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