Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 20, 2009)

Wordle: Untitled

“Surprise!” (Micah 5:2-5a)
Based on an outline by Timothy Saleska in Concordia Journal 35.4

Do you remember the movie “Planet of the Apes”? The 1968 version, not the remake from a few years ago. Now, I know what you're thinking. Only a few days before Christmas, I should be talking about movies like “It's a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” So why am I bringing up “Planet of the Apes”? Because it has one of the most surprising endings of all time.

The film begins with a spaceship crash-landing on a barren planet. The astronauts on board were in suspended animation, and their chronometer shows that they have been in hibernation for over 2,000 years. The astronauts crawl out of their ship and set out to find a way to survive. Eventually they encounter a civilization where apes and other primates are the dominant, intelligent species and humans are mute and oppressed and enslaved. One of the astronauts – named Taylor, played by Charlton Heston – befriends some of the apes, but is looked at suspiciously by the rest. Eventually, Heston's character has to escape and heads out to the wilderness with one of the human females he has become attached to.

The final scene shows them on horseback on the seashore. The camera peers down from high above looking down on Taylor. He stops the horse and dismounts. With the water splashing against his legs, he gazes up at something, a look of bewilderment on his face. He says, “I'm home. This whole time. You finally really did it.” He falls to the ground and pounds the sand. “You maniacs!” he screams. “You blew it up!” He calls down divine curses and damnation. Finally, the camera pans back and shows what he was looking at … the Statue of Liberty buried up to her waist in sand. Parts of the metal have been clearly melted. It becomes obvious that this planet is not some far distant one, but rather Earth many years in the future following a nuclear holocaust.

That ending is quite a surprise. I suppose you could name other movies you've seen or books you've read with some wild plot twists and unexpected endings. When you get to the ending, you are horrified … like in “Planet of the Apes.” Or maybe it was a happy ending, and you are delighted.

Our Old Testament lesson this morning from the prophet Micah gives us the opportunity to talk about a surprise ending. It's not a horrifying one. This one's quite delightful.

Micah foretells an expected birth, one from the town of Bethlehem in the region of Ephrathah, one from a small little clan within the tribe of Judah:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.

During Micah's ministry, the Assyrian armies from the north had swooped down upon the Northern Kingdom of Israel and devastated it. Israel became an Assyrian province named Samaria. The people were “given up” and deported. The land was repopulated with tribes from other lands. Then, Sennacherib and his Assyrian forces overran the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The capital city of Jerusalem was besieged, but was miraculously spared. 2 Kings 19 records for us that event when the Angel of the Lord went out at night and struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in their camp. Sennacherib and the rest of his army turned tail and headed home to Ninevah.

Some might say, however, that Micah's words seem to offer only a limited hope for an ancient people troubled by foreign enemies. It seems to promise another king, like David. It seems to promise another kingdom, like David's kingdom. David was born in Bethlehem and anointed there by the prophet Samuel to be Israel's king. This coming king would be a “ruler in Israel” like David. And David was shepherd, just as this coming ruler would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord.” Moreover, this ruler would finally conquer Israel's enemies and give peace to his people (5:4-6). “They shall dwell secure,” Micah writes. This king “shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”

Micah's words are thought to be an age-old belief sitting on history's bookshelves, which gives insight into what people used to believe. There still is no king like David ruling in Jerusalem. The initial hope for a shepherd-king who would give peace to his people seems to have run its course.

But here is the surprise. Micah's words ended with the birth of God himself into the world, when he took on human flesh. A little Baby was conceived in the womb of a young virgin by the name of Mary. She goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, who is also expecting a surprise baby. Hers is a surprise because she is well past child-bearing years, like Abraham's wife Sarah many years before. Elizabeth hears the greeting of Mary and Elizabeth's baby leaps in her womb. Even in his mother's belly, John the Baptist got all excited about this Child for whom he was to prepare the way. Then, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks profound words. She greets her young visitor (or should I say visitorS), saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth confesses that this Baby in Mary's womb is the Lord God himself.

In a few days, we celebrate the birth of that Baby. God came to save US. That is a surprise! This is not just a glimpse into what an ancient people used to believe, but a promise of a much bigger salvation than any we can imagine! This birth is not just concerned with the parochial issues of a set of Middle-Eastern tribes who claim Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their fathers. No, this birth is concerned with the salvation of all people of all time … Jew and Gentile alike. You and me.

Micah was right. This Baby's origins are “from of old, from ancient days.” He is the eternal Son of God. This Baby will grow up to be the Good Shepherd of His Church, loving and caring for us as a loving shepherd cares for his flock. “He will be their peace,” the prophet says. The peace this Baby comes to bring is not about the peace of a nation resting from the threats of their enemies. The peace this Baby comes to bring is about peace between God and man. This Baby will grow up to live a sinless life and die a sacrificial death in the place of all sinners who ever lived … and that includes every single one of us. We are “sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” St. Paul says at the end of today's Epistle reading (Heb. 10:10) We now rest in the peace of Jesus from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus conquered them all when he rose to life again on Easter morning. Forgiven in Christ, trusting in Christ's saving death, baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, hearing his Word and feeding on his Body and Blood, what the prophet said is true: God's people will dwell secure.

But are there any more surprises left? We may wish there would be. Life seems all too predictable. This birth might seem like “old news.” Nothing has happened to change things since then. Life doesn't seem all that peaceful nor secure. Temptation is still strong. The enemies of the Church still rage and threaten. It's verbal for us in our land. It's physical for our brothers and sisters in other places. Death still seems to have the upper hand. No one escapes.

But the surprise will come when this king appears again. Now his rule is hidden, and we wait for him to reveal himself. On that day, all of Christ's conquered enemies will be publicly judged once and for all. They will be shown to be the powerless things that they really are because Christ has already gained the victory for us.

Will that day come as a surprise for you? Will you be horrified? Or will you be delighted? How does your end figure in this? How you view that day will depend on your status right now. You don't have to wait to “rest in peace” until those words are engraved on your tombstone. You can rest in peace now. Jesus is your peace. That peace was given to you in your Baptism. That peace is given to you every time you hear the Good News of Jesus preached to you. That peace is spoken to you every time you confess your sins and hear the Word of Absolution. That peace is placed in your mouth every time you kneel at this altar.

There's no need for the end of the story to be a surprise. We already know how it ends for us. With the Baby of Bethlehem as our peace, when he returns in glory at his Second Advent, it will be more delightful for you than you can ever imagine.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace. (LSB 357.7)


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