SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2009
1 November 2009 - All Saints - Deuteronomy 32:3-7
Please listen with me to the words of Moses, as recorded in the thirty-second chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, beginning at the third verse:
“I will proclaim the name of the LORD. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. They have acted corruptly toward him; to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation. Is this the way you repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”
So far the text.
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran Church teaches - and I quote - that “the great things that the saints have done serve as examples to people in their public or private life, as a means of strengthening faith, and as an incentive to imitate them in public affairs.”
In other words, when we consider the great things that Christians of the past have done as the fruit of their faith, we are inspired by their example to do great things in God’s name ourselves. This is very much in keeping with the words of Moses: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.”
Over the centuries people have been drawn to certain heroic saints of history, who, in the popular mind at least, did indeed do great things. One thinks, for example, of the legend of St. George - one of the more popular saints in eastern Europe - who supposedly slew a dragon. That was certainly a great thing, wasn’t it?
One also thinks of St. Patrick, or St. Boniface, who converted entire nations of people through their bold and courageous missionary work. That was pretty great too, wasn’t it?
And so we, too, may aspire to this kind of greatness. Or at least we may try to be as great as we can be, according to our circumstances. We aspire to do important things that other people will notice, and that will cause them to remember us.
Perhaps we compete for this kind of greatness with others: in our involvement in church activities; or in our successes and achievements at work; or in the impact we make on the larger community through the causes we espouse.
We are, after all, supposed to do great things in this world - all for the glory of God, of course. Right? Well, yes, and no.
First of all, we need to define what “greatness” is according to God’s Word. It’s true that we are supposed to do great things, in imitation of the saints of the past who also did great things.
But all too often, our perception of what is great in God’s eyes is colored more by our pride, than by the teaching of Scripture.
Sometimes, the calling from God that a particular Christian has does indeed prompt him to do things that others will notice and remember. But this is so only when God has called someone to such work.
Christians in general, however, are not to be glory seekers. They are to be humble, and concerned about the needs of others, in fulfilling the tasks that God has entrusted to them - tasks that often go unnoticed, and that are usually not accompanied by praise and adulation.
St. James reminds us: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” He does not say, “Exalt yourselves before the Lord, and before others.”
Our “greatness” as disciples of the Lord is to be found in humility: Humility in serving others, and even more fundamentally, humility in receiving from God the gifts, and the blessings, that he bestows on us.
As many of you know, I am a family history hobbyist. When I have a chance, I enjoy doing genealogical research: finding out about who my ancestors were, where they lived, what they did, and so forth.
This past week I basically took a couple days of vacation time, to go to the Family History Center in Mesa, where microfilms of church records from a couple small villages in eastern Slovakia had been made temporarily available to me - on loan from another research facility. Some of my forebears used to live in these villages.
These records dated from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - from a time in history when civil records of births, deaths, and marriages were not kept by the government. Church records are the only sources of information we have about most of the people who lived back then.
Genealogists know this, and so they piece together family relationships by means of the information that is provided in the records of baptisms, weddings, and funerals that the ministers and priests of the past kept.
In my own case, I was successful in tracing my family tree back several generations beyond what I previously knew. But as I pored over these records, and struggled to read and translate the Slavonic, Latin, and Hungarian entries in them, I did not do so only as a genealogy hobbyist, looking for my ancestors.
I also remembered that I was a Christian, directed by the Lord to notice, and imitate, the great things that the saints of the past have done. In these records, dealing with simple farmers and poor peasants, I found such saints.
Their names are not recorded in the annals of history. There are no monuments erected in their honor. But in God’s eyes, what they did in faith, at pivotal times in their life - as recounted in these old church records - was indeed great.
When a young man and a young woman, who had probably grown up together, came to love each other in that special way, they got married, so that they could share their lives, and their love, with honor before God. And they sought out the blessing of God on their union by getting married in the Lord’s house.
At this joyful time in their lives, they recalled the Lord’s promise to be an ever-present helper to those who call upon him. And so they did call upon him, asking him in humility, and yet with confidence, to keep them faithful to their vows to be each other’s lifelong companions.
Every time a couple did this, in faith, and in submission to the loving will of their heavenly Father, they were doing a great thing.
When the Lord blessed their union with children, this too was a time for rejoicing. The life of a simple villager at this time in history was a hard life, without many pleasures. But the birth of children was always something to be celebrated, and it always was celebrated.
But at the same time, as the parents were instructed by God’s Word about the inherited sinfulness of the human race, they knew that their dear little one was in need of God’s forgiving grace. Their baby had been conceived and born in sin - flesh born of flesh. That was a sobering thought.
And yet another kind of joy was theirs - a deeper and more satisfying joy - when they brought their newborn infants to the church to be baptized - usually on the day after their birth. The parents didn’t want to delay in bringing their children to the washing of regeneration, and in introducing their children to the Savior who had said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.”
When a father and mother presented a newborn child for baptism, and pledged with the Lord’s help to raise that child in the Christian faith, it was a good time to recall the words of St. Paul: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Every time a set of new parents did this, in faith, and in submission to the loving will of their heavenly Father, they were doing a great thing.
And of course, while the birth a child is the happiest of times, the death of a child is the saddest. Today it is rightly considered to be a great tragedy when a child dies before its parents. But back in the 1700s and 1800s, there was hardly a family that did not at some point have to go through this.
In the records I was studying this past week, infant and child mortality was very high. And adults, too, did not live nearly as long as people expect to live today. Most died in their 50s.
But in the midst of death, as these common Christians experienced it on a daily basis, there was life: the life of Christ and of the power of his resurrection, which they knew even in the midst of this world’s trials. It would have been inconceivable for these people not to have a Christian funeral for their loved ones who had passed from this world.
When Christians die, those who survive rejoice in the promises of God. They give thanks for the blessings that have come from God, and they pray for the heavenly comfort that only God, in Christ, can give. St. Paul says that we who know Christ - and his salvation from sin, death, and the devil - do not grieve as others do, who have no hope.
But those saints of old - living and dying in obscurity all those many years ago - did have hope. It was not a hope that was based on wishful thinking.
It was a hope that was built, in confidence, on the Gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ. It was a hope that was built on the divine pledge that had been made to them in their baptism, whereby they were joined to Christ, and Christ was joined to them.
And so, in hope, they called upon the Lord in their time of human sadness, and gently and respectfully laid the bodies of their deceased loved ones in the cradle of the earth, to sleep in peace until the day when the last trumpet will sound.
Every time a grieving family did this, in faith, and in submission to the loving will of their heavenly Father, they were doing a great thing.
The saints of God with whom I became acquainted, as it were, in these old church registers, did great things like this all the time. It is a great and noble work of faith, worthy of emulation, when Christians give testimony to their convictions by doing what Christians do at the critical junctures of life.
In our desire to do “great” things, I wonder how well we do in learning the lessons that are taught about what is truly important to God’s people, in old church registers from bygone centuries. One thing is for sure: The world around us is definitely not following the example of these saints of old.
People in our time, to an ever-increasing extent, think that they can now live without God. He is irrelevant to them.
What he says in Holy Scripture about sin and grace, about marriage and family, about life and death, is ignored at best, or ridiculed and mocked at worst. The fervent faith of Christians in earlier generations is likewise belittled in a patronizing way - if people think about it at all.
What Moses said of the fallen-away Israelites, can be said of the post-Christian society in which we live:
“They have acted corruptly toward [the LORD]; to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation. Is this the way you repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?”
A friend recently mentioned to me that there are more instances of divorce among Christians than among the population in general. I suspect, though, that one of the main reasons for this otherwise alarming statistic is that it is mostly Christians today who are still getting married.
Others, to an ever increasing extent, are just moving in with each other, and then after a time moving out, and moving in with someone else. But where is there any abiding joy, or true emotional fulfillment, in relationships of mutual exploitation like this?
Can we find, in such casual arrangements, the kind of stability and security that the human family so desperately needs? How tragic, and how sad, this is.
Those who are poisoned by this way of thinking, and who are trapped in this way of living, need to stop, and instead imitate the great things that were done by the saints of the past, in regard to marriage and family.
Another bit of evidence that people today think that they can live without God, is to see how unimportant, and how irrelevant, the church and its fellowship are to so many.
It used to be that quite a few people at least went to church on Christmas and Easter, and had their children baptized. But today, even such half-hearted vestiges of cultural Christianity are rapidly disappearing.
Virtually an entire generation is now growing up without baptism, without Sunday School, without church. They are growing up without Jesus as their Savior, without the forgiveness of sins, and without the hope of eternal life.
In place of these things, they are attempting to carve out something to live for on their own - something to help them make sense of the world and of their place in it. And so they seek to find their place in the entertainment culture, in the self-indulgence culture, in the sex culture, or in the drug culture. How tragic, and how sad.
Those who are poisoned by this way of thinking, and who are trapped in this way of living, need to stop, and instead imitate the great things that were done by the saints of the past, in regard to baptism and the life of faith.
And in our day, there is probably more fear, and more confusion, connected to death, than to just about any other issue. On the one hand, there are those whose desire to avoid death borders on the pathological. Since this world is all that there is, life in this world must be clung to at all costs.
But on the other hand, there are those who have seemingly lost all respect and awe for life. Suicide is up among all age groups. And when people do die, the new rituals of a New Age religion give testimony, not to a resurrection faith, but to the embracing of reincarnation myths and spiritualist fantasies.
It never crosses their minds that someday there will be an accounting before a holy and righteous judge. Again, how tragic, and how sad.
Those who are poisoned by this way of thinking, and who are trapped in this way of living, need to stop, and instead imitate the great things that were done by the saints of the past, in regard to death and burial, and the hope of the resurrection.
And I wonder, too, how immune we have been to the influences of a world that has in these ways turned its back on the holiness and wisdom of God, and on the good and gracious will of God. Probably more than we would care to admit.
We are in the world, this is true. But the world doesn’t need to be in us.
And so, on this All Saints Day, let us also commit ourselves to following the example of the Christian believers of the past, who knew better than we often do, what is truly important in life; what is of eternal value. Let us imitate their great deeds - their humble, faith-filled deeds.
Don’t live in immorality. Get married. And then love and honor the spouse God has given you.
When the Lord blesses your marriage with children, enjoy them, and take care of them. And don’t forget the most important thing you can do for them in the Lord’s name: bring them to Holy Baptism, and, in word and deed, show them the way of Christ.
When the Lord takes a believing loved one from you in death, do not despair. Entrust that person’s soul into the hands of God’s love, and rejoice in the hope of the resurrection.
And together with the saints of the past, let us also receive for ourselves what God wants to give us, through the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. The true needs of the human soul have not changed in the past couple hundred years. In fact, they have not changed for thousands of years.
But God’s grace in Christ, and his will for your salvation, have also not changed. God forgives you. God restores you. God leads you in the paths of his righteousness, as he instills and strengthens within you the gift of faith.
And so, think about the great things that God’s people in the past did. Think about their faith in their Savior. And then, in the Lord’s name, and by the Lord’s strength and wisdom, imitate their example.
“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.” Amen.
8 November 2009 - Pentecost 23 - Mark 12:38-44
In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus speak of widows, and of the belongings and property of widows, in two places. First, in regard to the professional religious scholars of Israel, he says this:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
One thinks immediately of the smooth-talking religious charlatans of our day, who often take advantage of a widow’s lack of experience in financial matters in getting her to sign over huge amounts of money, or property, to their television ministry. From the Lord’s condemnation of the Scribes, who seem to have been acting in a similar way, I guess we can see that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Unscrupulous people of all times in history can and will use religion as a pretext for enriching themselves at the expense of vulnerable people. They “devour widows’ houses,” as Jesus puts it. All too often, older people are victimized by scams and fraudulent financial schemes of all kinds.
Scammers - religious and otherwise - take note of the seniors who seem to have some accumulated resources, and these seniors are targeted. The poorer ones, of course, are ignored, and left alone.
Pastors and religious leaders should always take the lead in protecting seniors from being taken advantage of by others. Pastors and religious leaders should certainly not be taking the lead in fleecing the elderly, or in using their relationship of trust with older people as an avenue for exploiting them.
I think we would all recognize this. In whatever encouragements we give to people in our church regarding their stewardship and offerings, we would always want to make sure that we do not say or do anything that would seem to be an unethical manipulation.
Rather, we would simply present the needs, and appeal to people of all ages and incomes to consider prayerfully how they can help in meeting that need. No coercion. No flattery. No scare tactics.
The second reference to widows and the belongings of widows in today’s text is perhaps more familiar to us. It is the story of the widow’s mite. We read:
“And [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.”
“And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”
We noted that the unscrupulous scribes, and others like them, would no doubt watch for rich widows, and take notice of them before they would pounce on them and take advantage of them. But here we see that Jesus is watching everyone who approaches the offering box in the temple, and is taking note of everyone.
That’s the way it is today too. Jesus, who is the Lord of the church and your own Lord, is watching you. And he’s not just watching you as you deposit your offering in the collection plate.
He’s also watching you as you earn the money, and as you spend your money on various things, and as you and your spouse discuss how much you will contribute to the church. And he watches everyone who approaches his church in this way: those who are well off, those who are practically broke, and those who are somewhere in between.
As he watches, and takes note of things, it would, of course, be his will that your stewardship priorities would put first things first, and would be a reflection of the important place that the Gospel has in your life.
And by the working of his Spirit through his Word, he would seek to bring you to an ever deeper level of maturity in your faith, and to an ever deeper appreciation of how necessary it is to maintain the ministry of Word and Sacrament in your community, and in your own life.
But Jesus won’t manipulate you, or trick you, or flatter you. Through his cross and resurrection, he will simply be who he is to you - your Savior from sin and eternal death. And through his Gospel, he will cause you to be who you are to him - his grateful and beloved servant.
But I’m not going to say much more about stewardship or church offerings. I want to look instead at what the widow’s giving of her last two coins represents at a deeper level of her life.
During the Civil War, in 1862, the Union commanding general at the time - George McClellan - was not very successful in the battles he waged. President Lincoln finally had to relieve him and replace him with someone else.
One thing that General McClellan would always do as he was moving forward to meet the enemy, would be to keep a fairly large percentage of his army in the rear, unengaged, in order to cover a possible route of retreat. But of course, the problem with this is that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Because these able-bodied soldiers were not put into the fight, General McClellan ended up not having enough soldiers to win the battle, so that a retreat then became necessary. He also always had it in the back of his mind that retreat was an easy option, so that when he encountered resistence from the enemy, he resorted to a retreat too quickly.
Historians think that if he had used all his troops - if he had put everything he had into the fight, and kept nothing back, he would have succeeded, and the Civil War would have come to an end much sooner than it did. But, in terms of the incomplete use of his manpower, and in terms of his own inner psychology, General McClellan always set himself up for a defeat, whenever he went into battle.
The widow was not like General McClellan in her encounter with God. By giving all that she had, she was putting her trust completely in the Lord and in his loving care and protection.
She didn’t keep any avenues of retreat open - avenues of retreat back to the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. She could now no longer grasp for those two small coins, if and when she might fall on even harder times.
She knew now that if God would not take care of her, she would not be taken care of. If God gave her nothing, she would have nothing. Period.
That was her faith. That was her confidence - a confidence that trusted in God alone, and not in herself - even in the least.
When you put your faith in the Gospel, and rely on Christ and Christ alone for your salvation, you, too, are to hold nothing back. Christian faith means that you invest everything in Christ, and in his promises to forgive you, and to take care of you, and to give you eternal life.
But too often we do hold back. We do believe - for the most part - that Jesus does forgive sin, and that he does make us to be right with God.
But there’s a part of us that also clings to the notion that we still have to do something to improve ourselves, and to make up for our misdeeds with good works, before God will truly accept us and be at peace with us.
We know, of course, that when we would seek to be reconciled with other people, whom we have hurt or offended, we do need to make it up to them, and to demonstrate - over time - that we are different now, and can be trusted once again. In human relationships, those kinds of considerations do have to be factored in.
But what we then do is apply these principles to our relationship with God, as if that relationship were essentially the same as our human relationships, and as if the basis of our reconciliation with God were the same as the basis of our reconciliation with other people.
And so, we hold back, in reserve, what we think we might need, to prove our sincerity to God, or to repair the brokenness of our lives in order to make ourselves deserving of God’s acceptance.
A lot of this holding back becomes evident when people prepare themselves for a partaking of Holy Communion. They may think that they are not really worthy to go forward and receive the body and blood of Jesus, unless they have achieved a certain level of sanctification, or victory over sin and temptation.
But this is not what makes you a worthy communicants. To commune in a worthy manner is to commune with an honest sense of your own unworthiness, and with an acknowledgment that you bring nothing to Communion but your own human emptiness, and your need to be filled completely with the forgiving and life-changing grace of Christ.
At any time when you stand before God in repentance and faith, there is in that moment no negotiating, no bargaining. You bring nothing that you can offer to God, to win him over, or to make a deal with him for your salvation.
And there is no “plan B” - no option of retreating from this encounter with the Almighty, back to a life of self-improvement and do-it-yourself salvation. There are no props to hold you up, and there is no cushion to break your fall.
When you come before the Lord, in repentance and faith, all of that is left behind. All of that is surrendered. Nothing is held back.
In this profound moment of humility before the Lord of the universe, you cannot cling to anything by which you would presume to claim a place in God’s kingdom, apart from what God himself gives you. You cannot put even the least bit of confidence and trust in anything, apart from what God himself says to you in his Gospel.
In faith, you rely on nothing in yourself - not your good intentions, not your sincerity, not even your faith. You are an empty vessel, in need of being filled completely by God. If he were to give you nothing, you would have nothing.
But God does give. God does cover you with his Son’s righteousness. God does claim you as his own child, by placing the Spirit of his Son - the Spirit of adoption - into your spirit. And God does promise to take care of you, in time and in eternity.
God speaks Christ upon you and into you, when he speaks his pardon and peace to you. And when you have Christ, covering you, filling you, cleansing you, healing you, you have everything. Absolutely everything.
The image of the cross of Jesus Christ always reminds us of what Jesus accomplished on the true cross. Everything that needed to be done, was done.
Every trespass was atoned for. Every transgression was pardoned.
In the realm of your soul’s salvation, therefore, there is never a reason to hold back something, to use to bribe your way into heaven, or to buy God off. In Christ, God gives you everything, without demanding anything from you.
He gives you Christ. He gives you the faith by which you cling to Christ. He gives you the love that flows forth as the fruit of your living faith, toward your neighbor in need.
He gives you a changed heart and a renewed mind. In Christ, all of that come from him. None of it comes from you.
And so, if you are still clinging to a couple cooper coins - spiritual and moral resources that you think might come in handy someday, in bargaining with God, or in making a deal with God - put them in the offering box.
In repentance get rid of all props, all cushions, all potential avenues of retreat. Hold nothing back. Keep nothing in reserve.
And in faith look to Christ alone for everything pertaining to your soul’s salvation. Rely on him for everything pertaining to your right standing before God. Trust in him for everything pertaining to your hope of eternal life.
All my hope on God is founded; He doth still my trust renew,
Me, through change and chance, he guideth, only good and only true.
God unknown, He alone
Calls my heart to be His own. Amen.
15 November 2009 - Pentecost 24 - Mark 13:1-13 & Hebrews 10:11-25
When a church building is destroyed by a fire, or a flood, or a hurricane, or a tornado, this is an extremely traumatic and sad event for a congregation. Religious people develop a close sentimental attachment to the places where they practice their faith. They are deeply shocked when these special gathering places are destroyed.
But, a typical Christian congregation will not disband when it loses its building. It will continue on, and probably build another church. The destruction of a church is a great trial, but it is not a death blow to a congregation.
The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem - which Jesus predicted in today’s Gospel - was in many ways similar to the experience of a modern congregation losing its church building. But in other ways it was something much worse.
To the Jewish people, their temple was a sign of their special standing with God. They were the chosen people, to whom the oracles of God had been entrusted.
They were the nation that had the sacrifices that the Lord had commanded. They were the nation that had the Temple - the special dwelling place of the Lord, where he met his people, and where they met him.
When Jesus walked the earth, the Jewish people of his day had the feeling that their temple was virtually indestructible. It was so big, and so sturdy, and so seemingly permanent.
The disciples of the Lord shared this general feeling. But in today’s text Jesus told them something about the future of the Temple that they didn’t want to hear.
“One of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’”
The Temple, and what happened in the Temple, was at the heart and center of the Old Testament Mosaic revelation. God used the temple sacrifices as perpetual images, and acted-out prophecies, of the ultimate saving work that the coming Messiah would someday accomplish.
In the Temple, lambs and bulls and other creatures were offered in sacrifice by the priests, on behalf of the people. But when Jesus came, he, as the eternal high priest, offered himself once and for all, as the true sacrifice to the justice and holiness of God, on behalf of all people of all times and places. He was and is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It had never been the stones and the mortar and the golden vessels that had made the temple to be the temple. It has never been the sacrificing of the animals, in and of itself.
What had always made the temple to be the temple - to be the house of God, and the dwelling place of God’s forgiving mercy - was the promise of Christ: the promise of a redeemer from all sin, and the promise of eternal reconciliation with God.
The stones and the mortar, the golden vessels and the animals, had always pointed forward and upward to the genuine, personal temple of God; to the Savior who would live out and enact, in his own life, everything that was pictured and symbolized in the building known as the temple.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains that the law of Moses “called certain sacrifices atoning sacrifices on account of what they signified or foreshadowed, not because they merited forgiveness of sins in God’s eyes...”
“In point of fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, the death of Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches when it says, ‘For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’ A little later it says about the will of Christ, ‘And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’”
That’s what Jesus was driving at in this passage from the Gospel of St. John:
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’”
“But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
May we, too, believe this word. May we, with the Lord’s disciples, believe that our peace with God has been established and secured for us by the sacrifice of Jesus, whose blood has been shed in our place, and whose innocent suffering and death has turned God’s wrath away from us forever.
We know, of course, that most of the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus when he came among them as their Savior and Lord. Not all, but most. We also know that most of the Jewish population did likewise. Again, not all, but most.
Still, for approximately forty years, following the resurrection of Christ, God called out to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through the voice of the apostles. He pleaded with them to repent of their sins, and to see, in faith, that the kind of salvation that Jesus provided is exactly the kind of salvation they really needed.
Ultimately, they didn’t need political deliverance from the oppression of the Romans, but they needed eternal deliverance from the power of sin and death. They didn’t need an abiding dwelling place in this world, but they needed a certain home in heaven, and a place in the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband.
God knew that the literal temple would be destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. In fact, he himself, according to the mystery of his saving will for all nations, was going to destroy it - through the instrumentality of the Romans.
The Romans had their own cruel and self-serving purposes in doing what they did. But in, with, and under these wicked motives, God had his own purposes.
God brought about the destruction of the Temple, not because he no longer needed or wanted a special dwelling place among men, but because the true and eternal temple had now taken its place.
This was the temple of his Son’s crucified and resurrected body. Jesus causes God to be personally present among us, dwelling and abiding with us, because Jesus in his person is God in the flesh. He is Immanuel: God with us. And he remains as the true temple of God among men.
The destruction of the old temple was certainly a sad occurrence for those Jews who had placed their hope in Jesus. They loved that temple, and everything that it had stood for according to God’s Old Testament revelation.
But their sadness was tempered by the knowledge that they had already been transported into the new living temple of Christ. In baptism they had been united to Christ. By faith in the Gospel, they knew that the blood of Christ had covered them for all time, and that they were a part of God’s church.
But for those Jews who had refused to believe in Jesus, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was an unspeakable and unimaginable tragedy. In the blindness of their unbelief, they now thought that they had no temple. What a desperate and unconsolable grief must have been theirs.
And there is still no temple like this in Jerusalem. The presence of an important Islamic mosque on the exact site of the temple virtually guarantees that such a temple will never be rebuilt.
But even if someday a new building called the “temple” is erected there, it will not be the “temple” in the true Biblical sense. And that’s because God already has a new temple - a new dwelling place that will never fade away and that will never be shaken or destroyed.
That dwelling place is not this building. It is also not the sum total of all buildings that are dedicated to the worship of almighty God. The dwelling place of God is Christ, our eternal high priest. Where Christ is, God is.
And where is Christ? He is where he has promised to be: in his Word, whenever and wherever it is proclaimed and confessed in this world, and in his sacraments.
Christians, as they are gathered together in the name of Christ, are sometimes called the temple of God. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
But this is so only because Christians are gathered around Christ, and are imbedded in Christ by faith. Jesus Christ is the temple. He is God’s dwelling place among men.
And it is Jesus Christ who makes those who are connected to him to be a temple - by extension. Without him - without his Word and Sacraments in the middle of everything that is going on in the life of the church - the church as such would be no temple.
Do you personally know about the temple that God has provided for you? Are you aware of the fact that there is a way to be in the very presence of God - even during this lifetime?
God dwells among us in Christ. And God wants you, by faith, to dwell in Christ, and thereby to dwell with God. What a marvelous and miraculous thing that is: to know God, to live with God, and to have God living with you.
But apart from the Lord’s holy temple, and without your being a part of that temple, you will not know this blessing, or this joy. You will be like the unbelieving Jews in 70 A.D., who had no temple, no hope, no assurance of God’s presence among them.
They did, of course, have the option of entering into the true and eternal temple that God had indeed provided for them, by the death and resurrection of their Messiah. And you too have that option today.
God’s temple still stands, and it always will. Christ still lives, and will never die again. The church of our Lord still remains in this world, and will never be destroyed or silenced.
In today’s lesson from the epistle to the Hebrews, we are encouraged to see the deeper reality of what is going on in the church, when God’s people are called into God’s presence in Christ. We read:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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.”
This is one of the best summaries in Scripture of what the Christian faith is all about, and of what is really going on in Christian worship. This is one of the best descriptions of what it means to have found a dwelling place in Christ - in God’s temple.
As those who have been cleansed by the Lord’s grace in Holy Baptism, we sacramentally approach our divine high priest by means of the very flesh that was sacrificed for us on the cross, and that opened the way for our reconciliation and union with God.
As those whose consciences have been bathed with the forgiveness of God, we draw near to our heavenly Father without fear, by means of our eucharistic sharing in the very blood that Jesus shed to wash away all sin.
And as we are all united together to Christ in these marvelous ways, we are thereby also united to each other in a forgiving and loving fellowship. We confess the truth of God’s salvation to one another, and together we confess that truth to the world. We encourage one another, and help one another along in the life of faith and service that we share in Christ.
We have a home in God’s house. We have a home in God’s living temple. We have a home in Christ.
Wherever Jesus is, forgiving and saving by the word of his Gospel, and washing away sin, there is the temple. There is God’s dwelling place among men. There is our dwelling place in God.
God’s temple can now never be burned down, or shattered, or blown away. It is indestructible. It will last forever. The world itself, and everything in it, will someday be destroyed with fire, and come to an end.
But God’s living temple will always endure. Those who in faith are united to that temple, and who have been built into it and made a part of it, will always endure. Jesus and his church will always endure. Amen.
22 November 2009 - Last Sunday of the Church year - Mark 13:24-37
Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Back in the 1990s I lived in Massachusetts, where it snowed in the winter. I didn’t own a snow blower. So, whenever snow needed to be removed, I used my snow shovel.
One year there was a particularly significant snowfall. And when the snowplow came through, to clear the street, it threw a huge amount of snow off to the side of the roadway. This extra concentration of snow blocked my driveway and my mailbox.
When it stopped snowing, I went outside with my modest shovel, and went to work clearing the entrance of my driveway, and clearing the area around my mailbox so that the mail could be delivered. A lot of snow had been piled up by the snow plow, so it took me a lot of time and effort to do this.
But finally, after perhaps a couple hours of work, I was done. With fatigue, but also with some measure of satisfaction, I began to walk up the driveway toward my garage, to put the shovel away.
But just then, another snowplow came around the corner. In an instant that truck undid all the effort I had expended in clearing away all that piled-up snow.
It filled in all the cleared-away areas with fresh piles of snow, just as high as they had been before. All my work had been for nothing.
In this life, we expend a lot of time and energy trying to accomplish important things. We invest ourselves in family businesses and family farms.
We go to a lot of effort to establish and maintain a house for ourselves and our family to live in. Home ownership is often pointed to as the quintessential example of achieving the American dream - to which we all aspire.
We build monuments, in our city squares and on our battlefields, to the honor of noble people and noble ideas. We help to endow libraries, museums, universities, and other institutions that we think serve a worthwhile purpose in this world.
And for Christians, that would include ecclesiastical institutions: church buildings, church-related colleges, mission centers, and so forth.
On a smaller scale, we also spend a lot of money building up our collections of things in which we have a great interest. Maybe a display case full of ceramic figurines or other curios, a library of books, CDs and DVDs, antiques, or paintings and sculptures.
All of these things, insofar as they are comprised of the materials of this world, are a part of this world. I don’t mean the “world” as in the evil and sinful influences that surround us in this life, because none of the things I have mentioned are evil or sinful things, in and of themselves.
I mean the world simply in its physical existence. All of us, in one way or another, invest ourselves in these things, and expend great effort in building up these things.
When people approach the end of their bodily life, and look back on their efforts in this respect, they take a certain amount of pride in what they have built. They have a sense of satisfaction in their earthly accomplishments, and in the things that will endure in this world beyond their lifetime.
But what will eventually happen to these things - to these material objects? What will be the ultimate fate of the buildings, the institutions, and the monuments we have erected in this physical world, and as a part of this physical world? In his Second Epistle, St. Peter tells us:
“By the word of God...the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. ...the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
On the last day, in an instant, all things on earth that we have constructed, and built up, and established, will be dissolved - assuming, of course, that these things have not already crumbled by then. At the end, everything that is still a part of the earth will be destroyed together with the earth, by fire.
It will all be gone. It will be as if we had done nothing, and as if we had expended our effort for nothing, and as if we had invested ourselves in nothing.
St. Peter then goes on to ask: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be, in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”
This is a sobering truth.
Now, does this mean that we should therefore not expend ourselves in providing a nice home for our family, or a nice church building for our congregation? Does this mean that we should not endow universities, museums, and libraries?
Does this mean that we should not go to the effort of shoveling out the driveways and mailboxes of life? No, it does not mean this.
There are lots of things that we make use of in our daily life that do not have the illusion of permanence attached to them. We spend our money on newspapers and magazines that we read, and from which we learn, but which we then throw away.
We work hard in pulling out the weeds from our garden, knowing that they will grow back and need to be pulled out again. We vacuum the floors of our home, knowing that the dust and dirt will continue to accumulate, and will need to be vacuumed up again.
We use many disposable items every day. We have no grief or regret when we throw away a burned-out light bulb, or discard an empty soft drink bottle, or replace a worn out article of clothing.
And in general terms, this is the way we should think about all the other things in this material world that we have, and make use of, and value - even the big and expensive things.
It’s not wrong, in and of itself, to go to the effort of building up these things, and investing yourself in them, so that they can exist and serve their proper purpose while the world does still endure. But just make sure you don’t think that you are building up something that will last forever.
Don’t let your heart become attached to these physical things with the feeling that they are permanent, and that they will be an eternal monument to your efforts. Don’t focus your deepest devotion, and strongest commitment, on these ultimately temporary and transient things.
Your deepest devotion, and your strongest commitment, are to be focused instead on that one thing that we have in this life that will never be destroyed, and that will in fact last forever. In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus tells us what that is: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
On judgment day, every object in this world that you built, or endowed, or collected - if it still exists - will pass away. But the words of Jesus will not pass away. The Word of the Lord endures forever.
If you have truly invested yourself in God’s Word, by faith, and if you have invested God’s Word into the lives of other people - so that they too would know their Savior, and the eternal life that their Savior gives - that investment will not be for nothing.
When the world melts away, the Word of the Lord will still remain, strong and invincible. And those who dwell in God’s Word, and in whom God’s Word dwells, likewise will remain strong and invincible.
The words of Jesus bring life to those who otherwise would know only death and separation from God. The words of Jesus bestow peace on those who otherwise would know only confusion and turmoil.
The words of Jesus infuse love into those who otherwise would know only fear. The words of Jesus establish reconciliation for those who otherwise would know only hostility and anger toward God, and judgment from God.
And the words of Jesus create faith in those who otherwise would know only doubt and darkness. The words of Jesus, and everything they touch, will never pass away.
And that’s because the words of Jesus are filled with Jesus himself. Jesus, our resurrected Lord, lives in his word, and comes to us by means of his word, and saves us through the power of his word.
His words are the sacred garment in which he clothes himself, as he abides with us in the fellowship of his church. His words are the outstretched arms by which he draws near to us in love and forgiveness, and by which he gently beckons us to draw near to him in repentance and faith.
His words are the power of regeneration, by which he makes us to be new creatures: filled with an eternal hope, and destined for an eternal fellowship with God, our Creator and Redeemer.
Think of this, my friends, when you consider the relative importance of those things that you are trying to build up and establish in this world, as compared to the supreme importance of that one thing which is eternal.
For example, your house, and all the objects that are in it, will pass away. But the words of Jesus, which you share with your family members inside that house, at times of family devotion and prayer, will never pass away.
The family business or family farm on which you expend so much energy, and in which you work so hard, will pass away. But the words of Jesus, which motive you in your work, and which fill your work with joy and godly satisfaction, will never pass away.
The church sanctuary in which we are seated now, in which we take so much pride, will pass away when the end of the world comes. But the words of Jesus that are spoken here - for our forgiveness before God, for our comfort in life, and for our confidence in death - will never pass away.
The words of Jesus - which are spoken over God’s people in Holy Baptism, and which are spoken to God’s people in the Holy Supper - will endure forever. That’s the reason why Christians build churches: not so there can be a permanent monument to their piety, but so there can be a suitable place where the words of Jesus are spoken, sung, heard, and believed.
Of course, if the words of Jesus have ceased to be spoken and heard in a particular church, well, that’s a place where God’s people no longer have a reason to go. We need his words, in life and in death. For the sake of our souls we need to be in a place - any place - where his pure and saving words are present and active.
The salvation from sin, death, and the devil of which these words speak - and which these words actually deliver to us - will likewise endure forever. And as you cling to the words of Jesus in all these ways, and as those words cling to you by the mercy of God, you, too, will endure forever.
You will not die, but live, and be raised to life everlasting. You will enjoy a place in God’s family forever, in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness dwells.
Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Amen.
29 November 2009 - Advent 1 - Zech. 9:9
When I was serving as a seminary professor in Ukraine, I told my students that it would be important for them, after they become pastors, to have personal contact with their parishioners during the week. I encouraged them to visit their members in their homes, and in this way to give themselves an opportunity really to get to know their people, and to become aware of the special needs and struggles that each family or individual might have.
My students told me, however, that in Ukraine people don’t like to invite the pastor over to their house, unless they are able to offer him a big fancy meal, and other special entertainments. Their respect for the pastoral office is such that they would feel embarrassed to invite the pastor over without giving him their highest level of hospitality.
But, my students said, since most of the people in Ukraine are poor, and can’t afford to do this, they therefore do not invite the pastor to come to their home.
The problem here was that the purpose of a pastor’s visit was not properly understood. And therefore the people’s sense of what the proper preparation for such a visit would entail was not correctly focused.
Certainly if the pastor comes over, you would want to make him feel comfortable and welcome. But the reason for his visit is not to be entertained by you, or to do an inspection of your house.
Rather, a home visit by the pastor is to be seen as something that will help him better to serve you with the Word of God, as he comes to know, in a more personal way, what your life circumstances are. A pastor wants to visit your family, so that he can serve you, according to his office as your spiritual teacher and guide.
The way to prepare for such a visit, therefore, is to reflect on the problems your family may be facing, especially when those problems have a moral and spiritual component, so that you can seek the pastor’s advice and counsel. Or, you should try to remember the theological and religious questions that have come into your mind over the last little while, so that you can seek answers to those questions when the pastor is there.
You know, questions like: Where did Cain’s wife come from? How can I be sure that my religion is the right one? Does God really exist, and if so, how can I know it?
Also, remember that your pastor is just a regular man. In his humanity he is the same as you and everyone in your family.
He does, of course, hold a special office, because of which he is to be seen as the “go-to” guy for spiritual help and religious guidance. But in his own person he is not on any kind of higher spiritual plane of existence. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife - or the wife of any pastor!
And so, you don’t need to feel uncomfortable in inviting your pastor to come over for a visit, as if you are somehow beneath him and unworthy of such a visit. There is nothing farther from the truth than this thought.
The devil would actually love to have you think in this way, so that you remain aloof from your pastor, and from the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Satan knows God wants him to carry out with you for the strengthening of your faith - not only publicly, in the gathered assembly, but also privately, according to your personal and confidential needs.
Before I go on, let me just reiterate my own desire to visit the various households of our church in a somewhat systematic way, as I announced a while back. If I haven’t been to your house for a while, I would still like to come over some time.
I don’t want to be too pushy, so I probably won’t invite myself over and put you on the spot in that way. But I would welcome an invitation.
And you don’t need to entertain me with a fancy meal. A cup of coffee will do. I take milk or cream, but no sugar.
People sometimes misunderstand the reason for having a pastor come into their home, and they often have the wrong idea of what kind of preparations need to be made before the pastor comes. Similarly, people sometimes misunderstand the reason for having Jesus Christ come into their lives, and they often have the wrong idea of what kind of preparations need to be made before Jesus comes.
The question that is posed to the Lord in the first line of the hymn we sang a few minutes ago is for many of us - actually for all of us - a very real question:
“O Lord, how shall I meet thee, how welcome thee aright?”
We also sang these words from the Prophet Zechariah in today’s Gradual:
“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.”
Now, when you hear that Jesus is coming to you as a king, that can certainly fill you with a strong sense of inadequacy. If an important earthly personage were coming to your home - the president of the country, or a Fortune 500 business executive - your first thought might be that you would wish he wouldn’t come. You might feel embarrassed by the modesty of your house and of its furnishings.
But if that person is going to come anyway, in spite of those misgivings, then you would go to great efforts to try to make the best possible impression you could. You would scrub the floors and clean the carpets. You would prepare the best meal you ever prepared - all the while wondering, in your human insecurity, if it would really be good enough.
Now, Jesus, as the king of an eternal and divine kingdom, is more powerful than any earthly ruler. He is more important than any worldly business tycoon.
And when you contemplate your many spiritual and moral shortcomings, and your many failures to live up to the Lord’s expectations, it is only to be expected that your thoughts would be similar to those of the Roman Centurion, who under similar circumstances said to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”
Insofar as Jesus is the almighty and all-holy king of the universe, we would indeed be ashamed to have him come into our lives, and to see what we are really like. But we might think that if he “stays outside,” as it were, then maybe he won’t see our inadequacies and flaws.
Now, in regard to your human pastor, maybe you can hide from him the deeper problems, and the darker secrets, of your life. But in regard to the true Pastor of your souls - your true Good Shepherd from heaven - you can’t hide any of those things. He already knows about them.
And when he exercises his right to come into your life - even when your sins make you feel very uncomfortable and ashamed to have him come in - he will indeed “look around.” He will see those problems, and he will know those secrets.
“O Lord, how shall I meet thee, how welcome thee aright?” Indeed, how can it be done?
Well, when we do receive Jesus, and when he comes into our lives - every time he does come in - he certainly does come as a powerful and holy king. There’s no way to get around that. And there’s no way properly to avoid the penitent humility on our part that our realization of this fact requires.
But Jesus also comes as a righteous Savior - as one who brings salvation. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he.” He’s obviously not bringing salvation for himself. He’s bringing it for you.
When Jesus the royal Savior comes to you in the preaching of his Gospel, and enters into your life by means of his sacraments, he is not coming in order to make demands, or to make you feel embarrassed and ashamed because of your sins. Rather, he is coming in order to give you his love and favor, and to save you from your sins.
And so, the way to prepare yourself for his visit, is not to use all your human effort to clean yourself up, and make yourself pure and blameless in his presence. You can’t do that anyway, because the kind of cleansing and purification you need is a kind that only he can do.
His blood alone cleanses you from sin. His righteousness alone, which is credited to you and draped over you by faith, is the only perfect righteousness there is.
The reason why he comes to you is precisely to do what only he can do. He comes to wash away your sins, and to justify you. There is no way, by your own efforts, to prepare yourself for this, or to make yourself worthy of this.
The salvation that the Lord brings when he comes to you, is a salvation that he is going to give you by his grace, from beginning to end. He doesn’t come to be served by you. He comes to serve you, and to give you his Spirit, and to teach you his truth.
In Word and Sacrament, the Lord comes to us yet again, today, in a way that ultimately knows no earthly comparison. He comes in a way that lays bare before him our whole life: our confidences and our fears; our contentments and our turmoil.
Yet he comes to save us. He comes to save you. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Especially in the Lord’s Supper, which will be celebrated in our midst today, Jesus comes to us from his heavenly throne to forgive and to justify, to renew and to strengthen. And in repentance and faith we receive him.
We become worthy of this “visit” by humbly recognizing our own unworthiness, and by joyfully believing and confessing that he alone makes us worthy to receive what he gives.
As the communicants prepare today to receive Christ, and the salvation of Christ, they and we will sing these most fitting words:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, For with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth, descending, Comes our homage to demand.
King of kings yet born of Mary, As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture, In the body and the blood
He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.
“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.” Amen.