In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man,” proclaims St. Augustine from his pulpit. “Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.” How true this is, and how true we need it to be, we who were dead even before we were conceived, still-born of Adam’s seed. Awake, dear sleepers, your Lord comes! Trust not your own silent heart, but trust the Word spoken over breathless lips and sightless eyes and deaf ears. He comes, the Word made flesh, that you would not remain in death, cut off from the Garden and the Tree of life, but that you would live. From the Word and the water, your rigor-mortised skin is made fresh and clean: be made alive and discover that it is true, it’s all true: the promised offspring does come, and He comes for you.
This is the time of preparation for His coming. The anticipation grows. The place is prepared and the way is being smoothed. The whole creation once prepared for the birth promised by ancient prophets. And now we too, once again, are preparing. Have you ever come to the end of your ability to prepare? Have you ever been unable to think more deeply about what it all means? Have you been through so many Advent seasons, so many church years, that you feel like you’ve hit bedrock and can go no further? When our words fail, it can help us—as you well know—to turn to the greatest poets and hymn writers of the Church, to hear and sing and be given words in order that they become our own dear confession of Christ. Tonight we begin our midweek Advent preparation with Paul Gerhardt.
Perhaps Pastor Gerhardt was put in mind of the coming of Jesus by the terror of the Thirty Years’ War. In some places, half to two-thirds of the population was decimated. There were mercenary soldiers plundering villages, the plague and other diseases killing many, and the overall effects of war. His first child died in infancy, and his wife died about ten years before he did. In 1666, He lost his position as pastor in Berlin because the Elector Friedrich Wilhelm didn’t allow the Formula of Concord to be taught, and forced Lutherans and Reformed to have joint services. In the midst of such things, who wouldn’t think a little about the end of the world and the return of Christ? Probably it was during the Thirty Years’ War that Gerhardt wrote the hymn we just sang. “O Lord, how shall I meet You, How welcome You aright? Your people long to greet You, My hope, my heart’s delight! O kindle, Lord most holy, Your lamp within my breast To do in spirit lowly, All that may please You best.”
How shall we, how should we, greet the Lord of all creation? How to welcome the one who clops along on a donkey to the chants of feeble sinners: Hosanna; Save us now, O God? How to welcome the one who comes so strangely, not in the full armor of war, as His father David might have? The people welcomed Him with waving palms. Palms are symbols of victory, but for Christians, they become signs of victory often in defeat. The martyrs hold them in the victory granted to them by the Holy Spirit, as they stood firm in suffering unto death, even as had their Lord. If our God comes humbly, as a baby; if He comes humbly, on a donkey; how much more ought we to be lowered before Him? Repentance, first of all, is the proper posture of those who have been driven east of Eden, who long for the approach of the King. Repentance is to see ourselves as we really are, and not as we pretend to be in self-deception. The mirror of the Law, preached clearly in Jesus’ own life of obedience, has shown us our true reflections, and we see how we have been weighed and found wanting.
But Jesus is not a stop-gap measure; He is not God plugging up the holes in the dam of humanity, barely holding the whole thing together. Jesus is not Plan B, when the first creation went up in the smoke of sin’s spreading wildfire. No, Gerhardt reminds us: “Love caused Your incarnation; Love brought you down to me. Your thirst for my salvation Procured my liberty. Oh, love beyond all telling, That let You to embrace In love, all love excelling, Our lost and fallen race.” Not vengeance against unworthy sinners; not the visitation of well-earned justice; not the punishment of our destructive sin; but Love. Love that excels all other loves. Five times in a single stanza, Gerhardt—and we—sing of love that brought the Son from the Father into the flesh of the Virgin. He doesn’t just pick you up when you fall down, help you out a little, guide you in the right way. He prepares Himself for the justifying Advent: His coming to the cross. At the place of the skull, our bones, dried up by burning sin, lying in the valley of death, are covered by the Word with sinew, skin, and sanctified flesh. In the new birth of the Holy Spirit by water and word, you live and wait in a body that does not belong to you, but to Jesus: a dear and beloved child of God.
You have been awakened from the sleep of death: confess and sing! As Gerhardt wrote in stanzas not included in our current hymnal: “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, Who sit in deepest gloom, Who mourn o’er joys departed And tremble at your doom. Despair not, He is near you, Yea, standing at the door, Who best can help and cheer you And bid you weep no more. … What though the foes be raging, Heed not their craft and spite; Your Lord, the battle waging, Will scatter all their might. He comes, a King most glorious, And all His earthly foes In vain His course victorious Endeavor to oppose” (The Lutheran Hymnal, 58, stanzas 5, 8). Weep no more, beloved. Do not despair. The promised one approaches. We await the celebration of the reality come near. His Name is Emmanuel: God with us. He has heard the feeble whisper of your hosanna. And in love He answers the call. And now we, in joyous reflection, give thanks to the Lord for His incarnate advent, His taking of flesh in His first coming, so that God could die. It is because of this coming, this great gift of His love, that when the hour of our death approaches, when our eyelids grow heavy with time and mortality, that we may sing again with Pastor Gerhardt: “O glorious Sun, now come, Send forth Your beams so cheering And guide us safely home.”
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, 12/1/15
*The theme for this Advent series, much of the outline, and some of the material is taken by permission from Pr. Gaven Mize, of Augustana Lutheran Church, Hickory, NC.