Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
The journal Homiletics once had a story about a central European town where the older townspeople could be seen making the sign of the cross as they passed by a certain ordinary-looking wall. When a visitor asked why they were doing it, no one knew. The visitor’s curiosity led him to chip away at the layers of whitewash and dirt covering the wall until he discovered a beautiful mural of Mary and the child Jesus. Generations before, the townspeople had a reason for making the sign of the cross, but succeeding generations only learned the ritual. They continued to go through the motions without knowing the reason. The story concluded with this observation (warning): “This is the danger we face each Christmas, going through the motions without ever knowing why.”
Two Advent Sundays are behind us and most of the Christians in America did not attend worship on either of them. By contrast, in most of the countries where LCMS World Mission works in Africa, nearly twice as many people worshiped at the Lutheran churches as are members of those churches.
Advent is a season of repentance and a season of promises and possibilities. On the one hand, we have John the Baptizer urging us to repent, to change and get our lives and priorities in order. On the other hand, we have Isaiah telling us about a time of great peace and wondrous renewal.
In the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, the word “will” appears 28 times in the ten verses of this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah. I realize that in Isaiah’s language, the word doesn’t appear. It is a way to express the future tense in English. But the NIV translation illustrates a truth about Isaiah. He had confidence! That’s a three-syllable word for faith. For Isaiah, the coming kingdom was not a dreamy vision; he could see clearly what will happen. He painted a pretty breathtaking picture:
“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you.’ Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Have you made a Christmas wish list? Were you dry and practical, or did you dream a little? Being practical, I wish for clothing, tools and golf stuff. Dreaming or hoping, I wish there was both peace and plenty in every part of the world. I wish that every armed services person, from every country in the world, would be home for Christmas. I wish we were creating only beautiful visions in our environment and no more nightmares. I wish every member of every church had been in church last Sunday and will be next. I wish that no one would simply go through the motions this Christmas. I wish I were everything God wants me to be. Most of all, I wish that everyone everywhere would have the peace of Christ that is beyond all human understanding.
I can put my practical wishes on a gift list, but the other things are on my prayer list. I don’t care if I go through Christmas without a shirt, a tool or a toy. I do care that I receive a share of the vision, expectation and anticipation of Isaiah.
This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one that has kept theologians, interpreters and preachers buzzing ever since it was written. John the Baptizer was in prison. His personal expectations were rather gloomy. He did not expect to be released — executed, maybe, but not released. John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Theologians have argued about whether John, in his gloomy situation, was feeling some doubts. I believe that is possible, but I don’t think it is likely.
The first prophetic act of John the Baptizer took place before he was born. When Mary, expecting Jesus, came to visit Elizabeth, expecting John, Elizabeth did not know about Mary’s circumstances. Her unborn child, filled with the Holy Spirit, did know! He leaped within her when Mary arrived. One author suggested that John “kicked” his mother into recognizing Jesus. Later, he kicked his own generation into recognizing Him. And every Advent, he returns to kick those of us in succeeding generations. I am of the opinion that this question was John’s way of kicking his disciples out of his nest.
Jesus answered their question by telling them to report to John what their own eyes could see and their own ears could hear: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor.” At least part of Isaiah’s marvelous vision was being fulfilled right under their noses. Then, as John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus identified John as the prophet promised by Isaiah, and He added, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.”
There is something to put on your Christmas wish list: “I wish to be greater than John the Baptist!” But be careful what you pray for — there is more to this than kooky clothing and a dizzy diet. John’s insistent preaching about the coming kingdom is what got him imprisoned and eventually cost him his head. The least in the kingdom of heaven should not expect better treatment than the One who is first in the kingdom of heaven and that One was crucified. The promise of Christmas shimmers with light and life precisely because the darkness of death outlines it so starkly.
The Babe of Bethlehem is the Man on Golgotha. If He were not one and the same, His birth would be remembered in an entirely different way. Had God come to the world to give us what we had coming, there would be no celebration at all. He came to give us Himself and, more than that, to give Himself for us. His astonishing grace and mercy ought to give us the courage and confidence that He will consider our “wish list” with love and not with reference, for instance, to whether we’ve been naughty or nice.
Charles Dickens once said, “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its Founder was a child Himself.” When our parents encouraged us, as children, to make a Christmas wish list, we were not afraid to wish for the impossible. Perhaps, this Christmas, we should do that again from an adult perspective. Pray to Him whose pockets run deeper than our imaginations. But remember how, also as children, once we opened all those gifts under the tree, things never measured up to our expectations and anticipations? Things never do, so bring childlike but not childish expectations to God.
I’m sure that if a billionaire told us we could have anything we want for Christmas, we could come up with a request or two. Billionaires are paupers next to God. What if God said that we could have any non-thing we want? A well-known hymn by John Newton urges, “Thou art coming to a King, Large petitions with thee bring; For His grace and power are such, None can ever ask too much.”
Want some suggestions? Pray that persecution of Christians — anywhere — stop, now, forever. Pray that countries that are closed to the Gospel would learn that there is nothing to fear from a Savior who loves us to death. Pray that in places where traditions and long-standing resistances have become barriers to the Gospel that those barriers would disappear like a wisp of smoke. Pray that every Christian would recognize and heed God’s call to be a missionary — whether at home or abroad, to a family member or cross culturally. You get the idea.