19 December 2018

The Lord Remembers His Oath and His Covenant Forever

With the fulfillment of God’s Word to Zacharias, just as the Angel Gabriel had spoken, that Word of the Lord reopens the old man’s mouth and lips, and releases his tongue, so that he now praises God and prophecies.  No longer doubting and questioning the promise, Zacharias confesses what God has spoken.  His beautiful hymn, the Benedictus, confesses the entirety of the Old Testament in proclamation of the New Testament now dawning with the nativity of his little son, St. John.

The arrival of this boy, miraculously conceived and born to his old and formerly barren mother, St. Elizabeth, and now circumcised on this eighth day — in the presence of the little Lord Jesus, still hidden within the womb of His own Mother, St. Mary, in her third month of pregnancy — these events declare that salvation is at hand.  Here there is a restoration and fulfillment of creation, and a restoration and renewal of the true priesthood of faith and life in the presence of God.

It so happens that today, the 19th of December, is also the commemoration of Adam & Eve, which recalls the goodness of God’s original creation — for God saw all that He had made by His Word, and behold, it was very good.  Thinking of Adam & Eve recalls the life of man there in the Garden before the fall into sin.  That was a priestly life, not as it would necessarily become in sacrifices for sin, but as the man and woman knew the Word and will of God written on their hearts and had true communion with the Holy Trinity, with the Father in His Son and by His Holy Spirit.

Adam & Eve in the Garden lived in the presence of God, they walked with Him as friends.  Their work was not a burden or a curse, but a joy and a delight.  Their whole life was a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, even as they ruled His good creation in His Name and on His behalf.

Everything was beautiful.  Everything was very good.  For God created everything beautifully, out of nothing, solely by the power of His Word.  His Word and Spirit ordered all things and sustained all things.  And His Word continues to give and sustain life, even now in the face of sin and death.

But sin and death there are now.  For as the Word of God gives life, so does disobedience to His Word bring death.  Not simply as a punishment, but as the inevitable consequence of turning your heart and mind, your body and life away from God, away from His living and life-giving Word.

The disobedience of Adam & Eve brought death, not only to the two of them and all their children, but to all of creation.  The whole world is subject to the consequences and punishment of man’s sin.  The grass withers and the flower fades, and the heavens and earth all perish and pass away, not only in similarity to the frailty and mortality of all people, but on account of man’s disregard and rejection of God’s Word.  When the king and the queen of the first creation fell from grace, instead of exercising their dominion in faith and love, everything was subject to death and decay.

But mortal frailty and the death of this body and life on earth are not the worst consequences of disobedience.  It is far, far worse that sin divides and separates man from God.  Sin replaces the friendship of faith with enmity, with doubt and fear and guilt and shame.

So it was that Adam & Eve tried to hide from the Lord, who had been their Friend; and then they were driven out of the Garden, barred from the Tree of Life, lest they eat from it in their sin and so remain in permanent enmity with God.

In responding to their sin, the Lord sought to bring about, not eternal separation of God and man, but repentance and a restoration of faith and life in communion with Himself.  Hence, He did not simply drive Adam & Eve from the Garden, but He also spoke His beautiful promise of the Gospel, the Seed of the Woman who would crush the serpent’s head and redeem all the children of man.

The preaching of that promise from fathers to sons, from the holy Prophets to the people of God down through the ages, calls the children of Adam & Eve back into fellowship with God in Christ Jesus.  For so does the Spirit call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the Bride of Christ, His Church.

Zacharias sings about that preaching of the promise in his Benedictus, recalling especially two of the high points in the history of salvation, namely, Father Abraham and King David.  He confesses God’s covenant with Abraham and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to the House of David.

With Abraham & Sarah, whose story is echoed in that of Zacharias & Elizabeth, God established His covenant, which He sealed by the sacramental sign of circumcision.  It is no surprise that Zacharias should be thinking of God’s covenant with Abraham on that eighth day when his own son, John, was circumcised with the sign of that covenant in accordance with the Word of God.

And just as John received his name on that same day, the name that God had given from heaven, so had Abraham received a new name from the Lord along with the covenant of circumcision.  For he would become the father of many nations, a father of faith in the promised Seed, Christ Jesus — in striking contrast to the legacy of death that all of us have received from our father Adam.

God called Abraham away from a foreign land of pagan idolatry, and He promised him that Seed by whom he and his whole family and all the nations would be blessed.  With that Word and by that promise, the Lord was with Abraham in divine grace and steadfast loving-kindness.  Indeed, He committed Himself to Abraham, and bound Himself to Abraham, by the swearing of an oath.  By His own Self He swore that He would be and abide with Abraham and with his Seed forever.

In the son that He gave to Abraham & Sarah in their old age, and so now also in the son who is born to Zacharias & Elizabeth, you see what that covenant and oath of God accomplish.  It is the renewing of creation.  From these old men and barren women, as good as dead, the Scripture says, God brings forth new life.  The conception of any child is always a miraculous work of God.  But here, especially, the Lord God shows that He remains the Creator, the Author and Giver of Life.

It is by His grace that He thus speaks and gives life by His Word.  And so it is also by His grace that He later raised up David, the shepherd boy, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to become the king of His people Israel, that he should reign in peace over the good land that God the Lord had given to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, where He caused His Name and His Glory to dwell.

Of special note today, King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  And he ordered the priesthood, he arranged its divisions and made provisions for it, that the priesthood should be carried out in accordance with the Word and promises of God.  He also made plans for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, the House of God, which David would not be permitted to build, but his son, Solomon, would establish and dedicate to the glory of God in anticipation of the Christ.

Solomon showed such promise and potential at first, such wisdom in the fear of the Lord, and such faith like his father David.  But Solomon, for all his greatness, was led astray by foreign gods.  Of course, that was not only the story of Solomon, but is the way it so often goes with all of God’s people in this body and life, yourself included.  As often as the Lord calls you to Himself and showers you with His good gifts of body and soul, there remains the temptation and the turning of your heart away from Him to the false gods of this world, to the idols of your own desires.

So, too, the children of Israel forgot God’s Word and failed to call upon His Name in faith.  They forgot His holy covenant.  They did not trust His promises but sought to make life for themselves.

So it was that God sent them into captivity.  As they had once been slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh, so were they held captive in Babylon for seventy years.  The City of Jerusalem and Solomon’s magnificent Temple were left in ruins.  The people were separated from the glory of God.  It was the casting out of the Garden all over again, as the Lord disciplined His children unto repentance.

That is the situation concerning which Isaiah wrote, even before it unfolded.  He preached the warning of God.  He preached the threats and punishments of the Law and the terrible wrath of God.  But so did the Prophet Isaiah also write of God’s mercy and compassion, and of the comfort that God the Lord would bestow upon His people through the forgiveness of their sins.  And all of that beautiful Gospel would be voiced by the Forerunner, the son of Zacharias & Elizabeth.

The Lord remembers His covenant and His oath to Abraham and to his Seed forever.  Indeed, that is not only what Zacharias sings in the Benedictus, but it is what his name and his wife’s name confess.  For “Zacharias” means that God remembers, and “Elizabeth” means that God is my oath.  And notwithstanding their own doubts and fears, their own forgetfulness, and all the frailties of their mortal flesh, their names are true and right.  God is faithful.  He remembers and He acts.  As He has promised, as He has sworn, so does He fulfill and accomplish in His own flesh and blood.  In the Seed of the Woman.  In the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In the true Son of David.

With the nativity of St. John, the Lord announces and proclaims the coming of salvation.  For this child is the Forerunner of the Lord who comes in the flesh to save His people from sin and death.

To that end, St. John will preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness in which salvation is known and received and experienced in peace and life with God.  That is what your Baptism is all about, that is what it’s for.  That is what the whole Gospel preaches, as the preaching and baptism of St. John, and of the whole Church, point to the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who takes upon Himself and takes away forever the sins of the entire world.

So it is that Zacharias sings more about the unborn Lord Jesus than he does about his own newly born son, St. John.  He confesses what God is doing in the Son of St. Mary.  He sings of the Christ, still hidden in the womb, as though the redemption of His Cross had already been accomplished, and as though everything were already completed.  No longer are there any doubts or questions on his lips.  Now he sings with the confidence and certainty of faith in the Word and promises of God.

Those promises of God — to Adam & Eve, to Abraham, to David, and to you — truly are fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who atones for the sins of the world, treads death beneath His feet, crushes the head of the devil, and opens up the Kingdom of God to all who believe and are baptized into Him.  For He is the Lamb of God, who not only sacrifices Himself for you and all upon the Cross, but also serves and feeds you with His flesh and blood.  And He is your merciful and great High Priest, who reconciles you and all people to God the Father in heaven.  He redeems and restores all of creation and makes all things new in His bodily Resurrection from the dead.

This Lord Jesus Christ is the great Shepherd-King who excels even His father David.  He gathers His lambs and sheep from all the nations of the world, and He cares for them as His beloved flock.  By His Cross and Resurrection, and by His Ministry of the Gospel, He brings them back to God.

His Baptism is the new and better circumcision, made without hands, which bestows and seals the covenant of God with all the children of man, and by which He names you with His own Name.  He cleanses you with His own precious Blood; He covers you with Himself, so that you are kept safe from sin and death; and He clothes you with His own beautiful righteousness and holiness.

His Body, crucified and risen from the dead, is the Temple of God, wherein the Lord your God abides with you in peace, and you abide with God in holy faith and holy love.  You are not cast out of the Garden or driven away from the presence of God, because this Lord Jesus is Immanuel, in whom God has drawn near to you.  In Him you are restored to Paradise, and you are given to eat from His Tree of Life, His Holy Cross, in the New Covenant of His Body and His Blood.  So does He remember you in tender mercy and compassion, and so does He give to you His great salvation.

Thus do you live and love in the presence of God, without fear, in the holiness and righteousness of faith in Christ Jesus.  You serve the Lord your God, and you sing praises to Him with Zacharias and all the saints, because the glory of God shines upon you in the Gospel of His beloved Son.  And all that He has promised to you by His Word, He remembers, and He does, forever and ever.

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

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