Monday, December 12, 2011

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.

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