SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2008
2 November 2008 - All Saints - Revelation 7:9-17
Guest Preacher: The Rev. Daniel A. Basel, ELS Giving Counselor
Prayer: Almighty God, You have knit together Your elect, those who have been called by the Gospel to believe in your only son, into one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Your Son, Christ, our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, in order that wemay come to those indescribable joys which You have prepared for those who have loved You with alltheir heart through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Text: Rev. 7:9-17
9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen." 13Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, "Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?" 14And I said to him, "Sir, you know." So he said to me, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. 16They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; 17for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
Dear Fellow Redeemed;
It was exactly five years ago that the world watched a huge television event which many of us still remember to this day. What would have normally been only in the front page only of a religious newspaper now hit the headlines of every major newspaper and television newscast of the time. That individual that was the subject of this newscast was world renown. She was even known to have chastised a president and the congressional leaders of our own land for allowing the unchecked killing of millions of unborn children in America. The television event was “Beatification of Mother Teresa.” Beatification is a fancy way of saying that she was declared a “Saint” by the pope. The act of beautification or canonization makes it official that this person is now declared a saint and can even be prayed to.
What people may not know is that Pope John Paul III had “canonized” over 1300 people during his tenure in the papacy. More than all the previous 24 popes combined. Many of them were modern day martyrs in countries like China, Indonesia, and the like. So if the pope has been so busy having people declared to be saints why haven’t we as a church body said something about it? Why hasn’t our Church declared people to be saints?
I dare to say, we have. The response is not really to ask, “Who is?” or “Who isn’t a saint?” The responsibility of the church is simply to be faithful to the Word. It is to faithfully carryout the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the visible Gospel in the Lord’s Supper and Holy Baptism. So in essence, through Word and Sacrament you are being led into sainthood and confirmed in it. Thus St. John records how this can be as he records the elder’s words, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” the Lamb.”
With this irrefutable prescription before us, let us consider as our theme today The Making of Saints.
At this point you might think, “I thought you had to be dead to be called a saint. So what’s the deal?”
When it comes to sainthood. If we were to look into each of our lives today, there is one thing that would be painfully clear. We don’t always act like saints. And if we’re honest with ourselves we would all have to resist the idea of being called a “saint.” A more appropriate reaction would be to say, “Who, me, a saint?”
If we used this popular idea of a saint all our churches would have to have saint committees. And their job is to determine if you should be called a “saint” or not. Ideally this committee goes into your house while you’re not home, and sets up hidden cameras. They set up microphones all over your house. They set up surveillance equipment at your work. They bug your phone so that they can listen to your conversations. They secretly follow you around everywhere you go and take pictures of you and everything you do. They’d take notes on everything you say and do. They’d take attendance at church and watch you as you leave church. After gathering all this information, they meet as a committee, and the chairman says, “Well, what have you learned about so-and-so? (Feel free to insert your name here).
What do you think they would say about you after observing your life so closely? They would most likely say, “Why, He’s no saint!” Another might add, “Why He’s just a sinner!”
It is true. We are sinners, and we have more than earned that title in our lives. If all of our conversations were taped, and we were watched every day, we would be embarrassed by what other people would see in our lives. And remember, God sees and knows everything, even our inner most thoughts. He knows, by nature we are not saints. AS SINNERS WE DESERVE THE WRATH OF GOD AND HIS ETERNAL JUDGMENT AND His HOLY CONDEMNATION. As Paul writes, “There is no one righteous, no, not one.” (Ro. 3:10).
No committee needed here. It is self-evident under the light of God’s holy law. Since the law can only condemn, can only point out our faults. It is not in the law or in anything we do that saints are made it is rather found in what God has done for us. That is why today, it is irrefutable to acknowledge that it is only in Christ that any one can be called a saint.
So how does a person become a saint in the eyes of God? One thing is for certain, you don’t have to move to a third world country and dedicate your entire life to taking care of the poor. Although that’s a fine thing to do, it does not earn you a special place in heaven. On the contrary, as Paul writes, there is an important element still missing… 1Cor. 13:2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, andunderstand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could removemountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” Works are excluded.
So what is it exactly that makes one a saint. Instead the answer is found in our text from the Book of Revelation, chapter 7, our text. There you have a picture of the saints in heaven. Verse 9 – a great multitude, wearing white robes and holding palm branches, praising God in heaven with all the angels.
Verse 13 – one of the elders of St. Johns vision asks about the saints: “These in white robes – who are they and where did they come from?” And then verse 14 is the key verse – the secret to becoming a saint: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
That’s how a person becomes a saint – by washing your robe and making it white in the blood of the Lamb.
In the Sciptures, “your robe” is your life. It involves all the stains and tears of our sins, from inherited wsin to the actual sins we commit… All cover us with their stains… Only the robe of Christ can make it clean. “your robe” is your life. It involves all the stains and tears of our sins, from inherited wsin to the actual sins we commit… All cover us with their stains… Only the robe of Christ can make it clean.
Talk to any teen who is in-the-know and one of their stronger topics of interest will often be what’s hot and what’s not in the world of fashion. From bell bottoms to bobby socks – to platform shoes to Harley Davidson leather ware… Cloths are a continued topic of discussion and much distress between parents and their teens. It’s a scarry topic for those who struggle with acceptance.
As many young people will tell you, fashion all too often determines what click you’re in. Others are so afraid that unless you WEAR THE RIGHT CLOTHS you will be totally rejected… Such is life in our society…
But there is one place where cloths do make all the difference in heaven and on earth. It is the place where to have the right cloths can only be seen in light of what you do with your clothing… Where you have it laundered… And what it is you use in the laundering process… For before God, in order to be clothed properly…. In order to be purified and able to stand before our Holy and just God He requires this one thing… THAT YOU TAKE ALL YOUR DIRTY CLOTHS AND WASH THEM AND MAKE THEM WHITE IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB.”
So a saint is someone who makes a fashion statement!!! “Only the white robe will do!!!” Only in Christ and the blood of the Lamb that was slain is one made, by God’s grace, a saint.
Siegbert Becker points out that the saints of those above are coming out of the great tribulation. Which gives an incredible relief to those who are being confused by the many millennial theories out there. The tribulation is to be taught as the Scriptures here teach, as an on going tribulation… And all those who are led to sincere repentance, who in sorrow of heart, turn from sin in contrition to God and His mercy in Christ… Here, as faith grasps its Savior as its own, the washing flood of Jesus blood makes all clean.
Today we remember the saints in heaven, and we thank God for them. We remember their example of faithfulness. It’s a helpful thing to recall and to talk about the saints who are in heaven, and to then read this description in the Book of Revelation. But it’s also useful to remember that there are the saints on earth – those who are here today and believe in Christ right now. Who are active themselves carrying out our Lord’s great commission. And in faithfulness to the Word knowing that through our missions and mission activities in the church, saints are being made. They are being made as we in love reach out to those around us with the Saving Gospel. And when and where we can not go, we support others in the work. You, the saints, you are in turn God’s plan in carrying out the great commission. Through you and your gifts more saints are being made as the Word is proclaimed in the church and the Gospel and its power works a change in those who hear it.
But coming into the company of saints can be a scary, intimidating thing! Think of all that these saints who have gone before have done. Many died for their faith. Others through much toil and hardship entered heaven. Others spent countless hours preaching and teaching the Word. Still others died in service to others giving the great sacrifice of their own life to save others. One man noted, “It’s like you come from your little community where you are the star and hero of your baseball team. Everyone looks up to you and then you’re called to play in the Pros and all of a sudden you shrink and become just another talent.”
Yet we know, from the Biblical perspective, on this side of glory all our sins and the effects of sin will ever be before us. We remain in the tribulation. But here, in heaven, under the cleansing flood of Jesus precious blood forgiveness is given, a robe of righteousness is given…. The stains and tears of sin are mended and washed away. The perfect, white robe of Righteousness, Christ’s righteousness is given. THROUGH THE WATHERS OF BAPTISM, we learn as Peter reminds us, “We wash away our sins.” Through the blessed sacrament we commune with the body and blood of our Lord who is at once the Lamb who was slain and the gentle shepherd who leads us to quiet waters. Who by the precious Gospel continues to call and gather His church from the four corners of the world… giving all who come to Him the blessed robes of white that marks His saints. … giving all who come to Him the blessed robes of white that marks His saints.
If someone were to ask you, “What in the world is a Lutheran?” just remember the two S’s. Do you know what the two “S’s” are? “What is a Lutheran?” someone says to you. “Well, a Lutheran is a sinner, and a Lutheran is a saint. Sinner and saint – that’s a Lutheran.” Simil Justus et Peccator… “What does that mean?” someone asks you. “Well, I’m a sinner – that’s no secret to anyone who knows me. But I’m also a ‘saint’ because Christ has taken my sins away. I’m a saint because of Jesus.”
On this day of all saints, we remember how we have been made saints, and recognize the role of those who have passed before in not only sharing the Gospel and bringing us into the circle of the means of grace, but also to commemorate all the saints who have gone before us who have thought God’s Word and Sacraments have been sainted, and dearly departed in the faith and who even now are with their Savior. John’s glimpse of glory gives us a very important truth and perspective that we can share today… A picture of our direct connection to the saints in heaven. John tells us they are gathered around the throne. So are we today, gather with the saints. Is is the closest we become as we gather… around this blessed meal of Christ’s body and blood.
There are certainly times when we long to be with our dear love ones who have departed. It is a natural thing to want to be with them who have departed. The caution is that we not allow ourselves to be drawn to the cemetery for that closeness. If we would feel close to our loved ones who died in the Lord, the place is not in the cemetery… where only their physical covering has found a temporary sleeping place. The place to be with them is in the communion of the saints found in the Church… For as we gather around the Lord’s table we are truly communing with them who have gone before.
Our Lord Jesus Christ left us this memorial as a special gift which we long for… . One in which He would have us to partake often, lest we forget our Lord and be drawn into the world in which there is no hope and no future… The world of sin and death. He would have us to come together in the communion of Saints here… In the standard words we use in the communion service we say, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name….” We then break forth in singing the Sanctus, the song of the Angels in archangels, yes, all the company of heaven, which are the saints in glory, our blessed ones who sleep in Jesus. We then join them in singing “Holy, Holy, Holy… Lord God almighty…
We join in this communion as the saints before knowing that as they are arrayed in white so is the sinner who comes confessing that they receive in this supper the very body and blood of the Lord. We come rejoicing and wash our robe in the blood of the lamb… by eating and drinking in faith we declare: He gave His Body for me, He shed His blood for me. My sins are all forgiven, washed away. I too even now am arrayed in Christ’s righteousness. I too, by God’s grace and mercy shall stand before the throne of God. As the saints in the text ascribe all honor for their salvation to God and the Lamb, so we declare by our coming to the Holy Communion: I am one whom the Lord redeemed by His suffering and death. All my hope is built on this, that He gave His body and shed His blood for me.
What comfort then is this that as we come here, we are as close to heaven and our sainted loved ones as we can be this side of heaven… Here we have a foretaste of the bliss which the saints enjoy in heaven. Here is the Lamb of God, here He feeds us with Himself, here we occupy before the throne and the Lamb today in praise and adoration, become conscious of the fact that we are experiencing a foretaste of heaven and are in communion also with the saints who are in Christ..
May we ever in communion with the saints of heaven gather around the throne to worship the Lamb who was slain and then rose again to be glorified and with the company of heaven ever reign. Amen. May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep you minds and hearts in Christ Jesus. Amen.
9 November 2008 - Pentecost 26 - Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thes. 4:13-18
Every Sunday afternoon, after I get home from preaching and teaching in Scottsdale, and before I go to preach and teach in Queen Creek, I take a nap. Conducting a worship service and leading a Bible class does wear me out, I guess.
I expend a lot of nervous energy standing in front of people for two or three hours. So, by the time I get home, I am tired.
I have learned by experience, however, that I need to make sure that everything I have to take to Queen Creek for the afternoon service is ready to go, before I lean back in my recliner chair and close my eyes.
Once I go to sleep, it’s not easy for me to wake up. And when I do finally wake up from this nap, there’s usually very little time to spare.
I have all I can do to pull myself out of the chair and head out the door. I don’t have the energy or presence of mind at that point to gather together everything that I need to take with me.
That stuff all needed to be gathered together, and made ready, before the nap. After the nap, it cannot be done - or at least not very easily.
In today’s Gospel we heard the familiar parable of the ten virgins, waiting for the beginning of a wedding celebration:
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
Henry Hamann explains the role that was played by such virgins or maidens in a first-century wedding:
“It is important for an adequate understanding of this parable to know the actual details of the parable picture. ... ‘Lamps’...should probably be translated ‘torches.’ As is suggested by modern customs in Arab sections of Palestine, these torches were long sticks, at one end of which were wrapped rags soaked with olive oil.”
“These are lit and carried by groups of girls in festive procession to the house of the bridegroom, where the girls perform various dances till the torches go out. These torches, of course, burn only a short time, hardly fifteen minutes, and the rags have to be soaked again with oil.” So far Dr. Hamann.
When we understand these customs - which would have been known to Jesus’ original audience - the point of the parable comes into sharper focus for us. The ten maidens are slated to participate in a wedding celebration.
In order to do the processional dance that they are supposed to do, when the bridegroom arrives, they need to have their supply of oil ready. Without it, they cannot do the dance. Likewise, if they don’t have enough oil, they cannot do the dance.
If a girl who was supposed to participate in this procession didn’t have enough oil to keep her torch lit through to the end, then she should not begin the dance. She would embarrass herself, and ruin the dance, if her torch were to go out partway through the ritual.
In the parable, there is no implied criticism over the fact that the virgins fell asleep while they were awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. Both the foolish virgins and the wise virgins took a nap.
We read in the text, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.”
The problem with the foolish girls was not that they slept rather than staying awake. Instead, they are faulted because they had not made themselves ready for the wedding procession before they took their nap.
Once the bridegroom had come, there would be no time then for such preparations. If the preparations had not been made before they fell asleep, they would not be able to make those preparations at all.
And the wise girls, who had acquired for themselves an adequate supply of oil for their torches, could not share their oil with the others. If they were to do that, then none of the dancers would have enough oil to keep their torches lit throughout the time of the dance.
It would be better to have half as many dancers as originally planned - who could finish the dance through to the end - than to have all ten dancers run out before the dance was finished. For the sake of the success of the procession, sharing was not an option.
“at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”
“But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.”
The girls who were unprepared for the dance were not going to be able to participate in it. When the bridegroom arrived, the festivities began. Those who were ready, danced. Those who were not ready, did not dance.
In today’s Epistle from the first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul uses the image of “sleeping” metaphorically, as a euphemism for death. He writes: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
When Christians consider their loved ones who have passed from this life in the faith, they do not grieve in the same way as unbelievers grieve for their dead. We know that those who belong to the Lord who are asleep in death are resting, and at peace.
In Christ they are awaiting the day of resurrection, when their bodies will be called forth from the earth and reunited with their souls. We also know that everyone must someday face the inevitability of physical death.
With the exception of those who are still alive when Christ returns, the sleep of death will come upon all of us eventually. Nobody can keep himself “awake,” and permanently avoid that slumber.
All human beings - those who know Christ, and those who do not - will eventually be laid in the grave, and will remain there bodily until the Lord returns. He will then call all people forth to stand before him, as he sits on his throne of judgment.
So, just as with the ten virgins - the wise ones and the foolish ones - all of us will likewise fall sleep before the heavenly bridegroom returns. That’s not the issue.
The issue is whether or not we will have made ourselves ready for his return, before we fall asleep. Before we die.
When in the resurrection we wake up on judgment day - at the sounding of the angel’s trumpet - there will be no time then to prepare to meet him. If we are not prepared for his return now - before we lay ourselves down in the sleep of death - we will never be ready.
“Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’”
As the Epistle to the Hebrews starkly reminds us, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Like the virgins in today’s Gospel, we need to have a supply of oil before we go to sleep, so that we will have it when we wake up.
The oil we need is the “oil” of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is indeed the Lord, as we confess in the Creed, and he is the giver of life.
He comes to us with his life-giving power in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Through these means he carries to us the blessings and benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
He instills within us a new, spiritual birth, and forms within us the gift of faith. He brings forth through us the fruits of this faith, in a life of good works that are performed for the benefit of our neighbor, and to the glory of God.
Jesus concludes today’s parable with the following warning: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
If your life is devoid of the Spirit of God, and of his influence and power, then you do not have the oil that you will need when you arise on judgment day. You are not yet ready to fall asleep.
But if the Spirit of Christ does live within you - if you are led by God’s Spirit to repent of your sins, and to embrace the promises of your Savior - then you are ready. And you will be ready to rise on the last day, and to stand before God’s throne.
When the Lord returns, the works of all men will indeed be judged. We read in the Gospel of St. John: “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
And as St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
But the works of his saints that God will acknowledge and reward on that day are works that his own Spirit had produced within them: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
St. Paul reminds us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
In his unmeasurable grace, God gives us the works that we do in his name and by his strength, and he then rewards what he himself has given us. St. Augustine explains it in this way: “when God crowns our merits, He crowns nothing else but His own gifts.”
As we look forward to the day of our resurrection, however, we don’t in any way put our trust in our works - even if God is the one who causes them to flow from us to our neighbor in need. We put our trust in the Savior, Jesus Christ.
His work on the cross, where all our transgressions were atoned for, is our only hope. He also rose from the grave for us, to break the bonds of sin and death.
And today, he sends to us his Holy Spirit, to get us ready for our own death, and to get us ready to awaken from death, for eternal life.
Your Savior is once again sending his Spirit to you - right here, right now. As his word of righteousness and pardon is proclaimed, God’s Spirit is active. Receive him. Be filled with him.
With repentance for your past and present failures, receive the conviction that he works in you. And with faith in the cross of Christ, receive the heavenly life he bestows on you.
Be filled with the heavenly oil that you will need on judgment day. Be filled with the heavenly oil that God in his grace gives you now.
And when you have been filled with this oil - when God himself has come to abide with you and sustain you - then you are ready to fall asleep.
When you finish your work in this world, and as you look forward to your life in the next world, you may, as it were, take a nap, without fear, and in peace. And when the bridegroom comes, to awaken you, and usher you into the wedding hall, you will be ready for that too. Amen.
16 November 2008 - Pentecost 27 - Zeph. 1:7-16 and 1 Thes. 5:1-11
Are we accountable for what we do? Will our misdeeds eventually catch up with us?
Or is it possible for us to avoid ever taking responsibility for our actions, if we are careful enough in hiding them from others?
Many people today believe that they can, in fact, get away with whatever corrupt or evil deeds they have done in the past. Many people think that they are immune from the obligation to give an account of their actions.
Some, who are highly placed in the government, believe that their political power gives them this immunity. They are able to pull the strings of government agencies, and call in political favors, in order to cover up their misdeeds.
Others, who are big players in the world of business and finance, believe that their economic power and wealth make them immune from being held accountable for their actions. They can buy off anyone they need to, to avoid exposure and the consequences of their sins.
Still others, who are not such high profile people in the society, believe that if they try hard not to draw attention to themselves, no one will notice what they are doing, and no one will make any trouble for them over what they are doing.
In that way “ordinary” people can likewise avoid the necessity of explaining themselves, or being held accountable for their unrighteous activities.
And sometimes - perhaps even most of the time - these various categories of people do in fact get away with their misdeeds - or so it seems.
For every example we hear about, of a Congressman who goes to prison for accepting bribes while in public office, we can easily imagine that there are many others who are a bit more sly and careful, and whose corruptions never become know.
For every example of a top corporate executive, or Wall Street broker, who is prosecuted and punished for financial mismanagement, there are, we would guess, many others who never get caught, and who live out their lives in the luxurious comfort that they were able to purchase with their ill-gotten riches.
And how many times do common and unassuming people - like us - seem get away with their adulteries, deceptions, and larcenies? The wicked deeds of men and women whom we know, or know of, usually don’t catch up with them.
And, perhaps, you think that your own wicked deeds - which you are remembering right now - have slipped by under everyone’s radar. “Nobody knows about them,” you might be saying to yourself.
“I got away with it,” you might be assuring yourself. But don’t be so sure.
The people who lived in Jerusalem, before the invasion of Babylon and the Babylonian captivity, thought that they had gotten away with their sins too. But as we read in the prophet Zephaniah, they had not.
God had noticed what they had done, and God was going to call them to account. They were not immune from his judgment against their injustices and corruptions.
Those who were connected to the political power structures of the kingdom of Judah thought that they could do as they please. But God had something else in mind. We read: “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons.”
Those who were the businessmen and financiers of the kingdom thought that no one had noticed their underhanded dealings, their cheating and lying. But they were mistaken.
God said: “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills. Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off.”
And then there were the ordinary residents of the city: the unnoticeable men who went about their activities, and committed their sins, in an unassuming way. They also thought that nobody noticed, and that nobody cared. But they, too, were wrong.
The Lord declared: “I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.’ Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste.”
The invasion of Judah by the Babylonian armies would be an act of divine punishment on these people. The captivity of the people of Jerusalem in the distant land of Babylon would be the Lord’s clear and unmistakable testimony to them that their sins had not gone unnoticed, and that their sins would not go unpunished.
The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians would also serve as a foreshadowing of the final and ultimate Day of the Lord, when all people, of all nations and tribes, will stand before the throne of the Holy God, and give an account of themselves. This day of reckoning will come.
And on that day, those who will stand under God’s judgment will know - even if they do not suspect it now - that no sin they ever perpetrated, in thought, word, or deed, went unnoticed. They will stand accused, and without excuse, for every neglected opportunity they had, to help their neighbor in his need, to defend and protect the fatherless, to clothe the naked.
“The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
The day of the Lord’s judgment against sin will come to us too. In fact, the law of God is even now working conviction within us for the misdeeds of our past, which we may have thought we got away with - that is, until now.
But we didn’t get away with anything. God’s Spirit is making it clear to us right now, through the testimony of his Law, that our sins did not go unnoticed.
An accounting for those sins is demanded. In this very moment, as we are forced to admit our many faults and missteps, we are, as it were, experiencing a foretaste of the day of the Lord’s judgment.
Our conscience is weighing heavily upon us, as we ponder, with trepidation, the final accounting that we and all people will have to give on the Last Day. But the Last Day - that ultimate day of judgment that will come at the end of this world - is not the only day of judgment that there is in God’s scheme.
Remember the day of judgment of which God spoke through the prophet Zephaniah to the people of Jerusalem. That preliminary day of reckoning came when the Babylonians executed the Lord’s wrath against their city.
There has also been another preliminary day of judgment, to which I would draw the reverent attention of your hearts and minds. This other day of judgment is spoken of in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.”
Jesus our Savior took all of our sins upon himself, and carried those sins to the cross. As the perfect lamb of God, without stain or moral blemish, he cloaked himself with all our adulteries, deceptions, and larcenies - the misdeeds that we knew others were aware of, and the misdeeds that we thought we had gotten away with.
As humanity’s substitute under the law, he carried all of them to the cross, and received in his own flesh the divine judgment that those sins and misdeeds deserved. As your substitute under the law, he deflected away from you the divine wrath that your sins had earned.
In the cross of Christ God did indeed “notice” your sins - as those sins were there clinging to his Son! He noticed them, there, and then he punished them, there, and then he blotted them from his memory.
That’s why St. Paul tells us that in Christ, we are not destined for wrath, as we otherwise would be.
For us who know Christ, and who are in Christ, we are comforted to know that the wrath of God’s holiness against our unholiness will not flow forth from him onto us on the final day of judgment. That wrath has already flowed forth from God onto Christ, our redeemer, on Calvary’s cross.
Again, as St. Paul tells us, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.” Don’t underestimate the profound importance of those few, simple words.
Jesus died for you. Therefore, in Christ, you will not die. You will live forever.
In Christ, God has not destined you for wrath. God has forgiven you. God does even now forgive you.
When he speaks to you his words of absolution, through the lips of his called servant, he forgives you. When he offers to you in the Holy Supper the true body and blood of his Son, given and shed for you on the cross, he forgives you.
As far as the east is from the west, God has removed your sins from you. He has broken down the wall of separation between himself and you that had been erected by your sins, so that you can now see him as the loving, heavenly Father he has always wanted to be.
On the last day, when you stand before the Lord seated on his throne, you will be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. You will be justified - declared righteous - for the sake of Christ.
You are clothed with Christ’s righteousness now. You are justified by faith, now.
God has filled you with his own Spirit - the Spirit of adoption. He has declared you to be his own dear child.
God has filled you with his own Spirit - who is the Lord, and the giver of life. He has incorporated you into his eternal kingdom.
Are you accountable for what you do? Yes, you are. Will you get away with any misdeed, however small or unnoticeable you may think it was? No, you will not.
But remember that Jesus died for you. He died for us all.
Therefore those sins - which we did not get away with - will not catch up with us. On the cross, they already caught up with Jesus.
As we contemplate the Lord’s holiness and his judgments; and as we also contemplate the Lord’s mercy, and the work that the Lord himself accomplished for us on the cross 2000 years ago; let us do so with the prayer from today’s Introit - taken from Psalm 143 - on our lips.
“Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. ...”
“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. ...”
“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground! For your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!” Amen.
23 November 2008 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Psalm 39:4-5, 7-8, 12
People have been interested in knowing when the end of the world will come, and when judgment day will be upon us, for many centuries. During the Middle Ages, the approaching end of the first Christian millennium, around the year 1000 A.D., aroused a high level of apocalyptic expectation.
In the sixteenth century, the Lutheran Reformers were quite certain that the end of the world was at hand - although they refrained from specific date-setting. The early eighteenth-century German Lutheran Biblical scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel predicted, on the basis of calculations mostly from the book of Daniel, that the world as we know it would come to an end in 1836.
Closer to home, here in America, the Baptist preacher William Miller proclaimed to his followers in the first half of the next century that 1843 would be the year of Christ’s return. When 1843 came and went with no such occurrence, the prediction was adjusted to the following year, 1844. Of course, that year came and went too.
More recently, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a man by the name of Russell, predicted that Christ would return, and that the end would come, in 1914. Later, his successors at the Watchtower made another prediction, for 1975.
Neither prediction turned out to be correct. But I suppose I don’t have to tell you that.
Today, interest in knowing when the end will come is not subsiding. But people with such a curiosity in our post-Christian age no longer limit themselves to fanciful interpretations of the Bible as their source material.
The ancient calendar of the Mayan Indians is commonly interpreted to indicate that the end of time will come in the year 2012. That’s four years from now. Many people are waiting with trepidation to see if this is so.
Those of a more scientific bent are wondering if an asteroid called XF11 will come so close to the earth in the year 2028 - October 26 to be exact - that it will initiate a destructive geological cataclysm.
The well-known prognosticator Nostradamus, who lived in sixteenth-century France, gives the world a little more time. Some of his flowery and metaphorical statements have been interpreted to say that the end of days will occur in the year 3797.
Now, what are we to make of all of this? Jesus - as well as the prophets before him, and the apostles after him - did tell us that the world in which we live will come to an end. He also promised that he will return on the last day, to judge the living and the dead.
All of these efforts to know when the end will come can be seen as an indication that people do in fact have a sense of the truthfulness of what Jesus predicts. They know, deep down, that the earth as we now experience it will not endure forever.
And people also wonder what will happen to them when the world comes to an end. If we survive until the last day, what then?
Will we be snuffed out, together with the world and everything in it? Or will we live on? And if we do live on, what will that be like?
And where will we stand in regard to God and his judgments? If our lives are going to be weighed and sifted in the presence of our creator, how will it come out for us in the end?
These questions occupy the thoughts of all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. All of us, at one time or another, think about the end of days, and about the end of our days.
At a psychological level, we have the idea that the more we know about these things, or the more we think we know, the less scared we will be as we face the future.
But Jesus also says, “concerning that day and hour no one knows.” Only God is truly aware of his own timetable for such events.
So, all the efforts of human ingenuity, and of the human imagination, to plumb the depths of this mystery, will come to nothing. When the end does come, no one will have expected it.
The high level of interest in mastering the details of end-times prophecy that can be seen among many people in Christian history, and among many people today, is, I would suggest, a distraction - a dangerous distraction - from the things that humanity is really supposed to be thinking about.
As far as the visible second coming of Christ is concerned, it is enough for us to know in faith that this will happen, according to the Lord’s own schedule. Christ the Lord will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.
His kingdom will have no end. We confess this in the Creed, as we should.
But for now, while we await the final consummation, it’s much more important for us to consider the ways in which Christ already comes to us here and now - while we are still living in this world, and while this world still survives.
The question of where we will stand at the end of the world, as far as God’s judgments are concerned, is intimately connected to the question of where we stand with God right now. In today’s Introit, taken from Psalm 39, King David reflects on his standing with God, and his standing in the broad sweep of world history.
It’s remarkable to hear what is said here by someone who was, at the time, a king, and an important person. In naked and unpretentious honesty, David chants these sober and humble words to his God:
“O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!”
During his lifetime, David was one of the most important human beings on the face of the earth. He was a king over God’s people, and a prophet. But David knew that his short and fleeting life was as nothing before God in his eternal glory.
His human greatness, such as it was, would evaporate into nothingness before the greatness of God. David knew that when he would someday stand before the Lord, his short and relatively insignificant life had better stand for something of enduring value.
And he knew that if his life were to have something of enduring value about it, this would have to come from God. So, that’s why he went on to say:
“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions.”
As David looked to the end - the end of his short life, and the end of the world - he looked with hope in God’s mercy. The ways in which God would use David, and the ways in which God would glorify his own name through David, were the only things that would give meaning and purpose to David’s life.
Now, if King David knew this to be true about himself, how much more should each of us know this to be true of us? “Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” That includes me, and you.
In and of yourself, you are a breath - a vapor; a mist that dissapears in the morning sun. Your personal worldly successes, from the perspective of eternity, will be as nothing.
At the end, when you stand before the throne of judgment, do not expect God to be interested in a recounting of your earthly accomplishments. If your hope then is not in God and in his promises, you will have no hope.
But as with David, your hope can be in God. You can face the future with confidence. You can know where you will stand with God on judgment day, because you can know where you stand with God now.
David beseeches the Lord, “Deliver me from all my transgressions.” For the sake of Christ - David’s Savior and yours - God heeds that prayer, and grants that request.
David’s sins - which were great and many - were like quicksand, pulling him down into damnation. By his own moral and spiritual strength he could not extract himself from this fate.
But God for Christ’s sake reached out his hand, and pulled David from that muck and mire. And God, for Christ’s sake, gave David a chance for a new beginning. A fresh start.
The words of the Offertory that we sing every Sunday after the sermon are taken from another of David’s psalms, in which David asks God for the thorough cleansing and spiritual restoration that come with his forgiveness.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” As David prayed that prayer, he was prepared for the end, whenever the end might come. He knew that God would also grant that request, and so he would be ready for judgment day.
“Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirt from me.” You, too, can be assured that God will hear you, when you chant these words.
For the sake of Christ, you are delivered from your transgressions. God lifts you from the muck and mire of your sin, and sets you down on the solid ground of Christ’s righteousness.
With the joy of a conscience that has been set free from such judgment, by God’s free Spirit, you too are able to look toward the end without fear. Of course, you still don’t know when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. That day remains hidden from us.
But when your Savior does return visibly to this world, to usher in the culmination of all things, you can and will know, with the certainty of the faith that the Holy Spirit works in you, that he will claim you as his own.
In confidence that God will grant this petition also to you, you sing: “Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”
As you wait for this day, you do not wait alone. As a church - as the body of Christ - we wait together. And with God’s Word we build one another up in our most holy faith.
But what’s even more important to consider is the fact that Christ is also with us. He already comes to us, mystically, to prepare us for that final, visible return that will take place on the last day.
In this life, while it lasts, we are already guests in the Lord’s spiritual house. And he is our gracious and generous host. David says it this way: “For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.”
Hidden under the earthly forms of human words - water, and bread and wine - Christ comes to us even now. He is with us, and we are with him.
When we speak of the “second coming,” which we await, we mean the second visible coming. We don’t mean to imply that Jesus is somehow locked away in a far distant place, separated from us and unable to be our companions in this life.
The number of times that the Lord has invisibly returned to the earth is far more than one or two. It is uncountable.
He comes again, to forgive us and save us, as many times as his Gospel is proclaimed. He said to his disciples, as he sent them out to prepare his way, “he who hears you, hears me.”
He comes again, to cleanse us and restore us, as many times as the sacrament of baptism is administered. In conjunction with his institution of that sacred washing, of water with the Word, he said, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
And in particular, he comes again, to forgive us and renew our hope, as many times as the sacrament of his body and blood is celebrated, and offered to his church. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession we express our conviction and our comfort that
“in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly offered with those things that are seen, bread and wine. Moreover, we are talking about the presence of the living Christ, for we know that death no longer has dominion over him.”
It’s also true, of course, that those who partake of this Supper in hypocrisy and unbelief, without self-examination and repentance, and without faith in the Word of Christ, do not receive a blessing from that participation.
Those who commune in an unworthy manner do still have an encounter with Christ. It’s the Word and institution of Christ that make his body and blood to be present in the bread and wine, not the faith of the communicants. Therefore the unbelief of a hypocritical communicant doesn’t make the body and blood of Jesus to go away.
But for such people, their encounter with Christ in the sacrament brings judgment upon them. St. Paul says that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
It is a foretaste of that final word of condemnation that the wicked and unbelieving mass of fallen humanity will hear when the Lord divides the sheep from the goats on the last day.
But for those who, like David, have put their hope in the Lord, this sacrament is a foretaste of the final vindication and justification that will be ours for the sake of Christ on judgment day.
Jesus will forgive us then, because he forgives us now. We will believe him then, and our hearts will be at peace then, because we believe him now, and our hearts are at peace now.
We are at peace with the Lord because of the Lord’s pardon, spoken from the cross of Jesus, and spoken to us here and now in the Gospel and the sacraments. We are forgiven because of the mercy of God, and not because of our achievements and successes. We are forgiven because of the mercy of God, in spite of our failures.
That’s how we live our life now, by faith, while this transient and temporary world remains. And that’s how we await the end of this world.
“O God, our Help in ages past, Our Hope for years to come; Be Thou our Guard while troubles last, And our eternal Home!” Amen.
30 November 2008 - Advent 1 - Mark 11:1-10
Does the Lord need anything from us? I think we’ve all been trained to think about God in such a way that we would instinctively answer “no” to this question.
We are thinking, first of all, of God’s almighty power. He created the world and everything in it in six days. He created us. He is the source of all good things.
We can easily list hundreds of ways in which we need things from him for both body and soul. But It’s no doubt very difficult for us to call to mind anything that God needs from us.
We are also thinking of God’s grace. St. Paul tells us quite plainly: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
We can’t imagine what God would need from us in regard to these things. It would actually be a sin for us to think that we needed to make some kind of positive contribution toward our own redemption.
We know that it would be very displeasing to God if we tried to inject ourselves into the work that God’s grace actually accomplishes, or if we tried to take some of the credit for what the Lord has actually done in regenerating us and in justifying us.
God doesn’t need anything from us in terms of our salvation from sin. He did it all.
We might wonder, then, how to interpret the statement that we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Mark:
“Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it...’”
“The Lord has need of it.” According to the way in which God had planned out the salvation of the world, and according to the way in which Jesus was faithfully implementing that plan, the Lord needed that little donkey.
In his infinite wisdom, and according to his infinite understanding of his own holiness and justice, God knew that the way for humanity to be saved was for God himself - in the person of his Son - to become a part of humanity.
Jesus, as God and man in one person, saved us from the power and guilt of sin. He saved us from wrath and divine judgment.
He did all of this from within - as a part of the human story. His life was lived out among us, on this earth.
His suffering and death occurred “under Pontius Pilate,” that is, as a datable event. His resurrection happened at a specific time in world history, and in a specific place in this world.
The colt on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem was a necessary part of this story. He rode that colt into the Holy City where he would meet his fate on Calvary, and where he would achieve his victory over death in the empty tomb.
Jesus did not ride that day on a noble stallion, as a conquering general. He rode on a beast of burden.
In this way he signified that he, too, would bear a great burden - the burden of all human sin. As our substitute he would lift that burden from us, and from our consciences, and would in love carry that burden to the cross in our place.
And so, there was a definite reason why the prophet Zechariah spoke these words, and not other words: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
This happened by divine design. And because from all eternity God designed the saving work of his Son in this way, and not in some other way, this is what needed to happen.
Did the Lord need to borrow that donkey colt? Yes, he did. Could he have improvised with some other animal, or with no animal at all? No, he could not.
What Jesus told his disciples to say to the people who inquired of them what they were doing, in taking the little donkey, was absolutely true: “The Lord has need of it.”
And now let me ask you an important question. What does the Lord need of you, today, here and now?
God, in his desire to save humanity, became a human being. Jesus saved us from our sins in a very human way, by means of a very real human life, and by means of a very real human death.
And now, as Jesus would seek to distribute the benefits of his death and resurrection to people like you and me, he does this also in a very human way. When he had made full satisfaction for all our sins, our resurrected Savior established a new humanity - a new people, a new nation - forgiven by God and restored to its fellowship with God.
Jesus is the head of this new humanity. He is the head of his church.
He is the new Adam, the source of his church’s spiritual life and hope. St. Paul writes: “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
And in offering this spiritual life and hope to his people, Jesus has not appointed angels to preach the Gospel, or to administer his sacraments. He has appointed men to carry out these tasks for the benefit of their fellow men.
He who is the Son of God and the son of Mary reaches people through other people - people whom he calls through his church to be his mouthpiece, and to shepherd his flock.
And when he thereby gathers us together to receive his saving gifts, that is where a very real and physical human community is to be found - a community of faith, of which Christ is the loving head.
The Holy Christian Church is, of course, a supernatural reality. It is more than an earthly gathering of men, women, and children. But it is not less than such a gathering.
The eternal church of Jesus Christ is present among us, in, with, and under the outward congregation of those who confess the Gospel, and who have been called together by their Lord around the preaching of that Gospel.
This preaching happens in specific places and at specific times. The church of Jesus Christ in this world therefore gathers, at the invitation of its Savior, in specific places and at specific times.
It is with deep and deliberate purpose, flowing from the eternal will of God, that the Epistle to the Hebrews contains these words: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Jesus established his church in this way: not as isolated individuals, each with his own private pipeline to God, but as a family. And the family of God is a family that gets together regularly, in order to receive, through the public ministry of their spiritual fathers, the Gospel and sacraments that sustain and preserve them in their faith.
In the days of the apostles, certain households in each congregation would open their homes for the gatherings of the church. In time, however, when the number of believers grew, this kind of hospitality was no longer adequate for the church’s liturgical needs.
And so, buildings that were specifically dedicated to be places of worship, where the congregation could gather, were constructed and maintained. They were necessary, not because a building as such is necessary, but because the congregation of believers needs to gather somewhere, to be able to unite in prayer, and to be able to partake together of the means of grace.
And it is still necessary that facilities like this be provided, in one way or another, for the gathering of the Lord’s people. Whether such places are owned or rented, are permanent or temporary, the Lord has need of them.
And the Lord has need of the material contributions that allow all of this, practically speaking, to be a reality.
According to the way in which God has designed his church, and according to the way in which he has designed the method of delivering the Gospel to people that he chooses to use, a place for meeting is not optional. It is therefore not optional that God’s people would contribute the time and treasure that are needed, so that such places will be available for the Lord’s church.
And of course, the Gospel must be preached by real, flesh-and-blood men. The Lord of the church has established a divine order by which qualified individuals are to be trained and called to serve as his public ministers.
St. Paul speaks to the practical necessities that are associated also with this divine mandate:
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”
Again, he writes:
“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? ...the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.”
“If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? ... Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
Pastors, missionaries, and teachers of God’s Word, who are expected to dedicate their lives to the service of God and his church, need to be provided for by those who are the beneficiaries of their ministry, or who have commissioned them in God’s name for their work.
They are the Lord’s servants. The Lord therefore expects his people to make whatever sacrifices are necessary, so that his called servants will not be distracted from their ministry by financial worries.
According to the way in which God has designed the public ministry of Word and Sacrament, and according to the way in which he wants that ministry to be carried out for the salvation of souls, this is how it has to be.
It is not optional that believers in this world provide for the material needs of their shepherds and spiritual leaders. Your participation is not optional. The Lord has need of it.
But again, remember what this is all about. God, from all eternity, planned out the salvation of his elect, for the sake of Christ. And in his infinite love he has fulfilled this plan, and is continuing to fulfill it.
Our Father in heaven sent his Son into the flesh, to be the Redeemer of the human race. Jesus died for all.
He died for you. And he rose again, bodily, so that you can live forever.
And Jesus has established on this earth the human community of his holy church. In this Christian church he daily and richly forgives you and all believers all your sins.
In this community he comes to you and abides with you, and assures you of his promise that he will be with you always, even to the end of the age.
And God graciously allows you to play a role in this great drama. He invites you to confess your faith.
And he invites you also to put that confession of faith into tangible form, in rendering to his church and to his ministers, according to the blessings you have received from him, the material support that they need for the fulfillment of their calling in this world.
God, in his eternal wisdom, made a decision to bring his salvation to humanity in a way that involves real people, like you and me. He gives us the great privilege of being a part of what he is doing.
In the person of his Son he became one of us, in order to save us. And by his grace he chooses to use us, and our resources, to bring his message of salvation to the world.
Don’t ever underestimate the importance of the contribution you are able to make to the work of God’s church - even if it seems to you to be small and insignificant. The Lord has need of it.
“Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it...’” Amen.