The One to Come

Text: Matthew 11:2-6

The Voight-Kampff machine is a sophisticated piece of equipment. It’s a very advanced form of lie detector machine that measures contractions of the iris muscles in your eyes in response to carefully worded questions and statements. It also has a set of bellows which are sensitive to the invisible  pheromones released from the human body. Like I said, a sophisticated machine. It needs to be, because bounty hunters need to be able to discern whether the subject in front of them is an android or a human. The machine is used in the 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? You might know the film adaptation, Blade Runner.

Rick Deckard is the main character in both. His task as a blade runner is to seek out and “retire” escaped androids. The literature plays on many themes, not the least of which is what makes one human. In the movie the androids are shown to think and dream, to have emotions. In our Gospel text, think of John the Baptist as a blade runner. His job was to point to and show the people the true Messiah, Jesus. The Voight-Kampff machine in Blade Runner is like Jesus’ miracles. The miracles show that Jesus is the One to Come, but there is some confusion. In the movie, the machine can sometimes give false positives – such as, showing an android to be a human. In our text, John wondered whether his machines was giving a false positive, so he sent his disciples to Jesus. When they met Him, Jesus showed through His Word and deeds that He is the One to Come. Blessed is the one who is not offended by Him.

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The text from St. Matthew’s gospel begins, “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?’ The scene begins with John in prison. By this point he had been there about a year already. In the Gospels, John is active before Christ’s ministry. His job was to preach about the coming Messiah and call people to repentance in preparation for His arrival. The time came for Jesus to be baptized by John. He had no need of forgiveness, but His baptism for repentance was necessary to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus said. Immediately at His Baptism, the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove while the Father spoke from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

It was revealed to John there just whose way He was preparing – Jesus’. Jesus is the One to Come, who is now here. But John’s in prison now. He’s there for his faithful witness to God’s Word. He rightfully called Herod to repent for his adulterous marriage and was thrown in the king’s dungeon. Now, John is starting to creak. The old house isn’t falling down by any means, but when the wind blows hard enough, it moans a little. Most commentators on this text are very pious and say that it wasn’t John who doubted Jesus, but his disciples. I don’t really think it makes a difference. John sent his disciples with a simple task: find out whether Jesus is the “one who is to come,” (the Messiah), “or should we look for another?”

I think it doesn’t make a difference whether it was John himself who wanted to know, or his disciples, because the reason is the same. Jesus did not conform exactly to their idea of the Messiah. Hear some examples of John’s sermons: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” “His winnowing fork is in his hand…the chaff he will burn with fire.” See, they were expecting the Messiah to come and deal with sin immediately. He was supposed to come and burn away the dross, to put away the evildoer and cast him into eternal fire. John saw the dove and heard the voice at Jesus’ Baptism, but maybe the machine was broken. Maybe the Voight-Kampff machine identifying Jesus was throwing a false positive.

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If John was a blade runner, whose task is to seek the Messiah, then we are blade runners, too. And, just like John the Baptist and his disciples, we sometimes get the wrong idea. See, we all want the perfect lives. Who came blame us? All we ask for is health, a comfortable amount of money, a warm home, a stable family life…we look for these things and expect them from the Messiah, but we don’t always get them. We get disheartened and disillusioned. Sometimes, like John, we’re not sure either.

But, what does Jesus do when the disciples ask Him? He doesn’t rebuke them. Instead, He says, “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. Jesus does not send them away in anger or despise them, but He them tells to convey what they’ve heard and seen. They’ve heard Jesus preach that the kingdom of God has now drawn near to them. They’ve heard Him say that He has come to bring the free forgiveness of sins. We learn in the Catechism that where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. In the presence of Jesus, not only are sins forgiven, but the blind now see, the lame now walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor in spirit receive Good News.

These things are all actions which were prophesied by the Lord through Isaiah many centuries before. Jesus is the One to Come. Jesus shows this not just in words, but in deeds which only the Lord God Himself could do. The man who was born blind and yet healed by Jesus put it this way, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Jesus showed Himself to be a tree that is known by its fruits. He is the One to Come, whom God’s people had long awaited, and now He’s here. Only, He is not here primarily to judge and destroy. There will be a time for that, but not yet. In our text Jesus has come to bring forgiveness, to release those held captive in the bondage of sin by healing their diseases and infirmities. Their healing is a small picture of the healing which we will all receive in the resurrection of the dead.

III.   

Jesus said, “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.” In Blade Runner they have a machine called the Voight-Kampff machine, which is used to determine whether the subject in front of them is an android or not. John and his disciples had a machine that they were using to determine whether Jesus was the one to come; They had the miracles. But they wondered whether their machine was giving them a false positive. In the movie, one android is able to make it through over 100 questions that were designed to tell androids from humans. Maybe John and his followers were mistaken. Jesus had the miracles, but He wasn’t displaying the wrath and fire, the immediate punishment of evil that they were expecting.

Instead, Jesus was forgiving sins and healing. He was showing mercy and preaching the Gospel, not desiring that any should perish, but that all come to repentance and faith. John and his disciples put Jesus into a box, expecting Him to conform to their idea of the Messiah. Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” That statement applied to John, but its real focus was the scribes and pharisees. They, likewise, were looking for the Messiah. They saw Jesus and the signs that He did, and yet they rejected Him. John did not, despite his struggles. Jesus speaks to us as well.

We can all get behind Jesus. In hindsight it’s easy to see that Jesus is the Messiah. He heals the sick, makes the deaf to hear, raises the dead, even rising from the dead Himself. He is the One to Come, the Messiah who brings with Him the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and the healing of all ailments in the resurrection. But, beyond that we also put Jesus into a box. We compartmentalize Him into just a section of our lives and ignore the demands He makes on our entire being. Jesus calls us to a life of repentance, not just Sunday mornings. He teaches us to cast out the old leaven of sin, and yet often we aren’t too serious about avoiding sinful behavior. Jesus teaches through the mouth of the Apostle Paul to mark and avoid all false doctrine, and to prize the true teaching above all things, but that’s too much work – and on top of that, it’s often seen as not “nice.”

Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” These words apply to us as well as to John and his disciples. Jesus, however did not rebuke or belittle their question. Rather, Jesus showed through word and work that He is the One to Come. He is God in the flesh, come to release us from the bonds of sin. The title for the Third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete, which means “Rejoice.” This comes from our antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Therefore, let us rejoice at the coming of the Lord. He has shown through His words and deeds that He is the One to Come, who has come and released us from our sins. When John and his disciples were offended on account of Jesus’ not fitting their ideas, He did not turn them away in anger but showed mercy. In the same way, may He grant us grace not to take offense at Him or His Words by lighting the darkness our hearts with His gracious visitation.

 

The Righteous Branch, Advent Midweek I

Text: Jeremiah 23:(1-4) 5-8

The Lord declared through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” These words are quite similar in tone to the words of John the Baptist, and they should remind us of him. John the Baptist, you remember, came ahead of Jesus to prepare the way of the Lord. Jeremiah also came preparing the way of the Lord, though in a different way. Jeremiah came as the weeping prophet, whose ministry contained harsh words of judgment against Judah and the resulting destruction coming its way. And yet, with these words of judgment came also words of promise. In our text today Jeremiah proclaims the coming of the Righteous Branch, the shoot from Jesse’s stump. The days are coming, says our text, and are yet here, when Jesus the Righteous Branch will cause His people to dwell securely.

I.

For us to understand the idea of the Righteous Branch, this king who will come and will deal wisely and execute justice, it’s important to understand the context of our reading. Jeremiah’s ministry lasted a long time – from the reign of the good king Josiah until fall of Jerusalem – over 40 years. His time was a very political time. Assyria in the north, had control of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was declining. In its place Babylon was rising. Now, throw Egypt into the fray as a world power and it all became one big powder keg. Jerusalem, and the kingdom of Judah, sat in the middle of it all – quite literally, geographically speaking. And they got nervous. Everyone had different opinions about what to do. In all of it, the Lord consistently and faithfully sent them prophets to show His people the way. These prophets told the people God’s will, but they ignored it. Everyone had an idea about what to do, and none of them were God’s.

This refusal to submit to God’s will resulted in a very high turnover of kings. Egypt would come and displace some, Babylon some others. Thus, in absence of true kings, the nobles of Judah gained much power; but, rather than use it to lead God’s people wisely, they abused it. God had spoken through Jeremiah that Babylon was going to come and destroy Jerusalem – though complete disaster would be averted if they would just listen to the Word. Instead, they allied with Egypt – an alliance that ended poorly. Because of all this the Lord says in the verses leading up to our text,

You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.”

The kings and leaders of God’s people were poor shepherds. They did not listen to God’s Word nor teach the people to. Instead, they substituted their own thoughts and dreams. God would later chastise them for not seeking the council of the Lord. Therefore, He would attend to them for their failure to attend to His people. He will fix it all Himself by gathering His flock from all the countries where they have been driven and by placing shepherds over them who will care for them. Under His care they will fear no more, nor be dismayed, and none shall be missing.

II.    

This is how the Lord will fix everything. He says,

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

This is what the Lord says. He will deal with the poor shepherds of Israel and care for His people by fulfilling the promise He made to David in 2 Samuel 7, that an offspring from David’s line will sit on the throne of the Lord forever. The “forever” part rules out Solomon as the fulfillment of that promise and makes it squarely about the Messiah. The Lord says the days of the Messiah are coming. He will reign as king and deal wisely with the people. The Scripture teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That is how this Righteous Branch will rule and reign, through the wisdom of God’s Word. The result will be that, in His days, Judah and Israel (the whole Church) will dwell securely and call upon the Lord, who is our Righteousness.

The Lord speaks again of the coming Righteous Branch. He says,

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”

The days are coming, says the Lord, when His people will no longer look to the past for the mighty deeds of the Lord, for they shall forever be in His presence.

It will not be like how God’s people would celebrate the Passover to remember His mighty deeds of old. Instead, this passage brings us to the end of Scripture, to the new heaven and new earth, where at His return Christ recreates all things as they should be. We get a picture of this in Eden, but even that doesn’t compare to the glory that awaits us in the presence of Christ. This Advent, let us then fix our eyes on Jesus our Righteous Branch. We remember and celebrate His incarnation in the manger, but we pray for His glorious return, where He will gather all His people and cause them to dwell in security and joy forever.

 

The Perpetual Throne

Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

There used to be a show on ABC called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Loving neighbors nominate a friend or family member who has fallen on hard times and needs work done on their house to receive a free home makeover. The producers of the show treat the chosen family to a vacation while local contractors go to work remaking the house in a week while the occupants are busy. If the house is deemed beyond repair, they just demolish it and build a new one. This, of course, is all filmed for our enjoyment.

In the text from 2 Samuel 7 we heard, “Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.’”[1] King David basically wants to do an extreme makeover for the Lord’s house. He sees that he lives in this nice strong house made of cedar. Him being king, it’s probably extravagant. David lives in a house, but he sees that the ark of God remains in a tent. He decides he’s going to do something for God, then. God responds through the prophet Nathan that He has something else in mind: God is going to build a David a house, one which will last forever. In this house of David, the throne will be established forever. This is no mere mortal house, rather, it is the house that Christ established, and it is His throne that lasts into eternity.

I.

Certainly David’s desire is pious. It is well-intentioned and comes from the heart. It maybe is a desire that many of us can identify with. A number of us here can remember the old sanctuary and the building of the one we are currently in now. We call the church the “house of God,” so that’s something else we have in common with David. Even Nathan the prophet said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”[2] Now that the Ark of the Covenant had been brought to Jerusalem, a feat in itself since David had to defeat the people who already lived there, Israel’s enemies have been defeated and David received rest from the Lord.

The Biblical witness of David is that he is a man of war, a man with blood on his hands. But, the Lord is with him. God Himself testifies that it was He who went before David cutting off all his enemies, just as God led the people in their wandering and their conquests. But now, that time has passed. At least for a little while, there will be rest in the land as God has granted it. In this rest David happens upon the fact that he is living comfortably in a palace, while God sits in a tent. So, he figures, if he can build a house for himself, he might as well have a go at making one for God, too. That sounds pretty good, at least initially. Nathan speaks for himself that it’s a good idea and encourages David to go ahead.

That night the Word of the Lord came to Nathan with a message for David. This message was not exactly what David wanted to hear, but it was both bad and good as we shall see. The message begins, “Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling.”[3] The Lord asks a powerful rhetorical question of David: would you build me a house to dwell in? David, the aforementioned man of blood, later testified shortly before his death, “I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.’”[4]

God continues His Word: “In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”[5] He says that from the day He brought up the people of Israel from Egypt up until now, He has not lived in a house. Neither did He speak a single word with any of the judges about building a house for Him. Even if He did ask for a house, how could man build a house for God – He whose throne is the heavens and footstool, the earth?

II.

No, God did not need David to build a house for Him. Instead, He’s going to do something for David. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name…And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more…I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”[6]

The Lord says, thanks but no thanks. Instead of David making Him a house, God will make David a house, just as He took him from the pastures, made him prince, and cut off all his enemies before him. All these were for the benefit of the children of Israel. Now, God is going to build a house for David, for the faithful children of Israel, and for us as well. Only, this isn’t a house that decays and eventually falls; this isn’t a house made by human hands. Instead, it is a house that lasts forever with a throne that lasts into eternity. As God says in verse 16, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”[7]

In the Gospel text Gabriel testified to Mary what Scripture had long promised, “[Jesus] will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[8] This is the truth that David understood as well, as we can read in his response later in 2 Samuel 7. The house that God was referring to is not one built by human hands, though the kingdom and temple of Solomon would serve to foreshadow the coming of Christ. The house that God means is one that lasts forever, where people have a place to find security and peace. The house that God means is His house, the Church.

We do not mean a house that God Almighty physically rests in, but it is the place where He dwells and makes Himself available to His people. We are human and so God has provided a place where we can go to receive His gifts and be in His presence. The throne that lasts forever is as the Gospel text says – Jesus’. This throne He reigned on from the beginning, and yet He stepped down from it to be born of the Virgin Mary, the event we will shortly be celebrating. He set aside His throne and glory to take our flesh upon Himself. He became Immanuel, God with us. In His body He carried our sin and reconciled us to God by destroying the powers of sin and death through His death on the cross.

After His death He no longer restrained His glory, instead He proclaimed to the souls in prison that death had no power over Him. He appeared to hundreds of people, healing their diseases, and then He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. The right of the Father is not some location separated from us in time and space, but rather, it extends everywhere and lasts forever. Where can we see it? Here. Here in the Church is where Christ dwells and is among us. Here He comes to us with His Word and Sacraments to forgive us, to strengthen us, to renew us, and to reassure us that He is coming again. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Sam. 7:1–2.

[2] 2 Sam. 7:3.

[3] 2 Sam. 7:5-6.

[4] 1 Chron. 28:2-3.

[5] 2 Sam. 7:6–7.

[6] 2 Sam. 7:8–11.

[7] 2 Sam. 7:16.

[8] Lk. 1:32–33.

To Proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor

Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

During the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry He went all around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and being praised by all. Then He went to Nazareth, His hometown. It was His custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. There He stood up to read and the scroll of Isaiah was handed to Him. He unrolled it and it opened to our text this evening. He rolled the scroll back up after He had finished reading and said to all the people staring at Him, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[1] The account ends with Jesus’ own people driving Him up a hill to try and throw Him down the cliff.

Jesus claims our text this evening as His own. The work of God’s servant in the text is Jesus’ own. Christ did not come to be a new lawgiver, He did not come as an example, nor did He come to make us try harder. Instead, Jesus Christ, the anointed Messiah, came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and to release the captives of the law of sin. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor and to set the prisoners free.

I.

The text begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”[2] This reading comes from near the end of Isaiah. The Fall of Jerusalem has been prophesied, as has the return from exile. The tone then shifts to the coming Day of Judgment. God laments, “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that was not called by my name. I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually.”[3] Thus, wrath is coming for those who reject God’s favor.

But that is not our text tonight. Here the Lord speaks of salvation, of His work on behalf of sinners. Jesus says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon Him and He has been anointed to bring good news to the poor. Many at Christ’s time were looking for a Messiah to come who would be an earthly ruler. They expected a king that would throw off the Romans and establish a new kingdom. I guess the flip side is that, in order to establish a kingdom, rules and taxes need to be imposed to make things work. That’s not what Christ came to do. He did not come to impose, but to bring cheer to the poor and afflicted with His good news.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Christ to come and bind up the brokenhearted. Christ came to bind up those have been broken by life, those who have been tossed to and fro by the waves of the world. He came to save those who sought after the world, its riches and pleasures, only to end up in the gutter brokenhearted. But this brokenhearted means something else as well. It means those who have been broken by God’s Law. It means those who have tried and tried to be a good person, and yet have found themselves lacking. Christ came for those who hear God’s Word and wonder how God could demand things we cannot do, and then punish those who don’t do them. That’s brokenhearted there.

Jesus said that He came to bring good news to the poor and to bind up the brokenhearted. He also came to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of prison to those who are bound. In the Greek text, it says that He came to bring recovery of sight to the blind. Christ came to bring liberty those in the chains of sin and in the prison of death and the devil. These are also the chains worn by the brokenhearted, the chains of the Law. Prior to faith in the Messiah the Law hangs around all our necks demanding that we do work to earn the forgiveness of sins and to inherit eternal life. Christ came to set us free from that as well.

II.

The text proclaims that the Messiah came to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken and to proclaim liberty to the captives. The question is, how? How do all these things take place? How are ashes exchanged for a beautiful headdress, or mourning for the oil of gladness? I think you know the answer. These things happen through Jesus Christ, through His saving work on our behalf. It was for us that He created the earth. It was for us it was promised to Adam and Eve that one would come to destroy the power of the devil. For us, Jesus took upon flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary.

Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. He is both perfectly God and perfectly man. He fulfilled the Law perfectly, and then suffered and died for you. He took your sin, and the sin of the whole world upon Himself. God Himself suffered brutally so that your sins could be forgiven. And so they are. This is not because we are especially good, and it certainly isn’t because it’s what we deserve, but it’s because God is love. In love Jesus Christ was born to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the forgiveness of our sins. In love, He has clothed us in His own robe of righteousness, purchased by His own death on the cross. Amen.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk. 4:21.

[2] Is. 61:1–2.

[3] Is. 65:1–3.

The Fortunes of Zion

Text: Psalm 126

I love the opening words of Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”[1] The psalmist recounts the astounding grace of the Lord God who abundantly cared for His people, and in the time of the psalmist, returned the people from their captivity in Babylon. His favor was so great, that His people lived like those in a dream. In the movie, A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker dreams about one thing: A Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This BB gun is the one thing that he wanted for Christmas. Throughout the movie, this is the focus of his thoughts and dreams. Even at the end, the adult Ralphie reflects back on his receiving the gun as the best present ever. When he got it, it was like he was dreaming.

Throughout the Old Testament God worked in and around His people for their benefit. When they rebelled against Him, He disciplined them. He continually blessed and watched over them. Even in their exile, He did not abandon them, but instead restored their fortune by returning them to the Promised Land. His action was such that the surrounding nations took notice that the Lord had done great things for His people. As this was the case for the Israelites returning from exile, so the Lord has restored our fortunes as well. We, who once were dead in our sins and captive to the powers of the devil, have been restored by Jesus Christ. By His death on the cross He has restored our fortunes, and He will restore them again.

I.

The text begins, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”[2] Here the psalm writer recounts the great deeds of God on behalf of the children of Israel. Most commentaries say that the specific application of this psalm is in response to the return from Babylon. The nation of Israel had a long and sordid history in regards to their relationship with God; it often was an unfaithful relationship on their part. This lead to the destruction of part of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

The return may have been the freshest work of God in mind, but it was by no means the only work. Israel entered the Promised Land in 1406 B.C., but even 700 years before that God had promised the Messiah to Abraham, saying nothing of God’s grace and forgiveness shown to Noah, Adam, and others. Instead, though God’s people were always in a state of flux, God’s love remained constant.

There’s a situation that comes to mind as an example. For a long time after Israel entered the Promised Land they were ruled by the Judges. They did not have a king. Then, in 1 Samuel 8, that changed. Seeing that the prophet Samuel was growing old, Israel demanded a king so that they could be like the other nations. God tells Samuel that, from the day He brought them out of Egypt, His people have done nothing but forsake Him and serve other gods; and now, even more, they are rejecting Him again. It’s sort of like how Ralphie got his Red Ryder BB gun. Israel got their gun, but then they actually did shoot their eye out. Because of this, God’s people were carried into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed. But that didn’t last forever. God soon acted through Cyrus, king of Persia (538 B.C.), to return His people to the land and restore their fortune.

As God restored the fortunes of Israel when He returned them from exile, His Holy Israel – us – has been restored from our captivity to sin. This has been accomplished completely through the work of Jesus Christ, without anything on our part. Like Israel in captivity and powerless against Babylon, we were once all enslaved and in the chains of sin, death, and the devil. Some professors say that once the people were in exile, Babylon was relatively unconcerned with them. But our captivity to sin was much different. St. Peter said that the Devil prowls around like roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.[3] He will never be satisfied until he has murdered and led away from Christ every single person on earth. His roaring and battle against us is such, that as St. Paul said, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[4] Even greater than the return of the people to Israel, is the truth that, by His death and resurrection, Jesus has rescued us from the guilt of our sin, from the eternal death that we deserve.

II.

Psalm 126 continues, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”[5] The psalm shifts gears from recounting God’s grace that has made His people dreamers and how His work has been made known among the nations, to a prayer and an assurance of things to come.

The joyous return from captivity, both for the children of Israel and for us, is short lived. We’ve heard the last couple weeks about how mankind is like grass that blows away. The return to the Promised Land soon turned from joy to weeping. When Israel was carried away, different people then filled the land. And when they returned, they were met with contempt. That was the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. They met opposition not only in trying to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem’s walls, but people tried to wipe them out entirely.

Though we have been rescued from our enslavement to sin through the work of Jesus Christ, which we receive through the gift of faith, we are also faced with the harsh realities of life. We all know that outside these walls, and sometimes within, life is not easy. The psalm talks about sowing in tears. It’s like when a farmer sows his seed and for a while is in the lurch about what’s going to happen: whether it’s going to be a good crop, whether prices will hold, whether his family’s going to hold. That can lead to much distress. Even in our personal lives it seems that we often sow in tears. Even in the church. It feels like we work and work, and we toil and labor, and it looks like nothing is coming up.

Therefore we pray that the Lord would restore us like streams in the Negeb. The Negeb is an arid region in the southern part of Israel that gets less than 8 inches of rain a year, almost none from April to October. Then the winter comes and it brings with it what seems to be a torrent of rain and the parched soil just can’t hold it. Water pours out everywhere, becoming a life-giving flood in the wilderness.

In Christ, our fortunes have been restored. We have been saved through the life-giving flood of Holy Baptism, having received the gift of faith through the washing of the water and the Word. In verse 4, the psalmist prayed that the Lord would restore His people’s fortunes, yet again, through His overflowing love. The psalmist knows that God is true to His character – He is steadfast in love and abounding in mercy. Therefore, the text continues in confidence: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”[6]

As Jesus was in the upper room with His disciples on the night He was betrayed, He taught them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”[7] How well we know that to be true. Jesus promised that the world will hate us, and that we will weep and lament. It so often seems that life is just a pointless endeavor, it’s nothing but stress and turmoil. But, Jesus says, though you have sorrow now, you will see Him again. When you see Him again, your heart will rejoice, and nothing can take that from you.

Though Israel continually rejected God, still He persisted in love towards them. He rescued His faithful children and restored their fortunes by returning them from captivity. Though we once were in slavery to sin, and though we are beset by it on all sides, Jesus Christ has restored us. Through His death, He has cancelled the hold that sin had over you. In this life, even though we are made new in Christ, we will have sorrow. But the truth is: Christ has not abandoned us. He is with you always and in every situation. He has promised that He will return, and all sorrow will be no more. For at His coming we will rejoice and no one can take that away from us.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ps. 126:1.

[2] Ps. 126:1–3.

[3] 1 Peter 5:8.

[4] Rom. 7:23.

[5] Ps. 126:4–6.

[6] Ps. 126:5-6.

[7] Jn. 16:20, 22.

Double for All Her Sins

lamb

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

Last week we heard Isaiah’s prayer and plea to God, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.”[1] He saw the destruction and adversity, the shame of God’s people, and prayed that God would come and destroy evil. But he soon realized that, if God put a sudden end to sin, then we should be rightfully swept away like a leaf in the wind. This righteous God who is holy is like no other God, in that He actually acts in lives of His people, would be justified in blowing us away. Isaiah concludes his prayer by reminding God that we are His people; we are the clay and He the potter. He has made us and He is merciful.

God’s response to Isaiah and His faithful people was, “Here I am, here I am,” and, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy.”[2] This calls to mind His previous word to Isaiah, and our text this evening, “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.”[3]

I.

God’s message to Isaiah comes after an envoy came from Babylon. They came to visit with King Hezekiah and he took them around and showed them everything: everything of value in all the kingdom. Then the Lord spoke through Isaiah that everything he showed them would be carried off to Babylon, even some of his sons. The resounding point in all this is that punishment and destruction were about to come upon Jerusalem and God’s people. There is forgiveness for the sins that they committed, their continual rejection of God and worship of false gods, their hatred and greediness, but the consequence is that Jerusalem must be destroyed.

For some of God’s faithful people this led to despair. They couldn’t help but think that God was abandoning them. He was permitting Jerusalem and His own house, the Temple, to be destroyed and the people along with it…or so it might’ve seemed. Thus God speaks to them His Word of comfort. He tells Isaiah to speak tenderly to the people, to speak to them heart to heart, to cry to them and keep crying as the Hebrew says that her warfare is over. Her time of trial, her time of distress is now ended. Her iniquity has been pardoned. The word for “pardoned” here is the word used in Leviticus for when God accepts a sacrifice of blood. Payment has been made in blood for the transgression of God’s people and they are pardoned.

The work of the Suffering Servant, the One who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, has resulted in God’s people receiving double from His hands. This is not double punishment, because the Law says transgression and punishment must correspond, but it is grace. By the suffering of God’s Servant, Jesus, His people have received enough forgiveness to cover twice the penalty of their sin. And we need it too, because “all flesh is grass…the grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it.”[4] No one needs to tell us how frail human flesh really is. Some make it to old age, but not without sickness and calamities on every side. We can also see new definitions of morality and a moving center of right and wrong all around us. These things are result of both the sin within us and the broken creation we live in that is tainted by sin.

II.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”[5] Though mankind is by nature transitory, both in the fact that we will physically die, and how even as Christians our moral center is sometimes hard to nail down, the Word and Promise of God stand forever. Man withers and fades; man is fickle. God is strong, unchanging, merciful. He has promised to remember the sins of His people no more, to no longer hold their iniquities against them. This He has done by sending His Son into the flesh to die as payment for our sin.

And so He says to Jerusalem, to Isaiah, to us His faithful people: lift up your voice, do not be afraid. Behold your God. Truly this is made manifest in the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He who existed eternally in perfect unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, took on frail human flesh to suffer and die painfully for sins He did not commit. He did this to gather us in and to bring us to be with Him in heaven. God tells His people, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom.”[6]

This is a picture of something we hope, pray for, and expect – the second coming of Christ. At His return He will come with might to collect His reward: us. We have been purchased not with gold or silver but by His blood. The wages of our work is death, but the wages of His work is eternal life in Him. Through Him we receive the forgiveness of all our sins. The death of the Son of God for sinners has resulted that we have received double the grace instead of the merited punishment of our sins. Next week our text will be from Isaiah 61. These words Jesus applies to Himself to describe the work that He was born to do. The reading ends with words that He puts in our mouths, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”[7]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Is 64:1.

[2] Is. 65:1, 17-18.

[3] Is. 40:1-2.

[4] Is. 40:6-7.

[5] Is. 40:8–9.

[6] Is. 40:10–11.

[7] Is. 61:10.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Text: Mark 1:1-8

It seems now that, just about a full week into the month of December and a week and a half removed from Black Friday, preparations for Christmas have certainly begun. If you haven’t begun, maybe you really should. But really, though, holiday preparation can take it out of you. There are the presents to buy, the food to buy and prepare. Houses need to be cleaned; attitudes need to be tweaked so you can survive with those relatives you dread. You love them and all, but some people are just hard to be with. For many of us, we’ll all be glad when the 2nd of the year hits and things go back to normal.

In the reading from Mark today we see another kind of preparation, the preparation of the way of the Lord. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness baptizing and preaching the Word of God. John’s message was a stark and serious one, in Matthew we have him calling the Jewish leaders a “brood of vipers.” John came preaching the Law to show its strict demands and the world’s universal need for a savior in preparation for His coming.

I.

The text begins, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” [1] It is an interesting beginning for the book of Mark. The book begins by showing our need for a Savior in the first place. Like John appearing in the wilderness to make straight the paths of the Lord, Mark sets things straight by showing what was written in Isaiah: God would send a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord.

In the book of Malachi, God pointed out that the people of Judah wearied Him with their words. He said their general sentiment was, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them,” and they asked, “Where is the God of justice?”[2] Therefore, God responded that He is sending His messenger to prepare the way before Him. The people asked where God is, and He said He’s coming. This messenger is to cry out that all flesh is grass. In all its beauty, it is still like the flower of the field that withers and fades. That which is flesh is sown in iniquity and shall go away in sin.

Thus, John appeared in the wilderness preaching the Law of God and a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He came accusing people of their sinful hypocrisy. All people have been tainted by the stench of sin. In this life no one escapes the hold that sin has over them. We see this even during this month as we prepare for the birth and return of Jesus. It makes sense that the world goes wild for giving and receiving gifts, hosting parties, and drinking egg nog, and we can get caught up in it, too. We tell ourselves to “remember the reason for the season,” but do we really? Christmas is about the coming of the Savior into the flesh to die for our transgressions. The eternal Son of God humbled Himself to be born, and to carry our sin to the cross because we cannot do it ourselves.

All the country of Judea and everyone in Jerusalem went out to confess their sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. John preached God’s Law and they were convicted that, at every point in their and our lives, we transgress against God and one another and deserve punishment. John, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts, was a picture of what we should’ve aspired to, but even he was not perfect. When he was arrested and put in prison, he doubted whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. Even John would not escape the coming of the savior, which will be like a refiner’s fire, burning up all impurities. That is, He would not survive without the forgiveness of sins. Therefore John preached, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[3]

II.

To many people John appeared crazy. Here was this wild man out in the desert. He might have looked a little unstable, but so did most of the Old Testament prophets. He was a stark vision of adherence to God’s Law: itchy camel hair clothes with a leather belt, eating locusts. They make candy now, at least you can get it all the Mall of America, that has crickets in it; but can you imagine eating that all the time? Some scientists are working on mass producing food from grasshoppers to solve shortage, but John ate them in order to keep pure. But even he was not worthy to untie the sandals of the one coming after him.

The one coming after John is mightier than he. The Lord says in Malachi 3, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”[4] Who can endure the coming of the Son of Man, the eternal measure of Justice? No one. For all have sinned and are consumed by iniquity. The Son of Man came to burn away and condemn all evil. But, Martin Luther writes, “Christ is not merely the Purifier but also the purifying Agent. He is not only the Blacksmith but also the Fire; not only the Cleaner but also the Soap. He does not sit indolently at the right hand of His Father. Rather He is always working among us.”[5]

What Luther is getting at is that Christ came to do all the work. He is the eternal enfleshment of the Son of God. His wrath against sin will be like a fire that burns everything away, but He is also a fire that resides in us, those who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. John showed that all our attempts to fulfill God’s Law and gain life for ourselves fail, and the result is that not even John is worthy to untie the straps of Jesus’ sandals.

John came preaching the Law before the coming of Jesus to show our need for a Savior and for cleansing. Jesus is the one who came to clean us, to be both the cleaner and the soap. He is the one, who for our salvation, came down from heaven. He humbled Himself to be born of the Virgin Mary, to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus, He is our Cleaner, but He is also the soap. We, who have been given His Holy Spirit, are washed in His blood. By His blood our robes are made clean. The Lord spoke in Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”[6] This is not because our works make it so, for all flesh is like grass, but because of Christ – He who is both the Cleaner, and by His blood, the soap that washes us.

As we continue the journey though Advent and into Christmas it’s easy to get caught up in the season, caught up in a bad way. All the holiday preparations come into full swing and sometimes we forget not just the “reason for the season,” but why He came as well. John came preaching the Law, showing us our need for a savior. This Savior is Jesus, who came to earth to pay the penalty of our sin and win for us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap He burns away all impurities even as He fills us with His Holy Spirit. To Him we pray, “Lay on the sick Thy healing hand and make the fallen strong to stand; show us the glory of Thy face till beauty springs in every place. All praise, eternal Son, to Thee whose advent sets Thy people free, whom with the Father we adore and Holy Spirit evermore.”


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 1:1–3.

[2] Mal. 2:17.

[3] Mk 1:7–8.

[4] Mal 3:2.

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 18 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 410.

[6] Is. 1:18.