Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent 4

Sermon on John 1:19-28
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 21, 2008 (The Fourth Sunday in Advent)

“Why me?” How often do we hear that phrase? When things aren’t going so well for us, it has almost become a habit for many Americans to cry out in frustration, “Why me?” Why can’t someone else be the one who has to suffer? Why is it my car that broke down on the highway? Why did I get caught speeding and not that other guy? Why am I laid off and not someone else? Why did I get injured and not someone else? A thousand similar questions are asked every day by people who are undergoing hardships, as well as by those who are frustrated with little things that may go wrong. “Why me?”
When we ask God this question, I don’t think we always realize what a sinful attitude it shows. When we ask God in our hearts, “Why me?” we fail to rely on God’s promises. God has promised that He will never test us beyond what He enables us to bear. He has promised that no matter what happens to us we can rest content, knowing that He has in mind what is the best for us. He has promised that any difficulty or hardship we face is designed to benefit us by strengthening our faith in Him and His promises. If we truly believed these promises at all times and in all situations, we would never ask, “Why me?” You see, when we ask, “Why me?” we are really accusing God of not providing for our needs in the way we think He should, and demanding that He start doing His job better. In other words, we are acting as if we deserve everything He gives us and even more than what He gives us. This is sheer arrogance. We are sinners. God would be perfectly within His rights to cut us off completely from all of His blessings. God provides for His creatures, including you and me, in the way He thinks best. Sometimes, this means giving us hard times to help us beat down the pride of our old sinful flesh. Even if He lets us suffer a little to humble us, however, we are still suffering less than we deserve to. When we ask, “Why me?” we act as if we deserve only God’s highest favor and His richest gifts, and that God is in the wrong for not giving them to us in the exact way we want Him to. We are really telling God how to do His job.
But even though this question is totally unfair to God, He does answer it. There are several possible answers to the question, “Why me?” Sometimes God lets His people suffer in order to teach them to rely on Him in faith. It is like a gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) reminder of Whom it is that gives us everything. During the Advent season it is traditional for the Church to focus on how God prepares His people to receive Him when He comes. God prepares us for Christ to come by causing us to repent of our sins. After all, how can we receive our coming Savior if we don’t think we need to be saved from anything? God sometimes brings us to repentance for our selfishness by taking material blessings away from us to remind us to rely on Him. This is God’s answer to the question of “Why me?” when it is asked in this selfish and arrogant way.
But there is another way we can ask the question, “Why me?” When Mary came to visit Elizabeth in our text, Elizabeth asked, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth is also asking, “Why me?” But Elizabeth is not asking why she has been treated badly by God; rather she is so overjoyed at how God has blessed her that she can hardly believe it, let alone comprehend why she should be so favored. What Elizabeth is really saying here is that she is completely unworthy to stand in the presence of the Lord God Himself, and yet He has come down from His high throne and is present in her house. What a marvelous confession on Elizabeth’s part! It is especially marvelous when we remember that this event took place only a few days after Mary herself had found out about what was going to happen. Christ, the Lord of all creation, was present in Elizabeth’s house as a human embryo inside Mary’s womb, barely visible at this time even with a microscope. Elizabeth could only make this confession of faith by the Holy Spirit’s guidance. What she is doing here is confessing that she is really unworthy for such a Person as Christ to be in her house. She recognizes that it is only by God’s grace that such a thing could happen to her, and she can barely understand how God can be so gracious to her. By asking, “Why me?” she gives all the glory to God for this great miracle.
And of course, Mary herself did the same thing when she sang the Magnificat, as we learned at last Wednesday’s Advent service. Mary emphasizes throughout her song that God shows His richest blessings to those who are despised and rejected by the world. Here we see two Jewish women in a day when Judah was only a backward province in the Roman empire. Neither one is very high on the social ladder even by Jewish standards. But God is present with them in bodily form — with them, and not with the greatest rulers of the empire. Truly His ways are not our ways. The world looks at these two women and asks in disgust, “Why them?” How interesting that we find them asking the same question, “Why me?” only not in disgust but in joyful thanksgiving.
We have looked at how gracious God was to Mary and to Elizabeth. What about us? Are we simply spectators to this whole story, admiring God’s grace to these two Jewish women and their faithful response? Or is there more to it than that? Well, the baby developing in Mary’s womb went on to be born, to live for thirty-some years on this earth and to die on the cross as a payment for our sins. He rose again so that we too might walk in newness of life. He was born into our fallen world so that He might fulfill the Law in our place. He died and rose again so that we might die to sin and be resurrected to eternal life. When we were Baptized, we died with Him and rose again with Him. He will come again, and when He does we will live eternally with Him. He did all these things for us — poor sinful beings.
When we remember how sinful we are, how unworthy we are to receive any of these blessings, we, like Elizabeth and Mary, are compelled to ask God thankfully, “Why me? Why are You so gracious to me?” God has shown more love to us than we can possibly understand. Sinners who deserve wrath and punishment instead receive forgiveness, a new heart and will, and finally, eternal life with Him. “Why would God do such a thing?” When we ask that question, it shows that we realize what a great miracle this is, and we give all the glory to God for it. But it doesn’t stop with what Jesus did for us back then. He is present with His people here and now. “Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” Christ is here right now with us. Now, of course, God is everywhere. But what Christ is talking about is that He is present to save us, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. He is present right now because His Gospel is being preached. When we partake of the sacrament of the Altar here in a few moments, we will receive the same body of Christ which hung for us on that cross. The same body which was hidden in the womb of a humble Jewish woman named Mary is hidden in ordinary unleavened bread and wine. When we receive that body and blood, we receive everything that Christ won for us by giving his life for us. We receive forgiveness of our sins. God creates in us a clean heart and renews a right spirit within us. We receive the assurance of eternal life with Christ when He comes again. As God gives us all this, we say with Elizabeth and Mary, “Why me, Lord? Why am I so favored?” There is no reason for God to give us this great blessing of His Son’s own Body and Blood, except that He loves us and He wants to be with us forever. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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