“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 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 evening comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, St. John’s and Faith are active, busy congregations. We gather together for meals, we have wonderful times of fellowship. We teach Sunday school, bible class, and confirmation. We gather for meetings: Ladies’ Aid, council, voters’, and elders’. We come together to serve the needy, collecting food, sewing quilts, giving from our bounty for the good of others. In the same way, your pastor is busy and active. He teaches, he counsels, he seeks to help the needy in body and in soul. He travels to the hospital, to the nursing home, to the mortuary. He keeps the books, he answers e-mails, he makes phone calls. He goes to meetings, for the work of the congregation and for the work of the church at large. These are all good things for a pastor and for congregations to be doing; in fact, the Christian Church is commanded to do many of them, as a blessing to members and non-members alike.
There is only one problem. If we think that meetings, fellowship, counseling, and classes are what the Christian congregation is all about, we have missed something vitally important. When Jesus came to this earth as a man, incarnate in the virgin’s womb, born in Bethlehem’s stable, He didn’t come to save us from a lack of pot-lucks. Man’s greatest problem wasn’t a shortage of meetings. Humanity didn’t cry out for salvation from the absence of bible class or confirmation. Those are all fine and good, even necessary, but they are not the reason Jesus came. Zechariah, the father of the forerunner, John the Baptist, knew that when his son was born the time of salvation had come, and he knew exactly what God was saving humanity from. He sang that his son came “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sins.” Zechariah knew that our greatest problem, indeed our fundamental problem, is sin, sin which separates you from God, leading to death and hell. There is nothing more important than being reconciled with God through the removal of your sins, for those who remain separated from Him will stay that way—forever.
And that is what Jesus came to win. He came to forgive sins, He came to defeat death, He came to shut the doors of hell forever. That is what Advent is all about, that is why we celebrate Christmas. We look to the manger because that little baby boy would one day exchange the wood of that manger for the wood of the cross. His coming is to win forgiveness, to bring that healing balm which brings reconciliation between man and God. This is His primary task, as He says through Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” This task led Him from the manger to the cross, there to shed His blood as the payment for your sin and my sin.
Now that Jesus has won forgiveness through the cross and empty tomb, He sends forth His Church to give it to sinners. The Church, both congregation and pastor, exist for one fundamental reason: to bring the forgiveness of sins to sinful people, to reconcile them to their God. Christ’s Church is here to bring the reality of Christmas, the reality of Good Friday, the reality of Easter to those desperately in need of salvation. The Church is to proclaim the message that Isaiah gave to her: “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.” Forgiveness is Christ’s gift to you and me, a gift given through His bride, the Church. The Church lives on that forgiveness, and she lives to give that forgiveness to all of her children; it is her food, her beating heart.
The congregation that understands this, that finds its center and focus in the forgiveness of sins will still have meetings, gather in fellowship, care for the needy, and teach the faithful. But we will do so with rightly ordered priorities and a biblical sense of perspective. Sunday morning will be the vibrant center of our life, as the community of faith gathers together to receive what the Lord delights to give. Our acts of love for the poor and needy will flow from the grace that we are privileged to give and receive. Meetings will seek to find ways to support and expand the proclamation of forgiveness in our midst and in our community, removing any barriers to the free flow of forgiveness from Christ to us and from us to the world. Bible classes will seek to unpack the great gifts Christ gives every Sunday morning. Our fellowship will be that of a people who have heard the absolution together, who have knelt as one at the communion rail to receive Christ’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. When we have conflict, we will confront it with the tools Christ has given: repentance and forgiveness.
The pastor who understand his primary task as giving forgiveness will still counsel, he will still visit the sick, he will still assist in administration and teach all ages. But he will do so knowing that the most important tool he has been given in these tasks is the forgiveness of sins. He will seek opportunities to bring the healing balm of the Gospel into the lives of all those who he comes into contact with, knowing that each and every person, young and old, sick and healthy, is in need of what Christ’s blood won. In all the various interactions he has from day to day, he will look to forgive the guilty and the hurting, but he will also set aside time to hear confessions and proclaim forgiveness. And he will confess his own sins to a fellow pastor, receiving Christ’s rich grace himself. All of this will change his relationship to his flock; he is no longer just a leader or counselor, he is a pastor, one who hears of the deepest hurts of his people and brings Christ’s greatest gift into their lives. His task is forgiveness, to reconcile men with God.
The Christian whose life is rooted in Christ’s forgiveness will live each and every day in his or her baptism. You will return to that font constantly, repenting of your sin and receiving the forgiveness that Christ offers there. You will not hold onto your sins, but will seek to bring that burden before Christ and give it to Him, publically on Sunday morning, or privately before you pastor. You will see your pastor as Christ’s ‘forgiveness man,’ sent to you to hear your sins confessed and to proclaim the blessed absolution. You will confess when sin is weighing heavy on your heart, but you will also confess regularly, earnestly desiring the words of forgiveness. You will hunger and thirst for the Lord’s Supper, for the feast of forgiveness that is food for the journey. And you will take that forgiveness into your life; you will seek to forgive those who sin against you, to extend the reconciliation with God that Christ won into your other relationships.
Only forgiveness could form such an important part of our lives together as a congregation and individually as pastor and people. Only forgiveness can be the center and focus, because only forgiveness can reconcile man with God, only forgiveness can deliver us from death and hell. Forgiveness is God’s Christmas gift to us; the coming of forgiveness is what God’s faithful people waited for in the long centuries before Christ’s birth. In Advent, we celebrate the coming of forgiveness into the world, we sing and rejoice that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die for the sin of the world. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” In those clothes, the clothes of forgiveness, we will stand before God forever, unashamed, in His glory. In the Name of Jesus, who came to set us free from all our sin, Amen.