Last Sunday I talked to the children about the Advent wreath. Following up on the previous Sunday when I had introduced the season of Advent and what it means, I described how the four candles of the wreath correspond to the four Sundays of Advent. Of course, I emphasized how the time when we are progressively lighting these candles is one of preparation as we are getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
However, that is certainly not the way I thought about the Advent wreath when I was their age. Instead, the candles of the Advent wreath were a countdown to opening Christmas presents. At a time in life when a calendar had no real meaning - the Advent wreath at church was the sure and certain indicator of how long it was until I could open my presents.
Each Sunday I would go to church and look to see how many candles were lit. The third candle – the pink one – was always a big deal because when it was lit I knew that I was almost there. When the pink candle was burning the presents would begin to appear under the tree. I would carefully check each day to see if any new ones for me had been added. Then, when the fourth candle was lit the excitement was almost unbearable because in just a few days Christmas would arrive and I could finally open those gifts.
My experience as a boy illustrates the basic problem we encounter during Advent. Advent is about preparing for Christmas, and yet as we know, there is already a lot of Christmas going on. Though not to the same degree as Lent, Advent is a time of repentance. That is why the Hymn of Praise, the Gloria in Excelsis, is omitted during both of those seasons. During Advent we consider our sin that prompted the Father to send the Son into the world in the first place. But it’s kind of hard to think about sin when its beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go. Festive, joyful and fun doesn’t lend itself to contrition and repentance over sin.
In the Old Testament lesson today, the prophet Isaiah looks ahead to a time when the people of Judah would have no problem recognizing their sin. Writing in the eighth century B.C., he looks ahead to the judgment that Yahweh would bring upon the nation in the sixth century B.C. The people had turned away from God and were worshipping the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. They were taking advantage of those who were weak and helpless. Isaiah announced the judgment that God sent in the sixth century when the Babylonians destroyed the temple and took the people into exile in Babylon.
In the suffering of exile, there would be no ignoring what Judah’s sin had done. The people would be staring it in the face every day. Yet in our text this morning, the prophet announces a word of that looks ahead to the end of the exile. Isaiah writes, “‘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 prophet looked to the time when God would act to rescue the people from exile. We hear in our text, “A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Yahweh would come to rescue them, and every obstacle would be removed from his way as he brought deliverance. Nothing would impede the salvation he was bringing. As the prophet says just after our text: “Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
Yahweh spoke through the prophet, and he kept his word. In a surprising and unexpected turn of events, the Persian King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians, and in 538 B.C. issued an edict that the people of Judah could return to their land. He even said that they could rebuild the temple.
Yet this action by God was not the end of the story. In fact it was just the beginning – a saving action that pointed forward to something even greater. Matthew tells us in his Gospel, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
John the Baptist was the voice of the one preparing the way for the Lord. He prepared the way, because as Isaiah said, “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” His message was simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He called people to repent of their sin because the kingdom of heaven – the reign of God – was about to arrive.
John sounded like the prophets of the Old Testament as he called the people to repentance. But there was something new and different about John’s ministry. In fact, it was so different that people soon began using it to identify him. In addition to his message, John also called upon people to receive a baptism at his hands. Ritual washings were nothing new in Judaism. Yet all of these were self administered. What set John’s washing apart was the he administered it to others. It is for this reason that was known as “the baptizer” – the one applied the washing to others.
By submitting to John’s baptism, people demonstrated their repentance and showed that they were looking for God’s reign to arrive. Matthew tells us, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
As we prepare again to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah’s words and their fulfillment by John the Baptist teach us that we cannot prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior if we do not acknowledge that from which he has saved us. We cannot celebrate Christmas if we do not recognize why it was necessary for the Son of God to enter the world in the incarnation.
It was necessary because of the sin present in our lives. It was necessary because you put other things before God. It was necessary because you are jealous of what others have and what they get to do. It was necessary because in anger you speak words that are meant to hurt your family members. Christmas may be a festive and wonderful time, but the reason for Christmas takes you into the ugly parts of your life.
John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We repent and confess our sin before God. But we do so knowing that God’s kingdom – his reign – has come upon us.
Isaiah says in our text, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” God’s glory was revealed in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. His reign was present to reverse all that sin had done in this world. As Jesus says in the Gospel lesson: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Yet these saving works were just the beginning. Jesus Christ carried out the goal of his life and ministry when he died on the cross for you. He did so to reconcile you to the Father. He did so to remove the sin that separated you from God. Through his act of atonement you have been restored to God.
Through faith in Christ, repentance leads to forgiveness. It always does. It never fails because Jesus is the risen Lord who completed the work given him by the Father.
There is great comfort in this. Yet as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, John the Baptist’s message was not limited to a call to repentance and the forgiveness that was given as people received his baptism in faith. Instead, he said, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”
Repentance means that we also now seek to avoid those sins. The Christian life is not one of, “I like to sin, and God likes to forgive.” We do not receive forgiveness so that we can keep on sinning. Instead, repentance involves the struggle against sin. It means that we actually identify the things we should not be doing, and seek not to do to them. And by contrast we recognize the things we should be doing, and we seek to do them more and more. This is good, and because you are in Christ it is God pleasing.
You will never be able to do this on your own. It is only Jesus Christ who can make this possible. And so he calls us to receive the ways his glory continues to be revealed; the way his reign continues to be present. He calls you to his Means of Grace.
Through God’s Word, the Spirit gives strength. It is the means the Spirit uses to change us. If we are regularly reading and studying the Scriptures, they do not leave us the same. Instead the Spirit transforms us by the renewing of our mind so that more and more we live as Christ in the world. And through Sacrament of the Altar the Spirit feeds the new man who wants to do so.
These days in December are a festive and exciting time. Yet if they are to be Advent, they must include a recognition of our sin. We must confess that we are the reason God sent his Son into the world – that he sent him as the sacrifice for our sin. This confession draws us to the comforting truth that our iniquity has been forgiven. During Advent we prepare to celebrate that at the manger, at the cross and at the empty tomb Isaiah’s words have proven true: “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”