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!”