Sunday, December 11, 2016
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent - Gaudete - Isa 40:1-8
On a number of occasions while I was a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, I took the Metrolink light rail train out to Lambert International Airport. I enjoyed doing this, because of course, I love to ride trains.
I would board the train at the Delmar Loop station. This was a very interesting place, because it was actually the site of the old Wabash Railroad passenger station. The station itself, a handsome stone structure, still stands to this day at street level. The rider descends to track level where the platforms exist on the same location where the Wabash Railroad platforms used to be.
In each phase of the Metrolink construction, the planners have attempted to use as much abandoned railroad right of way as they can. They have done this because it helps to keep construction costs down. The railroad right of way is a strip of land that is already prepared for construction of railroad track. There is no problem with having to buy property from multiple individual owners in order to build the line. Since the right of way has already been constructed to meet the needs of a railroad, there is no grading or heavy earth work necessary. Often, any bridges that are needed are already in place and usually can be used as they are.
Riding the line out to the airport is interesting, because you can tell exactly when you leave the old Wabash Railroad right of way and begin running on the section of the line that was brand new construction. After the Rock Road station, the track curves off to the left. And suddenly everything changes.
Where the ride had been very level and straight with broad, gentle curves, suddenly it is full of tight curves as the train climbs steep grades and then drops down the other side. The change has been produced by the different requirements of a railroad and a light rail line.
In order to run hundred car freight trains, whenever possible, the grade of a railroad is kept to a minimum. Heavy trains running at speed need broad curves and gentle changes in elevation. In order to achieve this railroad construction requires cuts in the earth and fills in order to deal with hills and low places.
However, the requirements of a light rail line are quite different. Trains are short – in St. Louis they are two cars – so tight curves are not as big a deal. The cars themselves are light and have powerful electric traction motors that give them amazing acceleration. So steep grades are really not an issue. This means that when new light rail lines are constructed the engineers don’t have to worry as much about hills and low spots and this keeps costs down. Where necessary, the light rail line can climb steep grades and drop down the other side.
In our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah this morning, the prophet speaks about the need to prepare a right of way. He is not talking about a railroad, but rather about a highway. Yet the same needs of preparation come into play: valleys need to be filled and hills need to be brought down in order to make a straight and level way. This needs to be done in preparation … because God is coming.
The prophet Isaiah wrote in the eighth century B.C. – during the 700’s. He lived at a time when Israel was divided into northern and southern kingdoms and the great threat was the near eastern superpower Assyria. During Isaiah’s life Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and took the population into exile. They tried to do the same thing to the southern kingdom where Isaiah lived, but God miraculously rescued Jerusalem from the Assyrian army as he killed 185,000 of the soldiers in one night.
Judah was spared, but they didn’t take the hint that they needed to change their ways. Instead, they continued on in unfaithfulness as they took part in worshipping false gods. So in his prophecy, Isaiah also looks ahead to events of the sixth century B.C. – the 500’s. He describes how Judah will be taken into exile by the Babylonians as punishment for their sin. But God will not leave them there. Instead, he will bring them back to their land – back from exile. Our text begins by saying, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
The exile would happen. Judah would be punished. Sometimes we forget that this is how it works. We think of sin only as something that threatens our standing before God or makes us feel bad – and certainly this is true. But God means what he says in the Ten Commandments as he punishes sin. As Martin Luther says in the explanation to the Close of the Commandments in the Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear his wrath and not do anything against them.” God had punished Judah, but now he was going to restore her. He was coming to bring deliverance, and the people needed to be ready. He was going to act. The prophet says, “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
God was going to reveal his glory through his act of deliverance. He did it in 538 B.C. Rather unexpectedly, Cyrus had led the Medo-Persians against the Babylonians and defeated them. He issued an edict that the people of the southern kingdom could return home and rebuild the temple. Isaiah declares in his eighth century B.C. writing that Cyrus will be Yahweh’s instrument – in fact he calls him Yahwehs’s anointed one, his “messiah.”
This action by God may sound like a boring bit of ancient history. But because it involved God’s people it meant so much more. God’s action to rescue Judah from exile was a type. It was an event involving Israel in the Old Testament that pointed forward to something even greater that God would do in the New Testament. It pointed forward to the rescue from sin that God would give through Jesus Christ.
We hear words from our text again in Matthew chapter 3. There we read, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
John the Baptist was the voice sent by God to call people to prepare for the great revelation of his saving glory. He called people to prepare the way – to lift valleys up and level hills – by repentance.
Repentance means confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. But it is about more than receiving a “Get out of hell free” card from Jesus. John the Baptist went on to say to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
John told them to bear fruit that was in keeping with repentance. In particular, he warned them not to assume all was fine because they descended from Abraham. John the Baptist helps us to understand what Isaiah’s words mean for us. We are called to repentance. Yet repentance does not just involve admitting that we did something wrong. It also includes striving to turn away from those sins – to avoid them and instead to live differently. It means that we don’t take our status as God’s people for granted. We don’t engage in what amounts to planned repentance: “I know this is wrong, but I will be forgiven so it is ok to do it.”
This is not something we can do on our own. Instead it is fruit produced through the forgiveness that we receive. In our text Isaiah says to get ready because “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah describes how God is going to reveal his glory to all people as he acts to save.
God’s action through his “messiah” Cyrus pointed forward to the fulfillment that has now occurred in Jesus the Messiah – the Christ. God has revealed his glory in the incarnation of the Son of God. As John tells us in his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” God’s glory dwelt in the flesh of the baby born in Bethlehem. And he revealed this glory as Jesus the Son of God went to the cross to make atonement for every sin. He went as the One who offered himself in our place as he received the penalty against our sin and gave us his righteousness. God’s saving glory was revealed in the darkness of Good Friday and Jesus’ dead body was placed in a dark, sealed tomb.
But the Spirit of God who gives life raised Jesus from the dead. The glory of life that has conquered death emerged from the tomb, and after forty days Jesus ascended and was exalted to the right hand of the Father as our Lord. He poured out his Spirit on the Church at Pentecost – the same Spirit who raised him from the dead. And the Spirit has continued to give life – new spiritual life – through water and the Word. The Spirit of Christ has given us rebirth, and now leads us in bearing the fruit of repentance.
The Spirit leads you. The Spirit supports you. But the Spirit doesn’t force you. That’s why, when it comes to living in response to the forgiveness of the Gospel, the Lutheran Confessions use the language of “cooperation.” There’s no cooperation in why you are forgiven. There’s no cooperation in your salvation. But God’s saving glory has been revealed in Jesus Christ whose birth we are preparing to celebrate. Because of him, you are forgiven and saved, and so the Spirit now draws you into his work as you follow his leading in seeking to resist sin and to love others.