SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2007
4 November 2007 - All Saints - Rev. 7:9-17
For generations upon generations, human beings in all cultures and countries have always had a keen interest in understanding where the spirits of the dead are, and what they are doing. In some primitive societies - and also in more advanced societies that have not completely shaken off their primitive roots - people often think that the spirits of the dead hover around the living - at least for a certain amount of time after death.
In Ukraine, where I lived for eight years, people who had recently lost a relative would leave a glass of vodka and a slice of bread out in the house, to make provision for at least a symbolic hospitality to the soul of the departed. Otherwise, it was thought, the dead person would become angry, and cause harmful things to happen to his or her inattentive and disrespectful relatives.
In America, the wide-ranging interest in seances, and in other forms of psychic contact with the spirits of the dead, show that we are often not that far removed from these more primitive ideas. There are entire cable television programs dedicated to the theme of bringing psychics to haunted houses, so that they can communicate with the ghosts who reside there, and perhaps persuade such disembodied souls to move on to another plane of existence.
Last year I spent a couple weeks in India. In India, of course, the Hindu population believes in what is called the transmigration of souls - or reincarnation. In their thinking, the spirits of the dead enter into another body, and continue on the pathway of their karma.
In America there are also a lot of people who believe in reincarnation. Those who suspect that they have lived before often like to go to hypnotists, in order to be led through a so-called “hypnotic regression,” which takes them back into the memories of their past lives.
And the empiricists and materialists of our age - those who believe that the scientific method and human reason are able to explain all of reality - also have their own theory about how and where the dead live on.
They don’t believe that the dead have any continuing conscious existence, since they define life only in terms of the physical molecules and chemical processes that, in the case of a dead body, have now disintegrated and come to an end. But with a certain measure of shallow sentimentality, they would say that the spirits of the dead do “live on,” in a sense, in the memories of those who loved them, or in the lives of those whom they had impacted during their lifetime.
Such people sometimes get interested in cryogenics - that is, the process of freezing a body immediately after death, with the hope that someday science will discover a way to cure whatever it was that killed the person, and also discover a way to reanimate a frozen corpse.
There are indeed plenty of options out there, for those who are curious to know where the spirits of the dead are now, and what they are doing. And what almost always drives this curiosity is a very personal concern - seasoned with fears and doubts - about what will happen to our spirits when we die.
Death is the great unknown - the highest mystery, and the greatest uncertainty of the human imagination. Everybody thinks about it, and everybody has some kind of idea about what it will be like.
In the midst of these various beliefs, and theories, and assumptions about the souls of the dead, the Bible speaks a message of certainty, hope, and comfort. We can know what the state of the dead is like - at least to a certain extent - because the Scriptures tell us where they are, and what they are doing. And in telling us this, the Scriptures also tell you - in a very personal way - where you will be, and what you will be doing, when the time of your passing comes.
Today’s lesson from the Book of Revelation gives us a description of heaven which we should all heed with reverent attention:
“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 all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”
As we noted last week, the Book of Revelation is - according to its own self-description - a book of signs and symbols. There is no doubt quite a bit in this passage that is symbolic in character.
For example, it is unlikely that there is a literal throne in the heavenly realm. God, in his divine nature, is a spirit, and doesn’t need a place to sit down. But an obvious meaning of the throne symbol in this vision is that it represents God in his sovereign, kingly power over all things. God - the ruler and supreme judge - is in heaven, and the saints of God are with him there.
Another symbolic element is the description of the white robes that the people in heaven are wearing. I doubt very much that the souls in heaven have need for literal clothing of any color. But the symbol of a white robe is very important, and very reassuring.
The elder who was speaking to John in this vision asked him, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” John replied, “Sir, you know.” And the elder then said, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
White is the color of purity and cleanliness. For sinful people like us, it is important for us to know that in eternity the corruption and dirtiness of our transgressions will be covered over by a righteousness that makes us pure and clean in the sight of God.
In the fallen condition in which we live out our life on earth, we cannot work our way into God’s favor, or make ourselves acceptable to him by our own efforts. The human race is too far gone for that.
If we are going to have a righteousness that is able to impress God, and that can be presented to God for his approval, we will need to get that righteousness from someone else. Those who face eternity clothed only in the stained garments of their own flawed righteousness will not be admitted into the presence of God’s holiness.
But in Christ, our divine Savior, and our brother according to the flesh, we do have the perfect and pure righteousness that we need. In our repentance - when our repentance is sincere and genuine - we cease and desist from all our futile attempts to clean ourselves up for God. And then, in our faith - as we cling to the words of forgiveness that Jesus speaks to us - we are clothed in his whiteness.
Our robe of righteousness - which has been washed spotless in the blood of the Lamb - is ample enough to cover all of our sins and imperfections, and it is sturdy enough to last for an eternity.
That’s the white robe that the saints of heaven are wearing as they stand in God’s presence. The Lamb of God, whom they worship, has taken away their sins, and has given them his own purity forever.
And the people in heaven are indeed continuously praising God and the Lamb. The activity of heaven is the activity of worship.
Our worship here on earth is an image and reflection of the perfect worship of heaven. As God’s Word is brought to us in this assembly on the Lord’s Day, and as that Word informs our faith and shapes our prayers, we are learning how to do what we will do forever in the Lord’s presence.
We are growing into an ever deeper appreciation of the fact that the salvation we enjoy is a salvation that is accomplished for us by God’s grace, and that is his gift to us. It is a salvation that belongs to God, so that we, who receive that salvation in faith, also belong to God.
The songs we sing on earth about this salvation get us ready to sing the songs of the heavenly liturgy. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! ... Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”
But the worship in which we are privileged to participate here on earth is not only a “practice session,” as it were, for the worship of heaven. Our worship, feeble and unimpressive as it may appear, is united already, by God’s grace, to the exuberant worship of the saints in heavenly glory.
We are united to these saints indirectly, though. We cannot see them, or converse with them. They now exist in a different realm than the one in which we live. But the Triune God, who is at the center of their worship, is also at the center of ours.
They and we are connected, in love and devotion, to the one Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. We are all together filled with his Spirit, who inspires and guides their praises and ours.
When you lose a loved one who knew the Lord and died in faith, you rejoice in the comfort of the Gospel and the hope of the resurrection. But you also miss the person you have lost. You yearn for a continuing companionship with that person, and perhaps you seek out those places and objects that were important to the person you’ve lost, to help keep your memory of him or her alive.
But there’s one way in which you can enjoy a real and Godly fellowship with those who have died in the Lord. Again, it’s not a direct connection. God’s Word does not allow us to dabble with seances, or to invoke the departed in prayer.
But when you gather with God’s people around the Word of God, and worship the Lamb who was slain for your salvation, you are thereby joined to what the saints in heaven are also doing. You are connecting with the Savior to whom they are likewise connected.
Christ is the common Lord of the church militant and the church triumphant. Through him, all who know and believe his promises are united in one body.
When we are in the presence of Christ - who truly comes to us in his Word and Sacrament - we are mystically in the presence of everyone else who is also in his presence, including those who are with him on the other side of eternity. That’s why we say, when we prepare for the special entrance of Christ into our midst by means of his Holy Supper, that we are lauding and magnifying the glorious name of the Lord “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.”
As the text reminds us, we live now in a world of tribulation and sadness. But the believers in heaven have been delivered from all tribulation, and every tear of sadness has been wiped from their eyes.
We too, as we live and die in faith, look forward to the same joys. And even now, as we believe the certain promises of God that these joys will come, we are already able to begin to celebrate them.
Do you wonder about the spirits of the dead? Are you curious about where they are, and what they are doing? Everybody asks this question, but sadly, not everybody knows the answer that God gives. But you do. To quote the hymn that we sang today, just before the sermon:
Behold a host, arrayed in white,
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright,
With palms they stand. Who is this band
Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they of glorious fame
Who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus' blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise,
Their anthems swell where God doth dwell,
Mid angels’ songs of praise. Amen.
11 November 2007 - Pentecost 24 - Exodus 3:1-15
In William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the main female character at a certain point utters these oft-quoted lines: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
I’m not so sure, though, that God would consider the question of his own name in the same way. It matters to God that we identify him, and think of him, according to what he tells us about himself.
There’s a lot about God that human beings do not know, and indeed cannot know. What we can confidently believe about God is limited to what he has revealed. Apart from what he deliberately makes known to us, his thoughts and actions remain as a shrouded mystery to our darkened minds.
And so, if we want to know who God is, and what he is doing, we had better think very carefully about what he tells us about his name. And a good way to do that would be to listen carefully to today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Exodus.
We read: “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’”
Notice, first of all, that the terms “angel of the Lord,” “Lord,” and “God” are used interchangeably in this passage. “Angel” literally means “messenger.” And so, the Personage who was speaking to Moses from within the burning Bush is described both as the messenger of God and as God himself. He is both distinct from God, and one with God.
In trying to unravel this paradox, we think immediately of the first two verses of the Gospel of John, which speak of the pre-incarnate Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
Perhaps our thoughts will also migrate over to the Epistle to the Hebrews, where Jesus is described as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” - remembering that the word “apostle” also means a “delegated messenger,” or an official representative who is sent to speak for the one who sends him. And, of course, Jesus himself tells us, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
For these and other reasons Christian theologians have usually understood the angel of the Lord of the Old Testament to be the Lord himself, and more precisely, to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - the pre-incarnate Christ. He is the eternal Son of God, distinct from the Father, yet sharing fully in the Father’s divinity.
It is no surprise to us, therefore, to hear Jesus, during his earthly ministry, speaking of Abraham in such familiar terms, when he says that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who speaks to Moses from the burning bush, is the same incarnate God who walks the shores of Galilee, and who speaks to us from the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
And what does the angel of the Lord - that is, the Lord himself - say about his name? Let’s listen.
“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’”
“Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’”
God identifies himself here as a God who establishes and maintains personal relationships, and who makes and keeps promises. Moses is being sent to proclaim to the people of Israel that the God of their fathers is delivering them from Egyptian bondage. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has remembered his promise to make them a nation, chosen and blessed as his own people.
But the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have forgotten the God of their ancestors. After so many decades and even centuries of living in Egypt, surrounded by Egyptian polytheism and idolatry, the people of Israel have begun to forget the unique - and uniquely true - faith of their forebears.
They have forgotten the promises that God made to his friend and servant Abraham, and to Abraham’s seed.
Moses therefore anticipates that the people will ask, in regard to this God, “What is his name?” Perhaps Moses himself does not fully grasp that the divine Majesty to whom he is speaking is the only true God. Perhaps he too has forgotten what Abraham clearly knew, namely that the God of Israel is the judge of all the earth.
Strictly speaking, the true God does not need a name. He does not need to differentiate himself from other gods, because there are no other gods.
You and I do each need a name. All of us need to differentiate ourselves from the six and a half billion other members of the human race with whom we share this planet.
My own parents actually did a pretty good job in giving me a name that identifies me as a unique human being. I’ve done a Google search for my whole name - first, middle, and last - and there isn’t anyone else anywhere on the Internet, anywhere in the world, who has the same name as me.
I suppose that makes me feel a little bit special. But God is special in a totally different kind of way.
He is special because he is one of a kind. There is only one Triune God - one creator and preserver of the universe - and there will never be another.
That’s why the name that he gives for himself is so unusual - and so informative. God says, “I am who I am.” Basically, the name by which he here identifies himself is an indication of the fact that he doesn’t need a name, in the conventional sense of the term. He is simply the eternal and self-existing God.
Throughout the Old Testament, God is described and invoked in this way. The Hebrew word usually rendered in English translations as “the Lord” is Yahweh, or Jehovah. It means, quite simply, “he is.”
It’s also possible, however, to interpret the Hebrew in a slightly different way. Another way to understand God’s way of identifying himself is “I will be who I will be.” This rendering would tend to emphasize the changelessness of God - and also the changelessness of his promises and pledges.
God is never going to become a different kind of being than what he is now. He is predictable, and trustworthy.
It’s interesting to notice what God had promised Moses in the immediate context of this statement about his name.
“Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’”
Moses couldn’t imagine how he could accomplish the task that God had entrusted to him. Why would anyone listen to him?
But God promised, “I will be with you.” “I will be with you” could also be rendered as “I am with you.” God is speaking his special name to Moses, in the context of making a special promise to Moses.
God placed his name upon Moses, and upon the ministry of Moses. What Moses would do and say would therefore be said and done in the name of God. It would be said and done by God, through Moses.
The seemingly impossible things that Moses would proclaim, and demand from Pharaoh, would indeed happen.
The plagues would come. Pharaoh would relent. The people of Israel would go free, to serve their God, and eventually to establish themselves in the land that the Lord was giving them.
The God who simply exists, without beginning or end, is also the God who will follow through on all his plans. He will never abandon or forget his servants and his people.
Those who go forth in the name of the Lord, and at his command, never go alone. That’s something for us to keep in mind when we remember the promises that the incarnate Lord makes to his apostles, and through them to the whole church. At the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we read:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
God, whose name is “I am who I am,” told Moses, “I am with you.” God, whose name is “I am who I am,” told the apostles, “I am with you.”
He is with them - his name is upon them - as they fulfill the great commission to all nations. And he is with us, as the ministry of Word and Sacrament is still being fulfilled among us, and from us to the world.
We are monotheists - that is, believers in one God. But we are not just monotheists. We believe specifically in a God who reveals his name to men, and who makes and keeps promises.
The one true God in whom we believe is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush, and who promises that he is with him.
He is the God who becomes a man in Jesus of Nazareth, who takes the sins of the world upon himself, and who carries those sins to the cross. He is the God who in Christ wins for us the victory over death and the grave, and who promises his church, “I am with you - always - to the end of the age.”
“I am ... with you.” That’s the voice - and the name - of the one God who actually exists.
Apart from this revelation there are indeed many monotheistic claims in the world of human religions. But it’s not just belief in the existence of one God that is necessary. It’s belief in the God whose revealed name is “I am who I am,” and who makes good on that name by fulfilling all his plans for the salvation of the world.
The devil doesn’t mind if people believe that there is only one God. He is especially pleased if people worship him as that one God, or if they worship as the only God there is, a god who doesn’t actually exist at all.
But the devil hates it when the promises and pledges of the God of Moses are proclaimed and believed. He hates it when the church and her ministers teach and baptize, and when the disciples of the Lord are instructed to observe all that Christ has commanded.
The God who has made himself known to us in the Gospel is a God who doesn’t need a name, in the conventional sense of the term, because he is the only God there is. But he gives us his name nevertheless.
And together with that name, he gives us his unalterable promises, and the assurance that he will always be, for us, what he has always been for all his people through the centuries.
He delivers the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. By repentance and faith he delivers us from the slavery of sin. He brings the children of Israel into the promised land. Through his Word and Sacrament he brings us into his eternal kingdom.
“Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’”
“God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’” Amen.
18 November 2007 - Pentecost 25 - Malachi 4:1-6
Fire. Heat. Sunshine. Light. This imagery resonates very naturally with people like us, who live in Arizona. Sometimes these images frighten us. Sometimes they soothe and comfort us. But in one way or another they do speak to us.
Our familiarity with images like fire, heat, sunshine, and light, may help us to appreciate what God says through the prophet Malachi in today’s Old Testament lesson. He uses this kind of imagery to illustrate his judgment against unbelief and wickedness. He also uses this kind of imagery to illustrate Christ’s righteousness, which he embodies within himself, and which he bestows upon us.
The section of Malachi that was read today begins in this way: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
What is pictured here is an intense fire. It does not simply singe the plants with which it comes into contact. And it is not limited just to the destruction of the part of the plant that is exposed above the ground. It is, instead, a thorough, raging inferno, which burns like an oven, with its intensified heat.
Such a fire reaches down to the root of the plant, and thoroughly destroys it. When such a fire rages over the land, nothing will survive. This is the way in which God wants us to understand the nature of the judgment that he will bring on the wickedness of sinful humanity.
In one sense this prophecy points forward to the final judgment day, at the end of the world. All humanity is warned here of the fate that awaits the arrogant and all evildoers - those who rebel against God, who ignore him, and who defy him.
In the chapter of the book of Malachi that immediately precedes today’s appointed lesson, we can see some descriptions of exactly what God is talking about. The evildoers of whom the Lord speaks are such as these:
“I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, [and who oppress] the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
The Lord also accuses those who have “robbed” him, through their stinginess and greed. We read: “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me [says the Lord]. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.”
I suppose this will give all of us something to think about the next time we write out our Sunday offering checks.
When you contribute toward the Lord’s work, and toward the support of the Lord’s house, don’t think that you are giving God something that he doesn’t already own. You are, instead, exercising the privilege that your Lord has given you, to participate in the important work that he is accomplishing through his church - in our community, in our nation, and in the world.
But those who close their purses to these needs, show that they have also closed their hearts and minds to the Lord’s voice. Therefore these words of warning are delivered from on high against them.
God also tells us what he means in his declaration of judgment against those who are “arrogant”:
“Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge, or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? ... Evildoers not only prosper, but they put God to the test, and they escape.’”
In other words, the arrogant would observe that those who defy God, and disobey him, seem to get away with it. Nothing bad happens to them. So, of what use is it to be reverent and submissive before the Lord, or to govern our lives according to his law?
I’ve recently read some modern examples of this kind of arrogance. Brace yourselves.
These are the words of the popular atheist writer Richard Dawkins: “Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the small pox virus, but harder to eradicate. ... Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” Oy!
Again, today’s lesson from Malachi certainly does point forward to the final account that Dawkins, and all others, will someday have to give to the Lord who created them.
But in another sense, according to a more immediate application of the text, the burning that it describes can be seen as a reference to the judgment that God’s law brings even now, when it encounters and suppresses the sinful nature that resides in each one of us. Insofar as you are still arrogant toward God in your attitudes, and insofar as you yourself still think, speak, and do evil, you too are the object of this purging fire.
When you repent of your sins, and ask the Lord to cleanse you of those impulses that lead you to sin, you are asking him to burn away the arrogance and evil that still reside in you. You are asking God to destroy the power of sin within you, so that you will become, instead, a person who remembers the law of his servant Moses.
This purging process doesn’t always go smoothly. In fact, it never does. The old nature resists it every step of the way.
The roots of our sin bury themselves ever deeper into the soil of our prideful self-justification, to avoid the destructive heat of the flame. The old Adam within each of us has a very strong survival instinct.
But God is faithful. He will give us the mind of Christ. He will conform us to the image of his Son.
Our awareness of God’s faithfulness, holiness, and power prompts us to worship him in ways that are not easily understood by those who have a frivolous and fun-seeking attitude in their approach to the judge of the universe. Our approach, though - with God’s help - is as the Epistle to the Hebrews prescribes it:
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Today’s lesson from Malachi goes on from its warning about the fire of God’s judgment to another kind of message - a message of hope and joy for those who do in fact repent of their sins, and humble themselves before the Lord. Through his servant the prophet, God goes on to say this: “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
Martin Luther’s comments on this passage are so helpful that I doubt that I could improve on them. So, I will just let him speak to us:
“Indeed, a new Sun will shine... It is the Sun of righteousness, who justifies, who sends out the sort of rays that make men righteous and free from their sins, who drives out every harmful attitude of fleshly lust. Those rays are the Word of the Gospel, which penetrates hearts, and [which] is seen...only by the eyes of the heart, that is, by faith.”
“...it shines by the Holy Spirit. It shines day and night. Clouds do not hinder it. It is always rising. ‘It will rise for those of you who fear’...the name of God...; that is, the humble, those who are not presumptuous, those who do not trust in their own works but recognize that they are sinners.”
“...there will be salvation and protection under the shadow of Christ. Such, then, is the reign of Christ that He Himself is the Mediator and Protector, the way a hen protects her chicks from the hawk. Therefore, let everyone who wants to be safe from the wrath and judgment of God seek refuge under the wings of Christ. ... Under the Law there is weakness and condemnation; under the wings of Christ, under the Gospel, there is strength and salvation.”
“The Sun rises when the Gospel is preached. One hides under the wings when he believes. Therefore, although you may be a sinner, yet you will be safe when you flee for refuge under His wings. You will not fear death. The lust of the flesh will not overpower you.” So far Luther.
Our mission congregation, at least for the present, is known by the name “Sun of Righteousness Lutheran Mission.” As far as I can tell there is no other Lutheran congregation anywhere in the world with this name.
Because it is an unusual name, some people might think it is a strange or puzzling name. But that will just give us an opportunity to share with them the wonderful message of who the Sun of Righteousness is.
Jesus, the divine Son of the Father from heaven, who shines upon us on earth, is the Sun of Righteousness. He is, of course, righteous in himself - perfect and complete in every way. But he does not hoard his righteousness for himself, just as the literal sun - around which the earth orbits - does not hoard to itself all of its hydrogen.
Rather, like the literal sun, Christ’s righteousness bursts forth upon us, and shines down into our hearts and minds. His righteousness covers us completely as we trust in his mercy. And we bask in its brilliance, in the presence of almighty God.
The beams of righteousness that shine upon us through the Gospel are also able to heal us of our spiritual infirmities. Mental health professionals tell us that literal sunshine is actually one of the best treatments for clinical depression. Those who suffer from depression are usually told to spend more time outside during the day, since the sunlight will benefit them both physiologically and psychologically.
Jesus, the heavenly Sun of Righteousness, brings healing to our souls as his light descends to us in his Word and Sacrament. He lifts us from sadness into the joy of eternal life. He soothes our troubled consciences with the peace of his forgiveness.
In a few minutes we will have yet another opportunity to step outside the earthly house of shadows in which we now live, and to go, as it were, into the brightness of the Sun. As we partake in faith of the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, it will be a time of sacramental “high noon” - when the Sun of Righteousness shines on us more brilliantly and more intensely than at any other time.
And in this most intimate encounter with our Savior, we will nestle once again under the protection of his wings, to be comforted and healed.
We’ll close with some comments on our text by St. Ambrose of Milan: “Christ...would bring salvation to all men by spreading the forgiveness of sins throughout the whole world, and would give resurrection to the departed... ...the saving cross of the Lord shone brightly on [Jacob’s] lineage, and at the same time the Sun of Righteousness rises on the man who recognizes God, because He is Himself the Everlasting Light.” Amen.
November 25, 2007 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Colossians 3:1–4:1
Christians are in the world, but not of it. Our Savior Jesus Christ has chosen us out of the world to be his own people, called by his name, and governed by his Word. He has washed away our sins, and filled us with the life of his own Spirit.
By the gift of faith that our heavenly Father has bestowed on us, we are inspired to live according to convictions and ideals that are deeper and higher than anything that the spirit of this world is able to instill within its children.
Indeed, we believe that someday this transitory and temporary world will come to an end. On the Last Day the Lord Jesus will return visibly to judge all the nations, and to usher his people, in their resurrected glory, into the new heaven and the new earth.
This gives us a unique perspective on the life we now lead on this earth. The world, and the pleasures and successes that the world offers, are not all that there is. Those who know Christ, and who await his coming, will therefore live differently than those who do not know, or who do not care, what God’s future will bring.
In the third chapter of his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul encourages us to this end, in these words: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
The apostle immediately elaborates on what this means, in some very practical ways. He writes: “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”
Paul focuses first on the way in which the corrupted sexual impulses of fallen human nature work to destroy people, and to dehumanize them. He is not criticizing human sexuality in general, but he is condemning sexual immorality.
An attraction that God himself built into the human race - in order to draw husband and wife together into a loving, fruitful, and permanent union - has become perverted by humanity’s fall into sin. Instead of being an impulse for giving and sharing, it has become an impulse for taking and using. Instead of being a force for building up and preserving a family, it has become a force for personal and societal destruction.
Sinners blinded by the world’s corruption don’t see it that way, of course. The prince of this world is a calculating opportunist. He is delighted whenever he has a chance to use the things that God created for our good as weapons against us - like the way in which a charging army that has overtaken the enemy artillery positions then turns the canons on its retreating foe.
And the irony of this is that, as fallen humanity is continuously crushed and humiliated by the world, the flesh, and the devil, it actually thinks, in its darkened mind, that it is achieving ever greater levels of freedom and self-determination.
One of the major differences between human beings and animals is that humans were created with a reasonable mind and a morally-governed will. Our first parents, made in the image and likeness of God, were able to make thoughtful decisions about what to do or what not to do, and to consider both the ethical basis and the consequences of the decisions that they might make.
In comparison, the animal kingdom is driven by instinct. Animals do not make morally-informed decisions about their behavior. They simply follow their impulses, and act according to the uncontrollable urges that rise up within them.
The children of this sinful world, as they become ever more disconnected from the God who created them, are thereby becoming ever more disconnected from their own humanity. The sexual immorality against which St. Paul warns, has a dehumanizing effect on those who are drawn ever more deeply into its deceptive power.
Perhaps at the earlier stages of their degradation, promiscuous and perverse people might pause and reflect, with some degree of concern, if it would be pointed out to them that they are acting like animals, and not like men and women. But in time, as the chains of diabolical captivity become more tightly wrapped around them, such observations would likely be laughed off, or perhaps even embraced as an acceptable truth.
The indoctrination in Darwinism that most people have endured in public schools and secular universities has made them ready and willing to see themselves as little more than highly-evolved animals anyway. So, what’s the big deal if they just go ahead and act like what they believe themselves to be?
And eventually, the unbridled passions of the corrupt sinful nature come to reign in all aspects of life. The loss of a sense of moral governance in matters of personal intimacy, is quickly and logically followed by the loss of a sense of moral governance in other areas of human interaction, such as in our attitude toward the property of others, the reputations of others, and the human dignity of others in general.
St. Paul pleads with the Christians at Colossae - and he pleads with us - to resist getting pulled down into this cesspool of foolishness and stupidity.
Don’t let the world turn you into an animal. Don’t let the spirit of the world hijack the feelings that God created in you, for his pure and noble purposes in your life, so that they would be turned against you, and against God.
Do not become shackled to this world, so that when Christ someday destroys this world, you too will be destroyed. Rather, in true repentance renounce every inkling of this kind of thinking that you may have entertained, and expel from your conscience every drop of this poison that you may have imbibed.
And, as you await the end of these things under the feet of Christ’s judgment, embrace the liberation that he offers you in his Gospel. And live in that freedom. With the eyes of faith look up, beyond the world that is perishing, to see the kingdom of purity and goodness that Jesus brings, and in which he lovingly reigns.
Jesus is the new Adam, the founder and head of a new humanity that is now at peace with God, and that rejoices in the goodness of God. In Christ the human race is purified, and is restored to what God always wanted it to be.
When you are united to Christ, by faith, you are united to all this. In Christ this is now what you are, by the mercy of almighty God.
Again, listen to what St. Paul tells us: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.”
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. ...”
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. ...”
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
This is an uplifting and ennobling summary of what it means to live as a Christian, in this hostile and dying world. But St. Paul is not giving us a moralistic harangue, or a “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” kind of motivational speech.
Rather, it is only through the Word of Christ that we are able to know, and give expression to, these truths regarding God, and regarding ourselves as creatures of God. Therefore, this living and life-changing Word of Christ is to dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish each other, and as we sing with thankfulness in our hearts to God.
When we gather for worship, we gather around the Word of Christ, in preaching and in sacramental celebration. As we are thus nurtured and enlightened by this Word, we also speak it to each other, in the mutual love and hope that we share as members of the one body of Christ.
But the church is not like a spiritual bomb shelter, in which we cower and hide while everything on the outside is being destroyed. This world will indeed be destroyed someday. But for as long as God gives us breath, we will boldly live out our life in Christ, in this world.
Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. He also sends the church out to make disciples of all nations, and to preach the Gospel to every creature. You can’t do that from within a bomb shelter.
And so, the church functions, in a sense, as a springboard, which continually launches us out into the perishing world - so that we can bear witness to an eternal hope that will never perish.
And our testimony of a better and purer way goes out to others not simply through the words we say. It is also manifested by the way we conduct ourselves in our relationships: in the arena of home and family, and in the arena of labor and industry.
St. Paul accordingly goes on to exhort and encourage us: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
“Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. ... Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
God calls us in Christ to treat spouse, children, and parents in ways that differ from what the world would expect or urge, but that nevertheless show the world something better, higher, and more truly liberating than what it otherwise knows.
God also calls us in Christ to bear with injustices for a time, and to make the best of difficult circumstances. We know that our worth in the eyes of God, and the meaning of our existence, are not wrapped up in how the world sees us and evaluates us.
A chaste life is a good life, not an unfulfilled life. The virtues of patience, kindness, and humility may not be seen as indicators of worldly power and success, but they are indicators of a faith that looks beyond this world to something more, something greater, something eternal.
In Christ, and in the wisdom and strength that Christ gives, we truly and genuinely enjoy living as the human race was originally meant to live, before the distortions that came with the fall into sin.
But as we struggle in this world with influences that come not from God, and as we sometimes slip and fall, God will raise us up with his forgiveness, and teach us through his Word. As our faith and devotion to God sometimes weaken, in the continuing conflicts we endure in this life, God will sustain us with his promise of eternal peace and ultimate victory.
This world, with its vain hopes and false promises, will be destroyed. But, as we confess in the Creed, our Lord Jesus Christ will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead. And his kingdom shall have no end. Amen.