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Faithful Stewards (Isaiah 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 4.1-5)

Gaudete – The Third Sunday in Advent

 

“Faithful Stewards”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus           

Isaiah 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 4.1-5

11 December 2022

 

SOLI DEO GLORIA!

There are times when the historic lectionary has readings that are hard to put together. The question for the preacher should always be: Why are these readings chosen for this day in the Church Year? What does this Epistle have to do with Advent? It would have been easier to put the Isaiah reading together with the Gospel reading. One sees John the Baptizer in each one. But John isn’t in the Epistle reading and nothing there hints at the Advent of our Lord. But the theme of faithfulness is present in all three readings.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, “Rejoice” Sunday in English. That our sins are pardoned, that God’s promises never end is certainly cause for rejoicing, and so, rose colored paraments are used. They are used also on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, again, to rejoice during a penitential season. These two seasons are not all gloom and doom.

There is rejoicing in Isaiah’s prophecy. The doubling of the first word, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” brings rejoicing. To comfort does not mean to sympathize, but to encourage. God’s people had been in exile in Babylon for 70 years because of their sins. Jerusalem had been conquered and the people carried off to a foreign land. The temple, the place of God’s gracious presence, had been completely destroyed. The heart of the nation had been crushed. God did it because of Judah’s impenitence. God punished his people for 70 years in exile so that they would repent. And now, as Isaiah speaks, “her warfare is ended” and her iniquity is pardoned. God still calls them “my people.” [v. 1] It is time to start anew.

God started over with his people twice before. The first time was the great flood of Noah. Then came the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Isaiah speaks about a third new start, the return from exile in Babylon.

This third Exodus prefigures the one that Luke speaks about with regard to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke calls it his Exodus [Luke 9.28], the  redemptive act which saves us. In this final Exodus Jesus frees us from sin, death, and hell because he paid the full price of our redemption. Of that Isaiah will speak very descriptively in chapters 52-53, words we hear in Lent and Holy Week.

A voice comes from heaven twice. It is the voice of a herald, a proclaimer. The first one commands that the way of the Lord be prepared, and the next reminds us that all flesh is like the grass which passes away. Only the Word of God lasts forever. The herald must be faithful in his task of proclaiming only what God had said.

This voice calls us to repentance. When a monarch came to visit his people a new road was constructed. All obstacles had to be removed. Valleys were filled in, curves were taken out, every mountain and hill was made level. Every obstacle must be removed as the king arrives.

The herald announced the coming of the King. It’s a fitting imagery for Advent. John was also a fierce preacher of repentance, calling the Jewish leaders “a brood of vipers.” Boldly he called them to repentance. He also condemned Herod’s sin of stealing his brother’s wife, Herodias. It was that preaching of the Law that got John arrested and put in prison. John announced God’s Law and Gospel faithfully. He was a faithful steward.

We now come to our Epistle reading which describes the world of the Holy Ministry. John was that voice in the wilderness, but he is not the only voice which prophesied; other prophets spoke God’s Word, but there were also unfaithful stewards who did not speak God’s truth but substituted their own thoughts instead.

Pastors are called for the task of being heralds, to announce both Law and Gospel. They are also—as the name says—shepherds. That’s what the title Pastor means shepherd, one who cares for God’s flock. In truth, there is only one Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, but he calls and ordains sinful men to care for his flock until he returns. This is how Isaiah’s prophesy is fulfilled—first in Christ Jesus and then in those whom he calls into the Office of the Holy Ministry. I have never liked to be called Reverend. It’s not a noun, it’s an adjective. It’s often used as a title of address but if one uses it, it must be like this: “the Reverend so and so.” It’s like addressing a member of the judiciary—the honorable judge so-and-so. Reverend means a person to be revered, one who is reverent, a quality. I get nervous about such language. Pastor seems a much better title and one which is biblical. Reverend is not really biblical in a strict sense.

There was a problem in the congregation at Corinth. The people were beginning to split apart and have divisions in the congregation. They were clinging to the Apostles. One party bragged about St. Peter, another about St. Paul, and yet another about St. Apollos—each one backed the apostle by whom he was baptized and catechized. Some followed the one who they thought was most revered or important. So Paul had to reel them back in, telling them not to brag about the apostles but only about Christ. It really doesn’t matter who baptized or catechized you. In one epistle Paul admits that he didn’t even remember everyone he had baptized; it only mattered that they held to Christ.

Christ is the one who is most important. Apostles, bishops—or District Presidents as we call them in our Synod—and pastors are stewards in God’s household. Steward is an old term which denotes responsibility. We are more likely to use the term “manager” today. In New Testament times a steward was one who had charge of the household and the domestic servants. The Greek word translated as steward is oeconomus [οκονόμους], that is, an expert in household affairs. We get our word “economy” from this Greek word. In the biblical world it was often a public treasurer, or administrator, one who was entrusted with the management of the master’s property. We hear of a unfaithful steward in Jesus’ parable of that name.

Pastors are called to manage God’s mysteries [μυστηρίων]. These are things that are hidden from ordinary view. Luther wrote that the mysteries of God are “nothing other than Christ Himself.” [AE 75 p. 118]. The highest mystery is the Incarnation, that God became man in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our reason cannot perceive that this man is our life, salvation, peace, righteousness, redemption, strength, and wisdom. His divinity is hidden from ordinary view, yet this man is the Creator of all, the Lord of lords, and King of kings. He is the God/Man.

Only faith perceives the mysteries, such as how the application of water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit washes away all sins; how Christ can give us his true body and blood under the forms of earthly bread and wine everywhere in the world at the same time; how Christ forgives sins through the word placed in the mouth of his steward. So these mysteries are seen only with the eyes of faith.

Stewards of Christ must be trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring faith. The steward encourages. He gives Christ’s Church the Word of God. He proclaims it purely without adding or subtracting what his Master has said, and he distributes or dispenses the Sacraments which bring Christ to the congregation. Sometimes pastors are like John the Baptizer when they speak God’s condemnation of sin on those who don’t want to hear it. Our Gospel reading has John in prison where he will soon get beheaded for what he spoke.

It is a very real thing that we face in our society these days. Speaking out against the sexual sins in our nation and other western nations can get the steward fines or jail time. It is a daunting task at which many stewards have proved unfaithful. They give in to societal pressure, fearing man more than they fear God. What the Christian Church needs is more faithful voices like John the Baptizer! It needs men of courage and commitment to the Word of God which does not lie and remains forever. [Isaiah 40.8] The faithful steward does not opine on world economics or politics but speaks only the word about Christ. Yet, as we know, the word of Christ often conflicts with the world’s word which calls for toleration and approval of what God has condemned. The faithful steward is to preach only the clear Gospel, the pure faith. He, like John the Baptizer, points only to Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world [John 1.29]. He does not massage his listeners into fleshly security because that leads only to death and separation from God forever. He dare not be, as Luther said, “the devil’s messenger.” [AE 75 p. 126].

Perhaps you’ve seen artwork with the letters VDMA, usually with a cross between them. The Lutheran reformers put those Latin letters over their doors and some even sewed them on their clothing. The letters are often used as artwork in Lutheran  churches.

Dei Manet in aeternum.

The Word of God Remains Forever

That’s what Isaiah wrote: “ . . . but the word of our God will stand forever.” We human beings are grass which withers and dies. Only in the eternal Word of God is true comfort because only the Word announces redemption for sin. Only the Word of God points us to Christ, the Good Shepherd, who gently takes his lambs into his arms and cares for them through his under shepherds, pastors who speak and act in his place with his authority. Only the Word of God bestows eternal life in Christ. The faithful steward still delivers God’s word of Law and Gospel to comfort God’s people with Christ’s salvation. The faithful steward will always speak and live those words. May it be true of all of us in these gray and latter days!

In the Name of the Father and of Son and of the Holy Spirit

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