Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed) + June 23, 2019
Text: Isaiah 40:1-5
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Comfort, comfort. We love to get here. But first has to come the discomfort. The humbling.
This is described in picture language for us. First, in terms of geological changes, akin to some of the changes necessary for I-90 to traverse the Cascades and Rockies. The mountains and hills must be made low, the uneven ground become level, and the rough places a plain. These describe some of the various effects the Word of God has on us during our lives. There are times our mountains must be brought low—those things were are most proud of and unwilling to move. How dare God tell us that we have to obey the authorities when we don’t agree with their decisions. Who’s the county to tell me what I can do on my land? This government is messing with the definition of marriage, so we’ll just be married in God’s eyes and forget the state. But unless those authorities are forcing us to go against God’s Word, He says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God…for he is God’s servant for your good.” Mountain, be humbled.
Other times the Word must correct what is mostly right, but still needing refinement. This is the uneven ground that needs to be levelled. This is what happens when someone learns they must make a decision to ask Jesus into their heart to be saved, but then later learn to appreciate the magnitude of God’s grace, when He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Or when someone’s life completely falls apart, and they grow to appreciate the power of our Lord in the Sacraments—of the forgiveness declared on human lips and the very Body and Blood of Christ given us to have ongoing union with Him.
There are different ways that we react to that humbling word. Some will say that word doesn’t apply to me and it’s out of line. Recently, Roman bishop Thomas Tobin sent out the message on Twitter:
A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.
responded by saying, “Catholic
people know Christ loves us and lives in us. Pray for forgiveness.” It sounds like the Bishop got schooled on
knowing the love of Christ, but we need to think about this. Yes, of course God loves all people,
including those who sin sexually. But Jesus
does say, “If anyone loves me, he will
keep my word…Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John
14:23-24) Jesus loves us by saving us from sin and death, and a living faith
will keep His word by living according to it.
God therefore comforts the afflicted, the humbled, those who have been brought low by sin and death—by their failures, by cancer, by losing friends and family. This is where we see our Savior most clearly. But those who refuse to be humbled will not know the true comfort that comes from God. They’ll have to settle for the fleeting comforts that this world offers.
Now, it’s important to know that comfort is not to be confused with happiness. God desires to comfort the humble, but this is so much more than “God wants you to be happy.” You can be comforted, even while you grieve a loved one. You may not be happy about it, but because of the Lord’s Word and work, you have comfort stronger than the grief. You can be comforted even when you lose your job and you’re forced on welfare, because you have a Father in heaven who will neither leave nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5-6). You don’t have to be happy through it, but you do have a comfort that comes from the peace which passes all understanding, which is yours in Christ Jesus.
Today, we observe the nativity (birth) of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. That actually falls on June 24, a date picked because it’s about six months ahead of Christmas, the nativity of the Lord, because Luke tells us that Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was in her sixth month (Luke 1:26, 36). But another commemoration follows the day after: June 25th. A couple years ago, we honored this event on a Sunday: The presentation of the Augsburg Confession. It was the first statement of faith of those who would later be called Lutherans. Anyway, we’re not here for a history lesson, but one of the articles of the Augsburg Confession speaks to John’s ministry:
AC XII – Repentance
It is taught among us that those who sin after Baptism receive forgiveness of sin whenever they come to repentance, and absolution should not be denied them by the church. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest. Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin would then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
That’s the other part of John’s ministry. He is always pointing sinners like us to Jesus for grace for our sins, but he also preached a genuine repentance that that shows in holy lives. When God says to His people in Isaiah 40, embodied in Jerusalem, “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” the proper result is that we want to turn away from sin and live lives of service to those around us.
It’s unfortunate that when Christians speak of living holy lives, people will react by saying that they preach works righteousness. This is actually an example of our old flesh throwing up walls, not wanting to hear anything God has to say. This is where we make excuses to say, it’s okay if we slack on our duty toward the poor because others will take care of them. It’s alright if we don’t visit those who are sick or in prison because they should know we care about them, even if we don’t lift a finger to help them.
But then the voice of John the Baptist comes ringing through history and exposes our evil laziness: “Bear fruits that befit repentance!” Don’t presume on the Lord’s kindness, that just because He doesn’t thunder from heaven about what we ought to do, think that He doesn’t really care how we live our lives. His will for us is still the same—for us to do what He takes pleasure in—visiting the poor, caring for the needy, bringing relief to the suffering. He wants us to serve our neighbor whenever we see them in need, and we have a way to bring relief. The difference Christ made between the earth swallowing people up for their wickedness is that the punishment for our failure has been taken away. It has been fully laid upon God’s Son, so that we are free. We receive a double portion of good in place of what our sins deserved.
And in all of this, the glory of the Lord is seen. This is the witness of who God is, and the
way He shows Himself to people who do not know Him. From Zechariah’s song:
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
God has prepared His way in you, and in all who hear His Word. He has brought you to humility, to become like a child and receive His kingdom. Now, having received His tender mercy, having been taken from the darkness of your own guesses about God, He guides you into the way of peace. He leads you in living a life that follows that peace which comforts you in every affliction, which calms your heart in the face of disasters, and gives you that peace which this world cannot give. He gives you that comfort, so that you are equipped to comfort others, as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” So rejoice, beloved, that God continues His tender mercies to you, and He is your God and Savior today and into eternity.
In the Name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.