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 Law, and How to Keep It

Text: Matthew 22:34-46

Our Lutheran Book of Concord says this near the end,

The distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of…properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures…We must guard this distinction with special care, so that these two doctrines may not be mixed with each other…When that happens, Christ’s merit is hidden and troubled consciences are robbed of comfort, which they otherwise have in the Holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely and purely.[1]

Today we have another text in which the distinction between the Law and the Gospel brought up and taught to us by our Lord. When questioned by the Pharisees about the Law, Jesus explained the holy and righteous will of God, the actions that all the Commandments are pointed towards: love of God and love of neighbor. As Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”[2] Our Lord went on to explain the Gospel: that He is both the promised Son of David and David’s Lord, his Redeemer.

The thing about the Law and the Gospel is that you can’t have one without the other. These two teachings must remain and be preached in the Church until Christ returns. If you take away the Law, the Gospel gets turned into a new Law. If you take away the Gospel, then you doom people to eternal condemnation. Therefore, our Lord rightly teaches both the Law and the Gospel in this text. Today we confess that in the Law we are taught God’s holy and righteous will and in the Gospel, we are taught what Christ has done for us.

I.

The text this week takes place during Holy Week, around the Tuesday. Sunday was the Triumphal Entry, and much of the first part of the week Jesus spent teaching in the temple. While He was teaching, the challengers just kept coming. First, it was the chief priests with the elders, then the Pharisees. Then came the Sadducees – who don’t believe in the Resurrection. Then came the Pharisees, again, in our text. Their plan? Get Jesus to trip up and incriminate Himself. So, the text begins, “When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?‘”[3]

This was an on-going discussion for the Pharisees. They and their scribes and the rabbis would argue back and forth about which is the greatest commandment. If Jesus said something different than the others generally responded, then they got Him. Jesus won’t be caught in their game. He cuts through the muck and goes right to the heart, as only the author of the Law could. He cites from Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[4] As Jesus said, this is the first Commandment. We are to fear, love and trust in God above all things. But, a second goes with it – again from the Old Testament – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5]

These two commandments are the sum of the whole Law. In fact, all Scripture is directed to this end: that we love God and love each other. Sounds pretty simple. But, remember, Jesus is preaching the Law here. He’s speaking to the Pharisees, of whom we’ve had examples over the last number of Sundays: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector or the parable about humility from last week. The Pharisees were known and loved for their outward piety. But in their hearts, they did not love their neighbors and, therefore, did not truly love God. And neither do we.

The great commandment is that we love God with all that we have and are, but do we? To use an illustration from Luther, we would rather have a gold coin in our pocket that we could use to feed our appetites than hear the whole and pure Gospel read. God’s holy and righteous will is that we love our neighbor as ourselves, yet so often – for all we care – our neighbor can take a hike. Like the priest and Levite, we pass by while the Samaritan suffers. Even if we don’t pass by physically, we hold both contempt and apathy in our hearts.

II.

The will of God is given to us in the Law: we are to love Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. This is good, right, and true. Jesus says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” And, I think that’s devastating. Because, the whole of Scripture directs us to those two things, and condemns for our failure to do them. This is what the Law does: it shows us what we are to do, and it condemns us when we don’t. Therefore, the Law must not be preached alone. But, after the Law, the Gospel. This is what Jesus does. He has just taught the right understanding of the Law, which is both good and hard for us to hear. In it we hear what we are supposed to do, but that which we fail to do. What we need now is the Gospel.

Jesus preaches the Gospel here in an odd way, by talking about King David. King David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sang Psalm 110, which says, “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’[6] We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the Messiah would come from the David’s bloodline. This is shown in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. But, here David – and Jesus by citing it – says that not only would the Messiah be his descendent but also his Lord. And, by “Lord,” he also means “Redeemer.” To redeem someone, in the Scriptural understanding, is to buy someone back from something else. In David’s case and ours, Jesus is our Redeemer and Lord, for He has bought us back from sin, death, and the devil.

“Not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” Jesus is David’s son and Lord, and ours, by purchasing us out of death by His own suffering and death in our place. But, before He died for us, He kept God’s Law for us. First, He did truly fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Second, He perfectly loved the whole world by dying for the whole world on the cross. By these things Jesus both fulfilled God’s Law in our place, and secured for us the forgiveness of our sins. This is the distinction between the Law and the Gospel: the Law shows us God’s will for us and condemns transgressions against it, the Gospel shows what us Jesus did for us and gives to us.

But, if we cannot do the Law or obtain merit before God by our works, why is the Law still preached? Well, because the Commandments remain holy and righteous and good. They are God’s will for us as Christians. Besides, it is good to not steal or kill or commit adultery. Sometimes we need the reminder. When Jesus was questioned about the Law, He didn’t say we should put it on the shelf and talk about something us. Rather, He taught the Law and then the Gospel. The Gospel is different from the Law in another way, too. The Law doesn’t actually give us the ability to keep it, but the Gospel does. The Gospel doesn’t just tell us we are forgiven, but through being preached it actually does it. The Gospel is the instrument through which the Spirit creates and sustains faith, and through which we are equipped and led to do God’s will, the Commandments.

We won’t keep them perfectly, since we are in the flesh. Now that Christ has atoned for our sins, God our Father no longer looks down at our failures as an angry judge, but, to use Luther again, God looks at us through His fingers. He sees only the righteousness of His own dear Son. For our part, as God’s dear children, we seek to do the will of our Father. The Lutheran Confessions say that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a brilliant light and the way to rightly understand Scripture. In our text, Jesus teaches both the Law and the Gospel. In the Law, He shows that God’s holy will is that we love both Him and our neighbor. In the Gospel, Jesus showed that He is both David’s Son and Lord, who has redeemed us all by His perfect life and death.


 

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 552.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 22:40.

[3] Matt. 22:34-36.

[4] Matt. 22:37.

[5] Matt. 22:39.

[6] Ps. 110:1.

Word Like Fire

Text: Jeremiah 23:16-29

The Lord spoke through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes…I did not send [them], yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council…they would have turned [My people] from their evil way.”[1] These words, God directed to His people in Jerusalem and against the false prophets that filled the city. Jerusalem was practically bursting with prophets who proclaimed peace and prosperity. Yet, God’s true prophets had preached for over a hundred years that she would fall because of her sinfulness; but the people only listened to the false prophets who promised peace.

We have in this text a description of what a false prophet is: someone who claims to speak from God’s authority, but ultimately speaks from the dreams of their own heart. The false prophets in Jerusalem were not preaching God’s Word of Law and Gospel. Instead, they only prophesied what they wanted to hear. To the contrary God says, “Is not My Word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?[2] Today we confess that a true prophet and messenger of God proclaims both His Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. God’s Word of Law is like a fire and hammer that exposes sin and brings to repentance, while His Word of Gospel offers pardon and peace to those who turn to Him in faith.

I.

This is the second time this year that we’ve been in Jeremiah 23. The first time we heard it was in a very different context – the first Sunday in Advent. Jeremiah 23 is where God promises that a Righteous Branch will come who will reign as king and deal wisely. He will make all of God’s people dwell in peace and safety. That portion of the chapter was given to comfort us with the promise of Christ, but it was also directed against the false shepherds, the wicked kings and priests of Israel. In this later part of chapter 23, God’s Word turns against the false prophets who filled Jerusalem in the decades leading up to its destruction.

If you’re familiar with Isaiah, you might remember that he prophesied before the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. The hope of the prophets, and dare I say God, was that the people of Jerusalem would learn from that and return to the Lord their God. Instead, Jerusalem got worse and worse. There were high points, like the reign of Josiah – which is when Jeremiah started preaching. But overall, Jerusalem was on a steep and steady decline.

One of the major factors in that decline was the false prophets going around and telling everyone that, because it was Jerusalem – God’s holy city – nothing bad could happen. God says this, “They speak visions of their own minds, not form the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the Word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you;’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'”[3] The priests, also, were aligned with them.

What’d this look like on the ground level? Idol worship was vastly and widely-spread. It was the norm for people to worship false gods, in addition to God. They even set up idols and sacrificed to them in the very temple of God. Nobody kept God’s Commandments; nobody even tried. Adultery and fornication were openly accepted and encouraged. Bribes were given and received. Selfishness and apathy for one’s neighbor were the way to play. And the false prophets said everything would be okay. But, God did not send them. He sent Jeremiah.

II.

Jeremiah was called by God to prophesy to His people. Though there are many good and comforting words in Jeremiah, in large part his call from God was to proclaim that Jerusalem would be destroyed if she wouldn’t repent. Jeremiah’s call was to preach God’s Word of Law. That’s how God contrasted the false prophets. They did not preach the Law. They did not point out sin nor the need forgiveness. They preached only peace, comfort, and happiness – while wallpapering over everything else. “If they had stood in My council,” God said, “then they would have proclaimed My Words to My people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.”[4]

God’s Word, He says, is like a fire and a hammer. He’s talking about His Law, the Ten Commandments. His Law doesn’t wallpaper over sin; it exposes it and shows it for what it is. The author to the Hebrews says God’s Word is, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”[5] The false prophets were false because they did not proclaim God’s Word of Law against sin. They turned the Word into wallpaper, which, before long, just becomes part of the background. When preached as it should, God’s Law exposes sin. It crushes the sinner like a hammer, when it shows that we aren’t as righteous as we think we are. God’s Law offers no word of comfort; it makes demands.

III.

God’s Law exposes and crushes. It shows that we are sinners. The correct response to the preaching of the Law is: yes, it’s true; I repent. To repent means to sorrow over sin. It means to stop doing one thing and do something else; to change directions. This is what God desired for His people: that they repent of their sins and be forgiven. The false prophets declared that there was no sin, and therefore no need for forgiveness. Jeremiah preached the Law to expose sin, so that he could then preach the Gospel. So, also, the true preachers of God’s Word do today.

As God sent Jeremiah, so He sends pastors to us now to proclaim both His Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. The Law is and remains God’s Holy Word, and its job is to point out our sin. Its job is to show that we are sinful in our thoughts, words and deeds. Its job is to show us that there is nowhere to run or hide, that we can’t wallpaper over our sins. Only once our sins have been shown to us, our need for forgiveness demonstrated, can the Gospel then be preached.

The Gospel is also God’s Holy Word. It’s job is to show us Jesus. All those things that the Law demands, all those things we fail to do, Jesus did. The Law says that, for our sins, we deserve to die. The Gospel says that Jesus paid that debt when He died on the cross for you. Then, He rose again to give you new and eternal life. As Baptized Christians, God’s Law now also serves as a guide for our lives. We seek to serve God by obeying His Commandments, even though we do it imperfectly. For those times when we do fail, we are forgiven in Christ.

But if there is no Law, there is no sin. If there is no sin, there is no forgiveness. This is what the false prophets were preaching in Jerusalem. And, because of the people’s refusal to repent and believe, Jerusalem was destroyed. But, even until the end, God sent Jeremiah. Jeremiah preached both the Law and the Gospel, to point out sin and to declare that people are forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ. God’s Word of Law is like a fire and hammer that exposes and crushes sin. His Word of Gospel says that Christ gives us His righteousness as a gift. For all those who have been crushed by the Law, there is balm and healing in the Good News of Jesus Christ. God grant that He would continue to send faithful preachers into the whole world, so that we might all hear about the forgiveness that is in Christ Jesus.


[1] Jer. 23:16, 21-22, English Standard Version.

[2] Jer. 23:29.

[3] Jer. 23:16-17.

[4] Jer. 23:22.

[5] Heb. 4:12-13.