Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Way of the Lord

Fourth Sunday in Advent
Rorate Coeli
December 23, 2012
The day before we celebrate Christmas we observe a man named John. The apostle John, who wrote the Gospel account which today’s Gospel reading is taken from, says that this John he’s telling us about was Baptizing people. We have known him as John the Baptist ever since.

Who was he? Was he the Messiah, the Savior? No, he wasn’t that. Was he the prophet Elijah the Old Testament had prophesied would come before the Messiah would make His way onto the scene? No, he was nothing like that. Well then, was He the Prophet? The one the Old Testament promised would come to take the place of Moses? No, no, no, you’re thinking on too big of a scale.

Who, then? Who was John the Baptist? When asked he made a simple reply: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” I’m not the One. I’m not all the other things you were looking for. I’m just here to do a job and that is to pave the way for the Lord. You see, He’s here, and you don’t know it. The one you’re looking for is in your midst, but you don’t see Him.

So I’m here. I’ve been sent. I’ve been called to make straight the way of the Lord so that you may see. You’re asking me all these questions when you ought to be looking to the one who is the answer to all your questions. You take issue with me Baptizing when you ought to see that in doing so I’m bringing you the forgiveness that He has come to accomplish.

This is the Way of the Lord. But you don’t see that because you go your own way. You say you’re looking for the Messiah, but really you’re just looking to justify yourself. When you see Jesus you’re going to do the same thing. You’re going to question Him. You’re going to take issue with Him. You’re going to oppose Him. Eventually, you are going to set Him up so that He takes the fall for you.

But this is the Way of the Lord. It is His way. And even though you don’t see that, He is going to work salvation through the wicked plans you devise in bringing Him down. He won’t actually be taking the fall for you at all—He’ll be laying down His life for you. He won’t actually be a victim of your cold calculations, He will lay down His life willingly.

The Way of the Lord is that we wait. We don’t jump straight to Christmas as the world does. We go through Advent. Today we come to the point where we have actually gone all the way through it.
We go through Advent because without understanding the Way of the Lord we don’t really understand Christmas at all. Christmas isn’t really about peace on earth insofar as the way of the world. Christmas is about the true peace on earth brought about through the Way of the Lord. While John the Baptist and the religious leaders in our Gospel reading today were butting heads, we see that the coming of the Son of God into the world brought about anything but peace on earth in the world’s eyes. The way of the world wants a god that conforms to its own self-justification. The Way of the Lord is to bring about true Peace, peace that comes from sins forgiven, life restored, being reconciled with God.

The Way of the world brings people to the point where they shed the blood of an innocent person. The Way of the Lord is to willingly sacrifice and offer His blood to be shed, the innocent for the guilty.

This is what John was doing. Paving the way. Making straight the Way of the Lord. How this was done is how it’s still done. It will be this way until our Lord returns again, this time not as one we don’t know but in full view of everyone. Until the Last Day comes the Way of the Lord is made straight by preaching and administering the Sacraments.

The Law is preached in its full force. The Law is preached as if there were no Gospel. John the Baptist did this and he ended up losing his life for it. Countless Christians down through the ages have been martyred for this faith as well. For the message that every person is sinful and has hope of salvation only in Christ. It is plain that this is not the way of the world. It is the Way of the Lord. The Law is preached in such a way as though your heart were stone and the Law were a giant hammer brought down fully to bear so that your notions of righteousness and goodness are shattered.

Is it any wonder the religious leaders didn’t want to hear this from John? Is it any wonder the guy lost his life prematurely? Is it any wonder Jesus, the Messiah Himself, was brought to the same kind of end? Unjustly accused, set up, tortured, and put viciously to death. And lest we think those religious leaders were culpable and thus leaving us off the hook, their hands may have brought about the events, but it is our sin and guilt that worked right along with their evil plans. John proclaimed the Law to them just as every Christian preacher must preach it in each age and to each person.

No one is exempt. And that also tells us something that goes to another aspect of the Way of the Lord, the Gospel. That we are all sinful and in need of salvation is not just the Law that brings us to repentance. It is also the fact that sinners are precisely the people Christ died for. That includes everybody. Everyone is a sinner and Christ died for everyone.

This is the Way of the Lord. It is the Way in which the Lord, the one of whom John said, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,” Himself took His towel off and washed His disciples’ feet. The one who Himself ate with the cast-offs of society. The one who Himself spent countless hours with disciples who often tried to steer Him away from His path and to go the way of the world.

John the Baptist did not see Himself in the way the Old Testament prophesied he would be, the Second Elijah. He saw himself merely as a voice. A voice in the wilderness. A voice who was crying out for all to hear, but knowing that few would listen and take heed and repent. How much he knew, really understood, the Way of the Lord in terms of using humble men of humble estate, doesn’t really matter. John carried out the call he had been given. He made straight the Way of the Lord.

The humble means by which God sent His messenger shows us the way of the Lord. The Way of the Lord is the humble path. That’s why He chose John. A guy who was out in the desert instead of mingling with decent society. A guy who would tell you exactly what the Law of God declared even though you have self-esteem issues, or the opposite problem and believe that you’re above the Law of God. The Way of the Lord is the way of putting to death the way of the world. Now you know why they put Him to death.

The Way of the Lord is the way of God coming. Which sounds exactly like the Way of the Lord. But the Way of the Lord is exactly the opposite of what we’d expect for the way for the Lord to come. He Himself came in humble means, born with no family around. Just Joseph and Mary and some hay for Him to be comfortable on. The Way of the Lord is the way of humility. It is the opposite of the glory you would expect to see from Him. On the Last Day there will be no mistaking the glory.

But until then, it’s the Way of humility. It’s the way in which, when John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, they look at Him, that is, Jesus, and say, “What are you talking about?” It can’t be Him. It can’t be someone like Him. It’s gotta be someone who will see us religious people as the upstanding people we are. And see the outcasts as the outcasts they are, as the sinners they are. They don’t see Him and His way that He works because they don’t see that He came for sinners, for all sinners. He comes in humility because sinners can’t make their way to Him. His Way is to go to them.

It is the way of repentance, to be sure. It’s tough. It’s not easy. It’s the way of humility, in which you see exactly what John the Baptist proclaimed, you are a sinner. You need to repent. You are like he was and not worthy to be in His presence.

But His Way is a gracious way. It is a merciful way. It’s a way in which He comes to you right in your sin and your unworthiness. It’s the way in which His true glory is seen not in feeding 5,000 men and their families, or in the radiance of the Transfiguration, or in the pristine setting of a baby cuddling up in Mamma’s arms. His true glory is seen in His outstretched arms on the cross. His true radiance is in the blood streaming down His face and His back. His true power is in His putting to death your sin and guilt in His own death.

John the Baptist walked the dusty paths of the Judean desert 2,ooo years ago. He saw himself as one who was there for a simple purpose, make straight the way of the Lord. He doesn’t preach anymore but the work he was called to do is still carried out. The Christian Church still points to Christ, the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world. The Gospel is still proclaimed. The waters of Baptism are still applied to people, so that they may be brought to new life. The bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar are still given to God’s people so that they may be fed and nourished with the very body and blood of the Lord.

This is the Way of the Lord. It is a way of humility. It is not the way of the world. There is no glory here as we would expect to see it. There is, instead, the questions running through our minds, “That’s it? Words that are preached? Absolution that is pronounced? Water that is poured over a person as a pastor speaks Jesus’ words of Baptism? A piece of bread, a sip of wine? This is the God who comes to me? Isn’t there some greater way He could come to me?”

But the task of making straight the Way of the Lord is to cut all of those questions out and simply look to Him and His Way of doing what He does. In humility He forgives you through the spoken words of the preacher. In simple means He declares you righteous through the simple pronouncement of the Absolution of your sins. In ordinary water He washes away your sins because that water is connected with His word of forgiveness and salvation. In plain old bread and wine he gives you His body and blood, as that bread and wine have been consecrated by the very words of Christ. That bread and wine, and in and with it, His body and blood, are given to you for your forgiveness, for your strength, for your comfort.

Just as the Law is proclaimed as if there were no Gospel, the Gospel is proclaimed and delivered as if there were no Law. John’s call to repentance, bringing the Hammer of the Law down in full force, is followed by His declaration of the Gospel: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And so in the Lord’s Supper, what do you get? No Law, just pure Gospel. “Take and eat, the body of Christ, for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Take and drink, the blood of Christ, for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.” You are fed and nourished because your Baptized. What did you get in Baptism? “I Baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” There is no Law here, only the purest Gospel. It is all Christ, all the Savior given directly to you.

This is His Way. It is the way of the Gospel. The Way of bringing life to you. The way of bringing salvation to you. The way of bringing forgiveness to you. The way of bringing Himself to you for all of those things. That’s why He came. That is His way. He will come again. In the meantime, He comes to you through the Gospel with His abundant life. Amen.


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