Stir, Stir, Stir
"Stir, Stir, Stir," is a theme of Advent. Three out of the four ancient Collects for Advent begin with the word stir.' On the 1st and 4th Sunday in Advent we ask the Lord to stir up His power. Today, the 2nd Sunday in Advent, we pray Him to stir up our hearts.
Stir up our hearts O Lord from the lethargy that comes from treating the events of Christmas as legendary. I've told you before that the essentials of the American Christmas were manmade in the 19th century. O the roots of St. Nick and Christmas trees can be traced deeper but they were popularized and fleshed out as we have come to know them in the 19th century. In the 20th century the lore only grew. Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, and "Miracle on 34th Street" became part of the mythology. And in the 21st century we've added an ogre, ninja elves, and a train.
Real Christmas can get dumped into all this fantasy. A family far from home, a pregnant wife, no room in the inn, birth in a barn, angels appearing to shepherds, and a guiding star can seem as unreal as a talking snowman and flying reindeer. But see how Luke locates Jesus in history. He does it the same way ancient historians did. Thucydides (2:2), Polybius (1:3), and Josephus (Antiquities 18:106), all place things in history the way Luke does in our text. And Luke does it both politically "in the 15th year of Tiberius" and religiously "during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas."
As sure as Lincoln was president during the Civil War and Washington a general in the Revolutionary War that's how certain Jesus ministered during Pilate's governorship and Herod's tetrarchy. Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the historical basis of our faith by confessing to each other that Jesus suffered "under Pontius Pilate." We don't say this to particularly blame Pilate, but to confess to one and all: we believe in a real person who was physically on earth during a certain time frame and if you want you can look it up, not just in our Bible but in your history.
Our faith is a historical one not an emotional one. The facts of our faith birth, death, resurrection of Jesus are true even if no one believed them, just as Lincoln was really president and Washington really the general whether anyone today believed it or not. Stir us up O Lord so we might get our Christmas preparation out of the realm of the make believe.
And stir up our heart O Lord from despairing over world or church events. Do you think our political situation is bad right now? Do you think evil men or at least wrongheaded ones are in power? Then you must not know the people Luke says where in power when Jesus came. Here's how the Roman historian Tacitus sums up Tiberius' reign. "He was infamous for his cruelty, though he veiled his debaucheries Finally, he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace" (Annals VI.50, 51). You do know Pilate and Herod. Pilate had no place for truth and Herod was a public adulterer and murderer.
Do you find much to despair about in the church today? Notice how Luke records that Jesus' presence was announced by John during the high priesthood (singular) of Annas and Caiaphas. God's Holy Word commanded that there should be one high priest and he should serve for life. Annas hadn't been high priest for about 15 years and he didn't die in office. He saw to it that 4 sons and now his son-in-law Caiaphas succeeded him. You think we have little to hope for and much to despair over in our Synodical leaders? Annas made the Temple into a money machine and he functioned more like Mafia boss than a high priest.
Talk about reason to despair and to give up hope! But what does God do? He plops right into the middle of corrupt politicians and faithless church leaders His Word. It says "The Word of God came to John." For 400 years, since the Word last came to the prophet Malachi, no new Word had come. Now it does and the Holy Spirit doesn't use the ordinary word for word but the one that describes not just speaking but an event, a happening. Into the midst of people just like you longing for Christ, moaning their "O Come, O Come Emanuel's", the Lord drops His Word of law and gospel, of judgment and grace and like a rock in a pond of corrupt politics and fallen churchmen it brings waves of salvation to the shores where the ordinary people live.
Stir up our hearts O Lord so that we may be totally crushed by imperatives and empowered by indicatives. Luke the historian records the Word that came to John and that he preached before the coming Jesus. He has two imperatives: you must prepare the way for the Lord; you must make straight paths for Him. Jesus will not come for you in forgiveness, in mercy, in grace if you are not ready. He can't reach you if His way is blocked by your sins of thought, word, or deed. Jesus can't bring salvation to you if you have bent the path to you with your greed, pride, lust, gossip, or unbelief.
You know that dream you have when you're not ready? Your presentation is not ready; your department is not ready for inspection. It's Christmas and the kids gifts aren't wrapped or bought. You know that dream-moment of fear, horror, or even terror at being found not ready? You know what relief there is in waking up to the reality that it's just a dream, just a dream? This is no dream. If you fail to prepare the way for the Lord by breaking with your sins, if you don't straighten out the paths you have perverted, you will be found unready. Come your judgment day you'll try to tell yourself it's only a dream; it's only a dream, but this time your screams won't wake you because it's not a dream; it's real.
Once you've been crushed by imperatives, once they have silenced you from excusing your sins as only natural, not that bad, better than others; once the imperatives have stopped you from making promises to do better next time, you're ready to hear the rest of the Word that came to John and to be stirred by it. But if you think you're excuses or pledges to do better can get you out from under the Law; that you have nothing to fear from defending your sins, keeping your sins, excusing them, or making up for them by trying harder or doing better, stop listening. The Gospel indicative aren't for you. You can only leave here with the Law, the musts, the imperatives pounding in your ears.
But if you're broken by the imperatives because you can't prepare the way for Jesus; you can't straighten out your life for Him to get to you, listen up. Be empowered by the indicatives that John preached. Indicatives in-di-cate reality, what does happen, what will happen. Johns says, "Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill too shall be made low. Those roads made crooked by your perverse thoughts, your doubts, your sinfulness shall become straight and those rough sins of yours that make the path to you impossible to travel on, shall be smooth."
The valley being filled in and the mountains and hills being made low aren't just indicatives they are passives. God is the one who does them. Go west of MoPac. Find the smallest valley or the lowest hill. What chance do you with a shovel have of filling in one valley or lowering one hill? That's your sin and sinfulness. You have no chance of freeing yourself from either. God must do it, and that's why He sent His only beloved Son.
In terms of John's preaching, what filled in every valley dug by the laws you broke is Jesus keeping the law perfectly as a human being just like you. And Jesus anguished dying on the cross, begging for mercy and getting none, His being punished worse than you fear and can possibly imagine is what lowered the mountain of God's wrath against your sins. Jesus living a holy life is what straightened out the roads you had bent with your sins and so now Jesus can get to you. Jesus, shedding of blood, sweat, and tears on the cross, because they are the tears, sweat, and blood of God, were able to cover all your sins to that the road to you is now smooth as glass.
You think this is Good News? You think this stirs the embers of Faith that had all but been put out by despair or grown out of like some childhood Christmas legend? You haven't heard anything yet. Hear this last indicative. "And all mankind will see God's salvation." Just as the imperatives are to crush all people, so the indicatives are to lift all people. Just as the Law is for all, so the Gospel is for all. There is no sinner so guilty that he or she is not to see God's salvation in who Jesus is and in what He did. No one has lived a life so blinded by their acceptance and defense of their sin so long that they can't open their eyes and see God's salvation today.
Actually the text doesn't say "all mankind." It says "all flesh" will see God's salvation. Our Lord, Jehovah of the Old Testament, became enfleshed in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He took on the flesh of every single last human, and in our flesh kept the law and in our flesh died to satisfy, to appease, to cause God to put away His wrath against our sinful, fallen flesh.
Do you see it? You will; at least that's what you'll chant after communing. You'll chant that you are ready and able to die in peace because "mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." And we don't look to heaven when we sing this. We see with these eyes of flesh our salvation on that altar. There is the Bread that is the Body of Christ; there is the Wine that is the Blood of Christ. Moreover, Jesus tells us that it is the very same Body here that He gave on the cross; it's the very same Blood here that He shed on the cross. On the cross is where Jesus paid for our salvation. Here on this altar is where we see our salvation and from it is where we receive salvation.
Stir, stir, stir up our hearts O Lord this Adventide. Rather than being stirred by nothing more than the cute myths of this time of year, stir us by the facts of Your history. Rather than being stirred to despair by problems in the world and church, stir us by the fact that world and church problems didn't stop your Son the first time He came and won't stop Him from coming today. Rather than being stirred by our helplessness against our sins, stir us by Your indicating that You have done everything to deliver us from the sins we long to be freed from. Stir us so much that we open our eyes to Your salvation right in front of us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20121209); Luke 3: 1-6