Advent Four Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| December 23, 2007| Isaiah 40:1-8
“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth; the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The voice said, “Cry out!” And he said, “What shall I cry?” “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:1-8
First, the voice speaks of comfort and promises forgiveness of sins. Then, the voice cries out for repentance. This is the divine order. If we were in charge we would reverse the order because that would make more sense to us. We would first demand repentance and then, when it is forthcoming, announce forgiveness. But that’s not how God works. First he speaks comfort to his people. Your iniquity is pardoned. Your warfare is over. Your God is your friend. We are at peace. You have received double forgiveness for all the sins you have committed. There is nothing that you can do to bring this about. It is done without you. It is done in spite of your rebellion, your pride, your stubborn refusal to repent, and your inability to correct the wrong and the damage you have done.
Some say that God forgave her on account of her suffering in Exile. Judah had been taken away as captives and she suffered for years exiled away from her homeland. Some interpreters of the Bible say that when Isaiah spoke of her receiving from the Lord’s hand double for her sins this meant that she was punished twice at much as was required for her to be forgiven. But that’s not what the words mean. God does not forgive us as a result or consequence of our suffering. God does not forgive us because we repent. God does not forgive us because we have shown sufficient sincerely in our remorse. God does not forgive us because of conditions that we meet.
There are conditions that must be met in order for us to be forgiven by God. This is true. God’s grace is not absolute. That is, it does not exist independently. God’s grace is always joined to certain conditions. But the conditions are met by God. And this truth is at the center of the everlasting gospel. This truth shatters all monuments to man’s glory. This is the truth that rescues sinners caught in the valley of despair. It is the truth that slaps the proud off their mountain of self-righteousness. It is the truth that levels the desert into a smooth highway. Listen, all you sinners! Listen, all you saints! Listen, all you who are enamored with the beauty of the things you own. Listen, all you who are tired of working and watching what you worked for break down and wear out.
Listen and look! The glory of the Lord appears. The glory of heaven is revealed here on earth as God joins us as our brother. He meets the requirements of forgiveness. Can you say that God forgives you? Why? What is the cause? What do you say, Oh Christian? Begin your answer with the word “because.” What’s the next word? Will you talk about what God has done for you or will you talk about what you have done for God? What is the cause? Why does God forgive you? What condition has been met and who met it? The answer of this question determines the meaning of Advent, Christmas, indeed, the entire body of Christian truth and whether or not our faith is true.
How can you know that when the glory of the LORD is revealed you will rejoice in its revelation and not be destroyed by it as frost melting under the glare of the winter sun or as grass withering under the scorching summer heat?
You can know because God has met the conditions required for the forgiveness of your sins. He has done all of the doing that needs to be done. And this is what the glory of God is all about. It isn’t dramatic signs and wonders. It isn’t glitzy miracles that impress the impressionable. No, the glory of the LORD is hidden under the gentle humility of the Baby born in Bethlehem.
See your God. There he is. He is lying in a manger. There lies love incarnate. The Word becomes flesh to do in the flesh what our flesh cannot do. He meets the condition we cannot meet. As we sing:
Love caused Thy incarnation,
Love brought Thee down to me;
Thy thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling,
That led Thee to embrace,
In love all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race!
He does not forgive us after we have met certain requirements. God forgives us because God is love. His love meets the requirements. His love is located in the person of his Son. It lies in the manger. As we sing:
O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord, doth lie the Word,
Made flesh for us – herein Thy grace forth shineth
Love meets the demands our sin required of a holy God. Not our love; but God’s love. The glory of the LORD shines forth from the manger. The glory of the LORD is more perfectly revealed under the suffering of this holy Child as, thirty three years later, his was lifted up on the cross. The glory of the LORD has been revealed. We have seen it. We did not have to cover our eyes and run away.
What is so wonderful about Christmas is that it joins time and eternity so beautifully. The time is just over two thousand years ago. A virgin by the name of Mary gave birth to a Child, just as God had foretold through the prophets. The time is right now as our families gather together to celebrate this holy birth. His birth is the joining of the Eternal to our time, for it is the eternal God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, who now in our time has received his human nature from his mother Mary. And the eternal God is joined to our time as we watch another year fade away.
The voice pronounces the divine verdict of time and eternity: all flesh is as grass, but the word of God stands forever. Does anyone know how many billions of dollars are spent during this time of the year? I suppose it’s good for the economy, so we shouldn’t be too hard on the commercialization of Christmas. More economic activity means more jobs, more prosperity, and more tax revenue for the government. There are worse things than the commercialization of Christmas.
But everything money can buy will be gone sooner or later. All flesh is as grass. And that goes for what we build. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. The beautiful Christmas gifts, selected with care and love, set aside, wrapped, put under the tree to the delight of the loved one who opens it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are tokens – just tokens! – of an eternal love. The tokens will be lost, forgotten, perhaps discovered some day by those not knowing the what or the why or the how of it being given and received, but it won’t really matter if anyone knows because in time it will all be destroyed and its place will know it no more.
And that goes for everything we own in this world except for the Word and promises of God. Nothing we have is as pretty as the grass clothed with beautiful flowers and it has no more permanence. Here today and gone tomorrow. Those who put their affections on it will find themselves without affection and full of bitterness and a sense of irretrievable loss when the time comes for their own flesh and blood to fail and give way to death.
What a loss! What a tragic loss! Everything beautiful destroyed! Everything lovely gone to ruin! Everything done with such brilliant human ingenuity, deliberate care, and meticulous planning is reduced by an implacable law of nature into disorganized wreckage. But that’s not nature’s law. That’s God’s law.
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
But the word of our God stands forever. And this is the word by which we are born from above to live forever. The word of God has leveled the highway into our hearts, the LORD of glory has entered in, and he has chosen to remain. He is God with us. He makes everything new. The things we give and receive, which have no lasting value in themselves, obtain a borrowed value from the God who has joined us in love. In fact, all of our works, our strivings, and our plans have a purpose. Time doesn’t just pass us by and leave us old. In Christ, the eternal God has joined us where we live. Yes, confess our sins of thought, word, and deed, and we say our “Amen” to the verdict pronounced upon all flesh by the voice of God. Then we listen once more to God’s voice and we hear another verdict. Our incarnate and crucified Savior has fulfilled the conditions required for our forgiveness. For Christ’s sake, God has given us double forgiveness for all our sins. This is the word from God that raises us up to heaven while sanctifying what we do for one another here on earth. Holding on to this word we are joined to the eternal Word become flesh and we have eternal life. Amen