SERMONS - MAY 2007
6 May 2007 - Easter 5 - Revelation 21:1-7
I grew up in New York. Over the years, when I have told this to people in various parts of the country - and in various parts of the world - their assumption has usually been that I had grown up in New York City. But this is very far from the truth. I actually grew up in a very small town in New York State, which was probably inhabited by more cows than people.
New York City was about a hundred miles to the south. And to me, it was a very scary place. My family did go there occasionally to visit relatives, but as a child I was always a little bit scared during these trips. From news reports on television I was aware of the crime and violence of the city; the immorality and corrupting influences; the racial and ethnic tensions. And I wanted to stay as far away from those things as possible.
Of course, as a child my perspective was somewhat skewed. Life in the city was not as bad as it seemed. But even so, it is generally true that cities, as opposed to rural or country areas, do tend to attract - or engender - a higher percentage of the criminal element in society.
Where there are more people, there are more opportunities for the wicked to perpetrate their wickedness on others. The larger a city is, the more shadows there are in which unsavory and dangerous people can lurk. In this world, concentrations of sinful humanity inevitably result in intensifications of human sinfulness.
I have always wondered how much exposure the author of the song “America, the Beautiful” really had to American urban life, in view of the curious line which says: “Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears.” It would seem to me that many tears are shed in the alabaster cities of our country. There is much sadness in a big city.
And this is the way it has been for a very long time. London in the age of the Industrial Revolution was seed-bed of human misery and suffering. Imperial Rome, with its ruthless and immoral emperors and barbaric gladiatorial entertainments, was the home of much depravity. And even Jerusalem, the city of David, did not live up to its calling to be a special place for God’s habitation and honor. We think of its many idolatries in ancient times, and of its insurrections and injustices in the time of Christ. Remember that the innocent Son of God was literally killed by that city.
It is very interesting, therefore, to see the symbolic description of the glorified Church of Jesus Christ that is presented in today’s lesson from the Book of Revelation. When the resurrected people of God arrive at their ultimate destiny after judgment day, their eternal habitation is described in terms of a very large city. St. John writes: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
A little later in the chapter - beyond the scope of today’s lesson - the dimensions of this heavenly city are given: “The city lies foursquare; its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal.” Twelve thousand stadia is equivalent to 1,380 miles.
How many people will be living in this enormous city? And what kind of people will be there? In last Sunday’s reading from the Book of Revelation, we were given the answer to that question too. The saints in heaven are described in this way: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
And so, in a city that is virtually unmeasurable, will dwell a host of people who are virtually uncountable. If this were an earthly city, like other earthly cities, that kind of size, and that kind of population, would make for a very scary place. We can only imagine the crime rate of a fully-populated city that had a circumference of 5,520 miles!
But the power of God to make all things new turns all such expectations on their head! This city will be a wonderful and perfect place, where God’s people will joyfully dwell forever in their resurrected glory. And the reason why it will be so wonderful is because of who is at the heart of this city. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
All the things that make cities in this world to be frightening places, because of human sin, are completely eradicated from God’s city, because of his righteousness. The sadness of an earthly city will be replaced with God’s perfect comfort, according to which he wipes away every tear from the eyes of all its inhabitants. The violence and killing that cause so much fear in the large cities of today will be eliminated in the new Jerusalem, where there will be no more death or mourning.
The inter-personal alienation that is often experienced in the urban centers of our time will come to an end. In the holy city of God, “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
People from all nations will dwell together in the peace of Christ. There will be no more suspicions or tensions between individuals or groups of differing ethnic origins. Instead, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” will reside together in this city in absolute harmony.
This will be a great place to live for eternity. But not everyone will be welcome to live there. In the verse that immediately follows the cut-off point of today’s appointed lesson, we read these words: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable; as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars; their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
It’s ironic that the descriptions of those who will not enter this holy and beautiful city match up pretty well with those features of modern urban life that make the big cities of our time to be scary and fearful places. God turns the tables completely in the new heaven and the new earth. Unlike today, the wicked will be forbidden to be city-dwellers. Only those who are counted as righteous will be permitted to enter.
But when we hear the descriptions of those who are not welcome, don’t at least some of those descriptions hit a mark with us? How many of us are innocent of a charge of religious cowardice? Have we always confessed Christ bravely and boldly? Or, in fear of the mockery that we might receive from unbelievers, have we sometimes been silent when we should have spoken?
And considering what the Lord taught about sins of the heart being just as condemnatory as outward actions, how many of us have always refrained from murder, or from its equivalent - hatred in the heart? From sexual immorality, or from its equivalent - adulterous thoughts in the mind?
How many of us have kept our hearts and minds free from idolatry, so that we have never put our trust or confidence in something other than the Triune God? How many of us have been honest and upright in all of our words and actions, all the time?
If you are seen and judged by God to be a coward, or a murderer, or a sexually immoral person, or an idolater, or a liar, you are not welcome in this city. God will not have the sins of the cities of the old earth brought into the holy city of the new glorified earth. If God does not see you to be pure and clean - that is, to be morally as white as snow - you will be turned away.
Do you have a chance? Do I? I don’t think any of us could satisfy these criteria for admission and citizenship in God’s city. In ourselves, by our own moral efforts, we have no chance. We cannot make ourselves acceptable for entrance into this holy dwelling place.
But, we can be made acceptable by someone else. We can be made acceptable by the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Listen again to the description of those who are welcome to dwell with God: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
The whiteness of these people is not a whiteness that comes out of them, but it is a whiteness that is placed upon them. It is like a garment - a garment that Christ has made, woven from the perfection of his own life, and stitched together from the sufficiency of his own sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus makes this garment for you. Jesus is this garment!
And Jesus places this garment - he places himself - upon you. As you turn away in repentance from your cowardice, your hatred, your immoralities, your deceptions, and your idolatries, and as you turn in faith to Christ and cling to him, you are covered by him. You are clothed in a white robe.
And as you are preserved in your faith by your Savior’s Gospel and Sacraments, this white robe stays on you. By faith you are clothed in it - in this world, and in the next.
This does make a difference in how you spend your life now, as you wait for the new Jerusalem to descend. A Christian’s waiting for the consummation of all things is an active kind of waiting.
As the white robe of Christ covers over your sin, the Spirit of Christ, who lives within you, battles against your sin. He makes it harder and harder for you to enjoy the old way of living, according to the sinful patterns of the old cities on this earth.
In your thoughts and actions - your words and deeds - he makes you more and more like Christ. Experientially, he causes you to become what you are in Christ. He gradually transforms you.
But we don’t depend on this inner transformation, as necessary as it is. As we wait for the end of this age and for the beginning of the next, it is the white robe of Christ, pure and spotless, that gives us our hope. It is the white robe of Christ that gains us entrance into God’s holy city, and a place among God’s people.
At the end - or rather, at the new beginning - when Christ graciously brings us to this huge city, it will not be a frightening experience. It will instead be an exhilarating experience, when our own eyes behold what St. John beheld, and when our own ears hear what St. John heard.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Amen.
13 May 2007 - Easter 6 - John 16:23-33
In recent years, the phenomenon of Harry Potter has captured the imagination of a large number of America’s children. And I suppose not just children. Harry and his friends are likeable, up-and-coming sorcerers. As such, they always try to devise the proper magical incantation for any situation, by which they seek to take control of that situation and bring about a positive outcome.
Over the years, many Christian parents have been concerned about the popularity of Harry Potter. They have feared that these books and movies are creating an unhealthy interest in the occult among children, while sugar-coating the truly dark and demonic character of sorcery. And it is contrary to the Christian religion to believe that these kinds of incantations are available to us, to give us power over our circumstances, and to allow us to change our circumstances according to our wishes.
But what are we to think of the promises that Jesus makes in today’s text from the Gospel of John? Is he perhaps giving us a Christian “incantation” that we can use to get the things we want when we pray? He says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. ... Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” It almost seems as if the Lord is telling us that if we say the phrase “in the name of Jesus,” or something like that, when we request something in prayer, then we will get it.
We are actually warned away from such an interpretation by our Catechism. It reminds us in its explanation of the Second Commandment that “We should fear and love God, so that we do not...practice witchcraft...by His name, but call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.”
This is not a warning against flagrant Satanism, which is already covered by the First Commandment. It is, rather, a warning against using the name of God - and that includes the name of Jesus Christ - in a magical, manipulative way.
In summary, we don’t automatically get what we want just by saying “in the name of Jesus” when we pray. If God does not already want us to have something, we cannot make him give it to us by throwing a certain set of words at him. That’s not the way of true faith, and that’s not the way of true prayer.
In fact, Jesus warns us that when his name is placed upon us in baptism, and when we accordingly pray in his name and confess it before others, things will probably go worse for us in this life than they otherwise would. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. ... If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. ... But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
Having and using the name of Jesus is not a formula for success and prosperity in this world. It is, instead, a formula for being on the receiving end of this sinful world’s hatred and persecution. I wonder how the “Church Growth” consultants of our time would suggest that this be marketed to unbelievers. There are very few people in our pleasure-loving age who have a “felt need” for hatred and persecution.
Jesus tells his disciples in today’s text: “In the world you will have tribulation.” But Christians, too, are often unwilling to bear patiently the trials that are laid upon them in this world. They also want a religion that “works” for them, and that brings them happiness and success as the world would measure it.
We often act and speak as if we think that God owes us comfort, health, and justice. When we don’t experience these things, then we doubt God, and wonder why he is afflicting us with whatever it is we are facing. I suppose the fact that we so quickly and presumptuously complain about these trials is evidence of the weakness and immaturity of our faith, and of our need for these chastisements precisely so that our faith might be bolstered and refocused thereby.
Thomas a Kempis, the famous Medieval devotional writer, offers some observations that are just as pertinent to our time as they were to his own. He writes: “Jesus has many lovers of His kingdom of heaven, but He has few bearers of His cross. Many desire His consolation, but few desire His tribulation. He finds many fellows at eating and drinking, but finds few that will be with Him in His abstinence and fasting. All men would rejoice with Him, but few would suffer anything for Christ. Many follow Him to the breaking of His bread for their bodily refection, but few will follow Him to drink a draft of the chalice of His Passion. Many marvel and honor His miracles, but few will follow the shame of His cross.”
Asking God the Father for things “in the name of Jesus” is not a formula for getting what we want. It is not an incantation that we can repeat, in order to be able to eat, drink, and be merry in this life, courtesy of God. But if this is so, then what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name?
According to the Biblical understanding of the word “name,” a “name” refers to a lot more than just the term that we use to call someone, or to differentiate one person from others. Rather, according to the Scriptural view, an individual’s “name” includes everything by which he makes himself known to others.
The name of Jesus, then, is everything about him that he has made known to us in his Word, and that he has impressed upon our minds and hearts through his Gospel and Sacraments. When we believe in his “name,” therefore, we are believing in him, and in all the promises he has made to us concerning our salvation.
That’s why St. John says: “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” And in explaining to his readers and hearers why he had included in his Gospel the things that he did include, John also says this: “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
When you have the name of Jesus, you have Jesus himself and all his blessings. When you believe in the name of Jesus, you believe in his whole Gospel, and are a child of God.
There is no magic formula or incantation that we can recite when we pray in order to get what we want. But there is a name - a divine, holy, righteous, and forgiving name - which changes our standing before God when it is placed upon us, and which changes our hearts and minds when it is planted within us.
When the name of Christ is proclaimed to us, the righteousness of Christ is credited to us to cover over the stain of our sins. And as we receive this gracious proclamation in faith, we thereby also receive the right and privilege to approach God in prayer.
Primarily we do this with our hands and hearts open, to receive what he gives. But God also invites us humbly to lay our petitions before him. As we grow in our faith, the maturity of our life of prayer also grows.
As the name of Jesus imbeds itself ever deeper into our conscience, we think less and less about what we want, and we think more and more about what God might want us to have, for our true and lasting good. That’s why prayers that are offered in the name of Jesus are accompanied by a pledge from our Savior that they will be heard and granted.
A prayer motivated by greed, selfishness, or a love of luxury is not a prayer that is spoken in the name of Jesus, regardless of the formulations we may use. Such a prayer can have no guarantee of success. In fact, the only thing we can be sure of is that God is displeased by such a prayer, and may in fact chastise us for it.
But a prayer that is genuinely offered in the name of Jesus is a prayer that is offered from within the Christ-centered faith that God’s Spirit gives us, and from within the relationship that Christ has established with us. A prayer that is offered in the name of Jesus is a prayer that is shaped and molded by the Word of Jesus. It is a prayer that is brought to life within us by the new birth of our Baptism. It is a prayer that is nourished within us by the heavenly food of the Lord’s body and blood.
As Jesus warns, in this world we will have tribulation. Sometimes a lot, and sometimes a little, but tribulation in some measure there will always be. And this tribulation will come in various forms - sometimes through outward attacks and set-backs, and sometimes through inner struggles and temptations. But in one form or another, tribulation we will always have. We cannot pray it away.
But listen to what Jesus also says in the context of his remarks about the inevitability of tribulation: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
When in the midst of tribulation you pray in the name of Jesus for the peace that the world cannot give - the peace of a conscience that has been fully and completely forgiven by Christ - God the Father will grant that prayer! When in the midst of tribulation you pray in the name of Jesus that God’s Spirit would draw you ever closer to your Savior in a deep, mystical union, God the Father will grant that prayer! When in the midst of tribulation you pray in the name of Jesus for the assurance of your ultimate victory over sin and death through the power of Christ’s resurrection - by which he has indeed overcome the world and all its dark forces - God the Father will grant that prayer!
Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. ... Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Amen.
20 May 2007 - Easter 7 - John 17:20-26
On the night of his betrayal, our Lord prayed what is usually called his “high priestly prayer.” In this prayer he implored the blessing of his Father on the eleven faithful disciples who were gathered around him. These men had been with Jesus for three years, watching, and listening to, everything he did and said. But now a time of significant transition was upon them.
Before long Jesus would no longer be visibly present among his disciples. He was going to suffer and die for the sins of the world; he was going to rise again on the third day; and he was then going to ascend to the right hand of the Father’s glory. As a part of this transition the apostles will also emerge from their role as the chief students of Christ, and will begin to function as the first pastors and teachers of the Christian church. As they prepare to face these changes and these challenges, Jesus prays for them.
In the verses that precede today’s appointed Gospel text, Jesus prays: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them... But now I am coming to you... I have given them your word... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Jesus prays that the disciples would be preserved in their relationship with God, and that they would be preserved in their unity with each other. He also specifies the means of this preservation, namely the divine message that he has given them. The truth of God’s Word had established their unity, and only the truth of God’s Word could preserve it.
This may all be very interesting and even inspiring for us to read. But a personal connection between this prayer and each of us might not be immediately apparent - that is, not until we go on to read the part of the prayer that is quoted in today’s Gospel: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...” We start out listening to a prayer for the apostles, and now, all of a sudden, we are listening to a prayer for us! We, who believe in Jesus through the word of the apostles, are also included. Jesus is thinking about us, on whom the name of God has been placed in our Baptism.
The religion of the Druze, who live mostly in Lebanon, is a spin-off of Islam. But one thing about the Druze that is very different from Muslims is that they do not allow anyone to convert to their religion. If you are not born into the Druze religion, you cannot be a member.
Sometimes this kind of tribalism may infect various traditions of the Christian church too, even though it is a foreign concept there. For example, in the country of Poland proper, the conventional wisdom is that Poles are Roman Catholics and Germans are Lutherans. But in Silesia, a border region of the modern state of the Czech Republic which is inhabited mostly by ethnic Poles, the conventional wisdom is that Poles are Lutherans and Czechs are Roman Catholics.
In actuality, Christianity in any of its forms is not a religion into which somebody can be “born.” Likewise, no one is rightly excluded because of the circumstances of his birth.
Many of us were born into Christian families. But none of us were born as Christians. We were, rather, all born according to our old nature as fallen members of a fallen race. King David confesses in Psalm 51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” And as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Ephesians, we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
But you and I became children of grace when the Lord’s name was placed upon us in our Baptism. You and I were given a new nature before God when his name was given to us.
Some of the members of our parish were not born into Christian families. They didn’t grow up going to Sunday School or singing “Jesus Loves Me.” But they are full and equal members of our congregation now.
And the reason why is because at some point, by divine providence, God’s Word entered into their lives. The living message of God’s saving grace in Christ impacted their minds, and changed their hearts, so that they too became disciples of Jesus - in spite of the fact that they were not raised to be.
Today we celebrate the Confirmation of two young people in our congregation. They were each raised in a Christian family. And that is, to be sure, a great blessing, from which they have each benefitted. But their Confirmation is not based on the religious affiliation of their parents.
It is based on their own Baptism, which they now consciously embrace in repentance and faith for the salvation of their own souls. It is based on the instruction in God’s Word that they have received, and that they now publicly confess as their own personal conviction.
These new confirmands are also getting ready to participate in the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time. But again, their preparation for receiving the body and blood of the Lord is not focused on what any of their ancestors may or may not have believed. It is focused on the revealed Word of divine truth that they believe.
They and all communicants are invited to believe this Word as Jesus speaks his body and blood into the bread and wine of his Supper. They and all communicants are invited to believe this Word as Jesus also places the remission of sins before them in this Blessed Sacrament. And they and all communicants are invited to believe this Word as it prepares them to receive in a worthy manner what Christ lovingly and miraculously offers.
What we are witnessing today is a wonderful example of the fulfillment of Christ’s “high priestly prayer.” In Baptism - theirs and ours - we are brought into a spiritual union with God. In the confession of God’s Word - theirs and ours - we are preserved in unity with God’s church. This is the Word that was entrusted by Jesus to the apostles to be brought to the whole world, so that the whole world could hear it, and believe in Christ through it.
We are not talking here about an artificial, man-made spirituality. We are not talking about something that comes from the speculations and religious imagination of the unregenerate heart. This is a real relationship with the real God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - who descends to us, reveals himself to us in the person and work of Christ, and places his name upon us.
This is also not an artificial, man-made unity, based on a shared human indifference to concrete Biblical teaching, or on a mutually-felt human sentimentalism. It is a real divine unity - a humble and joyful unity - that is anchored down to what God himself says and does.
Jesus clearly shows himself not to be a “modern” man, as he teaches that people are spiritually joined to God when the revealed name of God is placed upon them. He shows himself to be out of step with the religious inclinations of the twenty-first century when he says that true spiritual unity comes from a common embracing of the saving truth proclaimed by his apostles to the human race.
“Modern” folks usually want to “customize” the God in whom they believe, according to their own personal configurations. Like ordering a new home computer, they leave out the components of the divine character that they figure they don’t need - or that would put a cramp in their self-indulgent lifestyle.
Likewise, the religious inclinations of the twenty-first century tend to be incompatible with the assertion that there is indeed objective truth, which has a claim on all humanity, and which God has made known in the Scriptures. In our time people usually want short-cuts to Christian unity. They want the desire for unity to become the basis for unity.
But Jesus doesn’t pray simply that his followers would have a desire for unity. He prays that we would be one as he and the Father are one. And in his prayer, he indicates how that can happen: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Whoever you are, and whatever your background may be, I can tell you this: It is the will of God that you would know and experience the forgiving grace of his Son Jesus Christ. It is the will of God that you would know and experience the inner peace that only his Spirit can give. It is the will of God that you would be and remain included in the living body of Christ. It is the will of God that by the working of the Holy Spirit in your minds and hearts, you would believe and confess what the apostles of Jesus proclaimed.
I can say this with confidence to all of you, even if I don’t know you, because it is true for all of you. Membership in God’s family is not a matter of a religious inheritance from previous generations. If you were not raised as a Christian, or if you are currently not a Christian, God still wants you to be a Christian. He wants to forgive your sins, and to be reconciled with you.
And, if you were raised by Christian parents, God wants you to understand that your family background is not what saves your soul. This is accomplished by God’s own grace, as brought to you in his Word and Sacrament, and as received by faith.
God’s Word is here for all of you today, right now, so that you can share in the true Christian unity for which Jesus prayed. Through the apostolic Gospel of Christ, who died for your sins and rose again to give you eternal life, God himself is speaking, inviting, forgiving, and restoring. What Jesus wanted for the original disciples, he also wants for you. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...” Amen.