Advent thoughts: December 15

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2—read Isaiah 40:1-11).

As a prophet of the Lord, Isaiah frequently had to deliver bad news to Israel and to Judah. In Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell message, God had spoken about the covenant he made with Israel. If they were faithful to him and kept his commandments, he would bless them with peace and prosperity. If they turned away from him and worshiped other gods and broke his commandments, he would bring judgment on them and punishment. Throughout the time of the judges and the kings of Israel, the terms of this covenant remained in effect. The people fluctuated between unfaithfulness, which brought punishment, and repentance and faith, which brought relief. Eventually, the sins of the nation piled up so high that, under the terms of the covenant, God had to bring the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Promised Land to punish his people for their sins.

When Isaiah preached about the covenant, he could only offer bad news to the Lord’s people. But something bigger than the covenant also existed: the love and mercy and grace of God. Along with warnings of God’s punishment, the prophet could also share God’s comfort. The people had declared war upon God by worshiping false gods, but God in his grace declared the warfare ended. The people had acquired a debt to God by their sins, but God in his mercy pardoned their debt. In his love, God sent his Son to pay that debt—not only to pay it in full by his sacrifice, but to pay more than the full cost, to pay double for their sins, so no debt would remain outstanding.

Isaiah contrasted the covenant’s demands with the Lord’s grace. Under the covenant, the Promised Land became a wilderness; but under grace, a highway was built through the wilderness to bring God’s people home. Under the covenant, the people were like grass withering in the heat of the sun; but under grace they were sustained by the Word of the Lord, which stands forever. Under the covenant, the people received bad news from the Lord’s prophets; but under grace they heard good news of rescue and redemption. The good news was so good that they were to shout it from a high mountain—to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” God would come with might, not to punish sinners but to rescue his people from sin, to redeem them and to comfort them with his mercy and love and grace.

The glory of the Lord was revealed as a baby was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloths, and placed in a manger. The glory of the Lord was revealed as angels shared the good news with shepherds watching their flocks by night. The glory of the Lord was revealed as wise men came bearing gifts for the King. The glory of the Lord was revealed as the Son of God was sentenced to die on a Roman cross, paying double for the sins of his people so they could be ransomed.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” This Word is his promise of peace, of forgiveness, and of new life. No power in all creation can take away this promise, for God has spoken, and his promises cannot be revoked. Even as sinners living in a sinful world, we have this comfort that God has made us saints. Thanks be to God! J.

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God’s holy time

God says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Salvageable adds: “Holy” and “sacred” mean the property of God, something that has been given to God and belongs to him. “Despise” means not only to hate, but also to disregard, to treat as of no importance.

Notice that Luther’s explanation does not mention days of the week. In the beginning, according to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. While the world was still very good, pure and without sin, God mandated that people were to follow his pattern, working six days but resting from work on the seventh day. God, who made us, knows that we require rest from both physical labor and mental effort. Therefore he gave us the gift of a day free from work, a day when we can rest and can also focus on our relationship with God.

In the Law of Moses, God stressed the holiness of the seventh day of the week, demanding that his people do no work on that seventh day. Even the gift of manna in the wilderness was withheld on the seventh day of the week. The rabbis of Israel in Roman times (the Pharisees) made a detailed study of God’s commandments and had a long list of requirements, teaching what can and cannot be done on the seventh day of the week. They criticized Jesus and his disciples for going against their requirements. Rather than entering a detailed debate with them about the commandment, Jesus said simply, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

Paul explained what this means in his letter to the Colossians. He wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (or, better, “the substance is Christ”) (Colossians 2:16-17). As Jesus in his death fulfilled the significance of the Passover lamb and the other animal sacrifices (as well as the kosher food rules, which are related to the sacrifices) by his death on the cross, so Jesus also fulfilled the significance of the Sabbath day by resting on that day, his body in a tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. As Christians do not sacrifice bulls and lambs to God, knowing that the death of Jesus ended that practice, so Christians are not required to rest on the seventh day of the week. We are free to gather for rest, for worship, and for renewal of our relationship with God whenever we choose. Most Christians choose to gather on Sunday morning, the weekly anniversary of Christ’s resurrection, but a group that gathers on Wednesday night or Friday afternoon or any other time is not breaking God’s commandment.

Yet it is incorrect to say that the Sabbath commandment, unlike the other Ten Commandments, is not repeated in the New Testament and can be ignored by Christians. Jesus expected us to gather when he promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews admonishes, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Therefore, Luther stresses that the Sabbath commandment is obeyed or broken by our attitude towards God’s Word and the preaching of it. One Christian who occasionally misses a Sunday morning church service because of work obligations or illness but regrets it has not broken the commandment; another who attends every Sunday but disdains the Bible readings and the sermon has broken the commandment. As Luther says, we should gladly hear and learn God’s Word, for the Word is the power that changes our lives and brings us forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Christ’s sacrifice.

Every Christian needs some holy time, some time that belongs to God, preferably daily. This time is best spent in reading the Bible, meditating on its message, and in prayer. But even this is not enough. Every Christian needs to gather with like-minded Christians, preferably weekly. This time also is holy. Christians gather to support one another and to receive the support of each other. They also gather to hear God’s Word and to honor his name with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Jesus assures us that when we gather in his name—celebrating his victory and his forgiveness and all his promises—he is present in a special way. By means of the gathering, he shares his victory and his forgiveness with his people. J.