GRACE – MERCY – and PEACE are Yours this day from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
In the Name of Jesus. AMEN.
Next Wednesday is Christmas Eve, and so, we have come to our final Wednesday evening service this Advent. This year, we have considered the theme, “PREPARING to MEET HIM, with REJOICING HEARTS and RAISED VOICES.” The theme was actually suggested by the three hymns we’ve sung each week. Yes, I knew they were repeats. Only the order had changed. All three were written by Paul Gerhardt – a 17th century Lutheran theologian, pastor, and hymnwriter. Gerhardt knew the importance of being prepared by Christ.
Gerhardt lived in difficult times in Germany. The elector at Brandenburg promoted the false theology of the Reformed who, among other things, deny Christ’s words, “this is my body.” Instead of teaching that Christ comes to us, they teach that we ascend spiritually into heaven in order to receive Christ in the sacrament.
When the elector sought to have all the Lutheran pastors in Brandenburg sign the edict of toleration, Gerhard refused because it would have forced him to stop speaking and teaching against those that stripped Jesus away from His followers by denying that Jesus comes to save us in His Word and Sacraments but teaches instead that we must go to Him to be saved. As a result, Gerhardt was removed from his post. He was restored after popular protest which may even have included the Elector’s wife, who was herself Lutheran. However, Gerhardt understood that maintaining his position (and his livelihood) in this manner made it appear that he accepted the edict of toleration, and so he resigned his post.
This is how adamant Gerhardt was to maintain, among other things, the fact that it is Christ who comes to us to prepare us to meet Him when He comes in glory.
There are more verses to our opening hymn than those included in our hymnal, and two that are missing make the point clearly:
Ye need not toil nor languish
Nor ponder day and night
How in the midst of anguish
Ye draw Him by your might.
He comes, He comes all willing,
Moved by His love alone,
Your woes and troubles stilling;
For all to Him are known.
What though the foes be raging,
Heed not their craft and spite;
Your Lord, the battle waging,
Will scatter all their might.
He comes, a King most glorious,
And all His earthly foes
In vain His course victorious
Endeavor to oppose.
Notice the imagery. Gerhardt says of Jesus, HE comes, HE battles, all his foes endeavor in vain to oppose HIS course of victory. Gerhardt’s message is clear, God in Christ has prepared our path to Himself and we need not toil or languish how to draw Him to us, He comes to draw us to Himself.
This fact gives our heart every reason to rejoice even in the most difficult times of life. Christ draws us to Himself through the preaching of the truth. Comfort and peace and true joy are ours even in the midst of our trials and sufferings here and now. We know for certain that eternity is ours because Christ has won it for us and He hands It over to us freely.
Gerhardt describes this joy of the Christian in 2 verses that didn’t make the cut when they were paring our closing hymn – which in the old TLH hymnal ran 15 verses:
Ye whose anguish knew no measure,
Weep no more; See the door
To celestial pleasure.
Cling to Him, for He will guide you
Where no cross, Pain, or loss
Can again betide you.
Dearest Lord, Thee will I cherish.
Though my breath Fail in death,
Yet I shall not perish,
But with Thee abide forever
There on high, In that joy
Which can vanish never.
Jesus comes to draw us out up out of our circumstances to see what He has accomplished. He is the door to eternal joy and He guides us to the eternal peace where no cross, pain or loss will again come to us. We will abide forever with our God in the joy of eternity.
And it is our confidence in this fact that leads us to raise our voices in praise to God so that others would know the mercy and grace of our God who sent Jesus to prepare us to meet Him with rejoicing hearts and raised vocies.
The idea of raised voices is woven into all of our lessons this evening. Isaiah gives to us God’s command to raise our voices and point to our God. Peter explains the reason and motivation to raise our voices. And, Mary gives us an example of what such raised voices look like.
“Lift up your voice with strength,” says Isaiah, “lift it up, fear not! Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”
Look! Your God comes to you!
This time of year, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the historical fact of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem – after all, who doesn’t like a cute baby cuddled up in the pretty scenes on our Christmas cards – with the warm light of the torches. But let’s be honest – those cards and the pictures in our heads are highly romanticized. Jesus was effectively born in a smelly barn – exposed to the dark, cold, cruel world. The King of the universe was born and he didn’t even get a lousy T-Shirt – much less royal robes – but he was humbly swaddled in some old scraps of fabric that were available.
If it weren’t for the declaration of the Angels who told the shepherds and the chatter of the shepherds around Bethlehem at his birth, nobody would know that God had been born a baby in Bethlehem.
The same is true today. Turn on the news, listen to the radio, with all the violence and destruction, the chaos and trials in the world, there’s nothing that points us to God’s presence among us. Even in our own lives – the trials and struggles we face daily and the trials and struggles that are sent our way. Where is God in when ISIS seems to be taking over, the Taliban is killing children in schools, Islamic militants are taking hostages in Australia? Where’s God when life seems to be falling apart around us – and our world is collapsing in on us?
Behold, your God! As He comes to you in Word and Sacrament. He has mightily worked your salvation by His death on the cross – and He comes with His reward of forgiveness, life and salvation FOR YOU! With His strong arm, He comes to rescue you and save you through the trials and troubles of this life – keeping you believing in Him and trusting in Him and His mercy and goodness toward you.
And it isn’t easy! Because we want to see God in His glory – we want Him to come and smite His enemies and destroy all causes of sin and sorrow. But what we so often ignore is that we, ourselves, would be smitten and destroyed – for time and time again we have failed to live as He would have us to live – we have been the cause of sin – we have caused sorrow to others. And so, He must come to us hidden – in order to rescue us and save us. And if He’s hidden, he must be pointed out. Elizabeth needed the kick of John the Baptist in her womb. The shepherds needed the Christmas Angels. The wisemen needed the star, Herod and the Scribes needed the Word of God. We, too, need to be pointed to the work of God and told, “BEHOLD YOUR GOD!” And having heard the glorious message of the God who comes among us – to live AS ONE OF US – in order to save and rescue us – we have the tremendous privilege and responsibility to raise our own voices and point others to the wonderful working of Jesus – to His birth in the manger – to His death on the cross – to His resurrection from the dead. This is the work He has done and accomplished to secure our salvation.
Now, He comes to shepherd and guide us, as Isaiah said, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
This is what He does in the world here and now. Gathering us together around Him as He sends out His Word, spreading a table before us to feed and nourish us even in the presence of the enemies of death and sin in the world. In this way, He feeds us and nourishes us, as a shepherd tends His flock – gathering us like lambs in His arms and carrying us through the storms and trials of life in his bosom – leading and guiding us gently and patiently as a shepherd would lead and guide those with young lambs.
But all of this work is unseen by our eyes. We know that He is doing it because He tells us He is doing it. He has declared it in His Word, He has caused us to learn and know it. He has sent those who came before us to teach it to us and to point it out to us saying, “BEHOLD! YOUR GOD!”
How needed this is can be seen in our reading of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting.
As Mary approaches Elizabeth’s house, Mary greets Elizabeth – just days after Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb – and John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as if to say, “BEHOLD! YOUR GOD!” – Hidden deep inside the womb of Mary – a small clump of cells – unseen and otherwise unknown.
And this revelation leads Elizabeth to bless Mary saying, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
It’s almost as if, knowing the work of God, those involved can’t help but talk about it! They’re constantly busy pointing out the work of God as He comes to redeem us. Just listen to how the joy of Mary – knowing that God had prepared the way of salvation for His people – welled up within her and overflowed in song – with a raised voice, she declares:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior [NOTICE: she starts out talking about God’s work for her – personally – “MY SAVIOR”], for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; [BLESSED because God has brought her into His plan of salvation. He has chosen her to give birth to the Son of the most high just as He has chosen us to be saved and has made us an instrumental part of bringing the knowledge of salvation and hope and faith to others] for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
She’s almost giddy – she can’t hold it in. She must raise her voice and declare the wonderful deeds of our God – pointing to His work – lifting up her voice with strength an declaring, “BEHOLD! YOUR GOD!” Not coming as you expect – not coming for your eyes to see him – but coming to your ears – to call you to Himself – to forgive you your sins – to carry you in his boosom – to lift you up – and lead and guide you through this valley of the shadow of death so that you will be with Him forever.
And the benefit of such raising our voice is not for us – and God it certainly provides no “benefit” to God! The benefit is for others – those around us in this world that seems so God forsaken – those who are in desperate need to hear of our loving God. In the midst of so much trouble and turmoil in the world, those around you need to hear and know that they are not cast off from God – that though God has every right to destroy us for our sin – He is a loving and merciful God who has prepared for us the way of salvation. And at that our hearts ought to rejoice and be glad!
Bringing the news of this salvation to others is what motivated the prophets to speak and prophesy. Peter tells us, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you. These things have been announced to you. The Word has reached your ears, declaring and delivering to you the things revealed by the Holy Spirit – revealing to YOU things into which the Angels long to see.
As we raise our voices declaring the mercy and grace of God who sent Christ into the world to redeem us – we do not serve ourselves – indeed – this message will be hated and reviled in the world – just as it always has been. The prophets died bringing this message to our ears – and Jesus was put to death by an angry mob because He dared to declare pardon and peace with God. Accepting the forgiveness of sins requires an acknowledgement that we are sinners who need forgiveness – and that’s something that none of us can do on our own. But through this good news – this Good News preached into our ears – the Holy Spirit is given to work faith to believe that there is forgiveness for our sins. There is salvation for mankind – forgiveness and salvation won for us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And so, as we conclude this Advent season – and make our own preparations for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, let us recall and celebrate, sing and declare the coming of our God. Let us rejoice in our hearts over the forgiveness and mercy of our God who accomplished everything to prepare the way for us to return to Him. Let us raise our voices here and abroad, near and far, and declare with one voice, “BEHOLD, YOUR GOD!” Your God who comes to you wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Your God who grew up, suffered, died, was buried. Your God who rose from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven. Your God who comes to you in the Word of the Gospel to work by the power of his strength bringing his reward with Him in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Behold, Your God who will, one day, return to judge the living and the dead and to bring all those whom He has saved to live with Him forever.
In short, Let us be and live as those who have been prepared to meet Him with rejoicing hearts and raised voices.
In the Name of Jesus. AMEN.