Dynamite! – Advent 4 2012 – Deuteronomy 18:15-19

23. December 2012
Advent 4 Rorate Coeli
Deuteronomy 18:15-19

Handling God’s Word is like playing with dynamite. It’s bound to blow up in your face. This scares many from even trying to read it. They’re not sure what will happen. Maybe they’ll cut the wrong wire? Maybe they’ll be too nervous and drop it? Maybe it’ll set off a chain reaction that will destroy everything they hold precious?

This might be a healthy fear. The Word is volatile and explosive.“We should fear and love God” began Luther. We should fear God. But we aren’t to fear His Word. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:10)  To fear God is to hear his word. “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word…”

What keeps you from cracking open the Scriptures once and a while? What keeps you away from church, the Divine Service, and the study of God’s Word? Are you scared what God has to say? Are you worried you might not get it? Are you intimidated by the sheer volume of speech contained in those sixty-six volumes? Or is it that your worried God might actually have something to say to you? I mean something specific for just you?

It happens and it is good. The Word devastates the proud and lifts up the beaten. It’s awesome stuff and intimidating at the same time. Even the preacher has difficulty writing a sermon. When he reads the appointed texts for the day and begins to handle the Word of Truth, he’s likely to get burned. It’s dangerous business. This preacher is just as vulnerable to the Word’s work as you are.

The Book of Deuteronomy is such a book. It records Moses’ sermon to the people shortly before they are to finally enter into the Promised Land. He recounts for them again their history and the commandments of God. Deutero means second and nomos means Law. Literally Deuteronomy is the the Law on repeat. He tells them again of their deliverance from Egypt, their refusal to enter the land God swore to give them, their creation of the Golden calf idol, and finally their wilderness wanderings. Now Moses preaches to them again what God delivered on tablets of stone, for liturgy, and for the neighbor.

It’s heavy duty stuff. God is not chaotic but precise. He commands the place of worship, the manner of worship, calendar, and tithes. And then God continues to command how to love your neighbor. He speaks of warfare, of the courts, of inheritance, of uncleanness, and providing for the needy. Attached to this commands are curses and blessings. Do this and you will live. Fail to do this and you are cursed.

It’s the commands of God that people fear most. No one likes being told what to do. And if the what is also true then we are cursed by guilt when we don’t do it. That’s probably why some keep their Bibles closed.  It’s easier to ignore God than take Him seriously. No one liked Moses. His people begged the Lord at Horeb on the day of assembly to get rid of him. It’s not that they hated Moses per se. They hated the Word that came from His mouth. They said, “Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.”

Avoiding God in His Word is nothing new. The people cowered in fear at the thought of God even opening His mouth again. But beginning with Moses and continuing through John the Baptist, the prophets kept coming at the people with this Word. They spoke only as they were given to speak for they were men under orders. In the name of the Lord they spoke. The people hated them for it. The word they spoke was harsh. It was the severe taskmaster. God was preserving them until they would go into the land they would inherit.

Moses was a minister of the Law, revealing sin and death. All throughout his giving of the Law in Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people that they have not kept the Law. They whined about the Amelikites. They grew impatient with God and made a idol golden calf. They complained about the food. Because of these transgressions, God gives the Law via Moses. He makes demands without the ability to meet them. He makes everyone guilty of death and subject to punishment.

Moses also reminds them that they are going into the promised land as a gift. It is given not out of righteousness or uprightness on their part but so that the LORD would confirm the word that He swore to our fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Deut 9:4-6). The LORD set his heart in love on [our] fathers. (Detu 10:15). This love is most evident in the promise of today’s reading. This new prophet will teach something other than Moses. He will not come bearing sin, wrath, and death. No, this prophet gives righteousness, grace, and life.

In the midst of Moses’s proclamation of commands, he gives this curious prophecy. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen. This prophet is not like Moses, speaking from the fire on the mountain. The fear of the people of this sort of message is just. TheLORD said to Moses “They are right in what they have spoken.” This prophet will not come in the thunder of Moses, the laments of Jeremiah, or the “you brood of vipers!” of John the Baptist. He will come like Moses but will be given new words. This Word will be the final Word. It is to Him you shall listen and not Moses.

Moses had laid down the Law for priesthood, kingdom, and worship of God. And now he tells us of another who will come bearing a new priesthood (you!), another kingdom (the church!), another worship of God (the liturgy of the Sacrament), and another Word (the Gospel!) Everything of Moses and the Law is assumed into Christ and fulfilled by Him. Moses is foretelling the end of the prophets and the beginning of the Christ’s church. We will celebrate again His gracious arrival Monday night.

From Moses on, the preaching of the Holy Ten Commands is necessary. It remains God’s Word. By the Law all are humbled, devastated. The dynamite goes off. But the new Word of the infant Christ—the Gospel—raises up. It exalts the lowly. It gives life to the dead. This new Word put in the new prophet’s mouth is a good gift. Both the words spoken by Moses and Jesus are the Word of God. But the fruit of the former is only death and the latter is only life. Jesus demands nothing but He gives to you precisely what Moses demanded. Christ is the greatest prophet and His Word of the Gospel always wins against its opponent—the Law.

What you will find—if you open your Scriptures and read—is that a new Word of promise is echoed by Moses until John the Baptist. This not new to God but His mercy was from before the world began. This Word of Christ is also powerful, dynamite. It is explosive good news! In Jesus the hope of the nations is fulfilled. Jesus frees and consoles those who are frightened and broken.

This news must be known. Jesus must be heard. Our salvation begins not with any work of ours but with the hearing of the Word of life. The Law comes first to destroy the old Adam, reveal sin, and teach us we are incapable of saving ourselves. ““The Law brings wrath,” (Romans 4:15) and brings it so completely that the people not only do not do the Law but will not even hear it, for it kills them.” (Luther)

This is why some are scared of the Word of God. They don’t want to die. They don’t want to be humbled. The ugliness inside wants to stay hidden. Yet, it is necessary to be destroyed by the Law. We must learn our need for a savior. We must learn the truth so to receive the Jesus crucified for us.

Jesus is the Prophet long foretold. When the Holy Spirit is received by faith, then we are justified by Him without any work of our own, only by the gift of God. We experience peace and a good conscience toward God (Rom. 5:1) and joyfully and confidently we cry: “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). Now there is no more fear or flight from the face of the wrath of God; In Jesus there is childlike access to God through grace (Rom. 5:2–3).

The Word of God can scare us when it holds up the mirror to our sinful flesh. But this Word is overcome by the greater Word of Jesus. Times of refreshing are here. The prophets of old are silenced when the greatest Prophet comes. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Word. He received the curses for all our transgressions. By Him we receive every blessing God promised. That’s why Christmas is so special. In the precious Christ child nestled in Mary’s arms is the end of the Law and freedom in faith.  Powerful good news! Thanks be to God.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist ’12 – Luke 1:57-80

23. June 2012
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Isaiah 40:1-5; Acts 13:13-26; Luke 1:57-80

No one knows what to think of John. Yes, as we hear in Advent, he’s an odd fellow, camel hair, dieting on locusts and honey, and preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. The strangeness of John began long before that. John’s ancestry is one of note. His father is a pastor and his mother a pastor’s kid. Preachers beget preachers. The Word of God dwelt richly in his family, with his father serving and his mother listening. And as you know, pastors aren’t normal and their children even less so.

Yet, even pastors and their families struggle with the same manner of sin, disease, and death as the layperson in the pew. Elizabeth is no exception. She is barren, infertile, and unable to conceive. Not the sort that God can use—whole, undefiled—right? Well, not unless you think of Sarah, Rebekah, Hanna, Rachel, and Michal. Come to think of it, God seems to think barrenness, a consequence of the curse, to not be a barrier to His working great things, much like our sin, death, and not even the power of the devil can stop Him from saving us. Strange and wonderful.

All changes when Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel. Even the priest is scared of the messengers of God. We don’t blame him. An angel swings a flaming sword to bar entrance to Eden. Angels show up and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. An angel wrestles Jacob all night. Angels are terrifying. Yet, what seems strange to the people is now common appearance. God sends angels, that is, messengers, to terrify us every week. Zechariah prays but is rightly terrified with God speaks. We should fear God and so does John’s father.

But this is no normal angel. This angel comes with good news. He is an evangelical angel, a messenger of the Gospel. He comes and announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth will conceive! John is the miracle baby, the “surprise” child that the elder parents didn’t expect. Much like his cousin Jesus whose conception came by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, John was given to unlikely parents. But that’s how God works. He miracles with even unlikely and underserving folks, especially with them. He glories in weakness. He gives joy where we least expect it and gladness in the midst of sorrow.

And God’s blessings are infectious. They are given and they multiply. He blesses this barren couple and many rejoice. He gives a small infant child and God makes him great before the Lord. A child is born where no child is expected and the whole community rejoices. Such is the way of God, giving gifts personally but also overflowing into the whole people of God.

John is strange and wonderful. He is blessed with the same Spirit that conceives his cousin. The Spirit of the Father and the Son comes forth from Mary’s womb and causes John to rejoice in the presence of the savior. He is unlike anyone since the days of Elijah, the great prophet who defeated the prophets of Baal, who condemned wicked Jezebel and called Ahab to repentance. John is like every prophet before but greater, turning the hearts of the fathers to care for the spiritual health of their children, calling to transgressor to repent of his wickedness, and pointing all to the promise fulfilled in Jesus.

But this is not easy to believe. For no woman conceives, barren or fertile, but by a miraculous creative Word of God. No prophets has come in the greatness of Elijah. Angels almost never have come bearing good news. We doubt God’s holy messengers. We do not believe God can create from nothing. We do not think a Word of God can bring about exactly what it says. No different for Zechariah.

Even faithful Zechariah let his stupid reason cloud his faith. The angel Gabriel speaks and the response is “what? are you nuts?” Ah, Zechariah, we know how you feel. God the Father says: Behold, I wash you with water and the Word and you are now my beloved. We ought to say amen, that is, it shall be so! Instead we say, I only see water and hear plain words. Ah, foolish Christian! This is God speaking and promising! When He speaks, it shall be so! And so it was for John’s parents, having heard the Word, doubted or hid themselves.

While doubt may have clouded these faithful parent’s will, they dutifully served God by following His command to be fruitful and multiply, trusting this Word even when age and barrenness seemed to prevent it. God glories in weakness. He gives according to His good and gracious will. And so Zechariah and Elizabeth returned to the way of the Lord, walking blamelessly in this command and bearing a child where God has now spoken. Strange conception? To be sure. Miracle baby? Absolutely! Surprising to us? Not anymore. We know that God works His wonderful act of salvation through weakness, poverty, messy, and infertile means. He makes the weak strong, the poor rich, the broken whole, and the barren fertile by His holy Word sent by His messengers.

This is not some distant future event but an ever present reality. God glories in you when you struggle with your sin and plead to Him for mercy. As you confess that you are without any merit or worthiness, utterly poor in spirit, God blesses you with the richness of forgiveness. Your hardened heart is a barren, parched wasteland without love for God, and yet, miraculously, by God’s own grace and favor, He speaks and thereby creates a new and clean heart within you. This Word blesses you with rich supply, restores you to righteousness, and gives you love for God and neighbor. And stranger yet, this Word comes to you from the mouth of fellow sinful men, appointed to God to carry it worth by their own weak voices and poor spirits.

But God’s Word comes not only through his holy prophets, apostles, and pastors, it first comes from the father. Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. (Incidentally, exactly as Gabriel told Zechariah they would!) And on the eight day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered [because dad could not; remember: his tongue was tied by the angel for doubt], “No; he shall be called John.” 

The Word of God, given by the angel, is spoken by Elizabeth. But the people did not want to hear it. And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Yes, St. John the Baptizer’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness was odd. Camel hair, locusts, baptizing in the Jordan… strange. But the story of his birth is just as bizarre. A barren and aged couple conceives. Angels visit during the Divine Service. The father and priest’s speech is bound. The child, filled with the Holy Spirit, leaps in his mother’s womb. And his name is John. Strange and wonderful.

While much is learned from the birth and life of St. John, just like his cousin, his importance is not merely his ancestry, his miraculous conception, or his name. St. John is remembered by the church for what he does. And even before the child grew and became strong in the spirit, his father Zechariah prophesies what he does. He sings the great Benedictus which we still sing in Morning Prayer and Matins. And as hymns go, He speaks of the great and awesome works of God in His son Jesus and even through His holy prophet John.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people. Who? Jesus. Does what? Visits in the flesh and by His death redeems. Redeems who? YOU. And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. Who is He? Jesus, the son of Mary and thus son of David. What is He? The very source of salvation. As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. How do we know he is the one? Jesus fulfills what was spoken by the prophets. Who does he redeem us from? Our enemies and all haters of God. What compels Jesus to do this? To show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham. What was the promise to Abraham? To grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Why has Jesus saved us? He restores us to life again with him by granting us His Word and Spirit for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

Ah, but how does this happen? How does one know to repent? How does one know he is forgiven? First, St. John is sent. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. Why is he sent but to prepare the way for Jesus. How? To give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins. Why would God do this? Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high. And no ordinary sunlight but a special sun, the Morningstar, Christ, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

What are we to think, then, of St. John? He is a bit strange from conception to ministry. But he is the one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. He comes speaking a holy Word of preparation: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” The whole playing field is leveled. Jew, Gentile, man, woman, white, black, all are leveled, humbled by his call to repentance. Everyone humbled so that in Christ’s own forgiveness, all who believe in His name are exalted.

So also, God still send to you his angel, his messenger, his prophet—with strange stories, odd names, and bizarre families. Listen to him. For in this message, odd as the messenger may be, there is forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. I am not he. I shouldn’t even touch his sandals. Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold, the horn of salvation, the way of peace, the sunrise from on high, the holy visitation.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana