SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2005
6 November 2005 - The Festival of All Saints - Hebrews 13:7-10
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Please hear with me a reading from the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, beginning at the tenth verse:
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.”
So far the text.
All Saints Day is about precisely that - all saints. Every person in human history who trusted in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior, and whose sins were thereby covered over by Christ’s righteousness, was and is a saint according to the Biblical definition of that term. A “saint” is a “holy one,” and the holiness that makes us right before God is the perfect holiness that God himself gives to us, when in Christ he forgives our transgressions and declares himself to be at peace with us.
And so, today is a fitting day on which to remember with thanksgiving any and every Christian who has gone before us. During the next several minutes, however, I will ask you to remember with me a certain more limited category of Christian saints from the past - the category of pastoral “leaders,” who spoke the word of God to the people of their generation, and who, in an important sense, are still speaking it to us today.
One of the weaknesses of our American society is our collective lack of a sense of connectedness to the past. We often consider history to be boring and irrelevant to our modern lives. We are, for the most part, not all that interested in what earlier generations did and thought. Instead, we want to be “contemporary” and up-to-date in everything.
But in the church, where we confess a faith that is rooted in God’s saving acts in ancient history, “new” is almost never “better.” The Lord himself declared through the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 6: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” In an important sense God’s promises are indeed “new every morning,” but these ever-new and rejuvenating promises are the same promises that God has been making to his people for centuries upon centuries. The Word of God is eternal in the heavens!
It is in this context that we are directed by the Epistle to the Hebrews to remember our leaders, who spoke to us the word of God. It should matter to us what the influential pastors and teachers of the past had to say about the issues of faith and conscience that we are facing today. It may very well be the case that the great churchmen of the past are able to speak to such issues with a degree of clarity and fullness that is unmatched by even the most gifted of our contemporaries. It may be difficult for the pastors and teachers of our day to be as objective as they would want to be, as they deal with the controversies that are swirling tempestuously all around them.
All of us would no doubt have a sincere desire to remain firmly rooted in God’s Word, as we seek to address the challenges that are facing the church today. But given the weakness of the flesh, it is all too easy for us to get worn down in the struggle, and to be tempted to make compromises with the philosophies of the age, if we are not able to get our bearings and look at the issues from a perspective that is wider and deeper than our own limited experience. This is where the Lord’s wisdom comes into focus for us: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings...”
Providentially, in the history of the church, God has at certain pivotal times raised up influential pastors and teachers to defend, clarify, and proclaim his changeless truth among and for his people. We think especially of the Fathers of the ancient church, who defended the truth of God against the attacks of the Arians and similar heretics in the fourth century. These false teachers denied the Lord who had bought them. They taught that Jesus, in his pre-incarnate state, was a mere creature and not the eternal God. The Lord of the church raised up men like St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and St. Gregory, to meet this challenge. They proclaimed the Biblical truth that the God who made us is also the God who saves us, and that Christ is indeed the Word made flesh: “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
We respectfully remember the faithful pastors and teachers of the fourth century whenever we confess the faith that they confessed by means of the Nicene Creed. It is difficult to imagine that anyone in our day could make up a modern creed addressing those issues that would be better than, or even as good as, the one that has been passed down to us from these great men. But we don’t have to worry about trying to write such a creed from scratch, because by God’s grace we are willing to remember our leaders, who spoke to us the word of God. We are content to imitate their faith, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
We also remember Martin Luther and the other Reformers of the sixteenth century, and the struggles in which they were engaged for the sake of the Gospel. During the Middle Ages the institutional church in western Europe drifted into many errors, which obscured and eclipsed the pure Gospel of God’s forgiving grace in Christ. Troubled sinners were directed to their own works and religious exercises for comfort, rather than to the cross of Jesus Christ and to the promise of a free and full salvation, offered to all, to be received by faith. The Reformers who were providentially raised up by God in this time of crisis and need brought a renewed clarity and apostolic purity to the public teaching of the church. They re-taught God’s people to confess, on the basis of his Word: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; just as He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins; and at the last day He will raise up me and all the dead, and will grant me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
We respectfully remember the faithful pastors and teachers of the sixteenth century whenever we teach the faith that they taught by means of the Small Catechism. It is difficult to imagine that anyone in our day could make up a modern catechism addressing those issues that would be better than, or even as good as, the one that has been passed down to us from these great men. But we don’t have to worry about trying to write such a catechism from scratch, because we are willing to remember our leaders, who spoke to us the word of God. We are content to imitate their faith, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
We remember our leaders, who spoke to us the word of God. This is an important qualification. We are not expected to agree with every idea that Athanasius, or Luther, or any other person of the past may have had. We do not recognize the infallibility of any post-apostolic teacher in the church. We agree with Athanasius that Jesus is the true God in human flesh, and that the only God that there is is the Triune God, not because Athanasius taught it, but because God’s Word teaches it. The authority of Athanasius in the church goes no farther than his authority as a faithful and accurate expositor of the teaching of Holy Scripture.
The same goes for Martin Luther. There were a lot of social opinions and political views expressed by Luther during his lifetime with which almost no one would agree today. But when he preached that Jesus Christ is the one who justifies us before God, and that we do not, and indeed cannot, justify ourselves, he was preaching the pure, unadulterated truth. This was and is a soothing balm from the Great Physician himself for every guilty conscience. Luther’s authority in the church goes no farther than his authority as a faithful and accurate expositor of the teaching of Holy Scripture.
The great teachers of the past are great only because, and only insofar as, they spoke to us the word of God, and not their own opinions, theories, and conjectures. God’s Word tests them, even as it tests us and the things we believe and teach.
And if we allow God’s Word to test us and the ideas that we accept or tolerate, how faithful will it show us to be? How diligent are we in preserving, and passing on to others, the truthful Word of the Lord that has been passed on to us? How easy is it for us to rationalize away those Biblical beliefs that seem to make us stand out as “weird” or “old-fashioned” by modern secular standards? Do we faithfully and respectfully remember the Christian leaders of the past, who taught the word of God to us? Or do we suffer from a certain kind of theological amnesia, which results in an ever-growing willingness to fit in, more and more, with the compromised religiosity of the day?
Remembering the word of God, and believing the word of God, is not easy. Christians fail in this duty, to one extent or another, on a daily basis. And sometimes whole churches and church bodies fail in this duty so often and so persistently, that they forget the word of God completely, and replace it with something else. Only God can preserve us in our faith. Only God can keep our memory of his word alive.
Listen, then, to the last portion of today’s text: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” At the time this epistle was written in the first century, some Hebrew Christians were succumbing to the temptation to return to Rabbinic Judaism, with its legalism and works-righteousness. They were turning away from the liberating light of Christ, and slipping back into a religion of shadows and external regulations.
The author of the epistle encouraged his listeners to resist this temptation, with the strength of God’s grace, and he reminded them: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” An altar of realities, not of symbols. An altar of hope, not of fear and uncertainty. These first-century Hebrew believers had an altar that had been prepared for them by their Savior, through his suffering and death on the cross, and through his glorious resurrection. It was an altar from which he fed them with his life-giving body, given into death for their salvation, and from which he gave them to drink of his precious blood, shed for the forgiveness of their sins.
And this altar is also in our midst. It is, to be sure, an altar from which unrepentant compromisers and worldly deceivers have no right to eat. Those who have forgotten the word of God, and who will not allow the Lord to rekindle this memory within them, are not invited to this altar. But Christ has given to those who know, and yearn for, his truth, the right to eat from it. If the Holy Spirit has kindled and rekindled in you a remembrance of the word of God that has been taught to you, and if he has bestowed on you a faith which clings in hope to that word, then this is your altar. The gifts of this altar - the body and blood of your Savior - are for you.
Remembering our leaders who spoke to us the word of God is not an intellectual exercise, even though the intellect is certainly involved. For those who can and do remember, and believe, it is a supernatural work and a divine miracle, accomplished for us, and in us, by the proclamation of Christ’s Holy Gospel, and by the administration of Christ’s Holy Supper. In his Word and Sacrament our hearts are strengthened by God’s grace.
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
13 November 2005 - Second-Last Sunday in the Church Year - Matthew 25:31-46
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“And he shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” With these words, or words like them, we regularly confess in the Creed our expectation that the events described in today’s Gospel text will indeed happen. Christ will visibly descend to the earth in judgment, and all will stand humbly before him.
The Augsburg Confession reiterates this conviction in the following words: “Our churches teach that at the end of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will raise all the dead. He will give the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but he will condemn ungodly people and the devils to be tormented without end.”
At this time in human history Jesus is not visibly present on the earth. This does not mean, however, that Jesus is currently absent from us.
In commenting on the passage from the Augsburg Confession that was just quoted, the twentieth-century theologian C. H. Little wrote: “The reference in these words is to a visible advent of Christ. It is not intended to deny that Christ is with his people now or that he has been with them perpetually since the close of the period of his humiliation in fulfillment of his promises: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’; and ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Wherever the means of grace are administered, there Christ comes through the Holy Spirit to apply the salvation which he has wrought for us. But the meaning of the above statement...is that Christ will come visibly with power and great glory...” So far Dr. Little.
The difference, then, is that at the present time Christ’s presence in the world, and among us, is hidden, and is not visible to our physical eyes. For the duration of this age Jesus has cloaked himself with the humble forms of word and water, bread and wine. He covers over his bright, shining glory with these simple and unthreatening things, so that we, in our frail and sinful condition, would not be overwhelmed by that glory. In our weak and mortal state we cannot stand in the presence of Christ’s uncloaked divine majesty. So, he doesn’t make us do it.
But, he still makes himself available to us whenever we need him. When our conscience has been stirred by the judgments of God’s law, and the Holy Spirit has given us a yearning for the forgiveness and saving grace of Christ, we always know where to go to find him. We can always locate our hidden but truly present Savior in the preaching of his Gospel and in the administration of his sacraments. We see him there with the eyes of faith, because he has told us in his faith-creating Word that this is where he is.
In the text from St. Matthew that we heard a while ago, Jesus tells us about another way in which he is already present among us, now, as we wait for his visible appearance on judgment day. Listen again to the words that will be spoken to the resurrected righteous ones as they unassumingly stand before his throne on that day:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
In many passages of Scripture Christ has revealed that he is truly present for us, and is ready to be the giver of his salvation, in his Word and sacraments. We don’t physically see him there, but we know that he is there because he has told us that he is there. In today’s Gospel text Christ has also revealed that he is truly present for us, and is ready to be the recipient of our love, in, with, and under our needy brothers and sisters. We don’t physically see him there either, but we know that he is there because he has told us that he is there.
When your conscience tells you that have sinned and need God’s forgiveness, and when you want to be strengthened by God’s Spirit in your faltering faith, don’t look to the good works that you might be able to do for the needy as the place where you can find what you are seeking. These spiritual blessings are not to be found in your works, but rather in the means of grace.
But when you already have God’s forgiveness, and when you want to show forth your gratitude for the Lord’s mercy in your life, your brother’s and sister’s need is precisely where you should look in order to find the place where your love for Christ can best be expressed. Jesus is there. He is hidden but he is truly there, as his Word says, waiting for you to seek him out in love. He is there waiting for you to show to him your compassion and generosity. He is waiting for you to share with him of the material blessings that have been bestowed on you in this life. “I tell you the truth,” he says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
When is the last time you fed Jesus, or gave him something to drink? When is the last time you showed your Lord some needed hospitality, or clothed him? When is the last time you cared for your Savior in his sickness, or visited him in his loneliness? We are perhaps very eager and willing to go to Christ for help when we sense our need for it, and to seek him out in the means of grace in order to receive spiritual blessings from him. But how eager are we to go to Christ in order to help him and show him our love and gratitude, and to seek him out in the needs of those who are poor, or disadvantaged, or the victims of injustice, or hurting in any number of other ways? Maybe not as often.
As we think this morning particularly of judgment day, and of what the Lord will at that time tell those who are destined for eternal fire, it gives us pause: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. ... I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Isn’t it a wonderful thing, therefore, that Jesus himself has done everything that is necessary for our salvation? It’s a wonderful thing that our lack of showing love for him, of which we repent and which we regret, is forgiven today through his great and perfect love for us. When we were hungry with the emptiness of spiritual death, he filled us with himself, and gave us the bread of life to eat. When we were parched with the thirst of a dead and dry unbelief, he gave us the water of life which flows as an endless fountain. When we were aliens and strangers, he made us to be a part of his holy people and his beloved nation, and built us into the living temple which is his church. When we were morally naked before God, unable to cover the shame and filth of our own unrighteousness, he clothed us with himself in baptism and put his own righteousness upon us. When we were sick in our sinfulness, he bestowed on us the medicine of immortality - his own life-giving body and precious blood, given and shed for the remission of sins. When we were slaves of Satan, he set us free with the glorious liberty of the children of God, in whose mansions we have an eternal home, which he has prepared for us.
Our works for Christ are carried out by us in faith, but they are imperfect. Our compassion for the poor and needy is a part of what we are as Christians, but it is impure. Our love for others is there, but it is a pale reflection of what it should be.
But Christ’s work for us and for our redemption was and is perfect. His compassion for us and his desire to save us was and is pure. His love for us and for all his people shines brightly and warmly, now and forever. Because of his great work for us, his great compassion for us, and his great love for us, we who cling to him in faith, and who are clothed in his righteousness, will stand before him on judgment day without fear.
St. Paul comforts us in this way in his epistle to the Romans: “Jesus our Lord...was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
As we humbly yet expectantly await the day of Christ’s visible return, we known that Christ is already present in the means of grace, to which he continually draws us, to forgive our sins and to preserve and strengthen us in our faith in him. And we know that he is also already present in the needs of our brothers and sisters, to which he also continually draws us, guiding and prompting us to those works of mercy through which we exercise our love for him.
Jesus warns that on judgment day the unrighteous and wicked “will go away to eternal punishment.” But he also promises - to you and to me - that those who are righteous - righteous in the righteousness of Christ - will go “to eternal life.” Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
20 November 2005 - The Sunday of the Fulfillment - Matthew 25:1-13
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
During his earthly ministry our Lord very often explained and illustrated the truths of his kingdom in the form of parables. These parables were stories drawn from earthly human experience, but they always pointed to a higher heavenly reality. And they always pointed, in one way or another, to Christ himself.
Today we have heard one of the more familiar of these stories, the parable of the ten virgins. One of the traditions in Ukraine, where I lived for several years, is that the attendants in a wedding party must always be single, unmarried people. There are no matrons of honor in Ukraine, only maids of honor and bridesmaids. The Jews of the first century followed a similar custom. In the parable, the ten virgins are attendants, or bridesmaids, for a wedding. The parable is set in a situation in which a man and woman have already been publicly and officially betrothed. The virgins or bridesmaids are now waiting for the beginning of the wedding celebration, when they, together with the bride, the bridegroom, and the bridegroom’s attendants, will go formally to the bridegroom’s home for the festivities. In this parable the bridegroom represents Christ, and the virgins represent the church as it waits for Christ’s return.
The Christian church is portrayed in this story in such a way as to accentuate the personal and individual nature of the relationship that we each have with our Savior. The virgins are, of course, presented as a collective group. Externally they are all waiting together for the coming of the bridegroom, and externally they are all equipped with a lamp to be used in the wedding procession. To an outside observer there would not be a visible difference among them. But the virgins are nevertheless distinguished from each other in the parable in a very important way.
Five of the virgins are wise or thoughtful, as they wait for the coming of the Lord, while five are foolish, and are fundamentally unprepared for his coming. Half of their number has a fully adequate supply of oil, ready to be used for the illumination of the lamps whenever the bridegroom appears, while the other half has no such supply. Those in the second category have their lamps, and appear to be ready to use them, but the lamps are basically empty, and they have no reservoir of oil from which the lamps can be filled.
The wise or prudent virgins have in their possession the oil of God’s saving grace. They are those who not only identify themselves as Christians, but actually are Christians, and are known by the Lord. The lamps of their outward religious practice are filled with the reality of the Lord’s presence. The spiritual oil inside their lamps or storage jars is not outwardly visible, but it is surely there, ready to be lit. The wise bridesmaids do not only claim to have faith, but they genuinely do believe the words and promises of God. They are filled with the invisible but very real life of God. They are ready for the coming of the bridegroom, on the day of the consummation and fulfillment of all things.
The foolish virgins, by comparison, are “waiting” for the bridegroom only superficially. Their seeming preparedness is a pretense. They are devoid of the Lord’s grace. They claim to be Christians, but they are not. The lamps of their outward religious practice are empty. They are hypocrites, who externally associate themselves with the church, but they themselves do not have true faith in the true God. Perhaps they acknowledge the idea of God and of God’s existence, but they have not actually listened to the Lord’s Word, or believed him when he has spoken to them. They seem ready for the coming of the bridegroom, on the day of the consummation and fulfillment of all things, but they are not. They do not really know him. And he does not know them.
Is there perhaps someone here today who thinks that he or she might be able to receive some kind of supernatural or heavenly benefit simply by being physically present with the members of this congregation during a worship service, or by maintaining merely an external association with the church? Is there perhaps someone here today who thinks that he or she is probably ready for the return of Christ - or for a personal passing into the next world at death - on the basis of only an outward connection with people who are waiting for the Lord? Is there perhaps someone here today whose lamp of religious observance, while externally like everyone else’s, is actually, and secretly, empty? If there is, today is the day to put an end to this sad and deadly pretense. Please keep listening, as if your life depended on it, because it does.
Notice also what the foolish virgins tried to do, when they heard that the bridegroom was on his way and would soon arrive. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’”
Salvation cannot be borrowed from someone else. Saving faith is not the kind of thing that can pass, like a communicable spiritual virus, from the soul of one person to the soul of another. One of the issues that was addressed by the Lutheran Reformers in the sixteenth century was the commonly-held belief that the merits of the saints can be transferred to others for their spiritual benefit, through the granting of indulgences and similar ecclesiastical mechanisms. In its correction of this misguided notion, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession cited some comments that had been made by the church Father Hilary of Pointiers, on the parable of the ten virgins.
In the words of St. Hilary: “Since the foolish virgins could not go out with their lamps extinguished, they begged the wise ones to lend them oil. These latter replied that they could not give it because there might not be enough for all. That is, no one can be helped by the works and merits of another, because it is necessary for each one to buy oil for one’s own lamp.”
I remember a conversation I had one time with a man who almost never went to church. I encouraged him to go. He replied that his wife went to church on behalf of his family, so he didn’t feel the need to go himself. I remember talking on another occasion with a woman who almost never went to church, and I invited her to attend. In response she expressed the idea that she felt herself to be spiritually “covered” or “safe” by the fact that her father had been a preacher. St. Hilary has something to say from God’s Word to this kind of presumption: “No one can be helped by the works and merits of another, because it is necessary for each one to buy oil for one’s own lamp.”
As has already been mentioned, Jesus is in this parable in the form of the bridegroom. Jesus is the one who will come in glory on the last day to usher in the new heavens and the new earth, and to fulfill all the promises that he has made to us who await him. But Jesus is also referred to, somewhat obliquely, in another place in this parable.
The wise virgins tell the foolish ones: “go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” Who is it who dispenses to us the oil of God’s salvation? Who makes the grace of God available to those who repent of their sins, and who yearn to be filled with his love and forgiveness? It is the Lord Jesus Christ.
He speaks messianicly through Isaiah the prophet in these words: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
And don’t be confused or discouraged by the reference in today’s text to selling and buying, as if the price that must be paid for the Lord’s oil, and for the Lord’s sustenance in general, is a price that we ourselves bring to the transaction. Listen to our Savior’s gracious invitation, also spoken through Isaiah, to those whose lamps and souls are empty, and indeed to all Christians who yearn in faith to be filled and refilled with God’s overflowing mercy: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.”
The price that Christ charges for his spiritual oil, his heavenly bread, and his living water, is a price that he himself has already paid with his perfect life, his atoning death, and his glorious resurrection. He therefore “sells” us his salvation without charging us anything for it, and we “buy” it from him without paying anything for it. Christ gives what he gives in his living and truthful Word, and we receive what we receive by believing that Word. “Give ear and come to me,” he says; “hear me, that your soul may live.”
In the parable, by the time the foolish virgins went to get their own oil, it was too late. But for us today, for whom the end has not yet come, it is not too late. He who sells oil - he who gives the oil of salvation for which he has already paid - is with us now in his Gospel and sacraments, inviting, offering, filling. He is getting us ready, and keeping us ready, for his return.
We are not made ready for the coming of Christ merely by being physically present in this congregation while the Word of God is preached in our presence. But we are made ready - completely and fully ready - when the Word of God touches our minds and hearts; when it prompts each of us to repent of our sins; and when it draws each of us to Christ in faith. God is in this way, here and now, filling and refilling our lamps. God is thereby granting us a place among the wise virgins.
Dear friends, hear the Lord today. Listen to him when he says in his holy absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.” Listen to him when he says, “This is my body, which is given for you”; “this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.” Listen and be filled. Buy without money. Receive what the Lord gives.
And when the bridegroom arrives, the virgins who are ready will go in with him to the wedding banquet. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
23 November 2005 - Thanksgiving Eve - 1 Chronicles 16:34, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 107:1, Psalm 118:1, Psalm 118:29, Psalm136:1
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” This phrase is found in six places in Holy Scripture: in First Chronicles chapter 16, in Psalm 106, in Psalm 107, twice in Psalm 118, and in Psalm 136. God apparently wants us to notice it, and be guided by it. It is therefore fitting for us to consider this oft-repeated phrase from God’s Word this evening, as we begin our observance of our nation’s day of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday. We are accordingly prompted to consider on this occasion the state of affairs of our country, and to reflect on the blessings of God that have been bestowed on our society and government during the past year. But perhaps as we do reflect on our country’s current condition, and on what we have experienced during the past year, we would not immediately think of blessings received or benefits enjoyed. Maybe our minds would first carry us to thoughts of the trials and difficulties that have been experienced instead.
The United States is deeply involved in a prolonged war in Iraq, about which the citizens and lawmakers of our country are becoming more and more divided, as demonstrated by the cut-throat politics and strident rhetoric that we are currently seeing and hearing in Washington. The international terrorism inspired by fanatical Islam continues to effect us, keeping us ever alert and tense. The states that surround the Gulf of Mexico have been hit by one destructive storm after another, bringing death and destruction on a scale that has not been seen in America for a very long time. Our news reports seem to be increasingly filled with accounts of shockingly perverse and brutal crimes, committed by adults against children, and by children against their own parents.
It may seem as if our country, over the past several months, has been experiencing curses from God, and not blessings. We may be tempted to think that there is not much to be thankful for as a society and as a nation, as we ponder the things that have been going on of late. But let’s get a bit of an historical perspective on these matters.
There are perhaps three key dates for us to consider in regard to the history of our tradition of observing a day of national Thanksgiving. Most people trace the roots of this tradition back to the Thanksgiving observance that was held by the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth Colony in 1621. We are no doubt familiar with the story of the Indians and Pilgrims sitting down together in peace, to enjoy on this occasion a dinner of venison and wild turkey. A shared meal like this did occur, but it was not the focus of the Thanksgiving observance. The actual thanksgiving took place in church, as the colonists were gathered for worship.
And the main thing for which the Pilgrims were thankful was their survival. Their gratitude to God was a no-frills gratitude. They were grateful just to be alive. During the preceding year the settlers had lost half of their number to disease. Fifty percent of the passengers who had come over on the Mayflower had died. This had touched every family except one. Children had lost their parents. Parents had lost their children. Husbands had lost their wives. Wives had lost their husbands. Entire households had been wiped out. But on the occasion of the first harvest, the Pilgrims gathered together to thank God for his blessings. These Christian believers remembered the words of Holy Scripture: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”
Thanksgiving became an officially-recognized nationwide annual observance beginning in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in that year calling for a day of national Thanksgiving, asking all citizens of the United States, on the day appointed, to remember the blessings of the Lord and to thank him for them. But this took place in the midst of the most severe national crisis that our country has ever faced. The year 1863 was smack dab in the middle of the Civil War, in which Americans were killing Americans in appalling numbers. The very existence of the nation, and of its constitutional government, was in the balance. But the Christian believers in the United States heeded the request of their President, and remembered the words of Holy Scripture: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”
Thanksgiving Day has been observed on a certain day in the season of autumn every year since 1863, but the holiday was not always held according to a predictable schedule. Over the years this created confusion. The practice of having Thanksgiving Day always on the fourth Thursday of November was standardized by Congress in December of 1941. The government considered it to be a matter of some importance at that time that everyone would be able to know the one correct day, so that it could be observed by everyone.
But we all know what was going on in December of 1941. The United States had just been drawn into the bloodiest war of the century, and perhaps of all centuries. The Pacific battleship fleet had been decimated just days earlier at Pearl Harbor. On the west coast there was a real fear of a foreign invasion - something that hadn’t happened in the United States since the War of 1812. But in this setting, with all of its uncertainties, the Christian believers in the United States appreciated the action of their representatives in Washington. And when the newly-standardized day of Thanksgiving arrived the following year, they remembered the words of Holy Scripture: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”
Truly, the Lord is always to be thanked, because the Lord is always good. The Lord does not stop being who he is when family members die, when a country experiences severe internal upheavals, or when a nation is threatened by its enemies. These kinds of things don’t change God.
But sometime they do change us. Sometimes they cause us to remember what we might otherwise tend to forget: that we cannot ultimately rely on ourselves for our daily bread; that we cannot ultimately preserve life and harmony among ourselves by our own wisdom; and that we cannot ultimately keep the world at peace by our own mortal strength. Our family, our country, and indeed the whole earth, cannot and will not endure at all without the Lord’s gracious protection and sustaining providence.
In his infinite wisdom the Lord allows trials and difficulties to come our way, to chastise us when we need to be chastised, and to refocus our attention on him. During such times we are, of course, encouraged by the divine promise, from the epistle to the Romans, that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” But it is especially in times of trial and difficulty that our Lord also reminds us of these words: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”
And let’s not fail to notice the last phrase in this sentence: “his steadfast love endures forever.” Forever. The Lord does bestow on us and on all people the many temporal and temporary blessings that we enjoy in this earthly life. We confess in the Large Catechism that God “cares for us in all our needs and faithfully provides for our daily sustenance,” and that “he gives and provides these blessings bountifully, even to the godless and rogues.” But there are also eternal blessings from the Lord that the godless and rogues sadly do not enjoy. We who know Christ are thankful on this day for those blessings as well, and indeed we are thankful for them more so than for anything else.
The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever, because the gift of Jesus Christ endures forever. When the Father sent the Son into the world, God was thereby giving himself to us. Christ’s life was lived for us. Christ’s blood was shed for us. Christ’s victory over the grave was won for us.
Through the reconciling message of the Gospel, and through the sacraments that Jesus has instituted for the forgiveness of our sins, God continues to reveal his goodness to us and to bless us. In addition to his provision of daily bread for the sustenance of our earthly bodies, according to his will and wisdom, God in his Word freely gives us the living bread that comes down from heaven. In addition to his preservation of our earthly families, according to his will and wisdom, God in his Word lovingly bestows on us an adoption as his own dear children. In addition to his protection of our earthly country, according to his will and wisdom, God in his Word powerfully preserves his holy church in its faith and mission to the end of time.
For all these things we are, in faith, truly thankful. In times of peace and in times of war, we are thankful. In times of comfort and in times of suffering, we are thankful. In times of prosperity and in times of want, we are thankful. In times of security and in times of danger, we are thankful. “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
27 November 2005 - Advent 1 - Isaiah 64:1-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The text is a portion of the Old Testament lesson that was read a few minutes ago from Isaiah chapter 64, plus one additional verse. We read from the English Standard Version:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence - as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil - to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”
So far the text.
Sin is a serious problem. It is without a doubt the most serious problem that is faced in every moment of every day, by every member of the human race. The word “sin” literally means a missing, or falling short, of the mark. And the mark or divine standard that sinful humanity misses is described by Isaiah in the words of his prayer addressed to the Lord: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.”
The righteous standard that God has established for us and for all humanity begins with the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” In spite of Satanic lies and human self-deception, Isaiah reminds us that no one in history has actually ever heard or seen any god except the one holy God who made all things, and who alone deserves our worship and obedience. “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you...” But the acknowledgment of the one true God that is demanded of us is not simply an intellectual assent to religious dogma, or a philosophical monotheism, which lacks a deeper impact on character and conscience. The faith that God requires is a deeply devoted faith that waits on the Lord’s intervention, and eagerly yearns for God to be active among us according to his Word. “...no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.”
And God’s Law requires not only the right faith, but also the right works, with the right motive. “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” Isaiah is not talking about deeds that have the appearance of righteousness on the outside, even while the heart of the person is far from the Lord. God says that he will meet, and have fellowship with, those who joyfully work righteousness, without selfish or prideful motives, and without cynicism or indifference. And God expects us always to compare our thoughts and deeds to the standard of his Law, and not just to compare ourselves to each other, and congratulate ourselves when we think that our behavior is better than that of notorious cads, miscreants, and criminals. We are to remember the Lord in his ways, and carry out true works of righteousness accordingly.
The sinful human race truly does fall far short of what God has a right to expect of us, and what he does in fact expect of us. Isaiah goes on to examine the ramifications of this failure from three different angles.
“We have all become like one who is unclean,” he declares, “and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Sinful humanity is morally filthy and repugnant to the holiness of the Lord. The terms that Isaiah uses to describe this are intended to call to mind the horrors of leprosy and similar diseases, and the distasteful necessities of feminine hygiene in the ancient world. As twenty-first century Americans, we are influenced by the assumptions of Humanism and the so-called Enlightenment much more than we probably realize. So, our immediate reaction to the application of this kind of imagery to us would likely be, “Oh, I’m not that bad!” But that’s just another way of saying, “Oh, God is not that holy!” Well, he is that holy. And we are that bad.
Isaiah also describes how completely disconnected from God we are according to our sinful nature. “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” A leaf that is connected to its tree is green and filled with life, while a leaf that has fallen away from its life-source is brown, dry, and dead. Our race in its sinfulness has fallen away from the God who created us. The continuing existence of fallen humanity’s religious imagination, filling the world with false religions and misguided belief systems, does not negate the deeper truth that St. Paul teaches in his epistle to the Ephesians, where he tells us that unbelievers are spiritually dead in the trespasses and sins in which they walk.
And of course, sinful humanity does not honor God or his name. With anguish Isaiah continues his prayer: “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” God judges sin, and hides his face from its corruption and offensiveness. What else would we expect from the divine Being about whom the heavenly seraphim constantly sing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”?
But sometimes God does things that we do not expect. Isaiah prayerfully reminds the Lord of his past mercies to Israel: “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” Isaiah also prays, and we in repentance likewise pray today: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence - ...to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
Throughout the centuries of Old Testament history, God did reveal his forgiving and protecting presence among his people in many unexpected ways. But when the fullness of the time had come, God profoundly rent the heavens beyond any human imagination and expectation. The eternal divine Son - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - “for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” He miraculously came among us and became one of us, in order to destroy sin and its power over us.
Remember the prayer that Isaiah offered: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” These words convict us because of our shortcomings and failures, but they vindicate and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ! Jesus, our brother according to the flesh, always waited in confidence for the will of the Father to be accomplished, and he always submitted himself to the divine plan for our salvation. Christ’s righteousness was absolutely pure and perfect, in everything that he ever thought, said, or did. The measure of his inner joy and delight in the Law of God was also without limit. And Jesus always remembered the ways of God - that is, his own divine ways - throughout the entirety of his earthly ministry. He never forgot who he was, and what his mission was.
Isaiah prays, and we pray with him: “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” Shall we? Yes, we shall! We are saved because God himself has saved us.
By his Law God has humbled us and corrected us. And God’s Law continues to humble and correct us, insofar as the sinful nature, with its rebelliousness, still clings to us. But the Gospel of God, as it is proclaimed to us and as we believe it, unites us to Christ and clothes us with Christ’s righteousness, so that his flawless obedience to his Father is now credited to us. The washing of regeneration in Holy Baptism gives us a new nature, formed in the image of Christ, and ever clinging to Christ in life and hope. Our Savior’s forgiveness removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west - that is, to infinity.
In Christ God reveals his heart of hearts to us, and shows himself to be our Father. We again pray with Isaiah: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”
It is important for us to know how serious our sin problem is, and to admit that everything the Scriptures say about this problem is true, so that we can also know how wonderful the Lord’s love toward us really is. God’s solution to mankind’s sin problem in Christ is so great, so thorough, and so complete, that it fills us with an appreciation and love for him that cannot be expressed. As great as our sin may be, and as deep as it may run, God’s mercy is greater, and his compassion is deeper. In the life of Christ, lived out on our behalf, no demand directed by God toward the human race was left unsatisfied. No requirement issued by God to the human race was left unmet. No goal set by God for the human race was left unreached. Jesus was as sinless as sinless can be. And everything that Jesus did, he did for you. Everything. For you.
In this new Advent season we once again wait on the Lord in a special way, remembering his many promises, and remembering his pledge always to keep his promises. And we rejoice in these promises, knowing that in them our sins are all forgiven. Truly, in Jesus, God does not remember iniquity forever.
“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
30 November 2005 - Wednesday in Advent 1 - John 8:37, 40a, 44, 47, 51-54, 56-59
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
On various occasions during his earthly ministry, Jesus described his own saving work in reference to the words and deeds of certain central figures in the Old Testament. At other times he expressed his approval to such references when they were made by others. During the next four weeks we will consider four of these occasions. Tonight we will consider Abraham, the man who listened to God. Next Wednesday we will consider Moses, the man who spoke for God. After that we will consider David, the man who ruled for God. And finally we will consider Jonah, the man who lived for God.
St. James reminds us in his epistle that Abraham, uniquely, was called “a friend of God.” Abraham was a friend of God because he knew God. He knew God because he believed God. And he believed God because he listened to God.
But God told Abraham a lot of seemingly unbelievable things during his lifetime. For example, when Abraham was sojourning in Haran - a fairly well-developed city - the Lord told him to leave, and to go to a land that he would show him. He didn’t tell Abraham then where this new land was; he just told to leave the security and familiarity of Haran, and to go out by faith to another place that would be made known to him in the future.
How many of us would be willing to listen to something like that? How many of us would be willing to leave what we know, and go forth to something that we do not know? Well, Abraham was willing. He listened to the voice of God, and did as God told him, knowing that God’s will is always best, and that God can always be trusted.
And in Genesis chapter 15 we see another example of Abraham’s willingness to listen to the voice of God, and to believe, against all odds, that what God says is always true. The Lord made a promise to Abraham: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. ... So shall your offspring be.” This was a promise made to a childless man, whose wife was barren. It might almost seem like a cruel and painful jest to say something like that to a man like this. We might almost expect Abraham to have become angry at these words, and to take offense at them. But that was not his reaction. The sacred text tells us, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Abraham believed the Lord’s promise, and by believing it, he experienced its blessings. In the temporal circumstances in which he then found himself, Abraham had no offspring as of yet. But in his faith - a faith that God would do what God had said he would do - Abraham already at that moment began his enjoyment of God’s great favor toward him. In reckoning Abraham’s faith as righteousness, the Lord thereby took Abraham into covenantal fellowship with himself. Abraham was one with God by faith. The Word of the living God lived in him, and he lived in that Word.
Later, in Genesis chapter 17, the Lord more fully expounds to Abraham the meaning of this covenantal relationship, and the meaning of the promise that he has made. He says: “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” In chapter 22 the Lord adds this: “...in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice." And St. Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, explains the ultimate messianic meaning of the promises that were made to Abraham: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”
Christ, according to his human nature, is the definitive offspring or seed of Abraham. And the blessing that was promised to all nations through Abraham finds its true fulfillment in Christ, the definitive son of the Abrahamic covenant, who came to be the Savior of all men, and to take away the sin of the whole world. But Christ is not only the covenantal son of Abraham. According to who he was before he clothed himself in humanity in the womb of Abraham’s descendant Mary, Christ was and is the Lord Jehovah himself.
And so, when Jesus speaks of Abraham, and of the faith of Abraham, he is speaking about the man to whom he had revealed his Word, and with whom he had established a covenant. He is speaking about his own friend, who had listened to him and believed him. “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day,” Jesus said; “He saw it and was glad.” And when Jesus brought his remarks to a culmination by saying, “before Abraham was, I am,” this was all that the religious leaders with whom he was disputing could stand. By saying this, he explicitly identified himself, in his person, as the Lord Almighty himself, according to his covenantal name: Yahweh - Jehovah - “I am who I am.”
Abraham’s life served as a prophetic foreshadowing of certain aspects of the life of Christ. His willingness to receive God’s message, and to submit to his will, pointed ahead, albeit imperfectly, to the relationship that Jesus had with his Father. Within the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Christ, according to his divine nature, is very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. The Son is begotten of the Father from eternity. His harmony and unity with the Father is unspeakably perfect and complete. He said: “I speak of what I have seen with my Father.” He also said that he had told people the truth the he heard from God.
In his incarnation, and during the time of his humiliation on the earth, Jesus, as the Son of the Father in human flesh, carried out his Father’s will for our salvation perfectly and absolutely. Even in the agony of Gethsemane, in which we see a manifestation of our Lord’s natural human desire to live, this desire was immediately and without hesitation brought into submission to the divine will for man’s redemption. Christ was willing to drink of the cup of suffering that needed to be drunk on our behalf, and he did drink it.
There was no gap between what the Father wanted done, and what Jesus did in fact do. There was no shortcoming between the will of the Father and Christ’s fulfillment of that will. The Father speaks, commands, and sends; the Son listens, obeys, and goes. He goes to a land that the Father will show him. He goes to a cross and a grave. He goes to a kingdom - a kingdom in which he reigns - that will have no end.
Proverbs 14 observes that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” The kind of things that God spoke to Abraham, and the kind of things that the Father spoke to the Son, probably would not “seem right” to our way of thinking. But if we would follow what seems right to us, and not what is right according to God’s will and plan, we would see that its end is the way to death. Abraham followed in the way of the Lord, going to where he was sent. Jesus followed in the way of the Father, going to where he was sent. And we too are invited to follow in the way of God, which is the way of life.
As with Abraham, God tells us some seemingly unbelievable things. And by faith we listen to him, when he tells us that our sins are forgiven, and that the wall of separation between God and man has been torn down in Christ. We listen to him when he tells us that our transgressions have been washed away, and that our citizenship is now in heaven. We listen to him, and believe him, when he speaks the Gospel of justification by faith to us. And, as with Abraham, our faith is counted to us as righteousness.
Again, we hear what St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Galatians, chapter 3: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” And a little further on in the chapter he continues: “...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
19 November 2006 - Second-Last Sunday of the Church year- Mark 13:24-31
In the Gospel reading from St. Mark for last Sunday, and also for today, Jesus is telling his disciples about frightening and extraordinary events that were to come. Last Sunday in particular, he described the events that would lead up to, and include, the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple at the hands of a pagan Roman legion. This did in fact happen in the year 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus predicted it. And we know from church history that the Christians in Jerusalem at that time were spared the brutalities that the Roman army inflicted on the hapless victims of their attack. The Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem heeded the Lord’s warnings about what was going to happen. When they saw the signs of impending destruction about which he had spoken 40 years earlier, they fled the city and region while it was still possible to do so. In this way they were able to escape from the butchery and enslavement that the other inhabitants of Jerusalem experienced.
In today’s reading, Jesus goes on to describe what will happen at a certain point “after that tribulation.” He declares that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Our Lord’s listeners might have thought that he was here describing things that would occur in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. But he doesn’t say that these other occurrences would happen right away. And, they did not. We are still waiting for the second part of the Lord’s prediction to take place.
For the people who were alive when Jesus predicted the destruction of the city and temple, and who then saw it happen, it may not have been very difficult for them to believe that the other events that Jesus described would also occur. He had, after all, proven his reliability as a prophet in a way that they could see for themselves. They had actually experienced the fulfillment of the first part of his prophecy. They knew, therefore, that these other events could likewise happen at any time.
But what about us? How fervently do we believe that the things Jesus talks about will really happen? Do we live each day as if it might be our last, and the world’s last? Or do we think and act as if the world will continue indefinitely into the future just as it is now? Do we assume that we will always have plenty of time to take care of the things that should be taken care of before we depart from this world? Do we put off apologizing to those we’ve hurt; do we put off becoming serious about our relationship with God; do we put off repenting of sins we haven’t really faced up to as we should?
We didn’t see the destruction of Jerusalem. For us, so many centuries later, the Lord’s predictions have become “cold,” as it were. Does God really expect us to act as if the end could come tomorrow, or even today? After so much time we’ve become insensitive to the urgency of his words. After all, almost 2000 years have passed since these words were uttered. And can we really be sure about these things? What he describes is so far removed from our experience.
Well, in regard to the supposed elapsing of so much time between the prediction and the fulfillment, let’s listen to the apostle Peter in his second epistle: “...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. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come...”
Let’s also listen to the parable that the Lord tells about the events he was predicting, and about our watchfulness regarding them. He says: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
A fig farmer - and indeed any crop farmer - is able to tell what season it is, and what season is coming, from the condition of his plants. Through repeated observation, he has learned to read those biological signs which testify to what is about to happen in the plant’s annual life cycle. It would be inconceivable for someone familiar with fig trees, and with their life cycle, not to conclude from the emergence of fig leaves that summer is at hand. It is a certainty.
And the destruction of Jerusalem, with the events surrounding it, was and is, as it were, the branches of human history becoming tender and putting out their leaves. As man measures time this happened a long time ago, but as God measures time it is and continues to be a very contemporary and relevant testimony of the impending return of Christ. Christ will definitely return. The heavens and the earth will definitely be shaken and profoundly transformed. As Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away.”
But in a practical way, how can our faith and expectation of Christ’s return be kept as strong and vivid as it should be? By its very nature, as a one-time historical event, this is something that has never happened before. Therefore, we cannot develop a sense of confidence that it is going to happen based on observing previous patterns of human history. How, then, can we be certain about this, in the way that a fig farmer is certain that summer is at hand when the fig leaves once again emerge? By the word of Christ! Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The word of Christ, which is living and contemporary, has the power to keep our faith in his promises alive. Unlike the physical observations we may make of the natural life cycle of a fig tree, the working of Christ’s word in our hearts and minds is a supernatural activity, and it gives us a supernatural confidence. But it gives us a real confidence. The prophecies of Christ are not just a distant voice echoing to us faintly through the centuries. The predictions of Christ are not just a distant memory buried in the recesses of our human mind. Rather, these words are alive today, and the Holy Spirit works through them to instill in us the same sense of urgency and hopeful expectancy that was instilled in those who originally heard them.
Jesus is an historical figure, and his words, spoken almost 2000 years ago, do have an historical character. But Jesus is also the resurrected, living Lord of his church, with us today, here and now; speaking to us today, here and now. He is the ever-present guardian and preserver of our faith. In our Baptism his words have come to us, in all of their faith-creating power, and they will remain with us. The vitality of his promises will not become “cold.” His holy and divine voice, as it sounds forth through the Scriptures and through the public ministry of his church, will not be silenced. The things that Jesus tells us will happen, will indeed happen. We know this, because he is here right now, hidden but truly present in his word, assuring us that it is so. And we can believe him, because he is the way, the truth, and the life, and cannot lie. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
And of course, as Jesus is here among us to teach us and strengthen us, he is not concerned only with reminding us about the end of the world, and about what will happen on judgment day. He is also concerned with getting us ready for that day. When he speaks in the Ten Commandments to your conscience about your sins - especially the secret ones and the deeply troubling ones - he wants you to listen and heed his voice, while there is still time to heed it. He is warning you: do not let sin eat away at you and strangle you and fester within you; do not delay your repentance; do not put off dealing with this spiritual danger until tomorrow. Tomorrow may not come. Again, quoting St. Peter, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
And when Jesus then speaks his message of forgiveness to your sorrowful and penitent conscience, he thereby removes from you your unspoken fear of facing him at his return, and replaces that fear with a joyful and eager longing to be with him forever. He doesn’t demand this kind of hope and expectancy from you. He gives this hope and expectancy to you, when he washes away all of your sins, with all of their guilt and shame. You are forgiven for the sake of Christ. In his forgiveness, you are ready for his return. If he would return visibly to the earth to judge the living and the dead in the next instant, you, as a forgiven child of God, clothed with the righteousness of Christ, are ready.
But in humility let’s pray to the Lord that, at the very least, he delay his return for just a few more minutes. Because there is one more very special way in which Jesus’ words get us ready for eternity, that many of us are about to experience. The words by which he speaks his body and blood into the bread and wine, and the words by which he invites communicants to partake of his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, are also words that remain as true today as they were when he originally spoke them. These words, too, will not pass away. In the Lord’s Supper he comes to us objectively, by the power of his living word, in the bread and wine. And those who participate in this sacrament will always experience a foretaste of the second coming of Christ.
That’s one of the reasons why St. Paul is so adamant in his warnings against an unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper. Everybody who receives the sacrament has an encounter with Christ, whether they are genuinely prepared for it or not. The apostle reminds us that those who commune without true faith, and without discerning the Lord’s body, are thereby sinning against the body and blood of Christ, and receive the sacrament to their judgment. For unbelievers and hypocrites, their participation in the Supper is therefore a foretaste of the judgment that will be poured out on them when the Lord returns.
But for the disciples of Christ, who do repent of their sins and believe their Savior’s words, the body and blood of Christ gives them a blessed foretaste of the eternal fellowship with him that will be theirs in the joy and glory of the resurrection. The blood of Christ cleanses you from all sin. The body of Christ prepares you for the raising up of your own body on the last day. This solemn yet joyful encounter with Christ, as he comes to us hidden in the bread and wine, truly does help to prepare you in faith for the ultimate encounter that is yet to come, when he will be revealed to all and seen by all.
In these last days of sore distress | Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness
That pure we keep, till life is spent, | Thy holy Word and Sacrament.
Oh, grant that in Thy holy Word | We here may live and die, dear Lord;
And when our journey endeth here, | Receive us into glory there. Amen.