Sunday, December 19, 2004

Sermon: Advent 4 (Rorate Coeli)

19 December 2004 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:19-28 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Rain down, you heavens, | from above,*

and let the skies pour down the | Righteous One;

Let the earth o- | pen her womb,*

and bring forth Sal- | vation. (Isaiah 45:8)

In our introit, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the Righteous One, the Messiah, our Lord coming to us from heaven as rainwater. He speaks of the earth opening her womb to give birth to our salvation. Isaiah is well aware of our Old Testament lesson, in which through Moses, a great Prophet is announced, one whom the Lord would raise “from among the brethren.”

And so we find John the Baptist in our Gospel text, himself a great prophet, himself raised from among the brethren – and the people want to know who he is. Is he Elijah? Is he Christ? Could this preacher be The Prophet, the Messiah, who was foretold by Moses? Is this preacher of baptism the one whom God rains down as water from heaven?

After 400 years of silence, the Lord is once again speaking through a prophet. There is great excitement surrounding John. He has bands of disciples. All of Judea knows about him. The priests don’t know what to make of him. The Pharisees and Sadducees are also puzzled. There is a whispering campaign that the Messiah, the Prophet, the Christ has come, and he is in the desert baptizing people.

Of course, John is not the Messiah, but as he himself testifies, he is the one who is “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the LORD.’” So, John is “a” prophet, but not “the” Prophet. John is himself prophesied in the Old Testament, but he would not be the one to usher in the New Testament. He would be the greatest of men born of woman, and yet he would decrease while the One to come would increase. John would be put to death without ever seeing the Prophet come into his kingdom by being put to death himself. Though he would bring thousands to the cleansing waters of baptism, he would not see the earth open her womb to give birth to the firstborn of the dead. Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe.

Why did God raise up John the Baptist in the first place? It seems odd to have this great prophet and preacher creating such a stir in Judea, baptizing thousands, and yet he is not the Prophet, not the Messiah. He would be the most famous man in the whole region, only to quickly be forgotten. His disciples would leave him to follow Jesus. He would then be put in a cold, dark, lonely dungeon only to have his life taken away by a dancing girl and a dysfunctional family. God’s ways are certainly not our ways.

We Lutherans sometimes give John short shrift. Every Eastern Orthodox church includes a large icon of John the Baptist in front of the altar. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Churches dedicated to St. John the Baptist around the world – and yet, how many times have we seen a “St. John the Baptist Lutheran Church”? John is the patron saint of many countries and cities around the world, and his feast day is celebrated as the National Holiday of Quebec. And yet, aside from Advent, we don’t have much to say about John – and perhaps that is as it should be – since John’s entire mission was to point us away from himself to Christ.

John is a symbol of the Church. He never seeks glory for himself, never looks to his own works as something to be praised, but rather every ounce of his being points to his fleshly and divine cousin Jesus. John is a symbol of the unborn – joyfully recognizing Jesus even while still in the womb – ironically bringing the hope of the resurrection to those whose children die before receiving Holy Baptism. John is a symbol of the preacher. He calls men to repentance, proclaims the Gospel, baptizes them, and never takes any credit for what God has done, does not preach in hope of a reward of filthy lucre, a Rolex, a stadium full of worshipers, a bestselling book promising health and wealth – but rather only the humble ministry of bringing sinners to our Lord through his holy Word and his holy Sacraments. John is a symbol of Advent, for in John we find God’s plan on the verge of completion, his Kingdom at hand, and we wait in anticipation of the Prophet, the raining down from heaven of the Righteous One – whose kingdom will have no end.

And so, once again, the Church finds herself standing with John, proclaiming a Gospel of hope and victory amid a hostile world of sin. We, like John, point to an unlikely Prophet, a baby in a food trough, who would one day make his royal arrival on a donkey, be crowned with thorns, and reign upon a bloody cross: our Lord who is both our Brother and our God, the One whose sandals we are not worthy to untie, and yet who unties us from the bonds of sin and death, and who stoops to wash our filthy feet with holy water. And we, like John, have faith in the promise of his coming again, though we have no scientific evidence to support what we believe, no smoking-gun “Bible Code” or “Left Behind” scenarios. Like John, we simply continue to pour water upon repentant sinners, young and old, allowing the Righteous One to rain down from the heavens. Like John, we do so in faith and in expectation, giving all the glory to God alone.

And yet the Church today has a luxury that John did not have – we have indeed seen the earth open her womb, and bring forth salvation. For while we anticipate Christmas, we also know what comes later. We know that the Baby-King in the box would become the Criminal-King on the cross. We know that his blessed virgin mother, who bore his body from her own body, would one day bear a sword piercing her heart even as a spear pierced the heart of her Son. We know that the same Christ wrapped in swaddling cloths would later be wrapped in a shroud. We know the God who was born in the flesh would also be the God who dies in the flesh. And the tomb would be transformed into a womb. For as the tomb is the most unnatural place in the universe, a place of death, a place God never intended, a cold and morbid place of emptiness and rotting flesh, the womb is just the opposite – a warm and nurturing place of life, a place God himself would sanctify by being himself conceived and birthed.

And unlike John, we can see our Lord’s empty grave. Unlike John, we can physically experience his risen Body and life-giving Blood – which becomes one with our own flesh and blood right here at this altar – an altar that symbolizes an empty slab, a tomb which has become a womb. Unlike John, we do not have to wait until the future for the reign of Jesus to begin. And yet we are a lot like our brother John. We too have our doubts and must be reassured. We too become impatient for our Lord to complete his work. We too await his coming – his second coming that will end those doubts, that will finally and forever make death extinct, that will transform the tomb of every baptized Christian into a womb that brings forth life that will have no end. Thanks be to God! Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Sermon: Thursday before Advent 2 (Populus Zion)

2 December 2004 – Lutheran High School Chapel, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 21:25-36

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

At this time of year, when someone asks us if we are ready, it usually means “have you done all your Christmas shopping?” But the Church’s question “Are you ready?” in this the upcoming second week of Advent means “Are you ready for the coming of Jesus?”

Scripture tells us Jesus is the one who was, who is, and who is to come. We Christians speak of his coming in terms of past, present, and future. So let’s take a few minutes to reflect on Jesus coming to us in the past, present, and future.

We know that Jesus of Nazareth came in the past. He is a real historical person. He was conceived by the Virgin Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus. He was born in humble circumstances in Bethlehem. And we prepare to celebrate yet again this most wondrous of all miracles, the Incarnation of our Lord. Advent is a time of preparation for this great festival we call “Christmas” – which is a contraction of the words: “Christ’s Mass. It is a high holy feast day in which all the world ponders anew the meaning of God becoming man, and of man becoming God.

Of course, the secular culture is more likely to see dollar signs than the sign of the cross, more likely to think of gifts from Santa than gifts from God the Father. This commercialization of Christmas has led people to call for putting Christ back in Christmas. Indeed, the church needs to remain focused on our Lord, but we should also remember that it isn’t Christ who left Christmas, but rather we “poor miserable sinners” who have relegated him to the back burner. We would do well to have a more churchly focus in this holy season, a time of reflection of God’s wondrous miracle of 2,000 years ago when the Eternal God took human flesh. And although this is a historical event of long ago, it continues to shape us today.

But Jesus is not merely a past-tense figure of long ago.

Jesus is also one who is coming again in the future. Today’s Gospel text has our Lord speaking of great and wondrous signs that would signal his return. And as we have been in what the Bible calls the “last days” since the first coming of our Lord, his second coming can be at any time. In fact, our Lord tells us repeatedly in parables to be ready, that he will come like a thief in the night. We need to keep the oil burning in our lamps and wait for him to come. We are told in today's text to “watch and pray.” We are to expect his return, and prepare ourselves and each other for the end of all time and space, for the great cosmic event that will signal a new order of the universe.

But Jesus is not merely a figure from the past, who is to come in the future, he also comes to us in the present.

Before his ascension into heaven, Jesus promised he would always be with us. Though he sits at God’s right hand, he is also with us where two or three gather together in his name. That is, when the church meets, there our Lord is present. He is there when his Word is proclaimed. Jesus told his ministers “when they hear you, they hear me.” He is there when his sacraments are administered. Jesus said: “Take, eat, this is my body. This is my blood. Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” And so he comes to us every Sunday as the Gospel is read, the sermon is preached, and Holy Communion is celebrated.

Sometimes children will blurt out how they wish Christmas could be every day – with a special feast, and with a man in funny clothes handing out gifts. But in a very real way, we do celebrate the Festival of the Lord’s Incarnation every Sunday, as our Lord manifests himself miraculously in our space and time, under the humble elements of bread and wine. The early church fathers saw a clear connection between the Incarnation and the Eucharist, between Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread”) and Christian altars around the world – where the Bread of Life is given to God’s people. In fact, just as we desire to see Christ put back in Christmas, we should equally strive to put the Mass back into Christmas. Just as the Wise Men met Jesus where he was and where he was promised, we too need to come to Our Lord where he tells us we can find him.

And along these lines, instead of getting angry about the world’s use of Santa Claus, maybe the church should reclaim him. For “Santa Claus” is another way of pronouncing Saint Nicholas – a bearded 4th century pastor. Santa’s white-lined red suit is really the adaptation of the bishop’s red clerical garb, and his pointy hat is a suggestion of the bishop’s miter. And indeed, the real Saint Nick handed out goodies to children, but the greatest gifts he gave them were Baptism, the Gospel, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. For these are greater than any Gameboy or big-screen TV, because these gifts are treasures to be stored up in heaven, where neither moth, rust, nor changing technology can destroy them.

And these gifts given by St. Nicholas and his fellow Christian pastors not only celebrate Christ present among us in the here and now, but they also bring Christ to us to make us ready for the great and terrible day when “there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring;” when hearts fail from fear and the “expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.” For on that day as history comes to a close, we will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” But we, the Lord’s baptized, forgiven, redeemed children need not fear, for our Lord tells us plainly “when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”

This sure and certain Second Coming of our Lord is why the church keeps the custom of Advent – a time to think of our sins, to seek forgiveness for them, and to repent. The baptismal waters which washed us clean are renewed and revisited every time we hear those magnificent words: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Advent is a time to hear those words even more often.

So dear Christian brothers and sisters, while we may not be ready in terms of our Christmas shopping and preparations, rest assured by the promise of God himself that we Christians are ready for our Lord’s return. And as we enjoy the festivities of this coming Christmas, let us keep our hearts and minds fixed on our Lord Jesus. Let us ponder his coming in the past, in the present, and in the future – a glorious future that will have no end!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.