“Frustration and Promise”

The Second Sunday in Advent
“Frustration and Promise”
December 10, 2017

Sermon Text: Malachi 4, Mark 1:1-8

A reading from the prophet Malachi, the fourth chapter:

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” 2 “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. 3 You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts.

4 “Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel.

5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6 He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”

This reading closes the Old Testament, and it ushered in over four centuries of waiting, hope, and anticipation for the people of God.  Those were difficult centuries.  They began with the Lord’s people trying to claw their way back to even just a little of their former glory under Kings David and Solomon, led to invasion by and subjection to Alexander the Great and the Greeks, and ended with a seemingly hopeless occupation by the Roman Empire.  There was lifelessness and corruption in both the political ruling class and the religious leadership.  Add to that the fact that there had been no Word from the Lord since Malachi, over a period of time approximately equal to the amount of time that has passed from the of Martin Luther all the way down to our own day, and it is easy to understand why waiting, hope, and anticipation had long since turned to despair and hopelessness for many.

All of this was a natural frustration that came out of Old Testament history.  From a human perspective, so many things – all the important things, in fact – seemed to have failed in the Old Testament narrative.  There is a school of thought about the Old Testament that claims that the Lord did not know what He was doing, that He kept experimenting with this thing and that thing and time and time again His plans failed.  According to this school of thought, Plan A was Creation, and Adam and Eve sinned, so that plan failed.  So, Plan B was to kick them out of the Garden of Eden and work with them out in the world, but that failed, too.  So, Plan C was the Great Flood in the days of Noah and then Plan D was the creation of the nations after the Tower of Babel fiasco and Plan E was the call of Abraham and plan F was the call of Moses and Plan G was the monarchy and plan H were the post-monarchy prophets and on and on it goes like the Lord was just tinkering around until He finally decided to send Jesus once and for all.

But all of that is a lie.  The Lord always had just one plan.  From since before the creation of the world the plan always was to send His only Son to live and then to suffer and die and rise again for our salvation.  The Lord knew before He created Adam and Eve that He would die for them and that He would die for you and for me.  And the same Holy Spirit Who gives us the Old Testament inspires us to perceive how that entire Old Testament bears witness to the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.  That witness is what ties the entire Old Testament together into a unified whole.

But along the way, there was a lot of frustration.  And there are two specific kinds of frustration that we should think about this morning.  First, the frustration of the people.  The Old Testament had a lot of frustrated people in it, and I’m not talking about getting frustrated with other people, bemoaning the hardships of this world, or fearing sickness and death.  I’m talking about the major frustration of the people of God, which is our own sinful nature.  The people of God, the real people of God, love Him and want to serve Him and worship Him.  They don’t want to sin.  All of the heroes of the Old Testament were mortal human beings who also sinned, sometimes sinned greatly, and that is precisely the point.  As great as they were, and as holy as they wanted to be, the path was not always clear to them and they mistepped and got lost and sinned.  We still debate today about whether or not it was right for Rebekah to team up with Jacob and deceive Isaac into bestowing his blessing on Jacob.  What happened that led Aaron to do what he did with the golden calf while Moses was up on Mount Sinai?  What led Moses to complain and sin?  All the judges had their own issues.  Solomon, the wisest man on earth, had how many wives and was involved with how many other women?  The prophets all had their missteps and sins.  And David, oh David, ancestor of Christ, and man after God’s own heart, who first committed adultery with Bathsheba and then engaged in a conspiracy to murder her rightful husband to cover up his sin.  The most heinous of sins, fully planned and premeditated.  A yet, David was a beloved child of God.

None of these people really wanted to do the things they did.  But they found, as St. Paul put it, that at times the good they wanted to do they could not do, and at other times the evil they wanted so much to avoid, that they could not avoid.  They were sinners, who were frustrated that time and time again they sinned, no matter how much they loved the Lord and truly wanted to please Him.  This is part of the story of the Old Testament.

The second kind of frustration in the Old Testament is the frustration of the Lord.  Time and time again the Lord gave to His people, and time and time again the Lord forgave His people, and rescued them, and gave them a new start, a better start, with the goal of giving them a new heart, a heart totally filled with love for Him and His good and righteous law, and time and time again His people said thank you, turned around, took one step, and immediately fell right back into a muddy ditch.  Again, watching from a human perspective, it would seem in the Old Testament that if the Lord’s plan was to create for Himself a holy people, a chosen nation, a light to all the world, it would seem as if all those plans had been frustrated.  Without the gifts of the Holy Spirit, a person reading the Old Testament would walk away at the end with a mental picture of a God frustrated in all His efforts and works, a picture of a God that failed.

Let me read again the closing words of the Old Testament, this time in their proper context of leading to one of the four Gospels, to the opening words of Gospel lesson for this morning:

5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6 He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”

The beginning of the gospel, the beginning of the good news, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way;
3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.’”

4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Did you catch the transition, the pivot?  From the apparent failure and frustration of the Old Testament, left to simmer and stew for nearly 500 years, comes the good news that not only is the Lord not done, no, He has not even really gotten started yet.  The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose way is prepared by the prophet John the Baptist, who appeared preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

For the people of God, frustrated in all their efforts to love God and serve Him and obey Him and worship Him, the good news was that their failure was not the last word.  The last word, the only word, would be the work of the suffering servant, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  Upon His shoulders alone rested all the hope of God’s people for forgiveness and for life.  The Word of the Lord was, dwell not upon your own frustrations, pay no attention at all to any merit or lack of merit that you may think you have.  The promise of the Lord was, in the life and work of My Son Jesus I bring you repentance and forgiveness because I still love you, just as much as I ever have.

And in the coming of the Messiah, we have the Lord’s answer to any who would wonder if He had been frustrated in all His efforts with mankind.  All those things that went wrong in the Old Testament, all the sins and faithlessness and idolatry and rebellion of even the best of the Old Testament people, did any of those things frustrate the Lord’s plans on earth and cause Him to just walk away?  No, God points to the final, long-awaited coming of His only Son and He says “Here!  He is what this is all about!  He is what all of this has been leading to!  He is all of Israel reduced to One Person, and all of My promises of the Old Testament all fulfilled in Him.  This is My Son, with Whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!”  There is no failure and frustration for the Lord in the Old Testament; only preparation for and anticipation of the One promised to Adam and Eve way back in Genesis 3.

Hopefully, we can see ourselves in this narrative.  Has anything really changed for the people of God on this earth?  Have you had any frustrations lately?  I’m not talking about the things we usually complain about, like the latest visit to the doctor, the latest bill that’s come due, how things are on the job, politics, what’s going on around us in society in all of its’ sins, the neighbor being too loud, dumb opinions on Facebook, or even the plight of the bears.  The Chicago Bears, I mean, not what’s happening to the polar bears because of global warming.  Those are all things outside of us.  I’m talking about what’s going on in here.  I’m talking about the real frustrations of the people of God.  How are things going in your battle with your own sinful nature?  If you’re doing great in that area, then please enlighten the rest of us, because most of the rest of us are not doing so well.

That is where the real battle is.  Inside of you and me.  To put it another way, I once heard someone say that the cross each Christian bears is not what we suffer, but rather the way in which we are called to suffer it.  In other words, the guy who cuts you off in traffic while he’s got his cell phone up to his ear is not the cross you bear.  The cross you bear is your call in that situation to be patient, to be loving, to be forgiving.  The news from the doctor that something is seriously wrong is not the cross you bear.  The cross you bear is your call to continue to trust in the Lord in all situations, even and especially in that situation, and to rejoice that He is always taking care of you, no matter what.  We’re not so good at that.

And so, we can easily grow frustrated in our faithlessness, our selfishness and self-centeredness, and in our sin.  We are hopeless.  Time and time again we fail.  And out of that can grow a conviction that Lord is frustrated with us, and that His plans have been frustrated in us.  God has seemingly failed in His efforts to change us into His chosen people, His holy nation, His royal priesthood.  We can become convinced that we will just never be the people that He calls us to be, we will never accomplish the purposes for which He put us on this earth.  Who among us can honestly look at ourselves and come to any other conclusion, based upon what we see on the surface?  How are we any different than Israel, living in failure and sin and under the boot of Roman tyranny?

But faith takes our eyes off of ourselves and our own frustrations and turns us to the Word and the promise of the Lord.  Malachi looked ahead five centuries and saw that Christ is coming, and John the Baptist is coming before Him to prepare His way.  Mark declares the Good News that he was blessed to see in his own day:  The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

And we look past our own failures, we abandon our frustration, and we run to the promise of the Lord.  Look to your own baptism.  I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in your own life.  That’s why Luther was so adamant about crying out in faith in any and all situations, “I am baptized!”  Your own sins don’t matter.  They are forgiven.  Your own frustrations in living as a child of God don’t matter.  You have been promised that one day, on the last day, you will at last be released from your own sinful nature, and you will be able to love Christ, to worship Him, to serve Him whole-heartedly the way that you have always wanted to.  And God’s work in you has in no way been frustrated.  He has not failed in His plans for you.  For He is faithful, and He will complete the good work that He has begun in you.  He has sealed you with His Holy Spirit in your baptism, and you are His.

Our Lord comes to His sinful and frustrated people, and He announces, the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  And our hearts are turned from frustration to faith in the promise.

 

“Frustration and Promise”

12/10/17 The Rev Richard J Bellas

St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL