Do you hear the footsteps?
Christmas Day – 2022 LSB #’s 361, 357:1, 5-7; 391
Text – Isaiah 52:7
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news…
DO YOU HEAR THE FOOTSTEPS?
When I was ten years old, there were five of us living in the house where I grew up. I remember that, while lying in bed at night, I could tell exactly which member of my family was up & walking around just by the sound of their footsteps.
Parents listen late at night for the sound of footsteps telling them that their teenager has arrived home safely after a night out with friends. We sit in the waiting room hoping expectantly for the sound of the doctor’s footsteps, coming out of surgery, to tell us “All went well” & our loved one will be fine.
When our cat is outside, waiting to be let in, he can tell we are approaching the door by the sound of our footsteps. In horror movies, the sound of footsteps is often used to build tension & they are normally a bad omen. On this Christmas morning have you been hearing footsteps? Can you tell whose footsteps they are?
Today, we typically get word of some important event by staying close to the television, the radio, the Internet, or cell phones. None of those communication methods existed when Isaiah was serving God as prophet. Runners were the fastest way to communicate in the days when Isaiah was speaking to the people on God’s behalf.
Often, those runners brought good news of victory in battle. In order to better capture their interest, Isaiah uses the image of a runner in order to announce God’s coming deliverance of His people from exile in Babylon, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” (Isaiah 52:7 ESV)
News of great joy is coming to the people who trust in God, in spite of how bad things
appeared when Isaiah was making this announcement. When Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed Jerusalem & Solomon’s temple, & the people were led into captivity at Babylon, the nation’s faith in Yahweh was severely tested. God was at work burning away the false religions that had infested their hearts & minds & were poisoning them to death.
Now, the heavenly Father was going to be releasing them from their captivity. The sound of the messengers footsteps was meant to bring them great joy, but, if the people refused to receive & believe that good news their release would do them no good. The footsteps themselves have no power or joy. Those depend upon how the footsteps are received.
On this Christmas morning have you been hearing the footsteps of Isaiah the prophet? Is your heart filled with joy? Is your highest priority this Christmas morning to be here, in the house of God? Even American Christians have been trained to think of Christmas Day as time for family, & it’s a common excuse for not attending church or for holding services at all.
Do you remember when Mary & Joseph lost Jesus for three days? Where did they find Him? What was His answer? “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49b ESV) If you consider Jesus to be family, does it make sense to think of Christmas as family time apart from your Father’s house? Do you mean to say that Jesus is not part of your family?
Let’s be honest, few people really want to be here, now, on Christmas Day. Even some of you sitting in these seats are probably here reluctantly. Are we worshipping this day, & it’s sentimental memories, more than we worship Jesus?
During your entire life, your schedule should revolve around God, not around you nor around your feelings, not even around your earthly family. That’s what the 1st commandment is all about. And when you fail to follow that commandment you break all the rest of them. Acknowledging the depth of your sin it should bring great joy to hear the footsteps of God’s messenger. By God’s design, this is the primary place for you to be; here with your eternal family to hear the footsteps which bring the joyous news that Christ has come to save you from the loneliness & despair of this broken world. No matter how bad things might appear in our world & our nation & our homes, Jesus has come to bring us victory over them all.
It may not look that way, as you leave home on a cold wintry morning to come to church again! How many times have you been here already this month? However, true joy, in a world corrupted by sin, begins in only one place. It begins as we abide in the Vine, which is Jesus Christ. If you receive His blessings, they bring joy no matter how life appears to you.
For now, God’s answer to sin is that we live by faith, not by sight. No king has invaded our land & hauled us off as prisoners, yet increasingly we feel like captives today in a culture gone absolutely mad.
Then, Satan tempts us to circle the wagons to keep out the evil. He tempts us to make family our highest priority even on the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But there is no family without Jesus. Just look at the way our culture is defining family today. Satan’s definition of it has nothing to do with our heavenly Father’s design.
And the further we get away from our heavenly Father, the further we get from true peace & joy, but Satan doesn’t ask much of us. Just take one step away from God. Family is important. Later, he asks us to take just one more step. Eventually, we’ve drifted so far that we no longer hear the footsteps of God’s messengers. Or, we no longer believe them.
Sadly, all of us know people whose footsteps we have heard as they depart from God. Here, in God’s house, is where families should be gathering to find safety. And if some of your family won’t follow – you should leave them behind, because you can’t do anything to help them if you are not abiding in Jesus first. The only way to love your family members is for you to remain in Christ. Only there do you have any possibility of showing them the life that Jesus gives to anyone who follows Him.
When God’s people were exiled to Babylon, His reign seemed to be nonexistent. It may seem that way in our lives as well, whether it’s the footsteps of our government, or the footsteps of family & friends, who are leaving God behind. But following Jesus is not like following the Detroit Lions. Jesus does not fail in the end. In fact, He already rules the world right now.
He has a strange way of doing so, to our way of thinking. Ruling through a cross on Golgotha does not seem to be accomplishing much. There is so much rebellion, suffering & death going on, but that is what sin does. And as mean as it seems to say this, putting family before God falls into the same category of sin. God has to rescue us or we are damned.
So, He sends His messengers to call us home. Are you listening, or is our culture drowning out the sound of God’s footsteps? Yahweh is directing all of history steadily toward His goals of peace & salvation for sinners like us. True life is always & only centered in God & His activity to save. The surest way to love our family members is to entrust them to the Lord.
That too requires living by faith & not by sight. And sight is really tempting at this time of year, with the Christmas decorations, the joyful lights & the multitudes of presents. Living by sight is extra tempting when family arrives from across the country, or just down the road. We’re tempted to believe that quality time with our loved ones makes everything all right.
Chapter 52 of Isaiah begins with the words, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion.” (52:1a ESV) Isaiah is calling the people to put on the strength of God because nothing else will save them. In our day & age the same is true, nothing else but God’s mighty arm can save us from the power of Satan to steal, kill & destroy.
In Mark 1:15, Jesus echoes the words of Isaiah, “The reign of God is near. Repent &
believe the Gospel.” Jesus too is calling us to wake up & put on the strength of God. One day the footsteps of Judgment will also be heard. Do not be caught sleeping in your sins, but also do not despair because of them. The OT reading assures you that you may begin to celebrate even now. In spite of what Satan says, you are not bound or chained by your present circumstances.
The return of the exiles from Babylon, under King Cyrus, did not produce the far-reaching results anticipated in this OT text. Thus, the fulfillment of the vision extends into the future. King Cyrus gave the exiles worldly freedom, yet the victory of Christ produces freedom from bondage to sin & all the corruption, decay & misery that it brings.
That good news is illustrated by a well-known poem that is related to footsteps.
One night a man dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. As scenes of his life flashed before him, he noticed that there were two sets of footprints in the sand. He also noticed at his saddest, lowest times there was but one set of footprints. This bothered the man. He asked the Lord, “Did you not promise that if I gave my heart to You that You’d be with me all the way? Then why is there but one set of footprints during my most troublesome times?” The Lord replied, “My precious child, I love you & would never forsake you. During those times of trial & suffering, when you could see only one set of footprints, it was then I carried you.”
Isaiah 63:9 relates the same concept: “In His love & mercy He redeemed them; He lifted them up & carried them all the days of old.” So, the next time you hear the singing of Silent Night, listen carefully & you will also hear the footsteps of Jesus. He is coming to bring you good news of great joy. Receive that gift & you will be free. Amen.
O come, Thou Key of David, come, & open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, & close the path to misery. O come, Thou Dayspring from on high, & cheer us by Thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, & death’s dark shadows put to flight. O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid Thou our sad divisions cease, & be Thyself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel! Amen. LSB 357:5-7.
THIS IS MY SON: JESUS
Christmas Eve – 2022 LSB #’s 367, 370, 384:1-3, In This Precious Baby Boy, 365, 363
Text – John 1:14
And the Word became flesh & dwelt among us, & we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace & truth.
THIS IS MY SON: JESUS
A father’s relationship with his children is incredibly important to their emotional & social well-being. The negative effects of a child growing up without a father can be seen in countless studies & reports. The statistics reveal the importance of an absent father figure in the majority of children’s lives.
The United States Department of Justice funded a study titled, “What Can the Federal Government Do to Decrease Crime & Revitalize Communities?” According to the study children from fatherless homes account for:
63 percent of youth suicide
90 percent of all homeless & runaway youth
85 percent of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders
71 percent of all high school dropouts
75 percent of adolescent patients in substance abuse centers
Children do best when they know & are raised by a father & a mother. But even when dad is present, it doesn’t mean everything will go well. Authors & screenwriters have recognized the complex relationship that can exist between fathers & sons. They have used those tensions to create powerful stories.
In The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker while they are fighting that he is fact, Luke’s father, it was a most shocking father-son moment. How many other movies can you think of that revolve around the relationship between father & son? How about The Godfather, a story of sons trying to not disappoint fathers; Finding Nemo, is about an overprotective father & a wayward son; The Tree of Life, explores the generational effect of how fathers raise their sons; & The Lion King, about another son who feels like he cannot live up to his father’s expectations.
Based on our own storytelling, we humans know both how important fathers are & how difficult our relationships with them can be. In the Advent series this month, we have explored three different father – son relationships found in the OT, all of which ended in disappointment or tragedy.
Cain, the son of Adam, was not the promised Savior that Adam & Eve hoped he would be. Rather, he continued in his father’s sin, becoming the first man among many who would strike out & commit murder.
Neither was Ishmael, the son of Abraham, the promised son. Abram & Sarai thought they had to take matters into their own hands in order to produce an heir. They soon learned the folly of not trusting in God by trying to accomplish what only God could do.
Absalom, a son of David, despite his father’s great love for him, ended up disappointing his father, rebelling against him & losing his life in the process.
All these stories, biblical & modern, point to the most complicated father – son relationship of all time. It’s the story of God the Father, Creator of heaven & earth, & the children He created, the sons of men. And it is our story.
Though we desperately need the presence of our loving heavenly Father for our wellbeing, we have rejected Him time & time again through our sinful & foolish ways. Like Cain, we have become murderers through our sinful thoughts, words & actions. Like the story of Ishmael, we have tried to take matters into our own hands, thinking that our plans can bypass the plans of God. But our efforts are doomed to fall short & drive us further away from our Creator. Like Absalom, we have rebelled against our heavenly Father & King, wanting to rule our own lives. But this always leads in the direction of death & condemnation.
Rather than trust in our heavenly Father’s guidance, which is always wise & good, we prefer to place our trust in political figures, or retirement plans, or in our efforts to find salvation in this life. Rather than listen to the truth that our heavenly Father speaks to us, we prefer to listen to & place our confidence in the opinions of sinful human beings.
Our story is one of wayward & stubborn children with a Father who is even more stubbornly pursuing us out of His great love. It is the story captured by Jesus in His parable of the prodigal son. I hope you know this story well.
The younger son of a wealthy & generous father demanded his share of the inheritance. He said, in effect, “I wish you were already dead so I can have your stuff!” With his words, he murdered like Cain. With his actions, he rebelled like Absalom. Even more shockingly, the father gives his son what he wants. He allows him to walk away & out of his life.
Yet the father never stops looking for his son, hoping & praying that he will return. Though he had every reason to be, he was not angry at his son. He simply wanted another opportunity to show him how much he loved him.
When the son had wasted all of his father’s money & found himself at the end of his rope, his father finally got the chance to demonstrate how great was his love for his son.
The prodigal knew he did not deserve his father’s love nor even a place in the family. He merely wanted to return as a servant. Perhaps he could work his way back in. With his focus on his own works, he became like Abraham & Sarah. But his father would have none of it. Before he can even speak, the son is embraced tightly, clothed in the finest robe & sandals, & given the family ring, a symbol of his status as a son of the father. A celebration is planned, a fattened calf is sacrificed. The son who once was lost has been found. The son who once was dead is alive.
The story begs the question: how could the father love his son like this? How could he just receive him back as if he had done nothing wrong? Would God do the same for us? These are questions that are answered by the events of Christmas. The birth of Jesus tells of the only perfect Father – Son relationship that has ever existed.
This relationship has existed since before time began. It will continue to exist throughout eternity. It is a relationship proclaimed in many of the Christmas songs we sing. “Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha & Omega, He the source, the ending He.” (LSB 384:1)
Or, “Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light.” (LSB 363:3) “Son of the Father now in flesh appearing!” is from O Come, All Ye Faithful. (LSB 379:2) “Now through His Son doth shine the Father’s grace divine.” It’s from, Now Sing We, Now Rejoice, (LSB 386:3) That Father – Son relationship also appears in the 1st chapter of John’s Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, & the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God... And the Word became flesh & dwelt among us, & we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace & truth... No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.” (John 1:1–2, 14, 18)
God the Father knows how much we need Him, & despite our rejection of Him, we need to know our Father. It is the only way to find true joy, peace, hope & life. In order to make us children of God, Yahweh sent His only-begotten Son into the world – the Son of Man & Son of God – to be the perfect Son that none of us could be. “When the fullness of time had come,” Paul explains, “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4–5) Jesus is the true Son of Adam, the promised Seed foretold in Genesis 3, who committed no murder with His thoughts, words or actions. Rather, He was murdered that you & I might live.
Jesus is the true Son of Abraham, the One who would bless all nations, by taking our sin into Himself & giving to us His righteousness. Jesus is the true Son of David, the King of kings, who remained perfectly obedient to His Father, yet became a curse for us by hanging from a tree. Psalm 146 reminds us:
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3–4) But Jesus is both the Son of Man & the Son of God, the Prince of Peace. When His breath departed, God’s plan of salvation was complete. God & sinners were reconciled.
Because of the gift of His Son, God reveals to us, in a shocking twist, that He is, in fact, our Father, who loves & forgives you & me. He grants us the right to become children of God. He adopts you & makes you part of His eternal family through your Baptism into Jesus. What Yahweh said to Messiah at His Baptism, He now says to you through yours:
“This is My son. This is My daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” You are not a fatherless child. You do not have an absentee Father. Though you don’t deserve it, you have a perfect relationship with your heavenly Father who has given up His only-begotten Son for you.
He will always love you, care for you & shield you with His presence, just like a good Father should do. “All this for us our God has done granting love through His own Son. Therefore, all Christendom, rejoice. And sing His praise with endless voice. Alleluia!” We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth, (LSB 382:7) Amen.
all this took place
4th Sunday in Advent – A LSB #’s 900:1-3, 5; 332:1-3, 6; 359
Text – Matthew 1:22
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
ALL THIS TOOK PLACE
One of today’s most successful corporations began in 1916 as a carpenter shop in Denmark. When the housing market collapsed, during the Great Depression, the shop was converted to the manufacture of toys. When the toy department burned down in 1960, the company staked its future on the small interlocking plastic bricks that it had been making.
Today, we know the company as Lego, the largest toymaker in the world with annual sales of almost 8 billion dollars. A lot of things had to take place before Lego got to the top. Success is often preceded by difficulties & delays we cannot control – an unfair employer, illness, injury, unfaithful friends.
In the Gospel of Matthew, he begins with a genealogy for Jesus. Most readers consider those to be tedious & boring. It requires great patience & humility to read through a genealogy expecting to find some kind of message from God.
Then, Matthew moves on to what is translated as the birth of Jesus, though what he writes is more literally relating the origin of Jesus. Matthew writes of the miraculous conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. In our day, pre-marital sex is the norm, but as Joseph is considering this, it was not. He could have had Mary stoned to death for getting pregnant without him.
However, we get a clear view of the character of Joseph through his decision to merely divorce Mary quietly. In spite of the rejection & sorrow he’s feeling, due to what he can only imagine is her betrayal of their covenant vows, Joseph takes time to consider his actions. He does not act rashly out of pain or anger. So, unlike the Gospel of Luke, Matthew makes no mention of a census or a cozy stable full of animals or shepherds or multitudes of angels. Instead, he writes of a scandalous pregnancy, a quietly planned divorce, & a dream-induced change of plans. This is Christmas from Joseph’s point of view:
“But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” (Matthew 1:20 ESV) Given the circumstances, we can readily agree with God’s decision to send an angel. Mary needed backup on this plan.
Matthew goes on, “‘She will bear a son, & you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive & bear a son, & they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (1:21-23 ESV)
God teased a lot of strings to pull off this plan! Even apart from the unexpected & controversial pregnancy, God was working out a much larger story than Joseph ever could have imagined. And that is where the genealogy comes in. Abraham was born around the year 2166 BC. It is there that Matthew begins his first chapter:
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, & Isaac the father of Jacob, & Jacob the father of Judah & his brothers.” (1:1-2 ESV) When we Americans read Matthew 1:22, we tend to think in the immediate context, which is verse 21:
“She will bear a son, & you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Verse 22 & 23 follow, telling us, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive & bear a son, & they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” In our minds, prophecy fulfilled. Check off that box. Christmas is done. But “All this took place” refers to far more than the immediate context. With the words, “All this took place,” Matthew is not simply looking at the conception of Jesus by a virgin. No, he is going all the way back to 2166 BC, & including everything in between.
God called Abram in order to bless him with salvation. Eventually Joseph was born & sold into slavery in Egypt. God raised him up to the right hand of Pharaoh & brought his father & brothers there through a famine. They grew & became numerous so Pharaoh enslaved them, but God brought them through the Red Sea. They rebelled so God left them in the wilderness.
After 40 years & the death of an entire generation, they crossed into the Promised Land. They conquered the people there, but weren’t satisfied & wanted a king like everyone else had. King Saul was chosen & failed. David replaced him & the nation reached its zenith. Solomon was next, but the nation was already turning away from God.
After Solomon, it split in two. In a few hundred years the northern kingdom was conquered & disappeared. During that time Isaiah was God’s prophet & he was called to prophesy to king Ahaz of the remaining southern kingdom. Ahaz refused to believe the sign that God gave him & in a few hundred more years, the Southern Kingdom was swept away as well.
Almost 800 years went by before that OT prophecy to king Ahaz was fulfilled. The virgin Mary conceived a Child by the Holy Spirit. This long-awaited Child would be God’s instrument for saving His people from their sin, yet His own people received Him not. Will you be like Joseph or like Ahaz?
Joseph was one tiny piece of a plan unfolding for thousands of years, through millions of people. Today that plan is still unfolding, by now through billions of people. This Sunday marks one week until Christmas Day. It is likely you are increasingly aware of your own lack of control over history. As much as we try to manage our families & holiday schedules, much less our health, our work, attitude, society, & a host of other things, this time of year has a way of putting us in our place. Our response to this lack of control often includes unrighteous & selfish behavior. You can probably think of specific examples in your own context.
No matter how big we are for our britches you & I are not in charge of our own lives, let alone thousands of years of history. We often treat that like a problem, especially as we insist upon having things our way. But your lack of control, & mine, is actually good news. It is good news because the One who has all control has come to be “God with us.”
That is the good news that Joseph & Mary & the shepherds celebrated amidst all the chaos of that first, & humanly speaking very unplanned Christmas. It is the same good news today, precisely in the chaos of your own lives, because God’s context is not just Joseph & Mary & Jesus. Yahweh’s context includes billions of people over thousands of years.
Jesus is not just God with us. He is also “God FOR us.” He is definitely not God against us, & He has not simply forgiven our sins, but is already at work right now re-creating your spirit & your soul.
For us, too often, Christmas narrows down to desiring that our ideals & wishes & desires might be fulfilled. However, Jesus is so much more than that. He is the fulfillment of all of ancient Israel’s promises & history, thousands of years & billions of people.
In our day & age when people want to invent & shape our own Christ-ideas according to what people think society needs, those who serve God should stress the details all of the Bible shares about Jesus. This Jesus who encapsulates the ancient promises & history of Israel is the only Messiah who can save us from our sins & recreate us for heaven.
As with the Lego company, our lives go through many ups & downs, many
transformations, as we lurch from one thing to the next. May we always keep in mind that God is perfectly capable of managing all the twists & turns of our days here on earth, & that by His grace & mercy, He will deliver us to heaven.
Hopefully the words of Matthew 1:22 will now help you, when you look back on your life, to say, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” Amen.
Savior of the nations, come, virgin’s Son, make here Your home! Marvel now, O heaven & earth, that the Lord chose such a birth. Not by human flesh & blood, by the Spirit of our God, was the Word of God made flesh – woman’s offspring, pure & fresh. For You are the Father’s Son who in flesh the victory won. By Your mighty power make whole all our ills of flesh & soul. Amen. LSB 332:1-2, 6.
 David C. McCasland, Our Daily Bread. Grand Rapids: RBC Ministries, Sept-Nov 1996, Oct 28.
This is my son: absalom
Advent Midweek 3 In This Precious Baby Boy, LSB 341
Text – 2 Samuel 18:33
And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
This Is My Son: Absalom
Parents make many sacrifices for their children. When a baby comes along, the needs & desires of mom & dad take a back seat. Parents will sacrifice time, money & sleep in order to provide the very best for their children. Sacrifices come in all sizes.
A dad may sacrifice the last bite of his favorite dessert to give it to his child who loves it just as much. A mom might give up a career because that is what’s best for her children. Many parents are willing to sacrifice their own life to save the life of their child. Parent often wish they could take the place of their child if one of their children is suffering.
But, parents don’t always get that chance. David, the father of Absalom, wished that he could have died in his son’s place. Yet, the story of this father & son ultimately points us to the love of our heavenly Father & the ultimate sacrifice He made so that you & I can be saved from the curse of death.
The events of chapters 13–18, in 2 Samuel, reveal the wickedness & depravity of mankind – even those chosen by God to be His special people, a light to the nations. They reveal God’s people committing acts of incest, rape, injustice, murder, scheming, rebellion & war! Here’s a quick recap.
King David had 19 sons from several different wives. Amnon was the first-born son of David & was in line to be king, but he lusted after his half-sister, Tamar. He faked being sick so that he could be cared for by her. When they were alone, he forced himself upon her & violated her. Then, he placed the blame on her & sent her away to hide in shame. When King David heard of this, he was angry, but did nothing to punish Amnon. Absalom, the full brother of Tamar, was infuriated with Amnon & angry at David for not pursuing justice for Tamar. For two years, Absalom hated & plotted against Amnon until eventually, Absalom had Amnon murdered. Then Absalom fled & exiled himself. It was a mess!
Jump ahead three years. Joab, captain of king David’s army, convinces the king to bring back Absalom because he can tell that David misses him. But when Absalom returns to Jerusalem, he goes back to his plotting ways. He had not yet forgiven his father.
Using his natural good looks & charisma (the Bible describes him as very handsome with his long hair) Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel by speaking badly of David in the city gates while promoting himself. Absalom did this for four years until one day he left Jerusalem & sent secret messengers, who announced, “Absalom is made king at Hebron!”
Thousands of Israelites rallied to him & joined the rebellion because of all the patient, hard work he had done to build up his reputation. Meanwhile, David fled from Jerusalem to spare the citizens there a battle when Absalom moved in to take the throne.
David summoned those loyal to himself & amassed a great army. As the battle drew near, David stayed behind instructing his army to deal gently with Absalom for David’s sake. He still loved his son & wanted to show him mercy.
On the day of battle, David’s army soundly defeated Absalom’s. As Absalom attempted to flee through the forest, his mule went under the thick branches of a tree. Absalom’s hair was caught in a branch & he was left hanging there. When Joab found him, he ignored the words of David & thrust three javelins into the heart of Absalom as he hung from the tree.
The reporting of this news & David’s response is what we heard in the OT reading. When he heard of Absalom’s death, David wept & said, “O Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” This ends a tragic father-son story – a story not unlike the one we share with our heavenly Father. And sadly, that identifies us in the person of Absalom, the rebellious son.
But surely you aren’t that bad! You’ve never murdered anyone or incited rebellion. You may think the only thing you have in common with Absalom is your good looks. But while we look at appearances, what does God look at? Is it not the heart? And in your heart, you are just as rotten, sinful & rebellious as Absalom & every other character portrayed in 2 Samuel.
Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:19–20) Like Absalom, you rebel against your heavenly Father each & every day as you put yourself on the throne of your heart & attempt to run your own life.
Unlike David, God is a perfect Father who has told you what is good & right. In selfish pride, you have chosen not to listen & have declared war on God’s will. A son of the king with privilege & power, Absalom decided that was not enough. He also wanted to be king.
You & I desire the same thing. Whenever we break any of the Ten Commandments, we also break the 1st one by placing our own desires above the will & the wisdom of God. Yahweh identified Absalom as someone who was cursed for his sin by allowing him to hang from that tree. God’s Law declares in Deuteronomy 21: “A hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:23 ESV)
You deserve the same punishment for your rebellion. Because of your sin, you are cursed & should expect the wrath of God. Yet out of His great love, God sent Jesus, the true Son of David, to become a curse for you by hanging from a tree. In Baptism, you die along with Jesus & then God makes you an heir of His heavenly kingdom.
Like David, God is a merciful king who does not want you to die, despite your rebellion
against Him. For you, God cries out like David, “O My children, My children! Would I had died instead of you, O My children!” But in God’s case, He did carry out the substitution that David could only hope for. In order to save you from the curse of death, God willingly gave up His true & perfect Son.
The Son of Man & Son of God was the true Son of David, in whom no sin or rebellion could be found. Jesus Christ fulfilled God’s promise that David’s kingdom would be established forever. And as the Son of David, Jesus also hung from the tree of the cross – as a spear was thrust into Him.
Paul refers back to Deuteronomy 21 & connects it to the cross in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs from a tree.’” Jesus became cursed for you. He died the death you deserved. He who knew no sin became sin for you so that you might receive His righteousness.
That is the sacrifice your heavenly Father was willing to make for you, His rebellious child. No matter how far you stray, no matter how violently you rebel, no matter how often you attempt to remove Him from the throne of your heart, God will always love you & is ready to forgive you for the sake of the One who hung on the tree in your place.
Through Jesus, the true Son of David & King of the universe, you are a forgiven & eternally loved child of God. You have a place in His kingdom forever. Amen.
God’s own children, we have strayed, constantly have disobeyed in the garden, in the sand, through the river, in the Land. But the Child who takes our place bears the cross to earn us grace. Through this baby in the hay, God has given us the Way to inherit life above, rescued by His perfect love. In this Child, we all may be children of eternity. Amen.
3rd Sunday in Advent – A LSB #’s 331:2-3, 5-6; 434; 358:8-9, 11-12
Text – Matthew 11:12
From the days of John the Baptist until now the reign of heaven has suffered violence, the violent take it by force.
A young boy was helping his father repair the kitchen floor. He was sitting down when his father handed a hammer to him & suggested he get on his knees to use it. The boy didn’t listen & remained seated while trying to swing the hammer. His attempt at driving the nail failed, so his father took the hammer, while kneeling, & accomplished the task.
The father then reminded his son, “You can’t get this job done while sitting. You have to get on your knees to work.” Likewise for children of God. We are often lazy Christians trying to live out God’s calling while remaining seated. We don’t follow His advice & won’t gain real joy from our celebration of Christmas if we take that lazy road.
On our knees, receiving the blessings Jesus came to bring; on our knees in adoration, there we have the joy Christ brought when He came as Savior of the world. Due to our sinful pride or laziness, it often takes suffering to bring us to our knees. Again, because of our sinful nature, that seems backwards & we resist it with every fiber of our sinful being.
What, do you think, is the most common response to suffering? Isn’t it the question, “Why?” Pain & misery inherently strikes us as wrong, even when we know that we brought it upon ourselves. Why would God allow this? Why do I have to suffer? Why? Why? Why? So Jesus ends the Gospel reading by telling us, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus has just told the crowds that were following Him, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the reign of heaven has suffered violence, the violent take it by force.” He’s making it sound like violence against God’s reign is normal, like it’s to be expected. In our heart of pain we ask, “Why?” Violence is not what you & I want to expect for following Jesus. That’s not how we want our Christian walk to be. Given his question earlier in the Gospel text it seems that John the Baptist also did not expect the reign of heaven to suffer violence. But apart from John having his head removed, what kind of violence is Jesus speaking of?
The basic answer is, “Any sort of opposition, fear or doubts about the reign of God here in time.” We could say, anything other than firmly believing in & trusting our Lord & Savior as good, gracious & almighty, is bringing violence to the reign of heaven. If you grasp what that answer means then you realize that you are guilty. Each of us here today is guilty.
John the Baptist, in the 1st verses of the Gospel reading, was guilty of doubting Jesus. For thousands of years, pastors, bishops & scholars tried to explain away the clear meaning of the text. They couldn’t believe that the great John the Baptist would doubt, & by explaining away the clear meaning those very church leaders were doing violence to the reign of heaven.
The reign of heaven is perfect, just & good, yet as those qualities reign over & in a sinful world they suffer violence. That is God’s plan epitomized by the suffering & death of His perfect, just & good Son at Golgotha. There on the cross, Jesus suffered all the world’s violence, from throughout history, in order to erase the debt that not a one of us could pay.
Because we are conceived in sin, every human being brings violence into this world, & in our day we see all too clearly what the sinful human response is to sin. Cancelling people is how sinners respond. God chose not to take that path. His desire is to save people, not to cancel them. He sent His Son to suffer with us, so we could be forgiven instead of erased.
That is a very costly approach for the heavenly Father to take, but He took it because He knew that even with His promises His children would struggle with doubt. Living by faith is not for lazy Christians who’d rather not get down on their knees. Living by faith leaves plenty of room for doubt because we cannot see the exact path on which our Savior is leading us. Life throws at us many reasons to question God’s loving presence & power. Some examples are extreme, like a seemingly healthy 45-year-old mother who, upon walking off the plane on a family vacation, collapses & dies without explanation.
There are the years of abuse suffered by a young girl at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather who leaves her wounded & hurting for life. The beheading of John the Baptist falls into this category of extremes. Terrible things happen & as far as we can see God does nothing to stop it. Living by faith is not for lazy Christians who’d rather not get down on their knees.
Not all suffering is so intense, however. It can be a slow bleed, like the silent struggle of a post-partum mother, or the long & lonely days of the nursing home veteran, or the learning disabilities which make every subject a battle for the high school athlete. Sometimes, God does not provide the support & strength we so desperately ask of Him.
Doubts in this broken world are real & pressing. Doubts do not make us failed children of God. What doubts can do, with the power of the Holy Spirit, is bring us to our knees & turn us back to Jesus. Lazy Christians do not appreciate the joy that Christ brought when He came as Savior of the world. Christians who have suffered violence appreciate it completely.
John the Baptist suffered violence. Jesus suffered violence. The very reign of heaven suffers violence, & the true followers of Jesus have ears to hear everything that the Word of God teaches us. We should not be surprised by the suffering in this world, it is the consequence of our sin. Jesus is the one human being who is greater than our sin, & He came to save us.
We should not be surprised by the doubts that we & our fellow believers struggle with. They are a consequence of our sin but Jesus is also greater than our struggles & our doubts. Like John the Baptist, we too would like to see Jesus overthrow those who hate His instruction. The 5th commandment instructs us not to kill, but the state of Michigan enacts a law which encourages exactly that. Rather than overthrowing the government of Michigan, Jesus came to change the hearts of those who are in our government, so that they love Him & love what He teaches. Jesus wants to change our hearts as well so that we love our enemies.
The overriding issue of the Gospel reading is this, “What was Messiah doing?” Jesus’ works of mercy & healing were different from what John the Baptist expected. He was sent to proclaim that judgment was coming, which is entirely true, but 1st the Messiah was to come to offer mercy & healing for body & soul. Judgment will come soon enough.
John missed the fact that the healing & blessing of the needy were promised signs that the reign of heaven was breaking into the world & that the promised Messiah had come. That is the whole reason for repenting, is to receive Messiah & the blessings He brings. In fact, a repentant heart is one of the many blessings Jesus brings.
As you & I suffer the worldly consequences of trusting in Jesus & in His teaching, we will be tempted to doubt. We will be tempted to take the lazy road of following Jesus only when we don’t receive pushback from our culture. Each day, we’ll be tempted to remain seated rather than getting on our knees & surrendering our very lives to Jesus.
In answering the question of John the Baptist, Jesus reminded him of the words of the OT reading for today. He claimed to have begun fulfilling those promises that Isaiah was inspired to write. John would have known them by heart. Let’s use our ears once again to hear those encouraging words:
“The wilderness & the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice & blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly & rejoice with joy & singing… Strengthen the weak hands, & make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come & save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, & the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, & the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, & streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, & the thirsty ground springs of water… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return & come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness & joy, & sorrow & sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:12a, 3-7a, 10 ESV)
That OT reading is a promise of salvation & blessing for God’s people looking forward to His delivering them from exile in Babylon & restoring Jerusalem. It’s also a picture of our deliverance from exile in this sinful world & the restoration of the eternal Jerusalem in heaven. That’s what the season of Advent is meant to highlight for us as we await Jesus’ 2nd coming.
John the Baptist’s question & doubts offer us an opportunity to take seriously the doubts we experience as we live by faith. If we get on our knees in humility before God we will grow as a community of believers who support one another in the struggle to live by faith, not sight.
By naming the doubts that inevitably arise, we are better equipped to live together by the faith we confess to believe. John sat in prison, wondering why God was not acting on his behalf. You may be afraid to name your questions & your doubts. You may feel shame or fear about your struggles. Jesus already knows them. He wants us to surrender those fears to Him.
As the Gospel reading ended, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” what Jesus wants us to hear is that He came to die for our sins & to rise for our resurrection to heaven. Jesus has created peace between you & your heavenly Father. That peace is real already now. The Holy Spirit is waiting to turn you back to Him so you will live in His peace instead of doubt. Amen.
Lamb of God, pure & holy, Who on the cross didst suffer, ever patient & lowly, Thyself to scorn didst offer. All sins Thou borest for us, else had despair reigned over us: have mercy on us, O Jesus! O Jesus! Lamb of God, pure & holy, Who on the cross didst suffer, ever patient & lowly, Thyself to scorn didst offer. All sins Thou borest for us, else had despair reigned over us: Thy peace be with us, O Jesus! O Jesus! Amen. LSB 434:1 & 3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet