First, from my dear fellow-pastor at St. Paul’s, Pr. Gleason:
Sermon for Advent 2, 2020
Luke 21:25-36; Romans 15:4-13
"Behold, the day is coming..." Malachi echoes the cry of Jeremiah from last week. Last Sunday, Jeremiah declared, “Behold, the days are coming,” and then foretold of the righteous King who comes to rule wisely and justly, delivering His people from their enemies. Today Malachi describes that day in its fulfillment when the “arrogant and all evildoers” burn like stubble in a fire, while God’s people dance over the ashes of their enemies.
Both prophets preached hope to people mired in spiritual gloom. But it was a despair of their own making, and rightly suffered. It grew from their indifference to God and His word. The people of Jeremiah’s time, “treacherous Judah,” he called them, were shamelessly following in the idolatrous footsteps of Israel. And like Israel, they would be judged and sent into exile. The people of Malachi’s time, 200 years later, although chastened in Babylon and returned to their own land and having rebuilt the Temple, still “turned aside from [the Lord’s] statutes and had not kept them.” God called them to confess their sins and turn back to Him in renewed faith and hope.
Ever since Eden, the sinner tries to run and hide from God. But God always finds him wherever he hides. Calling him by name, He bids him to confess his sin and to turn from his wicked ways.
And to each repentant sinner, God speaks His word of saving hope so that he may hear and believe and live. This is God’s way. As we prayed, He “prepares the heart of the sinner to make ready the way of His only-begotten Son.” He fills the sinner’s heart—He fills your heart—with the joy and peace of believing so that the redeemed may abound in hope.
In the eyes of the world, hope is a fleeting and fickle emotion. The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer called it “the folly of the heart.” That’s because men usually set their hopes on things doomed to failure.
It is hard to refute such pessimistic thinking when one looks at the sorry world that we live in. Any unbiased look at all the weak and futile things that people stake their hopes, even their lives, upon could depress even Pollyanna. I would not be surprised if future historians looked back at 2020 and labeled it the “year of vain hopes.”
But there is the “moral of the story.” Hope always depends on its object. If you place your hope in transient things, your hope will be just as fleeting. Hope that prevails, even in the face of hopelessness, is always grounded on something sure. That is what the Spirit says to us today.
In our Old Testament and Gospel lessons, we hear of horrifying events. Malachi said, “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts.” Jesus told His disciples, “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity… people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” The warnings of the world’s doomsday prophets pale next to the threatening word of the Lord. And there is no place to hide. “For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth,” meaning Moses, “much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven,” meaning Christ. (Hebrews 12:25) No one escapes from the wrath of God. So He warns all people, “Behold, the day is coming.”
Yet, God does not leave us without hope. Before that terrible day of the Lord comes, He sends His messenger to change the hearts of people. “The Lord will make His majestic voice to be heard, and you will have gladness of heart,” said the prophet. The majestic voice of the Lord is His Gospel proclaiming salvation to the world. His majestic voice came, not only in the words of the prophets, but in Him who is the voice of God in the flesh, Christ Jesus. Jesus spoke of God’s enduring voice when He said, “My words will not pass away.”
His disciples needed to hear those words of promise, because in short time Jesus’s voice would be silenced. Within a couple of days, Jesus would be nailed to the cross. And as He hung from the cross, Jesus would speak once more, words of forgiveness and grace, as well as suffering and agony. But when He spoke His final word, He would breath out His last and fall silent.
For the disciples, the silence would be foreboding. That coming Sabbath, when usually they would hear Jesus preach, would be strangely quiet. No doubt they would recall His words to them, as well as other Scripture, to bolster their hopes and find encouragement. “Did He not just tell us, ‘My words will not pass away’?” And in the face of doubt and despair, they would cling in hope to His undying word.
Their hope was not disappointed; they heard their Lord speak His peace to them again when He stepped from the grave to be silenced never more. And as Christ now lives and reigns forever, so is His word is ever alive and active to give life and salvation to all who cling to His word in faith.
The same encouragement the disciples found when their days seemed bleak is ours. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The same majestic voice that called all things into creation breathed into the prophets and apostles His Spirit so that by their inspired witness, preserved in Holy Scripture, we may have hope.
And that same majestic voice that called you by name in your baptism and made you a new creation, breathes into you His Spirit, filling you with joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope.
Advent is a season of hope. But “watch yourselves,” for the world would draw you away from the hope we have in God’s word. Right now, especially, the world and its evil prince would lure you into many vain hopes. Hope in a man sitting in the White House promising benefits he cannot or may not deliver. Hope in a vaccine that may or may not cure this pandemic. Hope in a “new normal” that is anything but normal, but warped and perverse. Hope in a false unity based not on concord among people, but on fear of exclusion and persecution. That’s on top of all the usual hollow dreams of money, gifts, and gadgets all decorated in glitter and lights this time of year. “Watch yourselves,” do not let your hearts be weighed down with the cares of this life.
Our true hope is in none of these things. Certainly, God may use any or all of them to execute His will in this world; and for those who fear Him, He will work all things for your good, come health or virus, unity or conflict, prosperity or poverty, life or death. But our sure hope is always in His word. In His promises. In the proclamation of true joy and gladness in His Son. It is a gladness without end for you who “live in harmony in Jesus Christ,” even if the world should be set ablaze. In fact, Jesus tells us, “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
So then, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Amen.
Second, from my longtime internet friend and fellow Hymn-lover, Pr. Jerry Gernander of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod:
Lord Jesus, You come to us in lowliness to bring us to glory. Lead us through the wilderness, for You are the life of the world, and make this desert a spring of water for us. May our eyes see You, and our ears hear Your voice. Precious Savior, say to our soul: Be strong and do not fear! Keep us close to You, keep us close, strong and faithful God. Amen. (Laache p. 44)
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ:
You hear that with every sermon: your name, or really your status: “redeemed.” This word, and all it means, is part of our learn-by-heart knowledge as Lutherans. What we learn of Jesus is boiled down to this: “He has redeemed me.” What has He redeemed? “A lost and condemned creature” - we say creature not to demean who I am, but to emphasize that I’m created by God! -- However, through the Fall into sin, being conceived and born sinful, I am “lost and condemned.” God’s compassion for me in this state is why “He redeemed me.” Then we learn to say what “redeemed” means: “purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.”
This is the truth -- not a feeling, but the truth -- that you are not a slave to sin, even when it feels like it and you’re swallowed up by guilt and shame; that you can’t be held by death, although it’s all around you, you may have terrible fear of death, and the death of others grips you in deep sadness and grief; and that the devil can’t have you, even if he’s whispering in your ear, you do his bidding, and you listen to his accusations and so struggle to believe God.
“He has redeemed me” is so powerful to rescue you from all that, and to keep you safe in God’s arms. So it’s a great thing for you to be called “the redeemed.” We hear it at the end of Isaiah 35: “The redeemed of the LORD shall walk there,” is speak-ing of you. This is a promise, a beautiful Gospel promise spoken to you.
We have to back up, though, and survey the landscape. In Isaiah 35, the prophet pictures it for us as a desert, a wilderness, a wasteland. He goes on to further picture it as a dry, waterless, parched ground, a harsh landscape. It’s the place of deprivation and death.
There are many such descriptions in the prophets. Normally I’ve had to work to reveal how this is the world we live in. But as 2020 goes out, I don’t have to work to show you the bleakness of our landscape, how this is a wilderness. You see and feel it all the time, don’t you, especially all the things you have to say you can’t count on.
Besides that, the way the world is going brings discouragement and distress. I want to acknowledge that this is hard. And the “sorrow and sighing” we’re going through constantly, it’s relentless. I tell you: God sees it, He puts your tears into His bottle, He has compassion for you. It says in verse 4, He’s saying His “Fear not” to “the anxious of heart” [ESV]. At the same time, we have to be careful. We’re not here to develop “woe-is-me” Christianity. Or to find someone to blame for our problems, or see ourselves as victims.
We have to ask, What’s changed, that it was harder before to see this world we live in as a wilderness, but easier now to see it that way? What’s happened is that our idols are being cast down. The things we put our trust in, the things we’ve come to rely on for our happiness and peace, we’ve twisted God’s gifts into our demands -- this is what’s changed! It reveals our 1st Command-ment sins, which commands us not to rely on such things for happiness and peace.
So this time that we’re in is revealing something embarrassing. It shows the idols we make. But also, how have we responded? We get angry. We’re like pouty children who refuse to let it go. Instead of getting on our offended high horse as Christians, we need to be humbled. It’s good that Advent comes in the midst of this. This is a season to repent. Repent of putting your hopes in useless things, repent of wanting the world to be what it used to, and see what God does! Listen to Isaiah! He is speaking to your pessimism:
“The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and sing-ing. … Waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.” Here God has Isaiah picture the desert, the wasteland, being made beautiful. This is what God does. This is what He does for you. This is a picture of God making for Himself a Church, the Christian Church. Isaiah shows the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the mute speaking again, the lame walking, what’s dead coming to life. These were the miracles Jesus did. He shows water flowing into the dead dryness and bringing it to life. This is Baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s like, everywhere you look there’s life flowing and fruit blossoming.
God is taking something ugly and making it beautiful. He’s taking something dead and giving it life. That’s you. If you have eternal life it’s because you have no sins counting against you. How’d that happen? “He redeemed me.” He redeemed you with His holy precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. How precious you are to Him! He wants you! He purchased you! He gave the very best for you, that you would belong to Him and that you’d flourish.
Now we come to the best part of this picture. Isaiah pictures it this way: as you walk through this world, there’s a lit-up road, a highway, that’ll light you safely through all the darkness of the world about you. Anyone on the road is safe. It’s certain, as you walk that road you’ll end in His heavenly city, Zion. So how can you be on it? “The redeemed shall walk there,” it says. “The ransomed of the LORD,” it says. The ones He paid a ransom for. Whew. That’s you. “He has redeemed me.” These are the ones who have faith in Him and cling to Him, cling to His Word, live from inside it.
This isn’t just to be a relief that you’re on it. You take strength from it and it affects and empowers your thinking. He says: “Be strong, do not fear.” You know without a doubt that you belong on the “Highway of Holiness,” since it’s not your own holiness but what He gives you. When you hear “fellow redeemed,” you hear Jesus in that word. He redeemed you. You say: “That’s me! I am redeemed by His blood.” That’s your status. Hold on to that.
But not everyone is on that road. You know: everyone should be. You know He redeemed everyone. You know where the road leads. So how do the redeemed walk? “They shall return with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads.” This confident joy, certainty in walking the Lord’s path, matters. Not anger and defensiveness, but joy and singing show the world what we have.
Isaiah pictures us going there singing all the way, simply because what He fills us with can’t stay inside but comes bursting out of us. This was so important to Martin Luther and all the church fathers. It's been hard during this shutdown, where in many places singing was banned. I've heard of Christians who couldn't sing in church in one state, being in attendance at a wedding in another state, and when the singing began they just wept. The hymn we just sang (Savior of the Nations, Come) was written during a time when the Christians were ordered by the emperor to desist from their worship; and they barricaded themselves in the church, and when the soldiers came they sang this hymn over and over, this hymn confessing Christ, declaring who their true Lord is and demonstrating what they were willing to suffer in His name.
It's not just the outward saying of the words though; one of our hymns says that "the church with psalms must shout, no door can keep them out, but ABOVE ALL THE HEART must bear the greatest part" (ELH 22:2). So as you sing the truth of God, whether you're downcast or whatever, it lifts you up above all that the devil can do, above the dangers, and tells your heart how to feel and what to think. As we sing these hymns, to our mind we hear the voices coming out of the halls of the heavenly Zion, where the saints and angels are, and we join with them in singing praises to the Lord who redeemed us.
We’re homesick children who know we’re on the way home, so to us nothing is bleak, nothing dark and gloomy, for we are on the safe, lit-up road that goes to Zion. Sorrow and grief, sighing and anxiety turn tail and run from us. They must. Our Redeemer is with us on this road giving us joy all the way until we arrive where there’s fullness of joy at His right hand. Amen!
(Told you so, didn’t I?!)