This sermon will be preached at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Metairie, Louisiana. Pastor Brad Drew and the Mt. Olive congregation have been very welcoming and supportive of me and my family since the day we moved to Louisiana, and it is always a privilege and a pleasure to be asked to bring the word to God's people there. I will also be privileged to view their children's program and participate in the luncheon after. (My timing has always been good!) I just hope the cold I have goes away enough for me to actually be able to preach this.
“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People”
Isaiah 40:1-8 (9-11)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When pastors teach about the Divine Service, they usually say that the service has three “high points” or points of emphasis: the reading of the Gospel, the sermon, and the distribution of the Lord’s Supper. We automatically give the Gospel reading due attention, since it is the Word of God. And of course we receive the Lord’s Supper with joy, as it is the body and blood of Christ which gives us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
But the sermon can be somewhat problematic. Preaching in our day has become a repugnant word to many, perhaps because people don’t know what preaching is supposed to be. For instance, one definition of preaching probably fits quite well the opinion many have of this task: “Preaching: the giving of moral advice, especially in a tiresome manner”. However, no matter what negative opinions people might have about preaching, the fact is that a number of the problems our Churches are experiencing today are due in large part to the fact that many of us who park our butts in the pews no longer have a desire to listen to a preacher who preaches. We have no desire to hear about our sins. We want entertainment. We want jokes. We want stories. And we want it to be short. If the sermon is longer than twelve minutes or so, the pastor has to beware of people examining their watches—or worse yet, people pretending to be asleep. We don’t want to hear a sermon about sin.
But the people in the pew are not entirely to blame. Many preachers themselves would much prefer to take the path of least resistance in their preaching, which means they aren’t going to ruffle too many feathers. They’re going to make every attempt to maintain the “status quo”. They aren’t going speak specifically about the sins of the people, and they’re never going do anything to upset the church council or the District or Synod. After all, no pastor desires to be thrown out of the congregation he has been Called to serve for preaching the Word of God in its truth and purity. It’s all too easy to back off rather than face the wrath of disaffected Christians.
We preachers, I’m sad to say, have been far too slow in taking up the uncomfortable alb and stole of St. John the Baptist. We’ve failed in our mission to be prophetic. We’ve fallen short of our calling to speak God’s Word clearly and forcefully, out of fear that we might make our people unhappy or move them too far away from their comfort zones. And because we have dropped the ball, because we have failed to preach the full counsel of God to you, we have failed you. We have failed to tell you that you sinners who are blown about by the winds of popular opinion and our own doubts rather than holding fast to the Word of God.
But Isaiah tells us of another word that must be spoken to the people of God: “comfort”. That is the key word, both of our Old Testament text and our sermon hymn for today. It was the command given to Isaiah in our text, and it was the command given to John the Baptizer. Hear again these words: “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’”
With these words, God is wooing His Bride back to Himself in the knowledge that her time of hard service has come to an end, that her exile is nearly over, that the Day of the Lord will soon be arriving, that her sin has been paid for. To tell people about the comfort of what God has done for them means that the preacher must first tell them that they have sinned. John has certainly done that for his hearers. Who but a faithful pastor would call his flock a “brood of vipers”? But once that happens, once the sinner heeds the call to true repentance, it is a joy and privilege to proclaim that Christ has died and has received the punishment those sins deserve. In Christ there is always more forgiveness than we have sin to forgive. That also means that there’s no life so wretched God cannot redeem it.
Whether it’s the voice of an angel, a prophet, a pastor, St. John or a murderer like St. Paul, it doesn’t really matter a bit. The only thing that matters is the Word of the Lord. That’s why pastors wear albs and stoles or cassock and surplice: so that from a distance, they all look alike. The only time it matters whether it’s Isaiah or John or Brad or Alan speaking is when you’re playing personality games, following the person rather than the Lord. When the Pharisees sent a group to look into John, they asked him who he was. He replied, “A voice!” Nothing more than that—just a voice. There we see John’s true prophetic greatness. Of himself, John knew he wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, much less preach anything of value. So John gave voice only to the things he was Called to say. And just as John spoke this message, so today we bring you comfort from God.
That voice speaks again—only now it speaks with a shout. Listen to these words from our sermon hymn, words which mirror our Old Testament reading:
Yea, her sins our God will pardon,
Blotting out each dark misdeed;
All that well deserved His anger
He no more will see or heed.
She hath suffered many a day,
Now her griefs have passed away;
God will change her pining sadness
Into ever-springing gladness.
This is what Jesus has come to do. This is why He became Immanuel, God dwelling among us. And it has to be shouted because this message must always overshadow and overpower the sound of those things we want to hear. When the voice cries out, “Behold Your God,” it’s shouting that God is here—in the water of Baptism, in His Word of Absolution, in the hearing of His Word as it is preached by faithful pastors, and in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. And the voice cries this out so that you might thus be prepared for the Day of His coming. He came first to Bethlehem as the child Immanuel, born in a stable in humility, born to bear our sins, to bring you comfort. He comes to you now as He raises you from the death of your sin through His sacrifice on the cross. And He will come again on the Last Day, when He raises your body from the grave to live with Him. Today we rejoice, for we know this to be true; for “the Word of our God stands forever ”—even when Pastor Drew or Pastor Kornacki are the ones who proclaim it. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.