Sunday, December 18, 2011
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 18, 2011)
“Pieces of the Puzzle” (2 Samuel 7:1-11; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38)
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
Christmas break began this weekend for our local schools. I was fortunate as a youngster to have both of my parents at home during Christmas break since they both worked in education. Sometimes we would stay at home for the holidays. Other times we would travel to my grandparents’ house in the mountains. One of my favorite memories about those days was putting together jigsaw puzzles. Whether at our house or at grandma and grandpa’s, there was always a card table set up with puzzle pieces scattered upon it. Sections of the puzzle were already carefully put together. The picture on the box was starting to be revealed. Whenever you felt like it, you could sit down and work for a while … and always with a big bowl of homemade Chex party mix that grandma had on hand.
God’s Old Testament people had a puzzle before them. Paul calls it a “mystery.” God had given pieces of the puzzle over time. But the people in those days were at a disadvantage. They didn’t have a box to look at to know what the final picture would look like.
So, when Adam and Eve, after the Fall into sin, heard the Lord say to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15), did they fully know what that meant? They had some idea that an offspring of the woman would be born and be some sort of a Savior for them. It is even possible that they somehow knew this offspring would also be divine. When Eve’s firstborn son Cain was born, she literally said, “I have gotten a man, the Lord!” But Cain turned out to be a sinner just like his parents. Disobedient. Rebellious. Wanting to take charge of his own life in spite of what God says. A chip off the old block. A sinner just like the Old Adam in each and every one of us. Cain was not the Savior. God’s original promise to them was one piece of the puzzle. But they didn’t have the whole picture. No box to look at. How God would go about fulfilling his promise to them remained a mystery. All they had to go on was faith that Yahweh would one day keep his promise to them.
Many years later, Yahweh appeared to Abraham and told him, “I will make of you a great nation … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Did Abraham fully understand what this was all about? His wife was well beyond the years of childbearing. How could a “great nation” come from his loins? But even when their son Isaac was finally miraculously conceived, did Abraham have any inkling that one of his descendants would be the Savior of the world? This was one piece of the puzzle. But it was not the whole picture. No box to look at. It was a mystery. Nevertheless, Abraham had faith in God’s promises. Genesis 15:6 says, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Fast forward through the accounts of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Flip the pages quickly to get through the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the period of the Judges. Now we get to David. David is the second King of Israel, anointed to succeed unfaithful Saul. An unlikely candidate. From the backwater town of Bethlehem. The youngest of his brothers. A shepherd boy. Not a nobleman. Not a warrior. No degree in Poli-Sci from Jerusalem U. Nevertheless, God chose David to be king. After all of David’s battles with his enemies, he was at peace in his palace. David now wanted to build a permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. No more tent for the earthly throne of Yahweh. It’s time to build him a house. But Yahweh had other plans. Through the prophet Nathan, the Lord said, “Leave it to someone else to build a house for me, David. I’m going to build a house for you. A dynasty! A kingdom that will last forever!”
Now here is truly a mystery. Recall David’s scandalous history. He was an adulterer. A murderer. God had forgiven him, we know that. David repented after being confronted by the prophet Nathan. But still, why would God promise something so great to a sinner such as David? Why would Yahweh want to make David’s name great? Why set someone on the throne of David forever? And how exactly was all this going to happen? I’m sure David knew that dynasties don’t last forever. After all, his sole predecessor was from the tribe of Benjamin, not Judah. Not much of a dynasty. Did David have any clue that one of his own descendants would be a divine King who, after dying and rising to life again, would ascend into heaven to rule and reign forever on his heavenly throne at the right hand of God the Father? Did he have any idea that this Son of David would be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? David didn’t have a box to look at. He probably didn’t have the whole picture. God’s promise to David was another piece of the puzzle, another clue in the mystery. There were more pieces laid out on the table now, but it was still not clear what the final image would turn out to be.
Over the next 600 years or so, God sent prophets to call the people of Israel to repentance. They were chasing after foreign gods, not the one True God, Yahweh, who had graciously chosen them, delivered them, been so very patient with them. Along the way, the prophets also doled out more pieces of the puzzle, if you will. Isaiah spoke of a “Suffering Servant” who would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Is. 53:5). Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant in which Yahweh would “forgive their iniquity” and “remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). Micah revealed that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Micah 4:2). These are just a few of the puzzle pieces that the prophets laid out on the table as the picture began to take shape.
Then … silence. 400 years, just like the silence during Israel’s captivity in Egypt. No message from the Lord … until finally, the angel Gabriel appeared to a priest named Zechariah in Jerusalem and to a previously insignificant daughter of David in the city of Nazareth. The final pieces of the puzzle were about ready to be put in place. One piece has a young virgin saying “Yes” to God’s plan. One piece has a manger. One piece has a cross. One piece has an empty tomb.
You and I have the advantage of looking back over time, looking at the Scriptures, and seeing “the picture on the box.” We see the completed story of God’s redemption, revealed piece by piece over time through the patriarchs and prophets, but now fulfilled in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Savior Jesus. This is “my Gospel,” Paul calls it in our text. “MY Good News.” It’s personal. And it’s personal for you, too. Jesus was born to save the world. In Holy Baptism, Jesus gathers people into his Body, the Church. But like a jigsaw puzzle that completes a picture, he does it piece by piece, one small piece at a time. Jesus was born to save you. This is YOUR Gospel. This is YOUR Good News. And God is able to “strengthen you” according to this Good News. As you hear this “gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ” God brings about “the obedience of faith” … that is, he calls forth faith in your hearts by his powerful, creative Word and Spirit.
Mary embodies this “obedience of faith” for us. The word of God from the angel calls forth faith in her heart. He conceives a child in a womb without human cooperation through the power of the Holy Spirit. He conceives faith in hearts without human cooperation through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing is impossible with God. Mary is a virgin, but she is not without sin. Her Son is her Savior, too. Her virginity matches the nothingness, the no-effort, the no-righteousness with which we approach God. It is a picture for us that we come to God with nothing to add to our salvation. God speaks his Word to us. That Word received by faith joins us to Christ and delivers Christ to us (thanks to Pastor Greg Alms for the thoughts in this paragraph from his blog http://incarnatusest.blogspot.com/2011/12/about-virginity-of-mary.html).
Now, we can respond like Mary, who said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Your pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins” and you can respond, “let it be to me according to your word.” Your pastor delivers the body and blood of Christ “given and shed for you,” and you can respond, “let it be to me according to your word.”
All the pieces are in place. Look at the picture on the box. What do you see? You see the Son of God who became the Son of David. You see the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who began his earthly existence as a tiny cluster of multiplying cells … a holy mystery kept secret in his mother’s womb until the day when he was brought forth and laid in a manger.