Video of Evening Prayer is here. The sermon begins around the 25:15 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Advent reminds us we’re in exile, waiting for deliverance; Advent reminds us we’ve been sent a Savior from the wrath that is to be revealed; Advent reminds us of the ways and paths of God, which are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies (Psalm 25:10). And Advent reminds us that we stand surrounded by enemies. This is one of the reasons we need the continual sustenance of the Sacrament of the Altar. “What should admonish and encourage a Christian to receive the Sacrament frequently?” Besides the most important fact of Jesus’ own command and promise, the Christian’s “own pressing need, because of which the command, encouragement, and promise are given.”
And when we do not feel that need, and when our sinful flesh no longer hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of Christ in the Sacrament, the Scriptures remind us of those enemies: our own flesh and blood, subject to sin and death; the world, in which there is no lack of sin and trouble; and the devil, “who with his lying and murdering day and night will let [the Christian] have no peace, within or without” (Luther’s “Christian Questions with their Answers,” 19-20; LSB 330).
But these enemies do not have free rein. They are God’s enemies in both senses: they are opposed to God, and He rules over them. When the people of Israel turned away from Yahweh to serve other gods—the gods that the people around them worshiped—other nations invaded and oppressed Israel and brought them into exile. But while those nations may have thought they were doing this of their own free will, conquering according to their own power, it was actually God who brought them upon Israel. It was God’s testing and and refining of Israel.
It is God who sits “as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to Yahweh” (Malachi 3:3). God says through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10). David says in Psalm 11, “Yahweh tests the righteous, but His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5). And the author of Psalm 66 says, “For You, O God, have tested us; You have tried us as silver is tried. You have brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our loins; You caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water” (10-12). That net is a reference to exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 12:13; 17:20).
This is what God does with our enemies: He tests us, He refines us, He purifies us. And He only does this to the righteous. Hebrews quotes the Proverb: “My son, do not despise Yahweh’s discipline or be weary of His reproof, for Yahweh reproves him whom He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12). It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. … Our earthly fathers discipline us for a short time as it seems best to them, but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:7-11).
Sin and death press in on us, physically and literally, as well as mentally, exhausting us and driving us to despair of ever coming out of the situation in which we find ourselves. They tell us that there is no way out, that God either will not or cannot deliver us. They batter us within and without. And they have a lot of tools at their disposal in a world enamored of dying things. We are surrounded by the worshipers of other gods, who constantly push us, mock us, presuming that they have come out to some further, better stage of enlightenment. They think themselves free from all restraints, and their highest goal is simply what feels good right now. The devil uses all of it as a lure, flashy and attractive, because it seems to offer a way out of heartache, misery, denial of self, and difficulty.
But this is what God does with our enemies. Through the prophet Zechariah, God says of the remnant of His faithful people: “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon My Name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are My people’; and they will say, ‘Yahweh is my God’” (Zechariah 13:9). It is exactly so that we will call on His Name. Sing the glory of His Name! All the earth sings praises to Your Name, O God!
Again, Hebrews says to Christians, “[A]fter you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:32-39).
We are being tested, by the world, by our sinful flesh, by all the enemies of God, of His Christ, of His Word and of His Church. But it is God who uses them. They are not free. And the shout of Psalm 66:1 is a shout of victory over the enemies of God. He has conquered them by the blood of Jesus on the cross, and though they will never submit in their hearts, they are forced to bend the knee. So great is Your power, O God, that Your enemies must kneel, even if unwillingly. No one, not even the enemies of God, will be able to put themselves outside of His realm. His enemies will fake it, but they must kneel and bow and confess.
So the Psalmist turns us first to what God has done. Come and see, he says. Look at His fearful and wonderful works. He turned the sea into dry land, and they passed through the Jordan on foot as well. And then he reminds us that the salvation of God is not a past event, but it is now and it is forever. He says, “there,” in the Land of Promise, where they were after they crossed the river, we will rejoice in Him. God’s salvation and deliverance is an ongoing reality. We, with all those whom God has saved, will rejoice in God in the eternal Land of Promise.
By that promise, established in and made certain by God’s deliverance, He keeps us, even in the midst of our enemies. Even when we are tested and tried, He speaks and points us to that work and those actions. “Bless our God, O peoples; let the sound of His praise be heard, who has kept our soul among the living and has not given our feet to being shaken or slipping” (Psalm 66:8). The enemies who want to drive us from Christ are not outside His hands and His power anymore than we are. The difference is that they do not know it, nor do they know Him.
But come and see what God has done! Look to the Son, who was born into this enemy territory. Look at His affliction and the burden God laid on His back. See His fearful work on that cross. See how willingly and patiently Jesus is caught in the net, how He goes through the fire and the water. See how He is crushed for our iniquities and suffers our death. Come and see what God has done! See how He brings the Son into the victory, where He sits in triumph, making all the enemies of sin and death and all false gods kneel as a stool for His feet. God brings Him out into the place of resurrection abundance, the cup that overflows and fills ours.
Come and hear, all you who fear God: Now, even though we walk through death-dark valleys, here is the light of Christ. What should we fear if Jesus walks with us as our Shepherd? He prepares a table for us, even now, in the presence of our enemies. We eat and drink, and we are not afraid. Surely this goodness and mercy will pursue us all the way to the end of our days, and into the House of Yahweh, where we will live forever. He has not let our feet slip yet, and He will not. If we had cherished iniquity in our hearts, God would not have listened. But truly God has listened. He attends to the voice of our prayers. Blessed be God! He has not rejected our prayers, or removed His everlasting, steadfast love from us (Psalm 66:16-20).
Advent re-locates us and re-orients us: this is what it means to be the people of God at this time and at all times. Re-located in our place before God, in the midst of our enemies, tried and tested and purified, and turned toward the only God who saves. We call upon His Name, and He will answer us. He says, “They are My people”; and we say, “Yahweh is my God.” And we are re-oriented, which literally means “toward the east,” toward the sunrise, and spiritually toward the coming of the Son in glory, scattering all our darkness. Advent calls on us to look both backward to the accomplishment of our salvation, as well as forward to the full glory of what God has done, and the erasing of all enemies. “I will remember the deeds of Yahweh; yes, I will remember Your wonders of old. I will ponder all Your work, and meditate on Your works” (Psalm 77:11-12). Shout and sing the glory of His Name, all the earth! All the earth worships and sings praise to Your Name!
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, 12/8/21