Today, I would like for us to put the 11th Commandment on hold as I begin my sermon. You do know what the 11th Commandment is, right? It was a commandment written specifically for Lutherans in worship. It reads, when worshiping, thou shalt do nothing except stand, sit, sing hymns, and occasionally laugh and clap. I know that some of you life long Lutherans are wondering about that laugh and clap part, but it was discovered that German scribes omitted that last part to purposely make worship more somber. Recently archaeologists dug up some very old manuscripts to show that laughing and clapping were actually in the original text. Okay. Enough of the fiction. But on a serious note, I would like to ask you to do something a little different because I am going to put my preaching to the test this morning, and I need your help to do it. I am going to ask you a question at the beginning of my sermon, and then I am going to ask you the same question at the end of the sermon. I will be able to measure the effectiveness of my preaching if there is a difference. Can you please help me? Here is the question: do you believe that you have seen the salvation of God? Please raise your hand if you believe that you have seen the salvation of God. I’m not going to criticize you or anything. I am not going to judge you or anything of the sort. Please, again, raise your hand if you believe you have seen God’s salvation. Thank you (describe at 8 a.m. for radio audience).
You may be wondering why I asked that question, and I will tell you. For years, I understood that our Christian faith was focused on what I was supposed to do. I thought that it was about me being a good person. I thought it was about me following the commands of God. I thought it was about being nice and kind and generous. I thought it was about me telling others to do the same—to believe in Jesus and work hard to be a good person. But over time, I came to see that first and foremost, Christianity was not focused on me and my actions. Those things come into play, don’t get me wrong, but they are not primary. What is primary; what is central and core to Christianity is not what I do, but what God has already done in Jesus Christ.
This is one of the reasons we set aside four Sundays to prepare for the arrival of Jesus at the very beginning of the church year. We focus our attention on what is happening as God comes to earth as that babe in Bethlehem, and we remember that He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Traditionally, we spend a couple of weeks hearing about John the Baptist and his ministry because he was the one who prepared the way for Jesus’ when Jesus first came. Our Gospel lesson brings this forward to us this morning from the third chapter of the book of Luke.
And Luke begins with this list of powerful people in the Roman Empire. He begins with Emperor Tiberius and then narrows it down to Pontius Pilate. He then talks about Herod, the puppet king of Israel, and then Philip and Lysanias. Finally, Luke lists Annas and Caiaphas the high priest of the Temple. At first, this might seem like just a list of the powerbrokers of the day, but Luke is telling us something important. Luke is telling us that when God acts, He is not removed from history. God moves within human history working in the world that He created. God is not distant, set apart, just watching things transpire. God looks into our world and moves! No matter who is in power. No matter who is in control. It doesn’t matter who controls the House or the Senate or the Presidency. It doesn’t matter who is on the Supreme Court. Despite what these folks might be doing, they are not the ones who truly are calling the shots. They are not the ones with ultimate authority. There is someone who is more powerful, more important, more diligent moving in the course of history. God’s power and might, when they are revealed are much more important than all of humanity’s rulers.
And God’s power is revealed in the Judean wilderness as it falls upon a very interesting character—a 30ish young man who is dressed in camel’s hair and who eats grasshoppers and wild honey. But this man’s dress and diet aren’t what gets the attention. What is getting the attention is that for the first time in 400 years, God has raised up a prophet. The people were longing and yearning to hear God speak. God had been silent for all this time, and finally, finally God was once again speaking! God was once again communicating through a prophet!! The people went out to hear John with anticipation and hope.
And John called them to repentance. John called them to be purified by the waters of baptism. Perhaps Pastor Casey will go into this in more detail next Sunday as John’s teaching is fleshed out, but for our purposes today, for our purposes today, we are only given the reason why John was calling people to repentance. We are only given the reason why John was baptizing.
Luke quotes the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah to make it very clear what is happening in John the Baptist’s ministry. John is a herald. John is someone who is preparing the way. John is, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6And all people will see God’s salvation.”
When you read further down in the 40th Chapter of Isaiah, it becomes even more clear what John was doing. Verse 9 and following says, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
John is heralding the arrival of the Lord God. John is telling people that the Lord is arriving! And there is only one appropriate path for the Lord. It cannot have any dips or hills. It cannot have any curves. Everything should be straight and level! Nothing must stand in the way of the Lord!
Oh, for years how I thought that the most important part of this passage was the thought that we needed to be making those paths straight. Oh how I thought that it was the church’s job to level the hills, raise the valleys, and straighten the paths. Oh how I thought it was the church’s job to transform the world—to save the world. Oh, how misguided I was. Because to save the world—to make all the hills level and to bring up the valleys; to straighten out the curves would be more difficult than trying to figure out what is in several boxes of canned goods that someone had taken all the labels off of—not that anyone would intentionally do that, would they? (For those of you who didn’t get that reference, talk to me later.)
And so, I was very thankful for Pastor Casey’s words last week when he said, “It’s not our job to save the world because Jesus already said that He will save the world. Our job is to tell of Jesus, to see the beauty of the work that Jesus is already doing…” And I would like to add this morning—to see the beauty of what Jesus has already done.
For, you see, my brothers and sisters, that is the key. Salvation has already been revealed. Salvation has already come. Salvation isn’t something that is far and away to be experienced at a future date. Salvation isn’t something that we have to scrounge around and look for. Salvation isn’t something mysterious hidden away that we have to uncover. It is right before each and every person, and all you have to do to see it is look at the cross. All you have to do to see it is look at the empty tomb.
“For it was on that old cross that Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me.” On the cross, Jesus saved you. On the cross Jesus redeemed you. On the cross Jesus gave you salvation. On the cross, He bought you not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious blood. When Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished,” He was letting us know that He has brought salvation to us.
And, the empty tomb shows what will happen to us in the end. We have a preview of what will happen to us. All the evil that has ever been done will be unmade. All of the suffering that we have undergone will be transformed. All darkness will turn to light. All hatred will turn to love. All sadness will turn to joy. This is no secret. Because of Jesus, this is something we can count on; this is something we can trust in.
Salvation, my brothers and sisters, has been revealed. Salvation has been accomplished. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.”
When you look at Jesus, you are seeing salvation. You are like Simeon in the temple holding up the Christ child and singing, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Oh, and now, and now I must put my preaching to the test. I must see whether or not the Spirit was using me this morning. For now, if every hand is not raised, then I have much more work to do to become more effective. If every hand is not raised, then I have failed to show you Jesus—for in Jesus you see the salvation of God. Please now raise your hand if you have seen Jesus. Raise your hand if you have seen His work on the cross. Raise your hand if you have seen the glory of his resurrection. Raise your hand if you have been saved by His wondrous and glorious grace.
And let us pray: Holy God, you have worked to bring salvation to the world through Jesus. He has bought us with great priced and saved us from our sin. Help us to see this each and every day. Help us to hold onto this with a sure and certain hope. Help us to find great joy in your love for us, and encourage us to prepare a way so that others may see Jesus as well. We ask this in His holy and precious name. Amen.