John knew a secret. Well, not a secret, more like an unpopular truth. And it’s not that he knew it while others didn’t. He knew and accepted that he was, in the big picture, nothing.
That’s why he didn’t stay in Jerusalem to preach. That’s why he didn’t invest in fabulous clothes and a gourmet diet. Camel hair and locusts with honey served him well enough. That’s why he didn’t build a synagogue or baptism center in the desert. A spot by the river served him just fine as pulpit and font. That’s why he didn’t write anything or commission any portraits of his work. He just baptized and preached, he preached and baptized.
He understood words Luther preached before Luther preached them. In one of his Advent sermons Luther said, “Therefore the church is a mouth house, not a pen house.” The Christian Church is a place for preaching the Word, teaching the Word, baptizing with the Word, announcing forgiveness by the Word, distributing forgiveness from pastor’s lips to parishioner’s ears. Here we set God’s table and by invitation of Christ, we eat God’s meal. Here we proclaim to young and old alike: “Repent.” “Take and eat.” “For you.” “I forgive you, for Jesus’ sake.”
Not that it’s wrong to write those things down, else we’d err having a printed Bible. The point is that the Church doesn’t exist simply to preserve knowledge, like the monasteries of old where monks sat in scriptoriums laboriously copying manuscripts. The Church exists to be a voice in the wilderness crying. This is the LORD’s command. “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’” And the Church, like Isaiah and John ask, “What shall I cry?”
Here we expect the Father to say, “You will cry, ‘Jesus loves me.’” And he does. Enough to take on human flesh and let that flesh be nailed to the cross. Enough to pay God double the price for the sins we committed, so that God can say to his prophet, “You will comfort my people. Tell them: ‘[Your] hard service has been completed; [your] sin has been paid for; [you have] received from the Lord’s hand double for all [your] sins.” God’s prophets always preach this. They always cry this, as John did, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
But then the Father who preaches comfort stuns us a little bit. “Here’s what you will say, John. ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.’” This sounds delightful. Grass is life. Green grass, nice to walk on grass. Grass that forms the lifeblood of an animal’s diet. And flowers of the field? Flowers are beautiful and colorful. Where we lived in Texas it was not uncommon to see cars pull off the interstate to take pictures of their children in the bluebonnets clustered near the highway. Jesus says that the lilies of the field dress more gloriously than Solomon.
And we invest so much in grass and flowers. Count up the cost on fertilizing, seeding, mulching, mowing and sodding. Every year how many hundreds, thousands, and millions of dollars get spent on plants and flowers big and small to adorn homes and gardens and yards? Truly, a wonderful word, that God compares the man to our grasslands and gardens.
Until he finishes his comparison. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall.” How true. All that work, and by fall, or sooner, depending on how green the thumb and the pH factors in the soil, all dead. It can end in an instant and in a moment. Grass and flowers live or die at the whims of the weather: heat, light, sun, rain, hail. Or other factors: like kids, dogs, and rabbits. You buy new flowers next year. And you mow the grass that spent all week growing. Jesus too, after speaking of the beauty of flowers, reminds us that they are “here today and tomorrow [are] thrown into the fire.”
Man tries so hard to leave a legacy. We invest and endow for our kids. We fill albums with photographs and post them on various social media. Well, as Solomon says, we save and fools inherit what we’ve saved. Markets wipe out a lifetime of work. Pictures fade and get lost. The eternal quality we seek in posting to the internet gets canceled out by the billions of pictures others post. Then we die. And get forgotten.
What hubris to think that we are anything. Peter says the same. This day we try to make eternal in pictures and videos is a percentage of a God-day smaller than we can imagine, two ten-millionths of a percent of a day. The entire life span of a well-aged human comes to less than ten percent of a God-day.
Still, we spend our lives planting, building, working, and procreating. Not always like the fool, filling up our barns so we can admire them at night; but mostly forgetting that moth and rust destroy, the world will one day run down and the fires of heaven consume it; more, the breath of the LORD, the same breath that parted the Red Sea and overthrows the lawless one, the Antichrist, at the end of the age, blows upon the grass and flowers, upon man.
This is why the Church, going back to John and Luther, needs to be as much of a mouth house as it can be. Yet here too we go on building and preserving, trying to establish all sorts of legacies. Not that it’s wrong to build and preserve. We need buildings to gather in. We need schools to teach children in. But it’s ever so easy to do things for the sake of the building and the preserving; for the sake of the institution, not for the sake of the thing the institution does.
If we are, in Luther’s words, a pen-house, then we exist to put things on paper and make records that will last into eternity. We want pictures, articles, histories, buildings. We cherish them. We spend all our effort, we bend all our effort, towards the creation of and preservation of such things. But these things, like people, pass away. Buildings too are here today and gone tomorrow. This congregation and that school have come and gone, popped up and just as quickly relocated, merged, failed, restarted, or disappeared.
That doesn’t mean we must slavishly follow John’s model and burn the files, tear down these walls, shutter this school, and begin a street-corner ministry of soap-box sermons. It means we make sure to make this not merely a pen-house, but a mouth-house, that everything we do, everything we plan, everything we propose, everything we budget, everything we fund, cries out God’s Word; because the grass withers and the flowers fall, “but the word of our God stands forever.”
That forever-standing word does an amazing thing. “Faith comes from hearing the message.” Because, as the Lord says later in Isaiah, “My word does not return to me empty.” This world, as Peter says, is passing away. Heaven and earth will fall down and apart, Christ tells us, but his words do not pass away, because the faith they create never perishes. This is the imperishable that clothes the perishable at the end of days, at the resurrection, when the mortal takes up immortality. And it’s people. People who heard the spoken, cried out Word of God. People who dripped with the forgiving water of baptism. People who chewed upon the for-you food of the Lord’s Supper.
Because, believe it or not, God cares for this withering, falling, drying out, perishing grass. He cares for man. He speaks comfort to man. He forgives man. And he commissions the Church to speak this on his behalf. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” “A voice of one calling.” “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’” “Lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”
Here he is. The Son of Man, without a place to rest his head or a house to call home; with hardly any possessions to call his own. Without a church built by his own hands. Without anything except the words he cried out: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest!” “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
We build churches. We open and operate schools. And this is good and right. Even though some day these churches and schools will be empty. Even though we might, one day, sooner or later, run out of money to operate them. But we do it, not because it leaves us a legacy and will last forever, but we do it, because here we have Jordan’s banks, where the Baptist’s cry still ring out. Here we preach and baptize, baptize and preach. We exist for no other purpose. We budget for no other purpose. Because this baptizing and preaching does an amazing thing. It puts an end to the withering and fading and falling. This baptizing and preaching we do points to the one greater than us, whose sandals we, like John, cannot stoop down to untie. This baptizing and preaching points to Jesus, the Lamb of God, the bringer of forgiveness, the one who paid double for our sins, the shepherd who gathers “lambs into his arms and carries them close to his heart.”
I want there to be a church and school here at Bethel forever. Not just because I selfishly want to preach from this pulpit and walk my kids to school instead of drive them. Though that is nice. I want there to be a church and school here because this is, and ever must be, a mouth-house of God, crying out the everlasting words of God: “Here is your God!” Crying out that this mighty God whose breath is so powerful, so devastating, so death-dealing, did deal that death upon his Son, did breathe life into that Son’s dead body on Easter morn, and with that same breath promises that because of Christ there is in store for those who believe in him “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” That lasts forever.
That’s something I get to do from this pulpit and in those classrooms; something our teachers get to do with your children day by day. Something we do as God turns another fading flower into his immortal child at the Baptismal font. Something we get to do as we stand, like blushing brides, at the altar receiving Christ’s body and blood healing our sin-sick souls. We get to hear God cry out, speaking words from his lips to our ears, eternal words. And in God's mouth-house, those words are for you. And they last forever. Amen.