The message of Advent, but especially that of Christianity, is backwards to the way it seems things should be. In this season, we celebrate that we have a God who comes to us. It seems like it should be the other way around. We know our condition. We said it together not that long ago: we are poor, miserable sinners. Think about it. The rich aren’t lining up to give handouts to the poor. The poor come in search of charity. Doctors aren’t going door to door seeking out those who need medical attention. The miserable have to seek out their own medical care. So, it would only seem natural that sinners should have to seek out their own forgiveness. But Advent tells us that we have a gracious God who came to us in time, as the Baby born in Bethlehem; who comes to us today in Word and Sacrament; and who will come again as the judge who will usher in the Last Day, where He will take us to be with Himself. We are not the ones who need to seek out His grace and favor. He comes giving it freely, seeking out those who need what He has come to give.
This is the way it’s always been throughout Scripture. Adam and Eve fell into sin after being deceived by the serpent. They certainly didn’t seek out God. They hid from Him! But in mercy He came to them to tell them that He would send His only Son to die in their place to forgive all their sin.
The people of Israel, in their wanderings and in their national life certainly showed they were not interested in what God had to give them. They knew what God had asked of them, to be faithful, to treat their relationship with Him like a marriage, but they whored after false gods and turned their back on Him time after time. Yet God in love sought them out. He disciplined, but He forgave and helped them.
Then, when the fullness of time had come, when the Jews were, by and large, no longer looking for a Messiah who would save them, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law. They weren’t aware of their condition, that they were dying, but God came to them in grace to revive them and to forgive them.
And still today, God comes. He comes to His own who will not receive Him. He comes to a world He created, to a people He died to redeem, and they say no thank you. Church bodies are in rapid decline because they have forsaken the Gospel for social justice. It’s no longer about the holy things for the holy ones, but about hunger and trans rights and fighting off the oppression du jour. This abandonment of the Gospel is why in November two at least two North American church bodies released reports saying that by 2040 their denominations will likely no longer exist. They have forgotten the message of Advent, that God has come, first and foremost, to forgive our sin. When the First Commandment is kept, when God instead of self is put first, the social issues deal with themselves. Nevertheless, God comes into our faithlessness as the Faithful One. Even to church bodies in decline God comes seeking out those who need the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. He knows a remnant will gladly hear and receive what He comes to bring.
And what of us? What heart does He find when He comes to you and me? Does He find a heart that desires what He brings, or does He find the heart that all of our ancestors have housed? We each know the answer. If it was different, St. Paul’s words in the Epistle wouldn’t have cut us so deeply: You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. … The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness…let us walk…not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. We have hearts that seek out our own desires. We have hands and feet and eyes that go after what we ought not. We have mouths that say things that ought not even be named among God’s people. We desperately need what God has come to give, but we do not want it because we do not think we need it.
We are not seeking God, but He is seeking us. He is not seeking us for wrath and condemnation. When God came to Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the day, He knew full well what they had done. He was not unaware that Satan had deceived and they had eaten. He sought them to be merciful. God sought out Israel time after time to be merciful to them, to be the faithful husband though they had been the cheating wife. God seeks out you to be merciful to you, to forgive you, to give you what you might not think you need but what you truly do. He is not coming in wrath. Do not overlook the Gospel in Paul’s message: “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” He didn’t say God’s wrath. He didn’t say God’s lecture. He said God’s salvation is nearer now than ever before. God is coming with an outstretched arm to save you from your sin.
You are dead in sin and cannot help yourself. That’s why He comes to you to raise you up. He is the one who works in a blessed backwardness. He is the rich man who seeks out the poor. He is the physician who seeks out the miserable. He is the Savior who seeks out the sinner. That’s why we begin each new Church Year at the entrance to Holy Week. He is riding into Jerusalem to die. We begin each Church Year by seeing the God of all creation, the one who spoke the universe into being, whose preincarnate fingers pulled together the dust of the earth to knit you together, riding a donkey to a sham trial and a brutal death. We begin each new Church Year by seeing what it will deliver to us—another year of God’s grace, another year of God’s self-giving love seen in crucifixion and burial, in death and resurrection.
Though Advent, though Christianity seem backwards, not how we would do it, this is a wonderful thing. It means we have a God who will do what seems unthinkable to the rest of the world. We have a God who stoops low to heal. We have a God who is not high and sovereign and cannot be bothered with us mere mortals, but a God who comes into our filth, who breathes our poisoned air, who takes on our sin. Rejoice in this backwards religion, this backwards Advent season. God doesn’t treat us the way we deserve to be treated, but the way a true God treats His people, seeking them to give them everything.
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.