Scripture is filled with miracle births – from the children of Noah who re-filled the earth after the flood to Isaac born to Sarah and Abraham when their bodies could no longer fulfill the promise of new life to Hannah whose barren womb is filled with the son Samuel whom she cannot keep and returns to the Lord. But in the fullness of time, these miracles give way to the greater surprise of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit and of the messenger whom the Lord sent to prepare His way.
That is why we are here. We are waiting not for birth but because of that birth, waiting not for the consolation of Israel but for the consummation of all things already begun but not yet complete. Every Advent finds us here watching, waiting, singing, and praying.
Zechariah’s story is typical. He doubts the Lord. It is too much even for a righteous man to believe that his empty house will hear the sound of a baby’s cry. As great as this surprise, it is made even greater by the promise that He will fulfill the spirit and power of Elijah to restore the obedience of faith and repentance to the disobedient children of God – just in time to welcome the Savior whom the Lord will send.
Zechariah asks with fearful sigh what the blessed Virgin Mary will ask. How can this be? But unlike the Virgin who knew her innocense, Zechariah knew his disappointment and bore in his heart the hope and longing in the face of Elizabeth, his wife. He could not believe even what he wanted more than life itself. So the Archangel Gabriel shut his tongue to keep him from speaking of their holy encounter within the temple. He could only watch and wait.
Elizabeth heard nothing from Zechariah as her womb grew. Her old age made the child an embarrassment instead of glory until she could no longer conceal the sign of the Lord. Instead of shame, her neighbors and relatives share in her joy. When the day came for the baby to be delivered, they were set to name him for his father, Elizabeth insisted that he be called John. The blessed joy of circumcision and its first blood of the covenant became a point of conflict and controversy. Even the mute Zechariah was called to weigh in on a name.
When his mouth finally spoke, he could not stop praising God and the people realized that this was a sign from God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesied:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...”
A horn of salvation, the promise to David now kept, and the fulfillment of the prophets’ hope. This was a miracle birth. John would be the last of the prophets until He who is the very Word of the prophets is born. After John the Word of the Lord would no longer be spoken but would be enfleshed in the Son of God incarnate and those who serve Him would not speak in His place but would become the mouthpieces of the Word.
And why? Why should this take place?
“that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us...”
The end of enemies, the end of hate, only mercy would remain. Mercy covenanted in blood not of ox or bull but of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This was the promise Abraham believed and which counted him righteous, him and all his sons and daughters who shared this faith and hope.
And what result? Not for us or our self-indulgence, not even for our earthly happiness and contentment but for one purpose only:
“That we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
God’s grace is poured out upon us and His mercy lavished upon us unworthy sinners so that we might no longer live lives unworthy of Him, but serve Him in holiness and righteousness. Why is it that we find it so easy to squander the gift and blessing given us in the font? Why do we count what we want so highly and shrug off the perfect will of the Father so easily? Are we like Zechariah who did not believe and rejected the gift the Lord offered for the supposed comfort of doubt and sin?
Then comes the promise given to John:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah would not make the same mistake twice. Having once given his voice back, the aging man of God made good on the promise of God by raising his son to be a prophet, schooled in the Word of God, that he might be a fitting instrument for God and His glory.
I only know my own failings as a father and you know yours. But one lasting legacy of a father’s faithful duty is the faith of his son or daughter. If you have done this well, you have done all things well and if you have done everything else but failed to bring your child to the Lord’s house and showed him faith in your words and deeds, what success can you enjoy?
God’s tender mercy has come near us. We have seen His messenger. We have seen His one and only Son. Now we watch and wait for the Sonrise – SON. For the day when night will not come and only daylight endures. Let our watching and waiting be faithful, teaching the faith to our children, fulfilling the command and promise of God. And our way will be guided to the pathway of peace and when earthly sleep overtakes our eyes and unspoken prayers still linger on our quiet lips, we will know the peace of a clear conscience through the forgiveness of our sins. And just maybe we will learn to sing with Zechariah, “Blest be the God of Israel.”
Magnificat. . .
Mary has always been a problem for Protestants but not for Lutherans. Unlike those who would give Mary only her 15 minutes of fame in the Christmas story, Lutherans have always looked to Mary as the first Christian, the model for all of us as Christians, and in this way our mother in the faith. Lutherans may have learned from Protestants to be uncomfortable and live in fear of too much attention to Mary but we might also be worried about too little attention, failing to honor her as Scripture speaks about her.
Mary is not confused about who Jesus is, about her place in the story of Jesus, and about the part she played in God’s work of redemption. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” We may be confused but she is not. She knows that God is her glory, the source of her joy, her Savior from sin and its death, and her job is to magnify the Lord who has done such marvelous things.
We may be nervous about Mary but Mary is not nervous at all. The Lord “looked on the humble estate of His servant.” God saw Mary’s humility – not her shyness or her willingness to deflect the praise of others. No, the humility God saw was her faith, her confidence in the promises of God and her willingness to defer to this Word alone. God saw in her heart not the perfect purity of a sinless one but strong faith of a sinner who sought to be righteous and holy.
We may be hesitant to say “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed are thou among woman and blessed the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” But Scripture speaks these words and the Holy Spirit taught these words to Mary and the Spirit teaches to us these words that we might believe them as Mary first did. “From this time forward all generations shall call me blessed.” Mary said this under inspiration of the Spirit and if we are unwilling to say them of her, then we are unworthy of the Son whose womb she bore. For us to be blessed, we meet first the blessedness of her whom the Lord chose to carry His Son and deliver Him.
“He who is mighty has done great things for me... and holy is His name.” We Christians often speak how good God is – at least when life is going well and things are good. But Mary is not speaking in some generic or casual way. She is not speaking as one who find life easy living. She is the pregnant, unwed mother who claims her womb carries the almighty Son of God. What the rest of us might be ashamed to claim, this is her glory, her only glory.
“The mercy of God is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. Christ is not some new character introduced into an evolving old story. Nope, Christ is the story, its beginning and end. There is no mercy of God apart from Him and this has not and will not change, even though the generations come and go before Him. “He has shown strength with His arm, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts and tearing down the thrones of the mighty to life up the lowly – those who have no righteousness and no hope except in God and the promise of His Word. “He has filled the hungry with good things while the rich are sent away empty handed.” Only repentant sinners find hope in Christ. No one else.
He hath holpen His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy, spoken to our fathers, to Abraham and to His offspring forever...” What God did for Mary in revealing His mercy and His gracious purpose, God has done for those who stand with Mary, or should I say kneel with her, acknowledging God’s mercy as the reason they stand and claiming to be sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. Abraham’s children stand in faith in Christ with Mary, Joseph, all the apostles, and those of every generation who believe the Gospel.
If we are embarrassed or uneasy about Mary, we are embarrassed, ashamed, or uneasy about the God who singled her out, called her to mother His one and only Son, and judged her faith righteous like Abraham who went before her. Blessed are those who are not scandalized by Me, says the Lord. We might also say, “blessed are those who are not scandalized by Mary, by the mercy of God given to unworthy sinners, and by those who willingly surrender the righteousness of works for the judgement of God’s grace.
Don’t make too much of Mary, we think... It is a slippery slope. Well, maybe somebody should have warned God. Because God makes much of her – much of her faith in His Word, much of her willingness to consent to God’s will, much of her delight in what God did in delivering His Son to our flesh and blood, and much of her example as the first Christian, pondering these things into her heart while trusting her past, present, and future to this mercy.
But you know how Mary wishes to be honored? Not by singling her out apart from Christ but by following her example in trusting the angel’s Word, by consenting to the Lord’s will (thy will be done), by accepting the Lord’s wisdom instead of trying to argue with or teach the Lord a better way, by doing in faith what the Lord commanded, be believing with her that the Christ whom she bore is Your Savior as well as hers, and by confessing this Gospel to the ends of the earth.
We talk too little about Mary. We ought to be saying more. For when we speak of Mary as Scripture speaks of her, Christ is the focus, His Word front and center, and His Gospel our one and only hope. Mary asks us for one thing. To love Jesus as she loves Him. To trust in Jesus as she has trusted Him for her own salvation. To follow Jesus where He has led the way. And to rejoice in the mercy of God and His gracious will – no matter how strange or alien or shocking that will is.
We need more Mary’s in a world that likes the sound of its voice more than the sound of God’s voice in His Son... We need more Mary’s in a world prone to tell God how it needs to work instead of trusting in His Word when everything around says “how can this be.” We need more Mary’s who gladly exchange their paltry works for Christ’s gracious work of salvation on the cross. We need more Mary’s who when God asks, will give their consent to His will follow where the Lord has led. We need more Mary’s who rejoice not in themselves but confess their low degree, repent of their sins, and rejoice in Christ’s salvation.
May it be said of us as we say it of Mary – Blessed art you.... for the Christ you believe, the faith you confess, the Gospel you trust – the only blessedness that counts. Amen
Nunc Dimittis. . .
Twice in the rite of baptism I extend my hand upon the head of the baptized to ask the Lord to bless his or her coming in and going out. This is not some trite little ditty about traveling but about our entrance into life and our departure into death. That is our lot. We come and we go but we do not endure – not until and not unless the eternal Lord wills it. For a people living in the moment of this brief life and in the shadow of death, it requires something more than we have to trust that death is not the end and this life is not all we get. It requires the Holy Spirit to engender faith in our sinful, suspicious, and skeptical hearts.
That is what we celebrate and sing with Simeon of old. We sing of life that is lived out before the Lord and dependent upon His gracious will. We sing of death and its shadow that looms over us and what our eyes have not seen but our hearts believed in the promise of life stronger than death. We sing of waiting upon the time of the Lord, the ticking not of the clock on the wall but redemption’s clock and of the fullness of time when the Savior is revealed.
Simeon was an old man and we have become conditioned to think of long life as a good thing. I suppose it is considering the alternative. But this life can never fill our endless wanting or satisfy our endless quest for more. Simeon was old but his life was not filled with the things of old age – he waited. He waited at the Temple. He waited on the Lord. He took the promise of God personally and daily he entered the Temple to pray to the Lord and wait upon the Lord to fulfill the promise and give the eyes of an old man the blessing of seeing the promised future unfold.
Simeon could have been disappointed that day when Joseph brought Mary to be purified according to the law and Jesus to be presented to the Lord. For all his waiting, all Simeon got to see was a baby – a child like the many first borns who were brought to the Lord with rejoicing and with thanksgiving for a mother delivered from the peril of childbirth. You can say all you want but a baby's face is a baby's face. Coming and going into the Temple these people came until one day the tired old eyes saw with the fresh sight of faith not a baby but the Lord's Christ. This child was the one who is set for the falling and rising of many. This is the One he was waiting for.
Simeon saw with the clear vision of faith and knew his time of waiting was over. He had seen the Lord’s salvation and now his life was full.
Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal You to the nations and the glory of Your people Israel.
Life is an entrance and an exit and, apart from God who gives more, it is only what you can compact into the time you have between your coming in and your going forth. It’s sad, really, even pathetic. Even long life is not enough unless pain and weakness torment that life. But you and I stand with Simeon of old. We refuse to let life be defined by birth and death and however much you can compress between. We want more. We expect more. We dare even to stand in God's presence and demand more, that He deliver to us nothing less than His full promise. Not a longer today but a new tomorrow in which life is no longer tormented by the fear of death and sin’s guilt and shame are no more. We want nothing less that what God has promised. We want to see with our own eyes of faith now the salvation God has promised and we want to see with new eyes the eternity the Lord has prepared for those who love Him. We want light that darkness cannot over come and we want the glory that will not depart from God’s people ever.
So it is begun but not complete and until then we wait. That is what life is – oh, not the aimless waiting of those who simply fear death but the purposeful waiting of a Simeon who trust the Lord and wait for Him to finish what He has begun, the hopeful waiting that knows the future will be better than the best of the present, the waiting that is relieved to know troubles, trials, temptations, and toil will not follow us past the gate of death and the grave where we pass with Christ to our own joyful resurrection. And waiting we come to the Temple not built of wood and stone but of Christ’s flesh and blood and the flesh and blood saints who kneel to eat and drink what the Lord has given.
Like Simeon we could be disappointed. After all it looks, tastes, and smells like only bread and only wine. Or, like Simeon, we can see with eyes of faith what God has hidden in bread and in wine – the flesh and blood of Christ that feeds us grace for today, forgiveness for our sins, and the pledge and promise of the eternal banquet that is to come. I have had youth say after their first communion that they were disappointed. They expected more – bells, whistles, lights, and drama. But God is hidden in weakness – in suffering on the cross, in plain water that washes with heavenly grace, and in ordinary bread and wine that is Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sin. In this life we are constantly tempted by earthly senses and the devil who insists that if you have to believe in it, it cannot be real. In this life we constantly struggle in faith to believe what we cannot see with our eyes, to trust the timetable of the Lord, to believe the promise of God in His Word, and to see Christ where He has promised to be.
It might surprise you that in the early years of the Reformation little distinguished the Lutheran Divine Service from the Roman Mass -- not ceremony or vestment or words or even language. Only what was proclaimed from the pulpit loud and clear and a little addition to the Mass made by Luther. Luther’s greatest modification to the mass was to add this canticle as the post communion song of those who met at the altar the God of their dreams in ordinary bread and wine. Here in this wondrous encounter, comings and goings finally make sense. We belong to the Lord. Whether we life or die, as this worlds count’s life, we are the Lord’s. Because of this Gospel we are not without hope, not without grace to sustain us, not without purpose to our waiting, and not without all we need to be ready now and every day to meet our Lord and enter into His heavenly glory where He has prepared a place for us, that we may be where He is.
Like Simeon of old, we carry this hope in earthly vessels that need constant reassurance lest we end up settling for the moment and miss eternity. These too God has provided so that what He began in us in our baptism, He might bring to completion on that great and final day of the Lord, when our sins shall be a memory, death shall be no more, and we shall be presented before Him holy and blameless, for the eternal future and blessing He prepared. And then we shall hear in the voice of the Almighty: Well done, Good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master! And then the waiting we love to complain about will be over and it will be shown to be worth it all. Amen.