Monday, December 11, 2017

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (B)
December 10, 2017
Text: Mark 1:1-8

            “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1; ESV).  Quite an introductory sentence to the shortest of the four Gospels.  Really, it’s the title of St. Mark’s book.  But it also serves as the thematic statement for Mark’s Gospel as a whole, and our text in particular.  Mark gets right to it.  He tells us what the Gospel is and how it is delivered.  It is the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the flesh, in fulfillment of the whole Old Testament.  This is the One we’ve been waiting for, the Messiah who comes to save us.  And now this is what happens as a result, in order to bring that Gospel to the people: God sends a preacher.  He sends His prophet, his man, St. John the Baptist, the voice.  He sends him out into the wilderness, the place of nothingness and lifelessness, aside from the wild beasts… a place the people believed to be a haunt of demons.  It is just to that place that God sends His preacher.  To do what?  To cry: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (v. 3).  The Christ is coming.  Repent of your sins.  Turn from them.  Give them up.  Return to the LORD your God, and to His Messiah, His Son.  Believe the Good News.  (The word “Gospel” means “good news,” or “good tidings,” like a herald announcing the visit of a king or a great victory over the enemy.)  John preaches repentance and faith in the empty wasteland of beasts and demons.  And there he stands, in the dirty, stinking Jordan River, pouring water all over sinners, washing away, not the dirt of the body, but the defilement of the soul and the body, sin.  His baptism is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and the people come out to him there, in the middle of nowhere, confessing their sins, being washed, forgiven, and set free.
            That’s the Gospel happening, the life-giving Gospel blooming in the desert, putting demons to flight, making saints out of sinners, Christians out of brute beasts.  Do you see what this means?  The nature of the Gospel, the good news that God is reconciled to sinners in the coming of Jesus and His death and resurrection, that all our sins are forgiven… the nature of this Gospel is that it be proclaimed.  It’s right there in the definition of the word Gospel: Good news, good tidings, to be told.  And so, when God does His Gospel, He sends a preacher.  They’re not always much to look at, these preachers.  St. John was clothed in a leather belt and a camels’ hair suit.  It was weird even then.  They’re sometimes socially awkward and their behavior can be off-putting.  St. John lived as a hermit in the wilderness, ate locusts caught with his own hands, and raided bees’ nests for the wild honey.  He was rather blunt in his speech.  He didn’t beat around the bush.  He called sinners out for their sin.  And he was pretty specific.  Painfully so.  “You there, stop being so greedy.   Share what you have.  You tax collectors, stop stealing from the people.  You soldiers, stop bullying people and extorting money.  Be content with your wages, with the provision God has given to you.  And you, Herod… It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  You are not your own.  Your body is not your own to do with as you please.  And Herodias is not your wife.  She is Philip’s.  Repent” (Cf. Luke 3).  It would get him beheaded.
            No, John was not a people-pleaser.  Can you imagine the trouble he’d get into if he pastored a congregation in the Missouri Synod?  But this is what God does when He sends His man: He calls sinners to repentance and faith.  He sends a voice to preach, hands to baptize, ears to hear confession, a voice to absolve.  But the man is nothing.  In the end, he’s expendable.  Even St. John.  It is God who does the Gospeling.  It is God who preaches, baptizes, and absolves.  It is God who feeds with better fare than locusts and wild honey, who clothes with better than camels’ hair and leather.  When God sends a preacher, it is God Himself who comes into the wilderness.  And when you hear a preacher preaching repentance and faith, you hear the voice of the living God.
            And that means when a preacher declares your sins forgiven, they really are forgiven before God in heaven, for it is God who has done the forgiving… not the man in the strange outfit.  The man is clothed in an office.  St. John was dressed remarkably like Elijah!  He was clothed in the mantle of a prophet.  This was to decrease John, and magnify the Christ he proclaimed.  Your pastor is dressed remarkably like the clergy have dressed since Roman times.  He is clothed in the mantle of the Public Preaching Office.  This is to decrease him, and magnify the Christ he proclaims, nay, the Christ who speaks, directly, to you in His holy Word, and who washes you in Baptism, forgives your sins and clothes you in His own righteousness in the Holy Absolution, and feeds you with Himself, His body and blood, crucified and risen, in the Holy Supper.  That is God doing His Gospel to you. 
            And He does it right here in the wilderness, doesn’t He?  You do realize, don’t you, that we live in a wilderness even more lifeless and full of nothing but wild beasts and demons than St. John did?  For all of our shopping malls, restaurants, and big box stores, we really live in no-man’s land.  None of the stuff money can buy fills us.  None of it satisfies us or makes us happy.  Remember that when it comes time to open presents at the end of the month.  It’s great and all, but it doesn’t add to you and it won’t make you happy.  (Truth be told, you’ll probably take it back to the store.)  In many and various ways, Christmas has become for us one giant exercise in hedonism and selling ourselves to other gods for nothing more than a mess of pottage… or an i-Pad-Pod-Phone-Thingamajiggy that will be obsolete on December 26th
            Beloved in the Lord, repent.  Stop being so greedy.  Stop coveting.  Stop worrying that if you’re too generous, there won’t be enough for you.  Believe in God, and in Christ His Son.  Believe the God who shed His blood and died for you, to make you His own, and know that He will never forsake you and He never holds out on you.  He blesses you to be a blessing.  Give it away.  Share.  Give gifts.  Sacrifice.  And rejoice in Jesus, who is all you need.  Don’t bully.  Don’t covet.  Be content with your wages.  Delight in the spouse God has given you, and have eyes only for him or her.  And if God has not given you a spouse, wait upon Him and pray and give thanks that you are never alone.  He is always with you.  Honor your father and mother.  Pay your taxes and pray for the president.  Confess your sins.  Be forgiven and cleansed. 
            For you are baptized into Christ, and that means something pretty incredible.  What Christ is, you are.  You are a son of God in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  You have died.  You got your death over with at the font, where you were baptized into the death of Christ!  So you don’t need to fear death.  When you die, you keep living.  Because Christ is risen, and you live in Him, and you will never taste death.  You will live forever with Him, and on the Day of His return, He will raise you bodily from the dead.  That’s pretty good news, right?!  And your sins can’t haunt you.  They’re washed away.  The Law cannot accuse you or condemn you.  You’ve died to its power.  The devil?  Oh, he cannot accuse you either.  His tyranny is at an end.  He’s hell-bound without you, praise be to Christ!  And all of your enemies: sin, Satan, death, and hell itself, the things to which you used to be enslaved… these will be thrown into the Lake of Fire on that Day where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Those things can’t hurt you anymore.  You belong to Christ!  You are baptized into Christ! 
            And there is this difference between John’s Baptism and yours.  John’s Baptism was interminably great, to be sure.  It was a Baptism by which God turned the sinner from sin to Himself.  God repented the sinner, and forgave the sinner all his sins.  Tremendous stuff, that.  But as great as it was, it was but a shadow of your Baptism into Christ.  It was the type.  Yours is the fulfillment.  In your Baptism, you have all that John’s Baptism gives.  And you have more.  John’s pointed forward to Christ.  Yours delivers Him.  John’s prepared sinners for the coming of the Savior.  Yours saves by giving you His salvation.  John’s Baptism was with water, but yours delivered the Holy Spirit, who brought you to faith in Jesus Christ and sustains your faith as you live each day in your Baptism.  God writes His Name on you in your Baptism, His Name in all its fullness as Jesus has revealed it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And your Baptism is no one-time event.  It is the daily reality in which you live.  It’s not that you were baptized, it’s that you are baptized.  Repentance is a daily return to your Baptism.  Absolution in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit puts you right back into the water.  That’s how God does His Gospel to you. 

            So now you know what you really need to survive life in this lifeless and demon-possessed wilderness.  Go where God Gospels you.  Go where the preacher is and where God is giving His gifts.  Hear the preaching.  Repent of your sins.  Live in your Baptism.  Believe the Absolution.  And eat what God gives at this Table.  St. Mark records the beginning of the Gospel.  Here in the holy Church is the continuation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Here is where He gives it for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Thursday, December 7, 2017

First Sunday in Advent/ Advent Midweek I

First Sunday in Advent (B)
December 3, 2017
Text: Mark 11:1-10

            “Come, Lord Jesus.”  You probably pray that prayer when you sit down to eat.  And you should.  It’s a wonderful prayer to pray, recognizing that every good gift, right down to the food on your table, comes as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  God blesses you because of Jesus.  And so in your table prayer, you recognize Jesus as the unseen Host and Guest at your meal, and the one who sustains your body with food and drink, even as He does so for your body and soul at His own Table with His body and blood.  “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed,” you pray.  And yet, the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus,” is so much more than a petition that food be blessed.  It is the urgent cry of the Church.  At the end of the Book of Revelation, Jesus promises, “Surely I am coming soon,” whereupon St. John replies on behalf of the whole Church of God, “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20; ESV).  Come to us now in mercy for our forgiveness.  Come to us visibly to deliver us finally and completely from sin, death, the devil, and all evil.  Come, Lord Jesus!
            And He does.  He comes.  The word “Advent” means “coming.”  Jesus advents.  He comes.  And in the holy Season of Advent, we meditate upon and treasure His three-fold coming: 1. His coming in the flesh, God the Son incarnate, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; 2. His continual coming to us in His holy Word and the blessed Sacraments (Baptism, Absolution, and the Supper of His body and blood); and 3. His coming again in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead and give us life forever with Him, in our bodies, in the new creation.  Advent is a Season of preparation for receiving Jesus as He comes.  It is preparation for Christmas as we celebrate once again His coming as a Baby to be the Savior of the world.  It is preparation for receiving Him here in His Church, in the Divine Service, and particularly in Communion.  And it is preparation for our meeting Him face to face in our death and in the Day of Judgment.  As a result, there is a penitential flavor to Advent.  That is why the Church is decked out in purple, like the Season of Lent.  That is why we omit the singing of the Hymn of Praise for a few weeks (although we don’t put away our alleluias… Advent is not quite on the level of Lent when it comes to penitence).  That is why we have the extra midweek services and devotions.  And most importantly, for the next two weeks St. John the Baptist will preach to us in our Holy Gospel, bidding us prepare the way of the Lord, to make His paths straight.  Which is to say, St. John will preach to us repentance.  That is how you prepare.  Not with Christmas parties all month long (although those are nice, especially with the cookies).  But self-examination and repentance.  And yet, not dour repentance.  Christmas is coming, after all, and the joy can hardly be contained.
            It always strikes more than a few as odd that the Holy Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is the Palm Sunday reading of the Triumphal Entry.  Why a Holy Week reading in December?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  In our Holy Gospel this morning, we have highlighted for us a coming of the Lord within His first coming as Savior, namely, His coming into Jerusalem… to die.  For you.  And that is what Advent is all about.  In fact, that is what Christmas is all about.  One of the strongest Christmas carols in our corpus rightly has us sing, “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne, for me, for you.”  Christmas is nothing apart from Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday.  Remember that while you’re stuffing your face with Christmas cookies and ripping into presents by the light of the yule log.  You have this joy because Jesus came to die for your sins.  And so this is just the right reading with which to begin our Advent preparations and a new Church Year.  Jesus rides humbly into the City of His father David to be the sacrifice of atonement.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, cries St. John.  The crowds strew their palms and cloaks before Him, a royal highway.  They follow Him and shout, “Hosanna!”  It has become an exclamation of praise, but it literally means “Save us!”  “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!  Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10). 
            Yes, blessed is He who comes!  He comes, beloved.  He is not a remote God, far away, who mostly leaves us to ourselves and doesn’t care about our day to day affairs and problems and hurts and sins.  He is our Emmanuel, God with us, and He cares very intimately for all of these things.  He died for them, to baptize them in His blood, to take away our sin, to heal our hurt, and to deliver us from all evil, including and especially the evil one!  He comes.  He came then, in the mess of fallen humanity, born to an unwed mother in a stable in backwater Bethlehem, because the family had to be there to be counted for taxes, paid to godless Caesar of all people, laid in the hay of a stinking feeding trough for animals of all places, because nobody in town had room for Him.  Not even His own kin.  But He comes to suffer just these things, and more, to suffer unjust conviction and torture and death and hell to save you from your just conviction and torture and death and hell on account of your rebellion against God, your sin.  And so this coming into Jerusalem to die is the coming upon which all His comings hinge.  He comes now in the means of grace, His Word and Sacraments, to deliver what He accomplished for you then by His death and resurrection, namely, the forgiveness of your sins, eternal life and salvation, the favor of the Father who loves you as His own dear Child, and every grace and blessing besides.  And you need not fear His coming again to judge, because of His coming then which won your acquittal and justification, and His coming now in His Church to deliver the verdict: Forgiven, righteous, holy on account of His saving work for you.
            All of which is to say, really, the three comings are of a piece.  They are one, distant in time, but one divine action of mercy for your eternal salvation.  Jesus comes to save you.  It is true of His first coming.  It is true as He comes among us now in His Church with His living voice and His true body and blood.  It is true when He comes again on that Day.  Jesus comes to save you.  This is His answer to the prayer you pray when you sit down to eat.  “Come, Lord Jesus,” you pray.  And He does.  Here and now.  He’s here!  Right now!  In the flesh!  For you!  He’s here as sure as you’re sitting here, our unseen Host and Guest.  And He’s coming again visibly, so that every eye shall see Him, to give you eternal life. 

            So let’s get ready.  There is much to be done before Christmas.  I’m sure you’re all hustling and bustling about to get your house all decorated and ready for guests, writing out your Christmas lists, and shopping for meals and presents.  That’s all wonderful.  But all of that is meaningless apart from your Advent preparations for Christmas.  Examine yourself according to the Ten Commandments.  Consider your place in life.  Confess your sins.  Repent.  And hear with joy the Word of Christ Himself who came to die and who comes, risen and living, to speak these words to you Himself: “I forgive you all your sins.”  Clean out the filthy halls of your heart by giving your sin-sick and dead heart to Jesus in confession.  Receive your heart made new from Him, and deck the halls with His righteousness.  Which is to say, hear the preaching, believe the Absolution, that it is for you, O Baptized Child of God, and eat and drink and be merry at the Supper of the Lamb.  Christmas is coming, and the Feast is prepared.  “Hosanna!” we pray with the Palm Sunday throngs.  “Save us!”  “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  “Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray.  And He does.  His body, given for you.  His blood, shed for you.  To save you.  Merry Advent.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Advent Midweek I
Prophetic Preaching of Preparation: Comfort for God’s People from the Prophet Isaiah
“Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down”
December 6, 2017
Text: Is. 64:1-9

            “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is. 64:1; ESV).  Come, O God!  Come and help us!  Come and save us!  This is the cry of the Prophet Isaiah, and it is the cry of all of God’s faithful suffering in the midst of the unfaithfulness of so many in Judah and Israel.  And, as we heard on Sunday, it is our cry and the cry of the Church of all times, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  But what is it Isaiah and the people are praying for God to come and do?  And the rending of the heavens?  Doesn’t that sound like a coming in judgment?  Is that really what the people want?
            Like us, they want God to come for a two-fold purpose: Judgment for His enemies and mercy for His people.  In our culture and society, we don’t like words like judgment and enemy, at least not when it comes to religion.  And yet, isn’t it true that we were all rooting for Osama bin Laden to bite the dust?  That doesn’t preclude prayers for his repentance and conversion.  We can do that, too.  But recognizing that, humanly speaking, it wasn’t likely that Osama bin Laden would repent and become a Christian, we wanted God to guide a missile, or, as the case may be, a Navy Seal, right into his living room.  When God judges His enemies in that way, it is a great mercy for His people.  Osama is out to kill Americans and Westerners in general and Christians in particular.  Now he can’t do that anymore, and he’s met his Maker.  If, by some miracle, in his last moments he had a come to Jesus experience, praise the Lord.  But that probably didn’t happen, and now he believes, probably much to his dismay.  Judgment belongs to God, and He has executed it.  Blessed be the LORD.
            Isaiah prays that God would perform just such a feat among the nations in his day.  He prays that God would come down to make His Name known to His adversaries, the holy Name, the Name that is not to be taken in vain and misused, the Name God puts on His chosen people.  He prays that the nations would tremble in the presence of Almighty God (v. 2).  Don’t you pray that?  Don’t you long for the Day God comes and vindicates you before all those who have laughed at you and mocked you for the faith, who have stolen from and beaten and imprisoned your brothers and sisters for the faith and killed them for it, who would make the Name of Jesus illegal?  Of course you do.  You pray for their conversion, but if not, you pray for Judgment Day. 
            But you do not pray from a posture of self-righteousness.  You pray from a posture of confession.  Isaiah confesses it for you.  “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (v. 5).  We shall not, unless God acts.  And He does.  He comes.  Not just to obliterate His enemies, but to save all who believe in Him.  For there is no “God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (v. 4).  So we wait, and we pray: Come, rend the heavens, act, judge, save.  We are unclean.  Cleanse us, O God.  Even our good works are as filthy rags before you.  Heal us, O God (v. 6).  Hide your face no longer (v. 7), but make it to shine upon us and be gracious to us.  You are our Father.  We are clay in Your hands (v. 8).  Please lay aside your righteous anger.  Remember not our iniquities forever.  “Behold, please look, we are all your people” (v. 9). 
            Beloved in the Lord, Jesus Christ is God’s answer to your prayer.  He rends the heavens and comes down.  He comes down to suffer the Judgment for all our sins and to deliver us forever from our iniquities.  There He stands in the Jordan River, being baptized by John, and what happens?  The heavens are rent asunder (Mark 1:10).  He rends the heavens!  The heavens are opened to Jesus, and thus opened to us!  And it happens again in Jesus’ death.  His body is rent asunder for us poor sinners, heaven in the flesh rent by whip and thorn and nail and spear, and when He cries out to God and breathes His last, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).  For in the death of Jesus Christ, God-come-down for us, nothing bars our access to God.  Nothing.  Not the Law.  Not sin.  Not death.  Neither hell nor devil.  For these have been defeated in the death of Jesus Christ.
            And when He dies, the mountains quake (Matt 27:51).  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy.  The mountains quake, the rocks split, and many righteous rise from their tombs.  They’re confused!  They think it’s Judgment Day!  Because they recognize the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prayer in our text.  God has rent the heavens and come down to judge and to save!
            Now how do you prepare for such a coming of God?  How do we prepare for Christmas?  For the Lord’s Supper?  For our Lord’s coming again on the Last Day?  That is what Advent is all about.  And in our text, Isaiah teaches us how to prepare.  First, we confess our sins.  We have separated ourselves from God by our iniquities.  We deserve His wrath.  He is right to be angry and hide His face from us, for we have taken and eaten what is forbidden, and covered ourselves with the fig leaves of our excuses and the filthy rags of our works.   And all the while, we have blamed God for our fall.  The answer to it is not to hide our transgressions, but to confess them.  Speak them aloud before God.  Bring them out in the light to be dealt with.  Dealt with, not in judgment, but in mercy.  For our God is mercy.  He deals with our iniquity in the blood and death of Christ.  He forgives our sins.  And He sends His prophets, like Isaiah, His Apostles, like St. Paul, His pastors and His Church, to proclaim the Gospel and the Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of all your sins for the sake of Christ.  Fig leaves won’t help.  God must kill to atone for your sin.  And He does.  In Christ.  He clothes you, not with animal skins, but with Christ… with Christ who died and who is risen from the dead and who is now your righteousness and life.  So that is the first thing to do in preparation according to Isaiah.  Confess your sin.  Own up to it.  Give it to God. 
            And the second thing is to confess the faith.  God acts for His people who wait for Him.  He will not forsake you.  He forgives.  He saves.  He is our Father and we are His people.  He loves us.  He remembers not our iniquity because He has put it to death forever in Christ.  And at the end of every Divine Service He puts His Name on you once again, the Name He revealed in Jesus and placed on you once and for all in your Baptism into Christ, the LORD, the LORD, the LORD, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He blesses you and keeps you.  He makes His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.  He lifts up His countenance upon you and gives you His peace.
            Beloved in the Lord, the world is a mess, and frankly, so are you.  You know it, and God knows it, and I say it because I love you and because that’s what God sent me to tell you.  Don’t hide it.  Confess it.  Say it out loud to God.  And hear what He says to you.  Your sins are forgiven.  Then, confess the faith.  Confess your confidence in God.  Pray to our Father who art in heaven, that He would rend the heavens one final time and come down.  And then wait.  Patiently and with joy.  Because you know the End of this.  He advents.  He comes.  He comes for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year (A—Proper 29)
November 26, 2017
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

            What will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? You know, of course, that you are a sinner. You just confessed it to God a few minutes ago, “I, a poor, miserable sinner… by nature sinful and unclean… sinned against You in thought, word, and deed.” To confess anything other than this truth would be fruitless. It is not as though you can lie to the all-knowing God. But to confess this truth about yourself, that you are a sinner, to plead guilty, is a fearsome thing as you stand before your almighty and righteous Judge. That is why you plead guilty now, confessing your sins, and you cling with all your might to the Absolution, to the Word pronounced upon you by God’s called and ordained servant, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” knowing that by these words God Himself is forgiving your sins. You cling to your Baptism into Christ, by which your sins are washed away and you are clothed with His righteousness. Because this is true, beloved, on the Day of Judgment you plead innocent. You plead righteous. Not with your own righteousness. You have none. Not by your own works. Your works are as filthy rags before God. You plead righteous because of your righteous Lord Jesus, who covers you. When God looks at you, He sees Jesus, His innocent, righteous, beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.  And when Jesus, who is coming again to judge, looks at you, He sees a brother, a sister, whom He has given His all to redeem.
            But Jesus talks about works in the Gospel this morning, and this can be a little confusing to say the least. First, Jesus commends the sheep, those who are saved, for having fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. He commends them for their works. Then He sentences the goats, those who are condemned, to the eternal fire for their having failed to do these works. What’s it all about?
            Is Jesus here contradicting our doctrine that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works? It may appear that way at first, and this text is often misunderstood in that way. But what we have to ask is this: What is it that makes the sheep, sheep? And what makes the goats, goats? And when we examine the text very carefully, we see that it is not the works that make the sheep or the goats, but the sheep or the goats that make the works… just as a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit (c.f. Matt. 7:17). In fact, before the judgment, before works enter the picture, the sheep are already sheep, and the goats are already goats. The sheep are those who are in Christ, the Lamb of God, by Baptism and faith. The goats are those who have rejected Christ and relied on their own works for justification and salvation.
            So again the question, what will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? The sheep have as their only confidence on that Day their Lord Jesus Christ. The sheep will plead innocent and righteous because of Christ, who covers them. The goats will also plead innocent and righteous, but not because of Christ. They will make this plea because of their works. They will take confidence in themselves and in their works. And they will be condemned because their works are not sufficient. Their works are, in fact, sinful.
            The sheep will be surprised that they have ever done any good works. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” (Matt. 25:37-39; ESV). The sheep will be surprised because they know their works to be filthy with sin, impure, with mixed motives, and they know that they have often failed to live according to God’s will… that they have, in fact, blatantly sinned against His commandments. Yet their works are made holy by the blood of Jesus, which cleanses them. Everything that they do is baptized into Christ. Their works are holy because of faith, which grasps the righteousness of Christ. The sheep will be surprised because they take no account of their works. They just do them, because faith is always living and busy and active, overflowing in love and good works. The works don’t make the sheep. The sheep make the works. And their sin and impurity and weakness is not counted against them, because they are forgiven in Jesus, who died for them and is risen for them. He alone is their confidence. They are justified by faith alone. But their faith is never alone. It is always full of love and the works wrought in believers by the Holy Spirit.
            The goats will also be surprised on that Day, surprised to find out that none of their works count. None of their works help them. They will blame Jesus for having misjudged them, for being unjust. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” (v. 44). “Lord, don’t you see all that we’ve done, what good people we are? We gave lots of money to charity, we volunteered at soup kitchens, we were upstanding citizens, we did everything the sheep did.” And you know what? They will be right. In terms of outward works and outward obedience, they did everything sheep did. Maybe they even did more.  Maybe they even did it better. But they did it without faith. They did it outside of Christ. And so the sin and filth and impurity and mixed motives that are forgiven the sheep for the sake of Christ are not forgiven the goats. The goats want to be judged, not in Christ, but on the basis of their works. And God gives them what they want. But no one, neither sheep nor goat, can stand before God by his or her works. Works done outside of Christ, no matter how noble and good in the sight of men, are damnable sin. Yes, a million dollar donation to St. Jude’s (or Augustana Lutheran Church, for that matter), as much as we may rejoice in it and as praiseworthy as it may be before men, is a damnable sin when done outside of Christ.
            But in Christ, the mother who changes her baby’s diaper, who feeds her children, feeds and clothes Christ Himself. In Christ, the father who sets a roof over his family’s heads welcomes Christ into his home. In Christ, when you visit your Christian brother or sister in the hospital for their comfort and consolation, you visit Christ. We often think that the works Jesus speaks of in our text have to be extraordinary works of service, above and beyond what we do in our daily lives. But in reality, Jesus speaks of our living in our daily vocations, loving and serving those around us in faith that Jesus alone is our righteousness, not these works we’re doing. We do these works precisely because Jesus is our righteousness, and we live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
            What we learn from this text is that Jesus is one with His Church, with His little lambs. We serve Jesus by serving them. We love Jesus by loving them. Because Jesus is in and with His people, what we call in theology the “mystical union” of Christ with His believers. Christ is in you and you are in Christ. The Holy Trinity is in you and you are in the Holy Trinity. This is your reality in Baptism. And this is the reality that makes all the difference on Judgment Day. Not the works you’ve done. Those are a result of the Judgment already rendered, that Christ has become your sin and paid for it in full on the cross, and you are righteous in Him because He has fulfilled the Law for you, died for your forgiveness, and is risen for your new and eternal life. The Judgment is that you are righteous on account of Christ alone. And that Judgment has already been pronounced. On Judgment Day it will be made manifest, declared publicly, for all the world and for the devil and his demons to hear. But it is a reality now. So you can go to work now, loving and serving your neighbor, knowing the end is near, but not worrying about it, because you know exactly what will happen on that Day. The Lord Jesus will say to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). Inherit it, not work for it. And that will be a Day of great joy for you. Only those not found in Christ need fear that Day. For the Christian, it will be the Day when all that is wrong is made right again, when we are freed from our sinful flesh as our bodies are transformed into resurrection bodies like unto Christ, when God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.
            Indeed, this is how it will happen on that Day: “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Hereupon will follow the Judgment, when the unbelievers will be cast into the eternal fire prepared, not for them, but for the devil and his angels.  This is the great tragedy that the unbelievers are lost. God loves them.  Jesus died for them and wants them to be with Him, but they will not have it.  But you, beloved, because you are in Christ, will receive eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth. Believe it. Be comforted by it. Do not fear. For you are in Christ, and all your sins are forgiven. The verdict has been pronounced over you in Absolution this morning.  What you heard then you will hear from Jesus’ own lips on that Day.  Your guilt is at an end. You are righteous.  You are holy.  The Kingdom of God is yours.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

National Day of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Eve
November 22, 2017
Text: Luke 17:11-19

                        “And what do you say?” your mother always said to you when someone gave you something nice.  “Thank you,” was the expected response.  To say “thank you” is to acknowledge the good that has been done for you by someone.  It’s more than simply good manners.  It confirms in the mind of the good-doer that you recognize the good that has been done.  This is not only gratifying to the good-doer, but it encourages them all the more to do good for you and for others.  Your mother was right.  “Thank you,” is a very important phrase.  And yet, it doesn’t come naturally, because we ungrateful sinners take the good others do for us for granted, and, in fact, we feel entitled to that good.  So we have to be trained, from a very young age.  “And what do you say?”  Thank God for mothers who teach us gratitude. 
            And while those mothers are absolutely right, that’s not the point of our Gospel.  Jesus is not moralistically teaching us to remember to say thanks, as important as that may be.  Rather, Jesus is teaching us how to thank God.  Of the ten lepers who were cleansed, only one gets it right, and he’s a Samaritan.  All ten were thankful.  Who wouldn’t be after healing from this debilitating disease, leprosy, that destroys the body and leaves the sufferer as an outcast from the community and in physical agony?  The nine who went away were just following Jesus’ instructions: “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14; ESV).  It’s what Moses commanded, after all (Lev. 13-14).  What this Samaritan got, though, that the others didn’t, is how to thank God.  You thank Him by coming to Jesus as God in the flesh and as your High Priest, the one who makes the sacrifice for your sins.  “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus commanded, and the Samaritan comes to Jesus, the High Priest who offers Himself in sacrifice for the sins of the Samaritan, and for you, and for the whole world.  The Samaritan falls down before the flesh and blood feet of Jesus and worships God.  “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18).  You worship God by worshiping Jesus.  He is God and the only way to the Father.  “Rise and go your way,” says Jesus to the Samaritan; “your faith has made you well” (v. 19).  You give thanks to God by believing in Jesus, by trusting Him, by asking Him for help and salvation, by receiving from Him the gifts He longs to give you as your God and Savior: the forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation, and every good gift besides.
            “And what do you say?”  We should give thanks to God for all that He gives us.  But it isn’t thanking God to think that we’re doing Him some kind of favor by remembering to tell Him what a good God He is.  That’s just patronizing.  That puts us above God and makes us His judge, which is precisely what our old Adam wants to be.  Repent.  Of course we should thank God.  But the question is how?  Dear Christian, you know.  The answer is the same for you as it is for the Samaritan.  By thanking God in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  By believing in Him and receiving His gifts with joy.  You thank God by receiving.  You thank God by receiving the forgiveness of sins and divine teaching in the Word of Christ.  You thank God by living in the new birth He has given you in Holy Baptism.  You thank God by coming to His Table to feast on the Sacrifice Your High Priest has given for you, His true body and blood, Jesus Himself the Host and the Meal.  You give thanks to God by receiving Jesus.
            It’s always interesting, some might even say “heartwarming,” to watch children open presents on Christmas morning.  It’s often a scene right out of A Christmas Story: Ralphy and his brother, little Randy, tear into the presents, take a brief glance at the contents, before tossing whatever it is aside and ripping into the next one.  We smile.  Kids.  But it’s not very thankful, is it?  Even if Mom chides, “And what do you say?”  The fact is, if the kids were really thankful for the new Christmas socks, they’d say, “Alright!  Socks!  Just what I needed!  Thanks Mom and Dad.  Thanks and praise be to God.  I can’t wait to try these babies out!”  You see, true thankfulness would receive the socks with joy, hold onto them as a precious treasure, and make use of them, remembering with each use the love of the giver who bestowed the socks.  Incidentally, my wife’s first Christmas gift to me… you guessed it!  I’m just now about to retire the last pair after 14 years! 
            You’re the Samaritan, beloved.  Not even one of the Jews, the other nine, our Lord’s own people.  You have no right to expect anything from Jesus.  You’re a Gentile, a sinner.  You just confessed it a few minutes ago.  But your Lord Jesus also said to you a few minutes ago: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.”  “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  How do you thank God for His indescribable gift in Jesus Christ?  Not to mention every other good gift besides?  You do as the Samaritan did.  You praise God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  You believe in Him.  You receive from Him.  You receive Him in His flesh, in His body and blood in the Supper.  In fact, the Greek word for thanksgiving is ε͗υχαριστία, Eucharist.  You give thanks to God by coming to the Eucharist, receiving the Lord’s body and blood, for the forgiveness of all your sins, receiving it with joy, holding onto it as a precious treasure, making use of it for that which Jesus gives it, and remembering the love of the Giver who here bestows it, His love that took Him all the way to the cross and bloody death for you.  Thanksgiving to God doesn’t begin with your efforts to please Him or your assurances that He’s doing a good job.  Nor does it consist chiefly in gorging yourself on turkey while watching football at home with the family.  It begins at His Church, at His house, receiving Him as He comes to you in His Word and Supper.  It consists of holding Him in faith as God’s most precious gift to you, never tossing Him aside for other stuff, even if it be good stuff.  You want to give thanks to God?  Receive Jesus in faith, as the Samaritan did.  It’s a Eucharist, a thanksgiving marked by receiving more and more gifts. 
            And this leads to your whole life becoming a sacrifice of Thanksgiving.  Having received all from God in Christ, you give yourself for others, for your family, your friends, your brothers and sisters in Christ, and everyone else with whom God places you in relationship.  The love of God in Christ flows to you in His gifts by faith and through you to your neighbor in love.  God loves your neighbor through you.  Your neighbor gives thanks to God because of you.  And this service God has given you to do, this sacrifice of the self, this, too, is His gift.  It’s all His gift.  Every good gift and every perfect gift comes from Him.  “And what do you say?”  Simply this: “Amen,” as once again you open your mouth to receive His body, His blood, for your forgiveness and life. 
            Of course, we Christians know it is good, right, and salutary for us at all times and in all places to give thanks to God in Christ.  Our mother, the Church, taught us that.  But now as our country calls upon us to come together on this National Day of Thanksgiving to give voice to our nation’s gratitude, we gladly oblige.  We sing hymns of praise as we come and kneel at the altar to receive.  It’s what the Church does.  She receives what God does for the Church and for the world: He gives His Son.  Thanks be to God.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 28)
November 19, 2017
Text: Matt. 25:14-30

            The parable of the talents is not first and foremost about stewardship or how you use your money, but about faith.  It is about faith in our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is about faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior.  The first two servants, the one who receives the five talents, and the one who receives the two, these have faith that their Master is graciously disposed toward them and has given them the talents to be used wisely and faithfully as an investment in the Master’s kingdom.  And if, in their investing, something goes awry, they trust in the Master’s mercy.  There is always a risk when it comes to investment, and the Master knows that, and the servants take the risk, knowing that the Master will forgive any loss and that He is pleased with the faithful use of that which He gives.  He will always give more.  The servants will never lack.  Because that it who the Master is. 
            The third servant, though, has no faith in the Master.  He believes the Master to be a hard man, a taskmaster, a tyrant who is out to get His servants.  And so the third servant buries the talent in the ground where it does no good.  He will not take a risk, because he does not trust the Master.  He does not believe the Master will forgive.  He does not believe the Master will provide.  If he loses what the Master has given, he believes there will be nothing left.  So he hoards it.  He will not put it to work for the Master.  He believes he must put it away for himself, where it is safe, to keep himself safe.  He is a miser. 
            In the parable, the Master, of course, is God.  The servants are the Christians.  You are one, or some combination of, these servants.  The talents are the gifts that God has given you: money, to be sure, but also your family and friends, your time and abilities, your many and various vocations, your home, your stuff, your very life and breath, your flesh and blood, you.  Yes, you, in your very essence, are a gift of God to you and to others.  Now, faithful use of God’s gifts to you necessarily depends upon faith in the God who gave them.  If you believe that God is graciously disposed toward you, you will invest what He has given you in His Kingdom, knowing that He will forgive every loss, every failure, and that He will not fail to continue to provide for you.  But if you believe that God is a hard God, a taskmaster, a tyrant, or if you don’t believe in Him at all, you will hoard up all that He gives you, for yourself.  You will bury it in the ground, where it does no good.  You will save it for that rainy day, because, when something goes awry (and it inevitably will), God won’t be there for you, and there will be nothing left.  You have to look out for number one, because no one else will, certainly not God. 
            Now, I should say here that among the many gifts God has given you, He has given you a brain and reason, and we are not against wisely saving some portion of your income against misfortune and for old age.  That’s not the point.  You should be wise with your money.  That is part of being a good steward.  The point, though, is whether you recognize that the talents, all that you are and have, are gifts from your Father in heaven, given by grace, and that therefore He will not hold out on you, He will never forsake you; or whether you think you’ve earned what you have and what you’ve become, that it all belongs to you, and that you have to hold onto it, lest there not be enough at the end of the day. 
            Beloved, the Master gives you all that you have by grace.  “But Pastor, I work hard for a living.  I can’t just sit on my hands all day and expect money and necessities to fall from heaven.”  Very true.  In fact, St. Paul says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10; ESV).  If you can provide for your own needs and contribute to the needs of others, you should do so.  But God has given you your job and the ability to perform it and the product that comes from it and the money you get for it, etc., etc., and it is all gift.  President Obama got into all sorts of trouble a few years back for saying to a group of entrepreneurs, “You didn’t build that!”  Well, he probably wasn’t speaking theologically, but if he was, he has a point.  God did it.  Through the hands and abilities He has given you.  And yes, through the help of others, your fellow citizens, in their vocations (and even, my dear Republicans, the government).  Now, don’t get too upset.  We can argue the political merits of President Obama’s assertions, and I think we can all agree he wasn’t outlining the finer points of Lutheran teaching on vocation, but here’s the point: Nothing you have or have created comes apart from the giving of our God.  The talents God gives, the vocations and gifts, are the masks of God by which He provides for His people and for the world.
            What is a vocation?  In theology, we’re using the word differently than we use it in common parlance.  We aren’t just talking about your job, in spite of the images on our very politically correct bulletin cover.  A vocation is a calling from God.  You can hear the word “vocal” in vocation.  God calls.  He calls you to faith in Christ by His Word and Holy Baptism.  That is your primary vocation, that of baptized Christian.  And He calls you into relationships with people.  Or maybe better, God places you into a context.  He places you into a family, into a congregation, into a community, in a specific location in the world, at a specific time in history.  He surrounds you with specific people.  Your neighbor, as in “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is not just a theoretical concept, but a concrete person.  Look around you.  Who lives with you?  Who lives next to you?  Who do you work with or go to school with or go to Church with?  Who are your friends and even casual acquaintances?  And who is the person just now placed in your path?  These are your neighbors.  Your vocation is to love them, which doesn’t mean have warm fuzzy feelings toward them.  It means to help them.  To serve them.  If they have a need, to provide for it.  Provide for your family.  Provide for your Church.  Go to work.  Pay your taxes.  Vote.  Be a friend.  Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.  In so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with one another.  Pray.  Give to missions.  Give to the soup kitchen.  Be fully in the context where God has placed you.  Go all in on the relationships God has given you.  None of them are by accident.  Take the risk.  Tell your neighbor about Jesus.  Invite your neighbor to Church.  Be generous… sacrificially so.  What a tremendous joy it is to give, if you just do it.  It’s so freeing.  And even give your life as a martyr for the faith or in sacrifice for your neighbor, if that is what God calls you to do.  If you’re ever wondering what your vocation is, look around and see what needs to be done.  Ask yourself what God’s commandments are and how your neighbor needs to be loved according to God’s Word.  And there you have it.  That’s putting the talents to work faithfully, out of faith in the Master’s mercy and lovingkindness.
            God pours out His blessings on you, not to be hoarded, but to be a blessing to others.  And notice that Jesus says the Master gives “to each according to his ability” (Matt. 25:15).  Not only does He give the talents by grace, but He gives them tailor made for each individual servant.  He gives you just the right talents for you.  And for this very reason, Christ redeemed you by His blood and death on the cross: To be His own, and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  That begins here and now in this earthly life.  The Kingdom is here.  It is at hand in the flesh and blood of Jesus, the flesh and blood given for you on the cross, the flesh and blood you eat and drink in the Supper.  Your sins are forgiven by the death of the flesh and blood God, and He is risen, and so you live.  You have been purchased out of your former slavery to death and the devil.  You serve a new Master, Jesus Christ, who loves you and has given His all for you.  And now you are His hands and feet in the world.  He gives you to love and serve your neighbor.  This is what it means to be the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).  You are a priest of God.  And where is your priestly altar?  Out there in the world in your vocations.  You come here to this altar to be fed by your High Priest, Jesus Christ, fed with His body and blood.  Then you go out to give yourself to your neighbor in Jesus’ Name. 
            This is how all of God’s gifts work.  He pours out His gifts upon you so that you put them to work. They flow through you to your neighbor.  We receive the gifts by faith.  We give them in love.  “Faith toward Thee, fervent love toward one another,” as we pray in the collect.  Now, if we hoard them up, we get full and there isn’t room for any more blessing.  But if we use God’s gifts to be a gift to others, there is always room for more.  For God is an unfailing fountain of grace.  He never stops giving.  He will never forsake you.  He will not hold out on you.  Test Him in this.  This is what He says in the Prophet Malachi: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Mal. 3:10).  There is God’s promise.  There you have  His Word on it.
            Now, there will be a calling to account on the Last Day.  That is what it means that the Master calls His servants to settle accounts.  Here some interesting things are done and said.  The Master gives the one with 5 talents 5 more, and the one with 2 talents 2 more, and both are told to enter into the joy of their Master, the Kingdom, heaven, the resurrection and eternal life.  And the one who buried his talent is thrown into the outer darkness, hell, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It all sounds like salvation by works, doesn’t it?  Except what, really, is the difference between the first two servants and the third?  Faith.  The first two believe.  They trust the Master, and so they are faithful to Him as a result.  And yes, they are rewarded for their works, but only because of faith, or we might say, only because the Master is just that good… only because of Christ.  The third servant does not trust the Master, and he is unfaithful as a result.  He is condemned for his works, because he has no faith.  In other words, He has no Jesus. 

            Beloved in the Lord, Judgment Day is coming.  That is the focus of these last Sundays in the Church Year.  Jesus is coming soon to judge the living and the dead.  Repent of your doubting Him.  Repent of your doubting His love and forgiveness and providence.  “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”  Trust Him, beloved.  Know that He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  He will not fail you.  Not ever.  By faith in Jesus Christ, this is what you will hear from Him on that Day: “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Guest Preacher: The Rev. Douglas Taylor

All Saints' Day (Observed)

All Saints’ Day (Observed)
November 5, 2017
Text: Rev. 7:9-17

            “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Rev. 7:13; ESV).  The angel asks St. John, but he is also asking us.  It is important for us to make this identification, to connect these dots.  And we could speculate.  We are good at doing that when it comes to spiritual things.  We are good at coming up with things we’d like to think are true.  But it’s much better to hear the truth as it is revealed through the authorized messengers of God, and the angel is just such a messenger.  And so we confess with St. John, “Sir, you know” (v. 14).  “We’d much rather hear it from you.  We think we know, but we know you know.  And here, in the face of suffering and tribulation and death, we need to know.”  And this is just the answer the angel is looking for.  And so he tells us, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). 
            They are coming out.  It is an ongoing process.  The great tribulation is not some future intensification of suffering that Christians will experience near the end of time, though it is certainly probable that things will get worse for Christians as time marches on.  Nonetheless, the great tribulation is now.  It is the time of the New Testament, ever since the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, as the Church lives in this fallen world under the seeming rule of the devil and in the midst of unbelievers who seem to be winning the struggle against Christ and His Christians, who seem to be the ones who prosper, who hold the power and influence in this world.  That is the great tribulation.  But these clothed in white robes, they are coming out.  Which is to say, they are dying and going to heaven.  And they are not sad, those coming out, those dying and going to heaven.  They are marching in the victory parade over death.  They are carrying palm branches, the symbol of victory in battle.  Here, for the first time, they see things as they really are, and not as they appear to be in this fallen world.  They see with their own eyes our God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.  The Lamb who is slain, but who stands victorious, Jesus Christ, who died, and who is risen from the dead, and lives, and reigns, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  So they sing.  With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, the elders and the four living creatures and all who stand around the throne.  And we sing with them: “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen” (v. 12).
            Who are these?  They are certainly the great heroes of the faith.  There is our father Adam and our mother Eve.  There is Abraham.  There is Isaac.  There is Jacob and King David.  In that tremendous number are Peter and Paul and all the Apostles, St. Mary and St. Joseph and the little child Jesus had put in the midst of His disciples when He taught them about greatness.  There are the Church Fathers, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, of course, and C. F. W. Walther.  These are just a few of the saints gathered from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  No mortal could number them all.  That is why we have a day like this to commemorate them all, All Saints’ Day. 
            But don’t misunderstand.  What is a saint?  We’re not just talking about the big heroes who get all the publicity.  Nor do we mean someone who has lived a particularly spotless and holy life and who does miracles after they’re dead, as so many of our Christian brothers and sisters define it.  The word “saint” simply means “holy one.”  And how does one become holy?  By the forgiveness of sins and Baptism into Christ.  They wear white robes.  These are the robes given them in their Baptism.  These robes are Christ’s righteousness.  Their sins have been washed away in the blood of the Lamb, Christ, and now they bear His righteousness.  They are holy in Him.  And that means a saint is anyone who is baptized, anyone who is in Christ by faith.  That means you.  And that means when we look at that number coming out of the great tribulation, clothed in white robes and singing with palm branches in their hands, we see our own loved ones who have died in Christ.  Today is about them, as much as it’s about Abraham and St. Peter.  Today is about you… it’s about you in Christ.  Which is just another way of saying, today, like every Feast of the Church, is all about Christ for you, Christ for all.
            And your loved one who died in the holy faith of Jesus Christ is one of those coming out of the great tribulation.  Yes, there, clothed in a white robe, is your grandfather, your mother, my dad, my brother-in-law, your son, your friend who died too early in a car accident, your aunt who succumbed to cancer.  There they are with Luther and King David and all the saints gathered around the throne of our Father who art in heaven, and the Lamb, our Savior, Jesus.  When we said goodbye to them on this side of the veil, it looked as though the cancer had won, the heart disease, the violence, the old age.  It looked that way, but it was not that way.  Look at them as they are described in our text.  Read this Scripture every time the devil tries to trick you into thinking death has won.  This is the reality.  They are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple.  He shelters them, protects them from all harm.  They shall not hunger or thirst anymore.  That means they lack no good thing.  The sun shall not strike them by day, nor any scorching heat.  That means that nothing oppresses them.  The Lamb in the midst of the throne, Jesus, crucified and risen for them and for you, is their Shepherd forever.  He leads them.  He guides them.  He keeps them safe.  And He brings them to springs of living water, the unfailing source of their life eternal.  And perhaps what is most comforting: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).  To be with Jesus and see Him face to face is the end of all sadness.  It is the great making right of all that has been wrong.  It is the end of sin and sorrow and grief and pain.  It is the end of death.  And as good as all of this is, it gets even better.  Because in the End, Jesus will do for all the saints, and for you, the culmination of all of His promises.  He will raise you from the dead.  Your body, reunited with your soul, to live forever, nevermore to die.  As He is risen, so you will rise.
            And isn’t this comfort, testified by the holy angel and written in the Scriptures for our learning, much better than the silly things we say from our own wisdom when confronted with death?  You’ve all been there at the funeral visitation when we’re all gathered around the casket and start lying to each other.  “Oh, he just looks so peaceful.  The funeral home did such a great job making him look alive, like he’s just sleeping.”  No, he looks dead.  But we’re not supposed to say things like that, apparently even at a Christian funeral, because that would be to admit that the whole nightmare is true and we really do all eventually die.  So we say, “That isn’t really Grandma.  That’s just her shell.  She’ll never need that body again.”  And there we’ve denied the resurrection of the body we confess every time we say the Creed.  Yes, Grandma’s soul is in heaven, but beloved, this body will rise.  And that’s what you say next time someone tells you that lie.  Because that’s true comfort.  Christians need to get in the habit of telling the truth about death so that we can also tell the truth about the resurrection.  No more of this business about that star up there being Grandpa, or Grandma always looking down on us (which is kind of creepy when you get right down to it), or feeling the presence of Uncle Jim being always with me.  You have something so much better.  Read Revelation 7!  That’s what’s going on with Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Jim and all the saints.  And then Jesus will raise them.  You’ll see them again.  Your arms will hold them again.  And of course you’ll recognize them.  Don’t let any pastor tell you otherwise.  That’s just silly.  You’ll know them.  You’ll love them with a greater and truer love than you’ve ever loved them with here.  The life in which you held them here is fallen and infected by sin and death.  The life in which you will hold them there is life real and true, life as it was always meant to be.  You are separated from them now, for a little while, by the thin veil of death.  But not for long.  You will see them soon when you come out of the great tribulation.  And you will see them with your own eyes on that Day, when Jesus raises you from the dead. 

            In the meantime, for the little while that we have in this fallen world, don’t lose sight of this profoundly comforting truth.  They are gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb, and so are you in the Holy Communion.  They are here, beloved.  Because Christ is here.  This is where you are with them, with the Church of all times and all places, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  Heaven comes down to earth in the Divine Service.  When you’re missing your loved ones who are with Christ, go to Church.  Christ has already clothed you with your white robe and given you your palm branch in Baptism.  Here you join the heavenly chorus and receive a foretaste of the Feast to come.  You live your earthly life in the midst of the great tribulation.  But things are not as they appear.  You are coming out.  Your Shepherd is calling you by name.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away your sin and the sin of the whole world.  And He lives.  Here is His throne.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.