Monday, December 18, 2023

Not to steal your joy but to save you. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, preached on Sunday, December 17, 2023.

It comes as no surprise that Advent in the Church seems to be a downer while the world is gearing up for Christmas.  First is the Gospel of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and we are reminded that the wood of the manger gives way to the wood of the cross and that the Son of Mary was born to die.  Messages like that spoil Christmas.  The last week we are reminded that our world is no amusement park but a wilderness of sin and death.  Well, that helps put you in the mood for Christmas, now doesn’t it.  Now, the Jews send people to John the Baptist to ask him who he is and by what right he baptizes.  They are not trying to understand John but to tar and feather him with their pious words.  All we want to do is to have a happy little Christmas and the Church spoils it all with sin and stuff.

John is not trying to spoil your holiday or steal your special family day but he is trying to make sure that you are sealed in the true joy of this day.  To do that, John must do for us what he did for the people of his own day – call us to repentance.  This call to repentance does not start with who Jesus is but with who you are.  The Jews send their scouts to press John to find out who he is but John turns it right back around on them.  Who are you?  Unless you know who you are as a sinner, there is no reason to welcome a Savior no matter how nice the story of His birth.

They were raising questions of authority to do what John was doing but John was trying to get them to see that the Messiah was not to come but already here, standing among them without their recognition.  He is the Christ, the long promised Messiah.  He is Elijah the prophet who comes to signal the beginning of the end.  He is the Prophet to end all Prophecies – the speaker of the Word who fulfills that Word.  And the Jews were upset about John and his call to repentance with the promise of forgiveness.  How could they miss the obvious?

Isn’t that exactly what we do every year.  We miss the obvious in order to focus on the things that are not important.  We prefer a sentimental holiday instead of a holy day with its call to repentance.  We prefer to make memories instead of preparing for everlasting life.  We prefer to focus on foods and smells and polite niceties.  We shop like fiends for a gifts that nobody wants or keeps.  We want a Kodak moment while God is opening up to us the door to everlasting life.  It is no wonder we do not like John.  John calls us to take notice of the eternal in a world that cannot see past the present moment.  
We want a happy Christmas complete with families that get along and schedules that allow us to do everything we want to do.  Jesus is trying to rescue us not in the least from ourselves and our sweet images of peace on earth, good will toward people.  As long as we stick to the world’s script of what Christmas is, the world will go along with us and will not challenge us.  But in the end, the problem is not simply not having the Christmas of our dreams but a nightmare of a life.

Jesus is right here in our midst but we do not recognize Him.  We reluctantly admit that we are sinners but would are not ready to call our family and friends to repentance.  There is no room for salvation at Christmas.  Instead, the best advice for a happy Christmas is not to talk about anything that matters, make sure everyone gets what they want, and making sure that we bury every dispute in favor of an image of unity.  We call it Jesus’ birthday so we can keep Him in the manger and do not have to admit why He came.  We will keep Jesus a baby so that He cannot challenge us and the way we celebrate family and fun with a downer story of the cross.  

The Jews were concerned that John was upsetting the status quo and they did not believe that there was any reason to upset their comfortable misery.  Their job was to silence John and to keep the Messiah from fulfilling His ministry.  In the end, they were not bullies at all but cowards, fearful of the whole idea that there was a life better than the life they were now living.  If that is true, then perhaps we are just as cowardly.

If you want a Christmas befitting John the Baptist, then you confront the sins of the day the way John warned Herod of his adultery with His brother’s wife.  If you want a Christmas befitting John the Baptist, then you tell your non-church going relatives that they need to get to Church on Sunday morning where His Word is proclaimed and His Sacraments are administered.  Undoubtedly they will be as offended as were the Jews of old who insisted to John that he explain by what right he criticized them.  

If you want a Christmas befitting Jesus, then don’t just point out sin but absolve the sinner.  If you want a Christmas befitting Jesus, then speak the love that is strong enough also to warn.  If you want a Christmas befitting Jesus, then admit He came to the manger to go to the cross, not to condemn but so the world might be saved through Him.  If you want a Christmas befitting Jesus, let us repent together.
Repent and rejoice together.  Jesus has not come to steal your holiday but to seal it in His grace and favor.  He has not come so that some may feel better about themselves and others may feel worse but so that we all may find a home in His grace and have faith in His mercy.  He has not come to be a spoiler but a Savior, rescuing the moment and all of us who live in that moment for eternal life.

John seems that he is the voice of doom and gloom, of an angry righteous man who cannot hardly stand to look at sinners.  But that is not John.  John does not hate anyone.  He loves Jesus.  He prays that we will learn to know and love Him as well.  We are not waiting for the Messiah.  He has already come.  He has shown us the shape of His mercy in the form of a cross.  He has come to spare us what we deserve so that He may bestow upon us the mercy we do not deserve.

It may seem like a terrible idea but why not invite John to your Christmas.  And while you are at it, invite Jesus to your Christmas as well.  Jesus has come for sinners and the proud and everyone in the shadow of death.  He already knows your family is a mess, you are weak willed the face of temptation, and more hungry for the things that do not matter than for the things that do.  We are all the people who have failed a God who never failed us.  But in Him is forgiveness that our sins may be gone and in Him is life strong enough to rescue us from the grave.

Come.  Make straight the way to Jesus.  Ponder nothing earthly minded.  Rest your burden upon the Lord.  Offer to Jesus the only thing He wants from you – your sins – and receive from Him what He wants you to have – forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Set aside the smokescreen of reasons why not and simply rejoice that the Lord has come to save you.  And now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.   That is how the Church says: Merry Christmas

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