Sunday, December 23, 2007

Faith in the Midst of Unfaithfulness - Matthew 1:18-25 - Advent IV

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters Called to Faith in Christ:

We are not the only ones waiting and struggling against doubt in these days before Christmas. There are others who are trusting in God's advent - his coming to save.
It wasn't much of a paradise in Paradise California this last week for a father and three children waiting for someone to come and rescue them from bitter cold. The storms had dumped more than a foot of snow on the woods as the four hid themselves from the elements in the hollow of a forest log. Their quick jaunt into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree had gone terribly wrong. For three days through an almost continual prayer to God to keep his kids alive, Frederick Dominguez fought the doubt that they would not be found until it was too late. Singing Christian hymns with his children, he passed the hours of waiting. And when asked by a rescue worker how he had survived, he replied, "Jesus Christ."
Faith in the midst of the storms of doubt and wandering is not only a summary of a lost family in the midst of deadly winter storms, it is the resume of an entire fallen human race. Faith in the Word of the Lord and his promise to come and accomplish his saving work, even in the midst of the most threatening of conditions.
It is faith and the resulting anticipation it produces that meets our ears and hearts this morning on the Fourth and final Sunday in Advent. Faith and anticipation — in the midst of gnawing doubt — that gives us the ability to sing, "The King of kings is drawing near; the Savior of the world is here," and "The cloudless sun of joy is He, who comes to set his people free."
Faith and anticipation — in the midst of our incomplete comprehension of how and when God will do his heaven-restoring work — makes it possible for us to proclaim together the words of the 45th Psalm, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his Word I put my hope" and "He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities."
Faith and anticipation — in the midst of forces that threaten to shipwreck our salvation — give us the courage to pray, "Come Lord, and help us by your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be lifted quickly by your grace and mercy."
The King of glory comes to his people. But, as Psalm 24 asks, "Who is this King of glory?"
That's the million dollar question in these days before December 25th. That's the heart of the matter that separates faith from doubt, confusion from courage and patience and perseverance and hope.
"Who is this King of glory that comes to rescue?" was the question Mary was asking herself over and over again as she meditated not only on how she was going to break the shocking news to Joseph her betrothed husband, but as she searched the holy Word of the Lord: the psalms and the writings of Moses and the prophets.
It's difficult to know what went through her mind and soul as Gabriel left her after announcing the coming of the Lord in the most remarkable way: through a lowly handmaiden even now the betrothed wife of a Nazarene woodworker. Yes, she had believed in the Word sent by the angel, that she would, by God's pure grace, be the mother of her Lord's anointed.
But how would she approach Joseph with the news? What would she say? She felt speechless when the time finally came. "Please sit down, Joseph. I have a word to share with you." And what a word it was.
Even though we don't know exactly how Mary told her husband Joseph, and exactly how Joseph responded, their faith continued to struggle with doubt and fear and confusion and the unbelief that such a thing could be from God and be a part of his divine plan.
No matter what the exact words were between Mary and Joseph, they were worlds away from the response of wicked King Ahaz as he stood before the Lord and his mouthpiece Isaiah the prophet. "I refuse to put my trust in the Lord's offer to give a miraculous sign of salvation!" the king responded to Isaiah's gracious invitation.
But, thanks be to God, the promise of the Lord's coming was confirmed that day before rebellious Ahaz and God's rebellious people Israel. "This will be the sign: the Virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel."
Eight centuries before Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and John and Jesus, God reveals that the King of glory will surely come. He will come according to his divine nature, as the Son of God, the divine Word sent by the Father through the Holy Spirit; and he will come according to his human nature, son of David, from the house of David.
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. All of this packed into the name: Immanuel — God-himself is-with-us.
Now there are two ways to end a seemingly unfaithful marriage: Either loudly with public accusations and stones, or quietly and privately and a legal piece of paper. It appeared that Joseph had the same options as the Lord had with his bride, his Israel, his chosen people: put his beloved under the crushing weight of divine judgment or release her quietly through a legal declaration.
And being a righteous man, Joseph chose the best for his wife and the child she was now carrying: there would be no public humiliation or revenge or finger-pointing. Even in the midst of his inability to believe that the new life growing in Mary's womb was a result of a close encounter with the Spirit of God, he made plans for her sake and not for his own.
Joseph knew the Law of Moses. But, you know what? The Law of Moses wasn't enough to save him or Mary or the Child from this completely unexplainable situation. Joseph had followed the commands of Moses to a "t," but things were still spiraling out of control.
What would everyone say at the carpenter's union? What would the Magilacuty's across the road think? Everyone in the little village of Nazareth would be talking and coming into his woodshop nosing around, hoping to get a glimpse of the child who's father was anyone but Joseph.
With only the Law as his guide, Joseph didn't have a contigency plan for betrothed wives conceiving children without the direct involvement of a human father. The scenario Mary had described was simply beyond him. With only Moses and the Law, the only decision was how to separate himself from Mary his wife. How to prevent her from coming under his roof.
"I will divorce her quietly, with a paper holding a legal declaration of divorce. This way she might have shelter in her household, the opportunity to give birth to a son innocent of any sin of unfaithfulness, and the opportunity to marry another." But it would be a bitter separation any way he cut it.
A husband and wife struggling to please God and his Law in the midst of a seemingly no-win-situation. There was no way the families and the neighbors wouldn't find out. Their pride in living under the Word of God was on the rocks. Now shame would follow the three of them for the rest of their lives.
But in the silence of their speechlessness in addressing their situation, God's advent breaks through, the Lord comes through his messenger to Joseph with a word that strengthens his faith and begins to calm his fears. God intervenes to save Joseph from unbelief — just as he had come in previous generations of believers as they cried out, "Save me and my family from the storms that make my faith numb with cold. I wait for you, my deliverer!"
Joseph in his sleepless sleep of wondering, agonizing, praying, receives another unexpected character in the unfolding drama of God's great plan of salvation: an angel from the Lord.
This was the first of at least four angelic visits Joseph received during the course of these first years of Jesus' life. And appearing, the angel calls to Joseph by his legal name: "Joseph, son of David." Not "Joseph of Nazareth." Not "Joseph, the master carpenter." Not "Joseph, resident of Galilee." But "Joseph, son of David."
This is how this worker of wood from an insignificant northern village of Israel will figure into God's sending of his very Son into the midst of human sin and unbelief — right into the center of a condemned race of estranged and unbelieving people.
Through Matthew's narrative we hear that Joseph was from the lineage, the house of David. As a son of David, Joseph is directed to, by faith, take his wife, Mary, into his house, for the child conceived in her is — even now — a son of David — the Son of David. Jesus is to be the Son of David in a two-fold way: from Joseph, the Son of David by law; from Mary, the Son of David by blood.
Now, humanly speaking, Joseph got the short end of the stick in more than a few ways, not the least when it came to naming his first-born. Following in the path of men like Isaiah and Zechariah, Joseph was told by heaven the name that heaven had already given. "Savior? From this situation? Won't the giving of that name just make things that much worse for everyone?" he wondered.
But with the revelation of God's Word comes the power for unbelieving, doubting, can't-put-all-the-pieces-together people like Joseph to believe. And he allows faith to lead: guiding his hands and feet as he takes Mary under his roof, and guiding his mouth as he gives this child the name that marks him as God's appointed deliverer.
Joseph would have plenty of time to consider the weight of that name in the days and months and years ahead. But all he could think about at the moment was the impossibility of being delivered from this seemingly "no-good-way-out" situation.
While the picture for Joseph was still quite cloudy, Saint Matthew sharpens the focus for us and for all who hear in faith his Holy Spirit inspired Good News.
This whole thing happened in order that what was spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: Behold! The virgin shall be with child, and she will give birth to a son, and they shall call his name "Immanuel."
And for those listeners and readers whose Hebrew skills are a little rusty, Matthew adds: "Which is translated, "God-is-with-us."
On this final Sunday in Advent, we hear again Scripture's account of God's redeeming intervention in the midst of a confused, weak and doubting people. He graciously sends his Word and Spirit over lifeless water, as he did at the beginning of all time, to create and sustain a people who would be redeemed by the blood of his Son.
Yes this child named "Jesus" is a deliverer of God's helpless people, in the line of Moses and Joshua. But he will accomplish and fulfill and complete what neither Moses or Joshua could even dream of winning: deliverance from sin.
"Who is this King of glory who's advent is now — even now — at hand?"
He is "God-with-us," God-for-us, God-as-one-of-us — born to save and deliver and redeem and rescue as heaven's sacrificial substitute.
May Immanuel be the gift we wait patiently to receive in these days before Christmas: the Son of God and Mary's Son; the Son of David and David's Lord; the Son of Joseph and Joseph's Deliverer — even from doubt and the inability to believe in the unexpected way salvation comes.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Hope Against All Hope." Matthew 11:1-15 Advent III

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Children of God who put their hope in the coming One:
This morning we have three inter-related readings from Holy Scripture that I believe God and his Spirit has guided the Church to hear and to take to heart on this Third Sunday in Advent. From Isaiah the Prophet we hear a breath-taking description of the restoration of the promised land — the restoration of the garden of Eden — ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. This was the restoration longed for by the Old Testament people of God, a re-creation they put their trust in, even though they did not see it's fulfillment before their death.
This specific hope in the One to come and make all things new again was a longing that saving faith produced in the generations of believers from the days of a wandering Adam to the days of those who wandered into the wilderness to receive God's work of preparation through John the Baptist.
And this is the hope that John had himself, even when he was arrested and put in prison: the restoration not only of the land of God's people but the restoration of God's people was at hand. Now everything would be different with the advent of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus. That's why John had instructed his own disciples to now follow the greater One, the One who must increase as John decreases and steps backward, out of the spotlight, that the focus might be on the Son of God alone, come to reign.
May God bless the preaching of his Word this morning, that, we might join all the faithful who have gone before us, hoping for the coming One - hoping with God-given endurance, patience and faith.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the eleventh chapter:
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. (Matt. 11:1 ESV)
Saint Matthew presents Jesus' ministry in two parts, and the first verse of chapter eleven begins the second half. Up until now things had gone pretty well. The crowds had favorable things to say about what Jesus had been saying and doing, but the Jewish religious leaders were becoming more and more determined to gain the upper hand as the crowds were increasingly swayed by Jesus and his forerunner John. Here, Jesus complements the stationary ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness by the Jordan by sending out his disciples to towns and villages to announce to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: The kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 10:7) Having completed his directing of the disciples in their work of preparing God's people for his arrival, he presses on towards the goal, all the while sowing the saving seed of his Word through his teaching and preaching. Jesus has completed the first phase of his coming that Matthew began to narrate way back in chapter 4, and now he will move on to the next. The work of preparation through all the prophets came to completion as the Word of God made flesh finished directing all he has sent out with his Word to prepare hearts and minds for the advent of their redemption. In Christ and his Word, the end-time reign of heaven, the hope of all the faithful, was now breaking through.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:2 ESV)
There is nothing more risky that putting all of your eggs in one basket, in betting it all on one horse, in putting all hope in one thing, and in one thing alone. That's what makes marriages and families and church families built on the foundation of Christian faith a risky affair. Every hope and every dream placed in one direction and goal, placed upon one person. And so it was with John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. John had placed all his chips on the son of Joseph and Mary, the Son of God.
In God-given faith he hadn't considered a "Plan B," a way out, an exit strategy. From the very beginning God had given him the ability to bank it all with his younger cousin Jesus, right from the day he had heard the voice of the mother of his Lord and leapt for joy that the Messiah had come — come to save and redeem John and his parents and his nation. John grew up in the Spirit of the Lord and a contingency plan had never been in the cards. John put all his hopes and expectations in this ordinary-enough looking man who — nevertheless — spoke with the authority of heaven and accomplished works only the Messiah from heaven could effect.
This question John lays at the feet of Jesus is pivotal in the Gospel of Matthew and it's importance continues to be reflected in our own culture and art. From episodes of Star Wars to the Matrix, the question continues to be asked for those who hope against hope as they place their faith in opposition to the world and their old nature and ask, "Are you the One to come, or shall we look for another?"
John, the greatest of the prophets, at the end of his calling, at the end of his life, struggles with the object of his hope. John was asking himself, "Is the one I have pointed to really the One? And if so, how can it all end up like this? No different than any of the other prophets that came before me. I thought, I believed, things would all be different now. He's come. He's here. Everything's in place. But look at me. Poor me. I have given everything and I have, seemingly, very little to show for it."
Can you identify with John the Baptist, chained to a prison cell for endless weeks and endless months?
Have you every questioned the object of your hope? Have you ever thought to yourself, "Christ has come to me, so why isn't my life and circumstances changed? Why do I still doubt? What is God telling me in the midst of my struggles and pains — when I want to throw in the towel, when I just can't seem to live in hope anymore? Where is my Messiah now?"
And Jesus answered them, “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.” (Matt. 11:3-5 ESV)
"The poor in spirit," those who have nothing to offer before God, stand as the introduction to the Beatitudes of our Savior, as he preached to his disciples the reality of the kingdom of God being ushered in through God's Son. In Christ, the disciples were, even then, blessed.
And what Jesus attributed to his followers he now attributed to John. It is as if Jesus were saying, "Go and remind John what he has actually known all along: In me the blind receive their sight and the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. Even the dead are raised up. And — all this points, just as you have pointed John — to the fact that in me, and in me alone, the spiritually poor have the life-changing, hope-producing Word preached to them."
In Christ, people are delivered from the effects of sin in this life as a testimony to the greater work of Christ as he delivers the faithful, the hopeful, the waiting, from the eternal effects of sin and sinfulness.
"The poor" is shorthand for those who confess that, before God, they have nothing good to show for themselves. They are spiritually bankrupt. They do not possess the human ability to earn God's favor or love or escape from all that they by their sins have deserved.
They must put all their hope — they must put their entire salvation — into the hands and care of another: the Messiah, the One who comes to establish his last-day kingdom of grace and mercy and forgiveness and restoration.
“And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matt. 11:6 ESV)
There were plenty in Jesus' day who took offense. Some he grew up with. Others within his own family. Some who were hoping for something better and more glorious and more powerful. Someone who would let sinners and unbelievers have it right between the eyes.
But Christ appeared as we would have never imagined: taking our fallen-ness, our weaknesses and infirmities right from the start through the miserable conditions of his birth. And he took our sins all the way to his innocent sufferings and death.
John suffered because of his hope. And even in that, he pointed to his Lord and the offense that only God can remove: the Lord will restore the promised land, the gracious reign of God, the Garden of Eden, as he comes to establish salvation through the offense of a poor manger and a repulsive Cross.
Each of us here today was created to hope - - to live our lives in hope and longing for the restoration of all things, something humanity has not enjoyed since the beginnings of time.
But we have, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, been given such a great gift and such a great hope. And with that Christ-given hope we can let everything ride on Jesus and his Word of promise.
Only faith in the One to whom John pointed can see us through the days when we say, "I can't make myself hope any more."
Follow John in putting all your hopes and expectations in this ordinary-enough looking man who — nevertheless — spoke with the authority of heaven and accomplished works only the Messiah from heaven could effect. Put your faith in the One who became poor, that you might become rich. Put your hope in his Word and Baptism and Supper. And then, after all, wait for his appearing.
He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"The Miracle of Christ's First Coming." Midweek Advent 1

In the Name of the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

"You've just have to believe me! It's true!" We hear it again and again as we watch the season's holiday specials on the television. "I believe! You should believe it too!" we hear the children say to the doubting adults. And although the object of the children's faith in Hollywood specials is the existence of flying reindeer or chimneys turned into elevators to the rooftop, there is something very "good, right and salutary" in believing that miraculous things do occur in this special time of year.
You see, the season of Advent, the season in which God prepares us through his Word and Spirit for the coming of his Son, is a time of real, honest-to-goodness miracles; miracles that defy human explanation or human reason; miracles directed to the minds and hearts of each of us and for all who would truly believe.
For these three midweek Advent services we will be hearing about the miraculous, the unexpected, the unbelievable ways and times and events of Christ's advent; how the prophets and apostles pointed to the spectacular star of God's bright Gospel light that came to rest over the Son of Mary, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God: the true "miracle baby" for all Christians of every time and place, language and nation.
This afternoon/evening we hear God's Word that points to the awe-inspiring miracle of Jesus' first advent — his first coming — into the world and into our very souls.
Now if anyone wants to challenge the importance of Advent, if anyone wants to skip right into Christmas and the birth of Jesus, if anyone wants to complain about Advent getting in the way of the music the stores have been playing for the last few weeks (the last few months), how would we respond? Where would we go in Scripture to support the discipline of the Church Year that observes the four weeks of Advent? How does the Bible make the case for a season of preparation before the coming of the Messiah?
The best case can be made when observing the interval from the first announcement of the Gospel of Christ and its fulfillment at Bethlehem. How many months was that? How many years was that? How many generations was that from Adam to Jesus?
In his perfect wisdom, God gave his people a good, healthy amount of time, that they might properly be prepared for the great day of the Lord, the coming of their Redeemer.
Prophet after prophet was sent to proclaim the coming of the Savior. Even though many did not listen or take to heart the words of Moses and Elijah, David and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Malachi, God was not moved in straying from his plan: to send in abundance the divine Word through the mouthpiece of the prophets, that repentance and faith and hope might be created and sustained.
And so even with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, God continued to prepare the way of his coming Son in the sending of the final proclamation: John the Baptist. The time had finally come. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" John cried out in the wilderness. And John would cry out to us this day, saying, "The Christ is coming soon! Let God prepare you for his coming by receiving his Word concerning our sinful condition and God's miraculous answer of rescue! The time of salvation has come!"
In these days and weeks of Advent, God gives his Son the honor due his name. He does not send his Son with the instructions to introduce himself, but he sends John and Moses and the Prophets to make an introduction worthy of the honored guest. The Messiah himself is coming! Look to God's Word that you might be rightly prepared for him!" they shout.
Moses said as much in one of the most telling verses in the entire Old Testament. Just before his death, in his farewell speech to God's dear people, Moses proclaims,

“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—just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him." (Deuteronomy 18:15-18 ESV)

Moses knew full well that although some saw him as God's deliverer, the true and rightful Deliverer was still to come, as the Lord had promised to Adam and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all their descendants in faith. This time of preparation became even more focused with the establishment of the dynasty of David the king of Israel. It was David's mistaken notion that he had been called to establish a house for the Lord that prompted God to renew his promise that he alone would establish the household of faith by the sending of the Son of David. As we heard in the Old Testament reading (2 Samuel 7:1-16), the coming Son of David would establish forever rest from the enemies that threatened the life of God's own. Because of the Lord's steadfast love for his wayward people, the Son of David would bear the discipline of not only God's chosen, but the punishment of the entire fallen race of man.
God prepares his people through his Word for the coming of the Christ, a prophet greater than the great prophet Moses and a king greater than the great King David.
That's what Joseph, son of David (Matthew 1:20) was told as God prepared him for the advent of salvation. That's what the magi believed as they read the Old Testament prophets and were prepared to receive the Savior of the Nations in the city of redeemed David and his redeeming Son: Bethlehem.
In this Advent season, God is preparing us to receive the coming Son of David as we honor not only his birth but the true meaning of his birth: the Son come to bear our sin in his body upon the cross, that we might escape the final judgment and consequences for what we ourselves have done and failed to do.
"What shall we do?" was the response of repentance as God prepared over three thousand to receive Christ as he came into their lives on that first Christian Pentecost. And the announcement of the Disciples? "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ [the Son of David] for the forgiveness of your sins." (Acts 2:37-38 ESV) This is properly the theme of the season of Advent and of every day until Christ returns for his own.
For those who might sentimentally wish that they could have been there on the night when the Bethlehem star announced that the time of waiting had come to an end, for any of us who believe that our faith would be much stronger if we could have only seen with our own eyes the miracle of the first coming of the Son of David, we have only to look at the miracle of the promised Messiah as he has first come to each of us — in holy Baptism.
The same faith that led shepherds to abandon their flocks and greet the newborn King is the same faith that believes that the Word of God in, with and under water, miraculously washes away all sin. The same faith that led the magi to journey to the city of David is the same faith that believes Christ himself comes to the baptismal font as he takes our great sins and gives us his greater righteousness. The same faith that led Joseph, son of David, to take Mary as his wife, despite the difficulties and struggles that would surely ensue is the same faith that leads us to rest our trust solely on the promises of the Messiah, the true Son of David, the true Son of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the true Son of Israel, the true Son of Adam.
It is Christ Jesus who calls us to the miracle of his coming into our lives as he cries out,

"If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scriptures has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' " (John 7:37 ESV)

Advent is a season of preparation — of God himself preparing us for the miraculous coming of his Son. It is a season of God's Word doing its great and mighty work with our lips and with our hands and feet and with our mind and heart. Advent is a season of miracles as Jesus comes to Bethlehem, as Jesus comes in Baptism.
How does faith respond to the miracle of Christ's coming? In repentant joy, trusting in God's gracious Word and praying always, "Come Lord Jesus, come." Amen

Monday, December 03, 2007

The "Have to" of Advent - Matthew 16:13-23

In the Name of our Coming Savior
Dear Fellow Pilgrims on the Road towards the Heavenly Jerusalem:
We hear the phrase all the time. It comes suddenly out of the mouths of others, and it comes from our own lips as well. It changes events and puts an end to conversations, to idleness and sleepiness and inattentiveness. "I've got to go."
When was the last time you were right in the middle of something that seemed most important, extremely important, but it was all shut down when someone made the announcement, "I have to go."
It gets us out of jams and it gets us into trouble. It cuts off plans and suddenly puts everything into motion. "I've got to go."
Maybe it's at the whistle of a train, the last call in an airport, the noisy music of a cell phone alarm, a quick glance at a wristwatch. "I've got to go."
Now most of the time, shouting, "I've got to go!" is anything but good news. The flight is leaving, the door is finally closing, the bus is pulling out from its berth, the meeting or class is about to begin. We are fallen human people living in a fallen and lost world. Everything runs by the phrase, "I've got to go. We've got to move. You've got to move."
And what is true for our pitiful, law-driven world is even more true when it comes to the Law of God.
There's an old blues song that just may say it best:
You gotta move / You gotta move
You gotta move, child / You gotta move
Oh, when the Lord gets ready / You gotta move

You may be high / You may be low
You may be rich, child / You may be po'
But when the Lord gets ready / You gotta move
There's no voting when it comes to the Lord saying to any of us: You gotta move. It's time. We can complaint, we can try to bargain, we can try to ignore the time and the announcement and the urgency of the situation, but it is all to no avail. We've got to go.
As we learned in Sunday School, as we learned in Catechism Class, the Ten Commandments are not negotiable. They give a promise to all who would live perfectly under them, and a curse to all who would attempt to live outside of them.
God says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And, if we are honest with ourselves, we'll confess the "have to" of God's Law is proper and just, but impossible for any one of us to keep.
The heart we inherited from our first parents is a heart that knows the demands of the Law but can only accuse others and excuse ourselves.
"I've go to go." It plagues us, even in the days leading up to December 25th — it plagues us, especially in the days leading up to December 25th. "I've got to do this. I've got to go and do that. I have to finish this. I have to mail that and show up for this other thing and pay for something else. And I'm sure there are five other things I need to do that I've completely forgotten about.
As we learn from the school of hard knocks, there isn't a lot of forgiveness and grace when it comes to the world's version of dealing with the demands of our life. All the world can tell us when we're under the gun is: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade." It's all law and it's all sugar-coated demand and promises that are always conditioned and based on our human performance.
No wonder why the most successful Churches and synagogues and mosques and ashrams are those who dispense "ten ways you can make God smile," "forty ways to clean up your spiritual life," "twelve steps you can do to straighten yourself out." It's all law and its all a crushing burden for people such as you and me; people who are sinful and selfish and weak and fearful — experts at making substitutes for God and excuses why we deserve a break before our Creator and Preserver God.
That's why it's not simply refreshing, but redeeming to come to a season of the church year that should rightly emphasize the death-producing nature of our lives under the weight of "I've got to go." Only in God's Law and Commandments and Instructions and Word do we get to see things clear and straight and up-front and as they really are. No whipping cream around the edges, no blurring of the lines, no cute or well-meaning interpretations. There it is, straight from God through the mouth of his prophets and apostles: "The life of have to go and need to go and must go and do and accomplish and achieve and make something in order for God to be nice to me and smile on me and bless me and take me to heaven is all exposed as futile and one big dead end. Our attempts to earn heaven, to climb into God's good graces are smashed to a thousand little pieces by God's Law. The gates of the heavenly Jerusalem are shut. We are not strong enough to climb over the wall or dig a tunnel underneath or clever enough to pick the lock.
So what is Jesus doing saying to the disciples, "I've got to go."? Has he inadvertently fallen into the same hole we've found ourselves trying to claw ourselves out of? Why is he announcing to his followers, "I've got to go. I can't rest until it's done. I have no choice."?
The opening verses of chapter 16 in Saint Matthew's Gospel account serve as one of two major turning points in the life and ministry of our Savior. One second Peter is led by the Holy Spirit to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and the next second Jesus begins to unfold for Peter and the Twelve what it means for him to be the Christ. Jesus begins to explain what being God's Anointed is really all about. It's about having to go. It's about needing to accomplish. It's about not resting until it's all finished and done and achieved and put to bed.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the sixteenth chapter:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:13-23 ESV)
Wow. The disciples didn't see that coming. The Christ must do what? What about kicking the Romans behinds and ushering in a thousand-year reign of milk and honey and pomegranates and prime rib? What about giving us more rules and commands and edicts that will help us get a leg up on our spiritual condition and make us into better people, a righteous nation?
"I've go to go." Jesus says. That was nothing new for Jesus. He had already said those words in heaven when he looked upon our miserable, pitiful, helpless condition. "There just no way they can ever begin to save themselves. They are lost sheep who love to wander. I must go and be their righteousness, their savior, their deliverer. Father, I must go, to be born as one of them, that I might give myself as a sacrifice for their sin."
Jesus didn't become the Christ because he was strong-armed by his Father in heaven or because he wanted bigger jewels in his heavenly crown. Jesus didn't have to do anything to save us. We were simply getting our just desserts. We knew that and he knew that.
Then what's with all this "have to" talk?
For all those Christians who look to God's sovereignty, divine power and authority to explain the manger, to explain the triumphal entry, to explain the cross, there is no explanation or comfort in why our Lord "had to" be born, had to suffer and die, that he might be resurrected and ascend to heaven.
God's might doesn't give us an answer to why Jesus felt compelled to come and tabernacle among us with human flesh and blood.
It wasn't the great obedience or the great humility of the second person of the Trinity — or some great potential he saw in any of us — that made him to be born in a manger or die a death cultured people refuse to even talk about. It was something completely different and completely unexpected. Something we just can't explain. In the words of the hymn:
By grace God's Son, our only Savior,
Came down to earth to bear our sin.
Was it because of your own merit / That Jesus died your soul to win?
No, it was grace, and grace alone,
That brought Him from His heav'nly throne.
(By Grace I'm Saved LSB 566)
It was his grace and mercy for you and for me and for a whole undeserving world that "made" Jesus set his face as flint towards Jerusalem, to come as a self-giving, self-sacrificing king.
Any one else would have rode into the city and rode into our lives and demanded that we sacrifice for him, that we give our all for God and then, maybe he would reconsider our bleak fate.
This first Sunday in Advent we hear about Jesus' advent — his coming to us — to surrender his life and shed his life-blood for a city of rebels and a nation of transgressors. Advent is not a time that we must or we need to or we have to. It's an end to all of that as we simply receive the One who comes in grace, who's only compulsion is his loving-kindness for me and for you.
The Gospel — the true Gospel — of Jesus Christ is not something that appears in all its heavenly glory and knocks you down and says, "You have to go." The true Gospel of Palm Sunday and Advent and Christmas and Good Friday is the Gospel of Christ and his willingly, freely, just 'cause he wanted to, grace, grace offered to you with nail-pierced hands. "Here," Jesus says, "receive with open hands and open mouth and open heart what I have accomplished and won for you. Salvation, from beginning to end. I give you heaven without price, because I am the price. I am the Lamb of God slain as the price for your forgiveness. I am the One born and placed upon the wood and nails of a manger — that I might be placed upon the wood and nails of your cross."
That's the message of Advent and that's the message of the Gospel and that's the message of the stained glass window behind that altar and that's the message of the crucifix next to the pulpit. Born to save by being your sacrifice for sin.
So much of our life is dictated by the phrase, "I've got to go." Expectant mothers yell it when their water breaks, and the aged whisper it from their death bed despite the pleas of loved ones to stay with them. "I need to go now." But our salvation is not about what we are forced to do. It's all about what Jesus graciously, freely forced himself to do — for your sin and for your salvation. "I must come," the Christ says to you this hour. "I must come and offer you forgiveness won, redemption won, heaven won by my holy, innocent, suffering and death."
May God prepare us for the unexpected "have to" of Christmas: the Christ child, born to freely, graciously give his life for you. We pray:
Almighty Lord, Gracious Father: There's a part of each of us that simply wants to jump into the fun and merry-making of the world's spin on Christmas. Save us from an empty Christmas of have to's and need to's. Come and graciously do what we could never do. Change our hearts, that we might look only to your mercy and what Jesus has accomplished in our place. Prepare us in these days of Advent to hear and take to heart the one message the prophets would have us hear: the Christ born as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, through his life, through his life-blood. In his saving name we pray. Amen