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Prepare the Way of the Lord!

St. John 1:19-28

Pastor Mark Schlamann

Advent IV (Rorate coeli)
Zion Lutheran Church  
Harbine, Nebraska

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 


The Augsburg Confession is one of the documents included in The Book of Concord.  It is a the book of the Lutheran Confessions, to which I have subscribed to as a pastor and you have as a congregation.  The Augsburg Confession serves as, essentially, the constitution and charter of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church.  One of its articles, to which we subscribe, speaks of order in the Church.  It's a very short article: "Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call" (AC XIV).  To this end, when a man has been trained, educated, and formed through the seminary process, the Church declares him holy and qualified to be called to serve the Lord in His Church by way of the divine call.  We hold that God calls a pastor, doing so through the congregation.  Since the first century, in the days following the Apostles, God has dealt with His people through means, and He does so through the congregation's call process.  After much careful and prayerful deliberation, the congregation, acting on the Lord's behalf, calls a pastor to serve her, the bride of Christ.  As evidence of this divine call, the pastor-elect is issued call documents.  A pastor may not simply step in and "take over."  He may only serve if he has received a "rightly ordered call."

There is something you may want to know about pastors, and that is that they can be quite territorial—chief of sinners, though I be.  What this means is that not all pastors like other pastors coming in—especially those of the same denomination—and talking to their members…or having any kind of contact with them.  Some pastors fear, and perhaps rightly so, that there may be some sheep-stealing being attempted—enticing members to leave one congregation for another.  The established pastors will likely want to know what business the newly-arrived ones have in speaking to sheep not in their respective flocks.  Such a mindset may have prevailed upon the priests and Levites in our text for today.  They were to serve as the Lord's ministers in the temple.  What was their call document?  It was their bloodline, as established by the Lord, as we read in the book of Numbers, from which we read in part: "And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel.  And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood" (Num. 3:9-10).  But this holy position became something they took for granted.  And then comes this new guy, a bit rough to look at, as he wore clothing made of camel's hair—a guy with a weird diet of locusts and wild honey.  It's bad enough for them that he's on the scene, but people were flocking to him, listening to him, and becoming baptized by him.  That new guy was John the Baptist.  These ministers, sent by the Pharisees, demanded to know who he was—or who he thought he was.  How dare he invade our territory, they must have thought.  But John, in his humility, did not tell them who he was, but rather who he was not.  He was not the Christ.  He was not Elijah.  He was not the Prophet.  They demanded an answer.  They wanted to know who gave him his call documents.  They insisted on knowing what made him think he could preach.  John testified that his call came from God Himself, as John quoted from Isaiah 40, "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said" (Jn. 1:23).  This did not satisfy them.  They wanted to know who said he could administer the sacrament of baptism, since he was not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.  John, the consummate servant, deferred to the One whose way he was preparing.  He pointed them to Christ, who would soon begin His public ministry.  The Lord called John directly.  John's call was to preach a message of repentance and to baptize the repentant into the coming Christ.  He did not bring them himself; he brought them the coming Christ.

Such is the call of the pastor today.  He is not to point his hearers to himself, but to Christ and Him crucified!  This is why pastors wear vestments, to direct attention away from themselves and toward the Lord of the Church, the Christ who comes to His people in Word and Sacraments, as He does here today.  You see, when it comes to matters of the faith, it's not all about you.  It's not all about me.  It IS all about Christ and what He has done—and continues to do for you and for me.  Here in the Divine Service, God is the primary Actor in the Liturgy.  He is the Do-er of the actions.  He runs the verbs.  He acts through His Means of Grace and His undershepherds—that is, His pastors.  This is why pastors baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  This is why pastors forgive sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.  This is why pastors publicly read the Scriptures and announce this is the Word of the Lord.  This is why the congregation says, "Thanks be to God"; thank God it's His word and not the pastor's.  This is why pastors speak Christ's Words of Institution over the bread and wine, thereby also giving us Christ's body and blood.  Christ's Word gives His Sacraments their power, not merely because the pastor speaks the words, but because Christ has first spoken these words, words that are true and sure, words He has given His servants to speak, that they would prepare the way of the Lord.

The Word of the Lord endures forever.  The Word remains the same.  The Sacraments remain the same.  The promises our Lord attaches remain the same.  The gifts Christ freely gives remain the same.  They remain the same because Christ has willingly bound Himself and His gifts to His Word and Sacraments—and nowhere else.  But the pastor is to prepare the way of the Lord in the way the Lord has prescribed, not where we or others may think He should be.  That's part of our problem.  Our sinful pride wants the Lord to be where we think He ought to be.  We want to deal with the Lord on our own terms, not the covenant He has given us in Scripture.  We like to think we can worship Him wherever and however we want, even if that means we don't get to receive His gifts, even if that means we deny ourselves His gifts.  That's because we're so busy looking for the Lord in all the wrong places, looking for Him in too many places, places other than where He has promised to be found.  We look at a nativity scene, adorable as it may be, and call it good enough.  We look under the Christmas tree, waiting for His presents, as opposed to His promised presence—different spellings, different meanings.  When we seek Him where He is not, when we seek Him instead of His seeking us, we come up empty, empty of the forgiveness, life, and salvation He has promised to bring—where He has promised to bring it.  Without those gifts, we are without Christ.  Without Christ, we are in danger of more than coal in our stockings; we are in danger of our souls being in hell, where there is not comfort and joy but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This is why pastors prepare the way of the Lord.  We don't do it for His benefit but for yours.  You see, the Lord comes to you today bringing His gifts, and it's not even Christmas Day.  He gives His gifts each time His Word is properly proclaimed and His Sacraments are administered according to His institution, even today, the Fourth Sunday in Advent.  Christ is here, as He has promised.  As St. Paul reminds us in our Epistle, "The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:5b-6).  Yes, the Lord is at hand.  Yes, the Lord is here.  The Lord, whose first Advent, His first coming, happened 2,000 years ago, and whose ongoing Advent has been happening in His Church each Lord's Day (including here today), will have His final Advent on the Last Day, when He will gather us and the rest of the faithful to Himself, just as He has promised.  That same Lord who came hidden in human form and humbly as a baby also comes to us through ordinary elements of bread and wine, attaching His word of promise to them.  This is what pastors are doing in preparing the way of the Lord for you, His people, that you would crave the gifts He brings, not under the tree but at the font, lectern, pulpit, and altar.

The way of the Lord took Him to the cross of Calvary for us.  It was a way of beatings and blood.  It was a decree of death.  It was for our forgiveness that the Lord died on the cross.  It was the way for Him to go for us, for the way of the Lord was the way of the cross, stricken, smitten, and afflicted, crucified, dead, and buried.  The way of the Lord was the way of resurrection, for Christ has risen from the dead, having defeated the eternal death we by our sins deserve.  The way of the Lord was the way He won our forgiveness.  The way of the Lord today is to come to you and give you the gifts he won on the cross: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, and that He does, as the feast of His body and blood will soon be ready.  They way of the Lord was sacrificial and is now sacramental—and all of this He has done for you, that you would be forgiven and have life with Him forever.  There may not be any gifts under the Christmas tree yet, but because of what He did on the tree of the cross, He fills you this day with His presence, thanks be to God.  Amen.

"And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7).


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