December 4, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘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,”’ John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
“Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds….” The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent puts forward the theme of preparation, making something ready. It’s a theme that seems to fit this time of year. But this Advent prayer about preparation isn’t talking about the house that you have to red up for holiday guests. Hearts and minds need to be stirred up and prepared for the Lord’s presence.
Stirring of people’s hearts is what the prophet Isaiah spoke of in the Old Testament Reading for today. Words are spoken to individuals who were downtrodden, oppressed, exiled. They had been afflicted, suffering the consequences of their apostasy and abandonment of the Covenant. Hearts and minds were downcast, and rightly so. But a message comes from the Lord to them: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 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.”
But the Lord’s message doesn’t end there. He promises action, something that will lift up the hearts and minds of His people: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every 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. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” A messenger cries out, declaring that the Lord is coming. Be ready, the voice says: “Stir up those hearts. Prepare the way for the Lord’s arrival. Get ready to serve Him and no other ruler or deity.” That is the message for the people of Jerusalem to hear.
And the message continues: what Jerusalem hears, she is to repeat. The Lord declares to Jerusalem: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. 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.” Not only are the hearts of Jerusalem to be stirred up, but all those who are connected with the Lord. The Lord’s arrival is going to be an event of blessing for His people: “His reward is with Him.” But it will be a time of dread for those opposed to Him: “His recompense is before Him.” So the message of the Lord’s impending arrival is to go out for all to be made ready for it.
That making ready, stirring up of hearts, and preparation is the task that John the Baptizer took up. The words of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning a messenger were particularly about him. His role as the Forerunner of the Christ was foretold centuries before it was fulfilled. The record of John’s work as the Forerunner of Christ is how Mark begins his gospel account. He takes people out to the Judean wilderness to have their own encounter with John. The gospel-writer shows John’s connection to what was prophesied: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘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,”’ John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Stirring up hearts to make ready the way of the only-begotten Son: that was the mission statement for John. And he was good at it! Note what is recorded about his work: “And 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.” The herald’s voice sounded in the wilderness, heard by many. John preached a particular message: “Be baptized. Repent of your sins. Receive forgiveness.” It is a message that is appropriate for all times. But it has an added character when the Lord’s appearance is imminent. Just like the prophet Isaiah spoke of the Lord’s arrival, His bringing reward and recompense, His coming with might, so John also declares the appearance of the Christ: “And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untied. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”
John’s message shows why the people needed their hearts stirred up. They are meant to receive what the Messiah brings at His arrival. But the people who are asleep, distracted, unaware will miss it. They need to be roused from complacency and forgetfulness, raised up from doubt and despair. So John lifted up his voice with strength, telling the people to be ready to behold their God who is coming to them. The Lord’s eternal words of promise are to be fulfilled; get ready for it to be so.
This stirring up of hearts and making ready the way of the only-begotten Son of God is happening here and now among you. You are to be ready for the time when the Lord arrives. You need your own encounter with a herald like John the Baptizer. In fact, that is the role of those who are clergy in Christ’s Church. You must be stirred up, so that you may be enabled to serve the Lord with pure minds by His coming. The time when the Lord comes with His mighty arm and brings His reward and recompense is meant to be a time of joy for you, as it was prophesied to ancient Israel. But for those not ready for it, it will not be so.
Remember what Isaiah declared to the Lord’s people: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 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.” That is His declaration to you. You are no longer at enmity with God. Your sins have been atoned for and absolved. The divine grace and mercy shown to you is exponentially greater than the wrath and anger that you deserve to get. What the Lord has promised has been made yours. This is what the Messiah Jesus has done for you, as He appeared as your champion and substitute. His death and resurrection have brought your enmity with God to an end. He has removed your iniquity. His work for your benefit is the expression of divine grace and mercy that cannot be surpassed. This is the comfort that the Lord declares to you, His people.
The heralds in Christ’s Church direct you to where the Lord’s benefits are given to you. You are directed to the font for the Lord’s cleansing. You are gathered to the pulpit and pews to hear the Lord’s declarations to you. You are summoned together to eat of the Lord’s feast of victory. Here is where you receive the benefits of His work done for you by His Christ. Here the Lord comes to you, so your hearts are to be stirred up to receive Him again, as He makes Himself present in His speaking to you: His words of forgiveness that you hear, His words that make water a life-giving bath, His words that turn bread and wine into a heavenly meal.
But the benefits of the Lord’s work that you receive here and now are not only for this day and age. They have a future focus. There is action to be done, a promise yet to be fulfilled. So as you have received the results of the Lord’s arrival in time—the appearance of the only-begotten Son in Judea—you must also anticipate the benefits that come at the close of the age. Your hearts must be stirred up for that. You must be prepared to serve the Lord with pure minds for the time of His arrival in glory.
Christ’s messengers lift up their voice again for His people to hear and be stirred up. His arrival is imminent, even if it does not immediately occur. The apostle’s words heard in today’s Epistle Reading sound again for you: “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. But 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 that are done on it will be exposed.” That promise made to you by the Lord, it will come to pass. The One who is mightier than John the Baptizer and infinitely mightier than I comes after me. John wouldn’t even untie His sandals; I wouldn’t dare to dust the dirt off of them.
But as you are made aware of that promised return of the Almighty One, you are to be prepared: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” There is the stirring up of the hearts taking place! A new heaven and new earth are to be yours. Until that time when the Christ arrives in glory, you are called to be living in holiness and godliness, anticipating the day of God when all His promises to you are fulfilled.
“Be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” That is the herald’s message for today, exhorting you to service of the Lord with pure minds. The prayer offered in the psalm for restoration includes the message that the Lord gives to you: “Show us Your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, to His saints; but let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord has indeed spoken peace to you: “Comfort, My people. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. You have received double from Me for all your sins.” He has granted you His salvation. And His desire is for you to receive the fullness of what He is bringing to you at His return: You are to see Him with your own eyes. You are meant to be recipients of His reward, not His recompense. Your future is to be gathered together by Him, as a shepherd gathers up his lambs.
This is what will be yours, as you are prepared for His return. His comforting word of promise is spoken to you. Baptized with His Holy Spirit, the Lord’s power and might is given to you, so that you may live as His people. His righteousness that goes before Him is made to be yours. That is your fate, as you are made ready by hearing and abiding by what the Lord’s heralds declare. So you have asked: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds….” As you have asked, so the Lord will act for you—both now and when all the voice from heaven declares on the Last Day: “Behold your God!”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.