Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent 2, Series B

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 4, 2011 (The Second Sunday of Advent, Series B)

“You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why . . .”  A children’s Christmas song, written originally about a legendary figure who will come on Christmas day, rewarding those who do good and punishing those who do evil.  Of course, there’s not much room for forgiveness or the Gospel in the stories we tell children about St. Nicholas, as the difference between toys and a lump of coal is based entirely on how “naughty” or “nice” you’ve been for the past year.  Which, of course, is more than a little bit unfair to poor St. Nicholas.  Santa Claus as we know him today, living at the North Pole, with elves who seem to be exempt from intellectual property laws as they manufacture toys that bear an uncanny resemblance to those produced in China and sold at Walmart, and flying reindeer, one of whom has a rare medical condition that causes his nose to light up, may be a myth, but there really was a Santa Claus, a St. Nicholas, who really did exist, centuries ago.  In Kenosha there’s actually a Greek Orthodox Church named for him, and the Christian Church has traditionally remembered his life and ministry on December 6, just a couple of days from now (which is probably why the Church’s celebration of him became tangled up in the Christmas celebrations over the centuries).  In real life, St. Nicholas was a Christian pastor and bishop, in the Turkish town of Myra, who preached the full and free forgiveness of sins because of the death on the cross of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the one who came on Christmas Day to give us the biggest and best gift of all, His death on the cross so that we might have life and salvation through the forgiveness of our sins.  The real St. Nicholas, in other words, was not the one coming on Christmas day, but the one who announced His coming.  By the way, he became associated with gifts in stockings because of his charity towards some young women in his congregation who were desperately poor.  He would secretly put gold coins in their stockings when they hung them out to dry at night, so that they would not have to break God’s law in order to survive, thus depicting our Lord’s charity to us despite our spiritual poverty and unworthiness.  The historical Santa Claus was more in line with John the Baptist than he was a competitor to his Lord, Jesus Christ.

Now, at first glance, John the Baptist’s message might sound a bit like the unrelenting  law message of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”  And, of course, there’s an element of truth there.  The purpose of John’s message was the forgiveness of sins, but in order to rightly understand and receive the forgiveness of sins you have to understand your own sinfulness.  A person who thinks his relationship with God is already doing pretty good, isn’t going to think much of the forgiveness of sins.  In fact, he’s going to be downright insulted at it.  “What do you mean, my sins are forgiven?  What makes you think I have sins that need forgiving?  How dare you judge me like that!”  Of course, that’s what the old Adam in all of us thinks about John’s preaching, and about all true Christian preaching of Law and Gospel.  He doesn’t like it, because it means he’s got to admit that things are not okay with God and that he can’t fix the situation on his own.  That’s what the Pharisees thought, and that’s why John in another place calls them a “brood of vipers.”  That’s what many Christians even today think, and why many think that Lutheran preaching is all about the Law precisely when it is the Gospel that is actually being preached.  “He keeps talking about the forgiveness of sins.  He keeps talking about the law, about sin.  I want to hear how I can please God better.  This talk of sins that I can’t fix but only Jesus can, is depressing.  I want to hear what I can do to improve my standing with God.”  And thus the Law gets turned into Gospel, and the Gospel into Law, and the glory goes to the Christian rather than to Christ.  That’s the difference between what the songs tell us about Santa Claus today, and what the real St. Nicholas preached centuries ago in the church at Myra: One tells us that we can and should try to earn the favor of the gift-giver (which is really wrong-headed anyway since gifts and rewards are two very different things), while the other tells us that we are helpless but that the One who is both Giver and Gift has already taken care of it for us.

And so the reminder to examine our lives, to prepare the way of the Lord by recognizing that we are dead in trespasses and sins, is a necessary prelude to the preaching of the Gospel.  The recognition that we are helpless and in need of a Savior is precisely what we need to hear in preparation for His coming among us to forgive us our sins.  John the Baptist points not to himself, but to the one coming after him, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.  The Law is preached, not as a way of saving ourselves or earning anything from God, but as a way of showing us how much we need the precious Gift that is given to us on Christmas day.  John the Baptist, like Pastor Nicholas, like every true Christian pastor, preaches not himself but the one coming after him.

But the message to repent, by itself, isn’t the point, even though it receives a greater focus during this season of Advent as well as during Lent.  The fact that the kingdom of heaven is near is the real point here.  The Law always serves the Gospel by showing us our need for a Savior.  John prepared the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry among His ancient people, and all Christian pastors prepare their people for His coming again to judge the quick and the dead, by announcing to them the verdict of judgment day, a verdict of “not guilty” which was pronounced already from the cross when He cried out, “It is finished,” and was sealed by His resurrection three days later.

But it’s not just the possibility that Jesus might come soon to judge the living and the dead, nor even the possibility that any of us as individuals could face that judgment at any time because we don’t know the day or hour of our own deaths, that we are prepared for here.  In fact, the verdict of judgment day, which was pronounced on you in Holy Absolution at the beginning of the service, is also given to you as He comes to you now in His body and blood.  Heaven itself is not a far-off reality for Christians, but Christ Himself who is the Kingdom of Heaven personified, comes to us today with His body and blood.  He gives us the heavenly feast of victory, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near, says St. John.  And it is near.  It’s right here in this room, where two or three gather in His name.  Every Sunday, God’s people join with John the Baptist, St. Nicholas, and all the rest of His Christians, along with all the host of heaven, in feasting upon Jesus Himself, the Priest and the Sacrifice, the Giver and the Gift.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

No comments:

Post a Comment