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Pastor Hofmann's December 2014 Message: 

1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak 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 . . . . 6A voice says, "Cry!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever . . . . 10Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:1-2, 6-8, 10-11).

The Scripture quoted above is part of the Old Testament Reading for the Second Sunday in Advent for this year. “Comfort, comfort, my people . . . Speak tenderly,” says our God. In other words, cause God’s people to breathe in deeply, and speak to their hearts the message of sin forgiven. As Christmas quickly approaches, so many of our thoughts turn away from spiritual things to secular things.

A case in point is Charles Dickens beloved short story, “A Christmas Carol”. It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a wretched, old miser, who makes life miserable for his overworked, underpaid money-counter, gentle Bob Cratchit. One day in particular, Bob Cratchit gets a full dose of Scrooge’s cruelty, for it is Christmas Eve. The beggar children out caroling, the businessmen’s Christmas Aid Fund, the freewheeling Christmas cheer—the whole holiday galls Scrooge.

Recall that late the same night, as he tucks himself in bed, Ebenezer Scrooge receives a most unwelcome visit. A dreadful ghost, dragging terrible chains, bursts into the miser’s bedroom. It is the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner who had died seven years earlier that very night.

The specter cries, “I am doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what I cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” “You are fettered,” says Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?” “I wear the chain forged in life,” replies the ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembles more and more. “Or would you know,” pursues the ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full and heavy and long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it since. Yours is a ponderous chain.” “Jacob,” Scrooge implores. “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more! Speak comfort to me, Jacob!” “I have none to give,” the ghost replies. “Comfort comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”

Remember Isaiah’s cry: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly …?” Who has not hungered for comfort? Who does not yearn for tender words of hope? All the more in this season of high anxiety and pain! More people get depressed at Christmas time than at any other time of the year. Why? On the one hand, the secular expectation of Christmas is hardly ever fulfilled to one’s satisfaction after the fact. On the other hand, might we be haunted by our own ghosts? Ghost’s, perhaps, of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come! So Scrooge endures his awful Christmas Eve.

First to come is the ghost of Christmas past. The phantom rushes him back through his years. Scrooge must see how he had turned his back on Christmas cheer. The miser painfully replays how he, greedily grasping for all he can get, has long lost the treasure of love. Have you, in your past, so wisely invested in love’s rich reward? Are there ghosts reminding you how utterly you have failed in loving your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:31)?

Next to come is the ghost of Christmas present. This one accompanies Scrooge to the home of his poor worker, Bob Cratchit. For their Christmas turkey, Cratchit’s wife must serve the family turkey soup. The ghost points Scrooge to the youngest child, crippled Tiny Tim. Poverty will soon grind life out of the boy. Have you hoarded any of your many blessings at the expense of those in need? Are there ghosts reminding you how easy it is to pass off Jesus’ own words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Ac 20:35)?

Third to come is the ghost of Christmas future. Scrooge sees his business friends laughing together in a circle, “It’s likely to be a cheap funeral,” grins one, “for I don’t know anybody likely to go to it.” Another, jokes, “I don’t mind going … if a lunch is provided.” Next Scrooge sees ragpickers bickering. These strangers pick apart the dead man’s home. At last the ghost ushers him to the graveyard. Trembling, the miser crawls toward the new tombstone. He reads the inscription: “Ebenezer Scrooge.” The graveyard is where perhaps tomorrow, perhaps a bit later, we all must end, for “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Are there, perhaps, ghosts of this future event filling you with dread at the prospect of standing before all mighty God and receiving what is due you for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Co 5:10)?

Christmas past, Christmas present, Christmas future—do these haunt you? Or are you so content with your conduct, so pleased with your prospects, that God should be glad with you? Scrooge begged, “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more! Speak comfort to me!” And yet, Jacob Marley had no comfort for Scrooge because, for Scrooge, the future held nothing but sorrow, separation, and death. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

Long ago the people of God faced a similar future as Scrooge, also by their own hand. In exile, far from home, they had lives filled with sorrow. They were separated from God by their own sin, and they were separated from one another by their greed and selfish desires. The outlook for the future was stark. They would die, alone and forgotten.

And yet, God had other plans! His Word shatters the darkness of sin and condemnation with the promise of comfort. “Breathe in deeply,” He says, for the days of punishment are past. The time of discipline through the Law is past, for God has acted to rescue His chosen nation. He has restored the exiles to life and liberty, and He comforts His people with forgiveness and hope. Not that His people deserve His mercy. Isaiah’s words are true: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.”

All of us, in our own way, have played the part of Scrooge. All of his miserly ways, all of his thinking only of self, all of his disregard for where his blessings came from, have been inherent in us from conception (Ps 51:5). Like Scrooge, we can go months and years in our own little self-made worlds never really thinking about the outcome. But then, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are led to feel the Lord’s holy Law blowing hot on our hearts and minds. Where, then, comes our comfort? “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” is a great little story, but no matter how positive it seems to end, Scrooge remains a most pitiful character, for his redemption is still based on his own good works. In fact, in Scrooge we see Dickens’ rejection of original sin in man. In Scrooge, Dickens wants us to see that no matter how bad one is, there is always a little spark of good buried somewhere that, under the right circumstances, can be brought to the surface. Scrooge literally saved himself in changing his attitude. If Scrooge is all that Christmas is about, it is sad indeed!

The word of our God will stand forever . . . . Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Christmas is first and foremost about the Word becoming flesh (Jn 1:14)! For the one and only purpose of Jesus taking mankind’s place before an angry God was to pay for the sin of the world. So, if Christmas is only your own words and deeds, your own thoughts and sentimentalities, then you must be miserably haunted. “At this time of the rolling year,” moans the ghost Marley, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through the crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?”

That and only that, is the Word that can really change miser Scrooge. That and only that, is the Word that makes Christmas merry. Why be downcast? God’s Gospel Word, like the Christmas star, lights up a dark world with hope for today. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Two times, even three times, let God’s Word comfort you now. “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.”

As God spoke to Israel through Isaiah, so He speaks to you. Your warfare with sin is ended! The iniquity that would condemn you is pardoned. You have received double from the Lord’s hand, that is, the Lord Himself has paid the price of your sin through His Son—all of it!

Scrooge worked so hard, but for what? Worldly wealth? Prestige? Power? He only made poor Bob Cratchit and his family miserable. What makes you so hard during this season of rejoicing at the birth of God’s Son? Are you working for godly treasure—are you seeking first the kingdom of God and all His righteousness (Mt 6:33). None of us seeks His kingdom perfectly, and in Christ, even for these sins you are pardoned!

But Scrooge in the end is changed, so much so, that he gives rather than takes. He sends the Cratchits a turkey larger than Tiny Tim. Why? What can Scrooge do to make up for even a single sin of the past? He is trying to turn back the clock. He is doing a commendable thing in trying to find peace and comfort on a worldly level. Dickens writes, “His own heart laughed .... And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed this knowledge.”

But the sentence of Christmas future in pointing to the grave is just. None of us can turn back the clock! We stare at the graves and wonder, is this not the fair wage for our deeds? Oh, man can change his attitude. Man can change from bad to good in dealing with people, but man cannot change himself from being an unbeliever to a believer without having it given to him as a gift. And that gift is found in a lowly manger.

Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God … “Speak tenderly … that [your] warfare is ended.” “Come to Bethlehem’s humble manger,” God’s says. “See this work I start at Christmas. In the end, I will finish it! Even if it kills me on a stake of execution on a black Friday called good, I will say, ‘It is finished’ (Jn 19:30)!”

Comfort, comfort” … says your God … [your] iniquity is pardoned.” Who paid when your debt came due? You can laugh, cradling God’s great Christmas gift. You can make merry, given this bouncing bundle of joy. Already Isaiah laughed out loud, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows …. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:4, 6).

Scrooge saw nothing more than ghosts. Thomas was convinced his fellow disciples saw nothing more than a ghost on Easter Sunday (Jn 20:25). Then, a week later, Thomas touched his Master’s hand. He ran is finger along the nail marks. He put his hand into the spear wound, and declared, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:27-28)! Dare you believe? By the power of God’s grace, you indeed can!

Comfort, comfort my people”, says your God. Speak tenderly to [the people of Trinity]. [Their] warfare is ended … [They have] received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.”

Scrooge trembled. “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more! Speak comfort to me, Jacob!” “I have none to give,” deadpans the ghost. “Comfort comes from other regions, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.” These “other kinds of men” are really those who see their sin and fall before the righteous God pleading for mercy in Christ—those who look to the babe of Bethlehem as their ultimate comfort. There’s no room for pride here, there’s no room for any work of man before the holy God. There’s only the Word made flesh and His called ministers giving out His Word of comfort: Your sins are forgiven—depart in the peace of the Lord!

From where does your comfort come this Christmas? It comes from heaven above, as God sends His Son to be your Savior. Your comfort comes through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, who gives His life as a ransom for all. Comfort comes to you who hear the Word of life revealed in a baby lying in a manger.

So in this Christmas season of joy and hope and promise, and throughout the New Year, from my house to yours, God bless you, every one!

 

 

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