Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, December 30, 2018 (Luke 2:41-52)

This sermon was originally delivered at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Herndon, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Have you ever had someone make an assumption about your identity, or assume they knew something about you while being drastically wrong?  Have you ever made such assumptions about someone else?  Our Gospel reading this morning in many ways has to do with an inability to understand who a person actually is, even when presented with proof.  Specifically, how Jesus’ identity is misunderstood even at the young age of twelve.  In our reading, Mary and Joseph seem to have certain misconceptions about who their son is, and, upon further reflection, so do we.  Christ’s adolescent visit to the Temple reveals that we, in our sinfulness, fail to grasp the truth of his identity.

But first of all, on Monday night we heard the familiar story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem during the Augustan census.  We know the story well— Joseph and Mary, no room in the house for the birth, the angels, the shepherds— it lies at the heart of the Christmas season.  And thanks to our Nativity creches, we mentally prepare for the coming of the wise men from the East to come next in our holiday sequence.  So it’s a bit of a surprise to see Jesus showing up as a twelve-year-old in our lectionary for the first Sunday of the Christmas season.

There is good reason for the inclusion of this narrative from the early years of Jesus’ life, though, because it rounds out what some theologians call “the infancy narrative” (not that Jesus is an infant at the age of twelve— he’s quite close to manhood), which recounts scenes from Jesus’ early years.  Why we have so few scenes from his early life is a discussion for another time.  The next time we see him in the Gospels and in the church year is when he is roughly 30 years old and coming to John to be baptized in the Jordan.  Jesus’ going to the temple is the last time we see him as young right before his ministry begins, before he starts being known to the world.  And it also shows us that Jesus didn’t jump from being a baby to being a man.  It gives us insight into who he was in the intervening years between the manger and his baptism in the Jordan in Luke 3.

And what were Jesus and his family doing in this final episode of the infancy narrative?  Luke tells us that they were going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  They apparently did this every year, even though only Joseph, as an adult man, was required to make the journey to Jerusalem to observe the feast, and even then, was only required to be in the city for two days to fulfill the rite’s obligation as defined in Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16.  The rites at the Temple would have included the ritual slaying of a lamb and a family meal made of that lamb in order to commemorate the events of the historical Passover recorded in Exodus, where God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  Mary and Joseph it seems also traveled with friends and neighbors, and perhaps while Joseph and the other menfolk were attending the rites at the Temple, Mary and the women and children did things in the city together.  It brings to mind a big convention, the sort of place where every year, friendships are made and strengthened, where families meet and catch up on the year’s happenings.    

And after the rites were observed, it was time to go back to Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph likely traveled in the company of friends and family and assumed that Jesus was going along with his friends.  But when they stopped for the night, Jesus never showed up.  He wasn’t with his friends or his other family members.  So where was he?  Can you imagine the fear, the worry that engulfed Mary and Joseph?  I’ll grant you, they lived in a world where a boy of twelve had to grow up much more quickly than any of today’s children do.  The life of a child in first century Judea was hard.  Half of all children died before their tenth birthday.  Young boys would have started learning how to help with the family trade early, and may have been more mature than their modern counterparts, such was their world.  So to not see Jesus for the whole day would not have been terribly concerning— he very well could have been with his friends in the caravan.  But to not have him show up at night?  That was cause for worry, and I imagine that any parent here today can sympathize with Mary and Joseph and can imagine the urgency with which they searched for their son.

And after three days— three days! — they found him in, of all places, the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law and impressing them with his depth of knowledge and insight.  One might think that Mary and Joseph would have been filled with pride— their little boy a Wunderkind, speaking authoritatively with the most learned men in all of Judaism.  But their actual reaction is more realistic— they had just spent three days in a panic searching high and low for their son, and wowing the great theologians of the day didn’t erase the fact that he was missing and that they were run ragged emotionally.  He had some explaining to do, this son of theirs.  “Son,” says Mary, “why have you done to us thus?  Behold, your father and I, being in great distress, were seeking you” (from Arthur Just’s literal translation of the Greek).

And then comes the kicker.  Jesus answers his mother, speaking the first words we ever hear him say in the Gospel of Luke, and they’re a rebuke.  “Why is it that you were seeking me?  Did you not know that it is necessary that I am among the things of my Father?” (or as some translations say, “in my Father’s house”).  This was a strange thing to say.  Mary and Joseph couldn’t understand his meaning, even though they both knew that Jesus was the Son of God.  But they seemed to have forgotten just who their son was, just what it meant for him to be the Son of God.  He wasn’t like the other boys in Nazareth, nor was he like the other boys in the rest of Judea, or the world for that matter.  He was the Son of God, and he had a different purpose, a different mission than other boys, a mission to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and to preach a Gospel of repentance; a mission to take on the sins of the whole world and to die and rise again in order to fulfill the law; a mission to be “among the things of his Father,” God, in Jerusalem, where his once-and-for-all sacrifice would be made.  Mary and Joseph seem to have forgotten this.  They thought they knew who their son was and what he was about, but they were mistaken.  They thought they knew what God had planned for them and for Jesus, and they were wrong.

Just like Mary and Joseph, we often think we know who Jesus is and what he is supposed to do, who he is supposed to be.  We try to mold him to fit our expectations.  It’s a bit like the dinner-table scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby and Carl Naughton, Jr., describe how they like to imagine Jesus.  Ricky begins saying grace, preferring to imagine Jesus as he was in the manger:   

Dear Lord baby Jesus, lyin’ there in your ghost manger, just lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors….Dear 8 pounds 6 ounces… newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet….

On the other hand, Carl can’t seem to make up his mind (in both the scene and bits from the credits):

I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party….I like to think of Jesus like with giant eagle’s wings, and singin’ lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I’m in the front row hammered drunk….I like to picture Jesus as a figure skater. He wears like a white outfit, and He does interpretive ice dances of my life’s journey….I like to picture Jesus as a shapeshifter or changeling.  Ya’ll seen that show Manimal?

And then Carl’s pièce de résistance:

I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger. 

We laugh at these statements because we know that the versions of Jesus that both Ricky and Carl come up wildly miss the mark of describing who Jesus actually is.  Sure, Jesus is a baby when he is born, but he doesn’t remain a baby for very long and he ascended bodily into heaven as an adult.  And what baby born in antiquity would be watching “Little Einstein” videos?  Carl’s depictions of course are especially way off— Jesus isn’t some sort of party bro, nor is he a performer playing for Carl’s entertainment, nor is he some sort of ice dancer whose interpretive dance is supposed to be all about the story of Carl.   And Jesus certainly isn’t a “mischievous badger.”  But what makes it funny, and I might even say makes these clips good satire, is that we do the same things with Jesus ourselves.

We come up with wrong ideas about who Jesus is because, as sinners, we cannot understand who he is of our own accord, and our own pride and self-absorption prevents us from really listening to him and taking him at his word.  Instead of letting Jesus be the Son of God, we try to make him look and act the way we want him to.  We make idols out of who we think Jesus is; they’re vaguely Jesus-shaped, but they are not the real Jesus.  Rather than looking to the actual Christ, we carve our own personal Jesuses.  Rev. Matt Richard in his book, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, names twelve false views of Christ that we can find perpetuated in modern culture: Christ the mascot, Christ the option among many, Christ the good teacher, Christ the therapist, Christ the giver of bling (or as I like to call this one, Christ the sugar daddy), Christ the national patriot, Christ the social justice warrior, Christ the moral example, Christ the new Moses, Christ the mystical friend, Christ the feminized, and Christ the teddy bear.  Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do, and to go through them all would take more time than this sermon can allow.  But for example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen memes on Facebook that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular political camps or schools of thought, mainly posted by friends who are trying to prove that, were Jesus doing his ministry today, he would support either the Democrats or the Republicans; that Jesus would support single-payer healthcare or that Jesus would build the wall (among other positions).  These fail to understand him— he’s not a Democrat or a Republican, he’s above them!  He’s the king— the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy, and the miracle of the story of Christmas is that the King of it all, God himself, became one of us while also still being God.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” Matthias Stomer (1632)

This is the mystery of the incarnation— God took on flesh and dwelt among us, becoming one of us in order to defeat the sin that corrupts us, his children, and makes us unworthy of being with him.  And even weirder, that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”  Our Savior, just as the third verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” states, grew day by day from childhood to adulthood; he was born little, weak, and helpless, but he became a man, and he shares all our sorrows while also rejoicing in all our happiness.  He was truly human; he grew.  But at the same time, he is not like us— he is both God and man.  In the words of the 17th Century Dutch theologian David Hollazius, in the miracle of the incarnation, Christ “now subsists forever as the God-man, in two natures, divine and human, most intimately united.”[1]  And we aren’t comfortable with this.  It’s incredibly hard to wrap your head around the idea that Christ can be both true God and true Man, that the finite can contain the infinite, and so we dress him in other guises, either making him a different kind of God, or removing his godhood from the equation entirely, preferring that our God be some distant, indefinable, unmeasurable, and inscrutable entity, sitting like Crom, Robert E. Howard’s deity in the Conan stories, on his lonely mountain, whose attention is best not attracted.  It’s easier that way, pretending that Jesus is just some guy and that God is someplace else.  But it’s not correct.  It ignores who Jesus is— who the angels revealed him to be, who John the Baptist recognized in utero, and who he himself knows he is, even when he is a mere twelve years old.  But in our pride, we replace him with another god that approximates a crude imitation, but fails to be the real thing.

So how do we properly understand Christ?  How do we come to know him?  Our own senses and modes of inquiry cannot really approach who Jesus is— our understanding of the world is constrained by our own physical limitations.  A wise biologist once wrote:

“Science is limited to the study of the physical world.  [It] cannot address spiritual, moral, aesthetic, or emotional issues.  Because we can know only a portion of this world that our senses can perceive, scientists restrict their attention to the physical world that can be directly or indirectly observed.  Even so, the observations that characterize scientific inquiry are not perfectly objective because of the limitations of our senses.  Science does not, however, deny the possible existence of nonphysical worlds; it simply takes no position on issues it is not equipped to investigate.”[2]

Our own attempts at using reason to approach Jesus cannot find him.  Like Mary and Joseph, our fallen brains cannot understand him and his mission.  As Luther states in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, we “cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, [our] Lord, or come to Him.”  But the mystery of the incarnation shows us that Jesus didn’t leave us to flail wildly.  He didn’t leave us to create our own rough approximations of him or to worship certain aspects of himself without seeing the whole of him.  The incarnation shows us that Christ didn’t want us to find him (we can’t) but that instead Christ came to us, to work among us and to speak to us and to demonstrate his being our Lord and Savior, our God in the flesh, by his fulfillment of the words of the prophets, by his dying on the cross to erase our sins and the curse of death and hell, and by his rising again on the third day.  We have his words and deeds as proof of who he is.  He shows us that he is not some teddy bear or American patriot or social reformer or giver of stuff, and certainly no mischievous badger.  Christ is our God who saves us from our sins.  And he has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell with us to remind us of who he is, who, as Luther says in the Catechism, has “called [us] by the Gospel, enlightened [us] with his gifts, sanctified and kept [us] in the true faith.” 

When we trust what Jesus tells us about himself and have faith in what he has done for us, then we see who he is and what he has done for us and the whole world.  We can have faith that it is indeed for us, because he came among us to save us from our sins and has forgiven us.    When you and I listen to Christ and trust him, we can indeed say that in baptism, he has washed away all our sins and marked us indelibly as his own.  When we trust him, we can say and believe with confidence that we receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal here at the altar when we partake in the Lord’s Supper.  When we trust him and take him at his word, we know that this is who our Jesus is.  We may not fully comprehend him in this life and on this side of the resurrection, but we can trust that he is who he says he is and does what he says he does and will do.  When we trust what he says in faith, we know his true identity, and we can take much joy in that knowledge this Christmas season and into the New Year.

So rejoice, our light has come!  He has come for us in spite of our inability to grasp him, and he has grasped us to bring us into his kingdom.  In this New Year, may our Lord strengthen your faith to ever more greatly trust in him and his words and work.  Amen.

[1] Schmid, Heinrich, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles A. Hay, Henry E. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1876): 324.

[2] Glick, D. Marvin, Myra Mergler Niemeier, Nancy C. Aiello, Seven Studies of Life: The Process of Science, 3rd Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Hunter Textbooks, Inc., 2003):3-4.

Great poetry for Christmas: Robert Southwell, “New Heaven, New War”

Robert Southwell (1561-1595) was a Jesuit priest active in England who was accused of treason, imprisoned, tortured, and executed for his connections to the Church in Rome during the reign of Elizabeth I.

This little babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake.
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

Poem originally found at Plough Quarterly.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 23, 2018 – “Christ comes to the Lowly” (Luke 1:39-45)

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

A common theme in many of the readings we have for the season of Advent is how Jesus comes to us in ways we don’t expect; how he defies our human ideas of what our Lord and King looks like.  But while today’s Gospel lesson deals with Jesus defying human expectations, he doesn’t just defy expectations in the way that he has before— though he does come as a baby and not as a king in robes or in his full glory and power as God.  Jesus’ coming in this text from the Gospel not only defies expectations of how he comes, it also defies expectations with regard to whom he comes.

When we think of how we expect a king to arrive, we expect him to come to dignitaries, heads of state, important people.   He’d probably be met with an official delegation, perhaps a military fanfare, parades, and revues. He would get a special motorcade to zip him off to important meetings with important people, no time to stop.  He’d be surrounded by security. He would be received by ambassadors or embassies, and he certainly wouldn’t think of going to visit the peasantry or lower-class civilians first. They’re not that important, they’re not movers and shakers.  And depending on the kind of king we’re thinking of, he would treat those lower than himself with some degree of contempt, treating or thinking of those in the upper classes as “better” than those below. This is, after all, where the idea of the “aristocracy” comes from.  Its Greek meaning is, “rule by the best.” Those of low-estate are generally not on a monarch’s visitation schedule, as they are not “best,” however you may want to define that.

But of course, the grand irony is that no one, not even any of our kings or queens or presidents, is truly good or the best or even worthy of a visit from this particular King.  Nothing about Queen Elizabeth or President Trump or Chancellor Merkel or President Putin, leading lights of our modern global aristocracy, makes them worthy of him at all.  Through Adam’s sin, the whole of humanity is undeserving of God’s love and attention. By making himself a god and trusting in his own judgment rather than listening to the One who made him, Adam cursed everyone to suffer sin and its effects, and we cannot free ourselves from it.  It’s bred into us— as Luther puts it in his festival sermon for the conception of Mary, “In the same way that a man who looks Bohemian married to a Bohemian wife gives birth to sons and daughters that look Bohemian, with the same flesh as their parents, so we all are born in sin from our sinful parents.”1  We follow our first parents in their sin.  Once perfect and in that right relationship where God did associate freely with mankind, thanks to Adam, the relationship is broken.  Now, we are pretty good at destroying and misusing the world God made for us through pollution and mismanagement of resources, and we are especially good at destroying and misusing each other through war, slavery, abortion, and exploitation.  We violate the law of God in every way imaginable, and so, as outlaws, we are undeserving of the love of our God, whose law demands that we live it perfectly. We don’t deserve a visit from our God and King. Rather, because of what we are and do, we deserve destruction.

Certainly, there was nothing terribly special or deserving about Mary, likely in her early teens, possibly orphaned if church tradition is correct.  She was just a Jewish girl from a small town that was itself seen as a backwater, a place from which allegedly nothing and nobody worth anything comes from (John 1:46).  She may have had ties to the House of David through her ancestors and Joseph, but that familial connection hadn’t meant much for several centuries. Few people would probably have taken much notice of her.  There wasn’t much that was special or deserving about her cousin Elizabeth, either, even though she was the wife of a priest. Her lifelong infertility may have made her appear cursed and pitiable to others, though now pregnant with John, that image may have been changing.  But in a world where other families had children but she could not for so many decades, there were surely whispers about Elizabeth, surely looks of suspicion or pity. And Mary and Elizabeth were just like the rest of us with respect to their humanity. Their social station was lowly, and with respect to the law, they were lowly as well.  Both women were sinners in need of a savior. Both were inheritors of Adam’s sin and the curse.

And baby John, as yet unborn, had nothing inherently special about him apart from God’s stated plan for his life (though it was only known to Elizabeth and Zechariah).  Roughly half of all babies born in the Roman Empire did not make it to the age of 10, so from the perspective of others, the cards were stacked against John. As a baby, he was vulnerable, another mouth to feed, likely to die from myriad diseases and accidents if he even managed to survive childbirth.  Though a joy to his mother and family (as all babies are), first century Judean society would not have had a lot of hope for John’s survival or “viability.” As an infant, in the eyes of the world, John wasn’t worth much. Best not get too attached to ones like him. And like all babies, John was, like us, conceived in sin and would be born in it.  Though so little, he still bore the curse of sin, and he, too, needed his Savior.

And this is where Jesus upends expectations.  The King of Glory comes to these three lowly, undeserving people as a tiny baby in the womb, promised first to Mary his mother by the angel Gabriel and then conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He comes to them, people who earthly kings would scarcely notice, both because of who they are and their station in life. What earthly king regards “the lowliness of his handmaiden?” What earthly potentate “exalts the lowly?”  Jesus does not act as an earthly king, but he comes to these three undeserving people, first his mother, and then his cousins. And he comes to them in spite of the fact that they do not deserve him. In fact, he comes to them precisely because they do not deserve his coming.  God in the flesh is coming to them because they need him— only he can end the curse of sin— and he gives them the faith to receive him.  He gives it first to his mother, then by the Holy Spirit to the infant John who recognizes him and leaps, who filled with the Holy Spirit passes the Holy Spirit to his mother, Elizabeth, who cries out with joy and speaks those familiar words to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And how to me is this, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…And happy is she who believed that there would be a completion of the things spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary deserved none of this, and yet by trusting what God had told her through Gabriel, she received her Lord and King in her womb. A lowly, undeserving woman, born just like you and me, has been given the gift of bearing the one by whom all things were made.  She is the mother of her savior, and she and her family are given faith in him that will save them from the predation of sin, death, and hell.

Professor Norman Nagel (formerly at Concordia Seminary), one of my favorite preachers given his clarity and ability to cut to the heart of things, describes what happens at the visitation in this way in a sermon from 1971:

“Elizabeth agrees with Martin Luther in recognizing the greatest miracle in all this.  There is the miracle of the angel’s message to Mary, the miracle that God should love us who waste and destroy His world, each other, and ourselves in rebellion and disobedience against Him.  That God should love us so much that He joins us in our world to get under the burden of the misery we have made, as one of us, to free us, love us love’s way all the way to the bottom, and chooses a maiden, whom no one thought of any importance, to be His way to join and rescue us, born of a virgin.  Then there is the most staggering miracle of all— that Mary believed it. She was given to, she received beyond thought and imagination, and simply acknowledged the gift. ‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.’ Here is the miracle of faith. Into her nothingness the gift, the nonentity of Mary becomes the ‘mother of my Lord.’”

Nagel, Norman, Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel: From Valparaiso to St. Louis (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004): 278.

Our Lord came to his mother and cousins of low degree to save them from sin, death, and the devil in a way that was unexpected, and they were given the miracle of faith to believe that this baby not yet born would be the one who would save them, even though they did not deserve him because they were sinners.  And we are in the same position. When Christ came into the world, conceived in Mary’s womb, he came for us, too, and we are also privy to the promise of salvation through him. The Virgin-born savior is ours as well, and just like Mary, Elizabeth, and the infant John, we don’t deserve him. We are lowly in the eyes of God because of our sin, but he comes to us anyway to raise us up in faith, to exalt us to be with him again, and he does so in Jesus.  We who live with the war of sin raging inside of us, we who in our sin are all the lowest of the low, now can live again with God thanks to our Savior who comes down to us and becomes one of us, who takes on flesh and tents among us, and who beats death at its own game in order to give us eternal life with him.

Because of this work that Christ has done for us, we can sing confidently with Mary that hymn of joy and thanks that she sang to God for his gifts of grace and mercy in saving his creation through this lowly infant king, coming to lowly people:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things to me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Luke 1:47-55, translation from the Lutheran Service Book.

Just as Mary trusted and believed that God would save his people through her child, and just as John and Elizabeth recognized and trusted in their coming Lord who would bring to fulfillment God’s plan of salvation, let us then finish this Advent season by taking comfort in God’s promise that we lowly people are his saved children, and furthermore by taking comfort in his promise to never abandon us to the predations of the world, but to destroy sin, death, and hell in full.  Indeed, our Lord who came among us as a little child has saved us. Let us wait with expectant joy, looking to the completion of his work when he comes again to his kingdom. Amen.

1 Luther, Martin, Festival Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, trans. Joel R. Baseley (Dearborn, MI: Mark V Publications, 2005): 46.

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (Midweek Service), December 19, 2018 – “Christ comes as the Promised One of Israel” (Matthew 11:1-10)

“St. John the Baptist in Prison Receives Christ’s Answer,” Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678)

This sermon is the third part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The third Sunday in Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday.  We might call it something like “Rejoice” Sunday in English, as “gaudete” is the Latin imperative verb meaning “rejoice!” or “be glad!”  Today is not Sunday, of course, but we nonetheless celebrate Gaudete this week. In our reading from Matthew, we find that Jesus gives us an especially great reason to say “gaudete.”  We can rejoice because Jesus has fulfilled the prophets’ sayings. He is indeed the promised one of Israel, the one for whom John was a forerunner.

At first glance, it seems odd that John the Baptist would send his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is indeed the promised Messiah.  After all, John was there when Jesus was baptized and God spoke aloud that Christ is indeed his Son, with whom he is well-pleased, and he saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove upon Jesus.  He knew, perhaps from boyhood that Jesus, his cousin, was the promised Lord incarnate— he leaped in the womb when Mary approached his mother while she carried Jesus. So why does he tell his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one?

Surely, some people have understood this to mean that John was having doubts.  It’s possible that in his imprisonment, John had begun to despair. He was only human after all, and so perhaps doubts had begun to enter his mind.  Perhaps he feared that because Jesus’ ministry did not match what he expected it to be, that Jesus was not the promised one. He would not be the first prophet to wonder if he was preaching the right message.

It is also possible that John was entirely secure in his knowledge that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  John had received his mission from God to be the Messiah’s forerunner, and on the day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan, he acknowledged him as the one greater than himself, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.  But others who had been following John may not have understood this. Rather than seek assurance for himself, John had sent these two disciples to hear Jesus’ words for themselves and to understand the he, Jesus, was Israel’s promised one, and not John himself.  

It’s understandable that John would want his disciples to know who Jesus was.  He wasthe son of a temple priest who, like Jesus, had his birth foretold by the angel Gabriel and was doing great things— preaching even to rulers.  Furthermore, he looked like Elijah, wearing camel’s hair clothes and living off the food of the desert. He looked the part of a prophet and important holy man.  When Jesus was baptized by John, nobody knew who Jesus, this Nazarene carpenter, was, but they knew John’s reputation and so flocked to him. As Jesus’ reputation grew, though, John may have known that it was time to send his disciples to him.  Jesus, not John, was the one would could truly save them. Therefore, John sent his disciples to Jesus to hear and see for themselves the one in whom they should put their trust. John may have realized that his days were numbered, and he wanted his disciples to understand that their trust ought to be placed in Jesus and not in their teacher.  Jesus may have considered John to be the greatest man alive, but next to Jesus, John was really a nobody.

And how does Jesus answer the question John’s disciples put to him?  Luther’s notes on this from the Church Postil are helpful.  Here’s what Luther says:

Christ answered John also for the sake of his disciples.  He answers in a twofold way: first with works; second with words…when He says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”  With these words He not only confesses that He is the one but also warns against being offended. If He were not the Christ, then he who is not offended by Him would not be saved.  For one can dispense with all the saints, but one cannot dispense with Christ. No saint helps, but only Christ helps.

The answer through works is more certain, first because such works were never before accomplished either by John or by anyone else; and second, because these works were predicted by the prophets.  Therefore, when they saw that it happened just as the prophets had said, they could and should be certain. For Isaiah said of this: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach the Gospel; to the poor He has sent Me, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim redemption to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61[:1-2; Luke 4:18-19]).  When He says, “He has anointed Me,” He understands that He is the Christ and that Christ should do these works, and He who is doing them must be the Christ…Thus He preaches the good news, gives sight to the blind, heals all kinds of sickness, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, the time of grace, etc.

Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 59-60.

Thus says Luther.

Luke’s account of John’s disciples visiting Jesus notes that Jesus had just raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead and that John’s disciples had told John about this.  Furthermore, Jesus, says Luke, had at the very hour they visited him healed a large number of people. Matthew doesn’t mention it, but it is important, because when Jesus alludes to Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 61 that he has been sent to give the blind their sight, make the lame to walk, cleanse the lepers, give the deaf their hearing, raise the dead, and preach the good news to the poor, John’s disciples can see evidence of all of this.  They can hear the testimony and see the results for themselves. And maybe in seeing all of this, they might have thought of what Isaiah says in chapter 35:

Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

(Isaiah 35:4-6a)
Christ cleansing a leper.

Seeing these things, these disciples know that Jesus is doing the work of the Holy One of God.  He is the one sent to do these things; and the fruit of his works is evidence enough of who he is.  The words of the prophet are being fulfilled. Jesus has come to make the blind see and the lame to walk, raise the dead, set the captives free in the Gospel.  He is the healer of Israel, God’s promised one who will make Israel his “Holy People, the Ransomed of the Lord, a People long-sought, a City not forsaken” (Isaiah 62:12, NEB).  His miraculous works testify to his being the Lord who will save his people from their sins.

You and I cannot see the direct evidence of Jesus’ healing work like John’s disciples could.  We cannot look out into the crowd following Jesus and see all those individuals whom he healed of their afflictions.  But we have the knowledge of Jesus’ completed work on the cross, and so we can have faith in the whole of his work. We know with surety that he is “the one who is to come” and not some other because we bear the mark of his grace in baptism and receive him in the Lord’s Supper.  But for our friends who, like John’s disciples (or perhaps even John) are unsure if Christ is the promised one, or for those we know who are offended by the message of Christ and do not yet have faith in him, we can point to his words and work here— he is truly Israel’s promised one and not only has he done what Isaiah prophesied he would do, he has died and risen again to take away the sin of the world and he has fulfilled his work of saving Israel.  He is the world’s Messiah. He is the One who God promised would save us all, and that is good news indeed for us all in this season of Advent, which we can joyfully proclaim to all our neighbors, rejoicing with the whole church and saying, “gaudete!”

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (Midweek Service), December 12, 2018 – “Christ comes in Glory” (Luke 21:25-36)

“The Last Judgment” (1557) by Hubert Goltzius (1526-1583), Limburg Museum, Venlo, Netherlands

This sermon is the second part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden!”  So did the prophet Zechariah proclaim the manner in which our Lord and King would come to claim his throne at his first coming in our readings from last Wednesday.  But our Gospel from the 21st Chapter of Luke today treats a different coming than Christ’s first triumphal entry into his capital city on that fateful Sunday nearly 2000 years ago—Christ’s coming to reclaim Creation in-full on the Last Day.

This second coming will be very different than his first coming as king.  There will be no crowds, no strewn garments, no donkey, no riding in humility.  Jesus tells the disciples that the second advent will be one characterized by signs and phenomena throughout creation.  There will be signs in the heavens— the sun, the moon, and the stars will be affected, and while Luke does not report what will happen to them, the Apostle Matthew writes that the sun and moon will darken and the stars will fall from heaven (Matt 24:29).  These will be signs that the last day is nigh, and that the King of Creation’s return is imminent. All people will be frozen in terror; the fear and terror of hell will consume some of them, and the powers of the heavens, either the heavenly hosts themselves or the powers by which God holds all parts of the universe together, will be shaken.  And when this all happens, the King will return to finally toss death out of his kingdom. All people will see on this last day “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). And this second coming will be one where his kingship is undeniable. No longer is our king robed in the simple garb of a carpenter, but in the flowing cloth-of-gold of a king, a victorious monarch returning to his kingdom to take his place upon his throne.

And when these things happen, our Lord reminds the disciples— and us— to “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Our redemption, our Redeemer himself is coming when these things happen! And at his coming, all sin, death, and hell will be destroyed forever.

But how can one look up when the world is gripped by terror?  How can one look to the coming of our king “[i]f the whole world is terrified at that day, and hangs its head and looks down out of terror and fear” with raised heads in joyous expectation (Luther 1, 47)?  Luther says in his notes on this reading in the Church Postil:

…All of this is spoken only to Christians who are truly Christians, and not to heathen…true Christians suffocate in great temptations and persecutions from sin and all kinds of evil, so that this life becomes bitter and loathsome to them.  Therefore, they wait and long and pray for redemption from sin and all evil— as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come” and “Deliver us from evil”. If we are true Christians, we will earnestly and heartily pray this prayer. But if we do not pray heartily and earnestly, we are not yet true Christians.

If we pray correctly, then we must regard these signs, however terrible they are, with joy and longing, as Christ exhorts: “When these things begin to take place, look up.”  He does not say, “Be filled with fear or hang your heads,” for what we have prayed for so earnestly is coming. If we earnestly want to be freed from sin, death, and hell, we must desire and love this coming….Therefore, we should be careful not to hate or dread that day.  Such dread is a bad sign and belongsto the damned, whose hard minds and hardened hearts must be terrified and broken if they are to improve. But to believers that day will be comforting and sweet.1

This day will be a day of joy for Christians who have faith in Christ, but it will be terrible and terrifying for those who have put their trust in other gods or in themselves.  They will be shaken in their sin. They will not see Christ as their king, but their conqueror. They will not rush forward to meet him with joy when he comes, but rather cower in terror, because they preferred to ignore or reject the signs and testimonies of their coming king in favor of others.  As with the Pharisees and Sadducees who chose to look for a different king than he who came humbly into Jerusalem, those who dread the signs of Christ’s coming reject his promises and will be subject to his judgment. Rather than fleeing their sin and seeking to overcome it, they nurtured it, and so when the last day comes and Christ returns in his glory, instead of joy at seeing their coming savior, they will feel fear and dread because they will lose that sin that they nurtured.  They will not see Christ as their loving Lord come to redeem them, but instead as someone come to upend their lives and destroy them, to take from them rather than to give them everything. They do not wish to repent, but rather desire that such a day never come. Their faith is not in Christ as king and redeemer, but in the world, and because of that, they will not “have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place.”

But what about the Christian who still feels fear at the thought of that day?  What of the Christian who, in the struggle with his or her sin feels some fear at the thought of the great and terrible events surrounding the coming of Christ in his glory?  Perhaps you feel this fear, this pang at the thought of his coming. There is good news in the midst of Christ’s warning to the disciples that we can put our trust in. He tells them, and us, that the One who comes in glory is their “redemption,” not their condemnation.  Luther explains this beautifully:

Without a doubt, He has spoken this comforting word also for the fainthearted who, though they are godly and prepared for the Last Day, are yet filled with great anxiety and [thus] hinder their desire for this coming…therefore, He calls it their redemption.  For at the end of the world, when sin will so terribly hold sway, and along with sin the second part (the punishment for sin with pestilence, war, and famine) will also hold sway, it is necessary that believers have a strong confidence and comfort against both afflictions: sin and its punishment. Therefore, He uses the sweet word “redemption,” which all hearts gladly hear.  What is redemption? Who would not gladly be redeemed? Who would desire to remain in such a desert, both of sin and of punishment? Who would not wish an end to such misery, such danger for souls, such ruin for man— especially when Christ so sweetly allures, invites, and comforts us?2

This is a promise in which the terrified conscience can take comfort and refuge.  Christ will not abandon those who hear the words in this promise and trust them, even if their sinful flesh quivers at the thought.  From him flows the faith to believe that this terrible and glorious king, our God in the flesh returning from the heavens, is our redeemer and savior, the one who will end all sorrow and fear and restore us to life and joy.  Faith in Jesus, faith that he is who he says he is, our redeemer and savior, makes it possible for all who trust in him, however weak our faith may be. Even a little faith, a faith that cries “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” when praying that God’s “kingdom come” and his “will be done” puts a person on the right track to receive Christ with joy when he comes again in his glory.  The faith he gives to us when he comes to us (and not we to him!) allows us to indeed look up when the heads of all around us are cast down in terror and fear, and to joyfully look to his coming and receive him in the air when he comes. Trusting in his promises, we can see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory, straighten up and raise our heads, and know that our redemption is drawing near!  Amen.

1 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 47-48.
2 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, 2018: 1:49.