Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2019 (Romans 1:1-7)

“Advent Wreath,” by Bubamara. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

This sermon was originally delivered at Our Savior’s Way Lutheran Church in Ashburn, Virginia.


To all those in Ashburn who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Christmas is almost here, isn’t it?  It’s difficult to believe.  December is almost over, and that means that Advent is almost over and Christmas shall be ascendant.  Poor Advent always seems to be overshadowed during the church year; always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  American culture seems especially to be in love with Christmas over Advent, and so Advent, outside of the churches, does not get a lot of love or attention.  We’ve all been going to Advent services, yes, but the rest of the world passes Advent by.

But Advent has historically been a time for contemplation and study, remembering Christ’s first coming, and looking again to his assured return.  It can and has been a time for personal discipline, like Lent— indeed, Advent used to be seven weeks long and was observed with fasting.  In some countries, it was called “St. Martin’s Lent” because the seven-week observance began after St. Martin’s Day on November 11.  But it’s also a time to confront the darkness that pervades the world.  In John 1, the Evangelist tells us that in Christ “was life, and the life was the Light of men.  The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it,” or, as other manuscript traditions attest, “the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5 NASB/RSV).  In these gray and latter days, there’s an awful lot of darkness about.

Tish Harrison Warren, author of the recent award-winning book, Liturgy of the Ordinary and a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, writes the following in a recent op-ed in the New York Times:

But Advent bids us first to pause and to look, with complete honesty, at that darkness.  To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.[1]

And what an evil world it is.  Just this week we received news that the former president of the Lutheran Church in Venezuela (one of our sister-churches) was murdered, leaving behind a wife and three children.  In the last few weeks, two pastors were murdered by an angry mob in Ethiopia, and several Christians in Kenya were killed by al-Shabab because they would not confess Islam.  If you read the Wall Street Journal yesterday, you likely saw the op-ed discussing attacks on Christians in Nigeria by radical Fulani herdsmen. And then there was the military-base attack in Florida, and the knife attacks in London.  And then there’s the constant war everywhere, the persecutions of Christians and Uyghurs in China.  And closer to home, the political infighting, of neighbor turned against neighbor on account of the political cause du jour; and there are the politicians who use the system to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their constituents.  Then, too, there’s the devaluing of human life and the elevation of convenience and the desire to live life for oneself and not for others.  And we have hunger and homelessness; illness and depression, greed, avarice, hatred—the whole gamut of ills and sins.  There’s a lot of darkness, and it’s easy to see only the darkness in the world and in ourselves.  And so at Advent, in the face of all of this darkness and evil, we need to be reminded of the Christian story, of why we are who we are.

Perhaps this is what Paul was trying to do when he wrote his letter to the church in Rome.  We know that Paul wrote his letter to the fledgling Roman church sometime around AD 55-58, roughly 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.  The Roman world was one full of darkness, too (and let’s be honest, the world has always been full of darkness, regardless of the reigning culture).  The members of the early church in Rome lived in a city home to hundreds of competing cults and where the ruler literally believed himself to be a man-turned-god descended from a line of men-turned-gods.  Rome was a landscape antithetical to the Christian life and witness: a place where infanticide was legal; where masters subjected their slaves to the worst kinds of abuse, even death; where adultery and prostitution were frequent, and where men fought each other, sometimes to the death, in bloodsports for money and the acclamation of the crowd.  It was a city where it was common to hire fake witnesses to testify at your court hearings, and to use the legal system to steal from your political and social enemies.  It doesn’t sound a lot different from the world we know, if not in aspect, then certainly in intent.

“St. Paul Writing His Epistles” (ca. 1618-1620), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Public Domain.

And in addition to all of this, the Roman church was staring at potential persecution by the imperial government.  The empire hadn’t officially begun persecuting the church, but the writing was on the wall.  Several years before Paul wrote his letter, the Jews were expelled from the city on account of unrest in their synagogues, possibly on account of their unwillingness to accept Christians in their ranks.  This meant that after the Jews were expelled, only Gentile believers were left.  But they, too, may have expected the governing authorities to turn on them, too.  And furthermore, without the Jewish believers among them, some of whom may have witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this young and now largely Gentile congregation may suddenly have found itself without an anchor, without eyewitnesses to Christ’s death and to Pentecost there to remind them what this Christian life is all about, to remind them of who they were and are, to remind them why they wait. And so Paul wrote his letter, and told them this Gospel.  A Gospel through which light bursts through the gloom of the world:

[The] gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…. (Romans 1:1–6, RSV)

The Gospel is the same one Paul himself received: that Jesus Christ was foretold by the prophets and scriptures and born of David’s line; that he, a king according to his lineage, was also the Son of God; that he was shown to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead; and that he, through that resurrection, has given Paul (and, more especially, the church) grace to proclaim Christ to the nations and to reconcile them to God by faith.  Jesus is real.  He is both king and God, and death could not hold him.  He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.

This is the Good News for the church in Rome, and it’s Good News for you and me.  It’s Good News because this Gospel reminds us that, in spite of the darkness of sin that marks this world in this present age, Christ came among us, born into a human lineage, lived, died, and rose so that we all might be given grace to be God’s people in Christ and live as saints in him.  Christ really took on flesh and dwelled among us.  He really died for our sins.  And he rose again to show that sin, death, and the grave had been robbed of their power.  By his death and resurrection, he defanged the Devil and destroyed his power over you and over me.  Sure, sin and death try their hardest to harm us, and they may— in fact, they often do.  But Christ, who came and pitched his tent among us at his first coming, has made their effects moot.  It will not last forever.  As Brother Giovanni Giocondo allegedly wrote to to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi at Christmas in 1513 (Giocondo’s authorship is disputed, but the sentiment still stands): “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see – and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!”

Christ is that light.  Christ is that joy, and as Paul told the Romans, he came so that they might know this joy and live new and transformed lives because of it, belonging to him rather than belonging to the world of sin and death.  The seed of David and Son of God, who died on the cross and rose from the grave, has been crowned Lord of All—just like in the chancel window here, and he holds out his arms through the gloom to take hold of us and make us his own through the gift of faith he gives us.  He places his name on us in baptism and feeds us his body and blood to strengthen us in body and soul.  He cleanses our hearts when we confess our sins, and he keeps and sustains us through his life-giving Holy Spirit.  And renewed by the Holy Spirit, we go out as God’s agents—as little Christs (for that’s what Christians are!)—serving our neighbors in this world, doing the good works that the Holy Spirit has set before us to do.  This is what it means to be a saint, one called to belong to Christ, a “slave” or bondservant just like Paul.  When you and I were baptized into death and raised to life in Christ, we were changed, lifted out of the muck and gloom of a sinful world to live in his glorious light, made holy, and made whole.

Resurrection Window in the Chancel of Our Savior’s Way Lutheran Church, Ashburn, Virginia. (https://www.oswlc.org/about-us/photo-albums/stained-glass-windows)

This is the Christian story that we hear every Advent; this is the Gospel Paul reminded the Romans of when they found themselves alone without a human connection to Christ in a city and land hostile to them; this is the Gospel you and I need to hear when the darkness of these gray and latter days closes in, when the darkness that still lurks in our hearts raises its ugly head or when the wolf is at the door.  Because in this Gospel, we know that Christ has rescued us from the evils of this world, and we know that he will come again to end the reign of sin for good.  He will make all things new.  And so we tell the story and look to his coming, remembering and waiting.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  And we say with the church throughout the ages the Great O Antiphon for this, the 22nd of December, O Rex Gentium:

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

“O King of the nations, and desired by them,
the cornerstone who makes two one,
come and save mankind,
whom you formed from clay.”

Amen!


[1] Tish Harrison Warren, “Opinion | Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness,” The New York Times, 30 November 2019, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html.

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.