- Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, your branches green delight us.” The Western world has been delighted with Christmas trees for centuries. Some have said that Martin Luther is the first person to have cut down an evergreen, bring it into the house, and decorate it. Maybe he did. Who knows for sure? Whatever their origin, Christmas trees give us joy. Actually, the idea of incorporating a tree into the celebration of important events in the story of salvation is much older than Martin Luther. 500 years before Luther, Christians in Europe were celebrating Christmas with a Jesse tree.
- What’s a Jesse tree, you might wonder? A Jesse tree is a work of art portraying the ancestry of Jesus going back to Jesse, the father of David. It can be of stained glass or carved stone or wood or painted in a manuscript. Often, Jesse is depicted as sleeping peacefully on the ground with a vine or tree growing out of his side. The tree twists and turns and reaches upward. Sprouting like leaves along the trunk are pictures of the ancestors of Jesus. We find these ancestors in the genealogies of the Bible. At the top of the tree is a likeness of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, the Son of God. Or sometimes, baby Jesus is nestled in the cup of a white flower. It’s this artistic picture that gives rise to the beloved Christmas song “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
- But our focus in this Advent midweek series is not that song, but another—“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” And tonight, it’s the fourth stanza, but in TLH it’s stanza two, “O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree, Free them from Satan’s tyranny That trust Thy mighty pow’r to save, And give them vict’ry o’er the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!” (LSB 357:4) Now, if we were medieval monks, we’d be singing this stanza Dec 19 during the week before Christmas. But we’re not medieval monks. We’re Lutherans, so we sing it when we please, as we’ve done this evening. Regardless of when it’s sung, what’s the point of the stanza? As is the rest of the song, it’s a prayer. We’re Praying for the Stump of Jesse’s Tree to Sprout a Descendant Who Will Come as an Ensign and Save Us!
- Using Old Testament imagery, we’re praying that this descendant will stand as an ensign around which all God’s people rally. An ensign is a banner or a flag. It gives courage to those who identify with it. It terrifies every enemy who doesn’t. Do you remember that photograph from World War II of Marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima? It’s maybe the most reprinted photograph of all time. It’s just a picture, but it inspired Americans to press on with the fight and win the war.
- That’s like the descendant of Jesse, who sprouts from his lifeless stump of a tree when there was no ensign around which to rally. For Isaiah’s audience, the war seemed lost. He’s speaking about a time when the kingdom of David would no longer exist. Assyria would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel; 136 years later, the Babylonians would subdue the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Zedekiah would be the last descendant of David to reign as king. He would see his sons killed before his very eyes. Then he would be blinded and taken into captivity. Jerusalem and the temple would be demolished. At that point, figuratively speaking, the flag would be captured and the sword surrendered. Jesse would be no more than a dead stump. It would be all over for the Kingdom of God.
- Or would it be? Not according to Isaiah. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). And that shoot from Jesse’s stump “shall stand as a signal for the peoples” (11:10). The peoples aren’t just Jews, but all who rally to the banner, the great tree that sprouts from Jesse’s stump. Gathered to the shoot of Jesse, they find protection from their enemies. There, Jew and Gentile become one people of God.
- That shoot from Jesse’s stump is, of course, Jesus, born to the Virgin Mary, the espoused wife of Joseph, who was of the house and lineage of David, David’s lineage being the Jesse tree. All who rally to the standard of Jesus are saved from mankind’s enemies: sin, death, and the devil. And I do mean all. The inclusion of all people is another miracle Isaiah reveals 800 years before Christ. Jew and Gentile together are saved by faith in Jesse’s descendant named Jesus. Through faith in Jesus, all people become the one true Israel of God, the Church. In the New Testament, Paul glories that this impossibility has come true. For centuries, there was a wall between Jew and Gentile. But in Christ, all things in heaven and on earth come together under one head (Eph 1:10). That means Jews and Gentiles become one people under the lordship of Jesus. Or to say it in Paul’s own words, “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (Eph 3:6).
- All who by faith rally around Jesus, the ensign, the banner, which is this descendant of Jesse’s tree stump, will be saved. Lutherans love the plain words of Scripture. For we know that God isn’t vague with His words; He tells us exactly how He wants us to hear. So when Jesus says of the Lord’s Supper, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” we believe that’s what it is. The bread we eat and the cup we drink of are the body and blood of Christ (Mt 26:26–28). When Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” we take his word for it (Mk 16:16). Believing, baptized people are saved.
- So looking at Is 11, we see a shoot sprouting up from Jesse’s stump that conquers our enemies and brings peace between God and man and harmony to the whole of creation. We see this shoot becoming a powerful standard to which people from every nation are drawn. What has Jesus done that conquers our enemies, brings peace, and draws together mankind into one people? He’s died on the cross! The cross of Jesus is the literal banner to which people from every nation rally. “The royal banners forward go; the cross shows forth redemption’s flow” (LSB 455:1).
- And Jesus himself even says so. Twice he says so. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14–15). Jesus is recalling in the Old Testament when the complaining and sinful Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, are attacked by snakes. Moses is commanded to make a bronze serpent, nail it to a pole, and hold it up high. All who look to the snake on the pole are saved. In the same way, the Bible says God “made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In other words, Jesus was made sin, nailed to a cross, and lifted up. All who look to him in faith are saved from the serpent [the devil] and death.
- The other time Jesus refers to himself being lifted up occurs after he’s been visited by Greeks who’ve come to see him. Says Jesus, “ ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (Jn 12:33). So when Isaiah speaks of the stump of Jesse sprouting as a signal that all men come to, he’s not just referring to the birth of Jesus as the end product of a long family tree; he’s also foreseeing his death on the cross, the other tree.
- But what makes the cross powerful? How do we know it saves sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, who trust Christ who died there? That brings us to this phrase in Is 11:10: “his resting place shall be glorious.” What might that mean? One possibility is that it refers to the peace of heart, mind, and soul of one who trusts in the cross of Jesus. To know the forgiveness of sins and freedom from bondage to the devil and have the assurance of eternal life in Christ is truly a resting place. I like that. Another possibility is it’s the new heavens and new earth spoken of by the prophet Isaiah and by John in his Revelation. I like that interpretation very much too. But, there’s another way of looking at the glorious resting place of Christ. And this interpretation flows from the understanding of his banner, being the cross. On the cross, Jesus died for the sins of the world. There, our sins were atoned for. There, God is reconciled to sinners. At the cross, God welcomes and calls us home with open arms.
- How can we be sure the cross welcomes us home to God? Because the resting place, the tomb of Jesus, is empty! The body of the crucified Jesus was laid in the tomb. The tomb was sealed and guarded. But on the third day, Easter Sunday, when the friends of Jesus came back to the tomb to finish burying our Lord, it was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead! His resurrection shows all the world that sin, death, and the devil are conquered. His resting place, his tomb, once a place of sorrow, hopelessness, and despair, is now a glorious place of victory.Once again, there’s a difference in the Latin version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and Rev. John Mason Neale’s translation. In fact, the Latin and the English don’t sound much alike at all. The Latin sticks more closely to the words of Isaiah: “O Root of Jesse, Standing as an ensign before the peoples, Before whom all kings are mute, To whom the nations will do homage, Come quickly to deliver us.” But there’s no mention of that glorious resting place and what it might be. On the other hand, Rev. Neale’s version assumes the empty tomb. Listen carefully: “O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree, Free them from Satan’s tyranny That trust Thy mighty power to save, And give them vict’ry o’er the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!” (LSB 357:4) Victory over the grave. How? It must be through the cross and the tomb of Jesus, his resting place, made glorious because it’s empty!
- Let us Pray: Root of Jesse, Lord Jesus, come quickly, we pray. Gather us all to the royal banner of your cross, that we might be delivered from all our sins and enemies and rejoice in your glorious resting place. In your name we pray. Amen.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
- Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “You always lose something in the translation.” That’s what people say. Once at a Lutheran Church in Texas a native Spanish speaker once gave a long prayer at a special dinner held by the congregation. Then the prayer was translated into English. Somehow, the English translation wasn’t as long as the Spanish original. Why? The translator explained that he couldn’t remember everything that had been said in Spanish, so he gave the Reader’s Digest version in English. The Reader’s Digest version is what we have in the English translation of stanza 3 of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
- In the Middle Ages, stanza 3 was sung in Latin at Vespers in the monasteries on Dec 18, six days before Christmas Eve. Each day of the week before Christmas, one stanza of the hymn would be sung, ending on Christmas Eve with what today is stanza 1. But the translation has been changed. Rev. John Mason Neale, who translated the Latin into the modern version, was working with four line stanzas, so he couldn’t fit everything in. Our version today says: “O Come, O come, Thou Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height In ancient times didst give the Law In cloud and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!” (LSB 357:3) Rev. Neale’s version is fine. But, the original Latin version, based on Is 33:22, literally goes on to say, “Come with an outstretched arm to redeem us.” I’d say that’s a big omission, especially from a Lutheran point of view. Isn’t that how we want Jesus to come? Come, Lord, with an Outstretched Arm to Redeem Us.
- Rev. Neale left that part out, but we won’t. “Come with an outstretched arm to redeem us.” Our text, Is 33:22: “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Even the name of the one who comes is significant. The Lord, the Lord, the Lord. In English, we sing, “O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might.” “Lord of might” is an English translation of the Hebrew, Adonai. Adonai is the name for God used here and in the Latin version of our hymn. It’s the third most common name of God in the Old Testament. Interestingly, like another name for God, Elohim, Adonai is plural. So we could sing, “O come, Thou Lords of Might.” But we don’t, and why not?
- If anything is clear in the Bible, it’s that there’s one God, not many. “You shall have no other gods before me,” Yahweh thunders from Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:3). In Deut 6:4 we’re taught, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Then in Is 43:11, God speaks, saying, “I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.” The Bible wants us to know there’s only one God. So what do we do with names of God that are plural like Elohim and Adonai in stanza 3 of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”?
- Maybe you’ve heard Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain say something like, “We have decided” to do this or that. Everyone knows there’s only one queen, but when she speaks she refers to herself as “we.” Elohim and Adonai are plural because they reflect the revelation of God as the Holy Trinity, one God who always exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So when we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” for Adonai to come with an outstretched arm to deliver us, we pray that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—would come to save us. And he does! In the person of Jesus, Adonai comes in all the ways we pray for him to come in stanza 3.
- “The Lord is our king,” Isaiah says. “O come, Thou Lord of might,” we sing. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the same God who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush joins himself to a human body in the womb of the Virgin Mary and is born in Bethlehem as King of Israel and heir to the throne of David. And since the true Israel includes all the redeemed who make up the Church, Jew and Gentile alike, this prayer is already answered. The King born to Mary rules at this moment through his Word and Sacraments in the hearts of all who welcome him by faith.
- Adonai, the Lord, comes also as Lawgiver: “On Sinai’s height, In ancient times didst give the Law, In cloud and majesty and awe.” When he appears to Moses on Mount Sinai, Adonai reveals his Law. He carves it on stone and hands them to Moses, who brings them down the mountain for Israel to learn and obey. But, when Moses comes back, Israel is already ignoring the Lord, so Moses smashes the tablets. If I were Moses, I think I’d have thought twice about that. After smashing the Ten Commandments, which God had engraved with his own finger, Moses doesn’t have them anymore. He climbs all the way back up the mountain to get another set. The Law of God on tablets of stone doesn’t seem to have much effect on God’s people. They pretty much ignore it and go their own way. What’s needed isn’t the Law of God written externally on stone, but the Law written on human hearts.
- And that’s what Adonai does when he comes to each of us personally. When you and I are baptized into Jesus, we’re filled with the Holy Spirit. Alive to God through the Means of Grace—Word and Sacraments—the Holy Spirit begins writing the Law of God on our hearts. So then it’s no longer just commands engraved on stone tablets, but it’s the new delight embedded in the flesh of our own renewed hearts. Things are different, now that Adonai has come and we’ve been baptized into him. Now God’s Law is written on our conscience. Now Adonai rules from within us. So, a prophecy of Isaiah is partially fulfilled: “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Is 11:9). I say partially, because complete fulfillment awaits the return of Christ on the Last Day.
- But, we also pray that Adonai will come with “outstretched arm and redeem us.” That’s the part that Rev. Mason’s translation leaves out. The Lord of Might terrified Moses in the burning bush and terrified the children of Israel with threats, lightning, thunder, and smoke on Mt Sinai. But, this Lord is also the God who redeems his people. Can you think of some examples of the outstretched arm redeeming God’s people? In Exodus, God’s people are saved when they are caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army. The people cry out to God, and the Lord tells Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground.” Moses stretches out his hand over the sea, “and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind . . . and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground” (Ex 14:15–16, 21–22). That’s the strong outstretched arm of the Lord redeeming his people. Later, the Israelites are attacked by Amalek in Exodus 17. Joshua and the army go out to fight, and when Moses raises his arm, the army of Israel prevails. That’s the strong outstretched arm of the Lord redeeming his people.
- But, that was all in the Old Testament. Where do we find the outstretched arm of the Lord coming to redeem his people in the Gospels? It’s two outstretched arms, beaten and bruised arms, bloody and dirty arms, arms nailed to the cross. It’s the arms of Jesus, Adonai, who has come to redeem us through the shedding of his own blood on the cross. Humiliated as a common criminal, our Lord Jesus allows himself to be crucified, that you and I are delivered from the slavery of sin. That’s the strong outstretched arm of the Lord redeeming his people.
- A sainted Lutheran professor at one of our church body’s seminaries, Dr. Robert Preus, once told his class about an encounter he had with a person who described himself as “born again”—someone who thinks that unless you remember the day you invited Jesus into your heart, you aren’t really a Christian. This person asked Dr. Preus, “When were you saved?” Dr. Preus thought for a moment and said, “I was saved when in eternity past God elected me in Christ. I was saved when Jesus died for my sins on the cross. I was saved when as a baby I was baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. I was saved each time I heard this again and believed. I was saved when I received the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of my sins. I will be saved when I am with Christ in heaven. And I will be saved when Jesus comes in power and glory at the end of the age to raise me and all the dead.” I hope the person who asked Dr. Preus got the point. Being saved doesn’t depend on the moment you ask Jesus into your heart. Being saved is everything God has done for you in Jesus from his electing love in eternity past to when Jesus comes in power and glory at the Last Day to raise the dead and restore his creation.
- This last part of Adonai’s outstretched redeeming arm we also look forward to as we sing stanza 3 of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” You and I aren’t in heaven yet, though we can taste it in Holy Communion when we partake of the Paschal Feast surrounded by saints and angels in heaven. And we have not yet seen Jesus come visibly in glory, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God, to redeem us from this fallen world and take us into the perfect world that awaits us.
- But that day will come, because it’s God’s plan and because he answers all prayers that are asked in accordance with his will (1 Jn 5:14). Confident this is God’s will because he tells us in his written Word, we pray boldly these words from a more literal translation of the Latin O Antiphon for today: “O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel, Who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, And gave him the Law on Sinai: Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.” Prayer: O Adonai, mighty Lord and Ruler of the Church, come as you have promised with outstretched arm. By the cross of Jesus and his resurrection, redeem us from all the sin, death, and darkness of this world, that we might enter the holiness, life, and light of your kingdom. In his name we pray. Amen.
- Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. This 4th Sunday in Advent turns our attention toward the Nativity of Our Lord. The message today is entitled, “The Leap of Faith” and is taken from Luke 1:39-45. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
- A number of years ago, there was a humorous cartoon in the paper about two men and their dogs. “Say, that’s an unusual-looking dog,” said the first man. “He doesn’t have any ears.” “It’s a very rare species,” said the second. “They were bred to guard top secret messengers during the war. That way they wouldn’t have access to any of the information.” “Why that’s absolutely fascinating! What do you call a dog with no ears?” “You can call him anything you want, but he ain’t com’n.” In our text for this morning we see exactly the opposite. When the Lord spoke to Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist within his mother’s womb, God’s Word went into their ears, and they believed. For Romans 10:17 tells us, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
- But, we tend to believe the imagination of our hearts. We look to ourselves for answers. Years ago a stand-up comic on TV’s “Comedy Channel” commented somewhat thoughtfully: “Once upon a time we subscribed to Life magazine, but that was too wide a circle of concern, so we narrowed it down to People magazine. But that was still too much, so we shrunk it down further to Us magazine. And now the final and inevitable step: Self magazine.” When we look to ourselves we don’t find what we really need.
- In our Gospel account from Luke 1:39-45 we’re told that Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth. In her pregnancy it must have been a “leap of faith” for her to go and see her relative while she was pregnant. The Apostle Luke appears to be echoing the language of 2 Samuel 6, which describes the journey of the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament that was kept in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle & temple. As the ark of the covenant marked the presence of God, so also Mary becomes the vessel for God’s new presence among his people. The very same Lord who dwelled with his people Israel made his residence within the womb of Mary.
- Mary’s eagerness to confirm the amazing announcement the angel Gabriel had brought to her is evident in Luke’s writing: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste.” Here we see that Mary was eager to see her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was in the sixth month of her surprising pregnancy. This would confirm the angel’s words to her and would establish her readiness to be the mother of God’s Son Jesus. It was a considerable journey for Mary. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in the hill country south of Jerusalem, 70 miles from Nazareth. But Mary was accustomed to walking. But, she wasn’t alone. She joined others along the way, pilgrims traveling to the temple in Jerusalem. Surprise followed surprise! When Mary entered Elizabeth’s home and greeted her cousin we’re told that Elizabeth’s unborn son “leaped for joy” in her womb. We’re also told that Elizabeth knew Mary’s situation even before Mary could tell her about the angel’s announcement. What an awesome leap of faith!
- My wife Roxanne has told me that when she was pregnant with our son Eddie that there were times when I was preaching the Word of God in church on Sunday morning when little Eddie would leap for joy in her womb. In our text from Luke 1:39-45 we have evidence that even infants growing within their mother’s wombs are given the gift of faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. We are also given a reason for why we baptize infants based on Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20. Luke 1:39-45 says, “39In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
- Here we learn in Luke 1 that at Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb. This is instructive on a number of levels. The same word for “child,” in Greek is brephos, which is also used by Jesus later when he instructs his disciples to allow the children to come to him in Lk 18:15. Luke’s Gospel teaches us that pre-born children are surely children and are precious to God. We also see that Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb. Even as a pre-born child, John’s faith is strengthened and excited by the news that Mary will give birth to the coming Savior.
- This would be the role of John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Christ child sent to save us from our sins. Here in Luke 1 the reaction of John while still in the womb points to him as God’s chosen way-preparer for the Christ. Remember in Luke 1:15 that the angel told John’s father Zechariah that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit “even from His mother’s womb.” What a leap of faith! This incident also gives evidence to support the view that human personality begins already in the unborn. Psalm 51:5 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Scientific studies today are agreeing as they show not only physical but also emotional reactions on the part of the fetus. All of this underscores the tragedy of a supportive attitude toward abortion in our society today.
- This leads us to Mary’s response to all of these surprises by which God validated His Word to her and confirmed her faith was to praise Him with the song we call the Magnificat. We sang a version of Mary’s magnificat in our sermon hymn. The word comes from the key word in Latin, translated “magnifies” or “glorifies.” In the Magnificat, Mary spoke out of the fullness of her heart and her words show to us the Old Testament prophecy that spoke of Jesus as the coming Messiah are being fulfilled in her pregnancy and birth of Jesus our Savior.
- Within Mary’s Magnificat we learn of God’s purpose in sending His Son Jesus to be born of a woman. Mary reminds us that there’s no time limit to God’s grace. When she mentions the words, “Those who fear Him” she refers to those who believe the Good News of the Gospel found in Jesus Christ. Mary’s words remind us that pride is at the core of sin; it exalts self to the place in life that belongs to God. It’s the original sin, insistence that we determine for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Humility acknowledges God’s priority, confesses sin, and is ready to look to God’s grace and power for forgiveness and life. The Magnificat must be understood not only in terms of our relationship with God but also in terms of our relationship with each other.
- As Mary sang the Magnificat we learn that she saw in her unique pregnancy and in the child who would be born the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham and his offspring. We too rejoice at this, especially as we remember Paul’s assurance that Abraham’s offspring include all those who share Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, now fulfilled in Jesus Galatians 3:26–29 says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Thanks be to God that through Jesus, the child born of Mary, we are given the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It’s through the same “leap of faith” that we received in our baptisms and the hearing of His Word that we are saved. Amen.
- Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our redeemer. Amen. The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been called by the Latin word, Gaudete, meaning “Rejoice!” That’s why we lit the pink candle today in our Advent wreath. For as you’re called to repentance, so also you’re urged to rejoice in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. By His own Cross, He’s accomplished salvation for you and has come to rule in your midst. As the prophet Zephaniah tells us today from Zephaniah 3:14-20, He rejoices over you with gladness! That’s why, even from prison St. Paul in Philippians chapter 4 encourages us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” knowing that the peace of God will keep us in Christ Jesus. We also find encouragement in John the Baptist. As he suffers in prison, he calls upon Jesus and is strengthened by the Word of the Gospel that he receives. The same good news is preached to you, by which all things are made new and even “the dead are raised up.” The message today is entitled, “Rejoice!” Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Depressed. Feeling blue, stressed out, frustrated. These are not the words we use to describe a joyful time such as Christmas. But, some people feel this way at this time of year. Part of it comes from unrealistic expectations. Part of it comes from a misunderstanding of what this season is all about. Part of it comes from cramming too much activity into too little time. Still, we come to church and hear God calling us to rejoice and be glad. That’s easy for him to say! He’s up there in heaven, where everything’s safe and bright, unhurried, unhassled. Let him come down here and see how it feels. Then we’ll see who’s rejoicing, celebrating! Well, in our text this morning, the prophet Zephaniah gives us God’s answer: God did come down here, and he does celebrate, and we can rejoice because the Lord came here and rejoices over us.
- It’s a great story. A British fleet stood off Baltimore, bombing the fort that guarded its harbor. All through the night the guns roared. Through the clouds of smoke explosions could be seen over the fort. The darkness covered the stone walls of the fort, but the sounds of war—convinced every shipboard witness that the fort must fall and Baltimore would be overtaken. And then as the morning’s first light appeared, the witnesses saw an astonishing sight. The fort still stood! And there, flying proudly above the fort was the American flag. Hurrying down below one witness seized a pen and dashed off lines that every citizen has heard a thousand times. “O Say can you see,” wrote Francis Scott Key, a prisoner that night on the British flagship, “through the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.” The fort and the flag had survived.
- What a picture of the scene we see in Zephaniah chapter 3. The city of Jerusalem was under siege, being punished for her many sins. The Lord Himself was the assailing force, pouring out his wrath and striking the city with his anger. The devastation seemed enough to consume the entire world.
- And then in the rest of the chapter we make an amazing discovery. As that dreadful night of judgment comes to an end and a new day dawns we realize there are survivors! We see God’s scattered people, purified, return to worship their God. We realize that the arrogance that characterized Jerusalem had been burned away and the city now held only the humble, those who feared the LORD. And then we hear a voice rise in song singing in Zephaniah 3:14-20, “14Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. 18I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. 19Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.”
- Here in Zephaniah 3 we see how God gives His people the honor and praise they thought that they had forfeited forever by their sins of idolatry and wickedness. Zephaniah reminds the people that they should rejoice in the Lord. The reason is simple. He says that the Lord has taken away the judgments against you and cleared away your enemies. Scripture tells us in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” But, if the punishment of sin is gone and if that great enemy death has been removed, then what remains is simply the sleep of the body until the day of resurrection when our Lord Jesus promises to return. One thing we look forward to during the season of Advent the coming of our Lord Jesus on the clouds on the Last Day.
- This is exactly what has happened. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the work of Christ in these words. Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by His wounds we are healed.” The punishment our sin deserved has been placed on Christ. That’s a cause for rejoicing my friends. That’s why Zephaniah can speak the way he does in verse 15 because the Lord has taken away the sins of the world through His Son. They are removed in Christ. Death and hell are no longer a threat to the one who clings to Christ in faith.
- The second result of the removal of sin is that God is present with his people with his protecting power. The prophet says in Isaiah 59:2, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” God hates sin and he won’t dwell among a sinful people who lie, cheat, swear, worship after false gods, fornicate, disobey their leaders, hate their neighbor and fail to worship the Lord and serve Him only. That’s why Isaiah speaks the way he does. But when sin is forgiven and its guilt has been removed by Christ there’s no reason why the Lord must stay separated from us any longer. That’s why Zephaniah now says in chapter three, “The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you.”
- Rejoice dear friends in Christ! The LORD God is with YOU! He is protecting you from harm, delivering you from evil and comforting you in your fears and worries. In fact, the Lord rejoices with singing because we are living with him. What a glorious revelation of our God. We’re the ones who should be filled with joy and singing, because we have the privilege in Christ of living with our God for eternity. But, Zephaniah says that the Lord is just as happy as we are. God is happy because the goal of his work of salvation in saving us has been completed by our Savior Jesus. The LORD is joyful because the crown of His creation, mankind, can live in his presence forever.
- As we move ever closer to Christmas during this Advent season we know that there are those who are dreading that day. People without families anticipate another lonely Christmas. Fathers and mothers who are unemployed because of the recession are disappointed that they can’t buy gifts for their children. Still others, because of a death in the family are spending their first Christmas without their loved one. It can be easy to think that there’s nothing to be excited about. But, no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in, we remember today from the prophet Zephaniah that God gives us a reason to REJOICE! God is near to us to forgive, sustain and support us. With the assurance of his love and presence in Christ Jesus we can rejoice in his grace and mercy toward us. Thanks be to God! Amen.
- Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen. The message from God’s Word today is taken from Luke 3:1-14. Today we hear John the Baptist cry out to us this Advent season as he urges us to turn from our sins and as he invites us to receive God’s salvation. The message is entitled, “Listen to a True Advent Preacher.” Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Advent is a season of preparation. At home people are cleaning, getting out their Christmas decorations, purchasing a tree, baking, hosting and attending parties, and simply getting ready for Christmas. But into our Advent “busy-ness” each year enters John the Baptist. He interrupts our schedules and demands that preparations of a different kind be made. John demands that we get ready for Jesus. Before we can bask in Christmas joy and the birth of a special baby, John forces us to examine ourselves and our world. In the style of the Old Testament prophets before him, John challenges Advent people with a message of personal self-examination. Advent, John reminds us, is a time to prepare to welcome Jesus and not simply our invited Christmas houseguests.
- When I was a teenager, I used to tease my mother about some of her most particular preparations for company. She would get down on her hands and knees and clean the kitchen floor with a bucket and a wash rag making sure that there wasn’t a single spot of dirt. It looked beautiful when she was finished—so neat and orderly. I tried to point out that there was a speck of dirt in the corner of the kitchen that she missed. She wanted everything to be perfect when we were preparing for guests. She attended to every detail.
- The advent of guests causes the host not only to straighten up, but also to fix things around the house—a broken doorknob, a loose towel rack, the burned-out lightbulb, the leaky guest toilet. Preparing for company often causes the hosts to look at their home, to examine their surroundings with a whole new perspective. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the broken chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to do” list.
- John the Baptist doesn’t seem like a character who would have likely understood all that’s involved in welcoming company to our homes. He spent most of his time in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey, after all—hardly the place for a bed-and-breakfast. But, John did understand how a people ought to welcome their God. His bold preaching in the wilderness called people to preparation. His challenging words called people to self-examination, along with a “to do” list, if they were going to be ready to receive the one coming after him. John’s prophetic message called people to get ready to receive Jesus.
- This Advent season John the Baptist calls us to examine our lives, our values, and our priorities. If we are to prepare to receive the Prince of Peace at Christmas, we must be willing to go through the detailed preparation process just as we do when planning for company at home. Outside the church, people are drinking eggnog with their neighbors, singing along with Bing Crosby in the elevator, and hanging their ornaments and lights on their Christmas trees. But, in worship, we as the people of God hear the challenging words of John the Baptist, calling for a different kind of preparation. John the Baptist and his message of repentance can’t be avoided.
- John the Baptist is a true Advent Preacher. He’s the very prophet whom the Lord appointed to clear the way for his coming. He marched right in where angels feared to tread and laid it on the line to all who heard him: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he announced. All the dead wood was to be cut out of the Lord’s forest. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v 9).
- Now that’s a little unsettling, if we have the ears to hear it. And it should be. For the sad truth is that more often than not, you and I don’t produce the good fruit our Lord expects. We simply don’t love God with all our heart and soul and strength, much less love our neighbor as ourselves. Despite our best efforts, there are those we have hurt and those we have failed to help. Our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin. There’s nothing good within us, in our sinful nature.
- That’s how preparing the way for the Lord’s coming begins, when you and I are laid low by the hammer blows of God’s Law, so that we might be lifted up and comforted by the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, his Son. The way of the Lord is the way of repentance, you see. That is, it calls for change. A change of mind and heart, which only God can work within us by the power of his Spirit working through his Word. That’s what we need this Advent season: a change so that we can straighten up—straighten up our hearts, clean out our messed-up hearts so cluttered with sin, and clear out our lives, littered with shame and death, so that they might be filled to overflowing with the life of Jesus Christ instead.
- Not that such a change comes easy. It means the death of the habits of the sinful heart. And such habits always die hard. It’s always much easier to love and serve ourselves than it is to love and serve God. It always comes naturally to the sinful heart to lash out with anger when we’re hurt, to return evil for evil, to repay injury with injury. It is much easier to cut down other people than to love them and build them up. It’s easier for the sinful heart to curse and swear, to lie and deceive by God’s name, than to pray, praise, and give him thanks. That’s why the way of the Lord leads first to the cross before it leads to joy. That’s why the Christian life is a life of constant repentance. First we confess our sins, then God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). First the cross and then the crown, such is the way, the road, we walk.
- So let’s stir up our hearts this Advent season. It’s time for a change, a new way. Let’s lift up the valleys of our deep despair, bring down the mountain peaks of our lofty pride, and straighten out our crooked ways. How is this done? What does this mean? you ask.
- What this means for you I can’t tell. It means different things for different people, depending on who they are and where they are in life. You can tell that from John, the true Advent preacher’s instructions to those who heard his preaching. For tax collectors, the way of the Lord meant to be honest; for soldiers, it meant to be content and not take what didn’t belong to them. For everyone, it meant generosity and mercy, giving food and clothing to those who had none. But how is this done? That I can tell you: by the grace of God.
- Jesus the Son of God, who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, will change your hearts and make them new. He who left the Father’s throne in lowly humility to be cradled in a cattle trough and wrapped in swaddling clothes is closer in his Word to you than your little child with his arms wrapped around your neck.
- This Lord Jesus will sweep the cobwebs out of our hearts and make them fit for his coming. He will straighten up the crooked paths by which we have wandered far away from our Father’s house and bring us home again. He will tear down our stubborn pride and melt our hardened hearts to enfold us in his love. He will lift us up out of the pits of our despair and grief to comfort us with the presence of his Holy Spirit and restore to us the joy of his salvation.
- So get ready. Get ready for Christmas, but above all else prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ. Let this Advent season be your comfort and joy as deep within takes root the reality that Christ has actually come in the flesh and will come again at the end of time. But he comes this very day in his Gospel and Sacrament to make you new, whole, and free. So prepare the way for his coming. John the true advent preacher wants it to be so for you. Let this be your constant Advent prayer: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.” Amen.
Friday, December 4, 2015
1. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Everybody has Christmas lists. Before the internet, the most waited-for item in the mailbox every fall was the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog. My, how kids looked for it! Maybe you were one of them. In some houses, the arrival of the toy catalog meant a riot. Brothers and sisters would fight over it. The first one to get his hands on it would take it into the bathroom, lock the door, and devour the pages. As much as children would beg their parents for all those Sears catalog toys, for countless centuries God’s people prayed for the coming of their Savior. And for more than a thousand years since the Savior, has come, Christians have sung a similar prayer. We know and love it as, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” “O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, Shall come to thee, O Israel!” (LSB 357:2)
2. The hymn is very old, maybe written in the days of Charlemagne, the 800s, well over a thousand years ago and revised from time to time over the centuries. But, the version we’re singing is the one translated beginning in 1851 by Rev. John Mason Neale, an Anglican clergyman. He tweaked the song a bit, till in 1857 it became the version many people love today. How we got the song isn’t the most important thing, the prayer in each stanza is. It’s these important prayers that really ought to be on our Christmas wish list, such as the prayer of stanza 2: “O come, Thou Wisdom from on high, Who ord’rest all things mightily; To us the path of knowledge show, And teach us in her ways to go. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!” (LSB 357:2) I don’t remember as a child praying for wisdom, (I think my parents would have wanted me to though). But that’s what we sing for tonight: O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High.
3. What you and I really need for Christmas isn’t something from the toy catalog or the electronics store or “my two front teeth” or even “the doggie in the window.” What we need is “Wisdom from on high.” When we think of wisdom, most of us think in terms of making right decisions or being able to know right from wrong. And, that’s part of what wisdom is about. In his epistle, James encourages those who lack wisdom to pray for it, but to pray in faith. James goes on to say that every good and perfect gift, such as wisdom, “is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17). But, Scripture also speaks of wisdom as though it were a person. In Solomon’s Book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as the Lord’s master builder, with him marking out the foundations of the earth, and as the one who gives enduring wealth and righteousness better than gold (Prov 8:12–31).
4. Ch 11 of Isaiah gives rise to much of what we find in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” According to Isaiah, the promised Messiah comes from the family of Jesse, father of David, and is anointed by the “Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (11:2). So what do we make of this? When we put these lessons together, we learn that true wisdom is inseparable from the person Jesus Christ. When someone knows Jesus by faith, he’s found wisdom. Jesus, John tells us, is the very Word of God through whom all things were made (Jn 1:1–3). Jesus is the divine Wisdom through whom God made, sustains, and saves his creation.
5. This Wisdom from God, Jesus Christ, is the Messiah the people of God in times past always longed for, whom the prophets foretold. He’s the descendant of David, the son of Jesse, the promised King. But the royal family tree of Jesse became a stump when Assyria and Babylon conquered Israel and Judah. The sons of the last king were killed and the people exiled. How could a new king sprout from a dead royal stump? God would make it happen, the prophets promised. And God did, when Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem, into the house of David, being the adopted Son of Joseph, a member of the royal family! But how would the world know Jesus was the heir, the promised shoot growing from the stump? “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Is 11:2).
6. And that happened too. When? At Jesus’ Baptism! At the Jordan River, as John baptized Jesus, the Bible tells us the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son” (Mt 3:17). “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” stanza 2, prays for wisdom. But, it turns out that the wisdom God wants to give us isn’t just the ability to make good decisions or know right from wrong. Instead, it’s a person, Jesus, the Wisdom of God. So when we pray for wisdom, God answers that prayer by sending us Jesus. He’s the Wisdom we need.
7. Have you seen the billboards along the highway that say “Jesus is the answer”? It’s true. The answer to our prayer for wisdom is Jesus. But, how can he be the answer to prayer? What if my life is a mess? What if my personal relationships are getting me into trouble? What if I can’t figure out my priorities? What if I can’t sort out right from wrong? Sometimes things aren’t that clear. What then? What if I need a job and I’m blessed with more than one opportunity? What if I’m tempted to do wrong in order to pay the bills? What if I’m tempted to do wrong just because I think it’ll be fun? How is Jesus the answer?
8. It may seem that we need specific wisdom for each of these situations. But not really. All we need is the wisdom that is Jesus, God’s perfect gift. When we’re joined to Jesus through faith, when we’re buried with him through Baptism into his death, burial, and resurrection, when through Baptism we’re covered with the righteousness of Christ and filled with his Spirit, we have all the Wisdom we need. How can that be? The hymn tells us. It says Jesus Christ, “ord’rest all things mightily.” Faith in Jesus sees the divine order of things the song speaks of and knows what to think and do. Our world and life aren’t just a confused mess when we realize that everything is ordered by God’s Wisdom. Somehow, everything fits into the wise plan of God, who works all things out for the good of everyone who loves him (Rom 8:28).
9. The hymn would have us pray, “To us the path of knowledge show.” How does Jesus show us the path of knowledge? Through the Word of God. Proverbs is a great place to start finding that path! But even more than in Proverbs, we see God’s Wisdom in the Gospels. In them Jesus shows us the path of knowledge through his words, life, his saving work on the cross, and the empty tomb. In Jesus, God reveals his priorities, how to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, true from false. And God’s priority is that he’s at peace with you. That’s what Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection achieved. Your sin, which disordered everything and threw God’s perfect creation and our relationship with him into chaos, has been forgiven, so that we’re once again with him. All is once again right with the world. Jesus is God’s Wisdom with flesh on it, Wisdom we could have seen and touched had we been at the manger in Bethlehem, Wisdom we can taste in the Lord’s Supper.
10.But, God’s Wisdom from on high is more than having your heart and mind filled with the knowledge of Jesus. Most people forget that Advent isn’t just about the coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem. It’s only been in recent centuries that we’ve focused on that. Historically, Advent was about preparing for the coming of God’s Son in judgment on the Last Day. Advent used to be a darker season for contemplation of the wrath of God, a season for repentance from sin and for fasting. Christmas and Epiphany have always been the bright, happy seasons, not Advent. So praying for the coming of God’s Wisdom from on high isn’t just about welcoming a baby, but it’s about welcoming the Judge of the world who comes to destroy evil and make his creation new again.
11.Praying for God’s Wisdom to come from on high is to pray that we’ll be ready like the wise virgins in a story Jesus tells. You remember that story in Mt 25, don’t you? Ten virgins are waiting with lamps to meet the bridegroom. Soon he’ll be passing by in a joyful wedding procession that they hope to join. Five of the virgins are foolish, and five are wise, we’re told. The foolish virgins bring their lamps but no oil. The ones with wisdom, the wise virgins, bring both. The bridegroom’s procession is delayed and the virgins fall asleep. Finally, the cry comes at midnight, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him” (25:6). There’s a crisis. Of the ten virgins, only the five wise ones have oil to light their path and join the procession. “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out” (25:8), the foolish virgins beg the wise. But the wise virgins refuse, saying if they do, they won’t have enough for themselves. So the foolish virgins go shopping for oil at midnight. Meanwhile the bridegroom and the procession pass by, the wise virgins join in, and they all enter the wedding hall for the feast. Everyone, except those five who lacked wisdom. Showing up late, they find themselves locked out. “Lord, lord, open to us” (25:11), they plead, but the door is shut. “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (25:12), the bridegroom says from the other side.
12.What does this mean for us? What wisdom are we to gain from it? Jesus tells us: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). What is Jesus talking about? The day and hour he returns, the day he comes to condemn the unprepared foolish but to welcome the faithful wise into his eternal kingdom. You, my friends, are those wise to enter heaven, for you have Jesus, God’s Wisdom from on high, who by his death on the cross has reordered all things for your eternity with him. Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20).
13. Please pray with me. Gracious Father in heaven, teach us to know that true Wisdom is your Son, Jesus Christ, who comes to us from on high. By your Word and Spirit, enable us to welcome him by faith on the day he comes in power and glory, that we might be received into your eternal kingdom. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.