23 December 2013

When God Comes to Visit

Here is yesterday's homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli - using the alternate Gospel reading, Luke 1:39-56.

What would you do if God came to visit? We know what to do when relatives come to visit. Clean the house, prepare the food, plan some activities, enjoy each other’s company, and reminisce over days of old. We know what to do when an important celebrity or dignitary comes to town. Roll out the red carpet, so to speak, show the best sights of the town, and have very nice catered dinner. But what would you do if God came to visit?

Today’s Gospel reading shows what happens when God in Christ comes to visit. A certain young, unsuspecting little Jewish girl—about 14 or 15 years old—had seen an angel. The angel had catechized, or instructed, her as to God’s plan of salvation. That plan involved her. She would be the mother of God, of the holy Son of God, that is. But how could it be? She wasn’t married. She had never been intimate with a man. Yet the Virgin Mary would be the new tabernacle, the new home, for God’s presence. Pretty amazing! What did Mary do when God came to visit? She trusted the Word of God spoken by the angel Gabriel. God’s favor was at work. God Himself chose Mary, not because of any quality in her, but only because of His gracious favor.

Now everywhere that Mary went God’s presence was sure to go. When Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, God also went to visit. Today we see what happens when God comes to visit. All creation rejoices. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). People who faithfully receive God in the flesh—as He hides in ordinary flesh—rejoice in worship. The highest form of worship is faith, and that faith expresses itself in proclaiming and singing. “Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!”

Our Old Testament reading today sets the stage. What was happening with the Virgin Mary? Why did womb-bound John and his senior citizen mother leap and sing for joy? In Moses’ day, about 1400 years before Christ, God promised a Prophet like Moses. He would speak God’s words; He would be God’s voice.

When Virgin Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, the promised Prophet was coming to visit. In Mary, God was fulfilling this and all of His promises of the past. The Baby in her belly was the focal point of God’s works to save a fallen, broken world. God was coming into His creation as a creature, as one of us. God was coming to restore creation and redeem sinners. God was coming to visit Elizabeth and John.

Of course, God was present everywhere. When the Son of God took on human flesh, the Triune God did not stop being omnipresent. But God did, of His own choosing, make Himself present in a specific place, in a specific virgin’s womb. This was not any old presence of God. This was His gracious, forgiving, life-restoring presence—wrapped up in flesh and blood, wrapped up in His mother’s womb. John realized this. He leaped in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth also realized this. So she sang a song of faith: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

John and Elizabeth are our examples in faith. They did not see Jesus with their eyes, but they received His real, in-the-flesh visit just the same. When John leapt for joy, it was proof that all creation shudders at the presence of the Savior. When Jesus comes to visit, all creation benefits; our broken world is restored; a new creation comes forth. When Elizabeth sang for joy, it was proof that God Almighty Himself—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—was right there in her midst. God was not abstract and “out there” somewhere—merely present everywhere. Instead, God was in His mother’s womb. And Elizabeth recognized this with the eyes of faith.

What do we do when God comes to visit? Sure, God is always everywhere. But that’s not necessarily good news. God is present in the tornado or the earthquake or the icy winter storm, but that’s hardly good news. And you can’t be sure if it’s God or something else present in the peaceful silence or the shifting emotions inside you. When God comes to visit, He comes for your comfort and certainty. That’s why He comes to a specific place. That’s why He comes outside of us. That’s why He announces where He will be. For us He comes to visit in His Word preached and read, in plain water, in spoken forgiveness, and in humble bread and wine. [10:30 – God has most certainly come for little Charles in the waters of Baptism.]

The question is this: Do we receive the Divine Visitor as Elizabeth and John did, receiving Him in faith and worship? Or do we instead treat preaching, baptizing, absolving, and communing as insignificant things? Our lack of faith shows in how lightly we esteem God’s service to us in His Word and Sacraments. In the Christmas rush, we like to find our identity in what we make, or buy, or give, rather than in God’s gift of life in Baptism. The hustle and bustle of shopping and entertaining and getting ready for Christmas no doubt make us tired, tense, and irritable. And too often we vent and snap at those around us—family members, coworkers, or innocent, frazzled store clerks. Yet we’re too busy to come confess our sins at God’s altar and hear His precious Absolution, that is, forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself. And instead of getting fat on the forgiveness given and shed in the Lord’s Supper, we’ve been relying on our full schedules and on our holiday diet choices for comfort and strength. All this because we think it is a light and insignificant thing when God comes to visit in water, words, and meal.

Don’t misunderstand. Elizabeth and John and even the Virgin Mary were no more worthy of God coming to visit them. They were sinners just as we are. Yet He came just the same. Elizabeth was an old woman about to have her first baby. Being barren had been a social disgrace. Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. Another social disgrace! But God came to visit anyway. Our little faith and our misplaced priorities make us a disgrace in God’s eyes. But God still comes to visit and to save. The very Jesus carried helplessly in Mary’s womb would later heal the lame, cause the blind to see, raise the dead, and preach the Gospel to poor, miserable sinners. Then He would restore our fallen race. He would forgive our wretched sin by hanging helplessly on the cross and resting lifelessly in the tomb. Even today, this same Jesus—crucified and risen—comes to visit you with the same favor given to Mary and Elizabeth and John. He comes to visit you. He comes hidden in water, words, and meal.

So, what do we do when God comes to visit? We worship. We sing. We proclaim the Lord’s favor. Mary’s song directs our worship and guides our singing. Mary is blessed by God’s favor; so are we. Mary brought nothing to God; neither do we. We are humbled in the opening Confession. But then we hear God’s Absolution for us. And we sing of Him and His goodness—not of ourselves, not of our fast-changing feelings, not even of our imperfect promises to God. With Mary we sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Worship that focuses on us is idolatry. But worship that focuses on God and His works gives the greatest joy and comfort.

Mary gives some magnificent tips for worship, especially as we gear up to celebrate the birth of our Lord. First, worship is about receiving God and His goodness. He is mindful of us in our lowly, sinful state. He has done great things for us by forgiving us in Christ born, crucified and risen. Second, worship is about the timeless promises of God. God kept all of His Old Testament promises in Jesus. God still focuses all His goodness through the God-Man Jesus. He set aside the old sacrifices and offerings—the ones we thought we could use to earn God’s favor. He came to do God’s will of saving sinners--you and me. Third, worship is about God bringing us down from our pride and self-reliance and then lifting us up in His mercy and forgiveness. We confess; He forgives. We humbly listen; He fills our ears with His Word and builds our faith. We kneel at His table, hands out and mouths open like beggars; He comes to visit with His Body and Blood, filling us with the good things of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Many people today are looking for the peace of God’s presence. TV shows and movies deal with all sorts of angels and other spiritual and religious matters. People are searching—searching for something more than material life, for some greater meaning and identity in life. Just think of the wonderful opportunity that you, God’s true, forgiven children, have this Christmas season. You have the opportunity to give the truth of God actually coming to visit. John, Elizabeth, and Mary all proclaimed the presence of Jesus, and you have benefited from their testimony. God gives you the privilege to be the Johns, the Elizabeths, and the Marys for others today. John leaped in Jesus presence. You can certainly jump at the chance to bring others into Jesus’ life-changing presence around the font, pulpit, and altar. Elizabeth and Mary sang with their focus on Christ. You certainly proclaim when you sing the hymns that focus on Christ’s work. You certainly proclaim when you take the Gospel message into your daily routines and vocations.

As St. Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Yes, God is coming to visit! Amen.

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