Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent Midweek I: "Savior of the Nations, Come: The Invitation"

Advent Midweek I: “Savior of the Nations, Come: The Invitation”[1]
Nov. 30, 2016

Text: John 1:1-14
            God does not coerce us to believe in Him.  He invites us.  He forces no one to be in fellowship with Him.  But He tenderly calls us into communion with the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Body of Christ, the Church.  He calls us by the Gospel.  He calls us in the preaching of His Word.  He calls us by placing His Name upon us in Holy Baptism.  An invitation, of course, does not have to be accepted.  It may be ignored.  It may be rejected outright.  Such are the forms of unbelief.  God invites by His Word and by Baptism, but not everyone believes.  Not everyone wants fellowship with God or with His holy Church.  Still, the invitation goes out from God, and it goes out with power, the power of the eternal Word of God through whom all things were made. 
            Creation itself is God’s invitation to existence through His powerful Word.  God graciously called into being all that exists, the heavens and the earth and all living creatures.  And without any cooperation or participation from man, God called Adam into existence, formed Him from the dust of the ground, and Eve, Adam’s wife, God formed from Adam’s rib.  God invited our first parents, Adam and Eve, to live perpetually in fellowship with Him in paradise.  But He did not coerce them.  He gave them an opportunity to live outside of fellowship with Him.  If you want to live without God, just eat from this tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Every other tree you can enjoy for food and remain in fellowship with God, but this tree is a relationship breaker.  And of course, you know what Adam and Eve chose.  The serpent led them to believe that they were better off without God, that they could do better on their own, as their own gods.  An invitation graciously extended, even by the very hand of God, can be rejected.  Such was the fatal mistake of our first parents.  For what they had forgotten, the warning of God they had failed to heed, is that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit, they would surely die.  Outside of the fellowship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is only death.
            Adam and Eve died when they ate the forbidden fruit.  They died spiritually, they began the process of dying physically, and they were condemned to eternal death in hell.  They could do nothing about their mortal condition.  So God graciously did something about it.  The Father invited the Son to become one with sinful humanity by taking on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  The Father invited the Son to suffer and die in that flesh to deliver Adam and Eve and all their children, you and me and all people, from the wages of our sin, which is death, and to restore us to fellowship with God.  The Father invited the Son to bring life into the world.  The Son did not reject the Father’s invitation.  For our sake, the Son accepted the Father’s invitation and accomplished His saving will.  In Him, all our sins are forgiven, our relationship to God is restored, and we are given eternal life with Him.  The invitation to receive this gift goes out with every sermon, with every confession of Christ, with every Baptism into Christ.  And the invitation is powerful because it is the very Word of God.  It is a performative Word, which means it is powerful not only to invite but to deliver, to deliver the faith to accept the invitation, and to deliver the very gift the invitation promises: The forgiveness of sins and eternal fellowship with God. 
            So the invitation goes out this evening here and wherever the Word is proclaimed.  Some will reject.  The world rejects the invitation.  The world would rather remain in death and darkness, under the illusion that they are their own gods.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:9-11; ESV).  God forces no one.  He has extended a time of grace for repentance and reception of His gracious invitation.  After that, He will give all who reject His invitation what they want.  He will leave them alone, forsake them, which is hell. 
            But you, beloved, you who also by your sins have rejected His invitation, hear Him now as He extends it to you once again in preaching and so delivers to you all the benefits of your Lord Jesus Christ and His righteousness and death and resurrection.  Repent of your rejecting Him.  Repent of listening to the serpent, of desiring to be your own god, and believe that this invitation is for you.  God has beheld your deadly plight, and He has done something about it.  He sent His Son.  And to all who receive Him, who believe in His Name, He gives the right to become children of God (v. 12).  You are God’s own child by Holy Baptism.  You have been born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God, by water and the Word.  The relationship that God intended for His people from the beginning has been restored to you, that you might live perpetually in fellowship with Him in paradise.  This is pure gift, beloved.  God does not coerce you to receive this.  He gives it to you freely in His Word and Sacraments.  It is your life.  Death is defeated.  Life is yours in Christ.  It is a reality that is yours now by faith, but it will be made fully manifest on the Last Day when your Lord Jesus extends another invitation to you: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
            May this Advent Season be a joyful time for you to prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth and for His coming again on the Last Day, and also a time to revel in His gracious invitation to you to receive His gifts.  For the Word became flesh and has made His dwelling among us.  We behold His glory as He continues to come among us in the flesh in His Word and Supper.  And so we receive the true Light which enlightens everyone, the Light of life, even Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Invitation delivered, invitation received.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

[1] The theme and many of the points made in this sermon are taken from Savior of the Nations (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).

Sunday, November 27, 2016

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (A)

November 27, 2016
Text: Matt. 21:1-11

            Hope.  Expectation.  Anticipation.  Longing.  These words are descriptive of the Christian life from the dawn of time.  The Christin life is a life of waiting upon the Lord.  Waiting full of hope, a hope that is sure and certain.  It is expectant waiting, waiting in faith that our God will make good on all His promises.  It is a waiting with anticipation of our Lord’s return to judge the living and the dead, of heaven, of the resurrection, of eternal life.  And it is a waiting marked by longing.  For we suffer here in this fallen world and this fallen flesh, longing for deliverance from sin, death, and the devil, from disease and heartache, from our enemies and persecutors, from our own fleshly desires and weakness.  We long for a home.  We long for the presence of Christ.  We know it will come.  We know He will come.  We know we already possess all that is His, but that is not yet manifest to the naked eye.  This is the realm of faith, not sight.  So we wait, and so we long.  Some are given the grace to wait with patience.  Others bear the cross of impatience, another mark of the very sinful flesh from which we long to be delivered.  But wait we must, and so we do.  Hopefully.  Expectantly.  Believing that Christ will come and our joy will be complete. 
            Such was the Christian life of our first parents, Adam and Eve.  They ate the forbidden fruit, and all at once they were plunged into death.  They died spiritually with the first bite.  They began to die physically.  They began to age and decline.  And they would die eternally in hell.  Hopelessness, despair, misery, eternal separation from God, these are the fruits of sin.  Except that God spoke His promise: The Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  And so hope was born.  Hope is bestowed by the Gospel, the promise of God, Christ, the Savior.  There is a way out of death.  It is the Seed of the woman.  It is the Son of God.  Christ is coming.  And that is what Advent means.  Advent means coming, and it is all about the coming of God in the flesh to save His people.  So Advent is the season of hope, expectation, anticipation, longing.
            Adam and Eve had hope in the promise of the Savior.  They believed the Word of the Lord.  So sure and certain were they in their hope that Eve thought her firstborn, Cain, to be the Lord (4:1).  As it turns out, she was profoundly wrong, and we all know the sad end of that story.  And the longing is intensified.  Add murder to the corruption of God’s good creation.  But Adam continued to preach the promise, as did the faithful in every generation.  And so the believers, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, King David, and all the Prophets, all those who held to God’s Word, they believed God, believed His saving promise, and it was credited to them as righteousness.  Hope sustained them.  Messiah is coming, the Seed of the woman, the Seed of Abraham, David’s Son, yet David’s Lord, Son of Man and Son of God.
            Then all at once it happened.  The angel came to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 2:31, 35; ESV).  And so it was in that moment, for the Word of the Lord does what it says.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  Promise kept.  Hope fulfilled.  In the fullness of time, the Savior of the nations had come, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).  The first coming of Jesus, His first Advent, was about undoing what had gone wrong for all humanity in Adam’s fall, in our sin.  He came in the flesh to undo our sin, and so to undo sin’s wages, namely death, by submitting Himself to death on the cross.  You see, Christmas, too, is about the cross.  It’s about Christ crucified for sinners.  It’s about Christ crucified for you.  Remember that in all your song-singing and gift-wrapping and merry-making, amongst all the tinsel and glitter and the decking of the halls, the eating and the drinking, that this is all finally not about a jolly old elf or stockings hung by the chimney with care, but a Baby born to shed His precious blood and die… For you.  For in so doing He crushes the serpent’s head.  That we may maintain a salutary perspective toward Christmas, the Church observes this season of preparation for His coming, the season of Advent.  While the world is busy with the full-fledged celebration of its version of the holiday, we Christians are waiting.  And we’re listening as God speaks to us here about His Son, the Savior who has come, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.  And we’re repenting.  For all of its joyful anticipation, Advent is a penitential season, and we’ll hear from John the Baptist the next two Sundays calling upon us to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” to “make his paths straight” (Matt. 3:3), to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
            That repentance is more than simply sorrow over sin, although it certainly is that, what we call in theology “contrition.”  It is a daily return to our Baptism, where we died with Christ, and were brought to new life in Him.  But repentance is also our longing that all that is wrong be set right again, that we would be set free from sin and death and all that goes along with it, that we would have the fullness of joy our Lord promises.  And that is what we hope for, and what we believe, expect, and anticipate in the coming of Christ.  That is why the crowds gathered with shouts of joy on the road into Jerusalem as our Lord made His way into the city, why they were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9).  That is why they were strewing their cloaks and their palm branches on the road before Him (v. 8).  “Hosanna” means “Save now.”  And that is what Jesus came to do.  He came to save them, save us from our sin, to fill our longing.  At long last He has come, the One promised by God, the Savior of the world.
            And He doesn’t just come in general, beloved.  He comes to you.  He comes to you right here and now in this place that houses His Body, the Church.  He comes in His gifts, the Word and the Sacraments, in Scripture and preaching, in Baptism, which is the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, in His true Body and Blood under the forms of bread and wine in the Supper.  He comes absolving you of sin, taking it away, declaring you righteous with His own righteousness, covering you with Himself, giving you eternal life.  He comes.  Advent.  You come to Church, because you know that He is here.  You sing “Hosanna” because that is what He does for you here.  He saves you now.  Hope fulfilled.
            And yet you still long.  You are still filled with hopeful expectation and anticipation.  Because Jesus is coming again visibly, to judge the living and the dead, to raise all the dead and give eternal life to you and to all believers in Christ.  On that Day what you now know only by faith you will know by sight.  You will see Jesus, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  You will dwell with Him.  You  will see your loved ones again, those who died in the faith.  No more tears.  No more sorrow.  No more suffering.  God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  Beloved, Jesus is coming.  He’s coming for you.  He’s coming to get you.  He comes.  Advent.

            Your life in Christ centers around His coming for you: His first coming in the flesh to be your Savior, His continual coming to you in His holy Word and Sacraments, and His visible coming again in the End.  And so these words continue to describe your life in Christ: Hope, a certain hope that you know will be fulfilled when you see Him face to face.  Expectation, because God always makes good on His promises.  Anticipation, because you are filled with joy and excitement that Christ is coming again.  And longing, as you pray with the holy Church of all times and all places: “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20), come quickly, come and deliver us.  He will.  He has promised.  And so, beloved, we wait, and we trust.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

National Day of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Eve

November 23, 2016
Text: 1 Tim. 2:1-4

            Thanksgiving Day is a National Holiday, not a Church Year Holiday, but in no way does that make it an insignificant day for Christians.  Historically, beginning with George Washington, presidents have called upon the citizens of our nation to give thanks to God for His manifold blessings and pray for His continued help.  Needless to say, Christians ought to be eager to oblige.  Prayer is our God-given duty, and our God is the only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He alone has poured out these blessings, and He alone can help in time of need.  So we observe the day with rejoicing and feasting, gathering around our God’s Word and Supper, singing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and basking in the joy around our family tables.  There are two possibilities appointed as the Epistle for the National Day of Thanksgiving, both of them rich with divine wisdom and life.  The first is from Philippians 4, which is always a favorite about rejoicing in all circumstances and with thanksgiving making your requests known to God.  But pastoral decisions have to be made, and this text from 1 Timothy is especially important in the wake of a contentious election (and incidentally, I picked this text before we knew what would unfold). 
            “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1-2; ESV).  Did you hear that?  It is the vocation of the Christian to pray and give thanks for all people, but in particular for those in authority.  Whether you voted for Donald Trump, or not, and regardless of how you feel about him.  Whether you voted for Barak Obama, or not, and regardless of how you feel about him.  There is a certain sense in which Christians are outside of the political party system.  We work within it, to be sure.  Each of us votes and participates according to conscience and God-given reason.  But we recognize something that others, outside the Church, do not.  Jesus is Lord.  That is the first Christian Creed.  The Creeds that came after are essentially an unpacking of that.  Jesus is King.  God is our Father.  The Spirit dwells within us and enlightens us and lifts our prayers before the Father, through the Son, with groans that words cannot express.  So we know that whatever man or woman may sit in the Oval Office, our God is really in charge.  And we are His ambassadors, His salt and light in the world, to season it, to preserve it, to speak the truth of God in love, and to testify with our blood, if necessary, to the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.  We have a priestly duty, every one of us, therefore, to pray.  The Greek words St. Paul uses in our text all have their nuance.  Supplication: Placing a need before God for His action.  Prayer: A general word for communication with God, in response to His speaking to us in His Word, a word often used to indicate a more formal kind of prayer, such as the Collects or the General Prayer of the Church or the liturgy itself.  Intercession: Petition on behalf of another person.  Thanksgiving: The Greek word is “eucharist.”  We should give thanks for all people, those we love to love and those we struggle to love, and even for kings and for presidents. 
            We should thank God for them, and we should pray for them, St. Paul says, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (v. 2).  That is to say, that we would be unhindered in preaching the Gospel and living according to God’s Word.  That is why we pray for peace and quiet.  So that God’s Word may have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, and that more may come to believe it and possess the salvation that belongs to them in Christ Jesus.  God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (v. 4).  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).  This is why God preserves the world, why He delays the Day of Judgment, so that more people can hear the saving Word of Christ and believe in Him for salvation.  So we pray for our nation and for our government and for all people, that this may be the case.  And God in heaven hears our prayers for the sake of Christ, and He answers, for that is the Promise.

            So once again our nation has called upon the Church to do our priestly duty, to gather together and give thanks to God as the source of all that is good, and entreat His continued blessing upon our land and our people.  As mentioned, the Greek word for Thanksgiving is “eucharist,” and it is no accident that Eucharist is one name for the Lord’s Supper.  Some of my colleagues get all hot and bothered about the word “Eucharist” as a name for the Sacrament, because it implies that somehow the Sacrament is our work, our action of giving thanks, rather than God’s action in giving us His Son’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  They may have a point, and undoubtedly the word “Eucharist” has been thus misconstrued, misused, and abused.  But there is also a point to be made in calling the Sacrament a “Eucharist.”  The chief way of giving thanks to God is to gather around His gifts and receive them with joy.  That is what you will do around your family tables tomorrow.  You will praise the fine food set before you tomorrow for its quality and quantity, the colors, the smells, the textures, the tastes.  And in so praising the repast, you will praise the love of the one who set it before you: your wife, your mother, your grandmother, whoever it may be.  And do you know what will be most gratifying to her?  When you just have to have another helping, because it is so good.  It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto our God, but especially around the Table He sets before us here.  Gathered before Him as one, we come with all our sins and struggles and heartaches, our supplications and prayers and petitions, our worries for our loved ones, our worries for our nation, our worries for our Church.  We come with hearts full of joy and sorrow, conflict and peace.  And we eucharist.  Which is to say, we receive the fruits of our Lord’s cross, His body, His blood, His death, His resurrection, for the forgiveness of it all.  And we do it with thanksgiving and a song of praise.  Here we are most the priests God has called us to be, the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  For here we are filled with Jesus and given the right to be sons of God.  This is our response to the Thanksgiving Day proclamation.  We come to Church, we pray, and we eat. This is the great Thanksgiving Feast.  And this is God’s answer to our prayers.  Jesus comes and gives us Himself.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year (C—Proper 29)

November 20, 2016
Text: Luke 23:27-43

            “There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’” (Luke 23:38; ESV).  The sign Pilate fastened above our Lord is a scandal, not just to the chief priests, but to the whole world.  And truth be told, it is a scandal for you.  Because here, on the cross, high and lifted up, crowned with thorns, bejeweled with nails and blood, here is where Jesus is your King.  This is why we hang crucifixes on our walls and around our necks.  This is why, along with St. Paul, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).  “But,” you may be heard to say, “I worship a risen Christ, not a dead one!”  True enough.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and upon that one fact rests the entire Christian faith.  But you cannot have a risen Christ unless you first have a dead one.  Apart from the cross, the empty tomb is meaningless.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  And here, on the cross, Pontius Pilate gets it right.  This is the King of the Jews.  Indeed, this is the King of Creation.  Behold, your King, beloved.  The cross is His coronation and ascension to the throne.  The cross is His glorification.  Here He wins a Kingdom.  Here He purchases you for Himself, to live under Him as eternal citizens of His Kingdom.  Here, with His own blood, and with His innocent suffering and death, He purchases the forgiveness of your sins and your eternal salvation.  This is the King of the Jews.  Beloved in the Lord, this is your King.
            And not only does He take up His royal office here, on the cross, but here also He takes up your case in the Judgment.  Of course, there will be a Judgment Day on the Last Day, and that is what this Last Sunday of the Church Year is all about.  We will speak about that in a few moments.  But understand, here, on the cross, your judgement is accomplished.  Look at what happens here on Golgotha.  As the Lord is on His throne, the stage is set.  He had warned the weeping women this moment was coming: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28).  Why?  Because the destruction of Jerusalem is coming in judgment against those who rejected their Savior, and because that is only a beginning of the Judgment that will be poured out on the earth when Jesus returns.  And now, here He is upon His wooden throne, and here is one on His right, and one on His left.  Both are thieves.  Both are sinners.  The one on His left does not believe in Him.  He mocks Him.  “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us!” (v. 39).  But the one on His right knows that Jesus, this dying God, is his only hope.  He confesses his own sin and unworthiness.  He confesses Jesus’ innocence and righteousness.  And then the prayer that belongs on all of our lips.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42).  And then the verdict.  The one on the left dies in his sins.  But to the one on the right, the one who looks to Jesus alone for forgiveness and salvation, Jesus promises: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).  There is the multitude before Him.  They do not realize that they, also, are at the moment of their judgment.  The vast majority of bystanders mock Him.  The soldiers, the chief priests, those passing by.  Their words are reminiscent of their father, the devil, as He tempted Christ in the Garden: “If You are the Son of God…”  “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (v. 35).  All the while, the prayer of Christ for each one of them, and for you and for me: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (v. 34).  That is what King Jesus wants.  That is what He is working for, suffering for, bleeding and dying for.  The forgiveness of sins for you and for me and for all people.  Those who do not want that will perish apart from Him.  That is the judgment.  But those who believe in Him and look to Him alone for righteousness and life and salvation, receive eternity with Him in paradise.  That is the verdict.  Look to the cross.  Behold, your King.  Behold, your judgment.  A great exchange has taken place.  Jesus takes your sin and gives you, in return, His righteousness.  Your sins die there with Him.  He rises from the dead, but they do not.  You are forgiven.  You are free.  And He will raise you.  Body and soul.  Clean and righteous in the blood of Jesus.  That is the Promise.
            Now, the Day is coming, when Jesus will come again, visibly, with the holy angels, to judge the living and dead.  All the dead will be raised.  He will give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ, not because you are righteous in and of yourself, but because of the Judgment that has already taken place at the cross.  That is why you don’t need to fear Judgment Day.  It will be the Day of your deliverance.  But all who have not believed in Him and have therefore not received the benefit of His Judgment on the cross will perish eternally in hell with the devil and his evil angels.  Not because Jesus didn’t love them or because He didn’t die for them.  He did.  But because they would not have it.  They would not be judged on the basis of His death and resurrection.  They would be judged on their own merits.  And hell is what our own merits deserve. 
            The most important thing in this earthly life, therefore, is to be in Christ.  There is nothing more important for you.  There is nothing more important for your children.  There is nothing more important than to be in Christ by faith, and therefore claim the Judgment of the cross as your judgment, that there your sins were put to death and paid in full, and that Christ who has been raised from the dead is your justification, your righteousness before God.  How can you know that you are in Christ, that He is your King, and your judgment has already occurred in His death on the cross?  If you are baptized, that is your reality.  That’s what St. Paul says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).  In Baptism, Jesus makes His death and burial your own, and His resurrection becomes your new life already now spiritually, and in your body on that Day.  But of course, you can leave your Baptism.  You can forsake the faith of your Baptism.  So how do you remain in it?  Well, you come to Church!  As often as you are able.  You come, because here Jesus speaks His forgiveness to you in the Holy Absolution, plunging you back into the baptismal water, cleansing you from your sins.  You come, because here Jesus speaks His life into you in Scripture and preaching and liturgy and hymn.  You come, because here Jesus puts His very body and blood into you for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The King invites you to His Table for the Royal Feast!  What a privilege!  What an honor!  And by the Meal He serves here, He keeps you in your Baptism.  He keeps you in His cross and resurrection.  So get here.  Don’t miss it if you can help it.  And get your kids here.  There is nothing more important than Jesus, who is here in the flesh, to give you Himself and keep you for His own. 

            And if you are His own, there is nothing to worry about on the Last Day.  A lot of businessmen make a lot of money on books and movies that scare Christians about the Day of Judgment.  Frankly, they are false teachers.  The only reason to fear Judgment Day is if you have rejected the Judgment that took place when your King was enthroned.  Your sins are done.  They are forever buried.  You are 100% righteous in Christ, covered with His righteousness.  And though you do not know the day or hour, He has already told you what will take place.  You will hear the trumpet and the voice of the archangel.  You will see Him coming on a cloud surrounded by His angelic hosts.  If you’re dead, He will raise you up, in your body.  And He will separate the sheep from the goats, believers from unbelievers.  Like the thieves on the cross, those on His left will be the unbelievers who mock Him.  Now there will be no denying that He is their King, their Lord.  And those on His right will be those who trust in Him alone for forgiveness and salvation.  To them… to you, beloved, He will say: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  New heavens and new earth.  Eden restored.  The eternal Today in the Paradise of your King.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 28)

November 13, 2016
Text: Luke 21:5-28

            There is a great deal of uncertainty and angst in the world this morning.  A new man has come to power in Washington, and no one is quite sure what he will do.  Even those who voted for him may eye him with suspicion.  Some who opposed him are rioting in the streets of our cities, including Portland, right here in the Pacific Northwest.  We are a nation at war within and without.  The culture war between right and left has been deeply divisive.  On the world stage, we have been at war for the past 15 years against an enemy that is difficult to define, and therefore difficult to defeat, and we know not when or where they will strike next.  And there are other potential enemies on the horizon if we don’t tread carefully.  There is our unpleasantness with Syria, Libya, and Iran.  Our relations are strained with China, and now Russia, and of course there is always North Korea.  Wars and rumors of wars.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  That is the story of humanity.  Natural disasters also occur with great frequency.  Hurricane Matthew recently wrought tremendous destruction in Haiti.  Hurricanes with names like Katrina, Hugo, and Andrew brought devastation to our own shores.  Earthquakes in various places have leveled cities and unleashed tsunamis that washed away great populations.  Famines, pestilences, and terrors are the stuff of the evening news.  Christians around the world are persecuted and martyred for the Name of Jesus, and it is increasingly clear that it could happen right here at home.  And this is to say nothing of the storms that rage in your own heart and soul.  What is a Christian to do with all of this?  How do we reconcile this with our theology?  How do we reconcile this with our faith in an almighty God who is good and who loves us?
            Jesus told us these things would happen.  His prophecy in our Holy Gospel is fulfilled before your very eyes.  And our Lord tells us how we are to regard these things.  They are signs that the End is near.  Jesus is coming back.  He is coming back visibly to judge the living and the dead.  He is coming with His angels on a cloud, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him.  He will raise all the dead in their bodies, believers and unbelievers alike, and then He will judge.  To those who believed in Him He will give everlasting life in a new heavens and a new earth in the eternal, joyous presence of our great God and Father.  But those who did not believe in Him He will send to the lake of fire prepared for the devil and his demons.  Needless to say, this is an occasion for which we ought to be prepared.  And the signs, the reminders, are written right into history.  Every trial, every tribulation, every cause for anxiety and uncertainty, every natural disaster, and every man-made catastrophe, is a sign.  The End is near.  The time of grace is coming to a close.  It is a call to every man, woman, and child: Repent.  Turn from your unbelief and sin.  Turn to God.  Believe the good news.  Jesus is your Savior, and He wants you for Himself.  He has purchased you with His own blood, and He is risen from the dead.  Believe in Him, be baptized into Him, and you will be saved. 
            Of course, we know not that day or hour when the Lord will return.  He has not revealed it to us for a reason.  If we knew, what do you suppose we would do with that information?  “Oh, the Lord isn’t coming back in my lifetime, so I don’t need to be prepared!”  Or, “the Lord is coming back next week, so I’ll quit my job and neglect the needs of my neighbor and sit on my hands and wait.”  Neither option is good.  St. Peter had to deal with the former opinion when he wrote, “They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation’… But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:4, 8; ESV).  St. Paul had to deal with the latter opinion among the Thessalonians in our Epistle this morning.  Some had the impression that the Lord’s coming would happen in a matter of days or weeks.  As a result, they ceased being productive.  They quit their jobs.  They sat on their hands.  They no longer contributed to the life of the community.  So St. Paul writes his famous and stern command, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).  Paul is not against charity for the poor and those unable to work.  Far from it.  He spent his life collecting alms for the poor in Jerusalem who were suffering famine.  His point is, those who can work, should, and all the more as they see the Day approaching.  Get up and get busy, dear Christians.  For now is the time to love and serve your neighbor in the Name of Jesus.  Whether the Lord is coming tomorrow or a thousand years from tomorrow, God has given you NOW as a gift, that you may be a gift to your neighbor.  NOW is not a time to sit on your hands.  NOW is a time to work and to serve and to love and to pray.  And NOW is a time to confess Christ to your neighbor and declare to him the good news of God’s love for him in Jesus.
            What are you to do when you see the signs all around you, the tremendous suffering, the uncertainty and the angst?  Repent!  That is why God has given these signs.  The Lord is coming.  Repent of your sins.  Confess them and receive the Absolution, the forgiveness of sins won by your Lord on the cross and pronounced to you in His Name by your pastor.  Then live in that joy.  Hear the Word at every opportunity, and feast on the body and blood of Jesus.  And then go do what you’ve been given to do.  The Christian need never panic when disaster strikes in the world.  We’ve been told this would happen, and we’ve been told what it means.  Jesus is coming.  So what are we to do?  Jesus says, “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).  All that Jesus did for you in His suffering and death and resurrection is about to pay off in His coming to deliver you from the death throes of this fallen creation.  All of the terror and disaster and war?  Jesus will deliver you out of it in the End.  It may be through your death.  It may be through His appearing in the clouds.  But these things cannot harm you.  For you belong to Jesus.  And He’s coming to get you and bring you to Himself.  Straighten up.  Raise your head.  Rejoice!  Very soon you will see the One in whom you have believed. 
            In the meantime, knowing what is about to happen, you still get up every morning, make the sign of the holy cross, and get busy doing what you’ve been given to do.  Be a father, mother, son, or daughter.  Go to work.  Go to school.  Go to your kid’s soccer game.  Care for your family and friends and neighbors, and provide for their needs, because those are the people God has placed in your life for you to love and serve.  Pray.  Confess.  Get yourself and your family to Church.  Support the Lord’s mission.  Give to charity.  If Jesus comes tomorrow, or even if He doesn’t, you’ve been given this to do today.  You do it in faith that the Lord is coming, and you do it in the Name of Jesus who loves and provides for your neighbor in the meantime through your hands and your vocations.

            And what of the events in the world, the signs that point to the End?  Your neighbor needs you in those.  Because there is real suffering, and real uncertainty, and real angst.  And the only answer is Jesus.  The only answer to this fallen world is Jesus Christ who redeemed it in His death and will restore it in His coming again.  That is what an almighty God who is good and loves us does about our suffering in this world.  He comes in the flesh and He dies for it.  And He rises again on the Third Day and comes back in the End to restore His creation for all eternity.  If your guy won the election this past week, congratulations.  If your guy, or gal as the case may be, did not win, my condolences.  But remember this, beloved: Neither Donald Trump, nor Hillary Clinton, nor for that matter Gary Johnson or Evan McMullan or Darrell Castle or any of the other candidates for office… none of them are the SaviorOnly Jesus Christ is the Savior.  And He is risen from the dead.  Jesus is on His throne at the right hand of the Father, and it is Jesus who rules all things for the good of His people.  Jesus is coming back to deliver you from all that afflicts you.  On that Day, every eye will see Him: “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v. 27).  You will see Him with your very eyes.  And what will you do?  You will not panic.  You will not be afraid.  You will straighten up and lift up your head.  Why?  Because your redemption is drawing near.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, November 6, 2016

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day (Observed)

Nov. 6, 2016
Text: 1 John 3:1-3

            “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2; ESV).  In St. John’s proclamation this morning, you get a sense of what Luther called the “Already/Not Yet” of the Christian life in this world.  It is a paradox.  You are God’s child now.  That is already the case.  St. John proclaims the great love of the Father, that He has called you God’s own child.  He does that in Baptism, puts His own Name on you, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  And He not only calls you His child, but by virtue of His calling, that is what you really are.  Remember how God’s Word works.  When He speaks, it is.  The Word does what it says.  So if He calls you His child (and He does), then you are.  Period.  And yet… it doesn’t appear that you are God’s child.  Not to the eyes.  The world certainly doesn’t recognize this fact.  If it did, the citizens of the world would bow down in homage to one so holy, holy not in and of yourself, certainly, but holy because you have been washed clean and pure by the blood of the Lamb.  If the world had eyes to see, they would see that you shine with the radiant glory of your Lord Jesus Christ.  All your sins are forgiven.  All of them, past, present, and future, whatever they are, covered by the blood of Christ and washed away forever.  But the world doesn’t see it, and that shouldn’t surprise you, because the world doesn’t see Christ as anything more than a man who lived and was crucified about 2,000 years ago, at best a great teacher, at worst, a lunatic who got what He had coming to Him.  If they don’t recognize Him as the very Son of God, they are not going to recognize you as the child of God that you are.  They’ll only see your flesh, your sin, your ordinariness, your weakness.  So “already/not yet.”  You are already God’s child by faith.  But what you know and believe to be the case already does not yet appear to the eyes. 
            And frankly, sometimes you wonder yourself.  For when you look at yourself in the mirror, you don’t look like a child of God .  You recognize that you don’t even begin to measure up to God’s will.  You are still in the flesh.  You continue to carry within yourself the passions of the flesh, greed and lust and covetousness, a selfishness that is impossible to tame.  The flesh cannot be tamed.  The only way to deal with it is to plunge it into a watery grave.  Daily.  Daily repentance, which is to say, a daily return to your Baptism, where God first killed you and raised you in Christ to new life and called you to be His own child.  So now you live in the paradox that is the Christian’s life in this world.  Already/not yet.  Now/yet later.  Being/yet becoming.  Saint/yet sinner.  Your old Adam, the flesh, has been put to death, yet the flesh is all you see.  The new creation in Christ has been raised out of the baptismal water to new life, yet you can’t see that at all.  You just have to believe it.  Faith, not sight.  You are God’s own child.  But what you will be has not yet appeared.  So you wait, and you believe, in spite of all appearances, that God’s promise is true.
            You do know one thing, though.  You know that when He appears, Jesus Christ, to judge the living and the dead, He will raise you from the sleep of death.  And then you will be like Him.  And knowing that is enough.  You cannot say yet, what it will be like to be like Him, but that’s okay.  You know that He is risen from the dead, never to die again, and therefore you will be raised from the dead, never to die again.  You know that He has been glorified, and therefore you will be glorified with Him.  You know that He no longer suffers, and therefore you will no longer suffer.  As St. John writes in our first lesson of the blessed ones in heaven: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).  So it is enough.  You will be like Him.  And the reason is that you will see Him as He is.  The veil will be removed.  What you now know only by faith, you will behold with your own eyes.  And in beholding Him, you will be transformed into the image of God once again, as Paul writes, transformed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).  The image lost in the Garden is now restored in the face of Jesus Christ.  Just as when you stand in the sun, your eyes are enlightened, your face brightens, and your skin begins to glisten, so on a much greater plane will it be when you stand before God’s Son, Jesus, and see Him as He is, in His glory.  Moses had to cover himself with a veil when he came down from the mountain, having been in the presence of the Lord.   So you, when you see Him, will be like Him, reflecting the glory of the very Son of God.  That’s a really good thing, guys.  And it’s enough.  It’s enough for you now, though you do not yet see it.  You will.  That will be you.  It is you now, in a hidden way.  Then it will be manifest.  Just wait.  Wait on the Lord.  He never breaks His promises.  He will deliver. 
            In the meantime, St. John writes that you who have this hope purify yourself as He is pure (1 John 3:3).  The hope is certain, as biblical hope always is.  It’s not something we have to wonder about, whether it will happen or not.  We know it will.  It just hasn’t yet appeared.  Nevertheless, we live from the perspective of those who know what’s coming.  So you purify yourself, as He is pure.  What does that mean?  It cannot mean that you make yourself sinless, as He is sinless, by trying really hard not to sin, by your own effort or satisfaction for sin.  Of course, you should struggle against sin, but that isn’t what makes you pure.  What makes you pure is Jesus.  Jesus makes you pure as He Himself is pure.  So to do what St. John here entreats you means, simply, to receive Jesus, as He comes to you for forgiveness, to wipe away your sin.  John is telling you to go to Church.  This is where Jesus purifies you.  Hear and believe the Absolution.  Your sins are gone.  You’re clean.  You’re pure.  Jesus took all your sins away.  Hear and believe the Scriptures and the preaching.  Jesus took your sin upon Himself and put it to death on the cross in His body.  And He’s risen and living, giving you new life, here and now, clean and pure, as He is.  Remember your Baptism, that cleansing bath in which God washed away all your sins and made you His own.  Taste and see that the Lord is good here in His Supper.  His holy and sinless flesh and blood touches your lips and is taken into you to take possession of you.  Christ is in you in a very real sense.  The very same body and blood given and shed for you on the cross now courses through your veins.  You don’t purify yourself as He is pure by trying really hard to be like Him.  That will never work.  You purify yourself as He is pure by undergoing the purifying He does upon you here in His gifts, forgiving your sins, covering you with His righteousness.  He does it.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).

            The Day is coming, though, when the cleansing will be clear for all to see, when finally the world will see Jesus for who He is, and you for who you are.  On that Day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).  And on that Day everyone will know that God has called you His child, and that that is what you are.  There you’ll stand, you and your loved ones who have died in Christ and all the saints, on your own two feet, in your bodies, risen from the dead.  And with your own eyes, you’ll see that it’s all true.  The paradox will be resolved.  No more “already/not yet.”  Only the eternal “now.”  “See what kind of love the Father has given to us.”  You will see it.  God’s own child.  You’ll be like Jesus, because on that Day, you will see Him as He is.  And that is enough.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Reformation Day

Reformation Day (Observed)

October 30, 2016
Text: Romans 3:19-28

            Reformation Day is a great day for a Baptism.  Baptism is what the Reformation is all about, and Baptism is, itself, a reformation of the one who is baptized.  It is literally a re-formation.  Look what just happened in front of your very eyes.  God took little Gabriel and poured water on his head, and your ears beheld some very powerful words, the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, placed on Gabriel, and that does something.  Gabriel, who was born of his mother some weeks ago, is now born anew, spiritually, by water and the Word.  He is now a son of God.  That is what St. Paul says: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7; ESV).  So God took Gabriel, born in sin… I know that’s not very pleasant to hear when we’re talking about a precious little baby like Gabriel, but that is what the Bible says… God took Gabriel, born in sin, and gave him new birth in Baptism.  He took Gabriel out of the devil’s possession, and gave him instead the Holy Spirit.  He took Gabriel and clothed him with Jesus, with the robe of Jesus’ righteousness, with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Gabriel is now covered with Jesus.  It’s a re-formation.  He now bears the cruciform shape of Jesus, in whom Gabriel now believes.  And it’s all a gift, freely given.  By grace.  Gabriel is an heir with Jesus, an heir of the Kingdom, an heir of eternal life. 
            Baptism is the concrete event that puts in action the theology St. Paul teaches us in this morning’s Epistle (Rom. 3:19-28).  The question St. Paul is addressing is that which drove Luther during the Reformation: How do I get right with God?  The problem is that I am a sinner.  I have not lived up to God’s righteous and holy Law.  His Law condemns me for my sin.  I was born in this sin.  I was conceived in this sin.  This sin is the fatal disease inherited from Adam and Eve and our parents ever since.  And I put this sin in action with all the actual sins I commit, the good I have not done, the evil I’ve done instead.  How do I make up for that?  How do I, an unrighteous sinner, condemned to eternity apart from God in hell, become righteous before God, and so achieve eternal life with God in heaven?  You can’t do it!  Even if you try really hard.  Even if you sin less.  Even if you study the Bible every day and do your best to put it into practice.  You’ll still fall far short.  There will still be evil in your heart.  Concupiscence, we call it in theology, the innate orientation toward sin planted deeply in your very being.  The problem is not simply that you sin, it’s that you are a sinner.  It is not that you are a sinner because you sin.  It is that you sin because you are a sinner.  And what do you do about that?  Nothing.  You can’t.  And now you know the struggle of Luther as he grappled with the concept of the righteousness of God.  He tried.  Oh, how he tried to be righteous before God.  He became a monk of the strictest order, the Augustinians.  He dedicated his life to God.  He went to Confession every day, sometimes several times a day.  He punished his body.  He starved himself nearly to death.  All to work off his sin.  All to gain righteousness.  This is simply what his Church taught him to do to appease his stern Judge, Jesus Christ.  Still, he found no peace.
            Then something happened as he was studying St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, verse 17: “For in it,” namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written” in the Prophet Habakkuk, 2:4, “‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”  By this Word, the Holy Spirit opened his understanding of that term, “the righteousness of God.”  This righteousness, the standard by which God judges sinners, to which we can never measure up, is given to us as a gift by faith in Jesus Christ.  It is Jesus’ own righteousness credited to us.  The righteous, the justified one, shall live by faith.  Here is Luther’s own account of this discovery (and remember as I read this that the words “just,” “justice,” and “justified” are simply synonyms for “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “being made righteous”:
            “I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: "The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: 'The just person lives by faith.'" I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: "The just person lives by faith." All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, "the justice of God," with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise”[1]
            Righteousness is a gift given by God on account of Jesus’ sin-atoning life, death, and resurrection for you.  And it is received by faith.  Believe it and you have it.  No strings attached.  No work to be done to earn it.  Not even faith is your work.  God gives that, too.  By His Spirit, who comes to you in His Word and holy Sacraments, the means of grace.  You saw it today.  Gabriel became a believer by means of Baptism, in which God gave him the Holy Spirit to believe in Jesus.  How can that be?  How can little Gabriel, who cannot yet speak, who doesn’t even understand the words I’m saying, believe in Jesus Christ as his Savior from sin?  Grace!  It’s a gift!  God gives it!  Faith is simply trust in Jesus.  It is not the ability to understand.  It is not the ability to confess.  Those things come along with faith as we grow into the gift that has been given.  But faith is simply trust.  Gabriel can do that.  He trusts his mom.  He can’t rationalize that trust.  He cannot confess it.  He doesn’t say “Mom” yet.  But he trusts Mom.  And now, in the same way, he trusts Jesus.  Because he’s been baptized.  God did that.  God did it all.  God gave Gabriel faith in Jesus.  By grace.  Pure gift.  Gabriel believes in Jesus.  He’s a Christian.  And this is something for you parents to remember when Gabriel cries all night long and demands food and drink and soils his diapers, and as he grows and becomes a two year old and a teenager and a know-it-all adult.  In Jesus Christ, Gabriel is perfectly righteous.  Because that righteousness was given to Gabriel as a gift right here at the font.  And the same goes for you, and for me, and for each one of us, sinners that we are.  In Jesus Christ, we are perfectly righteous.  Our sins are forgiven.  Righteousness is given us as a gift in Baptism, in Absolution, in Preaching, in Supper.  By grace.  Pure gift.  God does it all.
            Beloved in the Lord, we are one year away from the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses against indulgences to the Church door in Wittenberg, calling the Church back to the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  We should make a big deal out of this, all year long.  Not because we’re celebrating a man or even a Church body.  But because the Reformation and Luther’s preaching made clear what St. Paul proclaims in our Epistle: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-24).  That is the Gospel.  And that’s worth making a big deal about.  And that is what we saw in action in Gabriel’s Baptism this morning.  Righteousness of God.  Freely given.  In Jesus Christ.  Through faith.  God does it.
            It’s a reformation before our very eyes, a re-formation.  This little one, a sinner born in the image of Adam, has been re-formed into the image of Jesus.  And so have you, beloved.  By grace.  Through faith.  Our God has done it all.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.