Third Sunday in Advent (Isaiah 35:1-10)

Joachim Patinir - Baptism of Christ

In the spring of 2016, Death Valley in California saw an unusual sight: a “super bloom.”  Conditions came together which brought out a huge number of flowers besides the standby desert gold.  Photographers descended on the valley and captured beautiful hills of mariposa lilies and sunbonnets. It was truly a rare event.

The description given in Isaiah 35 is also rare:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; 

the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 

it shall blossom abundantly 

and rejoice with joy and singing. 

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, 

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. 

They shall see the glory of the Lord

the majesty of our God. 

Even more than rare, it has never been seen before  Some might call it inconceivable, others impossible.  The autumn crocus described here is the same kind we have in the rose garden by the playground.  Imagine those bulbs sprouting out in the wilderness and dry land. The desert rejoicing because of the flowers blooming in it!  How can this be?

The rest of the text invites us to picture ever increasingly improbable circumstances:

  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, 

and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 

then shall the lame man leap like a deer, 

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. 

For waters break forth in the wilderness, 

and streams in the desert; 

the burning sand shall become a pool, 

and the thirsty ground springs of water; 

in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, 

the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 

What a miracle!  Praise the Lord for when He does such miraculous things, because that will vindicate our faith in Him.  Then we’ll know that we have trusted in the Mighty One who changes the desert into a paradise, and restores the ear of the deaf and the tongue of the mute!

Oh, but what comes next?  Isaiah 36 begins an account of Sennacherib besieging Jerusalem.  Isaiah has delivered all these promises of God to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  And in our thinking, bringing disaster is no way to “Say to the anxious heart, Be strong, fear not!  Behold your God will come with vengeance”  It sounds like we’ll have to push our hope down the road and try to keep waiting patiently for the Lord to act.  Until then, we’ll just hang in there and quietly remind each other that the Lord will act…one day.

There are Christians, who are so eager for this visible reward to come, that they seek out the miraculous, the completely inexplicable, as signs of God’s working.  This past week, I taught the confirmation class about the Assembly of God’s belief in Divine Healing. Based on James 5, where the Apostle says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” (James 5:14-15)  Based on the fact that Jesus healed many with diseases, they believe that God will still do that in sudden and miraculous ways if you follow this formula.  So, they exchange stories about how God miraculously removed tumors and made lame extremities whole. Now, don’t misunderstand, God is capable of doing whatever He wills, including sudden healing. But, as I warned the class, don’t just put your faith in the healing.  Also, beware of tying healings directly to “the prayer of faith” because if you aren’t healed, it’s all too easy to think your faith is somehow faulty. Sometimes God’s will is to leave us in our weakness, just like he left Isaiah and King Hezekiah to suffer warfare with Sennacherib (Isaiah 36).

So how does God fulfill this promise?  First, we turn to the Gospel reading, because it’s in the earthly ministry of Jesus that we get our first preview of God doing this on earth.  When John sits in prison, wondering if Jesus is truly the one to come, Jesus assures Him with the signs which He’s doing: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  And it’s true that Jesus did actually open blind eyes, heal lame limbs, cleanse the unclean, give hearing to the deaf, raise those who had died, and preach good news to the poor.

But what about us who follow Jesus in 2019?  What tangible hope is for us? Well, our Lord asked the crowds that day, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”  So we might ask, “What did you come to church today?”  Did you come to see overt signs of God’s kingdom—signs so obvious even an unbeliever would be compelled to explain them away?  Shall we wait for signs of the spirit in people speaking in tongues and those who are sick having sudden healings? As nice as that sounds, that isn’t what the Lord promises here.

If you came here to hear Jesus’ work for you proclaimed, then you’ve come to the right place.  The signs of the Kingdom of Heaven visibly manifest God’s work among us. But they aren’t bodily healings (because those aren’t given to all) or people speaking in so-called “tongues of angels” (because that doesn’t help others).  They are signs of God’s gracious presence and His steadfast love which endures forever: They’re called signs in the Old Testament and mysteries in the New: They are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our Lord gives them to us to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  In our times of waiting, suffering, longing, they are what God gives to encourage us that we are not laboring in vain and that He has not left us in our suffering.

These signs of the Kingdom are received by faith, by the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church.  Isaiah descries this holy, Christian Church as the highway upon which “the unclean shall not pass over it.  It shall belong to those who walk on the way…[who] shall not go astray.”  Just like the signs of the Kingdom are only accepted by faith, so is this Communion of Saints only comprised of the faithful.  This is the company of believers scattered throughout the world who hear the Word of God and hold to it with faith. You can’t always pick them out, but the Lord knows who are His own. The Lord knows you.

God has done an amazing work in us, bringing together people from all walks of life to walk upon this highway.  This and more God is able to do with you—hope in Him who is able to heal your body and uphold you through any and every trial, who heals you of your blindness, who opens your lips to sing His praise, who changes your heart so that it reflects Him more and more and loves others as He does.  Truly these things are impossible with man, but with God, your God, all things are possible through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Third Sunday in Advent (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) + December 17, 2017
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
John the Baptist was that voice foretold long before—one crying in the wilderness, a messenger before the Lord’s face, and him who was to come in the spirit and power of Elijah.  His task was to prepare the way for the Lord.
But although he labored in this calling, dressed strangely in a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt, and spoke boldly about the end of the world, he was not the Messiah Himself, as some suspected.  19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.””[1]
In Christian artwork, dating back to the very early icons, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, John the Baptist is pictured with his pointer finger aimed at Christ.  This is the sum total of His ministry—to point to Christ.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had John the Baptist pointing to Christ in our own day?  Actually, we do.  Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
John was a servant to Christ, as he prepared the way by preaching boldly.  The Christ is coming not only as Savior but also end times judge!  The axe is already laid at the root of the tree, therefore bear fruit proper to repentance![2]  Yet John was far from the last servant of Christ.  All of the Apostles served Him, as well as the 72 disciples He sent out, preached and worked signs of the Kingdom.[3]  It continues still in every generation through the pastoral office.  Pastors are servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Stewards own nothing of what they manage, but they are called upon to administer the property according to the master’s wishes.  In the case of the pastor, His Master has given clear instruction: preach repentance, forgiveness of sins to those who repent, withhold forgiveness as long as they refuse to repent.  Baptize and teach.[4]  A pastor’s work, properly speaking, is the Lord’s work.
Pastors are God’s stewards, entrusted with handling God’s mysteries faithfully.  Although it’s their mouth and their hands, the power doesn’t really come from them.  We do not believe in magic, and pastors are not arcane priests just because they wear long robes, chant, and serve at an altar.
Like John the Baptist, a pastor’s ministry is to point the finger to Christ. In fact, the robes clergy wear and chanting are meant to cover up the man and keep the focus on Christ.  We sophisticated adults should learn from our young children who point at the pastor and say, “Jesus!”
Your pastor is a servant of Christ and entrusted with His heavenly mysteries.  When you are cast down under heavy burdens of your sin, your pastor comes beside you to lift your eyes to the cross.  If you get sick and your life is upended by illness, your pastor brings the powerful medicine of God’s living Word and Christ’s Body and Blood your bedside.  If you are caught in the delusion of sinful security, it is your pastor’s job to call you to repentance.  Administering the Lord’s Supper with closed Communion is also the pastor’s job—to discern as far as humanly possible those who are fit to receive the Body and Blood for the forgiveness of their sins.
Pastors are therefore a gift from God, who deliver His mysteries to you.  That’s why the call between the congregation and her pastor is divine.  It is through this blessed vocation that the Lord continues to tend His flock.
Think of what individuals and congregations lose when they don’t have a pastor—unity of faith, spiritual leadership, and correction from error.  That’s also what happens to a person who stops going to church.  Separated from the Good Shepherd and His servant, they become a wandering sheep, to fall prey to the devil or mired in their own foolishness.
This is God’s intent in giving the 3rd Commandment—“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  We are not to despise preaching or His Word by avoiding church.  But we could break the 3rd Commandment even while sitting faithfully in the pew if we despise the preacher.
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
Pastors answer to the Lord of the Church for the work that they do.  The Lord calls them to be faithful to Him.  Again, picture John the Baptist: dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, calling people a brood of vipers and that they should repent before the coming wrath of God.  Our modern sensibilities would look down on John for being insensitive, and not meeting the congregation’s felt needs.  John probably would have picked all the hymns you call a “dirge.”  These are the things we think would make for a successful ministry.  The Lord did not call John to “be successful” but to be faithful.
So also pastors are called to be faithful, not successful.  This is really baffling in a world where you answer to the one who cuts your paycheck.  Many congregations fall into the error that the pastor is the employee of the congregation.  In our economic system, some of the language of the business world applies—taxes, health insurance, and payroll.  But it is a dangerous road to travel when you think of your pastor as an employee.
If the employee isn’t meeting expectations, and not fulfilling the job description you have for him, then you take disciplinary action.  You slash his pay, or you threaten to fire him unless he bows to demands of the ruling faction of the congregation.  Congregations have tried to leverage their pastors by denying them health insurance or forcing them out of the parsonage and changing the locks—all because they have forgotten who the pastor really answers to.
It’s called a divine call, not a contract, for a reason.  Because it’s a divine call, Scripture, rather than business practice, determines how a congregation regards and treats their pastor.  We’ve already heard it, but it bears repeating: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  He also has this instruction from Galatians 6:
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:6-8)
The flesh is stuck thinking, “Pastors are expensive!  What makes them worth all that money?!”  The flesh perceives only the material—the building, the offering envelopes, and the monthly figures.  But beware, because Scripture says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”[5]  Just as the pastor is called to faithfulness, so is the congregation.  The congregation is not called to have a balanced budget, but to be faithful to the Lord’s Word and trust in Him to provide.  “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”[6]
The Lord’s saving work cannot be quantified and measured; it is of the Spirit, and the Spirit says, 17 Let the elders [that is, pastors] who rule [lead] well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”[7]  Again, the Word of God says, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”[8]
So the question for the congregation to ask isn’t, “Are the numbers up?” but instead, “Is our pastor faithful to the Lord in His calling?  Does He preach the Word in its truth and purity and administer the Sacraments according to the Lord’s institution?  Does He pray for us and counsel us with the Word?  Does He catechize our children, offer Bible studies, and encourage us to grow and live out our faith?”  These are the things which the Lord calls faithful in His sight. This pastor will live by what His Lord says, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.”[9] Amen!  Come, Lord Jesus.
[1] John 1:19-20
[2] Luke 3:7-9
[3] Luke 10:1-12
[4] Luke 24:47, John 20:21-23, Matthew 28:19
[5] Romans 8:8
[6] Matthew 6:33
[7] 1 Timothy 5:17-18
[8] 1 Corinthians 9:14
[9] Luke 12:43 (see also Luke 12:35-48)