Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sermon: Wednesday of Lent 4 - Laetare (Feast of the Annunciation)

25 March 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 3:14-21 (Num 21:4-9, Eph 2:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

This week in Lent is known as Laetare, from the Latin of the first word of our Introit, our opening Psalm: “Rejoice.” Our Introit also has imagery of a mother suckling her children – not only to feed them, but to “console” and “satisfy” them.

That’s what mothers do.

As part of the call to rejoice, it is customary in many churches to replace the Lenten purple with a joyful celebratory rose color for this week.

The rose has also become a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For through the blossoming of the seed within her, the fruit of her womb grows into something beautiful, something that even overcomes the thorns that surround the flower.

And today is an interesting confluence, for this date marks the Annunciation, nine months to the day before Christmas, the day on which the Church commemorates the angel’s announcement to Mary that she was with child, that she would bear the Christ to the world and become the mother of God. And this is the very reason Jerusalem can rejoice and be fed and satisfied even as our Lord was consoled at His own mother’s bosom.

For though it was a serpent and a woman and a man that first invited death into the world, and though the devil had corrupted the serpent into an agent of death to the people of Israel, the Lord would turn the tables on the devil. For on the mountain through the work of Moses, the Lord used a serpent to defeat the serpent. The bronze serpent on the pole rolled back the curse of death from the ancient serpent that the devil had possessed and bid to do his evil work.

Whereas the serpent had been the harbinger of death, it was now a bringer of life.

And it would be once more a triangular transaction between a serpent, a woman, and a Man that would see the tables turned – once more against the serpent, once more turning the agent of death into life, and in a way that would fulfill the vision of the serpent held aloft on a pole.

The serpent sought to destroy the child Jesus, but this time, the serpent would not prevail against the woman. And the Man born from her, the Seed who was also the Seed of Eve, would Himself be “lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The serpent’s head would be crushed. Death would be destroyed by death. And Paradise is to be restored by the Word of God made flesh by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and being sent into the world “in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And why is this, dear friends? Why does God do this?

Asking the question “Why?” to God is often a dangerous business. When Job asked God “why?” he was met with quite a blast of God’s anger. When we ask God “why?” often we are giving God a blast of our own anger. But in this case, the Lord Himself explains why:

“…that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only [begotten] Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

“For God so loved the world.”

God loved the world, that, as a result of that love, God gave his Son Jesus Christ. Notice, dear friends, God “gave” – for the sacrifice that pays for our sins, the atonement that makes peace with God – is “given,” it is a “gift.”

We have not paid for this sacrifice, we have not earned this oblation, we have not merited this lifting up of the Son of man like the serpent in the wilderness. This is why St. Paul can say with such clarity: “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ explains as much to Nicodemus when he says that “God so loved the world.” For He answers Nicodemus’s question: “What must I do to be saved” by telling him there isn’t anything he can do, but that he must “be born again” by water and the spirit. You cannot “do” anything to inherit eternal life, dear friends, it is done for you by Jesus and done to you by baptism. It is done by grace, through faith, and it is carried out by the Word of God, the Word made flesh, the “Light” who “has come into the world” to chase away the darkness of doubt, of sin, and of death.

When the Virgin Mary gave her assent to bear the Christ child, He was conceived so that He would be born. He was born so that He would die in our place. And He died so that He might rise victorious, having defeated the serpent by being “lifted up,” wrenching life from the very jaws of death.

The medical profession, whose vocation it is to likewise draw life from death, to heal and not kill – is also symbolized by the serpent on the pole. And yet, in the name of medicine, children conceived in their mothers wombs are willfully destroyed, their stem cells harvested, their DNA cannibalized, and their very lives snuffed out. This is yet another evil manifestation of the serpent and his lust for death. Such children never have the opportunity to rejoice, to feed and be satisfied by their mothers, to be consoled at their bosoms – at least not on this side of the grave.

For that is how Satan is. He takes a creature of God, the serpent, and corrupts it into a cunning enemy of man, a venomous carrier of disease and death. Satan takes the wonder of new life and turns it into a ghoulish guinea pig, slaughtering the tiny for the sake of the powerful. And Satan even uses the medical arts, a holy vocation of God to serve man and rejoice in life, and corrupts it into a system of murder, of destruction, of chaos, or cold emptiness.

And yet, it is the Lord that ultimately turns it back on the devil’s head. For through us sinful men comes the sinless Man. By the womb of the daughter of Eve is born the Son of God. And in meriting salvation for us we are saved by grace. The sweetness of the rose overpowers the bitterness of the thorn, its lovely aroma overcoming the stench of death.

Dear brothers and sisters, we have much to rejoice about! Let us rejoice with Jerusalem, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with all the saints and angels, with your brothers and sisters here in this place, and indeed with our victorious Lord Jesus Christ! For in this Jerusalem, this Salem, we are truly fed and satisfied, and we are indeed consoled by our nurturing mother, for she, our mother the Church, bears Him who was “lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Amen.

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

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