Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon: Advent 4 (Rorate Coeli)

23 December 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 1:19-28 (Deut 18:15-19, Phil 4:4-7)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Even one day before Christmas Eve, the Lord is still using prophets and preachers to warn us. On the day when our blessed Lord returns, nobody will be able to say: “But nobody told me!” Warnings have been coming for thousands of years. In fact, in our Old Testament reading, God speaks through the prophet Moses to warn us of the coming of the Prophet to end all Prophets, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth.”

God’s people have heard sermons and have pored over the Scriptures for thousands of years. And century after century, we have been told to repent, for as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “The Lord is at hand.” He is near, close-by, so close you can reach out and touch Him. Paul tells us to rejoice, don’t despair, for God is not some far-away impersonal force in the universe, but rather He is an incarnate, flesh and blood person, occupying our physical space, as near to us as the bread and wine we consume before this altar!

He is not only at hand in location, but in time as well. He is coming back soon to reign without a rival over a newly restored heaven and earth.

This announcement is indeed good news. For who would not be thrilled to learn that we are moving toward a time and place in which there is no sin, no sickness, no death, no misery, no treachery, no impairments to communion with God? But indeed there are many who don’t want to hear this proclamation. There are some who simply refuse to believe, such as our proud and arrogant skeptics of today, or the theologically liberal priests and Levites from our Gospel. Either they think the news is too good to be true, or they don’t believe God is capable, or that he simply won’t, deliver as promised. Others believe in God’s power, but don’t like the terms of the arrangement – like the Pharisees. For they questioned such things as Baptism, things in which the believer receives gifts instead of earns a reward. They wanted a pat on the back rather than a handout. But mercy doesn’t work that way, and God’s warnings are exactly that: mercy.

The Lord has mercifully been warning us, his fallen creatures, to repent, to have a change in mind about our place in the universe. We are not to cave in to our temptations, but rather to submit to Him whose we are. And we can only submit to Him by His mercy. And, dear people, that mercy is extended to you by the Lord’s prophets and preachers – from Moses, to John the Baptist, and through the Lord’s called and ordained servants since the apostles.

But look how we receive God’s mercy! How often do we simply roll our eyes and refuse to believe that the Lord is at hand? How often do other things take priority over coming here to listen to the Gospel and be fed by His Word and His very flesh and blood? How often do we think we have a whole lifetime to repent, since after all, Jesus has been telling us He is at hand for a couple thousand years now?

But the Lord is being merciful in giving us a lot of lead time. Just as through technology, the Lord has enabled people to know about a hurricane when it is still thousands of miles away, giving us time to prepare. In the same way, the people whom God created have been warned by prophets for millennia. This is not so we can disregard the messenger, but rather so we can heed the message. We have been told again and again to get ready, to repent, to shed the skepticism of the priests and Levites and to disavow the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Repent and believe the good news! Make straight the way of the Lord! For the kingdom draws near!

And just as Christmas is right upon us even as we are still in the fourth week of Advent, so the Kingdom of God will appear out of nowhere. Your very next breath could be your last. This may be the last proclamation of the gospel and the last call to repentance you may ever hear.

Repent and believe the good news!

The Lord is at hand, and He may well return as promised even before the presents get opened this year. We dare not misinterpret the Lord’s patience and gracious opportunity for us to hear His Word as a call to laziness.

Repent and believe the good news!

This is the preaching of John, as it was the preaching of all the prophets of old. This is the preaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is the preaching of the Church. This will be the preaching of the Church until the time of mercy and repentance are at an end and He suddenly returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.

The prophet and the preacher are embodied in John the Baptist. He baptizes unto repentance, but always in light of Him of whom none of us is worthy to untie His shoes. The servants of the Word are to declare without ambiguity: “I am not the Christ.” I am only one called to point you to Christ, to baptize you, instruct you, to encourage you, to rebuke you, to plead with you, to feed you, and to always hold the Lord Jesus Christ before you.

Such preaching is a stumbling-block to both the secular world and much of the Christian world. For preachers are to preach the coming of the kingdom, the nearness, the proximity, the closeness of our Lord. They are to call to repentance, and warn their hearers not to take this Word lightly – but to embrace it, submit to it, and “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The secular world scoffs, “where is your God now” they taunt, since they misinterpret our Lord’s mercy for weakness. Much of the Christian world scoffs as well, choosing to believe a very convenient so-called prosperity gospel, in which you are promised riches in this life as a reward for your faith.

But again and again, from the lowliest pastor, from the most obscure prophet, right up to the Lord Jesus Himself, we hear this preaching: Repent and believe the good news!

Today is known as the Sunday of Rorate Coeli, which is Latin for the first words of the Introit we sang together: “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Righteous One. Let the earth open her womb, and bring forth Salvation.”

This, dear people, is the Good News. Salvation rains down from above like a gentle shower. Life-giving water simply appears, whether we deserve it or not. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. The sky opens and gives life to all of God’s creatures, even as the earth opens her womb, as a human woman, part of our fallen creation, gives birth to God our Savior.

The Good News is that you don’t have to make the rain. It falls upon us all as an act of mercy from our Creator who steps into the role of our Redeemer. The Good News is that we continue to live under God’s grace, we can still hear the warning, we can still repent and believe the Good News. The door is open. There is still time. But remember, dear friends, the door is closing, whether we are prepared or not, Advent is quickly coming to a close, and our Lord is at hand in Christmas.

And yet, to those who believe, that door closing is itself good news. For like the door of the ark, it will close to protect those who believe. The waters raining down from heaven are baptismal waters that destroy sin, drown the Old Adam, and give way to a new creation. The Lord is merciful, and he is indeed at hand!

“Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Righteous One!” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen

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