2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text for this final Sunday in Advent comes from our Old Testament reading in the book of Second Samuel, where we heard: “the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house…And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.”1 These are the words of God that come to David through the prophet Nathan. He brings these words as a course correction to a plan hatched by David, a plan to have a house built for Almighty God. The situation is this: the ark of the covenant is now in Jerusalem, and now there is a time of peace for David and the kingdom of Israel, a time without the wars and strife that had occupied him for so long. There is also now a palace for David to live in as well. I’m sure it’s a very nice palace, lots of bedrooms, nice views, some palm trees, some servants to wait on him. So David wants God to have what he has, a nice beautiful palace made of stone and cedar.
Perhaps we can picture David gazing out upon the tent where the ark was placed in Jerusalem from the lavish confines of his palace and starting to think that there was something wrong with this picture. This was probably a very nice tent where they placed the ark, not just something they scrounged up out of the attic, but still, it would have been a tent, perhaps fashioned in a similar manner to the tabernacle of old. David begins to wonder, a plan begins to form: why not build God something nice? A house, a temple? So David calls in the prophet to give his plan the “once over” – “the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.”2 At first Nathan thinks it’s a good idea, but that night the course correction comes to him in a dream. “The word of the Lord came to Nathan, ‘Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would youbuild me a house to dwell in?’’”3
You see, David was acting presumptuously to think that he knew what was best for God. His intentions may seem good from the outside, but anytime a person starts down this path of thinking that God’s needs are knowable from our perspective, anytime we start thinking that we can meet those needs with our own works, then we are treading on thin ice. We run the risk of losing sight of God’s nature, who he is, and who we are in the sight of God. Along with that, making matters even worse, we run the risk of trying to make God in our own image, which is simply idolatry. Of course this still happens all the time in the Christian Church. People want to think that they know what’s best for God, what God wants, because we think God wants what we want. We think that the actions of people glorify God. We think that God is glorified by all the things we aspire to: fine, fancy buildings, and by having lots of programs and lots of people in those programs. So we set our sights on those things thinking that it must be good, is must be God pleasing, even though really, those are the things that are people pleasing. But Jesus says, “Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”4
Surely David would have been disappointed when he received the news from Nathan that he must not proceed with his building plans. He so wanted to do something special for God, to build something great. But through the prophet God says, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling.”5 You see, God is the one who decides how he comes to his people. The initiative belongs to him. So when we start to think that we know what is best for God we need to remember this same basic point that God speaks to David: that God is God, and we are not. What seems from our perspective to glorify God is actually sinful. What appears to us not worthy of his great glory is in fact the salvation of the world. Now we can see what a clear Advent message this is, for God comes to us as a baby lying in the manger, born of the Virgin Mary, a girl from a little backwater town no one knew. God comes not in a glorious palace surrounding by the fine things of this earth, but into the most humble of surroundings, worshipped not by kings and queens and celebrities, but by humble shepherds.
Our worship therefore reflects the way God comes to us, for God always takes the initiative, the service is his, and we respond. In the same way we must always recognize that the Church is not defined in our terms. The Church belongs to God, and therefore he tells us what it is, and where it may be found. We might want to say that the “house of the Lord” is the building in which God’s people gather to sing and pray and receive the Sacrament. Perhaps we too easily and too often talk about the Church as the building. But the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions never speak in those terms. The Church is known as the people – but not all people, specifically believers in Christ, and even more specifically believers in Christ who gather around the Word which is rightly preached and the Sacraments which are instituted according to our Lord. There’s nothing about buildings and programs, for God tells us what his Church is and where it may be found. Sure, it’s nice to have those things because they help us “be the Church,” they aid in the mission of repentance and discipleship that we are called to join. But, with or without nice buildings, God’s Word will go forth, and the Sacraments will be administered; the Church will go forth with or without the things that hold our attention from an earthly standpoint. The Church is what Gods says, not what we say, and not what we want it to be. The “house of the Lord,” God’s house, is where his people are joined together with Christ as His holy bride, a new creation by water and Word, and for her life He died.6
David is our object lesson this morning. He had a bright idea, but it didn’t correspond with God’s plan. David wants to build a house for God, but God is the one who will do the building: “the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”7 So David’s plans must be cast aside in favour of God’s plans, for “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”8 I like the way pastor and writer Eugene Peterson puts it: “There are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are seen, after a night of prayer, to be a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. That’s what Nathan realized that night: God showed Nathan that David’s building plans for God would interfere with God’s building plans for David.” The plan of God is made known to David by God’s word, and it is a plan full of promises. God promises David that he will have a great name. He promises to appoint a place for the people Israel. Rather than David building a house for God, God promises David that he will build him a house. “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”9
Just what this means become evident in the Gospel reading today, for twice St. Luke brings us back to the line of David when he writes the Good News of the coming of the Messiah. First we hear, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”10 Then the angel says, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”11 The promise of God’s favour to David would not depart from David’s dynasty, which would start with his son Solomon, who incidentally would in fact end up building a grand temple in Jerusalem. But that temple was relatively short lived, and it’s not there anymore, for “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.”12 David would have an enduring, eternal kingdom not because of any earthly structure, but because out of his line would come the Son of God, who ushers in the kingdom of heaven, where we have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So we draw a straight line from David’s building plans – which were replaced by God’s blueprints for salvation – to the Baby who comes to us in Bethlehem.
Therefore Jesus comes as the fulfillment of all of God’s building plans. The temple has moved to Mary’s womb, for Jesus in His Person is the new temple. Where He is God is also. So if you want to find God that’s where you will find Him from that moment on, you will find Him in the Person of the Son of God, the Word made flesh who comes to dwell among us. And of course not only is Jesus the temple, the place where God may be found, but He is also the high priest who intercedes on our behalf, an intercession made with His very blood as the one sacrifice necessary to take away our sins. Jesus is born in order to accomplish this, to take our place in deserving the wrath of a holy and righteous God poured out on sinners. Now all of those who really could not be in God’s kingdom on our own – that’s all of us, brothers and sisters – can go in through an open door, thanks be to God because of His intervention. The door is Christ Jesus. May we alway believe this. Praise be unto God our Father that he chose this way and performed this great miracle, the incarnation, that he became man and suffered for our sins. This is the building plan of God, for you, unto life eternal. Amen.
1 2 Sa 7:11b, 16.
2 2 Sa 7:2.
3 2 Sa 7:4–5.
4 Lk 12:31.
5 2 Sa 7:6.
6 LSB 644.
7 2 Sa 7:11.
8 Ac 17:24–25.
9 2 Sa 7:16.
10 Lk 1:26–27.
11 Lk 1:32–33.
12 Ac 7:48.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Fulfilled in Your Hearing
One day in a tiny village in a backwater region known as Galilee a man stood up in the synagogue and read from the Holy Scriptures. According to St. Luke’s Gospel this is what He read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”1 Then he rolled up the scroll, sat down, and told them something incredible about what He had just read to them. The man was Jesus Christ. The tiny village was Nazareth. The scripture He read to them came from what we heard for our Old Testament reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus then preached a very short sermon about this text, so that the people could understand its meaning. This is what He told them: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”2
Consider how this would have landed among those who were gathered there for the usual service in the synagogue. What did he just say? Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the carpenter? Listen again, this time from the words of the prophet: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”3 The One that Isaiah foretells is made King and priest for He is “the anointed one” – here we have the Hebrew word “mah-sah,” which is where we get “Messiah” and is translated in Greek as “Christ.” So Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads this prophecy of the Messiah which was foretold many hundreds of years earlier, and when He does this, He is speaking about Himself, the Anointed One of God, the Messiah, the Christ. He is the One for whom the world waits in hopeful expectation. He is the One promised by the prophets of God.
So Jesus basically is saying, “You know how the prophets spoke about the Messiah, the One who is coming to restore God’s people to righteousness? Well, take a look, He is standing right here in front of you.” How do you think they greeted Him that day? He was not adorned with gold of silver or leading a mighty army, but in the eyes of that village, and in the eyes of that entire region of Galilee, and indeed in the eyes of most people today, He was just a nobody from nowhere, now claiming the greatest office in the history of the universe for Himself. They were not inclined to believe that this was possible. But it is true. The Spirit of the Lord is on the Messiah, and He comes not with earthly riches and powerful armies, not with political power and media fame, but with the most powerful instrument of all: the Word that proceeds from His mouth. For that Word is a Word of transformation and blessing.
The coming of God’s Spirit upon the earth is always connected to transformation and blessing, it is always connected to great change upon the earth and God’s bringing about of his Kingdom. The Anointed One that Isaiah tells us about is sent by God to do just that. The tasks He will set about to accomplish are from God. What are they? Isaiah tells us quite clearly. The overarching assignment is to bring the good news, a message of hope to those who are presently afflicted, poor, broken-hearted, captives, prisoners. We heard the same thing last week: “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”4 The Good News is the Gospel, the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the forgiveness of sins unto eternal life. The Messiah comes, He is sent by God. Who then receives Him? Those who are broken by life and sin, those who have given up and have no more heart to try, those who are in such bondage that they can only think of liberty and release as a cruel mirage.They are sinners in needs of a Word of a Savior, a Word of release from captivity. But notice who is not mentioned…the righteous, the proud, the haughty. For Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”5 The transformation and blessing of the Gospel comes to those who repent and believe, those who in faith look to the Son of God, for Christ came in behalf of sinners, to heal and to bandage, to offer the medicine only He can bring.
So Jesus identifies Himself as the Anointed One of Isaiah, the suffering servant of Israel who will die for the sins of His people. In doing so Jesus also declares that He is the companion of the afflicted and the poor in spirit, andHe announces liberty. He is sent to proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.”6 How does that work? The year of favour, the day of vengeance. Aren’t these complete opposites? Well, not really, think about them as two sides of the same coin. The coin is the advent of our Lord. His appearance at His Nativity is the pronouncement of God’s favour. Isaiah makes reference here to the book of Leviticus where God gives the people a year of jubilee. This was like a year long sabbath that occurred every fifty years. Can you imagine? The people were to rest not just for the one day, but for an entire year. It was to be done in anticipation of the eternal rest which God would bring to his people. This year of rest points us to Christ. The Messiah has come and now He fulfills that rest, He is the year of jubilee: “Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”7 This is the time for repentance, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. But what about the other side of the coin, what about his vengeance? How does that fit with the pronouncement of his favour? Well, it is a source of comfort for anyone who is being oppressed that the source of that oppression should be lifted once and for all. I’m sure if you asked the people who were listening to Jesus speak and preach on Isaiah in the synagogue that day in Nazareth they would have been perfectly happy to see the back of the Roman empire. But the Messiah brings much more than relief from earthly oppressors. He brings deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Do you see how this goes hand in hand with the favour of the Lord? All those powers of darkness that seek to harm you, their days are numbered, and one day, when Jesus returns, their power will be ended forever, and all mourning will end forever.
And once the Anointed One of God has accomplished all that He has been sent to accomplish, the people of Zion have a completely different identity. It’s like a makeover. Once they wore ashes of mourning, but now that have a beautiful headdress, says the prophet. They have the oil of gladness, a garment of praise. All of this “that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”8 Yes, God is glorified in the sending of his Son, because the Son glorifies the Father. And according to St. John Jesus says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”9 The transformation that is brought about in forgiveness and blessing bears fruit in the live of his people! “For this is the glory before God, whereby God, and not humankind, is glorified, when man is justified, not by works, but by faith, so that even his doing well is imparted to him by God.”10 Christ wishes to say: “I want to extol your Christian life still more. By means of it you will be able not only to do all kinds of good and to overcome and avert every misfortune through prayer; but you are also the people through whom My Father is honored. You are priests and servants of God who offer holy and acceptable sacrifices to My Father without ceasing.” How many people on earth would like to have the distinction and the glory of being called servants of God through whom He is honored and praised!
“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” When Jesus said those words to His home town synagogue service many people couldn’t believe it. How is it possible? The prophet Isaiah lays it all out clearly, for Jesus is the Anointed Son of God, the Word made flesh who will dwell with His people. Today the same Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing, as it was fulfilled in your Baptism, as it is fulfilled in this Sacrament of the Altar, this table which is set for you. Christ has clothed you with the garments of salvation; he has covered you with the robe of righteousness.11 In this time of His advent we rejoice that He has come, and that He is coming again, and the “Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.”12 The eternally fruitful righteousness of God is ours because he sends the anointed one of God, Jesus Christ, and He has the grace and the power to save us, to lighten the darkness of our hearts. So lift up your heads and rejoice! Let us begin to climb up step by step from the Infant lying in a manger all the way to His Passion, His death and resurrection, and His ascension to Glory where today He reigns in majesty until he comes again. Amen, come Lord Jesus.
1 Lk 4:18–19.
2 Lk 4:21.
3 Is 61:1.
4 Is 40:9.
5 Lk 5:31–32.
6 Is 61:2.
7 2 Co 6:2.
8 Is 61:3.
9 Jn 15:8.
11 Is 61:10.
12 Is 61:11.
The Strong Arm of Comfort
Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase, “the strong arm of the law.” This idiom comes from an older time when an arresting law enforcement officer would place a hand upon the shoulder of the subject and state the reason for the arrest. Apparently it was also later a custom to “caution” a subject, that is to tell them of their right not to incriminate themselves, again with a hand upon the shoulder. The hand of the policeman felt heavy even if not applied with particular force. This was very literally the strong arm of the law. In addition, that act itself meant something, it was performative which means that in placing a hand on the suspected criminal they were identifying that particular person and subjecting them to the law.
We hear something about a different strong arm in the Old Testament reading for this Second Sunday in Advent, for the prophet Isaiah speaks of the arm of God who comes with might. That strong arm, which clearly and frightfully is displayed in his wrath, is also the power of God for you. The strong arm of God is also a gathering arm of comfort. In this way our reading from the prophet Isaiah summarizes not only the theme of this day, but the entirety of this season in the church year, and then moves us to respond. In fact this remarkable passage is so complete that we can say that it summarizes the entire narrative of the Holy Scriptures, and the entire message of the Christian church. Let’s take a look.
In the words “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”1 Luther writes that the prophet is the most joyful of anytime throughout this book, that he is “fairly dancing with promises.”2 What is the comfort that God speaks of and offers? What is the basis for this consolation? Isaiah, called and commissioned as God’s prophet, knows the situation of those who will read these words. They are people in the future who will be suffering under the weight of exile in a far away land, having been driven out of Judah and Jerusalem by conquering armies of Babylon. It didn’t stop there though, did it? We all, from that time until now, live in the same circumstance of needing that same comfort, the comfort of a merciful and gracious God, even though we are not exiled to a far away land. Ours sins matter just as much. So God’s Word is brought to bear. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended”3 Repentance is like that warfare, when the “scepter of the Law, of death, and of hell” is made known by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. A person “must experience a confounding of his conscience. Such people truly conduct warfare under the Law. To them properly belongs the comfort of the Gospel which says, ‘Do not fight any longer. Your warfare is finished and ended through Christ, the Redeemer.’”4 So “speak tenderly to Jerusalem…that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”5 Here is the power of the comfort of God, the forgiveness of sins, the repeal of the condemnation of the Law. Double gifts! Sin no longer weighs down, the fight is won, the battle is ended.
How does this happen? How is it possible for people who are in bondage, then and now, to receive this double portion of mercy? “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”6 God Himself is coming. He is the One who brings the comfort which Isaiah prophecies. We know that voice crying out, for “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”7 The Lord’s presence reveals His glory. The glory of the Lord comes to us in the Son of God, whom John foretells and the shepherds will praise on that night in Bethlehem. We behold the glory in Christ only because God chooses to share it. So then God’s people snap into action: “prepare the way of the Lord”8 in this world of sin. Christ has Baptized us with the Holy Spirit, who puts us into action. To prepare the way of the Lord means to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s activity in us, sot hat God may help us and our life may be the life of Christ. It means to clear out those things which are obstructing the way, so that “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”9 This is what we focus on in this season, prayerful, penitential preparation for the coming of the glory of the Lord. On that day “all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”10
The voice again comes, but this time it is the word of command, “Cry!” Go out, tell people about what God is doing! But now there is a stark contrast, for the first voice cried out to prepare for the coming of the Lord in repentance, for His glory is unstoppable, His coming is full of grace and truth. Now the command is to shift away from preaching about God and instead focus on humanity in its present condition. The difference is shocking. We move from coming glory to withering grass and fading flowers, images of powerlessness and insignificance. What better picture than grass? Certainly we have a love/hate relationship with grass, at least I do. Sure it looks nice when it’s all green and nicely watered and fertilized. But that takes lots of work. And I hate mowing the lawn. I could think of a hundred things that would be time better spent than riding around on my tractor for an hour. But it needs to done. Otherwise the grass will just keep growing up, eventually turning brown and withering away in the wind of summer and autumn, just like the grass clippings on my driveway that need to be blown off every time I cut the grass. So it is, says the prophet, of humanity. Physically, morally, humankind is like grass, or like flowers that look nice in the vase but soon fade and are tossed away. But there is more to withering and fading than mere human failure. The prophet says, “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.”11 Sure enough there is also an element of God’s judgement in the withering and fading. We know this to be true. We can see it right now. Sure enough there is an element of God’s judgement at work today in this pandemic. God never stops calling people to put an end to their pretensions of grandeur, because he is a God “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”12
But against the frailty of humanity and the judgement against sin and evil stands the word of God. It will stand forever. The Spirit of God which speaks the Law which condemns and kills also speaks the word of life which sets aside all our withering and fading. Isaiah knows that whatever lies ahead for the people of Israel and Judah, even war, siege, and exile, the Word of God is for them. And the same message is for you this morning. No matter what this life may bring you in the coming weeks, months, and years, the Word of God is for you, God is for you, and He is coming in glory. This is what Advent brings us. Christ comes in great grace in order to equip His people for everything that only He knows. He who receives the word in the good days and hides it in his faithful heart shall have a good supply for the evil days. Jesus Christ knows all that shall happen to you: temptations and sorrows, disappointments and pain, even unto death. He does not want you to lose that which He has won with such great cost. Therefore He prepares you with His word, and He sustains you with His very Body and Blood, He gives you His Spirit that you will need, come what may.
Isaiah writes of a third command to speak. Speak of what? The advent of our Lord. Go up on a high mountain, shout it out, lift up your voice. For the word which stands forever is a “herald of good news.” That’s what “Gospel” means, good news, a message of deliverance and victory. The prophet proclaims, “lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”13 The returning Lord is in sight. With his strong arm he will win the day. The strong arm of our God is for you. The kingdom of God rejects no one but receives all who hear and believe. The same arm that is raised in triumph is also lowered in compassion, and our Lord gathers His own to Himself as a shepherd cares for a flock. Jesus Christ is of course our Shepherd, and his arm reaches out to us in His church. Still he cares for His people, still he gives them His Word and Sacraments and He leads them, and we follow.
In our day we anticipate the coming of Christ already having heard the Gospel, already having received Him, already having been made His through His atoning blood. Here we are between the now and the not yet. In this season may we hear these words of assurance from Isaiah anew, so that we too will tell others, that we too will be the herald of good news in a world that is withered and faded with sin and disappointment. For the strong arm of God is a God of comfort. His word does what it says. He comes in glory because He intends our good, and now our warfare is ended. Receive the word faithfully now, throughout this season, and looking forward into the coming church year. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but the word that our Lord speaks shall never pass away; the “ the word of our God will stand forever.”14 Thanks be to God that we have this strong arm of comfort in times such as these, unto the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
From Appeal to Repentance
The people cry out “stir up your might and come to save us!”1 These words are directed to the God of Israel, the God who is the source of hope for his people, the God who is active for those who hope in him. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to that hope in our Old Testament reading for today: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”2 The same prayer is on our lips this First Sunday in Advent: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved.” Oh that God would become actively involved in what is happening here and now! We can certainly relate to that today. We too appeal to God to come to where we are and make his presence known in justice and righteousness, to relieve us from our burdens and problems in this life. This year especially we enter into this familiar season of the Church year with a dark backdrop of all too unfamiliar and unsettling events that disrupt the normal patterns we have always counted on. We are longing for a return to a more certain and grounded present and future. But hasn’t this always been the hope of God’s people, even without a novel corona virus pandemic? They appeal to God knowing what he has done in the past, those times and places in the Holy Scriptures when God not only would reveal his glory but would speak to his people, when he would confront and put an end to evil, when he demonstrated his power, and when he would bring about his salvation.
God’s people, past and present, are looking for an interruption of history. They are looking for an intervention. Long ago God spoke to the assembly of Israel at Mt. Sinai, “out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice”3 Would that he would do that again! This is what Advent brings us, an interruption, an intervention. We enter this season of hopeful anticipation, watching and waiting for God to bring the intercession the world hopes for, “the hopes and dreams of the all years.” In His coming Christ Jesus fulfills the prayers of the prophets and all God’s people for all time. For He has come to take away your sins, to conquer evil and to bring salvation.
What kind of God does this? He is the God “who acts for those who wait for him.”4 What can God’s people know about him? They can know what he has revealed to them, and what they have experienced out of that revelation. The prophet Isaiah has no interest in mythologies, in stories about false gods and the abominable pagan ceremonies of the age that have turned people toward the darkness. Isaiah was brought into the presence of the Lord God Almighty and his lips were cleansed in order to bring God’s Word to the people. And so he praises the One True God: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you:”5 The sum total of all that Isaiah has received, that which God revealed to him and that which he has experienced first hand, is this: nothing else in the universe has the right to the name of God except the one God, the Holy One of Israel.
This is precisely the message of the Gospels, the message of the Good News handed down to the Church from the apostles. St. John writes about the revelation of the Son of God in the same way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life”6 What truly distinguishes our God is that he is for you, he is your Saviour, and He comes to you in person. He is the God who reveals himself to those who wait for him. That’s what Isaiah is all about, waiting for a God to reveal himself to a people; waiting for a Servant to come and deal a death blow to sin. Waiting for a Messiah to establish His kingdom forever.
But the prophet Isaiah is also clear-eyed and realistic about the state God’s people find themselves in. Along with waiting for God, along with trusting and hoping, there is the necessity to hearken to God’s word, to follow in the paths of righteousness he has made known to his people. In fact the prophet says, “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness.”7 But what if that is not the case? What about those who aren’t righteous? Here lies the problem. We are not a blank sheets of paper upon which we can begin to write sums of confident trust and glad obedience. No, the sheet is so spotted and stained that there isn’t room to make a beginning. The stains are a result of sin: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”8 This is the time of year when all the leaves have gone, swept away by the wind, and where there was green life there is now only brown husk blowing around the yard. This is how sin works in the lives of people. In the absence of God’s righteousness we are no more than dried up leaves, blown this way and that by the wind, cut off from God and life. In that moment the mercy and comfort we seek seems far from us, and now we cry out, “you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”9
It seems we find ourselves caught in a vicious circle. God meets those who do righteousness, but we can’t do righteousness – unless God enables it. Yet Isaiah is not bringing a message of hopelessness in this waiting. We know what kind of God we have – we have already seen that he is the God who longs to save his people. The path is perfectly clear, a way that passes from a desperate appeal to God that he would intervene, to confession and repentance: “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?”10 The advent of our Lord is the emphatic “yes!” to the question “shall we be saved.” God revealed himself and his plan of salvation through Moses and the prophets. The promise was the Word, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.11 Jesus Christ is He who comes. He comes “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”12 He comes meek riding on a colt, and the people shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”13 Today He comes in like manner, not visible but still easy to recognize. He comes to His church as the Lord of the Gospel, whom we already knew even as little children. He comes in His Word, and in His Sacraments. We too cry “Blessed is He who comes,” and we too are turned in repentance toward the forgiveness and mercy that we have only in Him.
And so God’s people turn to him, they never cease to call upon him, trusting, hoping, waiting: “Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”14 In Christ Jesus we have the assurance that God does not remember our iniquity, but has provided the means by which the guilt of our sins has passed on to the Lamb of God, who was slain to take away the sins of the world.
Isaiah speaks to us in this season of Advent, this time of penitential preparation, he speaks to us as those who are waiting for the grace and mercy of God to be revealed once again even as we have already received it by His Holy Word and Sacrament. Just like the people of Judah were waiting in Babylonia exile, so we wait for our final salvation when Christ comes again to take what is His. Throughout the ages the situation of God’s people remains the same. God’s people move from appeal to repentance. We live simultaneously as sinner and saint, as those who feel the weight of sin, as we have the burdens of life in this imperfect and broken world bearing down on us. Still we look to God in faith. In repentance we turn again to God and receive forgiveness as those redeemed by Our Lord, so that our sins no longer count against us.
Listen again to the prayer of the prophet: “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.” This is a prayer of trust, a prayer of faith, a prayer of confidence that just as the Lord has acted in the past so he will act again. This year, which is marked by pandemic and uncertainty, enter into this time of Advent with quiet trust. With eyes and ears of faith, look to Jesus Christ, our king who is coming, righteous and having salvation. Come, Lord Jesus.
Romans 3:19-28 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
Two Little Words
Dear brothers and sisters loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
St. Paul has a pretty big vocabulary, but in the epistle reading for our Reformation Day observance the words with the biggest impact are very simple. Two little words: “but” and “now.” “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” These two little words mark the most important turning point in all of history. St. Paul has spent the biggest partof these first three chapters of his epistle to the Romans explaining that no one can escape the indictment of the Law. Jew or Gentle, it makes no difference, everyone must submit to judgment in the same court. No human being can be brought into right relationship with God on the basis of doing what the Law requires. This is the message, and although it seems very simple people really don’t want to hear it. The Law encourages effort, which we like to think is a good thing because we can take responsibility for how we stand with God. More effort? I can do that. Do better? Working on it. What kind of a Christian are you? Get it together! But human effort inevitably falls short, and the Law which commands is always the Law which condemns, for sin entered into our world and now “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”1
This is the condition of humankind: turned away from God, dwelling in spiritual darkness. This is life under the Law. This is life under the knowledge of sin. For Martin Luther this is exactly where he got stuck as an Augustinian monk trying to do his very best to get in right relationship with God. The Apostle writes that the Law speaks a word of accusation to those who are under the Law, so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God”2 For Luther this idea of accountability before a righteous and holy God was terrifying. Rightly so. What does it mean to be held accountable to God? Well, it’s more than being answerable. It’s being “accusable.” It gets back to our situation under the Law. To be “accusable” is to stand before God our judge as one already pronounced guilty. We know the familiar story that we roll out every year as we celebrate our remembrance of the Reformation – that Luther tried mightily on his own to be accountable to God, for he believed that this was the life of a Christian. You see, Luther took the Roman Catholic church at its word regarding how to get into right relationship with God. And what the church taught was that you must do what is in you, you must do your best, in order to be justified before God. God would do his part, yes, but you surely needed to do yours. But Luther knew very well what it meant to be “accusable” under the Law. So he kept coming back to the same problem over and over. He did everything he was supposed to do, he became a monk, spent countless hours in prayer and meditation, he checked all the boxes that were supposed to make you more holy. And yet his conscience nagged him with the same questions: how do I know if I have done enough? How can I ever please God when the Law remains a word of condemnation? How can I get out from underneath the accountability that God requires?
Of course today for most people in our society this sounds quaint and simple-minded, even absurd. The idea that one’s conscience should be burdened with sin, that one should be tormented over his or her standing before a holy and righteous God is not something that most people take very seriously in our time. Even if there is a God, surely he doesn’t want us to feel bad, does he? And what is sin anyway? Shouldn’t I be allowed to decide for myself what is good for me? Well, by no mere chance does St. Paul precede the fullest, most profound, and incisive proclamation of the Gospel in his letter to the Romans with the fullest, most profound, and incisive proclamation of the wrath of God poured out on sinful humanity. The Gospel is the power of salvation to everyone who has faith. Neither salvation nor faith can be understood in any meaningful way unless there is something to be saved from, and unless there is an object of our belief, something to grasp. The salvation and faith we have in Christ are only properly understood against the dark backdrop of the wrath of God on all ungodliness and wickedness. Everyone stands in desperate need of deliverance, but today fewer and fewer people recognize the problem and therefore cannot or will not hear the assurance of the righteousness of God freely given to repentant sinners. Indeed, I would argue that today perhaps more than ever people are suffering all manner of crises that are at their core a manifestation of this spiritual under the Law, even though of course they won’t see it that way. In particular this demonic hold that social media and online content holds on so many people shows them a life which is unattainable and unrealistic, this just leads to doubt and unhappiness. n There is a lingering sense that existence itself is without meaning and purpose. Of course we can add to that the unrelenting anxiety and uncertainty from this ongoing pandemic. But even all these things are the works of God’s Law. For Luther the true and proper use of the Law is just this, that sin should grow, that humanity should thereby be shown sins, weakness, spiritual blindness, death, and hell – in short, God’s wrath. St. Paul sum all of this up with these words: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”3
“But now.” Back to those two little words. But now something has happened which changes the course of our relationship to God. The only thing that could save us before God is God himself, and that is exactly what he has done. This “now” is the time of God’s favour which he pours out on his people. This “now” is the day of our salvation, for God sent his only begotten Son to be accountable in our place. On the cross Jesus is the One who is “accusable” before God, for at that time, a moment which reverberates throughout all history, of your sins and my sins were heaped upon Him at Calvary. So we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”4 To be redeemed means that a price has been paid. A price was paid to ransom from death the forfeited life of humankind. The ransom paid was his life. It was an atoning sacrifice, paid for in blood, for “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”5 The books of Moses, the prophets, the psalms – they all pointed to this event, and they still do. The promise was given even way back in the garden, and many times thereafter. Many believed it, and their faith was counted to them as righteousness. Those two little words – “but now” – herald the turn from the revelation of God’s righteousness in wrath to the revelation of his righteousness apart from the Law, in grace and mercy, made known in the bitter, innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Martin Luther finally understood this, then those little words for him were the springboard to hearing the Gospel anew, that all of his effort and strife were as nothing in the sight of God for obtaining the righteousness of God. He then looked around at the Church and realized that something was not right, and he set about trying to change it, to reform it. His focus was always on the Gospel, the message of the forgiveness of sins as a free promise on account of Christ. Many others joined in the effort. And so this is what the Reformation is all about. It’s not about a man, although Luther was important, and surely God used him in a great way in his Church. As Lutherans the reason why we have this day on the calendar is to celebrate this renewal of the right preaching of the Gospel, that the grace of God has come to us by faith, a simple trust in the promises of God which were made manifest on the cross of Christ. It is not that there was “no Gospel” before the Reformation, but man had obscured it in the Church with a bunch of man-made ideas and philosophies.
But now God has made manifest his righteousness which is now ours, he is true to his Word, and that Word will go forth. In and through that Word alone, and not in the pronouncements of popes or bishops, not in prayers to saints, not through the sale of indulgences or any other man-made speculations, but only in the Word which reveals to us the forgiveness of sins and justification on account of Christ. He is the only Savior, the only high priest, the only Redeemer, and now He sits at the right hand of God the Father as our intercessor. He alone has promised to hear our prayers. In all our needs and all our concerns it is the highest worship to seek and call upon this same Jesus Christ with our whole heart.
And now the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Ro 3:12.
2 Ro 3:19.
3 Ro 3:20.
4 Ro 3:24–25.
5 Eph 5:2.