Midweek Advent Worship — December 6, 2006
Texts: Choir Anthem text of “Deliver Us, Lord,” by John Purifoy,
from his cantata “Born a Savior, Born a King”;
portions of Isaiah 43 and Psalm 43 (on theme of “Deliver us”)
Deliver us, Lord, deliver us. Human beings have prayed this refrain to the gods for millennia. As we prepare once again for God’s coming to deliver us through the Christ child of Bethlehem, we might pause to ask, “Deliver us from what? Deliver us from whom?” I would venture to guess that, in the eons that have passed with people praying for deliverance, the what is death, and the whom is our enemies. Deliver us, O God, from death. And deliver us from those evil ones who would harm us, or who would try to foist death on us.
And in the millennia of praying this prayer — “Deliver us, Lord” — the gods first sent us priests who in their rituals of blood sacrifice would bring those powers of death upon some poor creature on the altar who ‘bore death for us,’ delivering us who gathered to ward off death. The priests were the first wave sent by the gods to deliver us.
Kings were the second wave. Kings were those whom the gods sent to deliver us from our enemies who would foist death on us. The great kings are those who are able to raise up an army of soldiers brave enough and noble enough to make the sacrifice of trying to deflect death back upon our enemies. Kings were the second wave of deliverers from the gods, another answer to our prayers for deliverance.
In the nation of Israel many eons ago, there arose a hope for the ultimate deliverer, the Messiah, the one who would combine both these mighty roles. At the time of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah was hoped for as one would come as the Great High Priest to reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem and purify the worship of sacrifice again. And the Messiah would come as a mighty king with a great army to vanquish their enemies.
Into this hope was born a child amidst the poverty of tiny Bethlehem in Judea, born in a stable and laid in a manger. And he would grow up not to purify the Temple but instead to prophesy its destruction and to offer his own body as its replacement. And he would grow up not to lead an army of God’s people against the enemy but to instead let the army of their enemy preside over his execution as a rebel, himself declared an enemy of the State. Could he be the Messiah? Certainly not! Not, at least, according the hope of millennia of prayers of us human beings praying for deliverance — deliverance from death and from our enemies. Deliver us, Lord!
But something astounding happened three days after that baby of Bethlehem, the carpenter’s son of Nazareth — something miraculous happened three days after he was executed on a Roman cross. The God who has created this universe, who has given us all life, had a different answer to our prayers of deliverance than any of the other gods before.
That’s not quite the right way to say, in fact, because the seeds of this new answer for deliverance had been planted long ago in the promise of this God to Abraham and Sarah. In the face of impossible odds, this God had come to Abraham and Sarah and promised them a family that would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And God took this aged couple, long past their child-bearing years, who faced death without continuing the cycle of life through offspring, and this God gave them a family to bless the earth.
But this new answer to prayers of deliverance, through Abraham and Sarah, was very hard to understand. This old couple were neither priests nor kings. And blessed with one son it was hard to see how their family would someday be the blessing of a new answer for humankind’s ancient prayers for deliverance. So difficult, in fact, that this seed of a new answer through Abraham and Sarah and their descendants could only begin to full bloom on that first Easter morning, when God’s answer to death was a resounding chorus of new life. The Messiah has been raised! The answer of God’s power of life is clear for all to see through the eyes of faith.
But what about God’s answer of deliverance from our enemies. That is even a tougher one to see. The Messiah’s followers would struggle to see it, even with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. For this took the gift of forgiveness as an act of free grace to finally be able to see what we needed to see all long. When it comes to deliverance from our enemies, the thing we have needed to see from the beginning has probably been summed up the best by, of all creatures the comic strip character Pogo: “We have met the enemy… and he is us.” In Jesus the Messiah and his willingness to submit to our attempts at deliverance from our enemies — for that’s precisely what the cross is, both a sacrifice presided over by the priest and a vanquishing at the hands of the army of the king — it is finally in the cross and the miracle that happened three days later that we come to see that all this deliverance by way of priest and/or king has really been our human business all along. If Jesus Christ is truly the priest and king sent to us by the true God, then all other priests and kings have largely been in reality our own human answer to our prayers for deliverance.
No, the true king born in a manger in Bethlehem came to teach us that, if God our Creator is our heavenly Father, then every person on this earth is a brother or sister, and we have no true enemies accept ourselves as we try to foist death on each other through priestly sacrifice or royal military might. The Messiah came to teach us to love and forgive our enemies as the only ultimate way of deliverance from death. It is the answer to our prayers that has been so hard to see, and is still so hard to see. Is the fact that a comic strip character has finally put it so aptly a sign that we are finally beginning to see it? “We have met the enemy… and he is us.” And in Jesus Christ we have finally met the true God who promises us the power of life, even in the face of our powers of death — with death itself the last enemy to be defeated.
“Deliver us, Lord.” Tonight we come once again to pray the ancient prayer. And to once again hear God’s answer, the Messiah Jesus born so long ago. Born a Savior, Born a King to truly deliver us. Amen.
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church