Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advent 2 Sermon -- Mark 1:1-8 (LSB Proper 2B)

December 7, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’”

So the Evangelist begins his gospel account of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He takes the people back to the prophets, back to the Old Testament promises of the Messiah. The Coming One would not arrive unannounced. Instead, the people would be prepared for His arrival. One would go before Him, preparing His way, making ready the people.

And so you hear of John, your Advent friend and fellow believer. He is an odd sort: “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Not the typical occupation of ancient Israel, let alone for one who is the son of a priest. Even stranger was his public appearance: “clothed in camel’s hair, wearing a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey.” But this is the forerunner, the second Elijah who comes before the day of the Lord, as Malachi declared. He is the messenger “as is written in Isaiah the prophet.”

From the very start, the oddity of everything connected with the Messiah’s ministry is seen. His herald is most bizarre, as were many of the prophets of old. And yet, it did not cause negative effect. For you heard how the people of God responded to this unique preacher: “All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.” This is the response that the Lord God’s word of truth can inspire, even with a preacher who would make everyone’s worst dressed list and forsook the prominent social circles to which his bloodline entitled him.

The Baptizer fulfills his role perfectly, preparing the way for Christ. He does what the prophet Isaiah said he would: “making straight the highway, lifting up the valleys, lowering the hills, leveling the uneven ground, smoothing the rough places.” For what Isaiah prophesied is not a work order for the road commission, but what “the word of our God [that] will stand forever” accomplishes in the hearts, minds, and souls of the Lord God’s people. The prophet depicts with words what the Word does to bring about repentance: the Law of God striking sinners, removing all pretenses and impediments, so that they can be “spoken to tenderly” and hear that their “iniquity is pardoned.”

This is what took place in Judea as “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Judeans and Jerusalemites were prepared for the Christ’s arrival. They were pointed back to the covenant promises that the Lord God had made with them and their ancestors. As they had their belief renewed, even in the condemnation of their sin, the people were ready to receive the Christ. John would raise his finger and “say to the cities of Judah: ‘Behold your God!’” as Jesus Himself would step into the Jordan. And those who were prepared by “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” would receive the Promised One and the promise of salvation that He would bring.

It is by the same process—proclamation of God’s Law, repentance of sins, reception of Christ and His forgiveness—that you also have been prepared for the Coming Christ. For ancient Israel, there would be no surprise: John had prepared the way of Christ the Lord. The people were ready to receive the salvation that He brings by hearing the Word of the Lord from His unworthy servant. Jesus does not sneak up on them, but has a herald run before Him. This was so for His first appearance.

But you have heard the Christ promise a second coming. And you have heard, as you did this morning from the Apostle Peter: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works done on it will be exposed.” It sounds like it will come with people unaware, that there will be no preparation as ancient Israel received from John. But that is not so. For the Lord God sent John to make His people ready, and the same task continues today to prepare you for the arrival of Christ.

Even the Apostle Peter told you, the Church: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” In order for that to take place, the Lord God has “baptized you with the Holy Spirit.” And He has also provided for the proclamation of His Word to lead you to repent of your sins and receive His forgiveness.

Like the people of Judea and Jerusalem, you are called back to the covenant the Lord God has made with you. His terms are clear: you have failed to live up to the standard of holiness that He has set and given to you. You have been lax in your discipline, false in your piety, negligent in your duty, and prideful in your life. You have not loved the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You have not loved your neighbor as yourself. These two pillars of the Lord God’s covenant have toppled among you.

So the message goes out to you: Repent. Admit the guilt. Do not hide what you have done. Turn back to the promises of your baptismal covenant and drown the Old Adam in you. For this is the Lord God’s work for your benefit. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. He still is present with you to deliver forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. This is why you receive today the Christ who has already come with His merits and His teaching. You even receive Him who comes today in His Body and blood as His covenant declares.

But all of this is meant to prepare you for the Christ who is yet to come. The remembrance of the past is to prepare you for the future. This is why Peter said the Lord delays “so that all should reach repentance.” He tells you what John told the Israelites of old: “Since all these things [heaven and earth] are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. . . . According to His promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

What happens then and now prepares you for this life of the world to come. Hearing what the Lord God has done for you restores your trust in Him for your salvation and encourages you to do so going forward. This is the dynamic seen in the psalm for today: “O Lord, You were favorable to Your land; You restored the fortune of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of Your people; You covered all their sin. You withdrew all Your wrath; You turned from Your hot anger. Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away Your indignation toward us!” As you go forward in your restoration, forgiven by the Lord God, you are ready to receive Christ in His glorious return. As you share in Christ’s righteousness, your place is in the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. And it will be when He returns.

The Lord God through His Word will prepare His way in you. As you hear the proclamation of repentance and salvation, your crooked ways will be straightened, your valleys of fault will be raised, your mountains of pride will be lowered, your unevenness of doubt will be leveled, and your rough places of iniquity will be planed. This is what will make you ready to stand as the Christ returns and His angels declare: “Behold your God!”

That work of the Lord God’s Word in you may be unpleasant. It smarts when you are pruned by His Law. Being governed and disciplined by His statutes and precepts brings about a forced conformity. Your sinful selves will hate it. But when it is complete, then you will understand the message that was brought to the Lord God’s people of old and to you: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. . . . Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. You have received double from My hand for all your sins.” And then you will receive the promised action that the returning Christ will bring: “He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

That is promised to you, as you have heard the proclamation of repentance and believed it, as you have received Christ’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. For He has come and baptized you with the Holy Spirit: He convicts you of your sin, but also delivers the merits of Christ’s redemption, and He convinces you of the salvation you have been given. And so you will receive what the Christ has earned for you. Remember well and cling to what the prophet says about the Coming Christ: “Behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” That reward and recompense is everlasting life in “the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

So it is meant for you who have heard, believed, acted upon the Word of the Lord that His messengers bring and continue to be shaped by it. For as the highways of your hearts are prepared by the Holy Spirit who works through that eternal Word, then you are ready for the return of Christ and the welcome that the Eternal Father will give to you, His reconciled children.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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