Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sermon: Advent 3 (Gaudete)

17 December 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Isa 40:1-11, 1 Cor 4:1-5) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

They say that patience is a virtue. It’s also not easy. It’s a terribly difficult thing to wait – especially waiting for say, seven hundred years!

The prophet Isaiah has words of comfort from the Lord. He speaks them seven centuries before Christ, even as ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were no more, and the southern two tribes were on the verge of exile, their earthly kingdom to be forever gone, their temple to be devastated and their independence as a people gone forever.

And yet listen to how upbeat the prophet is! He speaks of comfort, of ended warfare, of forgiven sins. He speaks of a coming preacher, a “voice of one crying in the wilderness” who will usher in the new age of the Glory of the Lord. The positive message of Isaiah comes across in the hymn:

Comfort, comfort these my people
Speak of peace” so says our God,
“Comfort these who sit in darkness
Groaning under sin’s dread rod.
To my people I proclaim
Pardon now in Jesus’ name,
Tell them that their sins I cover,
That their warfare now is over!”

It’s a done deal. God has spoken. Just like that, sins are forgiven, the new order of creation is underway, and paradise is restored. And yet, the children of Judah were looking at a devastating defeat by the Babylonians, an entire lifetime of exile, only to return under the heavy yoke of occupiers: the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans. The Romans would finally crush any hope of independence and would scatter the children of Judah around the world.

And yet, Isaiah preaches comfort! Tradition says that Isaiah’s calls to repentance did not make him popular, and that he was sawn in two in the year 692 BC.

However, Isaiah’s preaching would come true seven centuries later, even as Roman troops occupy the Promised Land. For the one crying in the wilderness, himself a prophet and preacher of the Word of God, would emerge. He too points forward to the Kingdom of God, and urges his listeners to repent and believe the Good News!

Though thousands would flock to hear this preacher, this last prophet of the Old Testament, who would point to Jesus and declare him to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” his calls to repentance likewise made enemies. This preacher, John the Baptist, would likewise be cut in two – though this time by a Roman sword.

Isaiah’s martyrdom did not silence him. Nor did John’s captors and executioners succeed in shutting him up. For these men proclaimed the Word of God, and not even those who crucified the very Incarnate Word Himself could silence the Gospel.

As St. Paul points out in our epistle, preachers such as Isaiah and John continue. The Lord raises men from the bosom of the Church and charges them to “speak comfort to Salem and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended.” For Paul himself preached this same Gospel of comfort, of peace, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of mercy, and of the gathering of us lambs into the Good Shepherd’s arms. It should come as no surprise that St. Paul likewise made a few enemies, and according to tradition, he too was cut in two by a roman sword. To this day, Paul’s symbol is a sword with the words (in the language of his executioner): “Gladius Spiritus,” (the sword of the Spirit) – for the enemies of God may bear a physical sword, and they may succeed in cutting the prophets bodily in half – the Church bears the Spiritual sword, the very Word of God, a double-edged sword, which cuts to the quick, to the spirit. With one edge, the pastor cuts down with the Law, and with the other edge, he raises up with the Gospel.

Our Lord Himself offers advice to the preacher: “Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.”

For preachers are only human. They too need to hear comfort and Good News. For even John struggles. Even he whom Jesus praises like none other, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist,” has his doubts. He is in a cold, dark cell. He has seemingly been silenced. He sends messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you really the One, or was I wrong?” Jesus sends the messengers with the commission: “Go” and “tell.” They are to report, as eyewitnesses, what they have seen: “The blind see and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.”

The promises of Isaiah and the other prophets of centuries ago have been set into motion. John is the last of the prophets, and Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one who brings comfort, peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

And yet, we find ourselves once more waiting. Though the Kingdom of God has come, it has not yet crushed out sin, death, and the devil. Like Judah of old, we wait and watch. With every passing year, we celebrate His first advent, and we encourage one another to readiness for His second and final advent. Preachers still proclaim the same message of the very much alive Isaiah: comfort, peace, and forgiveness. They still cry aloud with the very much alive John the Baptist to repent and believe the Good News, for the Kingdom is at hand:

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of Kings!

We stewards of the mysteries along with the very much alive St. Paul continue to serve the mysteries of God to you, placing the very body and blood of the Lord into your mouths, preaching both a call to repent and comfort of the Gospel into your ears, continuing to baptize and absolve, until the day when “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low.” And while we struggle to remain faithful, we know we are justified by the Lord in spite of our struggles and doubts.

Dear friends, we await His coming. We are called upon to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Now is the time to repent and believe the Gospel! For as the hymn exhorts us anew:

Then cleansed be every life from sin;
Make straight the way for God within.
And let us all our hearts prepare.
For Christ to come and enter there.

And we join the hymnist in this prayer:

Stretch forth your hand, our health restore,
And make us rise to fall no more;
Oh, let your face upon us shine
And fill the world with love divine.


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


Past Elder said...

Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. From the incipit to the Introit for the day, quoting Philemon, Rejoice in the Lord always. Why there is a rose candle amid the three purple ones in the Advent wreath, lit this Sunday. Why rose vestments are worn for one of only two times in the year, the other being Laetare Sunday in Lent, a similar breaking out of the joy to which the penitential season leads.

But not in the Brave New Church. We have now Advent 3, blue vestments, and the body will be placed in my hand, not my mouth. Gaudete is one of those times (Laetare being the other)when I wonder how it is that even among generally traditional and conservative circles, we behave like Vatican II happened in St Louis or Milwaukee, not Rome.

I was RC in one of the hot spots for "liturgical renewal" and historical-critical method. When communion in the hand came, it was explained that this showed a deeper understanding of the Eucharist, getting away from the passivity of the bad old pre conciliar days, that extending my hand and placing the host in my own mouth expressed that faith is both God's action toward us and also our action toward him.

Blue vestments remove the last visible trace of the old downer of repentance and sin, that this birth which the world celebrates as the "Christmas Spirit", let's be better persons because that's what Jesus (and all the other great teachers and examples) would do -- this birth is also a sword, this time a time of grace, repent and believe the Gospel.

Yes, there is no promise, command or example for purple vestments, historic lectionaries or communion in the mouth in Scripture. On that basis wear plaid vestments if you like. Or do like WELS and abolish Introits altogether in your service book. With reference to similar problems in his day, Walther said something like this -- if you don't believe as Methodists do, then why worship as they do?

I saw first hand that the changes to liturgical practice begun at Vatican II, and adapted by the mainline churches since, were all of them intended to replace traditional faith at worship with the "faith" of the historical-critical school at worship. As with communion in the hand, all of them stepping away from traditional faith for what is nothing more than a works righteousness couched in language of "community", making it all about us rather than all about Him in Word and Sacrament no less than a Rick Warren feel good praise service.

What I don't get is, there are many good and faithful pastors and laity who understand and avoid the latter day Pietism of the happy clappy crowd, but do so not with the traditional liturgy but a Vatican II for Lutherans revision of it that no less than mega church service styles replaces the traditional faith of Him coming to us in Word and Sacrament with me/us and what I/we feel and do.

Ich bin am Ende. Gaudete indeed -- rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! A little rant on Father Hollywood's blog helps clear my version of the struggles you mention.

Past Elder said...

Sorry, wrong Phil. Philippians. You knew that.