Adoration of the Shepherds

A sermon by Justin Clavet for the First Sunday in Advent, Preached at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Flanagan, Illinois, Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:8-14, and Matthew 24:36-44, December 1, 2019

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

St. John starts his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through him … In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:1-5).

The three words “in the beginning” start off another book in our English Bible – the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gn 1:1) – which is fitting, since both John 1 and Genesis 1 are recounting the same event, the moment when nothing became everything. In fact, this was the first moment, the beginning of time itself. Before there was only God. Just the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But John, you’ll recall, wrote that the Word was with God – and was God. What is the Word? No – who is the Word? Yes, this Word is not an it, but a he. And he is a very potent Word. You see, for God, every thing is a word and every word is a thing. Heaven. Earth. Light. Land. Water. Stars. Sun. Moon. Fish. Birds. Man. Woman. You. Me.

God speaks his Word into the great, vast nothing and this Word brings light and life into existence. This probably doesn’t sound right to you. After all, any sixth-grade science student could tell you that you cannot create new matter; you can’t create something out of nothing. And this is most certainly true. But the key word in both rules is “you”. You can’t create something out of nothing. But God can. And indeed, he does. And he does it by speaking his Word.

So, when God speaks, he must be very careful. Into our reality he can effortlessly bring destruction or triumph, curse or blessing, with the utterance of a single word. But our God is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful. He doesn’t make mistakes. Which leaves us one comfort to which we may cling: God keeps his promises. When he says that something will be, it is. In fact, it can be no other way. When God, who experiences all of eternity in one instant and every instant for all of eternity, speaks to us a truth about our past, present, or future, you can trust him. For God, everything that will be, has been.

And, if you don’t know already, God’s eternal Word, that one Word which is a “he” and not an “it” is the Son, Jesus Christ. And our knowledge of Christ’s identity as the Word of God is crucial to our understanding of the Scriptures, the Holy Bible, known also as the Word of God. For every letter and mark in this book points to Christ – is Christ. And our knowledge of Christ’s identity as the Word of God is especially important to our understanding of the mystery and the miracle of the Incarnation, to which the season of Advent points and the festival of Christmas marks.

John continues in the first chapter of his Gospel, ‘The light was coming into the world. Even though he was in the world, and the world itself was made through him, the world did not know him’ (Jn 1:9f). And because we did not know him, we were doomed to die – slaves to sin and playthings of the devil. But “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14).

Because of our ignorance, and our selfishness, and our wickedness, and out of his unending love for us, our Creator descended into our world and, from the womb of a human mother, was born into the flesh and became truly human.

At some time in the years 740 to 681 BC, the prophet Isaiah wrote the words we read in today’s first lesson. They foretell the coming of the Messiah, of Christ and his Church. Like the tallest mountain on the horizon attracts travelers and inspires awe, many people from all nations will be drawn to him. At the summit of that mountain God will “teach [them] his ways” and they will “walk in his paths” (Is 2:3). From the peak of this mountain which God has elevated above all others, the Word of the Lord will go out to all the world. And from this Word shall come peace. By him, nations will be judged and disputes put to rest. There will be no further use for weaponry or warcraft. All will walk in his light.

This mountaintop is the pinnacle of history, that point where creation meets salvation. Isaiah prophesied that, from this point, God will teach his people his ways, and show them his paths. Jesus revealed that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). The way is Christ. The path to life and salvation is through the Son. Not by following his example or obeying his commands, but by putting our faith in him – by staking our very lives on the quality of his Word and the goodness of his promises.

Much of this prophecy has already come true. While we await the day of perfect peace, we have seen the day when many people from all nations flowed to Christ, the source of all goodness and truth. He offers a new kind of citizenship to every man, woman, and child – one that is rooted not in the color of your skin, nor from whom you descend, nor where you are from – but in your faith. And indeed, we have seen the nations that adopt these principles of belonging by creed rather than by blood or by soil prosper in relative peace while others toil in war.

And while we await that day of peace which is yet to come, we would do well to remember Christ’s words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24:35; Mk 13:31; Lk 21:33). He spoke these words to his disciples immediately before today’s Gospel lesson, reminding us that he will return once again to judge the living and the dead.

In today’s second lesson St. Paul tells the Church at Rome that, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rm 13:8), and again, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rm 13:10). But the Law is very long. For any person to fulfill the Law with the single act of love would be seemingly impossible. But this “one who loves another,” (emphasis added) and thus has “fulfilled the law,” of whom St. Paul speaks is not you or me. It is a very particular one: Jesus Christ, on the cross. In his first epistle, St. John writes “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). The only one with a love pure enough and strong enough to satisfy all the commandments of the Law with a single act is God himself. The Word, become flesh, murdered at the hand of his own creatures by hanging on a cross, defeated the Law by his love for the world. Now, because of what he has done, you needn’t ever again wonder if your love is good enough, strong enough, pure enough to fulfill the Law and justify yourself before God. Which is good for you, because it could never be enough; you would always be in doubt.

My friends, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rm 13:11). Indeed, it is nearer to us now than it was even before I began to preach this sermon. So, “let us cast off the works of darkness,” our striving by the Law, “and put on the armor of light” (Rm 13:12), the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “[S]tay awake,” as Christ told his disciples, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). Time is running out. Time is ending. That’s why they call it the “end times.”

But you needn’t worry, nor run about trying to cram in all the good works you can for the sake of your salvation. For Christ has accomplished all on the cross. He has triumphed over sin, death, and the devil for you. All your sins are forgiven. And when the time comes that time must end, heaven and earth will pass away, but the Word of God will remain forever. But in the end, unlike in the beginning, you and I and all the children of God will be with Christ in whatever majesty he prepares for us now.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Image: Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, c. 1622, Dutch Republic. From the collection of the Pomeranian State Museum, Greifswald, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.