Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-45

Sermon – Advent 4 – Luke 1:39-45
Grace Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
“The Visitation”

Dear friends in Christ, it's good to be here this morning with my favorite congregation. Since I ended my service as pastor here in August, I've been busy visiting lots of LCMS congregations, building a network of support for my upcoming work as missionary to Singapore. It's been a lot of fun, actually, to see with each visit, a different congregation with a different personality and different circumstances, yet all of us united in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our desire to share that Gospel with the world. Visits, visits, visits, and so today it's good to be here, which I consider less a visit and more a chance to “stay home”.

Today, as we stand on the brink of Christmas, the Gospel reading is from Luke 1, an episode called “The Visitation”. Mary, the mother of our Lord, visits her cousin Elizabeth. And miraculous words and actions take place. Elizabeth confesses her faith, by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”. But the unborn John who can't speak also confesses his faith, and “leaps for joy” in the womb. The Greek word actually means he “skipped”. In word and deed, they welcome the Christ, who is about to appear in the flesh.

But not all visits go so well. In this holiday season, we probably have more visits than any other time of year. As family and friends stop by, or else we go to visit them – a short visit can be a good time, or it can be another stressful obligation in a busy season. Maybe your in-laws seem more like outlaws. Maybe you're on the opposite side of politics with that certain someone. Or maybe it's just an overbearing personality or two that gets under your skin. Sinners get on each others nerves, but after all, it's just a short visit. What's the big deal?

If a visit is a temporary thing, then couldn't we say we're all visitors here on earth? None of us will be here forever. We're all short-timers. We weep with those whose lives are cut short, like the children in Connecticut. But really, death could come and visit any of us on any day, even at Christmas. Our problems as sinners in the world go far beyond not getting along with visiting relatives. We are at odds with creation, with each other, with ourselves, and our God.

Sinful man doesn't want a visit from God, either. God's holy presence terrifies our old Adam. The original Adam and Eve hid in the garden when they had sinned, and God came to visit. Peter fell on his face before Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish. Isaiah saw God in the temple and cried out, “I am ruined!”. Even today, some people don't or won't come to church out of a sense of unworthiness. They joke, “Lightning would probably strike me if I set foot in there”. But there's a seriousness behind it, an admission of sin, a wariness of the holy.

Maybe you and I should have a little more of that wariness. A little more sense of fear and awe that we, sinners, also approach Holy God. Perhaps we take our confession a bit for granted, that we are deserving of temporal and eternal punishment. Let's not just mouth the words, but let's mean them. We, too, deserve the lightning strike, and much worse.

But there's a difference when God visits people who have faith. Like Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit. Like you and me, as we gather in God's presence each week. He comes to us, he visits us, not in judgment but in mercy. Not in wrath, but in kindness. Not with punishment, but with the forgiveness of sins won by Christ at the cross.

Because Jesus has visited our earth, visited his people, and not just for a pleasant hello and goodbye. His temporary time on earth was purposeful and meaningful. He had a job to do, and he did it. He had a life to give, and he gave it. His visit ended in his death, and his resurrection to glory. And those 33 years bring eternal blessings to all who trust in him. For he now prepares for us mansions in heaven, a permanent place for each of us.

But back to Elizabeth and Mary. This short visit before each woman gives birth reminds us that even a brief visit with Jesus is cause to leap for joy. Just the sound of Mary's greeting was enough for unborn baby John to react. What about the sound of our Lord's greeting, through the ones who bear him today? When the pastor invokes God's name, and Christ is present according to his promise? What a cause for joy! When the sins we confess are forgiven and absolved, by the pastor, as if by Christ himself in the flesh, we could leap for joy. When we hear God's voice in his holy word, equipping us with righteousness and showing us Christ, we rejoice all the more. And when we receive the very body and blood of Christ – when we taste and see and touch, if only for that brief moment, our soul could and should skip for joy within us. But not of our own reason or strength, but only through his Holy Spirit at work in us.

What blessings should come to me, poor, sinful, little old me, that God himself comes to visit me, and give his own body and blood for me, and give to me, yes, even me, his grace and mercy and love! So confess your faith in Christ by word and action. And may your frequent visits to his house make this place seem more like your home, and remind you of the eternal home he is preparing for you.

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