Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Midweek 3 Sermon

Sermon, Advent Midweek 3
December 15, 2010
Jesus, Born in Weakness for Us

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Now there is a pivotal question. Why does the heavenly Father send Jesus to such a humiliating home? He suffers this degrading existence for our sakes: He is Jesus, born in weakness for us.

The Gospel narrative imposes an embarrassing historical specificity on the story of the incarnation. Our King is born while another king reigned in Jerusalem. Our King flees the troops sent slaughtering by Herod. Our King is sheltered from death by Joseph. Our King must retreat across the Red Sea, returning to the land of slavery. Our King is called back to Israel, only to find Herod’s son firmly in control. Our King abandons Israel for a base of operations in Galilee. And finally, our King settles in Nazareth. This is hardly an auspicious beginning to a glorious reign, is it? All of this is bad enough, but the culminating humiliation is settlement in Nazareth.

Christ’s humiliation is a spiral of descent in which He must suffer dislocation, retreat, and finally settlement in a risible rural backwater. His heavenly Father places Him in a specific historical context where He must flee wicked kings. When coming to live with His people, He must migrate to second-rate Galilee and finally live in greatly disrespected Nazareth. He receives His humiliation with purpose, looking forward to the ultimate humbling of death, even the death of the cross. Down He goes: to Israel, a Roman protectorate. But now, on to “contemptible Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:1), and most specifically, Nazareth, the center of nothing. O Nazareth, what good can come from you? It is bad enough that God places His Son in time in Roman Palestine, but worse yet that He chooses to give Him a home in humble obscurity, in a town known only for its lack of notoriety and infamous only for its lack of fame. The twentieth century’s Madonna would never have considered living where God sent the Madonna of the first century. The material girl would disdain the spiritual girl. The world’s Madonna was very different from God’s Madonna.

That happens when the King is preached in such places, when the Josephs who carry the Christ Child deliver Him in Word and Sacraments to the slums in Saint Louis, vodka-poisoned villages of Chicago, the snow driven towns of Northern Illinois, and homes of despair in Springfield.

Perhaps Nazareth is closer than we would like to admit. Nothing good might come from it, but when Joseph bears the Christ into it, all good comes to it. Our pastors are Joseph among us. They are nothing but appendages to the incarnation of the Word. They are married to the Word’s vessel. But they are not the Word. They only carry to others what they themselves can never be. They share the life of Nazareth with others from whom nothing good can come. Our pastors are not the possessors of the Word made flesh, but they are the guardians of the Word. Just as Joseph was.

In Thessaloniki, Greece, there is a thirteenth-century church called St. Nicolas the Orphan, in which the life of our Lord is painted. There in the birth scene is an aged and reluctant Joseph seeing to the Messiah’s needs. He even appears a bit envious that he is not in the center of the action. Like Nazareth, nothing good comes from Joseph. All good comes to Joseph in this Child. Nothing good comes from us, but all good comes to us in the birth of the Messiah.

Our pastors become the Josephs we need that bear the Christ to us. When a Joseph grants Holy Absolution, there is now a heart created clean by God. When the Josephs preach that the Son of God was made man for us men and for our salvation, then the weakness of God exalts the souls of the faithful. When the Josephs set in the mouths of the hungry the tokens of divine life in the body and blood of Christ, then life with God is given, a life unseen and despised by the world. When the Josephs bring Christ to Nazareth, Nazareth becomes the throne room of God and a royal capital, in which God is pleased to dwell. Nazareth may be nothing, but God’s presence changes all that.

All of us know that feeling of isolation when we wonder who knows of us. We don’t want to be famous, we just want to be known. Our homes become lovely prisons of isolation; especially at this time when there ought to be the most intimate fellowship among family and friends.

There, the Christ Child is brought by a child who learns the Christmas story and recites it in childish cadences before a tawdry audience of those who are too surfeited to hunger and thirst for the righteousness the child brings. A humble child offers us the humble Child.

Christ will not leave us alone to suffer. He comes into the Nazareth of our unknown despair and speaks. He says that He knows us. That is the only knowing that matters, as Isaiah says, “By His knowledge shall the righteous one, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). His knowing of you is what matters. His accounting you righteous is what matters. His bearing of your iniquities is what matters.

The Christ Child reaches out His tender child’s hand and with it embraces the weakness of Nazareth and its humiliation in the world. He becomes a shoot out of dry ground. He becomes the barren and uncharted deserts of our own Nazareth. There He puts down roots in the wrong place, at least wrong in the eyes of the world. His tender shoot struggles quietly to crack the parched land and, instead of drawing water for His life from this desert, He Himself waters the land, giving back to it its much-needed nourishment.

From the life that is within Him wherever He is planted, there is life. He is the only shoot out of dry ground that makes the ground fertile. His life gives life, it does not take it. He makes Nazareth the new Eden. He Himself is the lily that springs up; the rose of Sharon that unmakes our weedy lives and makes us a well-watered garden. King Solomon, His forerunner, speaks in His voice: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles” (Song of Solomon 2:1–2). Only the brambles will never overtake His tender shoot. Weak though He is and tender as a child, His God will protect Him.

His remaking of Eden in Nazareth changes everything in little, dishonored, infamous, and notorious places. Isaiah the mighty seer saw this: “In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (9:1). In these latter times, His presence makes the Nazareth of your hearts, your homes, your church, your altar, and your font glorious places.

What good can come from Nazareth? None. It is the good that comes to Nazareth that makes the difference; all the difference in the world. He is Jesus, born in weakness for us.

Daily Readings for December 12 - 18, 2010

Readings for the Week of the Third Sunday in Advent

Sunday “Go and Tell John What You See and Hear”—Matt. 11:2-15; Isaiah 32:1-20
Monday The Nativity of St. John the Baptist—Luke 1:57-80; Isaiah 33:1-24
Tuesday The Nativity of Our Lord—Luke 2:1-7; Is. 34:1-2, 8-35:10
Wednesday Waiting in Patience—James 5:7-11; Isaiah 40:1-17
Thursday The Birth of Christ Is Announced to Shepherds- Luke 2:8-14; Isaiah 40:18-41:10
Friday The Shepherds Visit Bethlehem—Luke 2:15-20; Isaiah 42:1-25
Saturday Look ahead to Sunday’s readings Isaiah 7:10-17; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10-17: Ahaz, the King of Judah, was not a very pious king. Though the Lord told him to ask for a sign that the Lord might show His faithfulness to the house of Judah, Ahaz refused. In the face of his stubbornness, the Lord Himself gave Ahaz and the people of Judah a sign: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Apart from any help or contribution from a sinful human being, this “sign” was fulfilled in the virgin conception and birth of Jesus. By this “sign” we know that God is not only with us, but that salvation is a free gift of His faithfulness and mercy in Jesus.

Romans 1:1-7: The Apostle Paul begins his great epistle to the Romans by highlighting the great truth that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the message of salvation that was “promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” This Gospel, recorded on all the pages of the Old Testament is truly about God’s “Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Through Christ, we have “grace and peace” from God our Father. This Gospel is the heart of the Apostolic Word which Paul and his fellow apostles preach for the creation and preservation of the Church of Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25: Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus as he is often called, had a difficult vocation. He was called to be Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father. This calling meant a life of suffering and self-denial. This is always what true faith calls us to: a life of sacrificial love in which we deny ourselves. This is the shape of our lives as Christians because our life is lived by faith in the God and Savior who lived in selfless love for us. The Child conceived in Mary’s womb was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary was not an adulteress. His name would be called “Jesus” because He is the Lord who would save His people from their sins by becoming one with them in their flesh and blood. All this was done to fulfill the Scriptures, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which means that God is with us in the poverty and humiliation of our human condition to redeem us by the sacrifice of Himself. Joseph had no strength to fulfill His vocation within himself, but He was strengthened by the Holy Scriptures and the message of God’s selfless love for him and for all his people. This is our strength too in our vocation. The Gospel not only saves us from our sins, but it also strengthens and keeps us in the love of Christ in the earthly vocations to which our Lord has called us.