Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Sermon -- Advent Vespers; Week 1 (December 4, 2019)

ISAIAH 40:1-2


In the name + of Jesus.

     Isaiah began his message with a double imperative: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:2)  The double imperative highlights that the message is urgent and important.  The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are an impassioned call for repentance, and also a stern warning of judgment.  The Lord has never desired the death of anyone.  When he issues a stern warning, he wants people to take note and take his word seriously.  He does not want anyone to perish in their sin.  He makes us acutely aware of our sinful condition so that we will be driven to the Lord in fear, seeking his mercy.  Those who are comfortable in their sins never will neither seek mercy nor want a Savior.
     In chapter 40, there is a noticeable shift in the message.  Again, it begins with a double imperative: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)  The message is urgent and important.  The Lord does not bring guilt and fear just to watch us squirm.  The goal of God's word is always to bring comfort, to proclaim salvation, to declare pardon for sinners.  Isaiah's message rings out again this Advent season in order to remind us of a promised blessing.
     Part of the comfort Isaiah brings is expressed in these words: “Cry to (Jerusalem) that her warfare is ended.” (Isaiah 40:2)  They would know peace at the end of their captivity in Babylon.  God would restore his covenant.  The people would return and rebuild the city.  But later Greek forces and Roman forces, would traipse through their land and devastate it.  So, while immediate relief from captivity would come, tragedy would find them again.
     The war that goes on for all mankind, regardless of era or area, is the war against God.  Adam and Eve fired the first shot in that war, and it continues with all people to this very day.  Yes, there is evidence of it in crimes, violence, and perversion which brazenly defies God's commandments and harm other people.  But it is also deep seated in the hearts of people who are upright and polite and decent.
     Adam and Eve demonstrated it first.  When God confronted them about their sin, they found others to blame.  They had reasons that their sin should not be counted against them.  And it still goes on.  We war against God when he exposes our sin and we do all we can to cover it up.  We insist that our sins are not that bad.  We tell God to compare us to others who are worse.  We claim that times have changed and, therefore, God's commands need to be adjusted.  We believe that people will love God more if he expects less of them.  We downplay our sins so that we don't have to feel that bad about them.  In doing so, we reject mercy.  For, God does not forgive those who insist they don't need it.
     The war takes place on another front, too.  We fight against God when we present ourselves to him as better than we are.  We all inflate how much good we do.  Just ask any husband and wife about who does most of the work for their house, and they will both raise their hands.  Ask your co-workers, “Who do you think is the hardest worker here?”  Then watch all the heads snap around when one dares to answer, “Well, I am!”  That's because all the others think that they are.  Even if we don't say it out loud, we certainly believe it.  We do the same before God.  We truly believe that our lives are praiseworthy and that heaven should be our just reward.  This wars against God because it declares, “I really don't need your grace.  I've scored enough points, thank you!”  Once again, God does not have grace for those who believe they are good enough.
     So, you see, the war against God is not only by thugs, thieves, and cheats.  All war against God, for we all have wicked hearts.  “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:2)  The message is urgent and important.  The Lord exposes your sin, and he inflicts you with guilt.  He does this so that you will see your need for his comfort.  It's like a soldier who finds blood soaking his uniform.  His bleeding alerts him to the fact that he is wounded and in danger of dying.  If his wound is severe, his only concern is to find a medic so that he will not die.  The Lord afflicts us with guilt so that we will feel the terror of our sin and death.  Since we cannot fix our condition, we long for one who will.  We will yearn deeply for relief until we find it.  This relief, this comfort, only our Lord can supply; and he does.  Isaiah declares that Advent promise.  Advent reminds us a promised blessing.
     Isaiah declares: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended.” (Isaiah 40:1,2)  The message is urgent and important: The war is over.  You don't need to find ways to ignore your sins, to downplay them, or to excuse them.  God gives us the freedom to admit them.  So let us come before God with a true heart and acknowledge our guilt.  We don't need to invent virtues we don't have or claim credit for works that never moved past our intentions.  God says, “Enough of that.  If I have given you over to death and despair, it is so that you will stop fighting the truth.  The war is over.  I declare to you comfort, comfort.  Hear my prophet.  For I have told him: 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.” (Isaiah 40:2)   
     Advent reminds us of a promised blessing.  In fact, it is a double blessing.  First, it is mercy.  Mercy is that God does not give you what you deserve.  Think of a spy who has been captured.  He deserves to be executed by the people whose trust he betrayed.  He knows that he is owed nothing.  He doesn't deserve a favor.  His only recourse is to beg for mercy.  And so it is with us.  God does not owe us anything.  We've earned his punishment.  But God is merciful.  He does not pretend that we are not sinners.  But neither does he treat us as our sins deserve.
     Advent reminds us of a promised blessing.  That blessing is the mercy we have received in Jesus Christ.  Jesus was treated for us as our sins deserve.  Jesus suffered damnation under the wrath of his Father.  Jesus has received our blame; you and I are pardoned of all iniquity.
     But it is more than that; for we receive from the Lord's hand double for all our sins.  We not only receive mercy—that God does not give us what we deserve; we also receive grace—that God gives us what we do not deserve.  We do not deserve credit for holy obedience, but Jesus gives it to us through Holy Baptism.  We do not deserve divine compassion, but Jesus supplies it to us.  We do not deserve a judgment of innocence, but Jesus has rendered this judgment to us.  We don't need a science lab to figure out how to escape death; Jesus has conquered death and will raise us up to life everlasting.  Just as Jesus has taken from us all that is wicked, so he credits us with all of his good.  We don't have to argue with God to try to convince him of these things.  The war is over; God gives them freely.
     “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1,2)  The message is always urgent and important, because it is always needed.  Our Lord soothes us again and again with his promises.  We still fall short of what is good, and we still fall into what is evil.  But God does not despise us.  When we demonstrate our sinfulness, we don't need to invent excuses.  We simply acknowledge what we are—sinners.  But then God tenderly reminds us of this: Jesus Christ came for sinners.  So, if you are a sinner, good; Jesus came for you to put an end to hostilities.  God is not your enemy; he is your Savior.  He pardons your iniquity, and doubles down on redeeming love.
     Advent reminds us of a promise blessing.  The promises are repeated by a merciful and gracious Father.  The promises are fulfilled by a merciful and gracious Savior.  The promises take root in you by a merciful and gracious Spirit.  The divine decree goes out: Comfort, comfort!  It is important and urgent.  It is double blessing.  It is mercy and grace.  It is indestructible peace.  And it is for you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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