is not in the desert baptizing because of his own status or to serve his own glory. In fact, all John does is lower himself; he declares that he is not even worthy to be the lowest servant of the One who is to come. “Among you stands one who you do not know, even He who comes after me, whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” His preaching, his teaching, his baptism has nothing to do with himself. He points away from himself to another.

It’s a little frustrating to interview someone who doesn’t want to talk about himself, and so the priests and Levites get a little impatient. “So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’” If they haven’t figured it out yet, John’s task isn’t to talk about himself, but about another. “He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.” John is the voice. A voice has no worth in itself, but instead its only task is to speak. John’s mission is to speak of another, the coming One, the Lord whose way must be prepared. The Evangelist puts it best. “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but came to bear witness about the Light.” John has come as the first witness in the great court case that is beginning in our text. Jesus, this carpenter’s son from a no-name town, born under suspicious circumstances, is on trial. Throughout His life, Jesus will testify to His identity, that He is God come in the flesh to save. John is His first witness. He has come baptizing to declare that God has begun the work of salvation, and Jesus is the one who will accomplish it. He points only to Jesus.

Who do you point to? Do you point to Jesus, or to yourself? Christians are called upon to be finger-pointers, to draw attention to Jesus, but most often we draw attention to ourselves. Selfishness is rampart in our society, in fact it’s embedded into our mindset as Americans, and you and I are no different. If someone wrote a newspaper article about you, would Jesus even get mentioned? Our fingers are most often squarely pointed at ourselves, not at Christ. We do this by our sin; every time that we sin against our neighbor, we are taking the focus away from Christ and putting the spotlight on ourselves. We do this by our inaction; we are often too busy focusing on ourselves to confess Christ before the world. We do this by pointing to our own accomplishments, all that we have achieved, with no reference to the God who created and redeemed us; in selfish pride we exalt ourselves. John never exalted himself; instead, he spent most of his time lowering himself so that Christ would increase. Are you willing to decrease so that Christ may increase? John was willing to be nothing, to make himself lower than a servant, in order that Jesus may be exalted. This is risky, this is uncomfortable; those who lower themselves so that Christ will have all the glory pay a price, as John found out. Your pride will have to be sacrificed; all of your thoughts and deeds will have to serve Christ, not the other way around. Like John, you must decrease so that Christ may increase.

But that is not the end of the story. John spent all of his time lowering himself, bowing low in humility before the coming One. Jesus did exactly the opposite; He spent all of His time exalting John. In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Christ declares, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus exalts John to the first place among the apostles and prophets, all those who pointed to the coming Messiah. John isn’t optional to the story of Jesus, he is essential, because he revealed Jesus to Israel as the coming One, the One who would fulfill all of the promises God had given through the prophets of old. When John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized, our Lord declared, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John was essential to the plan of salvation, he was needed to fulfill all righteousness, for John baptized Jesus into the baptism of sinners, revealing Him as the sin-bearer, the beloved Son of the Father who would take the sin of the world away. Jesus exalts John not because John was so accomplished, or so talented, or had so much wealth. Jesus exalts John because of his humble witness. Jesus exalts John because John didn’t exalt himself.

That is the great irony of the Gospel. We don’t have to waste our time exalting ourselves; that’s Jesus’ job! And it’s a task that He loves to do. Jesus exalts the humble. That is what He has come to do. The Law humbles you, showing you where you have rebelled against your loving Creator. Today, the Law has shone a light on your life and pointed out your selfishness, your exaltation of yourself instead of Jesus. You have been brought low by the Law, but take heart. Christ exalts the humble, those who have nothing to give Him but their sin. He came to raise up sinners, to surrender everything for them. He began this task when John baptized Him with the waters of repentance. Jesus stood in the Jordan and submitted to the baptism of John as the sinless One in the place of sinners. Jesus came to humble Himself, to give up everything, even His own life, for the sake of sinners. But in His humiliation He was exalted. He was lifted up, exalted upon the bloody throne of the cross. Good Friday was the enthronement of our King. He wore not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. He did not establish His kingdom on terror or power, but on humility and service. John didn’t consider himself worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal; Jesus made Himself lower than any man in history upon the cross. There He showed His love for lowly sinners, for you and me. Jesus suffered all, even hell itself, for those whom He loved. Jesus humbled Himself so that you would be exalted.

God accepted His sacrifice on your behalf, raising Him from the dead and then placing Jesus at His right hand. Think about it: the same flesh and blood that you and I bear is now enthroned at the right hand of the living God. This is a pledge, a guarantee, that you will one day be enthroned there as well. He lifts up sinners, exalting them to the throne of God. Because Jesus died, your sin is forgiven. Because Jesus lives, you too will live. Because Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of His Father, so you will be too. No one in this world can exalt you beyond what Jesus has done. There is no need for you to exalt yourself, no need to seek honor and glory from others, for Christ Himself has raised you to the place of eternal glory. Your exaltation is found solely and only in Christ, the one who died for you, rose again for you, and is enthroned in glory for you.

Jesus, like John, is a pointer. He points to you and me and says, “These are my beloved people.” When the Law brings you low, rightfully pointing out your sinful pride so that you tremble before God’s wrath, Jesus points to you this morning and said, “You are forgiven; I will exalt you only because of my shed blood on your behalf.” He points to you when the fear of death confronts you, declaring, “You will live forever because I live. Death has no power over you.” When you suffer disease and infirmity, Jesus points to you and says, “You will one day have a body that will never fail again.” Whenever Satan accuses you, Jesus points to you and says to the evil one, “This is my child, claimed by the waters of Holy Baptism, fed by my Body and Blood. I will not abandon my child.” The Gospel is all about finger-pointing. We point to Jesus and He points to us, declaring who we are and what has been given to us by His shed blood. It may still be rude to finger-point in elementary school, but in the Church it is the way of the Gospel. The Church continues to point sinners to Jesus, as it has since the days of John the Baptist; Christ isn’t generic with His gifts, but He applies them directly to each and every one of you, this day and every day. In the Name of the Light, the One greater than John who humbled Himself for the salvation of all people, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 2 of Series B (Isaiah 40:1-11)

“Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: voices, voices everywhere! Voices telling you to do this, don’t do that; voices telling you how to think, how to vote, how to shop. The media explosion we have experienced in the past decades has meant that you now hear literally thousands of voices. This time of year, they are telling you which products are trendy and popular, what will look good underneath your tree. Though each voice is different, they all have the same message: buying stuff is what Christmas is all about! As the election season continues to heat up, those voices are promoting candidates, they are debating issues, trying to convince the unconvinced, they are trying to convince you. These voices use any means necessary to speak, and they cry out too loudly to be ignored. It’s nearly impossible to tune out all of these voices, and it’s difficult to avoid being influenced by them or buying into their sweet-sounding message.

Through all of the noise, through the clutter, through the multitude of voices clamoring for your attention, we hear another voice in our text for today: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” I would guess that the vast majority of voices that you hear in this world are saying nothing about comfort. They say much about power and victory and happiness, but precious little about comfort. That is what makes God’s voice different from all the rest; He declares that He will comfort His people, He will bring them the consolation that they need, that they cannot receive from any other voice in this world. This consolation, this comfort, can only come from the promise of deliverance.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This voice declares comfort, for salvation is coming to us. Our rebellion had plunged us into never-ending war with God Himself, a conflict that we could never win. Sin leads to death, and death could only lead to eternal punishment. But then God speaks comfort. He will deliver His people. Our warfare will end, because our iniquity will be pardoned. The Hebrew word for ‘pardon’ means to receive a sacrifice favorably. Our warfare will end because God will receive favorably the sacrifice for our iniquity. In fact, God Himself will provide that sacrifice, for no offering of bulls or goats could ever fully atone for our sin. Our warfare is about to end, because God will act for our salvation; our iniquity will be pardoned, we will receive a multitude of blessings in place of our sin. Comfort, comfort my people!

Our God is the God who comes. “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The Lord is coming to accomplish this salvation, to end our warfare, to pardon our iniquity, to give to us double in the place of our sins. He is coming to accomplish a new exodus; to bring His people out from the bondage of sin as He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty, outstretched arm. He is coming, and so the way must be prepared. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice is crying in the wilderness: the glory of the Lord is coming for your salvation- make ready the way of the Lord!

John the Baptist is that voice. He came into the desert to prepare the way for Jesus, for in Him the glory of the Lord is revealed, clothed in our human flesh. John came to level the hills, to raise up the valleys, to clear away the obstacles for the coming Christ. He did this by preaching repentance. Repentance is the only way to be prepared for the coming of God in the flesh, repentance is the only way to clear away the obstacles, to make the paths straight for Christ to come and accomplish salvation. John calls upon you to examine yourself, to look deeply at your life, to see the sin that hides in every nook and cranny. Such an examination will bring only one conclusion: you are fully and completely corrupted by sin. As Isaiah wrote last week, even your righteous deeds are filthy rags. If you don’t find any sin, then you are deceiving yourself, but moreover, you are calling God a liar, for He has declared that all humanity is sinful. Now you have two choices: you can ignore that sin which dwells within you, taking your chances with a holy God, or you can repent, crying out to God for deliverance, for pardon, for forgiveness.

And John stands in the river Jordan, pointing his finger toward the only One who can do something about your sin, indeed the One who has come to end your warfare, pardon your iniquity, and give you eternal comfort, Jesus Christ: “After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus has come as the glory of the Lord revealed on this earth; He has come to end our warfare by offering Himself as the sacrifice for our iniquity. God receives favorably the sacrifice of His Son, the perfect and sinless one in the place of sinners, giving us an abundance of forgiveness in the place of our sins, and comfort: comfort in this life in the midst of our afflictions, and comfort for eternity in the new heavens and the new earth.

It is that message that we hear from the voice of John, and it is the message that the Church is now given to proclaim. “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” John prepared to Christ’s first coming by calling the people to repentance; the Church now has the task to prepare for Christ’s second coming. You and I are now called upon to cry out. Martin Luther was fond of calling the church a ‘mouth-house.’ He meant that the Church is the place where proclamation happens, where people speak the things God has given them to speak. This first of all happens through the public preaching of God’s Word from this pulpit, the declaration of forgiveness from this chancel, the Words of Institution and the Baptismal formula from this altar and from this font. But that is not the only place we are called on to speak, and pastors are not the only ones who should be speaking. Every Christian is called upon to speak; the Church is a ‘mouth-house’ because the Word is spoken here to you and then you go into the world to speak it to those around you. “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not!”

The voice says, ‘Cry!’ and we ask with Isaiah, ‘What shall we cry?’ “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” We call on this world to repent. We speak boldly of sin, calling on our friends, our family, our neighbors to turn from the ways of the world. We declare the fleeting nature of humanity, that all of our stuff, all of our material possessions, even our own lives, will fade away and be no more. We proclaim the reality of death, that enemy that no one can defeat; we call on all people to look beyond their lives in this world to the things of eternity.

And then we even more boldly proclaim the One who came to defeat both sin and death. “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Like John, we point to Jesus and we say, “Behold your God!” We point to Jesus as He comes among us in His Word and Sacraments, forgiving sin and defeating death. We point to Jesus as the coming Lord, the One who will return to bring us an eternity without sin, who will come to bring comfort forever. We speak tenderly to those around us, crying to them that their warfare is now over, because their iniquity has been pardoned by the suffering and death of the sinless Son of God. The same glorious message that has been proclaimed to us, that we still need to hear each and every day, we proclaim to those around us. We point to the altar, to the pulpit, to the font, to the Holy Scriptures, and we declare, “Behold your God!”

Our voice may not seem like much in the midst of the thousands of other voices crying out in our world today. It seems like such an overwhelming task to compete with those powerful, enticing voices. Each voice promises something; each has something to offer, some powerful incentive to lure people in. They have all the advantages, and it seems like everyone is listening. But lift up your voice, fear not, because you are called on to speak the Word of the living God. There are voices, voices everywhere, but only the voice of the Lord saves! “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Jesus is coming, and His reward is with Him. That reward is you and me, His flock that He won through His shed blood. He will tend you as a loving shepherd, He will gather you up in His arms. He will give you comfort, for your iniquity is pardoned, your transgressions are covered, and you will receive the abundance of heaven in place of your sins. Comfort, comfort my people, for Jesus Christ is coming, and He comes to save you! In His Name, Amen.

Advent 1 of Series B (Isaiah 64:1-9)

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil- to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Come down, O Lord! Come and save us, come and deliver us from our enemies! Come with your mighty power, the same majesty and glory that you have had from eternity reveal on this earth! Come down and visit us in salvation, as you did for your people of old. You conquered the Egyptians, you fought for your people, so that all Israel and all Egypt- from Pharaoh on the throne to the servant girl in his house- would know that you truly are the God of the universe. Isaiah wrote about you: “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.” Come in the midst of our affliction, save us in your love and pity! Carry us as you carried them, and bring us out from the bondage of our enemies. We suffer in this world, we are persecuted by those who hate us and you, we are the victims of so much evil. Come down and strike terror into the hearts of our enemies! May they quake at your presence, may the very earth itself be moved! Come in your majesty, your power, your glory, crushing sinners with your righteous judgment!

But wait just a minute, Lord. Now that we think about it, maybe it’s better if you don’t come. We want you to make our enemies tremble, to shake the very creation, but the truth is we are the ones trembling. If you come down in power and glory for the destruction of sinners, we too will be destroyed. For we are all completely and totally sinful. We can complain about all those people outside these walls while pretending that we are righteous, but it’s a lie. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We are all unclean, covered with the filth of sin; we inherited this corruption from our parents, and we wallow in the filth each and every day. Lord, we are destined for death, we are destined to be carried away like a leaf, and leaves get burned. We are trembling at your Law, for it condemns us, it doesn’t give us any place to hide. Even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment; every deed we do, good or not, is tainted with sin. If I serve my neighbor, I’m looking for recognition, I want something out of it. My service in the church is to make people respect me, when I volunteer I want my picture in the paper. Or I resent having to help others; I serve, but only grudgingly. I can’t even pray without comparing myself to others, trying to appear more ‘spiritual’ than my neighbor. My good works truly are filthy rags!

“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” The worst thing, Lord, is that I sin knowing your wrath over sin. You are angry with my sins, and yet I continue to commit them! It isn’t that your Word isn’t clear, it isn’t that pastors don’t preach your expectations clearly enough, it is just that I can’t stop sinning, and I sin in such arrogance, such boldness that it is disgusting! I sin knowing full well the penalty for sin; sometimes I even plan my sin, ignoring my conscience, which is always trying to point me back to your Word. I treat your graciousness as a license for sin; I sin while thinking, ‘I’ll just ask for forgiveness later.’ And I am hardly alone. “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” No one calls on your name, Lord; we are all completely and totally sinners, through and through. None of us are clean or righteous, no, not one, and so you have hidden your face from us, you have left us to endure the consequences for our sins, in this life and in eternity.

Turn your face to us once again; be not hidden from us! Rend the heavens and come down, not to bring us glory, but to deliver us from the bondage of sin. We have taskmasters of our own making, and we cannot deliver ourselves. We need you, we need your salvation! We tremble at your law, we melt in our iniquities, and there is nothing that we can do about it. Even our righteous deeds are as filthy rags. “But now O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.” We are not blaming you for our sin, O Lord; we are in this mess by our fault, by our own fault, by our own most grievous fault. But we are your creation, and like the clay pot, we need to be remade. You gave us life, you formed us from the dust of the ground; come, O Lord, and help your creation. Bring us the salvation that we so desperately need; intercede on behalf of your creatures! “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

You have come; we waited for you and you came. But you did not come in a way that we expected. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” We didn’t expect you to come in this way, but Lord, your ways are not our ways. Thanks be to God! You came to us in human flesh, bearing the same body that we have. You passed through every stage of life that we did, from conception to birth. You rent the heavens and came down, not in power, glory, or majesty, but in humility. You rent the heavens and came down, to be carried in the womb of a virgin, to be born in a stable and laid in manger. You came in humility, you came as our servant, you came to bring us salvation. You have shown to us incredible love and grace, beyond anything we could ever have imagined, and we deserve none of it. What other God would even come to us, taking on our flesh to deliver it, not to mention coming as a humble baby, as our servant? “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who waited for you.” We waited for your coming since the day we fell into sin, and now you have rent the heavens and come down. You have shaken the earth, from the terrified shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem to Herod in His palace- nothing will ever be the same.

You have come; we waited for you and you came. You rent the heavens and came down, entering into Jerusalem as a triumphant king. All of Jerusalem was shaken as you entered her ancient gates. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.” You entered that city in victory, acclaimed by all the people. For you were the long awaited King, many even believed you were the Messiah. You came to save us, you came in answer to our prayers, our earnest pleas for deliverance from the bondage of sin. But you did not come in a way that we expected. We did not expect that you would rend the heavens and come down only to hang dead upon a cross. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” The very creation itself quaked at your death, for it realized the significance of what occurred that dark Friday. The sinless Son of God died in the place of His sinful people, those whom He so dearly loved. Only by giving up yourself into death on our behalf could you save us, and so you willingly went there to suffer death and hell with the weight of the world’s sin on your shoulders. There you won salvation, there you answered our cries. We prayed that you would rend the heavens and come down and you answered, not with power or glory, but with humility and service, all for us and for our salvation. Then the earth would tremble again three days later, for you would rise triumphant over sin and death. You have conquered our enemies, you have defeated our foes, you have delivered us from bondage!

You have come; we waited for you and you came. But you did not come in a way that we would expect. You rent the heavens and came down, hidden under water, words, simple bread and wine. You won salvation by dying in our place on Calvary’s cross; you sealed that victory by walking from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But we, your people, do not have to go to Jerusalem to find forgiveness. You who ascended into heaven still come to us bearing those gifts. You have come to us this very day. You rent the heavens and came down to Thain, making him your own child, giving to him all that you won with your shed blood. You will rend the heavens and come down to us with your Body and Blood in just a few moments, bringing the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. You come to us in your Word, bearing forgiveness, teaching us and strengthening our faith. You come to us in ways that seem foolish to our world, ways that seem powerless and insignificant. Who could imagine a God who would save with a baby born in a barn, a man hanging dead on a cross, some water in a bowl, a book, a wafer, or a small glass of wine? “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no one has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for Him.”

Come Lord Jesus, come back to us! “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” We wait eagerly for your return, for when you return, our eternal inheritance will be fully revealed. You will rend the heavens and come down, this time in power and majesty and glory. All creation will be shaken as it never has been before, for it will be remade, cleansed and purified from all sin, evil, and corruption. Come Lord Jesus, come back and accomplish all that you promised! Help us to wait in patience, to see you as you come in Word and in Sacrament, but always to eagerly cry out for your return. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.