Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sermon: Rorate Coeli (Advent 4) - 2010

19 December 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:19-28

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The coming of Jesus upset and overturned the entire order of the world.

A lot of people were comfortable with the old way of doing things. The priests and Levites were not particularly happy being ruled by Rome – but they were comfortable with the arrangement. The Temple sacrifices continued, offering employment for the priests and Levites – and even creating additional jobs for moneychangers and sellers of pigeons.

Of course, Jesus upset that trade by overturning tables in the Temple.

And King Herod was comfortable. For as our Lord preached, kings wear soft clothing and live in palaces. Of course, Herod was a phony and a crook and a puppet of the Romans, but he was well off and lived the life of royalty all the same. He was certainly comfortable.

The Pharisees were comfortable, as everyone looked up to them for guidance and treated them as somehow better than everyone else.

The Romans were also comfortable, happy to control this strategic strip of land and take a nice cut in taxes from all the commerce passing between Asia, Europe, and Africa. As long as the Jews were not rioting and rebelling, Caesar was happy. And if Ceasar was happy, Pilate was happy, Herod was happy, the Pharisees were happy, and the priests and the Levites were happy.

And even if happy is too strong a word to describe all of them, they were at least content, comfortable with the way things were being done.

Those who were not comfortable were the afflicted, the outcasts: the lepers, the sinners, the tax collectors, those who were not connected with Rome, with Herod, with the Temple apparatus, or with the powerful Pharisees. The average ordinary Jew – like Mary and Joseph – generally lived a life of hard work, of sinning and being forgiven, of worshiping and hearing God’s Word, and waiting for the Messiah to come and save them. They generally did not live in comfort.

And now that Jesus and His kingdom are coming, the comfortable are suddenly not so comfortable.

The people all know something is happening. It is almost as if the ground is beginning to rumble. Change is in the air. Multitudes flock to John at the Jordan River. After centuries of waiting, something big is underway. The priests and Levites are interrogating John the Baptist. They are not just suddenly interested in him out of idle curiosity; they are threatened by his preaching and by his administration of baptism. They are afflicted by his call to repentance, by how his preaching is going to affect their comfortable situation.

The afflicted are also not so afflicted. They are given not only a call to repentance but the promise of forgiveness. To them, John does not represent a challenge to their comfort but rather hope in the face of affliction. And they answer his call to repentance by being baptized and turning from their sins toward God. They are seeking and finding comfort in the preaching and baptism of John.

For this is what John means when He says: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” The coming of the kingdom means the haughty will be humbled and the lowly will be raised up. Justice will be done, and mercy will predominate. Those who stiffen their necks will be cast into the fire, but they who repent will be welcomed into heaven. And this is why the reaction to John is twofold. The movers and shakers of Judea are afraid and angry, plotting and conspiring. The ordinary people, howver, are flocking to John for baptism, happy and relived, forgiven and free. And both hear the same sermons, the same call to repent, the same good news that the kingdom is at hand.

And to top it all off, John is only the preview.

“‘Are you Elijah? He said, ‘I am not. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us.’” For the priests and Levites were part of a conspiracy of the comfortable who wanted nothing to do with this repentance business. The mountain is not interested in being made low, and only the crooked who wish to repent have any interest in being made straight.

John’s answers only confuse them further. And so John lays it out to them: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”

John is the last of the prophets, the one who will welcome the Prophet, the Christ, the King who will set this upside-down world aright once more, and for all time.

John is an unworthy preacher, one who calls to repentance and baptizes, one who does these things not based on his own worthiness or authority, but rather based on the worthiness of Jesus and under the authority of the Christ, the one whose sandals no preacher is worthy to stoop down and touch, the one who comes to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, the one who not only calls to repentance, but dies on the cross so that we not only repent of our sins, but that God would relent from using us as vessels of wrath.

For Jesus comes to offer a comfort that not even Caesar himself, neither Pilate nor Herod, neither priest nor Levite, neither Pharisee nor scribe, can lay claim to. The comfort of Jesus has nothing to do with passing material wealth or fickle human praise. For our Lord Jesus comes to turn the entire order on its head. He comes to complete that which John could only call for when he preaches: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Jesus is the way of the Lord, and He has come to straighten up the crooked way of the fallen world.

He has come to forgive sins, to conquer death, to overcome the devil, and to give the comfort of eternal life to those afflicted by their sins.

Jesus completes the mission started through John and through all the prophets in their proclamation. And the preaching of John and that of all preachers and prophets has the same purpose as the preaching of Jesus Himself: and that is: to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

John’s proclamation is seen as the law by those who need to hear the law, those who are comfortable in their sins. And John’s proclamation is seen as gospel by those who need to hear the gospel, those who are afflicted in their sins. And John’s preaching is the perfect preaching because he is preaching Christ. John points us, and even the entire world, to his divine cousin, the blessed Lord Christ, the Word Made Flesh, He who has come to rule and to save, who has come to destroy and to restore, who has come to afflict and to comfort. And the Church has been charged to continue in that proclamation, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, until the Lord comes again.

And until that time, the Church will continue to pray in expectation and in hope as she has on this day all around the world: “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.” Amen.

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

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