Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3 Gaudete

Matthew 11:2-10 - Advent 3 - December 11, 2016
Refining and Purifying Christian Faith

Last Sunday our sermon dealt with the crosses that Christ lays on his Christians.  Crosses are hard to bear – whether they be something bad that God adds to your life or something good that he takes away.  Generally, because of the pain and personal nature of whatever hurts, folks would rather talk to some sort of professional counselor than to their pastor.  But the highest arts of sociology and psychology fall infinitely short of providing what the Christian most dearly needs in time of deep sorrow.  Oh, a counselor can help.   Please don’t get me wrong.  They are often well trained and experienced and can give wonderful and wise advice.  Sometimes all that’s needed is to have a discreet listener who will let you spill out your heart.  That can be, as they say, cathartic. 
That word cathartic means purifying.  It’s where we get the name Catherine, which means pure – a beautiful name!  God makes things pure by purging them.  Pure and purge come from the word for pyre or fire.  To purge is to cleanse by fire, usually in relation to metals like gold and silver or iron.  The Medieval Church entertained the superstition of purgatory where God, through pain, would purify those who died without being pure enough for heaven.  Of course this isn’t true.  What a terrible attack on the comfort of the gospel!  The Bible teaches that our purity is found in Christ by faith, and that this purity will be perfected in us in the twinkling of an eye on the Last Day when Christ returns.  Our pain doesn’t earn our purity.  Christ’s pain already has! 

So no, we are pure and holy by faith even now.  But our faith itself is often mixed with all sorts of doubts and misdirected desires and superstitions.  Because of this, and therefore, since faith is so precious since it is by faith we are pure, we can see that whatever God does to purify our faith is most certainly an act of extreme love and faithfulness.  And what does he do?  He purges.  He burns away the dross.  He lays crosses on us so that our faith is perfected and our comfort is all the clearer.  Here and now is our purgatory, so to speak.  Here and now we do not pay for our sins, but we learn to let God be God as Jesus did on the cross, and endure whatever he prescribes for the strengthening and sharpening of our faith, which, as St. Peter writes, “much more precious than gold that perishes, though it be tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7).  Because of this, it is very good for all of you who may suffer a very heavy cross, some great sorrow, or pain or loss, to talk to your pastor – not because he is an expert on grief, but because it is his job to teach you to what purpose God permits it and how to bear it. 
A counselor might be able to help you cope with your pain until it goes away.  But a minister of Christ is there to teach you how your pain can strengthen your faith.  A counselor can help you get what they call “closure.”  But a minister of the gospel is sent by Christ to help you know in whose arms you are already enclosed.  Without learning such a lesson, the pain is useless.  But when our crosses serve to purge us and purify our faith, then we learn to rejoice even as long as the pain may last, knowing that he who sent the cross cares for us, as it is written at the end of that same Epistle by St. Peter, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7). 
So as we discussed this topic last Sunday – the crosses that each Christian bears – today we consider those unique burdens that Christ’s ministers bear.  St. John the Baptist knew a thing or two about bearing a cross.  He who, on account of the vow he was born to make, never knew the joy of marriage, meat, or a good hard drink also spent his adult life excluded from the rest of his community, wearing camel’s hair and eating locust and wild honey instead.  He spent his ministry “‘turning the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).   And yet how was he repaid?  He ended up in prison until he died a humiliating, and seemingly pointless death. 
This was the cross John bore.  Every minister bears such a cross.  It is the cross of being faithful when the world is demanding you bend like a reed in the wind.  It is the cross of being expected to be marvelously successful, when God commands you simply to be faithful.  Both Habakkuk and Malachi began their books of the Bible by calling their duty to preach to a resistant and disobedient Israel a burden.  It is a great joy, to be sure, to preach the glad tidings of great joy to all people, especially to Christ’s lambs.  But it is a burden for a minister of Christ to have to rebuke sin, correct superstition, and warn constantly about the ungodly and stealthy influence of the world around us.   It is a burden to speak of the ax that is laid at the root of the tree, ready to chop down whatever does not bear fruit to be cast into the fire.  But it is a necessary burden, because these things must be preached.  We need to be taught.  We need that which is worldly and common to be constantly purged from the temple of our hearts.  This is what we pray for in the children’s Christmas hymn,
Ah dearest Jesus, holy Child
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber, Lord, for Thee. 
A minister of Christ who does not bear any sort of cross is necessarily unfaithful.  He who wears kings’ clothing, that is, who flaunts his wealth and prestige and success instead of quietly devoting himself to the study and application of God’s word – such is one who has shirked his duties and who cares nothing for the souls of those he was sent to teach.  Jesus tells us when we are fasting to anoint our heads and wash our faces so that we do not wear our grief on our sleeve (Matthew 6).  So we do not expect our ministers to walk around with a dour face and a whiny voice.  He is to be an example to the flock (1 Timothy 4:12).  He is to exhibit to some extent the joy and hope of the faith he preaches.  This is precisely what St. John the Baptist did in our Gospel lesson.  He did it marvelously! 
His direction to his disciples was not an indication that he had despaired.  It was a manifestation of his earlier prophecy that he must decrease and Christ must increase.  “You see me in prison.  You see me bear my cross.  You see that the gospel has no earthly reward.  So be it.  Our Father who sees in secret will reward us openly.  Go ask Jesus if he is the One.  He is your reward.  He is mine.”  Certainly John would have had his own personal doubts.  We call him Saint John, not because he had no sin, but for the same reason we call them saints who washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.  He was flesh and blood like us.  Like ours, his faith may have wavered.  But strong or weak, his faith knew its object.  He knew Christ.  His faith cannot be called into question here.  We see his faith in the message he preached: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold! It is he whose blood shall cleanse you and make you pure and holy to rejoice around his throne in heaven.  See him who is chosen to suffer more than I – to bear a greater cross than you – and who by doing so sets the prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, who cleanses the lepers and preaches the gospel to the poor.  Behold him who compels me even now to direct you to him even while I am in chains!” 
What greater way for a minister to exhibit the purpose and blessed goal of the crosses we all must bear than for him to direct his hearers to Christ even as he bears shame and contempt himself?  This is the purpose of preaching.  To preach is to direct people away from one’s own service to the service and ministry of the One who sent him – the One who stands among us today with peace and blessing bought with his own blood.  See your minister bear his cross.  He does so not by whining about it.  He does so not by demonstrating how heroic he is to suffer.  He does so by speaking boldly and plainly even in the face of resistance – the resistance of pride that dwells in the hearts of all men, including the lambs of God whom Jesus has commanded him to feed and tend.  There he bears his cross – when he fulfills his duty to preach the full frankness of the law to those who must repent, and when he preaches the sweetness of the gospel, knowing how much of it will be trampled and forgotten by fools.  But God’s word goes out.  The preacher who bears his cross is the sower who says “Oh what of that?” when the fruit of his labor remains hidden from his eyes. 
John was a prophet, and more than a prophet.  What made him more than a prophet is obvious.  He was the forerunner of the long-awaited Christ – — Immanuel who ransoms captive Israel.  What prophets foretold they never saw.  But what John pointed to was the fulfillment of all that had been preached since Adam and Eve first learned to bear their cross.  John was sent to prepare sinners to find their righteousness in the cross of Jesus, the true Seed of the woman who by rising from the dead would leave the devil’s head crushed in the dust. 
It is into this death and resurrection that Baptism joins us.  This death and resurrection is summarized purely and simply by John the Baptist’s famous message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.”  So we repent, we turn from our sins.  We acknowledge how they themselves are the source of our pain and grief and ruined relationships.  We do not seek vengeance on earth, but confess that all misery is a result of the very seed that the devil sowed even in our own hearts.  And have we not watered that seed?  Have we not nurtured the sprout?  Have we not protected our pride and fed our lusts?  To repent is to let God pluck these out so that the incorruptible seed of his enduring Word might take root and be strengthened and watered and bear fruit. This seed is the gospel.  Its incorruptibility is linked to the incorruptibility of your inheritance as God’s child.   It is the answer of a good conscience before God.  This word teaches you what your Baptism gave you. 
Your sins have been washed away – not by how very sincere you were, or how determined you were to clean up your act or commit yourself to something good, no but by the precious blood of Christ.  It is his obedience that he gives you in place of your sin. He does so freely, willingly, and often.  His patience with you is as pure and comforting as the genuineness of his pity.  Has he not forgiven you?  Then behold.  Then behold again.  Then return and see him who still stands in mercy to lift your burden and give you rest.  He who alone is pure and holy, your God – he became your Brother in order to offer his pure and holy obedience as a Man for you.  Taking all human sin upon himself, he alone endured the punishing and purging fire of God’s holy wrath – for you.  By pure mercy alone, he clothes you in his purity and holiness when he gives you faith to believe that he did it for you.  He alone has pure hands.  He has entered the Holy Place.  And even now he pleads as your High Priest before the throne of God.  Knowing this, nothing can separate you from the love of God — no more than either heaven or hell can separate Christ from the flesh and blood he assumed to redeem you.  Know this.  Believe this.  By God it is true!  This is the purpose of preaching.  This is the purpose of learning from God what the preacher is sent to teach you. 
Most folks don’t want a preacher.  They want a priest.  They don’t want to be told that their own religion is flawed, or that they need yet to be taught by God.  They would rather have their own natural religion be facilitated.  They’d prefer a religious figurehead to add charm and legitimacy to their spiritual sentiments.  They want a reed shaking in the wind who will make them feel validated in their own notions and worldly opinions.  But St. John chopped down all such foolish expectations and cast them into the fire.  So must every faithful servant of Christ.  He deals with that which belongs to his Lord.  He is a steward – a steward of the mysteries of God.  These mysteries belong to God for the continual use and benefit of the priesthood.  John’s father Zachariah was a priest, from the priestly tribe of Levi.  But John wasn’t a priest.  He was a prophet.  But he was sent to priests to bring an end to the Levitical priesthood and replace it with a royal priesthood.  He prepared the priesthood for the High Priest, Jesus Christ, the royal Son of David.  As Malachi foretold of him,
“He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the
An offering in righteousness.” 
And so he does.  He who is pure – whose purity before God is yours by faith – purifies your faith because, in his love for you, your faith is more precious than gold or silver.  As a priest, you yourself may approach God too as pure and holy and righteous in his sight.  “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).   This is an offering in righteousness, dear Christian.  It is to hear and believe and confess with your mouth what the preacher preaches.  “Behold, the Lamb of God – We preach Christ crucified.”  Through him you have obtained mercy.  And in him you shall receive the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  Amen. 

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