Sunday, November 29, 2020

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (B)

November 29, 2020

Text: Mark 11:1-10

            When Lucy Pevensie enters Narnia in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is always winter, but never Christmas.  The whole land is under the spell of the demonic white witch.  All is cold and drear.  There really is very little hope.  Except among the faithful few, loyal subjects of the true and rightful King.  They feel the tyranny of the witch and their subjugation to her.  They suffer under her oppression.  But quietly, secretly, they whisper to one another, a word of hope, and even joy: “Aslan is on the move!  They don’t know what, exactly, it means, or what it could possibly entail.  But they know that when he arrives, Aslan, the Lion, the King, he will defeat the terrible witch and set all that she has put wrong, right again.  He will save them from her cruel grasp.  They confess this to one another, and it is like blowing on smoldering embers.  Hope’s flame begins to glow.

            Aslan is on the move!  Or as we say in the real world, Christ is coming!  And so we have Advent.  Advent, which means coming.  Is there anything more important to believe and confess in these gray and latter days?  Christ is on the move!  He is coming into the cold and dreary darkness of our land, and this is wondrous good news to a world where it is always winter, never Christmas, a world under the spell of Satan and his hoard.  There really is very little hope in this world.  Except among the faithful few, loyal subjects of the true and rightful King, who are sustained in this hope by the Promise, even as they live under the tyranny of the evil one.  They speak it.  They confess it to one another, and to any who will listen.  Christ is coming!  He is on the move!  The demon’s days are numbered.  We may not know exactly what this means, what it will all look like on that Day, what it will entail.  That is why the Book of Revelation is so mysterious to us.  But we know that when He comes, when He arrives, He will defeat the serpent once and for all, and set all that the wily foe has put wrong, right again.  He will save us with absolute finality from the dragon’s cruel grasp, from our sins, from death, from hell itself.  We confess it to one another.  We send the news in Christmas cards this time of year, and hopefully we bear it in our speech and on our faces as we go about our daily business.  Like oxygen to embers, the Spirit borne on the Word fans hope into glowing flame.

            “Once He came in blessing, All our sins redressing” (LSB 333:1).  The Season of Advent prepares us to rejoice at His coming into our flesh in the womb of the Virgin, into our “likeness lowly, Son of God most holy.”  Advent prepares us for Christmas.  Christ is born for you.  That is the great event that breaks winter’s hold.  Morning dawns.  The Light pierces the darkness.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5; ESV).  It warms the cold.  It melts stony hearts into beating hearts of re-created flesh.  This Baby was born, and shepherds know what the rest of the world does not.  There is no room for Him in the inn, but the beasts receive Him in their feeding trough.  I’m not so sure about the line, “no crying He makes.”  He is a Baby, after all.  But His tears, and soon enough, His Blood, flow for our redemption and rescue.  This Baby was born to die for the sins of the world, for Mary and Joseph, for shepherds and wise men, for me and for you.  For our forgiveness and life.  For our salvation.  God’s own Son.  Mary’s Child.  He rides into Jerusalem for His appointment with the cross.  Suffered under Pontius Pilate.  Crucified, dead and buried.  Like Aslan on the stone table, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah gives Himself willingly into the hands of His foes, to suffer death in our place, as our Substitute.  But He does not stay dead.  Christ the Lord is risen.  Bodily.  Alive.  For you.  To be your life and to raise you from the dead on that great Day.  Christ is on the move!

            And now we wait for His reappearing.  This is also the burden of Advent.  To prepare us for that Day when Christ comes again.  For He has ascended into heaven, and we know that He lives and He reigns, seated as He is at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  But He is hidden from our sight.  We cannot see Him with our eyes.  We know He will come again in glory, at the sound of the trumpet and the voice of the archangel.  We know that He will raise all the dead, and the books will be opened, and He will judge; that He will give eternal life to you and me and all believers in Christ, but dismiss all unbelievers into eternal death and condemnation.  That is the great setting of all things right.  But that is yet to come.  We can live already with that Day in view, and we should.  Nothing in this fallen creation can prevent the fulfillment of His coming and our final salvation.  And we already possess this life in a hidden way as those baptized into Christ.  But we so easily forget what we cannot see.  That is why Advent is a season of preaching.  It is John the Baptist preparing the way.  It is the angel’s announcement foretelling the Child.  That is why we have the extra services and devotions.  It is the whisper of hope to the faithful, and the bold confession of it even unto death.  It is cold and it is dark.  But Christ is on the move!  Behold, He is coming soon.  “Soon will come that hour – When with mighty power Christ will come in splendor” (LSB 333:3).  Then the winter of death will give way to the spring of eternal life.  It will ever be Christmas.  Ever Easter.  And so the embers glow, and the flames arise in the minds and hearts of God’s faithful.

            And though He is hidden from us now, He is not gone.  Even now, in this time between His comings.  He is with us.  Always.  Even unto the end of the age.  “Now He gently leads us; With Himself He feeds us” (LSB 333:2).  Poor Mr. Tumnus had nearly been frozen to faithlessness by Narnia’s endless winter, even to the betrayal of Lucy into the hands of the witch.  But out of the fire, the Lion roared, bringing the fawn back to his senses, to the rescue of Lucy and Tumnus’ faithfulness unto death (a death, incidentally, from which Aslan would awaken him).  It reminds us of Peter around another fire, denying his Lord, but called back when Jesus looked upon him.  It reminds us of us, afraid to speak, nodding our heads to the serpent’s propaganda, the devil’s icy fingers wrapping around our hearts.  But the Lion roars.  The preaching calls us back to repentance and faith, to the rescue of our neighbor to whom we confess Christ, and our faithfulness, if necessary, even unto death (a death, incidentally, from which Christ will awaken us).  Aslan was never really gone from Narnia, and Christ is never really gone from you.  He is not just an apparition in the flames or in your heart.  He is with you in the flesh, in Words and water and bread and wine.  He is in your ear and on your tongue, forgiving your sins, and giving you life.  His Word is a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (Ps. 119:105).  Baptism now saves you (1 Peter 3:21).  Whoever feeds on My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day (John 6:54).  The Lord Jesus came, and is coming again soon, but so also He comes here and now, in the Means of Grace, Word and Sacrament, breathing the Spirit of life into you, to raise you spiritually now, and bodily on that Day.  As Aslan breathed life into the creatures the witch had turned to stone, so Jesus does in reality to you.  Already now.  In all life’s fulness then.  Advent, as a season of preparation, is all about that. 

            Our Lord came.  And He is coming.  And He even now comes.  So with the Palm Sunday crowds we shout, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).  And we sing!  “Come, then, O Lord Jesus, From our sins release us.  Keep our hearts believing, That we, grace receiving, Ever may confess You Till in heav’n we bless you” (LSB 333:4).  Beloved in the Lord, He is coming soon.  Christ is on the move!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Eve

November 25, 2020

Text: Phil. 4:6-20

            It is the unshakeable Promise of God in this text: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7; ESV).  Now that is a Promise to evoke our thanksgiving and praise.  Because in these times, what we lack the most, is peace.  You know this.  I don’t have to tell you.  COVID and the fears it elicits of health crises and economic devastation.  The most rancorous political season in memory.  Social unrest.  Friends, neighbors, and family members divided.  Our recent challenges have brought out the worst in us.  There are families who won’t be gathering together this Thanksgiving, not just out of safety precautions, or because the governor of their state told them they can’t.  But because they don’t want to, because their family members didn’t vote the way they did, and hold opinions that differ from them.  This should not be, but it is.  And if this is you, beloved, repent.  But needless to say, these are not peaceful times.  So to hear such an absolute Promise of peace from God, well… That is music to our ears. 

            But it is so important to understand what that peace is, and what it is not.  This is not a peace that removes all fear and conflict from your life.  This is not the delivery of the COVID vaccine or the mass conversion of society to your political point of view.  And by the way, if it were that, would you really be at peace?  Remember the days before COVID?  Remember the times your political party was in power?  Were you really at peace then?  Beyond all human understanding?  Of course you weren’t.  The truth is, you always find things to worry about, to be offended about, to fear.  No, if this peace is really to be the medicine you need, it has to be more than a temporal solution to a temporary problem.  And, of course, you know it is. 

            It is the peace of God, given to you as a gift, in Jesus Christ.  It is the peace of which heaven sang to the shepherds tending their flocks by night, and which the Church sings in the great Gloria of the Divine Service: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” peace come down from heaven, peace in the flesh of a tiny Babe, laid in a manger, “among those with whom he is pleased,” those whom He justifies by the blood and death and resurrection of this Child (Luke 2:14).  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” says Jesus.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  And, of course, there is the announcement of the crucified yet risen and living Lord Jesus in the midst of His disciples that Easter Day, and in our midst during the Lord’s Supper: “Peace to you! … Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself” (Luke 24:36, 38-39).  See that the living Lord Jesus is the very One who was pierced for your transgressions and died for you.  He is risen.  He lives.  He has atoned for your sin.  There is no more condemnation.  Death is defeated.  He gives you righteousness and life.  You receive it all by faith.  Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,” St. Paul says, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). 

            So that is the peace of which Paul speaks in our text.  Jesus died.  Jesus is risen.  Your sins are forgiven.  God is not against you.  God is for you.  He loves you.  He cares for you.  He provides for you.  You belong to Him.  And in Him, you have eternal life.  Even though you die.  He who is risen from the dead will raise you.  God doesn’t take away the things that cause you anxiety and sorrow and fear.  He gives you the peace that surpasses all understanding in the very midst of those things, so that you can come through them.  He gives you Jesus.  He places you in Jesus.  He puts Jesus in you.  To guard your heart and your mind in this fallen world and all the way through the valley of the shadow.  And that is the order.  Suffering before glory.  Good Friday before Easter.  Death before resurrection.  Living by faith before you live by sight.  In this life, there will always be disappointment and distress.  But so also, there will always be Jesus. 

            So here is what you do with those things that hurt you or make you afraid: “do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6).  That is easier said than done, but remember, eyes on Jesus.  Don’t spend your time fretting.  Don’t act like the whole thing depends on you, like the world will stop spinning if you don’t do your duty of worrying about everything endlessly.  What does worry help?  It seems to me like Jesus said something about this… “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27)?  No, you lose hours of your life by worrying.  So what should you do, then?  You leave it all in God’s hands.  It’s already in His hands, anyway.  You let Him be God, and you stop trying to do His job.  Worry, ultimately, is idolatry.  Repent.  You just pray, and then trust.  Trust God.  Trust your Father.  By prayer and supplication, Paul says, let your requests be made known to God.  And then?  Thanksgiving!  Always with thanksgiving.  Even in the midst of those things that would make you anxious and sorrowful and afraid.  Even as you are making your requests.  Even when He doesn’t do what you want Him to do.  Give thanks.  Because you know that whatever He does, even if it be a cross, it will be for the good.  It will be for your salvation.  Our Lord does all things well.  He does all things for you.  Giving thanks to God, especially in a time when things are not as good as we may wish they were, is an exercise of faith.  It is a confession that Christ really has saved you.  It is a confession that you really are at peace, because Jesus has made peace, objectively, between you and God.  And you can now claim that peace subjectively, by faith, even in a world that is anything but peaceful. 

            And now some practical advice from Paul, which is really just the way that peace guards your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.  It is all about the focus of your attention.  It is all about where you set your eyes, what you take into your mind.  Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is anything excellent or worthy of praise… those are the things you think about.  Those are the things to look upon, the things that should command your attention.  And that, by the way, will illicit thanksgiving.  You will become grateful, because you’ll see all the good that God pours out upon you.  Now, this is not about the power of positive thinking, or some kind of tripe like that.  This is to say, set your mind on Christ and the things of Christ, and the good and beautiful and true things that flow to you from Him. 

            The world wants to set other things before your eyes, that such things may worm their way into your mind and heart.  There are, of course, the obviously ungodly things that appeal to your lust and covetousness.  On account of these, we pray with King David in Psalm 119  Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things” (v. 37).  But there are sneakier, subtler things of which you should be aware.  For example, the endless barrage of media on your screens and in your earbuds, with you in the car, with you at work, with you in your living room, and even in bed.  How much time do you spend staring at glowing rectangles?  Think about this, and be honest with yourself.  How much time do you spend passively consuming the content that others set before you.  Even seemingly innocuous things like the evening news (and God bless Pastor Taylor and his day job).  I certainly agree you have a civic duty to be informed.  But the temptation is to have it always on, to always be connected, plugged in.  And you know it isn’t helpful.  How often do you complain that there’s never any good news?  How often do you cringe reading post after post on your Facebook feed?  Well, it’s worse than that.  All this media, you do realize, is catechizing you.  It is not only a leach sucking joy from your soul, it is trying to impose a certain worldview upon you, and it isn’t the biblical one.  Maybe turn it off awhile.  Okay, you should know what is going on in the world.  Know the basic issues, and then do what St. Paul says.  Don’t be anxious.  Pray.  Supplicate.  And then give thanks, trusting God in all things.

            The world doesn’t want you celebrating Thanksgiving, and it isn’t just to keep you safe from COVID.  It is following the lead of its ruler, who doesn’t want you to enjoy any good or give thanks for anything.  Because he doesn’t want you believing and confessing the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom you have peace.  But that peace is yours as God’s absolute Promise to you in Christ.  And it will guard your hearts and minds from Satan himself.  You can count on that.  So whatever precautions you may take, give thanks and celebrate heartily.  And sing!  And gather together around this Table for the Eucharist, the great Thanksgiving.  For here you receive God’s peace in the flesh.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  Here is Jesus Christ for you, His true Body, His true Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  Peace.  Peace.  “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps. 107:1).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (Proper 29A)

November 22, 2020

Text: Matt. 25:31-46

            Christ the Lord is coming.  He is coming soon.  That is the first thing to know.  He is coming in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.  The trumpet will sound and He will raise all the dead.  Those who are alive on that Day will be caught up together with them before the Lord.  The books shall be opened, the verdict rendered.  He will divide the sheep and the goats, believers in Christ and unbelievers, those on His right and those on His left.  And then He will speak of works.

            This is where Lutherans get nervous.  The Lord will say to those on His right, “You did good things.  You fed the hungry.  You gave the thirsty to drink.  You welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison.  And insofar as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”  And He will say to those on His left, “You didn’t do good things.  You neglected your duty.  You did not feed the hungry.  You did not give drink to the thirsty.  You did not welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit those sick and in prison.  And insofar as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 

            Now, we can’t argue against this language, because it is Jesus who says it, and you should never try to be a better Christian than Jesus.  But it is not unlike the line from the Athanasian Creed that always makes us squirm: “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds.  And those who have done good will enter into life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire” (LSB 320).  Now, we know that line is thoroughly biblical, based on these very Words of Jesus.  But we’re not so sure it’s Lutheran.  In all seriousness, we're afraid both the Words of Jesus in our Holy Gospel, and our confession of them in the Creed, indicate a judgment based on works good or bad, a salvation and a justification that depends not on grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, but whether I’ve done enough good. 

            Well, you’re waiting for me to say it, so I will: That is not what Jesus means, nor is it what we mean in the Creed.  But before you fall off the horse on the other side with antinomian libertinism, which is to say, lawless free-rein of the sinful flesh, as though the Law doesn’t matter and has no place in the Christian life… you should know that Jesus does have a Word for us this morning about works in this Gospel, and we will come back to that idea in just a moment.  But this morning’s Gospel is first of all about faith.  The grace-word, in which you should take all your comfort, is that beautiful Word, “inherit.”  The Lord says to His sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34; ESV).  What works do you do to earn an inheritance?  You don’t!  An inheritance is a gift.  It isn’t earned.  The Kingdom of God is His gift to you, promised in the Will and Testament of God’s Son, Jesus, and delivered to you upon His death.  It doesn’t depend on you.  It depends on the faithfulness of His Promise, and it depends on His death! 

            And, by the way, the inheritance of this Kingdom has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  What good works did you do before the foundation of the world?  Even Adam hadn’t had opportunity to do a good work, because he hadn’t yet been created.  Still, the inheritance had already been prepared.  Do you see how this is all grace alone, apart from works, so that no one can boast?

            In fact, before a word has been spoken about works in our text, Jesus has already separated the sheep from the goats.  And He already says to the sheep that they are blessed by the Father and the inheritance is prepared.  So also, before He says anything about the neglect of good works on the part of the goats, He pronounces them cursed.  And they are told to depart into the eternal fire prepared, not for them, and not from the foundation of the world, but for the devil and for his angels, which is to say, the demons.  That is an important distinction.  The Kingdom is prepared for humans from the foundation of the world.  Hell is not prepared for humans, but for demons, in time.  The unrighteous, the goats, go to hell, not because it was prepared for them, but on account of their unrighteousness.  Because they cannot dwell in unrighteousness with a righteous Lord Jesus, and those whom He has made righteous (justified), in the presence of our holy God.

            So before we get anything about works, the judgment is rendered, the verdict declared.  And what is the criteria, if not works?  The criteria is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world, who is risen, and lives, and reigns.  Those on His right received that righteousness by faith in this life, and so were covered by Jesus on the Day of Judgment.  My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says in another place (John 10:27).  They hear Him, and believe Him and the Promise of His Testament sealed in His death, and so follow Him into the sheepfold (the Church), and into life.  But He says to those who reject Him, “you do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (v. 26).  They do not accept the Testament.  They do not accept the righteousness of Christ that He wills to them in His death.  Thus the separation between the sheep and the goats comes down to faith and unbelief; the reception of Christ’s righteousness by faith, the rejection of Christ’s righteousness by unbelief.

            And now we get to works.  The sheep, having been declared righteous by God on account of Christ, by grace, through faith, apart from works, have nonetheless done works.  And they’re surprised to hear it.  They’re surprised because they don’t remember doing them.  And they know they’ve so often failed to do them, and that when they’ve tried to do them, their works have been soiled with sin and filth.  And on top of it all, they know that they’ve done evil.  They know that they live only by God’s mercy and the forgiveness of sins in Christ.  So they are not counting on their works for a favorable judgment.  They’re counting on the works of Christ, and on Christ alone.

            But they have done works.  These are the works God has done in and through them.  These are the works the Holy Spirit has wrought in them, the fruits of faith.  They have loved their neighbor.  They have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty.  They have welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison.  Now, the works were not extraordinary, and that is why the sheep don’t remember them.  A mother fed and clothed her infant.  A father went to work to provide for his family.  Parents brought their children to Church and taught them to be faithful Christians.  A husband and wife encouraged each other, spoke the Word of God to each other, bore with one another in patience and forgave one another, lived in faithfulness and gave themselves into each other’s embrace.  The family took a casserole to a widow in her grief.   They set an extra place at the table for a college student at Thanksgiving.  They stopped by the hospital to visit Grandma and gave her a card.  These works did not impress God.  They weren’t even all that great on the face of it.  But here is the key.  They were done in faith.  They were done because this Christian family, or the members of this Church, or this individual Christian, knew that such works are what God desires, not so that we become righteous, but because we are righteous in Christ.  You should do good works, because God wants you to, and your neighbor needs them; because a good tree produces good fruit; because that is what one, whom God has declared righteous for Christ’s sake, does.  And you will rejoice, even as you are surprised, to hear Christ speak of such works on that Day. 

            The goats will be surprised, too, but that is because of what Christ doesn’t say of them.  They remember doing a lot of good things, and they want credit.  This is the great difference.  While the sheep only count on the righteousness of Christ, the goats think they are good enough on their own.  Okay, maybe with a little grace from God to balance out their mistakes and weaknesses, but they’re basically good people, and the good things they’ve done ought to stand up before God.  They’ve given to charity.  They’ve donated to food and clothing drives, worked at a soup kitchen, visited Aunt Myrtle when she was sick, built a Habitat for Humanity house, and given a handout to a homeless person, all good things, to be sure.  And they’ve known plenty of Christians who aren’t nearly so philanthropic!  So give us a little credit, Jesus!  But that’s the thing.  If you want your own works to count for you on that great Day… they will.  And it won’t be good enough.  Because for all the good you’ve done, you’ve failed to do so much more that you should have.  And wherever you failed to do it, you failed to do it to Jesus.  And whatever good you’ve done in terms of outward behavior, if it hasn’t been done in faith, it is not good before God, for as the writer to the Hebrews says, “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6).  And your mistakes and weaknesses are no minor matter.  They are evil, rebellion against God, rejection of Him, and of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Beloved in the Lord, do not drag your own works before God on the Day of Judgment.

            No, on that Day, you plead Christ alone.  And Christ is all you need.  For that reason, you will greet that Day with great rejoicing.  And when your Lord commends you for the good works done in you, you will be surprised, but you won’t deny it.  He isn’t lying.  You will simply marvel that in spite of all your sins, He accomplished great good through you.  That is actually Gospel.  He accomplished it.  He did it.  And He gave you to be His instrument.  And you will know that all the sin you brought to it was washed away by His blood, and you, the Christian, brought to salvation and faith by His grace alone, really were given to love God and praise Him by your works.  This is simply St. Paul’s theology: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). 

            So chill out, Lutherans.  Jesus is a better Lutheran than you are.  Believe His Words.  He is coming soon.  He will raise you from the dead and judge you righteous by His own righteousness, by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works.  But in the meantime, He has given you works to do.  Do them with joy.  And know this: Because Christ is our Emmanuel, He is with us in such a way that any work done to one of the least of these, a lowly Christian, for Christ’s sake, is done unto Christ Himself.  Imagine that: You get to feed and clothe Christ!  Now come to the Supper where He forgives your sins, strengthens you to do His will, and gives you life by His crucified and risen Body and Blood.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27A)

November 8, 2020

Text: Matt. 25:1-13

            The Bridegroom was a great man, a man of means and substance, in fact, the Son of the King.  And everyone was in anticipation.  For the wedding would be a great affair, and all were invited to the feasting and dancing and joy.  The Bride, for all Her beauty, was a Nobody whom the Prince, by His love, had made into a Somebody, a real rags to riches story.  And now, by His orders and by His riches, She has been clothed in the radiant majesty befitting Their personages and the auspicious occasion.  The Bridegroom, who has given His everything for Her, would have Her presented to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:27). 

            Now the ten virgins are waiting for the royal wedding procession.  The Bridegroom will come to claim His Bride and lead Her into His own Home.  The way will be strewn with cloaks and palm branches, with singing and great rejoicing, as the crowd follows the Bridal Couple into the Great Feast at the Bridegroom’s House.  All will come in to the great inner-courtyard of the Palace, and then the doors will be locked, that the festivities may commence, secure and undisturbed.  The virgins wait.  The Bridegroom is coming.  He is coming soon.  Ah, but He is delayed.  The hour grows late and the eyes grow heavy.  Heads begin to nod, and before you know it, all ten virgins are asleep.  The eager anticipation has been lulled by the delay.  The yawns give way to snores.  Perhaps the spirit is willing, but for certain the flesh is weak. 

            Then comes the call.  The trumpets blare and the herald announces: “Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him” (Matt. 25:6; ESV).  The virgins awake from their midnight slumber.  There is great commotion and a scrambling to join the festive procession.  But there is a problem.  It is the dark of night, but five of the virgins have no oil with which to light their lamps.  They had been foolish.  Had they let them burn out?  Did they forget to bring oil in the first place?  The other five had oil and lamps burning bright.  They had been wise.  They kept their supply.  But they could not spare for the five who had none, lest their lamps, also, run out of oil.  Go and buy for yourselves from the dealers.  But it is midnight, and the dealers are asleep.  By the time the five can acquire the oil, the Feast has commenced and the door is now shut.  And no matter how desperately they beat on the door and beg, “Lord, lord, open to us” (v. 11), the Bridegroom inside answers, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (v. 12).  

            What do we make of this parable?  The Bridegroom is Jesus and the Bride is the Church.  We have no problem with that.  The great Wedding Feast is our Lord’s return to raise the dead and judge all people, giving eternal life to all believers in Christ.  We understand that much.  But who are these virgins, and what is the difference between them?  The virgins are the individuals within the fellowship of the Church.  Now, it is not that some were bad and some were good.  It is not even that some were Church-goers and the others rank unbelievers.  They were all virgins, which is to say, outwardly, they all claimed to be Christians.  They were all waiting for the Bridegroom, so we may conclude they all attended Church, at least some of the time.  And they all fell asleep at the Bridegroom’s delay, which is to say, in waiting for Jesus to come back on the Last Day, they were lulled into a false sense of security.  And they failed to watch.  They were distracted by the things of the world and the comforts and pleasures of the flesh.  They thought they had time.  Just to rest the eyes a minute.  Just a quick power nap.  What could it hurt?  Jesus hasn’t come yet.  He’s unlikely to come while I let down my guard and relax.  I’ll get back to watching for Jesus soon.  Really.  It will be fine. 

            They all did this, which is to say, we all do this.  We all get sleepy, like Peter, James, and John in the Garden.  We doubt Jesus will come back today, because He didn’t come yesterday, or the day before.  And He probably won’t come tomorrow.  So we fall into thinking only about this life and our present situation.  And all of a sudden, things like presidential elections become the be-all and end-all of our existence, and those running for office become our gods and our devils.  Our fortune is determined by our salary and the stock market, and we look to our 401k to provide our daily bread in later years.  Doctors and medical researches become our saviors from death.  Television programs, radio, and the internet become our catechists.  We make our homes, or the lake, or the golf course, into our heaven.  You may have to substitute a few things for my examples, but we all do this to one degree or another.  It is a great temptation.  We fall asleep.  These worldly things take the place of eternal things.  These things may be important, but at best, they are penultimate.  We make them ultimate.  We neglect to watch for Christ.  Beloved in the Lord, wake up.  Open your eyes.  Christ is coming.  It could be any moment.  You know not the day or the hour.  Let not His delay lull you into spiritual slumber.  Repent.  Watch. 

            Thank God, it is not the fact that they fell asleep that keeps them out of the Wedding Feast.  Remember, the Bridegroom gives Himself into death for His Bride, to sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word (Eph. 5:25-26).  That is, you are baptized into the death of Christ, and all your sins have been forgiven.  Even your falling asleep on the watch.  Even your confusing temporal things with eternal.  And you are baptized into the resurrection of Christ, so wake up.  Arise.  Watch for, and hasten, the Bridegroom’s coming by your prayers. 

            But if that is not the difference, then what is?  It all comes down to the oil.  The five foolish virgins had no oil.  The five wise virgins were well-supplied.  And what is the oil?  Many preachers and commentators, including Luther, say the oil is faith.  Well, that may be, and I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think we can be more precise.  The oil is the substance that saturates the wick, that the lamp may burn brightly in the darkness.  The oil of our faith is the Gospel and Sacraments of Christ.  Faith is that which is fueled by our Lord’s Gospel and Sacraments, to burn bright, that we may see and follow Christ into the Wedding Feast.  In other words, the Means of Grace are the oil, faith is the flame.  And by the way, it shines forth in good works on the way, like a lamp on a stand enlightening the whole house, that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:15-16).

            But, you say, the five foolish virgins were also virgins, that is, outwardly Christians; and they, too, were waiting for the Bridegroom, so at least some of the time they were Church-goers who heard the Word and received the Sacraments.  Yes, and that is the point of the parable.  They are hypocrites.  There are hypocrites within the external fellowship of the Church.  That is to say, there are unbelievers who claim to be believers.  Not everyone who hears the Word receives it.  Not everyone who comes to the Supper eats and drinks to their salvation.  Some receive the Body and Blood of Christ to their judgment.  Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21).  The Word and the Sacraments do not work ex opere operato.  They are not a work to be worked for credit in God’s record book.  Those who rely on being “good Christian folk” to get into heaven will find themselves locked out.  Those who think the mere gracing of us and God with their presence on Sunday morning earns them a spot at the Feast, will be taken unawares on that Day.  Those who rely on anything other than Jesus Christ and His salvation given freely, apart from merit, in the Word and Sacraments, are not really Christians.  They don’t receive the oil, which the Lord here gives.  They think what they have of themselves is sufficient.  And their lamps burn out.  Maybe they had oil as a child, but they left the Church, and the oil burned out.  Maybe it happened later, as they grew older and became more enamored with the world.  But in any case, they have no oil now, when it counts.  And they cannot borrow from another.  You either have oil, or you don’t.  You either have the Means of Grace, or you don’t.  You either believe in Christ, or you don’t.  And no one can believe for you, nor can you believe for another. 

            This is the chilling warning in our text.  There is an end to the time of grace.  There is an end to the Lord’s patience and the opportunity to avail yourself of His Word and Sacraments and so let faith come alive and burn bright.  On Judgment Day, when Jesus comes again, it will be too late for those who put off coming to Christ.  And even if He delays, you never know when you could die and face the judgment.  So keep a good supply of the oil.  Keep saturating the wick.  Be in Church.  Be in the Word.  Be at the Supper.  There is nothing more important.  For those who are found without oil when the Bridegroom comes will miss it.  They will be locked out.  There is a hell.  They will find themselves in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

            But those who are well saturated with the oil of Jesus’ Gospel and Sacraments will be awakened at the Bridegroom’s coming, and they will trim their lamps and follow Him into the joyous, eternal Feast.  The point is, watch and be ready.  The Lord is coming to take His Bride to Himself.  If you want to be ready for His return, soak in His Gospel and Sacraments, that faith may burn brightly.  The Lord here freely gives you all that you need to be ready on that Day.  “With bridal care Yourselves prepare To meet the Bridegroom, who is near” (LSB 516:1).  Come, Lord Jesus.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                         

Sunday, November 1, 2020

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day

Nov. 1, 2020

Text: 1 John 3:1-3

            (W)e shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2; ESV).  We long for that, don’t we?  To see Him in whom we have believed, but who is hidden from our eyes.  We know that we are not at home here.  We know things are not as they should be.  We grieve over things as they appear.  Our sinful nature and our offenses against God.  A world in rebellion against its Creator and Redeemer.  Society coming apart at the seams.  Politics.  An election that promises only more division and strife when all is said and done.  An uncontrollable pandemic.  Restrictions over our lives with no end in sight.  Creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth.  Wildfires rage.  Hurricanes threaten.  Death, decay, and destruction are all around us.  I don’t know that I’ve ever prayed so fervently for our Lord’s appearing as I have these past few months.  We are world-weary.  We are war-weary.  If we could just see Jesus as He is.  We know that that would change everything.  Evil and death would be at an end forever.  All that is wrong would be made right.  Our own sins would be at an end, and we would be with Christ, forever joyful and free.  Our bodies would be healed and made whole, fully restored, alive and better than ever.  And on this All Saints’ Day, we especially think of our loved ones who have died and are with Christ, whom we shall see and embrace once again on that blessed Day.  And for all the pain borne here and now, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.        

            This is not just wishful thinking for the Christian.  Because Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  As a matter of fact, as St. John unpacks for us this morning, this victory of Christ is a present, albeit hidden, reality for us.  On that glorious Day of Christ’s return, what is hidden will be revealed.  Then we will see it.  Then all will know it.  And we will finally be what we were always meant to be, what Adam was created to be, what the Father has already declared us to be by virtue of our Lord’s saving work: Like Him, the Image of God restored, because we shall see Him as He is.

            But for now, we wait.  This is the time Luther calls the “Already/Not Yet.”  See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (v. 1).  That is a present reality.  It is already the case.  For you are baptized into Christ.  God has set His seal upon you, named you with His Name, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  He has marked you with the sign of the holy cross as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  You are God’s own child, I gladly say it.  And that means that you already have eternal life.  You are already righteous and holy in God’s sight.  That is to say, you are a saint.  For your sins are forgiven, and you are covered with the righteousness and holiness of Christ.  You are not a saint because of your own works or your own righteousness, but because of Christ.   

            But it sure would be nice to see that, wouldn’t it, in your life and your behavior?  But you don’t.  Not yet.  You can’t see that about yourself.  And you know the struggle, how often you wish you could be different than you are, do the things God wants you to do, stop with your sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, and be holy, as God would have you be, as He created you to be in His Image.  By faith, you know what is true of you in Christ.  By sight, well… Let’s just say the picture isn’t pretty.  You still sin.  Your heart is so often flooded by the evil thoughts of the flesh.  You open your mouth, and before you know it, evil things have poured out of your lips.  You’ve cursed.  You’ve spoken evil of your neighbor.  You’ve spoken hopeless words of discouragement and desperation to those around you.  And you can hardly believe it yourself, what you are seeing and hearing come forth from your own flesh.  Saint?  Hardly. 

            The world can’t see it, either.  Possibly it is because of your own sins.  To be sure, as those who bear the holy Name of God, we want to watch our behavior in the world, lest we cause offense by our sins and lay a stumbling block in someone’s path.  But St. John says it is for another reason.  It is because the world does not know Jesus.  The world doesn’t know the Savior, or the forgiveness of sins He has won for you and for all in His death and resurrection.  So it cannot recognize you as one who belongs to God.  If it does not recognize God’s Son, it cannot recognize you as God’s child.  The world looks at the Church of God and sees, not saints, but just a bunch of judgmental hypocrites.  That explains the enmity the world has for you.  The world didn’t see Jesus for who He is, and so it crucified Him.  The world doesn’t see you for who you are, and so you should expect to be despised and rejected, to suffer for the Name of Jesus. 

            These are the things we see.  But things are not as they appear.  We are God’s children now.  That is true in spite of all appearances.  But the Day is coming when the veil will be removed and what is hidden brought to sight.  Then we will appear as we truly are.  Now, what exactly that will look like we do not know.  We cannot now say.  But we know that we shall be like Him, like the risen Lord Jesus, because we shall see Him as He is.  That is to say, beholding Him who is the Image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the perfect Image that was lost and marred by our first parents in Eden, we become that Image once again.  Like the moon reflecting the radiance of the sun, in beholding Him, we reflect Him. 

            And this is true in some measure for the saints in heaven now.  Kathleen, Odessa, your loved ones who have died in the faith and are with Christ… they behold Him now in glory.  We don’t know much about heaven as the intermediate state of the soul between physical death and the resurrection of the body.  I’ve made this point to you many times, that most of what we read in Scripture about heaven is actually about the resurrection of the body and the new heavens and earth.  And that is a very important point, that going to heaven when you die is not the goal.  It is not the full and final blessedness for which we long.  We look forward to the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, when Jesus comes again.  But we would also be mistaken in minimizing the blessed condition of the saints now as they await that day from the other side of the veil.  What do we know about them?  They see Jesus in His glory.  We call this the beatific vision.  They are at rest.  They are at peace.  They enjoy fellowship with one another.  And they have great joy as they sing before the throne with the heavenly host.  They, too, are waiting and longing for the resurrection of their bodies.  But they do not suffer.  They are enraptured by the vision of Jesus.  And so also they have fellowship with us.  They haven’t lost touch, and this is very important.  No, they don’t watch over you from the sky.  No, they don’t hear your prayers to them, and you should not pray to them.  But they do join you in a much more profound and intimate way.  Here and now, in this place, where Jesus is, giving His gifts.  Where heaven comes down to earth.  Where we laud and magnify God’s glorious Name with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  Where we receive a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom.  Around the altar.  For the Supper.  They join us from the other side.  If you want to be with your loved one who has departed to be with Christ, you don’t go to their grave, or talk to the sky, or look deep into your heart.  You go to the Supper.  They are with you at the Supper, receiving Jesus with you, as they will for all eternity. 

            But as good as that is, that isn’t good enough for God.  He doesn’t only want His Image restored in you spiritually.  He wants His Image restored in you bodily.  And so we confess the resurrection of the body, as we know it from the Scriptures.  When we say we will see Him as He is, we mean what Job confesses, that as Christ is risen, so we, too, will arise: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).  Could there be a clearer confession of the bodily resurrection?  And there it is in the Old Testament.  These eyes will see Him.  Standing upon the earth, the New Creation.  We will see Him as He is.

            And that will be the end of all that is not as He is.  We long for that Day.  Come, Lord Jesus.  He will.  He is coming soon.  So that being the case, St. John reminds us we can act even now as though it has already happened.  After all, we are God’s children now.  We can act as we are in Christ.  So what does John say?  Keep yourself pure, as He is pure.  That is what those who hope in Him do.  Already foster the Image within yourself.  Repent of your sins.  Give them up.  No longer wallow in them.  Strive against wickedness.  Live in holiness.  Where you fall, rest in forgiveness.  But do not make that a license for the flesh.  Be who you are.  Love your neighbor and serve him faithfully in your vocations.  Suffer for Christ and sacrifice yourself and all you have.  Hope in Christ and believe this as a certainty: Jesus is coming.  You will see Him as He is.  Already in the Gospel and in the Holy Sacrament you are catching your first glimpse.  And so it is already as St. Paul says.  Beholding the glory of the Lord, you are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).  This comes from the Lord.  He is in you.  You are in Him.  Soon you will see that it is so with your very eyes.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.