The Third Sunday After the Epiphany, January 26, 2020

Gospel Matthew 4:12-25

Following the Light

Do we really know what the night is anymore? Sure, the sun goes down and it gets dark outside. Long ago, it was a darker world, at least in terms of artificial light. What we experience at night is not nearly the same as our forbears would have known about the darkness that falls every 24 hours. Of course, today we take for granted how our night is lit up by electric lights, on the streets, in our homes, in parking lots. In fact, all that light generated in the urban areas where most of us live washes out the night sky so that we are no longer able to observe the stars above us. There are fewer and fewer places where you can look up and see the Milky Way because the sky is washed out by lighting. We don’t really have a sense of just how dark the night can be. Now, I’m not complaining, I certainly do not advocate nor pine for a time when all we had were candles and lanterns and the occasional torch.

But for ancient peoples darkness was a different story. Darkness had the upper hand. It was associated with the unknown and unknowable. Darkness was a hindrance to movement and action and foresight. You can’t see what’s coming in the dark. Darkness was all about fear and anxiety and potential peril. Things are also hidden in the darkness. People fumble around in the dark relying on other senses to feel their way. Darkness is also thought of as not knowing, ignorance, even unbelief. (Maybe you’ve had the experience of being “kept in the dark” when something was deliberately kept from you that you wanted or needed to know.) But as I said, the physical aspect of the darkness of night is really not a modern problem. Today we don’t confront the same fears about the night because artificial light creates artificial daytime – we can see what’s out there. But even so, there is a daily darkness in our lives that no artificial light can overcome. We live with plenty of frightening darkness whether it’s day or night. The darkness in our lives comes despite street lights and lamps, and even despite the sun coming up in the morning. We can’t escape it, because sin has come into the world, bringing spiritual darkness and death. Sometimes it seems this darkness also has the upper hand. This too is all about fear and anxiety and potential peril. But this season of Epiphany is about how the light of Christ has broken in upon this darkness. Jesus is the light of the world! Even as we fumble our way in the darkness, the light has come, and we follow the light.

So when Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for us which we heard today in our Gospel reading, he goes back to the words of the Old Testament, in the prophet Isaiah.  “2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”1 We hear that John the Baptist now sits in prison having prepared the way of Jesus. We have previously heard about the Baptism of Our Lord through the Words of the Evangelists, and now Jesus has come out of the wilderness of temptation and relocates to this part of Galilee, “Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.”2 You don’t need to get out a map to understand what is going on.  We can only understand these things as the fulfilment of prophecy. Israel’s own story provides our illustration. They were delivered from the power of the Egyptians and given a land of promise, overflowing with blessing. But the people turned away. So they have suffered much under the judgement of God. The prophets warned the people that for them a day of darkness was approaching. Amos, for example: “20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 3 So they went into exile and there they lived under the oppression of harsh rulers and false gods. The people of Galilee are among those who have returned, descended from that history and surely they understand the darkness of life under the Law – the Law cannot save, but can only condemn.  So the people sit in that darkness, and they fumble around in the darkness of sin looking for the righteousness of God. They look in vain.

Does the world still sit in darkness? Surely we have overcome such superstitious ideas and have the benefit of reason and modern thinking to guide us away from these old fashioned ideas. Well, we can look around our culture today and see darkness all around.  And we can see the false lights that attempt to illuminate a false path for those who sit in darkness. We can certainly see this played out in the culture of death that increasingly defines our so-called modern society.  Canada has gone further and faster than just about any other nation in legalizing and normalizing the killing of human beings through its medical system.  Right now the Canadian government seeks to obtain feedback on expanding the existing assisted suicide regulations because they are now viewed as “too restrictive.” The idea is to make it much easier to obtain a medically assisted death. So now perhaps those who are mentally ill, those who are unable to speak for themselves, even minors and the frail elderly, will be subject to this new “enlightenment.” It seems that this particular solution to darkness and despair is more darkness, not light. Those who walk in the darkness are unable or unwilling to turn toward the light of faith and repentance.  For our world human life is relative, not sacred, and sin is an outdated superstition. To offer guidance from the Holy Scriptures risks being branded as an extremist, intolerant, backward.  “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”4

Jesus breaks into this darkness, a new day dawns for people who wait for the night to end. St. John brings us themessage from our Saviour: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”5 So as we hear St. Matthew tell us of Jesus calling the disciples we surely must think that they understood something of this light that had now appeared, because they “20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”6 They heard the words of Jesus, “Follow me,” and they had no choice, they had to go. The newly minted disciples knew that from that moment on that nothing could ever be the same again. The light that had come into the world was falling across the path of their lives, the light which brings the kingdom of God – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”7 The Words crash in on us, they rouse us from our fumbling and turn us toward the light.  The disciples knew what this means: we must walk in this light, we must follow, or we must perish. And so they go.

Now the thing about these disciples is that they are rather ordinary men. But still Jesus calls them, these ordinary fishermen. He calls them to cast a different net which is the Word of God, and to become “fishers of men.” Ordinary men called to bring this Word to ordinary people. People like you and me. But there is nothing ordinary about this message. We are called into His kingdom, we are called to let the same light that illuminated the hearts of Peter and Andrew and James and John fall upon our paths. We are called out of stumbling and fumbling around in the darkness of sin and instead to turn in repentance and follow the light. Jesus goes before us, and we confidently follow even through the darkness of all that this world can sometimes throw at us. 

It seems there is so much darkness. So we must follow the light of Christ because He preserves us in both body and soul. When He begins His ministry this is the light that is cast on those who gather to Him: “He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”8 He proclaims the forgiveness of sins that He will win on the cross for us. He is on the move, and people from all over follow. It’s true that we live in a time when it seems the church is in a time of bust rather than boom, at least in our part of the world. But wherever and whenever we gather in Him name to receive His gifts in the Divine Service He is here with us.  That’s why we are here.  The light continues to shine in darkness.  We need the light.  “1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”9

But those who are called to follow in the light – that’s us – are also called to bear that light in this world that sits in darkness. We are called to walk on this path and follow the light. What does this mean? It’s not knowing a set of facts or winning at a game of Bible trivia. The basis for the light is the ministry of our Lord. But we also learn along this way about a life lived under the cross, a life lived in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another. Jesus calls you to learn from Him your entire life, and to live in the light. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”10

The light has come to save His people from all that goes bump in the dark.  13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 11 We bear witness to the light in our gathering, witness to the grace and mercy of our Lord. Baptized into the resurrection and death of our Lord and Saviour we receive life, salvation, and forgiveness, feasting on His very Body and Blood in His precious Sacrament as we walk through this pilgrimage. A pilgrimage illuminated by the Light of the World. Real light which shatters the darkness, a light for us to follow, a light that sustains us and preserves us unto life everlasting.

1 Is 9:2.

2 Mt 4:13.

3 Am 5:20.

4 Jn 3:19.

5 Jn 8:12.

6 Mt 4:20.

7 Mt 4:17.

8 Mt 4:23.

9 Ps 27:1.

10 Mt 5:16.

11 Col 1:13–14.

The Second Sunday After the Epiphany, January 19, 2020

Gospel, John 1:29-42

Last week was the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord. We heard the account of St. Matthew describing the day when our Lord went into the Jordan River to be baptized. He was baptized not for His own sins, but for the sins of the world. Right then and there the Holy Spirit descended on Him and marked Him as the Son of God who has come to offer Himself as the atoning sacrifice for sinners.

Today we hear John’s Gospel and a different take on these events and the time immediately thereafter. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke concern themselves with John the Baptizer in great detail – the story of his parents; the announcement to Zechariah in the temple; the miracle of John’s birth to Elizabeth; the start of his ministry proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. Of course those details are important because John is the one who prepares the way and prepares hearts to receive the coming of Jesus. But here in our Gospel reading from St. John the emphasis is squarely on Jesus. St. John the Evangelist brings us the witness of St. John the Baptist, and his witness is all about the Saviour. Here the focus is properly upon Christ and Christ alone. One way we can understand how St. John the Evangelist does this is through the titles, the offices, of Jesus. There are six of them in our text today. In these six titles or offices we can learn everything we need to know about who Jesus is and why He has come. So let’s take them in order of appearance.

The first title is the big one, and we hear it twice from the mouth of John the Baptist. “29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”1 And again: “35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”2 The Lamb of God! What a powerful statement this is.  In fact this is the chief article of our Christian teaching, upon this our faith is founded.  John the Baptist cuts right to the chase. These words are crystal clear and tell us what we should think of Christ. And for those who would have heard them that day the words “behold the Lamb of God” would have been like an earthquake. Remember that God had given the Israelites the Passover so that the angel of death would pass over them and spare them in order that they could be freed from bondage and move into the promised land. What were they to do on the Passover? They were told to kill a lamb without blemish and mark their doors with the blood, so that they would be preserved. Much later, at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry the people celebrated that occasion every year at the temple when lambs were slaughtered in their hundreds. But those temple sacrifices did not remove the stain of sin. Luther says it’s as if John were saying, “Compare the true Lamb with the lamb which the Law of Moses commands you to butcher and eat. One is a lamb procured from shepherds. The other, however, is an entirely different Lamb; it is the Lamb of God. For It has been ordained to bear on Its back the sins of the world. Compared with this Lamb, all the lambs you butcher in the temple, roast, and eat count for nothing.”3 Jesus is the Paschal lamb, “a lamb without blemish or spot”4 who comes as our Suffering Servant, to stand in our place and bear our sins to be our Saviour.

The second title is no less profound but doesn’t jump out at us like “the Lamb of God.” John says, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.”5 A man who ranks before me, a man who was before me. But in what sense? Jesus was born after John the Baptist, so at first glance this doesn’t make much sense. But if we consider the very first verses of this Gospel of St. John then we see the impact: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”6 John the Baptist shows us the Divinity of Christ. Jesus is the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the Word that has always been. He is before John because He has always been. Now the time has come for the Word Made Flesh to step into history and time and take His place as the Lamb of God. Now is the time for the Kingdom of God to appear. So of course He also must rank before John, for none rank higher than the Lord. Now Jesus must increase, and now John the Baptist must decrease. 

The third title brings us directly back to the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan: “this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”7 Johns bears witness about what he saw: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”8 What happened there? The Holy Spirit descended, the Holy Spirit remains. Jesus has the Holy Spirit, that He might give it to us, those whom he has come to save. The Holy Spirit remains, He will never leave. So Jesus is the giver of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us in our Baptism, which is His Baptism, a Baptism of the Holy Spirit, of water and Word. We see the pieces all fit together: the One who is Baptized for us, the sinless Lamb of God, takes away the sins of the world through His atoning sacrifice on the cross, and He give us the Holy Spirit so that we might receive this forgiveness with joy and thanksgiving, through faith, and treasure it in our heart. That’s the idea.

At the very heart of John’s entire Gospel is the next title for Jesus. He says, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”9 Jesus is the Son of God. The Sonship of Jesus was also declared in His Baptism as we heard last week from St. Matthew: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”10 Later the same Simon Peter who is introduced to Jesus in our text will make the same confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”11 After his conversion Saul, the persecutor of Christians who becomes the Apostle Paul, “proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”12 They are all answering the basic question: who is He? Everyone must answer that question. St. John writes his Gospel so that we may know. And so when the two disciples who follow Jesus call Him “Rabbi” they are saying much more than the Aramaic or Hebrew word for “teacher.” Jesus is Rabbi because He is the true interpreter of the Old Testament texts. He is the true interpreter because as we just heard He is the Word made Flesh – the only begotten Son of God. Jesus Himself tell us this is so when He teaches the disciples after His resurrection from the dead.  “He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself13…everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”14

Which brings us to the last title in our Gospel reading which ties all of this together, the Hebrew word that Andrew speaks when he tells his brother Simon what he has seen: Messiah.  The word simply means “the anointed one.” The way the Greeks translate this is christos, or Christ. So to say Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is the Christ, means that Jesus in the anointed one, He fully possesses the Holy Spirit, which – again – He gives to us in the Baptism He brings to all of us. In our Baptism we are anointed with the same Spirit, adopted by the Father into His family, and “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”15 So now Andrew joins with John the Baptist and bears witness: this is the One, this is He of whom the prophets and the book of Moses have spoken. Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

Last week we heard the very first words of our Lord according to St. Matthew: “let it be so now,” in which Jesus means to say that now the time has come for Him to take our place, the Suffering Servant who will bear all for His people in order to present them to His Heavenly Father. This week we hear the first words of our Lord according to St. John’s Gospel: “What are you seeking?” These Words also assume a great and special importance. This entire Gospel of John has been revealed to us so that we can find the answer to that question, we find what we are seeking, for, “31 these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”16 The disciples answer the question with a question: “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” 17 In that same way Jesus beckons us to come and be with Him. Behold Him upon the Cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Receive the gifts that He brings, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and indeed His very Body and Blood given and shed for you, for in these simple things He brings the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When you seek the Saviour, He comes to you Himself, Messiah and Christ, through these means of grace.

Of course this is countercultural today. It’s radical.  The world around us thinks this ridiculous.  Most people do not seek the gifts of a Saviour, but instead long for the false security of what the world has to offer. The idea of sin that the Lamb of God comes to take away is impossible for many people to reckon with, because today all things are possible, all things are permissible. Who can say what is right and what is wrong?  But the words of the two Johns, the Baptist and the Evangelist, put to rest any doubt and set aside all human speculation. Sin is real, and sin is so great a matter that God became man in order to save us. The damage is so great that only God can fix it.  So for those who seek Him He is found where He promises to be. “Come and you will see.”18 And He who has begun this in you “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”19

1 Jn 1:29.

2 Jn 1:35–36.

3 AE 22, 162.

4 1 Pe 1:19.

5 Jn 1:30.

6 Jn 1:1–3.

7 Jn 1:33.

8 Jn 1:32.

9 Jn 1:34.

10 Mt 3:17.

11 Mt 16:16.

12 Ac 9:20.

13 Lk 24:27.

14 Lk 24:44.

15 1 Co 1:9.

16 Jn 20:31.

17 Jn 1:38–39.

18 Jn 1:39.

19 1 Co 1:8.

The Baptism of Our Lord, January 12, 2020

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

Gospel Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism in View of Death

For us Christians Baptism is a cornerstone upon which the church is founded. It is a cornerstone upon which our faith and our lives rest. We confess, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”1 Of course there are serious differences within the Christian church regarding whether these things are so. So we must take care to learn what the Holy Scriptures tell us about this Sacrament. 

The Baptism of our Lord which we celebrate today points us in the right direction. It’s worth hearing again those five verses from St. Matthew’s Gospel:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 2

Here we see the moment of intersection between John who is called the baptizer and Jesus who now begins His earthly ministry. John’s baptism is called “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins3” by St. Mark, and earlier St. Matthew calls it a baptism of “water for repentance.” John had come to prepare the way and to prepare hearts with contrition and confession. Yet in this contrition and confession John does not have the fullness of salvation to give. He always stressed that, there there was someone coming after him, “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.4” What was lacking in the baptism of John? A Saviour, the forgiveness of sins, the Gospel promise of repentance, the turning away from sin and turning toward God, for all who believe. So John rightly points to Jesus, the Lamb of God who comes to do just that, to take away the sins of the world. 

Now the Lamb of God comes to John, “to be baptized by him.”  Like John we see the problem right away.  Why does Jesus need a baptism of repentance? Repent for what?  Jesus comes to be baptized and yet we hear St. Paul who writes, “21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 5” He has no sin and yet there He is, wading into the Jordan with everyone else. What John says when Jesus comes to him makes sense to us! “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?6” Jesus has the answer. And in Jesus’ response we hear the very first words of our Lord recorded by St. Matthew in his Gospel: “let it be so now.” In that moment Jesus fulfills what the prophets had longed for, because when Jesus stands in the Jordan river He is there as the Servant who comes to suffer for His people.  We heard of this in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, who proclaims, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”7 Jesus the Suffering Servant has come to suffer and die for His people.

You see, this forgiveness of sins that we seek and desire, it will not occur without payment, without satisfaction. But you can’t pay. There is nothing you have to offer because the payment is not yours.  Who can do this? No offering is acceptable to God to pay for sin, says the Scriptures, except the one sacrifice of Christ. It is His sacrifice and only His that works, because only there His innocence and righteousness are given to you.  These things come to you and drown your sin and your death.  So “let it be so now” says Jesus. At that moment He takes on the commission of Suffering Servant and Messiah, the anointed One of God. “Let it be so now,” let the One who is marked to be the atoning sacrifice for the whole world be confirmed as the bearer of the Spirit of God.  Let the One who is both Messiah and Suffering Servant go forth in obedience.

Everyone else has come to the Jordan for their own sins. But Jesus has come not for His sins, but for those of the entire world.  At His Baptism He stands in solidarity with all of us, for He is our brother, flesh and blood just like we are. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”8 Righteousness is fulfilled because in Christ the will of the Father is truly known and really done. “16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”9 That none would perish – this is the will of the Father, to gather all people to himself in Christ Jesus, to restore the lost and the broken – sinners – back to a new life of forgiveness and hope through faith.  Therefore we know that the Baptism of Our Lord is accomplished in view of His death.  This is because the obedience of the Suffering Servant that He shows in the river Jordan is made manifest on the cross.  In that same obedience He goes forth to Calvary, praying, “not my will, but yours, be done.”10 So when He goes forth out of the Jordan, He doesn’t just go back home to Nazareth but instead He goes into the desert, and then He goes on to begin His earthly ministry, and then He goes on to Jerusalem.  There are no dark clouds and terrible lightning and thunder to mark this occasion. Rather the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and the voice of the Father announces and confirms the glory of what has been and is yet to be revealed: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”11

So the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan points us to His death and resurrection. Now the Baptism that brings us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is possible, because it is His Baptism, for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It becomes possible only because these events have been accomplished.  So this is how you should understand your Baptism.  It is something God does for us.  Through the water and the Word he meets us and brings us into communion with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We heard St. Paul in the letter to the Romans: “3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”12 What St. Paul speaks of is our election in Christ. This is how we are saved, for unless one is born again to this new life he or she cannot receive the Kingdom of God. And how does this happen? “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”13 Water and spirit.  Christ our Lord is Baptized in view of His death, and so are you. At your Baptism the old Adam was drowned and then you were raised again to a new life in Christ. Yes, that old Adam is a good swimmer, the sinful nature is always trying to bob to the surface. But you are Baptized, you stand in the forgiveness won on the Cross, and one day you will be raised again to everlasting life in Christ.

So a person is brought to the Baptismal font and nothing happens except that by God’s command water is poured over that person and these words are spoken: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And when and where this happens there is no doubt that in this Baptism, which is the outer sign of water along with the Holy Spirit, that this Baptism brings about new life, in faith. This is God’s promise. This is His Word. At Pentecost St. Peter said, “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.”14Yes, even little children, even babies, ought to and should be Baptized. They too belong in Christ’s Kingdom, they too are members of His body. Remember that salvation is a gift of God. Remember that Baptism is an act of God: “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”15

But don’t people walk away from this gift which they have received? Indeed they do. We must be faithful and hold fast to what we have received. But it can happen that those who “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”16 will fall away. We know the signs of this, don’t we? A person consciously neglects the Divine Service, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Word, prayer. The Bible becomes a closed book, prayer is silenced, visits to church are limited. But this does not somehow invalidate the promises of God given through Baptism. The promise of Baptism is still there, repentance is available for those who have turned away from the grace and mercy of our Father. God has never been unfaithful, his promises never go unfulfilled. So in faith keep hold of what has been given, and “let it be so now” and forever more, for you in your Baptism. 

Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

1 Eph 4:5–6.

2 Mt 3:13–17.

3 Mk 1:4.

4 Mt 3:11.

5 2 Co 5:21.

6 Mt 3:14.

7 Is 42:1.

8 Mt 3:15.

9 Jn 3:16.

10 Lk 22:42.

11 Mt 3:17.

12 Ro 6:3–4.

13 Jn 3:5.

14 Ac 2:39.

15 Tt 3:4–5.

16 Heb 6:5.

The Fourth Sunday After Advent, December 22, 2019

Old Testament Isaiah 7:10-17

Faith that Tests God

“Lord, if you would just show me a sign.” How many of us have been at that place in our lives where out of indecision or frustration or uncertainty we offer up this prayer, that if only God would reach down and make something tangible happen then for sure things would be better. If only we could know God’s will with certainty! At a point of inflection, that moment of going down one path or another, we long for God for reach into our lives and give sureness and clarity out of confusion and fear. So let us consider King Ahaz who appears in our Old Testament reading this morning from Isaiah chapter ten. For King Ahaz is offered the very thing that any of us would jump at, given the chance. Isaiah comes to him with these words: “11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”1 Ask! Anything you want, just ask, and the Lord will show it to you. 

We conclude our survey of Isaiah’s prophecies for Advent this morning with this well known passage that concerns the events we look forward to on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning this week. “14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.2” The words we hear this morning were spoken 700 years before the Nativity of our Lord, but these Words point us directly to that event. And they point us to what we must believe and know about the miraculous birth in Bethlehem. 

Why does Isaiah bring this message to the king? To answer this question you must know some of the context, some of the history around just what is happening. The prophecies of the Old Testament do not exist in a vacuum. They involve real people and real places and real events, so we should know something about them to help us understand what God wants us to know about his Word today.

So here’s the situation: King Ahaz is in the line of kings from David. He has control over the southern kingdom, which is called Judah, where Jerusalem is, because the kingdom which was united under David is now divided again. And now there are storm clouds on the horizon in the form of the northern tribes of Israel who are in cahoots with Syria, and want to invade the territory of Ahaz because he won’t join up with them to create an alliance. It’s all politics and intrigue. In the first part of chapter ten we hear that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind”3 because of this threat. He’s scared.  But what you also need to know to understand Isaiah’s prophecy is the reason why Ahaz is in this position in the first place. The reason is that there is a superpower knocking on the door.  The superpower is called Assyria. Ahaz thinks the best solution to save his own skin and keep in power is to get in cahoots with Assyria, to enter into some kind of treaty or covenant with them in the hope that they will leave him alone and go after the other kings who causing all the problems.

Sounds okay, right? What’s the problem? Politicians will generally do whatever is expedient to keep in office, they will say and do whatever is necessary. You don’t need to be a cynic to recognize that. But here’s the problem with Ahaz: the agreement with Assyria comes with a huge cost. We don’t hear about this in Isaiah’s prophecy but the history of 2 Kings tells us that Ahaz was required to worship their gods in order to appease them and obtain their help. He has abandoned faith in the one true God of Israel because of his short-sightedness. This is a terrible thing. It will not work for him the way he expects and hopes.

So now back to Isaiah. The Lord tells the prophet to go out to Ahaz, to give him words of assurance in the hope that he will not turn his back on God and worship the false Gods of Assyria. He does this two times. The second time, God amps up the message. “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”4 He is putting everything into this appeal. It’s like he is saying to Ahaz, if you don’t want to believe in promises and threats then at least believe because of a sign. Choose whatever sign you want.

This is the God who has bound himself to Israel, who longs to gather his people to himself in order that he may show them mercy and forgive their sins. God is not the possession of the prophets and priests, but he is made known to Ahaz directly by his Word. Ahaz comes down from the house of David, with whom God made a holy covenant. Now we know what’s going on. God is merciful and gracious, even though Ahaz has turned his back on God. God offers Ahaz anything he wants, just say the word, and you’ll have it! Who could pass that up? Well, Ahaz does. For he is now stubborn in his unbelief. It is all in vain. He has concluded that his only hope to the problem at hand is this alliance with a pagan nation. And now to the sins of unrepentance and unbelief he throws in blasphemy for good measure. “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”5 So lets get this straight: the guy who has abandoned the One True God for the false gods of an apostate nation now quotes the scriptures back at God? No, this is not a statement of pious faith, but rather one of hypocritical self-righteousness. He has alienated himself and his house from God.

But if Ahaz won’t ask for a sign, God will provide one anyway. If God’s people reject him and remain in their stubborn unbelief, God will show compassion and mercy. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”6 The sign is given to offer assurance and confirmation that his promises are sure and true. This sign will be a miracle from heaven. The sign is a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. A baby born of a Virgin, a miracle, just like Isaiah foretold.

The shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem are the first to hear the news, and they are told that they will find this sign, the cause of great rejoicing in heaven and on earth. Christ the Lord is he who Isaiah speaks of, the Word made flesh. No one else fits, no one else is called “God is with us.”  Through the prophetic spirit God announced beforehand these things which are unimaginable and believed to be impossible for human beings would take place, in order that when it occurred it would be believed and received by faith because it had been promised. The prophecy of Isaiah is like a keyhole, and the only key that fits these words is the person of the Son of God who comes to us in the flesh.  He has come to take away our sins, He has come to go to that hill outside Jerusalem in order to atone for our iniquities. 

The sign is there, for everyone to see. Yet the evidence is not enough. Many will reject the promise, just like Ahaz. The signs that God gives us provide the grace and mercy that we need, they offer the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But they do so where faith is unmistakably present. The Child in the manger is a sign unto to those who believe, who have faith in God’s Word that has been fulfilled.  We now have the signs of the sacraments, what Luthers says are visible signs of divine intent.  Holy Baptism brings entrance into the kingdom of God where and when faith is present. The body and blood of Christ that we receive in the Sacrament of the Altar is given to both believer and unbeliever alike, but only the one who has faith in these words, “this is my body, this is my blood,” receives the benefits Christ has to offer.

Ask for a sign, put God to the test, says Isaiah. Well, in the Old Testament this is usually not a good idea. The people journeyed through the Sinai grumbling as they went along and Moses said they were testing God. They were trying his patience. To test God is an expression of doubt, unbelief, and disobedience. Except when it is not. Except when God himself says, “go ahead. Put me to the test. See what happens. See that my Word is true. See that my promises are true.” And that’s what happens to Ahaz. It is no sin to test God when his very Word invites the testing.

This is what the sign of the baby in the manger means for us.  God has spoken once and for all in the incarnate Word Jesus Christ. He has given us this promise, and by faith we grasp hold of that promise and never let go.  This is the message of the angels which is proclaimed at Jesus’ birth. Immanuel has come, God is with us.  The promisedsign is what sets the shepherds in motion. Let’s go see! Let’s put this message of God to the test! And sure enough, God is true to his Word.  They found Him right where the angel said He would be, Christ was right there, for them. Today you can find Him right where Christ Himself says He will be, for us. Right here in the Divine Service, in the preaching of His Word and in His very Body and Blood. He is here to bring His good gifts of grace and mercy by faith.  This is the faith that rightly tests God because it comes from His Word, this is the faith that believes in Christ and leads toward service to God and one another. This is God’s will for you, that he gave his only Begotten Son that whoever believes in Him would not die but have eternal life.  So put God’s Word to the test.  The signs are given to us for this faith, to strengthen and preserve it until we are brought safely into the bosom of our Lord for all eternity.

1 Is 7:11.

2 Is 7:14.

3 Is 7:2.

4 Is 7:11.

5 Is 7:12–13.

6 Is 7:14.

The Third Sunday in Advent, December 15, 2019

Old Testament Isaiah 35:1-10

When the Messiah Comes

When the Messiah comes “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”1 Today we have a view of wilderness as an important natural resource, something to be preserved in national parks and wildlife refuges, where birds and fish and mammals and the natural ecosystems they inhabit are made off-limits to the encroachments of industrialized societies. But in the Bible wilderness has a much different connotation. Wilderness was a sterile, sandy country, not fit for human habitation and home to all manner of things that could seriously harm or even kill you. In the lead-up to our hearing of Isaiah’s prophecy in this morning’s Old Testament reading, the third part of our look into Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies in this season of Advent, he writes of the total devastation of the earth, of the sword that is filled with blood, and the destruction of mankind. Now what we hear in chapter 35 is of God’s miraculous transformation of this desolate and dry earth, this wilderness, into a fertile and green land, lush with life and overflowing with springs of water.

When the Messiah comes these desolate and dry places “shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”2 When God comes to save, creation will change, everything will be restored. Grass will grow, the ground will be carpeted with flowers.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we are just entering into winter and the browns and greys of this season will be with us for at least another four months. But this image from Isaiah reminds me of those first warm days of spring when the birds are singing and things are green and growing again. Isaiah gives us this picture of God’s saving mercy as the restoration and relief which comes to the dry desert.

Then he talks about the people when the Messiah comes. People with weak hands, and feeble knees, and anxious hearts. Sound familiar?  That hits pretty close to home for me.  The people who inhabit this dry and barren wilderness are dismayed and discouraged, disheartened, depressed, and despaired. Others are blind and deaf. Some can’t speak, and can’t walk.  When God comes to save, the weak, the discouraged, and the disheartened are suddenly strong and courageous once again. And people see and hear and shout for joy and even dance once again. It reminds me of those medical stories in which a young child hears for the first time. He has been deaf all his life. Then doctors do surgery. Perhaps they put an implant in the ear. Suddenly, the child hears his mom’s voice. And you see his face just light up in joy. Or imagine a woman who has been colour blind all her life. She puts on special glasses, and suddenly she can see a rainbow of colours. Tears flow down her cheeks.  I don’t know if something like that exists. But when God comes to save, everything changes in a person’s life. “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”3

For when the Messiah comes “waters [will] break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”4 Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”5 These are words for the thirsty, for those who long to have parched souls refreshed and renewed.  We are talking about a spiritual thirst. Those who thirst for righteousness long to know: what terms am I on with God? The thirst of the soul comes from the burden of sin and conscience. The hollowed-out space of uncertainty that people carry with them today is just that kind of thirst.  Luther knew all about this burden of the soul, the anguish of standing before a righteous and holy God with no leg to stand on; the feeling of being so spiritually parched. He says the thirsty soul “is aware of a menacing God; it fears God and sees His Law, wrath, judgment, death, and other penalties. Such anxiety marks the proper thirst…How much more will our soul grow thirsty from spiritual temptation, when sin and God’s wrath stare us in the face!”6

So we long to hear the words of forgiveness from our Saviour, only Words that He can bring us. Because only Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”7 The Messiah comes to bring the living water of life. “Be strong; fear not! He will come and save you.” He brought that water to you in the baptismal font.  In that moment you were brought into the promises of God, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In that moment the redemption bought with the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour, by His innocent suffering and death, was appropriated to you by faith “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is how an event that happened 2,000 years ago is given to you today. This is how you were brought up out of the parched and dry place of sin and death and made a new creation, born again of water and word for eternal life. This is the moment of transformation, and everyday we should rejoice, for we have obtained gladness and joy.

And when the Messiah comes the redeemed will walk on a highway, “called the Way of Holiness”8 Not a little path, not a secondary road full of potholes and crumbling asphalt, but a great smooth highway – a royal road shall be there. Everything that can harm the people of God is removed on this road. Only holy people will walk on it. Fools who walk in ways contrary to God’s way are not there either. A holy road for holy people. He puts us there. When the Messiah comes the path will be made known. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”9 The way He shows us is walked in faith. This is the way that leads us from this life to life eternal. And on this highway He gives holy things for holy people. He gives us His very Body and Blood. Today we come up to the altar, we kneel, we get a little bit of bread. We get a sip of wine. And in this eating and drinking we have life, forgiveness, and salvation. In this supper we walk together in communion with each other on this Way of Holiness, in unity of faith. Here we are forgiven. Here we have life eternal. The Messiah comes to save us, and we rejoice.

The prophetic words of Isaiah that we hear today are book-ended with rejoicing and joy and singing. This is appropriate for today, the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin word for rejoice. The candle in our Advent wreath is pink, or more traditionally rose coloured, and represents our rejoicing in the Lord and all He has done for us. The rejoicing we have today is because of what our heavenly Father has done for us in the sending of His only begotten Son, the birth of the Christ-child which we will celebrate in just 10 more days. The message of Advent is none other than this: that Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary, who was executed on a bloody cross outside of Jerusalem during the reign of the Cesar Tiberius, is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world, who comes to bring streams of living water to the deserted wasteland of sin and despair. Everything we associate with Advent, the banners, the wreaths, the lights and candles and singing, all get their meaning from this message of Advent. 

The church which is nourished with the springs of the Gospel has only this message to proclaim, and it is a message for all people for all time. The world changes, the culture changes, people are born and people die. The spiritual lives of people change with the latest fads, the desert seems to be getting bigger with every passing year. Sometimes the desert seems to grow in our own lives as well. In today’s Epistle reading St. James brings us a message that can be very difficult to hear: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”10 Advent is a time of relentless hope. For in the coming of the Messiah we behold the purpose of the Lord, “how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”11 Like St. John the Baptist, whatever your own kind of prison or suffering may be, call upon Jesus and receive the strength of His Word from those He sends to you.  Today the prophet Isaiah points us to the evergreen promises of our Lord, who is coming again. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and walk upon His royal highway, the Way of Holiness.

1 Is 35:1.

2 Is 35:2.

3 Is 35:4.

4 Is 35:6.

5 Jn 7:37.

6 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 23 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 267.

7 Jn 4:13–14.

8 Is 35:8.

9 Jn 14:6.

10 Jas 5:7–8.

11 Jas 5:11.

Second Sunday in Advent, December 8, 2019

Old Testament Isaiah 11:1-10

A King Who is For Us

Northern Michigan was once covered with countless acres of old growth pine forests, but after the end of the 19thcentury pretty much all that had been reduced to fields of stumps through intensive clear cut logging. If we could go back in time to around 100 years ago and drive across the northern lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan we would not see lush stands of forest from scenic overlooks, but instead we would see mile after mile of stumps and open space. The stumps would be blackened by the many fires that swept through after the loggers had completed their work, and the roots of the stumps exposed from soil erosion.  Today, even after all this time, in many places the forest has not returned. The pine trees cannot grow again because the soil conditions radically changed with the clear cutting, so now you can see plains full of rotting stumps interspersed with scraggly looking brush where once stood some of North America’s most impressive and glorious trees – massive white pines up to 200 feet tall and five feet in diameter. There are no sprouts of new life from those stumps and there never will be.

This comes to my mind as we hear the Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday in Advent this morning, continuing our look at the prophecies of the prophet Isaiah. The reading today begins, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”1 You see, Isaiah is also talking about a field of stumps in this passage.  Earlier he writes, “19The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.2” But he doesn’t mean a literal forest and literal stumps. He speaks of a people who have turned their hearts away from God and abandoned his Law and his promises.  What Isaiah calls the “stump of Jesse” is actually the family of David, the line of Jesse his father, which is regarded as lost and shriveled up. About 700 years before Christ, Isaiah points the people toward the terrible judgement that will come when invading armies lay waste to the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem and carry the people off into exile. The line of kings from David down through Solomon and so on lasted about 400 years, but then it was cut off. Then other powers took over. Persia, Greece, and Rome all took turns conquering the land that God’s people had inherited and squandered. The line of Jesse was like a tree that had been cut down and now all that’s left is an ugly blackened stump.

Can anything grow again from this stump? Well, God is in the business of bringing to life what seems cold and dead, creating new growth and life. Isaiah gives us this promise: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”3 From a stump nearly decayed a little Twig will emerge. The Twig will grown up and make holy and nothing will prevent it. For this shoot is Christ the Lord, who comes in the hour of greatest need and utmost trouble. This has always been God’s standard operating procedure, and he leaves us his Holy Scriptures so that we would know the acceptable time and the day of salvation.  That time is right now. As St. Paul reminds us, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand.”4

Christ the Branch comes to bear fruit, bringing back to life what seemed to be lost forever. What is it that is lost? The image and righteousness of God. Our first parents had this in the Garden, but then they sinned and lost it, and set in motion the corruption of our present world. They passed on a spiritual death, the infection of original sin, to everyone ever since. But God is in the business of bringing to life what is dead. So again and again the Holy Scriptures bring us this pattern of life out of death, the new growth out of dead wood. In the sending of His only begotten Son the plan is fulfilled and finished on the cross, which is the reason why He came to dwell among us, born of the Virgin Mary who became the new tabernacle of God, the place where God is. Jesus of Nazareth will be nailed to a tree, a tree of death, and in that moment it seems everything is over. It seems all there is for us sinners are endless fields of stumps. But it was just the opposite. It was only the beginning, for life came up out of that death. Jesus proclaimed victory over sin and hell in His resurrection and now the way to life is open. Forgiveness is at hand. New life is ours to which we are raised in our Baptism. We now have the gift of eternal life, in Christ Jesus, for the cross of death is really and truly the cross of life.

So Christ comes with the promise of a new kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, and He is our King. But this King does not rule like the earthly rulers. His rule is Divine, and His kingdom is of heaven. “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,”5 says Isaiah. This is the Holy Spirit who was given to Christ without measure in His baptism in the river Jordan, when “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”6 God’s Spirit rests upon Him and marks Him as the Saviour, the promised Branch. And because His rule is Divine the justice He meets out is not of this world. Isaiah tells us, “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”7 This is great news for us dear brothers and sisters!  We the people of Christ’s kingdom are the poor, the insignificant, the harassed, the lowly, the fearful – in other words, sinners. And we are the ones He has come to judge; or to put it another way, He will make the just cause prevail for us because He comes to judge with righteousness.  This righteousness is our justification. He gives grace to those who fear Him, He forgives the sins of those who repent in faith and believe and trust in His promises. In this way the “branch from [the] roots shall bear fruit.”8 This King, our Messiah, is indeed for us, He’s on our side with His righteousness and faithfulness. 

We know this because He has told us through the Gospel message that has been revealed to us through the Apostles.  The spoken Words of His mouth are “the rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips.”9 This same spoken Word has the power both to save and destroy. It saves those who believe it and make no claims for their own standing and righteousness before God, but it destroys the ungodly who remain stubbornly bound in their wisdom. Only by this Word which goes forth from the mouth of our Lord can sinners come to repentance and turn toward God and faith.  We learned this in Luther’s Catechism – “the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church”10

Now the kingdom of the Righteous King prophesied by Isaiah is one of peace and safety for those who are under the protection of the Messianic Ruler. Again, the “branch from [the] roots shall bear fruit” in the form of peace and security for God’s people.  Remember last week we spoke of God’s holy mountain, the heavenly city of Zion from where the Word of God goes out? Here again the prophet directs our attention to the mountain of the Lord: “9They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”11 The wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the lion and the calf. All these images point us to the assurance that in the Kingdom of our Lord danger and evil and even death itself will be removed.  Here there is supreme peace and harmony, people don’t offend one another nor try to destroy their brothers and sisters. Instead they have peace, they make peace.  A peaceable Kingdom, now and forever more, for Christ is our peace “who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”12

Today Isaiah shows us a picture of the Messiah as the King who comes for us, who is for us. And because He is for us, who can stand against us? In this season of Advent these prophecies point us to the fulfillment of God’s promises when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, to save us from our sins and lead us to eternal life. So now we look to the day when He will come again in glory, when “the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples”13 and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The King who is coming is for us. 

1 Is 11:1.

2 Is 10:19.

3 Is 11:1.

4 Ro 13:11–12.

5 Is 11:2.

6 Lk 3:22.

7 Is 11:3–4.

8 Is 11:1.

9 Is 11:4.

10 Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.

11 Is 11:9.

12 Eph 2:14.

13  Is 11:10.

The First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2019

Old Testament Isiah 2:1-5

Coming In to Go Out

Our text for this First Sunday of Advent is from our Old Testament reading in Isaiah, the first five verses of chapter two, again as follows:

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
    and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,[a]
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore.

O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah speaks of a great multitude going up to “the mountain of the house of the Lord.”2 He says “all the nations shall flow to it.”3 Well perhaps the streams of people we are more likely to see in our age – especially at this time of year – are the crowds lined up outside big box retailers on Black Friday to make their offerings at the altar of materialism. But Isaiah does not point us to the sale of the century. He points us to Christ. Always. So we launch into Advent with the first of these readings from the prophet and today and for the next three weeks our focus will be on the prophecies of Isaiah and how they speak to us about the coming of the Messiah, Christ our Lord. For He comes, and the day of His coming shall be a day of great celebration. God’s people knew this back in the days of Isaiah when they looked for relief from the ravages of war and darkness. And now in these “latter days” the Lord has visited His people, He has forgiven their sins, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”4 The whole world bursts forth in joy. The whole world streams to Zion, where the Lord is, and they cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”5

According to Isaiah the Lord’s house will be established as the central place to where all people will come. Why? What is there that brings people literally flowing into his house?  What is the attraction? Well it’s better than any Black Friday sale. It’s the Gospel.  It’s the message of light that comes to a world in the darkness of sin. It’s the promise that our Heavenly Father has heard the cries of his people and has relented in his judgments, and now he sends his only begotten Son to take away our iniquities. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this time, when the Gospel light comes into the world, when the kingdom of Christ is established. For this really did have a beginning, a time and a place, and it exists even now in His Holy Church.  The nations flow to it, for this is not a kingdom established by war or force of arms.  No one is compelled against their will. But people come like a stream of water to this Gospel wherever and whenever it is proclaimed in the Word and Sacrament of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When we hear of the coming in of Jesus to Jerusalem on a colt from St. Matthew’s Gospel  we know that this is just the start of a series of events that will take Him to the cross on Good Friday. The events of that day and the miracle of the Resurrection the following Sunday are now what goes back out, for now the new age of salvation has come to the world on the cross. Jesus comes in in order that His Word may go out.  So when Isaiah says, “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, [the Torah or the teaching] and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”6 we know when and where this actually happened.  After His Resurrection, Jesus taught the disciples that the entirety of the Holy Scriptures are about Him: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”7 Jerusalem, the City of David, is where is all starts. Then the Apostles went forth from Jerusalem after Pentecost and through the power of the Word made flesh they witnessed to the world.  That Word preached and the Sacraments which were administered drew people to the new church. And these are the means that will continue to draw all people. By this Word and this Word alone the Church is recognized, and where the Church is there Christ has promised to be with us. The light shines in the darkness.  Here in this time of Advent, by once again remembering His coming in and the going out of His Word through His church, we look ahead to end of the age when Christ will come again to judge both the living and dead. 

That’s why you are here today. You have been drawn to the Light, to the “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”8that Christ brings. This is something that happens for your sake, and it’s something that He wants for all people, for all nations for all time. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in order that His Gospel may go out again. That Word is the means by which He draws us to Himself, and Isaiah gives us this image of His holy mountain, the place where He resides. Where He is, we want to be also. The church father St. Augustine says, “Approach the mountain, climb up the mountain, and you that climb it, do not go down it. There you will be safe, there you will be protected; Christ is your mountain of refuge. And where is Christ? At the right hand of the Father, since he has ascended into heaven.9 Christ died for us all. He has not forgotten us. He knows precisely how bad it can be. He alone knows all our broken promises and resolutions, all our failed attempt to do better. He alone knows how much is lacking even when we try to do our best. But He comes to you this day in His Word, and in His very Body and Blood, He commits Himself to us as our Saviour. No accusation and condemnation of the evil one will stand against you, “because the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”10 Jesus is our rock, our mountain which cannot be moved, our King above all other Kings. 

So the church begins another year, and this wonderful season of Advent makes us look once again at all things. Jesus knows what He will do and only He can do it. There are many competing voices for your attention, many other “high places” that look appealing and seem to promise all kinds of benefits in this life. But only our Lord Jesus Christ offers you what you need: the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. You can’t find this anywhere else. And forgive you He does, and He will again and again, everyday forgiven anew in the promise of your Baptism, every day a life lived in repentance and belief. Forgiven, restored, raised again to the new life of light, walking on the path of righteousness.  Forgiven though we can hardly believe it and though we don’t deserve it. It is really true that God visits his people, and so now it is that Christ comes to us. Blessed is He who comes.

Isaiah ends this brief look at the city of Zion, the place where God is, with a call for transformation, which is also part of our Advent journey of preparation for the coming of our King. The prophet writes, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”11 This is a call to reorient ourselves, to make sure that the path we are on is the one that goes out from Zion, the path that we have in His very Word. The call for transformation, for repentance, is based on knowing what God has done, knowing what he is doing right now, and what he will do in the future. The Light of the World comes, He brings us out of darkness, He teaches us His Word that “we may walk in His paths.” In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”12 Here in this first week of December the days are getting shorter and shorter, the darkness of the evening comes upon us earlier and earlier this time of year. But the light of Advent shines brightest in darkness. So let us move into this season as those who do not walk in the darkness, but “let us walk in the light of the Lord.”13

1 Is 2:1–5.

2 Is 2:2.

3 Is 2:2.

4 Lk 1:53.

5 Mt 21:9.

6 Is 2:3.

7 Lk 24:46–48.

8 Is 2:3.

9 Steven A. McKinion, ed., Isaiah 1-39, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 24.

10 Is 2:2.

11 Is 2:5.

12 Jn 12:35–36.

13 Is 2:5.

The Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 24, 2019

Gospel Luke 23:27-43

Vision Refocused

When we cannot see well, we go to the eye doctor and get our eyes checked. As we look through all the various machines, the optometrist or ophthalmologist tries different lenses to correct our vision until we can see clearly again.

When the Church needs to refocus her vision, she goes to Good Friday. There we can see clearly again. We see the enormity of our sin. We see the enormity of our Savior’s love. We see the Old Testament fulfilled. We see the promise of the Last Day. Good Friday is the lens through which the Church looks to see everything in right focus. We are neither nearsighted (only concerned about here and now) nor farsighted (only concerned about the end)—we see past, present, and future all through the lens of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

So in case you came into the service this morning wondering if perhaps we have our Gospel readings mixed up this is the explanation for why we are hearing of St. Luke’s Gospel account of the crucifixion on this Sunday. We are at the end of the church year now looking right into Advent, and as we start again toward the great church celebrations of the Nativity we need to make sure we are viewing all of these events through the right lens. Good Friday is the right lens. The events of Good Friday bring to fruition the events of Christmas Eve. The baby who lies in a manger is destined to hang on the cross for the sins of the world. He comes into the world in the most humble of circumstance, born where livestock are kept in a small town in the Judean countryside. Surely not the stuff of royalty. And when He is crucified the religious authorities and the soldiers mock and sneer at Him, and all the people gathered there ask the same question: if you are who you say you are, then why don’t you do something about this? How could this happen? Where is your kingdom now, Jesus of Nazareth?

The kingdom is right there. The kingdom which Christ is born to bring is now fully revealed on that cross. There are two thieves hanging there on crosses along with Jesus. Like them, Jesus is treated as a criminal. But this is the fulfillment of prophecy: the prophet Isaiah writes, “he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”1 One criminal brings forth the same words as the scoffers and mockers who are assemble below watching the unfolding of events. St. Luke says he “railed at him,” the word here is literally blaspheme, which means to revile and slander God, “saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”2 He follows the lead of the soldiers and religious authorities in wickedness and unrepentance. 

But if Jesus has done nothing wrong why, is He there? Why is He subject to this mockery and suffering? Because He is our great High Priest, who hangs on the cross not only as the one who brings the sacrifice before God for the remission of sins but is in His very flesh the needed sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Why is He there? Because our sins could not be atoned for and taken away in any other way. So He offers His Body and Blood for our sake, and in praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”3 He not only prays for the mocker and scoffers who stand there that day but He prays for all poor miserable sinners. St. Peter tells us, “23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”4 He prays, He offers, for you.

The other condemned man on the other side of Jesus follows a different course. He says of our Lord, “This man has done nothing wrong.”5 Indeed this is true, for “22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”6 But the thief knows that his own sentence of condemnation is just, he knows that he has sinned and that he must in fact die for his sins.  So the thief knows and confesses the glory of the Saviour, and heaps burning coals on the pride of those who stand there mocking. He does not hang upon the cross with any remaining notion of boasting before God or a claim to justification on the basis of good works.  You see now that the cross is the lens to see the kingdom clearly. This is what the thief believes and confesses, by faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”7 Jesus comes into His kingdom on the cross. This confession opens paradise. Christ converted that thief on the cross into a saint.  He doesn’t leave him to remain and to perish in his sins.  By this very deed Christ shows us what the Redeemer sought and acquired by His sufferings, and what He accomplished by the priestly prayer and sacrifice which He brings forth on the cross. He took sin upon Himself, not because He delights in sin, neither because He would have us remain under sin and continue in iniquity. No, He suffers for sinners so that they need not go on in sin, and so that they may become converted and bear fruit.  This is the way of repentance.  This thief hangs upon that cross accused of his sins, but still he trusted in the Lord Jesus.  Still he believed that God, through Him and for His sake, would forgive his sins and give him life eternal.

True, all that meets the eyes are nails and wood, and blood. All we see are gaping wounds and anguish. This is a stumbling block. What kind of kingdom is this?  What kind of King is this? To this St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”8 We proclaim Him King because we see Him crucified. Christ laid down His life, as He said He would, and so we pray along with the thief, “Jesus, remember me.” Through the eyes of faith we see the power and glory of the kingdom, and we see Jesus raised up on the cross as the same One who is now lifted up to sit at the right hand of God. And even as He is there now He is still with us, remembering us in His kingdom, our brother and our one mediator before our Heavenly Father.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”9 Once again the last becomes first. Once again Jesus shows that He came to offer Himself for sinners, not for the righteous. “You will be with me in paradise” are words which are heard only in faith and repentance, like the thief. Those who would try to enter the kingdom of God on the basis of a holy life and good works are stuck in a terrible deception. The death Christ dies is not for His own sake, but for ours. Upon the cross Jesus gives all who believe access to the entrance to the kingdom, Paradise, which Adam had previously closed. What is this Paradise? This is the place where we can once again have the full enjoyment of the tree of life. The Revelation given to St. John Jesus says, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”10 There is no more old evil serpent to tempt and torment, and there is freedom from all suffering, affliction, and death.

That’s what the tree of the cross does for us, it opens again the way to Paradise. Jesus in His flesh brings back that which was lost.  We know that in Adam “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”11 But when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary the angels in heaven proclaimed the glory of God in the highest and peace on earth because now the way back had been shown. In His earthly ministry Jesus restored Paradise, saying “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”12 For where Jesus is, there is Paradise, because where Jesus is there is restoration and redemption and rest. 

In His Words to the thief on the cross He makes that promise. For the thief the promise was realized on that very day. For us we wait in hopeful expectation that all these things will be just as our Lord has said, and that He awaits us. When that day is we don’t know. It might be a long time from now, it might be very soon. But whenever and however it is, is will be a day of joy, for then your soul will taken into the bosom of our heavenly Father by Christ while your body awaits Christ’s coming and the resurrection of the dead. But even today when you hear the Gospel preached and your sins absolved in the stead and by the command of our Lord He says to you “You will be with me in Paradise.” When you receive the Body and the Blood of our Lord He says to you “You will be with me in Paradise.” Do you see how the cross shows us the kingdom? As we step into Advent to herald the coming of our King we looks to the cross and Good Friday to make sure our vision is properly focused, focused on the kingdom of heaven proclaimed in the cross. We see most clearly in the innocent, bitter suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father given to us.

1 Is 53:12.

2 Lk 23:39.

3 Lk 23:34.

4 1 Pe 2:23.

5 Lk 23:41.

6 1 Pe 2:22.

7 Lk 23:42.

8 1 Co 1:23–24.

9 Lk 23:43.

10 Re 2:7.

11 Ro 5:12.

12 Mt 11:5.