Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sermon for 24 June 2012, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

The Rev. Paul J Cain
Isaiah 40:1-5 (+6-8)
Comfort, Comfort My People
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, 24 June 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

People are used to hearing about “Christmas in July” sales. After the temperatures we’ve been having, cooler weather would have been a welcome sight. And snow would be too, at least on top of the mountains (, if it weren’t for the crops and farm families that have already had enough to deal with). Christmas in July, sure. But Advent in June? Advent means coming, specifically, the first coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. That is what we prepare for in the Advent Season each December and late November. And all Advent long we hear a lot about one who prepares the way for Jesus, John the Baptist. June 24th is the Church’s celebration of the birthday, the nativity of St. John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah and cousin to Jesus. He’s six months older than Jesus, so if we use December 25th as Jesus’ birthday, June 24th is just about right for John.
What is John’s role to be as the forerunner of Christ? We often think of him as a fire and brimstone preacher, but Isaiah 40 helps correct our assumptions.
Comfort, comfort. Not once, but twice—double! God reveals the kind of God He is. He is gracious and merciful, the God of love and comfort. Having those attributes does not deny other attributes of the Lord: He is also holy and just. Sin and unfaithfulness must be dealt with. In Jesus, our gracious and loving God does just that, to give you temporal and eternal comfort, beyond anything else you can find in this world.
The Prophet Isaiah’s book can be roughly divided into two parts: The Book of Judgment and Promise (chapters 1-39) and The Book of Comfort (chapters 40-66). In the first part, the Lord describes Israel as a vineyard that will be trampled, a nation blind and deaf, and a people devoid of justice or righteousness. In this context, the Lord gives Isaiah to make precious promises about Immanuel, the great light for those in darkness, He who is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. The Kingdom of Messiah is coming.
Meanwhile, the Lord pronounces judgment upon the nations and promises a day of reckoning, the Day of the Lord, the Last Day. The people get a preview during Isaiah’s lifetime when the northern kingdom, Israel, falls. One hundred thirty-six years later, Judah and the city of Jerusalem will fall in the south.

John the Baptist will preach hundreds of years later, during a time when the Jewish people are under the thumb of the Romans. The people need comfort, just as we need it today.
1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak 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.
By one name or another, we all seek comfort. In this life, most comfort we find evaporates. One comfort remains for you: your God. Your God remains no matter what changes around you, no matter what things stay the same. Your iniquity, your sin, is pardoned. We deserve punishment, both temporal and eternal, but the Lord gives you His gifts instead, double what you would have received in punishment. That is true comfort for now and forever. So begins the second half of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies about the deliverance of Israel from the bondage of sin, the work of the suffering servant, and not only everlasting judgment on the Day of the Lord, but also everlasting deliverance.

The message of the Advent season and the Birthday of St. John the Baptist is that Comfort has come in Christ.
3A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
All four Gospel accounts quote from this portion of Isaiah 40. They clearly reveal the forerunner as John the Baptizer, who prepared the way of the Lord in the wilderness. John came. John came to announce the coming of another, Jesus.
Are you prepared for Jesus’ coming? The best preparation is repentant faith. Fill up every pit of sin and temptation to sin. Flee immorality of every kind. Remain on the highway of your God. His way will get you to the right destination. The best worship of the Lord is to believe in Jesus, the one He has sent and to receive His gifts at His invitation.

Some say things are different now. Yes, we have cars, TV, professional sports, many high tech gadgets and conveniences and live in a democratic republic. And no, we don’t live in the Middle East some 700 years before Christ, but people—people aren’t that different. The people in Isaiah’s day thought they had more important things to think about than God and their eternal future. Did they really? Do we?
Some may say or think, “Great. My sins are forgiven. So what? I’ve got real problems. Family. Money. Health. Work. Relationships. School. I’ll get by. There will be plenty of time to focus on God—later. Right now, my weekends are really important to me. There’s a lot of work that needs done around the house. There are all of those games to watch or go to, and the lake is calling me!”
The country song tells of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” That’s not too far removed from what we see going on: people looking for comfort in all the wrong places. Many will, no doubt, find a temporary benefit. They may even realize that what they’ve found didn’t last. And then they’re on to the next thing. One thing or many, no matter how long any of them lasts, they won’t satisfy. Substitutes for God and His Word don’t give comfort for the eternal long-term. Such substitutes may debut with fanfare and a flash, but soon wind down, wither and fade.
We need to hear just a little more of Isaiah 40 to complete the picture: 6A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
Only the Word of our God will stand forever. All of us face the reality of death. No idol, false-god, or man-made religious system will stand up to the test of time or Judgment Day. Pick your poison! Pick your pleasure! It / won’t / last. Only the Lord’s comfort will. Only His peace will. Only His forgiveness will. Only His gifts will. That’s what you find here at this pulpit, font, and altar: The Word, the Whole Word, and nothing but the Word. Comfort has come in Christ!

The Lord offers much divine wisdom in His Word about relationships, money, the importance of hearing and doing His Word, and countless other topics. Your loving, gracious God cares about your problems. He cares so much that He even cares about the problems some people don’t even know they have. He cares about humanity’s most serious problem, sin, and deals with it. We can then be comforted by the Gospel and be assured that He cares about and can handle all our smaller problems that still eat up so much of our time and emotional energy.
For example, forgiveness is a great comfort. If we take sin seriously, we soon realize why God has such a big problem when people act contrary to His will. Sin always leads away from God, away from Christ, away from Church, away from eternal life in heaven. People don’t want to hear that God’s Word is important. People don’t want to hear that rejecting the Lord, His Word, and His Gifts is sin. His Word and Sacraments deliver the forgiveness of sin. When sin is forgiven, a great burden is lifted. You may well have to face the temporal consequences of your sins, yet your Lord is with you every step of the way.
Forgiveness is incredible medicine for relationships. As I have told many couples, Lutherans don’t consider marriage a sacrament because it doesn’t deliver the forgiveness of sins like Baptism, Absolution, and Communion, but a marriage simply cannot survive without the forgiveness of sins. No enduring relationship can, because each person in the relationship is a sinner. Sinners sin. In Christ, sinners are forgiven. We forgive as we have already been forgiven.
I’m not saying that forgiving others is easy, but it is necessary. Holding onto a grudge is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to drop dead. It doesn’t work. Our own forgiveness is in jeopardy if we refuse to forgive. Remember the prayer? Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. As Jesus Himself explains in Matthew 6, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

We are recipients of truly good news of comfort. It has comforted us. This world is tough enough. Some get mad at God and deprive themselves of Him and His gifts, a recipe for disaster! We share good news of comfort in Christ. Invite those you know who need comfort to Divine Service. We share beyond these walls what we sing in the baptismal hymn, “All who believe and are baptized Shall see the Lord’s salvation; Baptized into the death of Christ, They are a new creation. Through Christ’s redemption they shall stand among the glorious heav’nly band Of every tribe and nation.” Amen.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.