Actions speak louder than words.” This is a phrase and a concept we all know. Another person can speak a promise to you, but his action of keeping that promise says much more than the mere promise. A spouse can say, “I love you,” but unless those words are backed up by actions of love and commitment, then the words ring hollow. “Actions speak louder than words.” Even without the expression, we all know how true it is.
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This is part of Elizabeth’s conversation with Mary just a few months before Christmas, as Mary visits her relative ahead of the birth of John the Baptist. What Elizabeth is saying is that God always keeps His promises. He has never let His people down. What He says, He does. He may not fulfill His promises immediately, but when the time is right, He does.
Christmas is one of the holidays that elicits a lot of emotion. Bing Crosby croons about the white Christmases he used to know. Elvis sings about his “blue Christmas without you.” A little closer to home, Brian d’Arcy James sings his desire for a “Michigan Christmas, with Michigan snow on the Saginaw trees.” And we’re bombarded with images of the perfect Christmas, a picture print by Currier and Ives of a family filling a church pew, kids rushing down the stairs to see what presents await them, the happy family sitting around the table with the soft glow of candlelight. But then there’s reality. We only had a 50/50 shot of getting a white Christmas this year, and it didn’t come true. Many of us are celebrating blue Christmases without loved ones by our side because of death or any number of family changes. And while all of us here are getting the “Michigan Christmas,” not all of us want to be in Michigan. Some of you have family miles and time zones away other states, maybe even deployed by the military, and everyone will home for Christmas, but only in their dreams. Light and darkness. Good and bad. Happiness and sadness. As St. John begins to explain the mystery of Christmas he uses that theme. Christ, the Light of the World comes to scatter the darkness. What does that mean for you and me, people who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death?
The recording above is a recording of the full service. The text of the four individual meditations is found below the "Read More" link below the PDF of the worship folder.
As Advent draws to its close, with all four Advent wreath candles lit, we are reminded that Christmas has almost come. The four burning candles aren’t a reminder to finish shopping or baking or packing, but a reminder to continue to do what we have been doing all along: repent, remember why you need a Savior, and rejoice that God sent His Son from heaven to be born as a Man to go to the cross for you. No one helps us do this, especially in Advent, quite like John the Baptizer. John is always there to call us to repentance and to point us to the Christ, just as he did for the people of Israel in the days of Jesus.
John the Baptizer sticks out, both in his generation and ours. He looked strange, ate odd foods, and did unusual things. He preached and baptized by the polluted river, and called people to repentance. He didn’t filter things and speak in nice ways. No one was off limits. He condemned all sinners equally. Most famously, St. Luke records that in one sermon he calls everyone a brood of vipers. We may say pious things to the contrary, but if John was the Pastor of any congregation today, he’d be run out of the church before he could unpack a single box. He would be sat down by boards or district leaders and told that this isn’t how you run a successful ministry. Preaching sermons like that isn’t how you win people for the Gospel. But John wasn’t sent to be successful in worldly standards. He wasn’t sent to be charming and soft. He was sent to be faithful, to preach the message that was necessary, not the one that people wanted to hear.
Scary things are going on and will only increase. But don’t be afraid! Be excited! That is today’s Gospel in a nutshell. The return of Christ is imminent. Just like the buds on the fig tree, ready to burst open with flowers that give way to fruit, are a sign of the impending rebirth of spring and summer and the happiness of those seasons, so are the signs today. We see all around us distress of nations, wars and rumors of wars, disease, famine, rampant false doctrine, abounding lawlessness, and the love of many growing cold (Mt. 24:9-12). Maybe it’s been said to you, or maybe you’ve said it yourself: it wasn’t this bad when you were younger. The world really is getting worse by the day. As bad as these things may be, as evil as they make these days, all of these signs are a 70-degree day in early March. Just like that unseasonably warm day in March reminds you that soon you can put away sweaters and open your windows and smell the flowers in bloom, so do these signs tell you that better things are coming. Soon wars will cease and peace will reign. Soon diseases and famines will be a thing of the past as everyone sits at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom. Soon false doctrine and false prophets and false christs will no longer plague the faithful but will spend eternity in the flames prepared for the devil and his angels. Soon Christ will rend the heavens wide, coming to unbar the way to heaven’s crown. Look up and lift up your heads because your Redemption draws near!
This is how God wants to be seen. Today’s Gospel is the picture of Himself that God wants. Advent is all about Christ’s three comings—first as Jesus of Nazareth, born in time and space; second, as the Lord who transcends time and space to be present everywhere His Word is read and preached, everywhere people are Baptized, and everywhere His Supper is distributed; third, as the One who will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the One whose kingdom has no end. None of those are more or less important than the other. Each coming of Christ is vital to who we are as Christians, who we are a Christ’s Church, who Christ is as our Savior. We shouldn’t focus on the baby in the manger at the detriment of the cross, the sacraments, and the Last Day. We shouldn’t focus on the judgment day and forget His coming in grace. The Triumphal Entry is so important that it’s the one Gospel we hear twice a year. It’s because on Palm Sunday Christ is seen in the way He wants to be seen, not just in Advent, but in our entire Christian life.
Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins presents us with two messages. One comes directly from the Words of Jesus and the other comes from context, as the Church applies this Parable and puts it together with the Introit, the Collect, and the hymns. What Our Lord tells us about is the visible Church on the Last Day. What He presents is sobering. There should be some fear in our hearts as we hear the most damning of words from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” But we know that there is also joy in this return of Christ. The thrilling cry means our salvation has finally come. In this Parable we are sent into our lives with readiness and joy.
In his small catechism Luther gives a long—but nowhere near exhaustive—list of all the things God gives us out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. Things like clothing and shoes, food and drink, body and soul, eyes and ears, and all that I need to support this body and life. For all of these things, Luther says, “it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” We have come together tonight in partial fulfillment of that duty. We have come together to thank and praise God for the blessings He has given without any merit or worthiness on our part. He has given us innumerable blessings, riches greater than any can fathom, and a beautiful land as our inheritance. So, it is only right that we as a nation pause to thank God for what He so richly provides.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.