I am belatedly posting a midweek Advent sermon that I preached last month, but the sermon series it comes from may be a useful idea for other pastors and churches to look at near the end of this year. It is no secret in Lutheran circles that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation–specifically, the anniversary of Luther posting his 95 Theses, formally called Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. The posting of the 95 Theses was the first of many events that led to the Lutheran Reformation of the Church.
Lutheran congregations will be observing this anniversary in a number of ways throughout 2017–from Reformation-themed Bible studies, to seminars, to children’s Christmas services based on Lutheran hymnody, to (of course) festive Reformation services later this year near the actual anniversary day of the posting of the 95 Theses, October 31.
One way that this anniversary year could be concluded is with the following midweek Advent sermon series. The idea for this series isn’t original with me; I first saw this used as a midweek Advent sermon series in 2000 at Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee (where I happened to be serving as the Seminary student assistant during my last year of studies at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary). Since then, I have repeated this sermon series in all three of the congregations I have served.
Here’s how we described this “Lutheran Advent sermon series” in the service booklets at Crown of Life Lutheran Church during this past Advent season (2016); a few minor edits would make this introduction suitable for an Advent series later this year (2017):
Martin Luther once observed that there were three “ingredients” that turned a man into a good theologian. These three ingredients are summarized in three Latin words:
- meditatio (meditation, or study of God’s Word)
- oratio (prayer)
- tentatio (testing, or trials)
What is true of theologians is true of all Christians. God uses these three things—meditation, prayer, and testing—to draw us closer to him as we wait for the day of Christ’s return.
As we stand on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, our midweek Evening Prayer series for this Advent season will help us Prepare the Way for the Lord by considering how God prepares our hearts for his Son’s advent through the three ingredients Luther observed: meditation, prayer, and testing. As we listen to the Advent story in Luke 1 during these services, we will also ponder three different sections of Psalm 119 that highlight the themes of meditation, prayer, and testing. Join us for worship as the Holy Spirit prepares our hearts to celebrate Jesus’ first advent and to anticipate his second advent.
- November 30 | Psalm 119:9-16 | Prepare the Way for the Lord – in Meditation
- December 7 | Psalm 119:145-152 | Prepare the Way for the Lord – with Prayer
- December 14 | Psalm 119:65-72 | Prepare the Way for the Lord – through Testing
Because I’ve preached at least one of the sermons in this series at several different congregations, I have written sermons for all three texts at some point. I offer a sample sermon for all three texts below, with the hope that others will find this series useful in their own congregations later this year and for their own devotional use at any time.
WELS clergy may also notice that another recent resource for pastors takes its cue from Luther’s three-part observation about meditation, prayer, and testing. “Reclaiming our Christ-Centered Lutheran Devotional Life” is a series of essays and resources prepared by Dr. Richard Gurgel at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. These essays use Luther’s three-fold observation to encourage a healthy devotional life for pastors. The essays also provide good food for thought when one is preparing a sermon on one of these three points (I will admit to incorporating quite a bit of material from one of the essays for the last sermon below).
Preached at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (Belmont, California) on 12/5/2001
Based on Psalm 119:97-104 (this is a different text than the suggestion above)
PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD – IN MEDITATION
- Meditation that makes a difference for your faith
- Meditation that has an impact in your life
I have an assignment for you. I’d like you to write a poem. The poem should be about God’s Word and the impact it has in your life. But I don’t want it to be a poem that rhymes. I want it to be an acrostic. An acrostic? What’s that? An acrostic is a different kind of poem. It’s doesn’t have any particular rhyme or rhythm. What makes it different is that every line begins with the next letter of the alphabet, from A to Z.
Actually, that’s not an assignment for you. It was an assignment given and directed by the Holy Spirit to the writer of Psalm 119. If you open you Bibles to Psalm 119, you’ll notice that this very long Psalm is laid out in groups of eight verses. Above each group, there seems to be a strange looking symbol followed by an unusual word. That bizarre symbol is actually a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the unusual word is the English pronunciation for the Hebrew letter. In each section of the Psalm, the first word in each verse begins with the same Hebrew letter, and each of the sections works its way through the Hebrew alphabet, from Aleph, the first letter, to Taw, the last letter. Acrostics aren’t a common form of English poetry, but they were a common device used in Hebrew literature. So Psalm 119 serves us not only as an excellent section of God’s Word, but also as an excellent example of Hebrew
During the next three Wednesday evening services, we are going to use selected sections of this great Psalm as the basis of our sermon series. We want to use these Psalm sections to prepare the way for the Lord this Adventide. Tonight, in verses 97-104 of Psalm 119, the writer encourages us to prepare the way for the Lord by meditation, and ironically, these verses from Psalm 119 that talk about meditating on God’s Word all begin with the Hebrew letter Mem (our “M”). As we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s first Advent and to anticipate his second Advent, we’ll see that meditation on the Word of God makes a difference for your faith and has an impact in your life.
In the opening chapters of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, there are a series of letters written to churches in seven different ancient cities. The first letter was written to the church in Ephesus. In this letter, the Lord condemns the Ephesians because, as he said, “You have forsaken you first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen” (Revelation 2:4-5). You see, like so many others, when they first became Christians, they were excited. They were full of enthusiasm. They had a love for and commitment to God’s Word that was absolutely amazing. But then something happened. Time just went on, and the newness of their faith faded away. The excitement that had at one time was no longer to be found.
Sound familiar? Chances are there are many Christians who can relate to this. Second graders love to sing about their faith, but somehow by the time they’re in seventh grade, even saying the name “Jesus” feels embarrassing. Who are the most enthusiastic Christians in a church? It’s often the recent convert. We life-long Christians can unintentionally, yet very easily forsake our first love.
The writer of this Psalm offers a solution. The solution was to spend time, real time, meaningful time meditating on the Word of God. The psalmist says, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. …How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” Sometimes people talk about the difference between “quality time” and “quantity time.” Here we’re reminded that quantity time in the Word of God is meaningless unless it is quality time. Meditating on the Word of God makes a difference for your faith. We’re told what that difference is in these two verses. “Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.” Why is quality time with the Word so vital? Meaningful meditation makes your faith grow from head knowledge to heart knowledge. Meaningful meditation is the cure for complacent apathy and the cause of a faith overflowing with joy and enthusiasm. Or, as the psalmist says, meaningful meditation will give you more spiritual insight than all your teachers or college professors rolled up into one. No science teacher, no history professor, no doctor of psychology can lead you on the path to heaven, but meditating on the Word of God does. Meditation on the Word, as St. Paul says, “make[s] you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
When you hear that word “meditation,” you might think of some sort of new age, transcendental, naval-gazing meditation. But that’s not the kind of meditation Psalm 119 tells us about. This isn’t meditation that looks to yourself, but that looks to your Savior. Prepare the way for the Lord by meditation that makes a difference for your faith. Get ready for Christmas by meditating on why the Savior came. Jesus didn’t come to earth for a casual visit. He came to earth on a mission – a rescue mission. Our meditation on Christ’s work can only be effective if we first meditate on our wretched condition before God. Our meditation on Christ’s work can only be effective if we realize how ineffective we have been at pleasing God in heaven. We’re not talking about a few slip-ups and a couple of errors in judgment. That’s not how God sees it. God sees every sin, even one sin as a complete and total rebellion against him that deserves to be punished will hell fire. That’s why Jesus came – not to carry out that judgment, but to bring about our deliverance. Meditate on the love of a Savior who would leave his heavenly throne room and allow himself to be born and laid in a cattle feeding trough. Meditate on the life of the Savior who stepped into your shoes by living as your perfect Substitute. Meditate on the death of the Savior whose willing sacrifice bailed you out of a horrible judgment. Meditate on the resurrected life of the Savior who wasn’t about to let death conquer him, or you. That kind of meditation makes a real difference for your faith.
Remember those series of seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation? The last letter was written to the church in Laodicea. In this letter, the Lord condemns the Laodiceans because, as he said, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Revelation 3:15). You see, like so many others, their faith – really, their lack of faith – was hardly making an impact in their lives. They may have carried the label, “Christian,” but their actions hardly showed it.
Sound familiar? Chances are there are many Christians who can relate to this. Oh, there was one time when Christians’ lives made it clear who they are and whom they worshiped. But after a while, influence like our society’s agenda or television’s disregard for the moral absolutes in God’s law start to chip away at God’s people, and eventually it becomes kind of difficult to see any sort of difference between a Christian and an unbeliever. We life-long Christians can unintentionally, yet very easily forget to live lives that reflect our faith.
The writer of this Psalm offers a solution. The solution was to spend time, real time, meaningful time meditating on the impact of the Word of God. The psalmist says, “I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your Word. …I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong turn.” I want to talk to the kids for a moment. Children, do you know how sometimes your parents tell you not to do things that you want to do? “Don’t ride your bike in the street.” “Don’t run around in the house.” “Don’t jump up and down on the furniture.” Guess what? You’re parents aren’t doing that to stop you from having fun. They’re doing that to protect you. They don’t want you biking in the street because you might forget to look both ways and all of a sudden there’s a big truck barreling down the road ready to hit you. They don’t want you running around the house because you might knock something over that’s valuable. They’re really trying to protect you.
Now I want to talk to the kids and the adults. Do you know how sometimes God tells his children not to do the things they want to do? “Don’t neglect worship and personal Bible study.” “Don’t desire something that’s not yours.” “Don’t ruin your neighbor’s good name by ridiculing him in order to make yourself look better.” Guess what? God doesn’t do that to take the fun out of people’s lives. He’s doing it to protect his children, to prevent them from doing something that could ultimately harm them or even take their faith away. When Christians meditate on the Word of God, that makes an impact in their lives. They want to do God’s will, because they know that God’s will is wiser than any other person’s wants and desires.
Of course, if people are going to turn away from something, if they’re going to turn away from evil, then they have to turn toward something else. The writer tells us what that something else is: “I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. … I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.” Chances are that most of us were involved in some sort of athletic program when we were children. Maybe we were on the little league sports team. Maybe we were on the grade school basketball team. And, chances are we didn’t start out as athletic superstars. Somebody had to teach us how to swing the bat. Somebody had to teach us how to throw a bounce pass.
It’s no difference when it comes to our relationship with God. When God first called us into his family, especially if that was later in our lives, we may not have known what his will was. That’s why meditation on the word makes an impact in your lives. God’s Word turns faith from a stationary existence into a way of life! The love of Jesus forgives sinners, and now it impacts sinners with power to do what was impossible to do before – live for the Lord who loved us and gave himself for us.
When you hear that word “meditation,” you might think of some sort of new age, transcendental, naval-gazing meditation. But that’s not the kind of meditation Psalm 119 tells us about. This isn’t meditation that looks to yourself, but that looks to your Savior. Prepare the way for the Lord by meditation that has an impact in your life. Get ready for Christmas by meditating on how the Savior’s coming changes your entire perspective on life. Meditate on the difference that Jesus’ Christmas rescue mission makes for you. You and I cannot think about Jesus’ Advent and walk out of this church as if it means nothing. You and I cannot meditate on the miracle of Jesus’ incarnation and shrug it off as an insignificant event. Meditate on the marvel of Christ’s love, and you will plug in to the power of his Word. You will be empowered to live for him in joyfulness. You will be enabled to drown your sinful nature every day you wake up. Oh, we’ll still struggle with sin, but our sinless Savior will be right there to pick us up when we fall and put us back on the right path. That’s the kind of meditation that makes an impact in your life.
Is the hustle and bustle of the Christmas shopping season getting to you yet? It’s only going to get more intense between now and December 25. But your Savior offers a solution. Put perspective on these December days by meditating on the little baby in the manger who came to be your brother and your Savior. Meditation like that will not only get you ready for Christmas Day, but it will be the key to heaven on Judgment Day. God bless your Advent preparation. Amen.
Preached at Crown of Life Lutheran Church (Hubertus, Wisconsin) on 12/7/2016
Based on Psalm 119:145-152
PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD – WITH PRAYER
Can you think of a reason why you would not talk to someone? I don’t mean a stranger on a street corner with whom you have no relationship. I don’t mean a friend that you do have a relationship with but who lives some distance away from you. What situations would you find yourself in where you wouldn’t talk with someone? After someone you trusted betrayed you? When you don’t have the words to comfort your grieving friend, and all you can offer is your silent presence? After something so shocking has occurred to you that you find yourself speechless? When you feel so hurt that you can’t even say what you’re thinking?
Notice one thing in common with all those situations: Something isn’t right. Something isn’t right in your life or your friend’s life or in your relationship. And when something isn’t right, we are often left speechless—speechless in sorrow or hurt or disappointment or anger or shock. But in any case, we are prone to not talk with someone when something is wrong.
I realize the inaccuracies that generalizations can produce, so forgive me if this observation paints with too broad of a brush. That said, I have heard other people in the sphere of Lutheranism make this same observation. Lutherans can unintentionally have a one-way mode of communication with God. We listen to his Word. We uphold his Word. We emphasize that our faith is built on his Word alone—sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” is a Lutheran motto. We cling to everything in the Bible even when it seems like the rest of Christianity picks and chooses what parts of the Word it accepts and what parts of the Word it ignores. Lutherans value the way God has spoken to us in his Word, but at the very same time we can easily let the other side of communication with God—the us-to-God side, prayer—fall silent.
Why do you suppose that is? Is it a case of overreaction? We see other groups of Christians who elevate prayer so highly, almost as if our prayers are really God speaking to us rather than we speaking to him. We see the way some Christians misunderstand and maybe even misuse prayer, as if it’s a way to pester God into giving us our wants and wishes and will. We see these perversions of prayer and perhaps we then overreact and overcompensate in a direction that almost downplays prayer as if it’s not very important. We rightly emphasize the way God speaks to us in his Word, but could we downplay the way we can return the conversation and speak to him in prayer?
If we don’t speak to someone we have a relationship with, it indicates that something is wrong. Could an infrequent pattern of prayer indicate that something is wrong? Does it reveal poorly placed priorities? Could it reveal a conscience so weighed down with feelings of guilt and shame that we don’t think we deserve to even have a two-way conversation with the God whose Word we listen to but don’t always obey?
This Advent season we are thinking about three important concepts that Martin Luther observed. Pastor Helwig introduced us to these concepts last week Wednesday. Luther observed that there were three “ingredients” that made a proper theologian: meditation, prayer, and testing. And what’s good for the pastor is good for the people! The ingredients that prepare a man for faithful ministry are also the ingredients that prepare us to welcome Jesus Christ as our Advent King.
These three concepts—meditation, prayer, testing—aren’t just random thoughts from Martin Luther. They are intentional thoughts from Scripture. One of the places you can see the Bible reflecting the importance of meditation, prayer, and testing in the life of God’s people is Psalm 119. This lengthy psalm is written in several eight-verse segments, and each segment contains eight verses that all start with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This was a form of poetry in the Old Testament. And in tonight’s segment, verses 145-152, the psalm writer shows us how important prayer is in the life of God’s people. To help us appreciate the role that prayer plays in our Advent preparation, let’s focus on a few key phrases and verses from tonight’s segment of Psalm 119.
Far from prayer being an activity that only happens when we have a few spare moments, the psalm writer speaks about prayer as a constant event. Verses 147-148: “I rise before down and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” Not only does the writer come to God in prayer as the first activity of the day, but that happens after a night of pondering the promises of God. And in that pair of verses we see an important conversation taking place. We turn to God and speak to him in prayer as a response to him turning to us and speaking to us in his Word. In fact, the opening verses of this section speak in a very matter-of-fact way about the combination of speaking to God in prayer and taking his Word to heart: “I call with all my heart; answer me, Lord, and I will obey your decrees. I call out to you; save me, and I will keep your statues.” We should note that the original Hebrew words of these verses don’t give the impression we might accidentally draw in English, that God’s people will obey him and listen to him only if he first listens to us. There’s no cause-and-effect relationship in these verses, just a statement of fact that the psalm writer prays to God and takes the decrees and teachings of God seriously in his life. Prayer is part of a two-way conversation between God and his people.
Of course, these statements get us to think about the times we’ve neglected these chances for two-way communication with God. What a gift to be able to speak with the Creator and King of the universe, and yet even the best Bible student must acknowledge that he has left this gift and opportunity pass by more often than we care to admit. After all, prayer doesn’t have to be some big public production; in fact, Jesus condemned those who turned their prayers into an outward performance for others to observe. But that’s what makes it so sad when we neglect this treasure. It could happen anywhere and anytime, but all too often our conversations with God are one-sided or even no-sided. And when our side of the conversation with God turns mute by our lack of interest or appreciation for this gift, God would have every right to turn a deaf ear to us not just for a day but for eternity.
But what does God do? Certainly not what we deserve! The psalm writer says that the Lord is near us, and what better evidence can there be than to know that the Lord Jesus is the Word who became flesh to dwell among us. God did not end the conversation eternally, but sent his Son Jesus into this world at the right time to fulfill all of the precious promises he made to rescue us from sin. God is not a distant God, but through his Son Jesus, God has dealt face-to-face with our sin and our grave. God made sure we would not be forever distant from him, for in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead he shows that he will not abandon us to the grave either.
And the God whose gracious Advent set the stage to win our salvation now hears and answers our prayer-conversations with him for the same reason he came to us in the first place: He is kind and gracious and loving to you and to me! Verse 149: “Hear my voice in accordance with your love.” God hears us not because of the impressive obedience of our lives or the impressive eloquence of our prayers, but because of his impressive love and kindness that chose to extend his forgiving grace to us in Jesus despite our sin! That’s why God hears us and holds a two-way conversation with us: not because of our accomplishment, but because of Jesus’ accomplishment at the cross on our behalf.
In these busy pre-Christmas days of concerts and parties and shopping and traveling, could we become too busy for prayer? Or perhaps we are too busy to see the many ways that God opens up opportunities for our side of the conversation? The opportunities are not sparse! You have a few seconds after the psalms we pray in evening worship. You have a few moments during the offering in which you can not only ponder the message but pray in response to the message. You have a few minutes in the car on the way to work when driving down-time can turn into productive prayer. You have a few phrases in a devotion you read or a conversation you have with a trusted Christian that trigger concerns that you can pray about. No, the opportunities are not sparse! The C.E.O. of all creation invites you to have a personal audience with him and to lay everything that spins through your mind during the day and that keeps you awake at night before him. And it can’t be said enough that your prayers need not be a slick public production. Rather, they are a personal privilege that has been given to you because you are covered in the access-producing, sin-removing righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Prepare your hearts for Jesus this Advent by meditating on his Word and continuing the conversation in prayer! Amen.
Preached at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (Citrus Heights, California) on 12/3/2014
Based on Psalm 119:65-72
PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD – THROUGH TESTING
Are you ready for Christmas? For most of us, that question entails decorating the house and purchasing presents. Did you brave the crowds on “Black Friday”? (If so, I think you’re crazy!) Did you support the local economy on “Small Business Saturday”? (As the son of a former small business owner, I think that’s kind). Did you make your Christmas purchases online during “Cyber Monday?” (If so, I think you are smart!) The American culture presents shopping as the major Christmas preparation that needs to be done this time of year—an activity that now unofficially begins at 6:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. And while no one here would begrudge the rest of us from purchasing Christmas gifts for family and friends, I trust that everyone here realizes that our most important Christmas preparation has very little to do with cyber sales and department store bargains. Our most important Christmas preparation has to do with faith.
Permit me for a few sentences to shift the topic from the preparation for Christmas to the preparation of a theologian. Martin Luther once observed that there are three things that make a good theologian, and these three things are summarized by three Latin words: meditatio (meditation on God’s Word), oratio (prayer), and tentatio (testing). We understand how meditation and study of God’s Word would prepare a pastor for service in God’s kingdom, and we understand that a minister of the gospel should have a lively prayer life with his Lord. But that last one is the kicker. Tentatio. The German word for you German speakers is Anfechtung. Testing, trials, turmoil, troubles. Luther said that the challenges that ministers face as they carry out their work mold them into the theologians God wants them to be.
What is true for the formation of a theologian is true for the formation of any Christian—for at the end of the day, whether we are professional theologians or not, we are all students of the Word of God. And so God prepares us as his people as we meditate on his Word and come to him in prayer: meditation and oratio. But tentatio? Testing? Troubles? God uses these to mold me as his child? God uses problems and difficulties to prepare me for his coming into our world? I thought Christianity was supposed to make my life easier, not harder! I thought Advent was supposed to be a time of peace and tranquility, not problems and testing! Where would Luther get such an idea?
Listen to Luther speak for himself: “Thirdly, there is tentatio, Anfechtung. This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom. Thus you see how David, in the Psalm[s] … complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s Word …. For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself … am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise.”
Luther stated in no uncertain terms that the trials and troubles of the ministry turned a minister into a true theologian. And in tonight’s reading from Psalm 119, the eight-verse segment we will consider briefly tonight shows that the trials and troubles of everyday life turn a Christian into a more devout follower of the true God.
Psalm 119 is a lengthy psalm written in eight-verse segments. The pattern or arrangement of the psalm is built on groups of verses that all begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working through the alphabet in order throughout the psalm. But the psalm does more than teach the Hebrew alphabet. It teaches the value of the Word of God. It teaches the value of God’s Word and shows how God’s Word strengthens us in meditation, with prayer, and through times of testing—the same observation that Luther made: meditation, oratio, tentatio. The section for tonight shows us how times of testing serve as beneficial spiritual preparation for us—both in this Advent season but also at any point in our lives.
Tonight’s section begins with a verse that sounds like a prayer, but in the original Hebrew it is simply a statement of fact: “You have done well with your servant, according to your Word, O Lord.” In a section about the trials we endure in life, the psalm writer says that God is doing something beneficial for us.
I’m not so sure I believe that. I’m not so sure I believe that when money is tight and the kids need braces and the house needs a new roof. I’m not so sure I believe that when the people who ought to be my friends act more like my enemies. I’m not so sure I believe that when the evening news has nothing but stories of international war and national violence and local crime. I’m not so sure I believe that when my family life is a mess and I feel like I have no purpose in life and no reason to get up out of bed. Life’s troubles are beneficial? I’m not so sure.
But the Psalm writer was so sure—so sure that he could articulate the benefits of his trials. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. … It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”
Notice why troubles are so beneficial to the Christian. It has nothing to do with earning points with God. It has nothing to do with toughening you up with mental or psychological or spiritual callouses. It has everything to do with driving you back to God and the Word of God.
But it is just as we endure the worst moments of those life tests and trials that Satan and our sinful flesh try to convince us that no good can come from them or will come from them. You’ve heard the questions before. You’ve asked the questions before. “If God is so loving, why does he allow all these horrible things to happen?” “If God is so powerful, why do things seem like they are so out of control?” Never mind that God the Holy Spirit has assured us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Satan doesn’t want you trusting in a promise like that. He wants you doubting the goodness and power and grace of God. He wants you to despair when times are tough rather than to cling more firmly to God’s Word. He doesn’t care how he brings you down; he just wants to take you down. And so if he cannot lead you away from God by gross sin, then he will try to lead you away from God by despair and doubt. And when Satan gets the better of us, he is not merely taking the joy out of Christmas preparation. He is trying with all his might to take the joy out of your eternal future and replace it with the sinful damnation that sinners like you and me rightly deserve.
But Satan, the fallen angel, is no match for Jesus, the exalted Christ. One Lutheran theologian of our time observes that while Satan is trying to lead you from God in times of testing, God is using those same tests to thwart Satan’s feeble attempts. “Amazingly, God does not just allow Satan to attack us in this way; He actually uses it to fulfill His plans for us. The devil, says Luther, is God’s fool. He unwittingly ends up doing God’s work. Satan’s strategy usually backfires on him by driving people to Christ rather than away from Him. Satan’s attacks on the saints are often ineffectual and counterproductive, for, unless they are carefully managed, they result in repentance and the consolidation of faith in Christ.”
Satan tries to take the financial challenges you face and turn them into a wedge between you and God, hoping that you will doubt the kindness and love of God. But God uses them to bring you back to him, leading you to turn to him in prayer and ask him to teach you contentment and to provide what you truly need and to help you see the true riches you already possess through faith in Jesus Christ. Satan tries to take the sinful behavior of others and turn it into a reason why you should separate yourself from the family of believers. But God uses that to bring you back to him, leading you to open his Word and there to find the blood of Jesus which covers both your sins and the sins of those who hurt us. Satan tries to use the turmoil of this world to convince you that God has no control over this world. But God uses those events to bring you back to him, helping you to see that the great chaos on that historic Friday we call “Good” brought about the great peace that you and I and all believers now enjoy with God.
And so if God accomplished the salvation of the world and the redemption of our souls through the horrible trials and injustice that our Savior Jesus endured, is he not also taking the tests and trails of your life and making them work out for your good? And if God kept all of his Old Testament promises to send his Son as the Savior and Redeemer of the world, will he not also keep his New Testament promises to you today to make your very real trials benefit your faith and your soul in a very real way?
Here is what the psalm writer concluded after he reflected on the troubles God allowed him to endure. “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.” There is no greater treasure from God to you than his Word. There is no greater gift from God to you than the adoption he gave you at the font and the affection he displays to you at his holy Supper. And isn’t when we face the trials of life—financial troubles, relationship troubles, yes, even congregational troubles—that we are driven back to his Word? And isn’t it a good thing to be driven back into God’s Word? So in the grand scheme of eternity, is it not a blessing that God permits troubles to enter our lives? For then we enter back into his Word, we confess our sins and enter back into his grace, our souls enter back into the banquet feast of God’s great mercy, and we are not only prepared to appreciate the gifts Christ came to bring at his first Advent but we are also prepared for the final arrival of Christ and his divine eternal gifts at his second Advent.
If the trials and troubles of life cross your path this Adventtide, perhaps you won’t have the presents purchased and the decorations displayed as you hoped. But if the trials and troubles of life cross your path this Adventtide and they drive you back to the cross and back to the Word of God, you will be ready for Christmas moreso than the rest of the world, because when God draws us back into his Word, he makes us ready for the arrival of his Son. “The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.” There can be no greater gift. There can be no greater preparation. There can be no greater peace. So “prepare my heart, Lord Jesus, turn not from me aside, and help me to receive you this blessed Adventtide.” Amen.