The Waiting and the Wonder

I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed when Christmas Eve arrives. I know that sounds strange, but let me explain. The fact is, I love Advent. I’ve always been more at home in the anticipation than in the realization. I love the hymns of Advent, the expectation of Advent, the fact that it goes so contrary to the spirit of the world, which wants us to start celebrating Christmas on the day after Halloween, mostly for the sake of getting us to buy, buy, buy. And what’s the result? Anxiety, worry, rushing around from one place to another, one party to another, one store to the next. What’s the result? Complete exhaustion by the time Christmas actually arrives; by December 25th, you never want to hear another Christmas carol again.

But Advent! Advent preserves that warm, reflective place; a haven from cards and cookies and carols. Advent, it seems to me, is much more like real life: we spend far more time waiting than we do celebrating. And I wonder if that’s part of the issue: we don’t really know how to celebrate because we don’t really know how to wait. We don’t know how to fast, so we don’t know how to feast. We find it hard not to overindulge, overspend, overdo. Advent says, hold on a minute, light one candle a week, wait a while in the wilderness with the strange and the holy, like John the Baptizer. Hear again, as if for the first time, that this whole mess has been made right in Jesus, who is coming again to judge the quick and the dead. Advent is the skinny, crooked finger of the Baptizer, pointing in stark relief to the Mighty One who was to follow him—but pointing to a Mighty One who did not come in divine might, with fire and sword. Pointing to a glorious One whose glory was shown most clearly on a cross. Pointing to a Judge who would take on Himself the entire judgment due sinners in payment for their sin.

But that’s not the message of John only. It’s the message of the prophets, of the little town of Bethlehem, of the shepherds, and of the angels, as we have just heard. Every prophecy, every Word of God—indeed, the entire creation—is summed up in the body of that Baby, who would give His Body and Blood on a cross for you. That He is for you, you can be sure, because God raised His Son from the dead, and now He lives and reigns, the same God-Man, at the Right Hand of God’s power. And yet, we still do not see it all. His power is still hidden, just as it was in that Virgin, that manger, that cave, that Man. Advent, in its waiting, makes the wonder of Christmas all the more wonder-full. But, of course, without the fulfillment of everything we wait and hope for, the waiting would be worthless. And so, in this world that is too impatient to prepare and too gluttonous to celebrate, the Church of Christ takes her time with the wonder. To wonder at prophets speaking the Word of God centuries before the fulfillment; to wonder at God in diapers; to wonder, what Child is this in Bethlehem, silently pleading for sinners? To wonder at filthy, sheep-scented shepherds blessed with the song of angels; to wonder at God walking around in Nazareth and Galilee and Jerusalem; to wonder, as we come to adore the new-born King, what sort of King is this, who goes to a cross for His enemies, even you and me? So, whether you need help with the waiting, or with the wonder, the prophets, shepherds, and angels are here tonight to speak Jesus into our ears and hearts. Not just this December, or this Christmas, but throughout lives lived in both waiting and wonder, as the God-Man continues to come to us in water, words, wine and bread, for forgiveness, life, and salvation. There’s nothing more worthy of wonder than Him, as we wait for Him to begin the eternal celebration with a Word.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/24/13 

Children’s Christmas Service

Traditions are funny things. For humans, who are always tied to some tradition or another, we tend to hold them very tightly, and we get a little unnerved when something of long use is changed. “Tradition” itself is a slippery word. Some people think it’s a bad thing; some people think it’s a good thing. Some people have a lot of traditions, some people don’t think they have any. The Church, and especially particular churches, are known for having traditions, and some would say the Church is “bound by tradition,” meaning that they—we—can’t ever do anything new or different. I don’t know if you’re of the “tradition is good” or the “tradition is bad” camp, but the word “tradition” simply means “what is handed down.” Whatever foods, or customs, or activities you have that surround Christmas, the things that you do every year, those are your traditions, even if you are not “traditional.” The things you are used to seeing every year when you come here or to your church, those are traditions. They are simply the things that have been handed down from parent to child over however many years or decades or centuries. Traditions, like any other habit, can be good or bad, helpful or harmful, meaningful or done just for the sake of “keeping up tradition.” The thing with traditions, especially in the Church, is that you can fall into the ditch on one side just as easily as into the ditch on the other side. That is, you can observe traditions (and we all do it sometime) without thinking about what you’re doing, because you’ve done it so many times. On the other hand, if you try to make a new tradition, you may spend so much time thinking about what you’re doing that you can’t actually worship.

There is no way around this problem. We are all creatures of habit, and we require our habits in order to go deeply into the meaning of our traditions; and, at the same time, our habits can dull our senses to that same meaning. As far as the Church is concerned, the only good Church traditions are those that clearly proclaim the simple facts of the Christian Creed: Christ was born, Christ died, Christ rose from the dead, Christ will come again—all for you. Whatever proclaims those things is a good tradition; whatever doesn’t is a bad tradition—or, at least, a tradition that doesn’t belong in the services of the Lord’s House. But even those traditions that clearly proclaim Christ for you can easily become mere habits in which we lose all meaning. For me, that happens with hymns like “Joy to the World.” I have to force myself to associate something with that hymn other than “this is the end of the Divine Service on Christmas Day.” I have to force myself to listen to the words.

And maybe it is so for you. Maybe the words of these profound hymns are lost in the simple fact of singing them like “we always do.” Maybe the words of Luke, Chapter Two, are lost in the simple act of reading them like “we always do.” “What we always do” is not bad, but once Christmas begins to exist for the traditions, rather than the traditions existing for Christ, there’s no longer any point to all of this. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men” becomes just another holiday slogan, rather than a proclamation from the army of God’s angels that something completely unique and original has occurred. “Joy to the World” becomes a generic wish, rather than God come down into the midst of everything that steals joy. And I, for one, doubt I’d know what to do with a silent, holy night if I had one.

This is a time for tradition, but my prayer for you is that under all the wrapping and tinsel, the stark and startling fact of God being born in your flesh, God being born to die, to take away your sin and your death—all of this for you—that that fact would shine through clearly in the midst of all your traditions—this morning, next week, and every day after that, until He comes again for His own. I pray that the ancient confession that “for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” would be more than a vague truth, more than an historical event, more than a tradition; that it would be the very food and drink of your existence. As you hear and sing the Word of God this morning, I pray that you will hear Christ Himself speaking to you of your salvation, that God Himself will bless you by that Word and give you His peace, which the world cannot give. Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/13/13

A Beautiful Mess

[message for the MOPS Christmas event at Faith Lutheran Church]

This is a great theme for Advent and Christmas. Not only are there a number of mothers in the stories we hear around Christmastime, there are a lot of messy things going on. There are the miracles of the conceptions of both John and Jesus, one in the womb of a woman who has long been barren, and one in the womb of a woman who has never known a man in the Biblical sense. Now, we know that those are miracles, but miracles are open to interpretation, and we can bet that not everyone who found out about either of these pregnancies believed that Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph had been visited by messengers from God. In this world, the actions of God get a little messy. And that is never more clear than in the genealogy of Jesus. Normally, other people’s genealogies are never as interesting to us as our own. But if you want to see a mess, look at Jesus’ genealogy. There are a lot of twisted branches on that family tree. In Matthew 1:16, we have Mary, whose pregnancy would have been much more scandalous in her time than it would be in ours. There is a reason why Joseph was going to put her away quietly. Because if he does it publicly and noisily, she will probably be stoned to death. But that doesn’t necessarily make him completely honorable: he was still going to put her away.

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A Way Prepared

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

If John is here, then God is on His way. If John is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi, that God would send a messenger before His own face, before He comes, then if John is here, God is coming. Look, John says, the Reign of Heaven has come near. The King stands even at the gates. And John has come to prepare the way for that King, by removing every obstacle from His path. He eats locusts, and his locust-words consume everything in the way, all the excuses, and the rationalizations, and the justifications; all the hypocrisy of sinners. He eats honey, and his words should be sweet to our ears—that our King is coming—but instead his words are bitter in our ears, because we are sinners. Because repentance is demanded, because we can do nothing but stand in the water next to John and confess. Nothing but stand and say that what God says of sinners is true of us also. Repent! He says. Turn around; stop doing what you were doing; stop living your lives by the desires of the flesh. Everything that your pursue, that you think is so important, everything this world pursues, will all be consumed and brought to nothing. You cannot find paradise again by searching; but you can find that everywhere you search is a wilderness. And when He sees the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he says, who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? Are you fleeing? From what? To what? If so, bear fruit in keeping with repentance. But bad trees cannot bear good fruit, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. And the axes are already at the roots of the trees. The King is coming. And His way will be clear.

So flee from the wrath that is coming. But where can you flee from the God of all the earth? Every human religion says get ready, prepare yourself, get your life in order. Every human religion ever invented says that God is up there, and we are down here, and if you get ready enough, perhaps He will receive you. You may get more or less help, but you must go to God. Strangely enough, no person in the Scriptures seeks God, at least not the true God. People certainly seek after gods, but they are the gods they have made with their own hands. But everyone runs away from the true God. No, the Biblical story is not one of people seeking out a distant God, not one of going up to Him, but one of God always coming down. When the people of Israel are in slavery in Egypt, God says, I have seen their affliction, I have heard their cries, I have known their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them (Exodus 3:8). God comes down to talk to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19). The Psalmist and Isaiah both cry out, “Bow your heavens and come down; O that you would rend, tear open, the heavens and come down!” (Psalm 144:5; Isaiah 64:1). And when Jesus does come, He says, “The bread of God is the one who has come down from heaven to give life to the world; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:33, 38).

He comes down, and He stands in the river where sinners are confessing their sins. He comes down to deliver His people once and for all. He has torn open the heavens, and now they will never be closed to His chosen ones. He scatters the bread of life over the hills, and the world once more knows what real life is. And for all of this, John comes to prepare the world, laying bare the road by which Jesus will approach. John himself goes before Jesus on this road, arrested and killed. This is the way of all flesh; all flesh is grass that is here while it is summer and gone when it is winter. Heaven and earth themselves will pass away, but the Word made flesh will never pass away. He stands forever. John points Him out to eyes that cannot see. He speaks to ears that cannot hear. Look! The Lamb of God! Look to the One who is mightier than I am. He comes after me, and I am not able to carry the weight even of His sandal. But He bears the weight of the whole world. He heals diseases and casts out unclean spirits with a word. Surely He carries our grief and our sorrow; Yahweh has laid on Him the sin of us all. The only place to flee from the wrath of God is to God in flesh. As Psalm 2 says, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him” (2:12). Look to Him, who does His end-time works now, out of time. He comes to thresh out the wheat and the chaff. He is nailed to His winnowing fork; blessed are those who are not scandalized by Him.

See, long before He baptizes with the Holy Spirit or with fire, long before the judgment is announced, He baptizes with water and the Word, where His Holy Spirit marks people for eternity. Long before He gathers the wheat into the barn and lets the chaff fly away in the demon-wind, long before He sends His reaper-angels to gather in the harvest, He is gathering even now. His Body with the bread and His Blood with the wine gather His own together like the gathering of a million grains into one loaf of bread. We are that one loaf, the one body of the one Christ. And the ones who are baptized, the ones who are gathered, the ones whose faith sees Christ hidden where’s He promised to be, we know this: that the God who came down to deliver Israel from slavery, the God who tore open the heavens in the fullness of time, and came down into the womb of the virgin, the God who came down and let His Body be broken and scattered in order to gather the world for life, and the God who will come down at the last trumpet and a shout of victory—these are not many different Gods, but the one and the same. Only in this can we have comfort. Only in this can we be prepared to receive Him: to know that the God who comes to judge, the God who threshes out the wheat and the chaff, the God who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire, this is the God whom we have seen and heard and eaten and drunk. There is no other God! You are His and He is yours. And now, as Isaiah says, the road that John prepared for Jesus is the road that God has prepared for you. Build up, build up, He says, prepare the way; remove every obstruction from My people’s way. Peace, peace, to the one who is near and to the one who is far off…and I will heal him (Isaiah 57:14, 19). Go through, go through the gates. Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway; clear it of stones. Look, Yahweh has proclaimed to the ends of the earth: say to the daughter of Jerusalem, Look, your salvation comes (62:10-11). “See, the Lamb, so long expected,/Comes with pardon down from heav’n./Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,/One and all, to be forgiv’n” (LSB 345:3).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/6/13