Birth of the Forerunner

Text: Luke 1:57-80

Did you know that in the Church Year we celebrate only two birthdays? Out of all the events in the life of Christ and the lives of those connected to Him that we remember throughout the year, only two are birthdays. The first birthday we celebrate, of course, is the birth of our Lord. The second we celebrate today: the birth of John the Baptist. If you look on page xi in the front of your hymnal, you’ll see that today is the day we celebrate the birth of the forerunner. John the Baptist’s role was to go before the Lord and prepare His way. So, that means if John is born, Jesus must be coming soon behind. That’s what Zechariah sings about in the Benedictus.

Today we celebrate John’s birth both because it is miraculous and because it serves a purpose. The Lord promised through the prophet Malachi that He would send His servant Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Lord. Jesus Himself said John is that Elijah. All the Law and the Prophets spoke until John. He is the end of the Old Testament and Jesus is the start of the New. We celebrate the birth of John the Baptist because it shows us that God keeps His promises, especially His promise to send us salvation through His Son.

I.

The story of John’s birth stretches back into the first part of Luke, chapter 1. After St. Luke’s introduction we hear that, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.”[1] Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful children of God who were waiting for the Messiah. They were righteous by faith and walked in the ways of the Lord, yet they had no children; Elizabeth was barren, and they were both, “advanced in years,” St. Luke says.

The time came for Zechariah to serve before the Lord in the temple, and he was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and offer incense. While he was there, the angel Gabriel appeared and stood by the altar. He said to Zechariah,

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.[2]

Gabriel came to tell Zechariah that the Lord would open Elizabeth’s womb to bear a son, and that son would be the forerunner of the Messiah. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he is set apart by the Lord to preach repentance and faith to prepare the way of the Christ, who would follow soon after. Sadly, Zechariah doubted the Lord’s Word through Gabriel, and was made unable to speak for nine months. Still, nine months later, John was born. This is where our text picks up.

II.

The Lord commanded Abraham back in Genesis that all male children were to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. And so, the time came also for John. In many parts of history, it was a custom to delay naming a child for a little bit after birth. For Christians, that’s meant that a lot of children have received their names at Baptism – a wonderful reminder that in Baptism we also receive Christ’s name upon our hearts. For Jewish males, it meant receiving their names at circumcision. So, when John’s time came, we heard that Elizabeth’s relatives wanted John to be named Zechariah, like his father. But, Elizabeth said, “No; he shall be called John.”[3] When they made signs at Zechariah – who yet was still mute – he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.”[4] Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened, and his tongue was loosed again, and he began blessing God.

We might wonder what difference a name makes. What difference would it have made if John were named for his father? Surely that wouldn’t have been a big deal. Perhaps, perhaps not. It is true, though, that, in the Bible, names mean something. “Abraham,” for example, means, “father of many nations.” The Lord Himself gave Abraham that name, signifying that by faith as well as flesh, Abraham would be the father of many nations. “Elijah” means, “My God is the Lord.” “Daniel,” means “God is my judge.” “Zechariah,” means, “The Lord has remembered.” John is given his name because it means (in the Hebrew), “The Lord is gracious.” John’s birth and name are meant to reflect the mercy and grace of God. The name “John,” is also connected to a word for pointing. As in, John’s role would be to point to the mercy and grace of God that would be revealed in Jesus, the Messiah.

III.

When Zechariah wrote that his son’s name would indeed be John, his mouth was opened, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit caused to him to prophesy what we now know as the Benedictus. In the Benedictus, the Lord, even, explains through Zechariah what John’s birth means. It means that the Lord is visiting and redeeming His people. It means that He has raised up a horn of salvation for us out of the house of His servant David – just like He promised back in 2 Samuel 7. It means that, by the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Messiah, we will be saved from our enemies and out the hands of all who hate us. The Lord is showing the mercy He promised to our fathers and remembering His holy covenant.

This is why we celebrate John’s birthday. If John is here, the Elijah that the Lord promised to send, it means that the Messiah is near. John is the one who would go before the Lord to prepare His way, and that’s what he did. John preached Christ crucified for us and was the first one to sing, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[5] We celebrate only two birthdays in the Church Year, our Lord’s and John’s. Today we celebrate John’s, because it means that the Lord keeps His promises, especially the promise to send us salvation through His Son. Amen.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 1:5.

[2] Lk. 1:13, 16-17.

[3] Lk. 1:60.

[4] Lk. 1:63.

[5] Jn. 1:29.

Make a Straight Highway

Text: Isaiah 40:1-8

Bulletin: 12-17-2017 the Third Sunday in Advent

Last Sunday we sang the hymn, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” during the distribution of the Lord’s Supper. The hymn is in the Advent section of our hymnal, but it could also very well be in the Confession and Absolution section. This hymn praises our Lord for His coming to us, humble and mounted on a donkey, which we heard about two weeks ago. Yet, the hymn takes a turn when it also talks about why Christ became flesh. Pastor Gerhardt writes, “I lay in fetters, groaning; You came to set me free; I stood, my shame bemoaning; You came to honor me.”[1]

The hymn recognizes that Christ’s Incarnation was not just for fun. Christ, the eternal Lord, took on our human flesh to suffer and die for us, poor, miserable sinners. Because we are so wrapped up in our own sinfulness, by which we have created a vast chasm between us and our God, Christ became flesh. No one else could bridge that divide. He suffered and died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness, He freely gives those who repent of their sins and look to Him in faith. Our text today is from our Isaiah reading, where we hear that we have received from the Lord’s hand double forgiveness for our sins. Since, therefore, our Lord comes to bring pardon to our iniquity, let the valleys and mountains of our hearts be made straight, that we may meet Him with joy at His appearing.

I.

With this service, we are now three weeks into the Advent season. Advent is a season of joyful expectation. We celebrated the First Sunday in Advent by hearing of the Triumphal Entry of our king into Jerusalem. Just as He entered humbly then, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. For that day, we are joyfully waiting. Yet, in this this in-between time, we are also aware of what prompted our Lord’s visitation, our sinfulness. Advent is a season of expectation, but also one of repentance. This theme started coming out in last week’s readings. Our Lord encouraged us to watch ourselves, lest we be weighed down by the cares of the world. In the Old Testament text, John the Baptist was promised. He would be the one to come and prepare the way of the Lord.

John prepared the way of the Lord by preaching repentance and faith. You know John’s words to the Pharisees, that they were like a brood of vipers only seeking to escape the wrath to come. But, to others, John preached repentance and faith in the One who was yet to come. He preached that the axe is now at the root of the tree, and that every branch that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down. When the people asked him what to do, he said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”[2]

John’s preaching consisted of pointing out to people their sinfulness, and then pointing them to the Christ. Though their sins were like scarlet, they would be made white as snow through the blood of the cross. Those who mourned and confessed their sins, were baptized in the hope of the forgiveness that was yet to be revealed. John was the one who prepared the way of the Lord by preaching repentance. Or, in the words of Isaiah, lifting up every valley and making every mountain and hill low.

II.

The ministry of John the Baptist carries on even today through pastors, and our own Christian selves, when we encourage each other toward repentance. The first of the 95 Theses is very good. It says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[3] The goal of all Christian preaching is repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. This is carried out by the preaching of both Law and Gospel. We know that Jesus Christ came to defeat the devil and take away the sin of the world. He made full payment for all sin by His perfect life and death. The forgiveness which He won, He gives freely to all through faith. Faith receives the forgiveness of sins. The one who receives forgiveness, is the one who first acknowledges their own sinfulness.

So that we might acknowledge our sinfulness, Jesus sends pastors to preach His Law. When the Law is preached, it’s not the pastor – or whoever – being mean; the preacher is simply helping to us understand how things are and where we really stand before God. The preaching of the Law goes like this: God has revealed to us His will for human life in Scripture, and we have not done it. We have not kept God’s Law, and we fully deserve the punishment due. There is one punishment for sin – death and eternal separation from all things good. The preaching of the Law is not being mean; it is simply speaking the truth of where we stand before God.

And, to be honest, I think the Law that needs to be preached today is what St. Paul said a few weeks back, “The hour has come…to wake from sleep…Let us walk properly as in the daytime…not in quarreling and jealousy.”[4] This is something we have all struggled with. Satan has planted seeds of jealousy and quarreling in our hearts, and we have not treated each other as we should. We have not explained everything in the kindest way, we have assumed the worst. We have not forgiven each others’ faults. We have despaired of what the future holds for us. We have been sinful, and we have deserved eternal condemnation.

III.

Let us mourn our wretched bands and, in the words of Paul Gerhardt, bemoan our shame. But, let us do so in faith. It is true that we are sinners. Of that, we can be sure. But, true, also, are these words from the Lord, “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.”[5]

We are sinners, as were the people in Isaiah’s day. Yet, His words to us here are not words of condemnation, but comfort. God called Isaiah to comfort His people, for they have received pardon for their iniquity. Israel has received double grace for all her sins, through the eternal sacrifice of Christ. The forgiveness He won stretched back to them and forward to us through faith. There is no sin too bad nor sinner too sinful for His forgiveness and pardon. There is no heart of stone that He cannot turn to flesh, nor dead person that He cannot raise to life in Baptism. In Christ, there is free and full forgiveness and pardon from iniquity, and He gives it freely through faith.

Let us then, in this Advent season and especially as we see the Day drawing near, make straight the valleys and mountains of our hearts. We have treated others poorly and thought more highly of ourselves than we should. Let us confess our sins, be forgiven, and by the Holy Spirit seek to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Acknowledging that, by faith in Christ’s blood, we have received twice the forgiveness for all of our sins, let us care for one another and build each other up in love. Then, when Christ comes, we may meet Him with joy and a clean conscience. “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.”


[1] “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” Lutheran Service Book, 334.

[2] Lk. 3:8.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 25.

[4] Rom. 13:11-13.

[5] Is. 40:1-2.

The Day is Coming

Text: Malachi 4:1-6

Bulletin: 12-10-2017 the Second Sunday in Advent

Hard words were spoken by the Lord through the prophet Malachi. Malachi was one of the last writing prophets of the Old Testament and his book is the last. He prophesied and wrote about two generations after the return from exile. Worship in the temple was restored, along with all its various feasts and festivals. The sacrifices and offerings for sin had resumed. Yet, in that short time, God’s people had nearly forgotten Him. For both the lay person and priest, apathy, and even contempt, for God had become regular. They offered blemished sacrifices and kept the best for themselves. The priests taught falsely and gossiped. Lay people, in turn, fell back into idolatry. They withheld their offerings from God. They all figured, if God hadn’t punished them by now, maybe they were okay. What does St. Peter say? That with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.[1]

The Lord is patient, not desiring His wrath to fall on anyone. Rather, He desires that they turn from sin and live. Therefore, He waits. Someday soon, though, the waiting will stop, and the Day of the Lord will come. The Lord spoke through Malachi in the verse just before our text, “Once more you shall know the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not.”[2] The Lord says the day is coming when the sun of righteousness will rise. For we who fear His name, it will mean leaping like calves dashing out of the stall. Today we confess that Christ, the sun of righteousness, has risen upon us in His incarnation and will lead us out like calves from the stall on the great and awesome day of the Lord.

I.

Malachi prophesied after the children of Israel were returned to their homeland. You know the history here. Because of their wickedness and idolatry, God’s people were handed over to Babylon and kept in exile for 70 years as God’s judgement. After those years had passed, just as God promised, He returned them to their own land. He kept and preserved them in all that time, and many of them even prospered while in exile – men like Daniel and Nehemiah. Yet, after God brought them back, things still weren’t okay. They were, for a time, under faithful leaders like Ezra, and others. But overall, the heart of the people began drifting back into paganism and unbelief.

And so, the Lord sent Malachi. As we recounted already, apathy was common among both layman and priest. A good chunk of this book is given to words of condemnation for those wicked priests, although the people were not left out. God condemned them for robbing Him by holding back their tithes and contributions. But, in the midst of this preaching of the Law there was also the Gospel. In chapter 3, God promised to send a messenger to prepare the way of the Messiah. We know that is John the Baptist. Then, again, in our text God promised to send Elijah before His great day. When the disciples asked Jesus about this, He told them, “All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”[3] And, if John is that messenger of God who would prepare the way of the Lord, that makes Jesus the Lord.

That’s the truth. In Jesus, the sun of righteousness has risen upon us. Jesus came with gifts of healing, forgiveness, and peace, and to be the light in this dark world. At the right time, in the right place, Christ the Son of God took on our human flesh and was born of the virgin Mary. He preached and taught the Good News of God: that by His wounds we are healed. No longer are we enslaved to sin and death. By His death, our debt was paid. By His resurrection, His disarmed death and put both it and the devil to open shame. They will not defeat those who fear His name.

II.

Jesus came with gifts of pardon, peace and rest. In the Incarnation, the sun of righteousness dawned upon us with healing in His wings. We live, here and now, in the forgiveness of sins and in a confident hope of life eternal. Even so, the sun has not fully dawned upon us. As is often true in the prophets, more than one day is talked about at the same time in this text. As with God’s people throughout time, we await a yet more glorious day. We await the day when Christ our savior will come on the clouds of heaven. We wait for it eagerly, because we experience all the sin and evil in this world, and in ourselves. We are taught by the Lord here to observe the law of Moses until He comes, but we daily transgress against it. As those redeemed by Christ, we desire not to sin – but we still constantly fall. We also bear the scorn of the wicked and evildoers. There are many who ridicule us for gathering together, who tempt us to do otherwise. They say that our prayers are not heard and that we should stop. But we won’t.

Our Lord will return. This is what the angels promised at the Ascension, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven, this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go.”[4] St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[5] Christ, our dear Lord, said Himself at the end of Revelation, “Surely I am coming soon.”[6] The day that Christ returns will be the great and awesome day of the Lord. Then, the sun of righteousness will fully dawn and shine on us. Then, as our Lord said, will our redemption be drawn fully near. But all the arrogant and all evildoers will be reduced to stubble and be left without root or branch.

All those who have despised the Lord and hated His appearing, all those who spurned His Word and scorned us who believe in it; they will be gathered together as well. Whereas we and all the faithful will be gathered together and enter with joy into the eternal wedding feast, they will enter with shame and sorrow into eternal punishment. As Jesus said, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”[7] For those who have loved His appearing, even for us, that great and awesome day will be the day when we go out leaping like calves from the stall.

At His return, though we have forgiveness now, then we shall be fully purified. At His return, though we have the hope of eternal life now, then shall we be fully free. At His return, though we have protection from sin and evil now, then we shall be fully delivered from all evil. Then, like the Greek OT says in verse 2, we will skip for joy. Like calves from the stall, we will skip for joy for being finally delivered from all sin, death, and from the devil.

In some ways, then, our whole lives are like one big Advent season. Like the faithful in Malachi’s time, we are waiting for the great and awesome day of the Lord, when He will finally come and deliver us. Yet, in this time of waiting, the sun of righteousness has risen upon us with the forgiveness of sins. By His death on the cross and rising again, our sins are forgiven here and now, and we have the hope of our own resurrection to eternal life. May the Lord grant us a continued blessed Advent, both in 2017 and beyond, while we wait for our day to go leaping like the calves.


[1] 2 Pet. 3:8.

[2] Mal. 3:18, English Standard Version.

[3] Matt. 11:13-14.

[4] Acts 1:11.

[5] Phil. 3:20.

[6] Rev. 22:20.

[7] Jn. 3:19.

The Lord Comes to Us

Text: Luke 1:39-45

“From east to west, from shore to shore let ev’ry heart awake and sing the holy child whom Mary bore, the Christ, the everlasting king. Behold, the world’s creator wears the form and fashion of a slave; Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creatures all to save.” It feels a little weird to be singing Christmas hymns in July, doesn’t it? When I was a child, we would sometimes go out for breakfast after church. The place we’d usually go was called Old Country Buffet. Next to the restaurant was an electronics store, which had a large sign out front. Every year, come July, they would put on the sign in big letters “Christmas in July Sale.” They would mirror the sales you normally see around Christmas time in this quieter part of the year.

Today we celebrate a better Christmas in July. Today the Church pauses to celebrate the visit Mary, the mother of our Lord, paid to Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth herself was pregnant, even in her old age, with John the Baptist. When Mary’s greeting reached her ears, the unborn John leaped in the womb and Elizabeth was led by the Holy Spirit to confess her faith in Jesus, while He was yet unborn. Though we celebrate His birth in December, even in the womb, Christ our God has come to save us. In the Visitation, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Mary, all bear witness that the Son of God has come to us.

I.

We’ll look at the text today in three parts: first, what prompted this special visit; second, what happened at this visit; and, third, what does it mean? Today we’re in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last year, when we celebrated this day, we talked about how the Holy Spirit led St. Luke to write down an orderly course of the things that happened. To some extent, the other Gospels are arranged by theme, but St. Luke caused by the Spirit’s inspiration to write a straight-telling of all that happened. That meant beginning the Gospel not exactly with Jesus, but with John the Baptist. In Malachi 4, the last chapter of the Old Testament, God promised to send his messenger ahead of the Messiah. This forerunner would speak in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and change the attitudes of the disobedient to righteousness.

So, St. Luke’s Gospel begins with the angel Gabriel appearing to the elderly priest Zechariah as he served in the temple. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old and childless. And, in fact, Elizabeth was barren. Yet, they remained faithful to God’s Word and promises. Zechariah had been chosen by lot to go into the temple and burn incense. While he offering to the Lord, Gabriel appeared and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.” Moreover, Gabriel said, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb…It is he who will go as a forerunner before the Lord.” So, Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – became pregnant with John the Baptist in her old age.

Six months later, Gabriel was again sent by God – this time to Mary. He said to her, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…Behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age…for nothing will be impossible with God.” After Gabriel announced the birth of the forerunner of the Messiah to Elizabeth, he announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. Gabriel offered this proof to Mary that all this would truly happen: Elizabeth, in her old age, was sixth months’ pregnant. Scripture tells us that, up to this point, Elizabeth kept herself hidden. Having heard this Word of the Lord through Gabriel, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town of Judah.”

II.

We’re looking at this text, our Christmas in July, in three parts. We’ve learned now what led to the Visitation. Elizabeth, though both old and barren, had become pregnant. Mary herself was pregnant with Jesus, and went with haste to see her cousin and rejoice. Now, we read what happened at the Visitation. The text says, “[Mary] entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Having heard from the Lord that Elizabeth was pregnant, Mary hurried up through the 93 miles between Nazareth and Jerusalem. When she entered the house, she found the Lord’s Word to be indeed, true, just she had believed. Then she greeted Elizabeth.

Most likely, this wasn’t just a “Hey, how’s it going.” Much more likely, is that Mary told Elizabeth why she was there – that Gabriel said Elizabeth was pregnant and that Mary herself would bear the Son of God. When Elizabeth heard these things, John the Baptist leaped in her womb. Already filled with the Holy Spirit, even before birth, John bore witness to the Son of God. Later in the Gospel he’ll use words, “Behold, the Lamb of God;” but here, he points by skipping – as the Greek says. The Baptist, filled with the Holy Spirit, leaped in the womb at the presence of the Lord.

His mother, also, was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized that the promise of God to save His people by taking on flesh is, even now, happening. In Mary’s womb, the author of all creation has now been found in human form. John leaped in joy at the presence of Christ to save His people. These are the events we celebrate today.

III.

But, now, what does this mean? We’ve learned what led up to the Visitation – Gabriel announcing John and Jesus’ births and telling Mary the same. We’ve learned what happened – Mary went up to Jerusalem and, at her greeting, John leaped in joy at Christ’s presence and Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, proclaimed that the Lord God has come into her house. Now, we must answer: So what? What does this all mean, and why is it important? A lot of people like Christmas music. I like Christmas music. But, I like Christmas music only for like the 7 days surrounding Christmas, then I’m good. But, I make exceptions for days like today. See, in the calendar, Christmas isn’t for another five months. Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’ birth. But, Jesus doesn’t just become our Lord after He’s born. He has flesh and blood now. Even now, Christ our Lord has come to save us.

That’s what the Baptist and Elizabeth are saying, and what Mary sings in the Magnificat. Even now, Christ is at work for our salvation. Even now, the plan of God hidden from the foundation of the world has become clear. The very God of very God is and does now share our human flesh. It’s Christmas in July. There is never a point in His life were Christ was not our savior and redeemer. From the very moment of His conception, which we call the Incarnation, Christ our Lord is come to save us. He has looked on us in our sinful state. He has now become like us in every way, sharing in our flesh and blood – yet without sin – so that He might fulfill for us the will of God and suffer as the payment for our sins. That work has already started. It’s Christmas in July.

Lastly, Elizabeth spoke by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Whenever we have a holiday like this, one that involves Mary in a significant way, the Lutheran tendency is to recoil. We still have a tendency to react against an overly-high view of Mary instead of simply giving thanks to God for her and recognizing that she is the Mother of God. But, why does Elizabeth call Mary blessed? Because of her faith. Mary was not chosen by God because she was perfect or without sin or had an especially strong faith. She was chosen by His grace. She was counted righteous by faith. And so are we. Now, we aren’t granted the special privilege of giving birth to the Savior. That’s unique to Mary. But, we also are counted as blessed by God’s grace when we believe in Jesus Christ and His death for our salvation.

Today we feast in celebration of the Visitation. In some ways, it is Christmas in July. For, even now, in the womb, Christ our dear Lord has taken on our human flesh and comes to save us.

The Baptism of Our Lord

Text: Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes you need a pair of pants in a hurry. Or, at least, I do. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you really need a pair of jeans or dress pants, but the ones you have on hand smell like lutefisk? You need your pants in a hurry, but they smell fresh, so you quickly throw them in the wash. You give them the time to wash, but then time itself starts to crunch when you put them in the dryer. You just hope and pray that it will all come out alright when you have to take them out before the cycle completes and leave for wherever you need to be. As you sit in your vehicle, you realize that your pants are still wet. They’re not full-on wet, but they’re soggy enough to irritate you every passing second.

Soggy pants remind me of Baptism. Wearing soggy pants can be quite unpleasant, but they remind me (most of the time) that what I’m wearing has been cleaned. But, in order for something to be cleaned in the wash, there needs to be a cleaning agent, a soap, a detergent – something that takes the dirt out. In Baptism, it’s the blood of Christ that purifies us from all iniquity, from dirtiness. Being washed in the water in the Word is being cleansed in the raging flood of Jesus’ blood.This blood covers us all life long and is a reminder of the new life we have in Christ. Every time we wake up in the morning, every time we begin the service with the Invocation, we are putting the soggy pants of Baptism back on.

Today is a Church holiday. Today we remember and commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus’ Baptism is not the institution of the Baptism we have all received, that will come later in Matthew; but it does mean some important things for us. At His Baptism, Jesus united Himself with us and our sins. He became our substitute by taking our sins upon Himself. There in the Jordan, Jesus was marked was the one who would go forth and fulfill the Law in our place, and then die on the cross as payment for all sin. At His Baptism, Christ was marked as our substitute, becoming one with us in our sin, so that through our Baptism, we may become one with Him in life.

I.

Our text today is from St. Matthew’s Gospel and comes towards the conclusion of John the Baptist’s public ministry. It wouldn’t be long before John would be thrown in the king’s prison. We’ve heard a little about that already from Matthew 11. You might recall that John is the one who testified that his ministry must decrease so that the Christ’s may increase; that turns out to be true, since Jesus’ ministry doesn’t begin until John is in captivity. But, remember as well, John’s ministry. John’s ministry, his calling, was to prepare the way of the Lord. He did this by preaching God’s Law, His Words about the coming Messiah who would purify the world with fire, and by calling people to repentance and faith. This was the reason for the Baptism of John. After people were convicted of their sins through the preaching of the Law, they would repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of those sins.

This Baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and being forgiven your sins means that you come out of the fount resolving with the help of the Lord to be changed from what you once were. John taught the tax collectors to take no more than what they were authorized to, the soldiers to be content and not extort money, and everyone else to share what they have with their neighbors in need. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to be baptized, they who already pronounced themselves to be without sin, John chastised them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

After this, Jesus came to be baptized, and John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Before, John stopped the ones who came to him presuming already to have no sin, but now here is Jesus – who really does have no sin. Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing fork is in His hand. John has need to be baptized by Him, we have need, so why would Jesus come to be baptized for repentance and forgiveness of sins?

Jesus answered John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John rightly recognized that Jesus is the mighty Savior of the world, who had come to rule with justice and equity and purify the children of Israel, but his mind was set on the future. All this purification and justice and equity was the future to John, but Jesus brings his head back out of the clouds. “Let it be so now.” Now something is happening. The fulfillment of all righteousness is not just something that will happen off in the distance, but it is something that being affected even now at the Baptism in the Jordan River.

Scripture shows us that righteousness of God consists in showing mercy. This is what Jesus’ Baptism is all about. At His Baptism, Jesus becomes one with us in our sin. He goes down to the river to repent not of His own sin, but ours. Jesus goes down in humble repentance and submission to God’s will as a substitute for all the times where we are not and do not. At His Baptism, Jesus is marked as one with us in our transgression, just as He would become one with us in our death later on the cross.

II.

Then the text says, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” At Jesus’ Baptism, not only does Jesus become our substitute and take upon Himself our sins and the sins of the whole world, but we also receive the testimony of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. This is a passage where the Triune God is described to us: One God in three persons. God the Father is the Father, the creator and preserver of all things. He testifies to us that Jesus is His Son, and what Jesus is there to do pleases Him. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove, fulfilling His role to point to and lead us to Christ.

Both the Father and the Holy Spirit testify that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Scripture tells us that Christ came to do and fulfill the Father’s will, which is to have mercy on sinners and shower them with His grace. These come through the work of Christ, beginning with His birth, His circumcision, His presentation in the temple, now at His Baptism, and later in His crucifixion for our sins. When God the Father and the Holy Spirit speak at Jesus’ Baptism, they show that this is the will of God: that Jesus become one with us in our sin and death, so that we can become one with Him in life.

III.   

We’ve now talked about Jesus’ Baptism, where He received John’s Baptism for repentance and forgiveness as our substitute and to become one with us in sin and death. But now we should talk about the Baptism we’ve received, where we were united (and are united) with Jesus in life. The closing stanza of the hymn, “Jesus, Once with Sinners Numbered,” speaks this way, “Jesus, once with sinners numbered, full obedience was your path; You, by death, have consecrated water in this saving bath: dying to the sin of Adam, rising to a life of grace; We are counted with the righteous, over us the cross You trace.” In Jesus’ Baptism, He was united with our death, so that in our Baptism we are united with His life.

This is what Jesus intended by instituting the washing of Holy Baptism in Matthew 28. He also promises in Mark 16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” The Small Catechism teaches us what benefits Baptism gives: “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” All of this hinges on Jesus fulfilling all righteousness, all the will of God, including bearing our sin and repenting of it in His Baptism, He who knew no sin.

What does it mean to be united with Christ as He is with us? It means wearing soggy pants. It means living the Baptismal life. By daily sorrow and repentance for our sins, the Old Adam is drowned and dies within us, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit the new Adam daily arises in righteousness and purity. The Catechism points us to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” So Baptism is like wearing soggy pants. Every time we wake up in the morning or go to bed, every time we speak the words of Invocation we are reminded that we are baptized and forgiven our sins. At Jesus’ Baptism He became one with us in our sin and carried it to the cross. On the cross He became one with us in death, so that through our Baptism we are one with Him in life.

 

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.

  1.  

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.

 

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.