Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sermon for Midweek Advent 3 (December 15, 2009)

Wordle: Untitled

“Who May Ascend Mount Zion's Holy Hill?”

Who may ascend Mount Zion’s holy hill
To do God’s will?
The One whose unstained hands
Can meet the Law’s demands,
Whose purity within
Reveals One free from sin.
Come, praise this King who claims the cross as throne—
Praise Him alone! (LSB 339.3)

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psalm 24:3-5)

Is there anyone truly worthy of being in God's presence? At Mount Sinai, the Israelites trembled with fear. Lightning, thunder, the sound of a trumpet, and smoke came from the mountain. The people stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Ex. 20:19) They recognized God's holiness, and knew they were not able to be near him or even to hear his voice. But how quickly they forgot. While Moses was delayed on the mountain, they decided to throw a “little” party and turn a golden statue of a calf into their “god.” And the Israelites of those days are not all that different from us, are they? We, too, have our golden calves that we toy with, rather than worshiping the one true God in truth and purity.

Not only did God give the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai, which so starkly point out our sin in the light of God's holiness. God also graciously provided the worship of the tabernacle so that sacrifices could be offered which would cover sin. In this way, the people could approach God in faith and trust. Later on, the temporary tent became a permanent temple, situated on Mount Zion … Jerusalem. And so, the psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” The temple was the place where God had promised to be present. Although God is not limited by time or space, he promised that there was a place where one could be sure to find him. Between the cherubim, above the mercy seat on top of the ark of the covenant … that was where God would be present on earth.

As you walked up the pathway toward Mount Zion, you were getting closer to God. But you could only go so far. Unless you were a priest, you could not enter the temple itself. You could enter one of the courtyards. Women could proceed no farther than the Court of the Women. Then Jewish men could come a bit closer to the temple in the Court of the Men. But only the Levites and priests could enter the temple building itself. And only priests descended from Aaron were allowed to enter behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement.

The psalmist asks, “Who shall stand in his holy place?” He answers: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” Both external and internal holiness was required. There was to be not a hint of idolatry and no broken promises. Where are you going to find a priest like that? They were human beings. And human beings are utterly sinful and corrupt. The priests were full of unholiness. That's why the priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sin first before they could offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. And even then, those sacrifices had to be offered over and over and over again, day after day, year after year. What a burdensome, bloody task that was.

So here we are, some 2000 years later, and human nature has not changed one iota. People are still utterly sinful and corrupt. You and I are not worthy to be in God's presence. Our hands are soiled, our hearts are impure, our minds are full of idolatrous thoughts, and our record shows a host of broken promises.

The hymnwriter gives the answer to our dilemma in the last stanza: “Worthy is Christ!” Christ Jesus is the only one who was ever truly worthy to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in the holy place.

Recall the Angel Gabriel's message to Mary in Luke 1: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) And then remember Joseph and the angel's message to him. Joseph, engaged to be married to Mary, discovers that she is pregnant. He considers divorcing her (as would have been necessary in those days even if you were engaged, since betrothal was seen to be a legal bond). But before he does so, the angel comes to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21) And then, the Gospel writer adds, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel' (which means, God with us).” (Matt. 1:22-23)

This child will be holy. The Son of God. Immanuel. God with us. Since all that is the case, then this child is the only one ever born whose hands are clean and whose heart is pure. His “purity within reveals [him] free from sin.” Jesus was a perfectly obedient and faithful Son to his Father. His “unstained hands can meet the Law's demands,” the demands which require that we be holy and perfect before a holy and righteous God. Paul explains this when he gives his version of the Christmas story in Galatians 4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4:4-5) Jesus kept the Law perfectly in our place, and died with the penalty for our sin laid upon him. He became both the only truly holy priest and the most holy sacrifice, offering himself up on behalf of all sinners. By faith in him and his sacrificial death, you and I are declared “free from sin” and are adopted into God's own family as his beloved children.

By baptism and by faith, you and I receive what Christ gained for us: “blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of [our] salvation.” In Christ, our hands are clean and our hearts are pure. We can now draw near to the One who drew near to us. Our Lord Jesus drew near to us at his birth, the King enthroned in the manger of Bethlehem. Our Lord Jesus drew near to us in order to die for us, the King enthroned upon the cross of Calvary. And our Risen Lord Jesus still draws near to us today in Word, water, and bread and wine. We lift up our heads to receive his blessings of forgiveness and eternal life through faith in his promises which have never failed.

“Lift up your heads, you everlasting doors.” Worship your holy King who descended from heaven in all humility to be born in a cattle stall. See your holy King ascend Mount Zion's holy hill on the back of a beast of burden. Watch as your King ascends Mount Calvary's holy hill, bearing his cross and the burden of the sin of the world. Behold your Risen Lord ascend back into heaven in the presence of his disciples on the Mount of Olives. And wait patiently for the day when your King descends in glory at the culmination of all things.

“Come praise this King who claims the cross as throne … 'Worthy is Christ!' The Lamb be praised again! Amen! Amen!”

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