11 December 2016

Rejoice in the Lord at All Times and in All Circumstances

The Season of Advent awaits and anticipates the coming of Christ Jesus, whose Way St. John the Baptist prepares, calling sinners to repentance that they might escape the wrath to be revealed when the same Lord Jesus comes in Glory for the final Judgment.  It is a penitential time of patient perseverance in the confidence of the Cross and in the hope and promise of the Resurrection.

Advent prepares you to receive the coming Christ, now as then, by the preaching of the Law and the Gospel unto repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins.  Such preaching returns you to the significance of your Holy Baptism.  It teaches you to confess your sins and to seek the Word of Holy Absolution.  And it leads you to the Body and Blood of the Lamb who saves you at His Altar.

Because He comes to save you, here and now, by the preaching of His Word and by His means of grace, your Advent repentance is not without rejoicing.  Especially this Third Sunday in Advent calls you to rejoice in the Lord, because He is at hand with His mercy and His great Salvation.

It is for the sake of this rejoicing that our Advent candle for this Sunday is rose-colored instead of purple.  It signifies that true Light that was coming into the world, like the rose-colored hews of an early morning sunrise.  It would have you look at life through the rose-colored glasses of faith, that you should remember the Incarnation of your Lord, receive His Body born of Mary and His Blood poured out for you from the Cross, and rejoice in the expectation of His glorious coming.

All of which is fine and good.  And of course, you might say, as Christians we rejoice in Christ.  Then again, you may not feel like rejoicing this morning or at many others times, especially in view of your own sins and the sins of others against you, and given the consequences of sin that dog you all year long and really never do let up in this mortal life.  The so-called holidays can be some of the most depressing and difficult days, because they aggravate your envy and jealousy of others, and they make all the more painful your loneliness and the absence of those you have lost.  So many expectations, as to what you must do to get ready for Christmas, it’s a struggle to rejoice when you’re stressed out and wondering how on earth you are going to meet all your expenses.

Despite the faith and life to which the Lord has called you by His Gospel, and notwithstanding your confession of His Word, there are days when He seems so far away, and you may wonder if your faith has been too optimistic.  Does Jesus really care?  Does He even know your name?  Or has He just given up on you and written you off altogether on account of your sins and failings?

Perhaps you would compare yourself to poor St. John the Baptist, imprisoned by King Herod, no doubt wondering what’s going to happen next, and probably tempted to question the glorious promises of God.  For there he sits, the Forerunner of the Lord Himself, but left to rot in prison; left to rot, that is, until his head will finally be removed by order of the king.  How about that?

As he waited in prison for death, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the Expected One, the Christ who is to come, or should we be watching and waiting for Another?”

Of course, St. John the Baptist knew that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed.  For even though Jesus, the Son of God, always possesses the Holy Spirit, He also received a special anointing of the Spirit at His Baptism by St. John in the Jordan, the inauguration of His own Ministry on earth.  The Holy Spirit came upon Him as a dove, and the Father declared Him to be His beloved Son.

St. John knew that Jesus is the Christ, because he had seen the Lord anointed with the Holy Spirit.  It was part of his own preaching to others, even as he pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  But for all of that, St. John also needed to hear the preaching of the Gospel for himself.  He needed Christ Jesus to set him free — not from Herod’s prison, nor even from his executioner — but from the dungeon of his own sin and its deadly consequences.

What are your expectations of the Lord Jesus Christ?  What are you watching for and waiting to receive from Him?  Is it rescue and redemption from your sins, from death and the damnation you deserve?  Or would you rather He fulfill your hopes and dreams for this body and life right now?

Bear in mind that the Son of God is not a means to some other end, as though He were coming to give you a leg up on your personal ambitions.  Neither is the salvation He brings a matter of facts in your head or feelings in your heart.  It’s not enough to know this or that about Jesus, and all the warm fuzzies in the world are not going to set you free from death and hell or bring you to God.

Like St. John, what you need is the Word of Christ Jesus: The Word that He speaks into your ears, into your heart, mind, and body.  The Word that forgives your sins, and gives you life, and fills you up with Christ and His Spirit, even in the midst of the most dire and desperate of circumstances.

That is what He does and gives by the preaching of His Word, beginning with St. John himself, the Forerunner of Christ who was sent to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name.

And now in this case, in this Holy Gospel, the same Lord Jesus Christ does the same thing and provides the same help and comfort for His servant, St. John.  He preaches His Word to His preacher of repentance, that John be delivered from all doubts and fears and rejoice in the Lord.

As great as St. John was, and as much as he suffered for his faithfulness, even unto death, it is not John but Jesus Christ who gives to you divine, eternal Life in place of your death and damnation.  He is the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who became flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood, conceived and born of the Woman; who then also made Himself least in the Kingdom of Heaven, so that He suffered and died in the stead and for the sake of sinners — for John the Baptist, for you, and for all people.  So it is not by your keeping of the Law, but by His, and not by your repentance, but by His Cross and Resurrection, that Christ Jesus has first of all obtained and now bestows the free forgiveness of all your sins.

He proceeds in every case by sending His messenger before His face to prepare His Way by the preaching of His Word with His own Voice, and to work His works of repentance and faith with His own authority: Isaiah the Prophet, and John the Baptist, who is more than a Prophet because he ushers in the Christ.  Then, in the footsteps of Christ Jesus come His Holy Apostles, who speak and act for Him as the shepherds of His Church on earth, and following after them, the pastors who feed and care for His lambs and sheep with His Holy Word and with His Holy Sacraments.

It is by this ongoing Ministry of His Gospel in every age that He brings forth streams of water in the desert and prospers His Church with milk and honey, bread and wine, and every good thing.

Even so, as beautiful and wonderful as this providence and promise of the Gospel is — that the Holy Triune God should send to you, as to His Church in every time and place, His messengers to speak with His Voice and to preach good news in answer to your every need — the fact is that your circumstances may not improve in this life.  They might just go from bad to even worse!

To frail flesh and blood there is an evident contradiction between the promises of God and your actual experience in the world; between the hope of the Resurrection and the present reality of the Cross that you bear and carry in this vale of tears.  It is especially hard when the wicked prevail and appear so powerful on earth, whereas the righteous of the Lord suffer and perish on the way.

Consider, for example, that St. John remained in the captivity of his prison until he was beheaded.  So, too, in this life, no matter how much you may receive and trust the Gospel — the forgiveness of your sins and the free gift of eternal life in Christ — you may yet suffer all manner of difficulties and atrocities, as do many of your fellow Christians throughout the world.  Sometimes you bear the temporal consequences of your own sins, that you should be disciplined in love by your dear Father and called to repentance by His Spirit.  But you are also given to bear and carry the Cross as a disciple of Christ Jesus, who was born of the Virgin Mary to suffer under Pontius Pilate.

It’s all too easy to be scandalized by this sort of Christ, who comes in such lowly meekness and humility, born in a stable, living homeless, riding on a donkey, and then condemned and put to death on the Cross.  Not exactly impressive credentials.  And His followers and supporters fare about as badly, beginning with St. John the Baptist, who was more than a Prophet and the greatest of those born of women, but who finishes his days on earth in Herod’s dungeon.  One might well expect more and better from the Savior of the world.  It’s no surprise that even John wondered and chose to ask:  Are You the One, Jesus, or not?  And, if so, where are You now when I need You?

It is only by the grace and blessing of God, by His Word and Holy Spirit, that you are not offended by Christ and His Cross, by His messengers and means of grace, and by the way that He rules and governs the Kingdom of His Church in this world, that is, in lowliness, meekness, and humility.  And it is only by the grace and blessing of Christ the Crucified — by the preaching of His Word, and by the administration of His Body and His Blood in remembrance of Him — that you believe and trust His promises, even while you sit and wait in your own dungeon for the final axe to fall.

Now take this to heart: Your God-given confidence in Christ, which is not offended by His Cross or scandalized by His Gospel, will not by any means be disappointed.  The suffering and death of His Cross is not the last and final Word for Him or you, but it is the end of sin, death, and the devil.  For by the Cross of Christ sin is forgiven, death is destroyed, and the devil’s kingdom is routed.

Satan still rages and taunts, he hinders and afflicts, not least of all through tyrants like Herod, but all to no avail.  Actually, the Lord your God uses even the devil’s wickedness, against the devil’s will, to call you and others to repentance and to drive you back to the Cross.  And as always, that old dragon, the devil or Satan, is defeated by the Cross.  Your salvation is made certain in Christ Jesus, who preaches the victory of His Cross and the righteousness of His Resurrection to you.

It is this profound privilege that I am given as your pastor, that is, to preach and teach the Word of Christ into your ears, knowing that His Word alone is steadfast, eternal, unchanging, and true.

I am sent to you — as St. John the Baptist was sent — to call you to repent and to forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Lord.  I am sent to announce and proclaim the presence of Christ and His Kingdom, here and now among you, in the very Word that I preach to you by His authority, and in His flesh and blood, given and poured out for you to eat and to drink unto the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul.

I do not speak and act for myself.  But with the Voice of Jesus — by virtue of my Office as a called and ordained servant of His Word — I declare to you that He is the Christ who is coming.  That blind unbelief is here replaced by the sight of holy faith.  That deaf ears are opened to hear the Word of God.  That the leprosy of your sin is cleansed by the waters of Holy Baptism.  That death has been destroyed by the death of Christ, and those who were dead in their trespasses and sin are raised up with Him by His Holy Absolution.  That for two-thousand-plus years the Gospel has never failed to be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, and so also to you and to your children, and to your children’s children.

So, then, while weeping and sadness remain for a night, rejoicing will yet come in the morning.

Rejoice, therefore!  Rejoice in the Lord at all times and in all circumstances.  Again I will say it, Rejoice!  Your own dear Lord is at hand.  He is a very present Help in times of trouble.  Be anxious for nothing, for He is faithful and just.  He will never leave you or forsake you.  And the Peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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