Sunday, November 28, 2021

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (C)

November 28, 2021

Text: Luke 19:28-40

            The whole city was in expectation.  Today, a new king would claim the throne of his father, David.  It would be a time of celebration, of great jubilation.  The wonder boy was finally coming into his own.  Now things would be different.  Now some wrongs would be righted.  Now Israel would reach her full potential.  It was a tremendous procession.  The people lined the streets and ran before him, shouting for joy.  When they arrived at the place of coronation, there would be great sacrifices to YHWH, blessing, and feasting.  Yes, Adonijah, the dashing second-born son of the elderly and ailing King David, was consolidating power.  It was true, of course, that David had technically promised the throne to Bathsheba’s son, Solomon.  But no one could really take that promise seriously, could they, made, as it was, to assuage the King’s guilty conscience?  Even David had never once rebuked Adonijah for running around town like he already owned the place, with chariots and horsemen and fifty men to run before him.  As for the members of his father’s cabinet, Joab, David’s mighty general, was backing Adonijah.  So was Abiathar the Priest, the rest of the King’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah.  They were all gathered for the regal festivities at the Serpent’s Stone by En-rogel.  Conspicuous for their absence from the guest list, were, of course, Solomon himself, and his mother Bathsheba.  Also Nathan the Prophet, Zadok the Priest, Benaiah the warrior, and David’s mighty men.  These Adonijah would deal with later as enemies of the state.

            And in all of this, King David lay in bed, ignorant and cold, in the care of beautiful, young Abishag the Shunammite.  He had no idea his kingdom was being pillaged by a fraud.  Something must be done before it is too late.  Nathan and Bathsheba hatch a plan that will spur the King into action.

            Now, David is a man after God’s own heart.  And like the LORD his God, when David speaks a word, he will bring it to pass.  He had promised that Solomon would sit on his throne and reign after him, and now he would make it so this very day.  David may be old, but he’s still the High King, and when David speaks, things happen.  David said to Zadok, Nathan, and Benaiah, “Take with you the servants of your lord and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon.  And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel.  Then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’  You shall then come up after him, and he shall come and sit on my throne, for he shall be king in my place.  And I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah” (1 Kings 1:33-35; ESV).  So that is what happened.  The priest, the prophet, and the King’s mighty warrior anointed Solomon to take the place of his father David.  Then, at the sound of the trumpet, Solomon rode David’s own mule down the Mount of Olives in triumphal procession into the City of Jerusalem, to shouts of “Long live King Solomon!” (v. 39), and “all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise” (v. 40).

            Look what had happened here.  There was a pretender to the throne, attractive and convincing, a slick politician who promised the people what was not his to give.  And he couldn’t have delivered, by the way.  What is the first thing Adonijah would have to have done upon taking the throne?  Violence.  A bloodbath.  A day of reckoning.  Not peace.  Not righting of wrongs.  Assassinations.  Not at all a man after God’s own heart.  Not at all concerned with justice, truth, mercy, faithfulness to YHWH. 

            And then there was the true and rightful King, the promised heir of the throne of David, who, in spite of the pretender’s best efforts, rode triumphantly into the city to claim his God-given sovereignty.  Because David said so.  Because God said so.  He comes, not with chariots and horsemen and fifty men to run before.  Not with military show of might, but by show of right, royal, but humble, mounted on David’s mule, as one who comes in peace. 

            And that is what he would bring.  The LORD’s anointed would usher in an unprecedented golden age of peace and prosperity for Israel.  He would build a House for YHWH, the majestic Temple, and a palace for himself befitting such a powerful head of state, a tribute as much to his people as to himself.  And his wisdom.  It would be known the world over.  The Queen of Sheba would travel half the known world to bask in it.  Not just knowledge.  Not just genius.  God-given wisdom.  As in a deep intimacy with God and with the things of God.

            So that is the contrast.  There is the pretender, who would win his kingdom by cheating, by deception and violence, and bring only more of the same in the intervening years.  And there is the LORD’s anointed, which in Hebrew is “Messiah,” who receives his kingdom in fulfillment of the Promise, with wisdom and peace and every blessing.

            Of course, we know that even Solomon, in all his glory, as the son of David and the LORD’s anointed, fell far short in the end.  Too many wives, and other women, pagan foreigners, enticing him into idolatry.  The allure of riches and the false sense of security and comfort they often bring.  We can’t even be certain that Solomon died in the faith, although the Book of Ecclesiastes seems to be the book of Solomon’s repentance.  And we know where the fall of this great man led Israel: Secession of the Northern Tribes and civil war in the next generation, a slow and steady descent into idolatry and wickedness for both Israel and Judah, rejection of YHWH and His Word through the prophets, military conquests, Assyria, Babylon, exile.  Even the most promising human leaders, in the end, lead us to destruction.  Put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 146:3). 

            But insofar as Solomon was the LORD’s man, the LORD’s anointed, the King of Promise, in contrast to the pretender, Adonijah, he was a type of his own Descendent, the true Son of David, the LORD’s Anointed promised from the foundation of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

            So the people understood, that day, what was happening, as our Lord, having been anointed with the Holy Spirit (as happened at His Baptism), rode down the Mount of Olives on a donkey’s colt, coming not with chariots and horsemen and fifty men to run before him, not with military show of might, but in peace, on a beast of burden never before used, prepared specially by God for this moment.  Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” as the Prophet Zechariah preached (Zech. 9:9).  So the people spread their cloaks along the road, a royal red carpet.  And they rejoice with loud voices, praising God for all the mighty works they had witnessed Jesus perform, and they sing the great Psalm to Him, Psalm 118, “Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38), and they even echo the hymn of the Christmas angels, the Gloria in Excelsis, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

            And that is just what Jesus brings.  Peace in heaven.  Peace between God and man.  For Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, the New and Greater Temple, God in human flesh, to be crowned with thorns, to take up the throne of the cross, to die for the sins of the whole world.  That is the great Sacrifice that brings about what Adonijah’s sacrifices never could: Atonement for all our sins, complete forgiveness by the satisfaction of God’s wrath, and, as a result, justice, mercy, and faithfulness to YHWH.  And Glory in the Highest.  This is God’s great glory, to forgive sinners by the Sacrifice of His own dear Son, thus redeeming them, redeeming us, for Himself, to be His own people, a house of living stones, built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief Cornerstone.  This is the greatest Wisdom, surpassing that of Solomon, for in this way, by the death of God’s Son, Israel is restored… the New Israel, the holy Church of God. 

            Jesus comes, He advents, to bring about the fulness of the promised Kingdom of God.  He roots out every Adonijah and undoes the failings of every Solomon.

            Now the crucified and risen Lord Jesus comes to you.  This Adventide, we prepare to celebrate once again His coming in the flesh as the Son of God born of the Virgin Mary.  He came to be the sacrifice for our sins.  And He is coming again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and deliver us into the Kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.  In the meantime, He comes to us continually by the humble means of words and water, bread and wine, His holy Word and Sacraments.  Part of our Advent preparation is to ask, who and what are our Adonijahs that must be rooted out, the attractive and charismatic pretenders to the throne that seek to rule over our lives and claim ownership of our souls?  And who or what are the Solomons, the divinely appointed gifts that nonetheless fall far short when we elevate the status of the gift to that of the Giver, that which points to the Savior to that of the Savior Himself?

            Who are they?  Identify them.  Name names.  Confess. 

            There is Satan himself, of course.  He is the ultimate Adonijah, always drawing us in, appealing to us as an angel of light, until we fall into his trap, ensnared in his darkness.  His way leads only to bloodshed and eternal suffering. 

            Then there is our own sinful nature.  We always want to elevate ourselves to the throne, to rule ourselves, to be like God. 

            There are all the illicit things that capture our eyes, our minds, our hearts.  Pornography.  Substance abuse.  These are Adonijahs.  They appear to hold the key to happiness, but they lead only to death. 

            Then there are the Solomons.  I think here of earthly governmental powers.  These are from God.  We know that.  Read Romans 13.  But they do fall far short, don’t they?  And I suppose they can also be Adonijahs when they claim divine honors for themselves. 

            Family can be a Solomon, a great, good gift of God, indeed, one of the highest gifts, but not God himself.  We will hear pious Christians in the coming days tell us how they are not going to Church for Christmas because Christmas is a day for family.  It sounds good, but it is a clear confusion of priorities. 

            Jobs can be Solomons when we look to our job or our paycheck as the giver of our daily bread.  Americanism, freedom, the flag can be Solomons.  Our home.  Our marriage.  And the like.  Etc. etc.  These things point to God’s goodness, but they are not God.

            So here comes Jesus, riding in, to save us from every Adonijah, and order every Solomon in his rightful place.  And that is to say, here comes Jesus riding in, the true and rightful King.  He comes, and if we don’t cry out, the very stones will.  What should we cry?  It is no mystery.  In a few moments, in the Sanctus, we’ll sing the same words as the Palm Sunday crowd.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  And it will happen.  He will come riding in on the bread and wine, His true Body, His true Blood, right up into our mouths.  And He will take up His throne within every one of us.  For the forgiveness of sins.  And so there shall be peace.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                             


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Thanksgiving Eve

Eve of the National Day of Thanksgiving

November 24, 2021

Text: Deut. 8:1-10

            And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness” (Deut. 8:2; ESV).  Do you want to know the secret of happiness, even in the midst of challenges and heartaches?  It is thanksgiving.  It is gratefulness.  It is recognizing that the blessings you enjoy don’t just appear by accident.  And it is most especially recognizing that you are not entitled to such blessings.  You don’t have a right to them because you are an American, or a Missouri Synod Lutheran, or because you earned them.  They are gift.  They are grace.  To say thank you to another person is to recognize that they have given you a gift, done you a kindness, blessed you, graced you.  Tonight we recognize something even more profound, and that is that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).  That is, every good thing is a gift from God.  And tonight, and tomorrow, we give thanks chiefly to Him.  If you think you’re entitled to the blessings you enjoy, that is, if you are ungrateful, you will be miserable, because you’ll never have everything you think you’re entitled to, and you’ll suffer many things you think you don’t deserve.  But if you recognize that all good is gift from God, given for your good, for your use and enjoyment, because He loves you, and that for Christ’s sake, you’ll rejoice in the Lord, always, and greatly, no matter your present circumstances.  Because in all your anxieties, in all that is not good, you’ll simply make your requests known to God in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving.  And you know He’ll take care of you.  And so the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).   

            Happiness flows from gratefulness.  And the key to gratefulness is remembering.  Thus in our Old Testament reading, God commands His people through Moses to remember.  Remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness.”  Now, why would He have them do that?  He tells us.  It is first of all to humble them (Deut. 8:2).  That is, “Remember how, in the wilderness, things weren’t easy?  Remember how you were hungry?  How the wilderness itself was inhospitable?  How you constantly lost heart and kept turning back toward Egypt, as though slavery there, to that tyranny, was better than faith in the LORD who redeemed you and brought you out?”  “I put you to the test,” the LORD is saying, “to see if you would keep my commandments, my faith.  And you failed miserably, as I knew you would.  But you didn’t know that.  And you needed to know that.  You needed to know that you couldn’t possibly make it on your own.  That you could not provide for yourselves.  That you were destitute.”  Here we see the purpose human suffering.  God is no masochist.  He doesn’t enjoy inflicting suffering.  He is disciplining those He loves.  So the Israelites were humbled by their circumstances.  But what happened?  The LORD provided.  When He brought the people to the end of themselves, to utter despair of all else, the LORD acted.  He saved.  Manna in the wilderness.  Water from the rock.  Quail descending on the camp.  Their clothing did not wear out.  Their foot did not swell.  Because He promised.  He promised to bring them through, and into His own Land full of all good things.  This is what He said He would do.  They had to learn to trust, not themselves, and not their outward circumstances, but the Promise.  See, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (v. 3).  They were to remember all their trials and tribulations, and they were to remember how the LORD provided for them and cared for them the whole way, through all the years, through all the suffering, and how He saved them, in order that they believe in Him, trust Him, and rejoice in the LORD always, I will say it again, rejoice.  And they were to remember and believe the Promise that so He will always do for His people.

            Now, here we are in the midst of some hard times in our nation, and in the world, and perhaps even in our own families and our own lives.  To us, too, this night, the LORD gives us the Commandment: Remember.  Remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you all your years.  Yes, you’ve had trials and tribulations.  Yes, you’ve suffered.  Yes, you have your issues right this very moment.  By the way, how have you done keeping God’s commandments in the midst of hard things?  Did you face them all with unshakeable faith that your LORD would deliver, no matter what?  Or did you waver?  Did you doubt?  Did you, from time to time, turn your head and look back longingly toward the flesh pots of Egypt?  Did you think it might be easier, and more pleasant, to find your salvation in other places, by means of other things, other people, other gods?  Did you?  Do you? 

            Repent.  Be humbled.  That is the first purpose of the remembering.  To know that you can’t possibly make it on your own.  And that no one and nothing else can save you.  It is to be brought to the end of yourself, to utter despair of all that is not God.  But what does the LORD do for you, in spite of your failing the test, in spite of all your sin and doubt?  What has He done in the past?  Do you remember?  Here you are, alive, fed and clothed.  You came here in a motor vehicle, for crying out loud.  From a place where you are given to keep warm and sheltered from the elements, where you undoubtedly have a bed, and a toothbrush, and an easy chair, and indoor plumbing.  So far you haven’t died from any of your illnesses or injuries or stupid mistakes.  You are surrounded by people who love you.  Family.  Friends.  Or even if you’re feeling particularly lonely in those areas this time of year (and it is true, the holidays really bring out the loneliness for many people), look around you right now.  You are surrounded by the Family of God, brothers and sisters in Christ who love you, who are overjoyed that you are here, and a heavenly Father who loves you, who delights to call you His own child, who sets a place for you right here at His Table.  Remember all that.  And so remembering, see that you do not live by bread alone, or by money, or pleasure, or power, or pride, by your own resources, or by any outward circumstance… but by the very Promises of God fulfilled in Christ for your salvation, spoken to you here, in His Word, and delivered up here, at His Supper.

            And speaking of His Table, what is this but the Great Thanksgiving Feast… the Eucharist (which means thanksgiving)?  And what does the Lord Jesus, our gracious Host at this Meal, bid us do, but remember?  This do in remembrance of Me.”  Remember what I’ve done for you.  Remember my Body, given into death on the cross for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  Remember my precious Blood, shed for you, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Remember my burial in your own tomb, and my victorious, bodily resurrection from the dead, all for you.  Remember, and in so remembering, receive.  My true Body.  My true Blood.  Under the bread and wine.  Given for you, my dear Christians, to eat and to drink, for the forgiveness of sins.”  In the biblical sense, remembering is more than simply calling to mind, although it certainly includes that.  It is participation.  It is reception.  We remember by grasping what the Lord here gives us.  And there is no greater praise and thanksgiving than to receive these gifts from Him in faith.

            Remember that He has delivered us.  He has brought us out from our slavery to sin, death, and the devil.  He is with us in the wilderness of this world, feeding us, giving us to drink, preserving, sustaining, strengthening, and protecting us.  Yes, He humbles us.  This, too, is for our good.  It drives us to rely upon Him alone, and not upon ourselves, or any other god.  When we remember what He’s done for us in the past, and up until this very moment, we can have no doubt.  He will bring us all way.  Into His Land, filled with all good things.  Into heaven.  Into resurrection and the New Creation.  Fountains and springs flowing out in valleys and hills.  Wheat and barley.  Vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey.  Bread without scarcity.  No lack.  You shall eat and be full.  And what is the result?  (Y)ou shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (v. 10).  Because you’ll recognize, then, without fail, that this is all from God, not because you are entitled to it, not because you’ve earned it, but flowing from His undeserved goodness and love toward you on account of Christ.  That will overflow in gratefulness.  Thanksgiving.  You’ll remember what you were, and what God has made you now to be, what He has done for you only out of Fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you.  And you’ll rejoice, and that rejoicing will be your eternal happiness. 

            And on that Day, as on this one, what will we do, how will we engage in our thanksgiving and praise?  Well, by feasting, of course.  So come to the Table to eat and drink.  This do in remembrance of Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year (Proper 29B)

November 21, 2021

Text: Mark 13:24-37

            Stay awake!  Jesus is coming soon, visibly, to judge the living and the dead!  He will come suddenly, when He is least expected, like a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2).  You do not know the day or hour.  It could be any moment.  (I)f the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matt. 24:43; ESV).  So, stay awake.  Watch.  Be prepared.  What will happen on that Day is that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised, and we will all be changed (1 Cor. 15:52).  The Lord will open the scroll.  He will divide those who believed in Him from those who did not believe in Him (cf. Matt 25:31-45).  Those who believe He will give eternal life, in the flesh, in a new heaven and a new earth.  Those who do not believe He will cast into the Lake of Fire (hell) prepared, not for them… Christ died for them, for the forgiveness of all their sins, so that they could have eternal life… but prepared for the devil and his evil angels.  The reason unbelievers go to hell isn’t that their sins aren’t paid for.  It is that they have refused the payment, refused the cross, refused Jesus.  It’s a great tragedy.  We don’t like talk like this, and it is a slap in the face every time we hear it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true: hell is real and real people go there.  And if we fall asleep, if we do not stay awake, there is a very real danger that we could lose our faith and be numbered among the unbelievers.  God forbid it.  Christ help us.

            The truth is, we’re not very vigilant, are we?  It is so easy to fall asleep.  What we mean by “fall asleep” is to take our eyes off of Jesus, to take our ears off of His Word, to miss out on His gifts here in the Divine Service, in Bible Study, and in daily Scripture reading and prayer; to pay attention to other voices over and above the living voice of Jesus.  That is why last Sunday the writer to the Hebrews reminded us that we must not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some,” but rather we should “encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).  The clearer it is that Judgment Day is coming, the more important it is to be in Church.  You need the Church.  We need you.  When you are not in Church, it discourages us all (takes the courage out of us).  But when you are in Church, it encourages us all (puts the courage into us), both you, and all your brothers and sisters in Christ.  So as the Day draws near, don’t neglect to meet together to receive these gifts.  And of course, we should always remember that even if Judgment Day is a long way off, you don’t know when you will die, when God will call you personally before His Judgment throne.  So it is so important to stay awake and keep our eyes on Jesus.  Jesus is our only hope in the Day of Judgment.  He alone is our righteousness and salvation. 

            But we are so distracted, you and I.  It has been said that when the Lord returns with the holy angels and the heavens are rolled up like a scroll, we’ll miss it because our heads will be down and our eyes attached to the little plastic screens on our phones.  That’s silly, of course.  Every eye will see Him when He comes, as the Scriptures say (Rev. 1:7).  But the point is, in a world where very serious things are happening… violence, war, famine, disease, pandemic, beheadings of our brothers and sisters in Christ, little babies chopped up in their mother’s womb and sold for spare parts… well, we’re all too involved in our social media to notice… to look up at the fig tree and learn our lesson, to keep our eyes fixed on our Savior and our Judge. 

            Or perhaps social media is the only way we participate.  It’s amazing how much time we spend staring at screens: television screens, computer screens (as I did in the preparation of this sermon), tablets, smart phones, and now even watches!  I don’t know if it ever took off, but Google even had a pair of glasses you could wear and see the screen all day long as you go about the rest of your business.  Now, all these gadgets can be a great blessing, I don’t deny it.  I also realize that some of you have very little to do with this kind of thing, and good for you.  But that doesn’t get you off the hook.  The point is not the prevalence of technology, the point is how easily amused we are, how amusement and distraction has become the whole point of our life, and, as one of my favorite writers put it in the title of his book, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death (Neil Postman).  Perhaps to our eternal death.  Because, in a world where we’ve never been more plugged in, more connected to the ether, we’ve never been more disconnected from Jesus, and frankly (especially since March of 2020), from our fellow human beings.  And that includes our brothers and sisters right here in the Church.

            Now, I’m not against the internet, or technology, or even some use of social media.  They are not evil in and of themselves.  But think about the nature of our online world.  Everything is temporal.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  Of course, we should heed the warning that the things we do and say on the internet could come back to haunt us years later, as is abundantly clear in this age of cancel culture.  But it’s all so disposable.  And virtual.  Which is to say, not real.  It isn’t tangible.  It isn’t permanent.  It isn’t substantial.  The very words we say have no substance.  It is a feature of some sites that whatever you say or post vanishes after a time.  Think about that.  Words that disappear are meaningless, or at least of very limited value.  You can’t hold someone to a word that isn’t there.  Is that really what you want?  Words that disappear?  Words that are unreliable?  Words that, by definition, cannot be kept?  Just how wrapped up in such words should you really be? 

            Or perhaps the other amusements offered by our information age.  Pleasures that are fleeting?  Two-dimensional digital images?  And I have to say, though I don’t want to sound like and old fogy (but then, let’s be honest…), this really concerns me about this whole Facebook Meta thing that is coming, or maybe I should say more generally, the movement to go about every facet of our lives and experience the whole world, and all our relationships, virtually via our devices, without having to get dressed, from the comfort of our own couches.  Beloved, that isn’t real.  And it will lull you to sleep.  Your life is not a video game.  Is this really what you want?  Shallow relationships, at the expense of relationship with real, flesh and blood, incarnationally present, people?  Connecting online so we don’t have to connect in person?  Our culture puts a premium on that which does not last.  And so does our flesh.  We prefer Facebook to the Church (and this is a great danger of our live broadcasts.  There are benefits, of course.  Our shut-ins get to have the whole service with us, and if you have to miss for health reasons, there you go.  It has drawn some people to our congregation.  But there are also perilous pitfalls.  Because we so easily forget that virtual Church isn’t Church).  We prefer Google to the Scriptures… or for those of you who aren’t online, the newspaper to the precious and holy Word of God.  We prefer our favorite smooth-talking candidate, or glittery entertainer, to the Lord Jesus Christ, the crucified One, who saves us from our sins.  Repent.  Look up from your screens to a Lord who did not come virtually.  He came, and He still comes, right up into your face, in the flesh. 

            As it happens, even the tangible world has an expiration date.  But the tangible Jesus does not.  (F)or the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner” (Is. 51:6).  Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says (Mark 13:31), but there is something you can cling to: “my words will not pass away” (v. 31).  Jesus’ Word is more permanent and substantial than the Rock of Gibraltar.  No Snapchat with Jesus.  You can count on His Word.  He always keeps it.   And the proof is His crucified and risen, flesh and blood presence.  The Word of the LORD endures forever (1 Peter 1:25).  Listen to these Promises from our Old Testament reading: “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed” (Is. 51:6).  You are saved, you are justified (made righteous), because Jesus has spoken it so by the power of His suffering and death and resurrection for you.  Things temporal can lull us into sleep, and all these temporal things are passing away.  Nevertheless, take heart.  Jesus is making all things new.  We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13b; NIV).  We are looking forward to a risen and glorified body, one with no expiration date, made in the image of Jesus’ risen and glorified Body.  We are looking forward to that Day when our Lord comes back to get us and take us to Himself, that Day when He delivers us from our trials and tribulations and tears, from our meaningless and broken words, from our sins and our body of death, and gives us life with Him in the Kingdom of our Father, a life that will not pass away. 

            The Day is coming.  Our Lord has spoken, and His Word cannot be erased.  And this is a Day of great joy for you.  Look up.  Lift up your head.  Your redemption is drawing near.  Jesus soon will send His angels to gather you, His chosen ones, from the four winds, to bring you to Himself. 

            Days of great joy require preparation.  We are preparing for the Thanksgiving feast this week, and hopefully for you that will include the Feast that takes place here at the altar the night before.  And we are already preparing for Christmas.  We will do that spiritually through the Season of Advent, as a new Church Year begins.  Advent is a time of preparation for the Lord’s coming.  How do we prepare?  St. Jude tells us.  Be edified, he says, built up in your most holy faith (v. 20).  That happens at Church, by the Word preached and the Sacrament distributed to you and received by you.  Pray in the Holy Spirit, he says (v. 20).  That is, gather together here to pray the liturgy, and carry that prayer with you into the week wherever you go.  Pray for the Church.  Pray for the world.  Pray for one another, and that by name.  Pray for your own needs and those of your family and loved ones.  That is your offering, your sacrifice as priests in the world.  Give thanks and praise to God.  Pray for the proclamation of the Word.  And please don’t forget to pray for your pastors, for Pastor Taylor and for me.  Have mercy on those who doubt, Jude says (v. 22).  Have mercy on those who sin by snatching them out of the fire, turning them from sin to Jesus.  Show mercy with fear… watch yourself, lest you, too, be drawn into temptation.  Be always examining yourself, repenting of your sins, and trusting in Jesus for forgiveness.  Stay awake! 

            It is a tall order.  But Jude tells us it really doesn’t depend on us, thank God.  It is really Jesus who does this for us, keeping us awake, prepared, and watchful.  He is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the Father, in the presence of His glory (v. 24).  He keeps you steadfast, awake, by His Spirit, in His Word.  He prepares you by repenting you (giving you the gift of repentance).  He keeps you in the one true faith.  It is His work.  Rejoice, dear Christian!  Your Lord Jesus is coming for you.  Indeed, He is coming soon.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      


Sunday, November 7, 2021

All Saints' Day (Observed)

All Saints’ Day (Observed)

November 7, 2021

Text: Rev. 7:9-17; Matt. 5:1-12

            Our first reading from Revelation 7 is the fulfillment of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.  These, clothed in white robes… these are the ones coming out of the great tribulation (Rev. 7:14).  That is, they suffered.  They suffered in faithfulness to Christ.  They were the poor in spirit, who mourned, who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, who were persecuted and reviled and falsely accused of evil on account of Christ and His Gospel, even as they were meek (that is, humbly and wholly dependent on God), merciful, pure in heart (which is to say, cleansed, absolved of their sins), peacemakers.  They were Christians, and so the world was not their friend.  They suffered, but now they are coming out from that.  Which is to say, they are dying and going to heaven.  That is the great parade in our text, the multitudes gathering before the throne of God, and of the Lamb, from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  That is, they are baptized into Christ, into His death and resurrection.  And now they have come to the reward He has won for them. 

            Behold their beatitude, their blessedness.  They were poor in spirit, having no spiritual riches of their own, only their sin and death and condemnation to bring to the table before God.  But Christ has taken their poverty upon Himself, and given them His riches and Kingdom in exchange.  And now, here they are, in the Kingdom as it is manifest in heaven.  They were those who mourned… their sins, the state of the fallen world, the brokenness that marks every relationship, death… that of loved ones, their own death, not to mention all of death’s symptoms, sickness, injury, pain.  But now they are comforted.  God wipes every tear from their eyes.  They were meek, gentle, humble.  They did not, by show of might, demand others submit to their power and control.  And now the New Creation is their inheritance, the New Heavens and the New Earth, where the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat.  They were those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and Christ has given them His own in abundance to eat and to drink, here at the altar, and there where He guides them to springs of living water.  They were merciful, forgiving as they had been forgiven, food for the hungry, drink to the thirsty, hospitality for the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned (Matt. 25).  As they’d done it unto the least of these, they’d done it unto Christ.  Now, He mercifully shelters them with His presence, providing for them, protecting them.  Pure in heart, cleansed from sin, they now see God with their own eyes as they stand before His throne day and night in Divine Service (and you know that doesn’t mean slavishly working for Him, but joyfully receiving His unending gifts).  Peacemakers, for they were given the peace that surpasses all understanding, peace with God, sins forgiven, eternal life and salvation, and that peace overflows into relationship with others, living at peace with others, and reconciling those who are opposed to one another by the Gospel of reconciliation.  They are called sons of God, because that is what the Son of God does by His cross and death.  He reconciles God and sinful humanity by atoning for sin.  And so He reconciles sinful humans to one another, atoning for their sins against each other, thus making the two, one.

            And then, persecution.  This is probably the main thing we envision when we think of the great tribulation.  The great tribulation is not just at the very end of time, right before Jesus comes again, although it is certainly true that as long as God gives this old world to endure, evil will intensify, and Christians will suffer.  But the tribulation is now.  It is the time of the New Testament, from our Lord’s Ascension into heaven to His coming again in glory, as Christians suffer persecution at the hands of unbelievers who are not meek, who do demand power and control by show of might and force, who demand divine honors for themselves, room to rule in your conscience, and authority over your soul.  So they revile Christians, who will not burn incense to Caesar or call him “Lord,” and they utter all kinds of evil against the Christians falsely on account of Christ.  They don’t realize it, but they are really just stooges of a more sinister power.  As Paul says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12; ESV).  That is, against Satan and his demons, which is why we need to be outfitted with the whole armor of God. 

            But what is the Christian to do in the face of such oppression?  Three things.  First, remain faithful, no matter the cost.  Abide in the Word of Christ, and confess it boldly, even if it brings suffering.  Second, take Christ Himself as your example.  Peter reminds us that we are called to such suffering, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24).  Third, Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes: “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12).  The reward is that which we see here in Revelation 7.  And that, beloved, is your sure and certain reality.  Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?  Look around you.  They are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And you are one of them.  Rejoice.

            This is why, no matter your circumstances, no matter what you are suffering, no matter what is going on in the world, or in your sad sack of bones at this moment, you can have absolute peace.  Yes, even you.  Even now.  Because this Beatitude, this blessedness, is already your possession in Christ, albeit in a hidden way.  And it is your future manifest reality.

            Now, this is important, because it is a hidden reality for you at the present, as Paul says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).  We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).  This is why you do not always feel at peace, and often feel quite the opposite.  The devil is always trying to convince you that it’s not true, that only seeing is believing.  And what you see brings you no peace… only despair.  So, says the devil, you may as well shed that poor, meek, merciful, pure, and peacemaking persona, and get what you can, while you can, avoiding persecution at all costs.  And the Old Adam in you is attuned to that station with open ears.  This is why you rebel.  This is why you sin.  Because you’re afraid he’s right.  Repent of listening to the lying serpent.  He can’t be trusted even a little.  He’s a master of spin, taking the objective facts available to the naked eye and interpreting them with his own biased propaganda.  That kind of thing is always from the evil one.  Reject it.  Call it what it is.  Call him what he is.  A liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). 

            There is a way to know the truth of this life now hidden with Christ in God, this life which is yours, described here in Revelation 7.  Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of your faith, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  Keep your eyes fixed on Him.  Now, I mean this quite literally.  Take a crucifix, or a painting of His Passion, and meditate on Scripture with this image before your eyes.  In His earthly life, and above all in His suffering and death on the cross, Jesus, who is by nature God, becomes the Poor in Spirit.  He is the Meek, the Merciful One, the Pure, the Peacemaker; yet He mourns with our grief as He carries our sorrows.  He hungers and thirsts for our righteousness as he bears our sins.  He is persecuted, reviled, falsely accused of evil, all the way to the death of the cross for our sakes, to atone for our sins, to suffer our punishment, our death, our condemnation.  And so the reward is His.  He is risen from the dead.  The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to Him.  He is comforted.  He inherits the Earth.  His hunger and thirst is satisfied.  And so all of this is His to give.

            You are baptized into Christ.  Your robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb.  When you are distracted by all that is going on in this fallen world and in your fallen flesh, it is easy to lose the peace that is yours in Christ, and fall into despair.  But always remember that is a lie of the devil.  This is your reality.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  For you.  Keep your eyes fixed on that.  Keep your eyes fixed on Him.  If He has done all of this for you, how can He fail to keep His Promise?

            All Saints’ Day gives us a glimpse of the reality enjoyed at this very moment by our loved ones who have died in Christ, and so live with Him in heaven.  This is tremendously comforting, because we know they are alright, and, in fact, more than alright.  They know by sight what we can only know by faith.  But it is also comforting because All Saints’ Day gives us a glimpse of our own future reward.  Eyes on the prize, so to speak.  And above all, eyes on Jesus.  Martin Luther famously said, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved.  But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”  Don’t let tribulation avert your gaze.  You are coming out of it.  You see it now in the Scriptures and the cross of Christ.  It is coming into focus, enthroned upon the altar.  Already “Steals on the ear the distant triumph song” (LSB 677:5).  Soon you will see it in all its manifest glory.  The magnificent reality.  The saints.  The angels.  The whole company of heaven.  God upon His throne.  And the Lamb.  Slain, but standing.  Risen.  Living.  Victorious.  Reigning.  Welcoming you.  Is your vision yet a little blurred?  Not to worry.  When you arrive, God will stoop down and wipe away every tear (Rev. 7:17). 

            And that’s just the beginning.  That’s just heaven.  There is more to come.  On the Final Day, at the sound of the trumpet, the risen Lamb will raise you out of the grave.  And so your loved ones who died in Christ.  Your arms that now ache for those torn from them in death, will be full as you embrace them once again.  And, New Creation.  He really means it.  You will inherit the earth.  Just wait and see.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 


Sunday, October 31, 2021

Reformation Day

Reformation Day

October 31, 2021

Text: John 8:31-36

            If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32; ESV).  The Word of God, that was the motivating force behind all that Luther did and taught as a doctor and pastor of the Church.  He had discovered the freeing Word of the Gospel: All our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, because of His sin-atoning work, and our works contribute nothing to that.  Justification, righteousness before God, is a gift given freely by God, by grace alone.  And it is received by faith alone, apart from works.  So the great solas of the Reformation: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.  And the Word of Christ in which we abide, Scripture alone.  Luther was even moved by this freeing Word of the Gospel to change his name for a time.  It was fashionable among intellectuals in the 16th Century to take on Greek names, and Luther, according to this custom, began to sign his name, “Martinus Eleutheros,” which is “Martin the Free”!  Because if you abide in the Word of Christ, the truth will set you free!  Gospel: Free from sin, free from death, free from the condemnation of the Law, free from the devil, free from hell.  Free in Christ who alone has redeemed you. 

            But then, it didn’t seem like the Word had brought him freedom when, on April 17, 1521, 500 years ago, Luther first appeared before the Imperial Diet of Worms to which he’d been summoned to answer for the charge of heresy.  Sure, the Emperor had granted him supposed “safe conduct,” but Luther knew how this worked.  If the charge stuck, Luther would be a condemned man.  And safe conduct or no, if an accident should happen, if the crowds became a bloodthirsty mob suddenly devoted to orthodoxy, or if some vigilantes should overtake Luther in the woods on his way back to Wittenberg, well… who could blame the Emperor for the actions of others?  Certainly Dr. Luther was well-aware of the history of John Huss 106 years earlier, who had also been granted safe conduct to the Council of Constance, and was nonetheless burned at the stake there for teaching things very similar to those of Luther.

            At the very least, though, Luther thought he was being given an opportunity here to explain himself and his teachings before the Emperor and nobles and representatives of the Church.  But when he entered the hall, there between him and the enthroned Emperor was a table stacked with his writings.  The moderator asked him two questions, to which he was to respond with a simple “yes” or “no.”  “Are these your books?  Will you recant them?”  No discussion.  No argument.  Recant and live.  Refuse to recant, and, well… you have a safe conduct.  But let’s not forget what happened to Huss.

            Luther was surprised.  In spite of all he knew, he had come in good faith, to discuss, to debate, to repent wherever he was proven wrong by Scripture, but to maintain his confession wherever he was proven right by Scripture.  But that wasn’t on the Imperial agenda.  What now?  He need time.  To think.  To pray.  To receive Christian counsel from friends.  To meditate on God’s Word.  The Emperor gave him a day.  But be warned.  The same two questions will be asked tomorrow. 

            Can you imagine the struggle that night?  Where are You, Lord?  Is this the freedom You promised?  Why don’t You rise up and smite Your enemies and grant victory to Your Word?  Or… Is it possible?  Have I been wrong all this time?  Am I incapable of understanding the Word You have spoken?  Why am I, alone, standing before the greatest powers on earth, in Church and State, contending for the truth of Gospel?  Maybe, in spite of all my work and advanced learning, I don’t know the truth after all.  And maybe, tomorrow, I’ll be anything but free.  This is the true meaning of the phrase, “dark night of the soul.” 

            But God does not forsake His children in their hour of despair.  Remember the activities in which Luther was engaged that night.  Prayer.  Christian counsel from brothers in Christ.  And most importantly, the Word… The Word of Jesus Christ.  And by that Word, God pours out His Spirit, who opens mouths to faithful confession of Christ and His Word, even unto death.

            So it was with renewed resolve the next day that Luther came before the Emperor and the Diet.  The same two questions.  “Are these your books?”  “Yes.”  “Will you recant?”  Not so fast.  The books aren’t all of the same kind.  Some are devotional, dealing with faith and life such that even Luther’s enemies must agree with them.  Surely he cannot retract these.  Then there are books which expose the abuses and corruption of the papacy.  To recant these would be to participate in abuse and wickedness.  Finally, there are some writings full of invective against Luther’s papal enemies.  These were too harsh, he admits.  He repents of his bitter and vengeful words.  But he does not retract the writings.  Because, again, to do so would be to leave the papal abuses and corruption unchallenged.  We learn something very important here.  Even in the most righteous cause, we should always examine ourselves, our actions, our words, and in godly humility, repent wherever we are wrong… even as we maintain our confession of the truth.  We must ever be repenting of our own sins if we are to help our neighbor see and repent of his.

            But again, the questions call for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the Christian must let his “yes” be yes, and his “no,” no (James 5:12).  Dr. Luther makes his answer: “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience… Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”[1]

            When we make such a confession, we must be ready to endure the consequences, whatever they may be.  That is, we must be ready to suffer.  We should obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  We should not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.  We should rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28).  We must remember that whoever denies Jesus before men, Jesus will also deny before His Father in heaven.  But whoever confesses Him before men, Jesus will also confess before His Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33).  Blessed are you when others revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account.  Rejoice and be glad, for so they persecuted the prophets and apostles and Christian martyrs before you (Matt. 5:11-12).  They loved not their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:11).  And so you.  They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’ Name (Acts 5:41).  And so you.  Luther knew all of this.  The truth sets you free… from sin and death and hell and Satan.  But it does not set you free from suffering.  Not until the end.  The Promise is not that you won’t suffer, but that God will not forsake you in suffering, and He will bring you through it to Himself.  Huss died in the fire.  The Apostles, the Prophets, the faithful martyrs, all suffered greatly for the truth of God’s Word, and most died horrific deaths.  Luther lived, but no one in Worms that day thought it likely.  As it happened, he was condemned as a heretic.  And on his way back to Wittenberg, wouldn’t you know it, a band of vigilantes did fall upon him in the woods.  They threw a sack over his head and led him away captive on horseback.  Thank God, they were actually secret agents of Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, who took him into hiding at the Wartburg Castle.  Disguised as Junker Jörg, Kight George, Luther was safe.  Lonely and depressed, to be sure.  Still suffering.  But you know what God gave Luther to accomplish during this exile in what Luther called his Patmos?  The translation of the New Testament into German, the beginning of Luther’s German Bible.  And a lot of other writing, of course.  But it is safe to say that Luther’s translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular, the language of the people, paved the way for your own access to Scripture in English.  Godly suffering is never without fruit.  Our Lord’s suffering brought us eternal salvation.  Luther’s gave us the Scriptures in our own tongue, as well as this great theological heritage we call Lutheranism.  God has done this for us.  In spite of the suffering.  Through the suffering.  All His gift.  Grace.  Alone. 

            There are times we are called upon to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.  This call comes from God our heavenly Father, who lovingly lays the holy cross upon us.  You know how it is now.  Perhaps a dear friend, or a beloved family member, takes offense at Christ and His Word, and they take it out on you.  We know that the earthly powers take offense and oppose Christ and His Gospel.  They want to be lord in your conscience, but there is no room for them there, where Christ alone reigns.  What will happen when they pass laws that contradict the truth you know from God’s Word, that make illegal the things you believe, teach, and confess?  When it is difficult to find or keep a job, because employers note, as they examine your social media, that you belong to a Bible believing Church, and that you may actually (gasp!) believe the Bible yourself?!  What will happen when the arrests begin, the reeducation camps, and yes, the executions?  Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and… spouse?  It won’t be easy.  Freedom doesn’t mean easy.  There will be pain.  But above all, there will be Jesus… Who has never forsaken us!  And Who never will!  There will be all the benefits of His cross and death for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  There will be His resurrection life!  There will be His Word, His Sacraments, consolation from Christian brothers and sisters, His Church gathered around His gifts.  And there will be His Promise that He will take your suffering on account of His Name and His Gospel, and turn it into good for you, and for His people, in His way, according to His plan.  And in the End, you know… He will wipe away your tears. 

            So here you stand in your confession of Christ, right where Luther stood.  In truth, you can do no other.  Because it is only standing here, in the truth, abiding in God’s Word, that you have true freedom.  Because this truth gives you Jesus, God’s own Son, your only Savior from sin, death, and condemnation.  And if this Son sets you free, you are free, indeed (John 8:36).  And He has.  So don’t move an inch from His Word.  God is helping you.  Amen.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 



[1] History of the Christian Church, vol. VII, ch. 3, sec. 55, quoted in https://www.christian-history.org/diet-of-worms.html.