December 2, 2018
According to recent studies between 6,000 and 10,000 churches will close this year in the United States; that’s between 100 and 200 per week. And this hits close to home for us this morning as Messiah Lutheran Church in Keokuk, IA, one of our sister congregations in Iowa District East, is having its final service before closing down permanently. Although the nation’s population continues to grow and we’re told the economy is growing even quicker and 70% of Americans still identify as Christian, more and more congregations simply can’t afford to support a building and a minister. This is likely due to the fact that, as recent studies also show, less than 20% of Americans attend a Christian church service in a given week.
Of course, such startling numbers didn’t happen overnight or without reason. One of the causes is a false theology, which Satan has spread in Christ’s Church. It goes like this: God is omnipresent, that is, he is present everywhere, therefore, I can be with God anytime and anywhere I want and therefore, I do not need to go to church to be with God. Like many heresies there is a little bit of truth in it. God certainly is omnipresent and you can certainly be with God anytime and anywhere, as Jesus himself instructs us that when we pray “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret.” (Matthew 6:6) And the Psalmist cries to God, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7)
Yet, although God is present everywhere and at all times, he is not always present in the same way; specifically, he is not always and everywhere present with his grace. The presence of God is a serious thing, just listen to what Isaiah the prophet said when he beheld God in a vision, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) And God spoke to Moses in Exodus 33, “Man shall not see my face and live.”
Those who are attending our Sunday morning Bible study on Leviticus know how difficult it is for God to be present with us humans. God is holy. We are sinners. God is a consuming fire. His holiness does not permit sin to be in his presence. So, God gave very specific instructions on how to build a tabernacle and what type of sacrifices to offer and when, so that God could be with his people without consuming them in fire. And while God’s presence can certainly be a terrifying thing, it is where we want to be! Especially when God comes to us with his grace, forgiving our sins and giving us eternal life.
The tabernacle of course points to Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh. Because God has become man, we poor sinners can be in his presence to receive his forgiveness and salvation. In fact, that is all the church is, but Jesus’ little lambs gathered in the presence of God to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd. God is present with his people showering them with his grace where his Word is taught in its truth and purity and where his Sacraments are rightly administered.
And since we want everyone to come into God’s presence and to receive God’s grace and forgiveness, so that they can have eternal life, it is very troubling that so many opt not to come to church and that so many churches continue to close and some here may even be thinking, how long will it be for us? So, how can we bring people to God?
Well, in fact, this is the wrong question. We cannot bring ourselves to God let alone bring others to him. As the beautiful Christmas hymn puts it, “Come from on high to me I cannot rise to Thee.” We cannot ascend to heaven to be with God. Nor can we bring him down to us. It is God who comes to us. And this is what our Gospel lesson teaches us today.
What do we see? We see a man on a colt of a donkey riding into a city in great humility. And yet, this is just as the prophet foretold, “Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” And this right here is the epitome of how our God comes to us. He comes to us lowly on a bed of straw wrapped in a diaper. He comes in human form calling himself the Son of Man even as he always remains the Son of God. He comes to us bloody and sweaty, struggling under a timber. He comes to us nailed to that same cross, crying out in dereliction. He comes to us dead in a tomb. He comes to us alive with holes in his hands, feet, and side. He comes to us speaking peace from God. He comes to us with cool water and profound words to make our conscience clean. He comes to us through the mouth of humble men and under the forms of bread and wine. This is how our God comes to us.
Advent means coming. To those who think that God is already here and there is nothing more to his presence than what we see out in the woods while hunting or in our living room while watching T.V. or wherever else we may be, this season of Advent must seem like a bunch of nonsense. But for those of us, who are trouble with our sins, who don’t hear God’s forgiveness spoken to us from the trees, we need God to come to us. We all need God to come to us. We need him to come and save us from our sins which lead to death and to give us eternal life. This season into which we enter today is all about God coming to us.
And so, since it is God who comes to us, we don’t ask the question how we come to him, but rather, how do we receive God as he comes to us. Or, better yet, how does God prepare us to receive him. When the chief priests and scribes became indignant at the children in the temple crying out to Jesus, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”, Jesus responded, “have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” It is God, who prepares praise for his own coming and he does this by creating faith in our hearts.
The crowd, who shouted, “Hosanna, to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” believed that this man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was their king. Did Jesus look like a king? Not really. But they didn’t determine that Jesus was their king through human logic. They received Jesus as their king through faith. St. Paul writes, “the righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘‘‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (That is, the word of faith that we proclaim).” (Romans 10:6-8) The crowd celebrating Christ’s arrival as their king believed the word of God, which Zechariah proclaimed in chapter 9, “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17) God creates faith in our hearts and prepares praise in our mouths through his word. And it is only through faith that one can receive God as he comes. King Herod did not have faith, so he tried to kill the baby Christ. Yet, the shepherds and wisemen, who had faith in the word of God bowed down to a baby as their king. The chief priests and scribes didn’t believe the word of God, so they rejected Jesus as he arrived as the Prophet described. But those, who did believe God’s word welcomed their God as he came to them.
God comes to us in ways that can only be received by faith. Because in order for God to save us from our sins, he must come to us with his grace. We are incapable of earning our way to heaven. Every work we do according to our natural abilities is tainted with sin. So, in order for us to obtain salvation, we must receive this as a gift. Faith is nothing else than receiving God’s free gift.
This is why God became a man. None of us could possibly claim to have helped God become man in any way. Yet, God did this, so that he could share in our misery, fulfill the law in our place, and be punished in our stead. Jesus’ death on the cross betrays all our human logic and pride, yet it was necessary if we were to receive eternal life. Justice must be paid. Jesus paid it by suffering the punishment we deserved. This involved the almighty God coming in humble human flesh and suffering despicable shame. And the only way you can possible receive this is through faith in God’s word “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
In order to receive God’s grace, you yourself must be humble. God exalts the humble, fills the empty, raises the dead. This is what it means to be saved by grace. This means that you must repent of your sins. It is your sin, which separate you from God and sentences you to death and hell. Christ has come to take your sin away and give you eternal life. Faith involves not only having knowledge that Jesus has come to save you, but to place your sins on Jesus and trust in his forgiveness. This is why St. Paul tells us to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. God prepares you for his coming by giving you a repentant heart that constantly flees from your sinful condition and clings to Jesus for salvation.
Advent is about God coming to us with his grace now through his Word and Sacraments and us receiving God’s grace through faith in his word. This was demonstrated to us in Christ’s triumphal entry, as the crowds believing the words of the prophet recited the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Through holy Scripture written a thousand years before this event God placed these words of faith into the mouth of the crowd. And God has placed those same words into our mouths. We join with the saints of the Bible by reciting these same words as our Lord and King comes to us in bread and wine. By using these words, we receive God as he himself taught us to.
Advent is also about God coming in judgment when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. At this coming, everyone will recognize Christ as the King, even those who do not have faith. But we who have received God’s grace through faith have no fear of that day. There is now no condemnation for those, who are in Christ Jesus.
It is God, who will grow his Church. He will prepare praise from the mouths of those you would least expect. And he does this through his word, which creates faith in our hearts. Yes, God will use us to grow his church. As we teach the faith to our children and bring them to church to hear the Gospel and as we confess the faith to others out in the world. God works through these words to gather his sheep, just as he gathered the crowds to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. But it is God who does this. And he does this through his word. And we will not improve on the work of God by abandoning the message of Jesus or trying to make it sound more appealing to another generation. Through the words of the Gospel God will call sinners to himself where and when it pleases him. And as those crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus with shouts of Hosanna nearly two thousand years ago, so do we welcome our Lord today as he comes to us to save us from our sins, so will generations after us, and so will we when we welcome our Lord when he comes on the Last Day. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.