SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2010
7 November 2010 - All Saints
This past week, as I was paying a little bit of attention to an episode of CSI on television, I heard this line, spoken by a criminal character on the show, in explaining why he had perpetrated the notorious “signature” crime that he had committed:
“I want something of me to be left behind, so that people will speak my name, and know who I was.”
People who commit notorious crimes do sometimes have this motivation. They want to be remembered by history for something.
And if they cannot be remembered for their positive contributions, then they will settle for being remembered for the way in which they shocked or scandalized society.
Quite often, when famous public figures have been assassinated by previously unknown persons, it was partly because that previously unknown person wanted to become a known person. And killing a famous individual was the quickest way to become a known person, and a remembered person.
Most people, of course, do not resort to such horrible methods of achieving a level of “name recognition” for themselves that will endure beyond their mortal lifetime. But it is common for human beings in general, who are conscious of their mortality, to entertain in other ways the thought that was expressed by that character on CSI:
“I want something of me to be left behind, so that people will speak my name, and know who I was.”
I am aware of the fact that physical death will eventually catch up with me. And I know that it is impossible to live forever physically in this world.
But in my human desire not to be forgotten completely after I am gone from the earth, I might be willing to settle for the idea that I can still do something, somehow, to fulfill the wish for at least “something of me to be left behind.”
So, for example, even though George Washington is now dead and gone, the country that he worked to establish - the United States of America - is “left behind” as evidence that he once did live.
Mark Twain passed away 100 years ago this year. But whenever people read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” they remember him, since “something of him” does live on, in a sense, in his writing.
At a more personal level, I recently visited the high school from which I graduated 30 years ago. There’s not much there to remind the students of today that I was ever a student there.
But on one wall, mixed in together with a bunch of other class pictures spanning the decades, is a photograph of the class of 1980. And there I am, one face in the crowd of my classmates, looking out from that picture.
When I have passed away - as some of my classmates already have - that picture will still be there. Something of me will be left behind, so that people - at least maybe a few people - will know who I was.
What are you doing in life right now, that is calculated to leave a mark on the world that will remain after you are physically gone? Are your various actions - in your church, in your society, and in your family - motivated only by a selfless desire to serve others according to your calling?
Or is there sometimes a prideful wish - lurking behind the various things you do - that you will be remembered for this accomplishment? Is there sometimes a selfish expectation that people in future will speak your name, and know who you were, because of the impression that a particular action of yours will have left upon them?
How important is it to you, that you name might be inscribed on a plaque mounted on a wall somewhere, or on a trophy in a display case at a school you once attended? Is it important to you that your name would be printed in the newspaper at some point in your life, so that people someday who are doing research in that newspaper would see it, and know that you were once on the face of the earth?
Because of the various little “remnants” and “relicts” of your existence in the world - which will still be able to be found here and there when you are gone - do you now have a certain level of satisfaction that after you die, something of you will indeed be left behind, so that people will speak your name, and know who you were? And does that really matter to you?
In his message of salvation to humanity, Jesus Christ does speak to the inner yearning to “live on” in some way that is found within all of us. But Jesus does not promise merely that “something of us” - some inanimate influence or footprint - will be left behind in this world, when we are no longer alive.
Rather, he promises that through faith in him, what will live on is our whole being, our whole human existence, our whole person.
Those in Christ who are still alive on the earth, and those in Christ who are now with the Lord in death, have all been baptized into his death and resurrection. Their destiny - our destiny - is a destiny of resurrection.
We still confess, in the words of the creed that they also confessed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.” The saints on earth and the saints in heaven will live forever, body and soul, in glory and immortality.
Today we are observing the festival of All Saints. The saints of God in heaven - Christians from all times and places - are indeed still alive in Christ. They trusted in Christ’s cross for their justification before God, and they now share in Christ’s victory over death and the grave.
Some of them did leave a memorable mark on the world during their time on earth. Humanly speaking, something of them is left behind. We speak their names, and we know who they were.
Peter and Paul, John and James, Athanasius and Ambrose, Monica and Augustine, Patrick and Boniface, Luther and Melanchthon, Walther and Krauth.
But most of the saints of God, who over the centuries lived and died in faith, are anonymous to us. We don’t speak their names.
As individuals, we don’t know who they were. Practically speaking, nothing of them remains in this world any more.
But that doesn’t really matter, because all of God’s people - forgiven in Christ, and reconciled to God in Christ - have found true immortality in Christ.
And God knows all of them - the famous and the obscure; those who are still remembered on the earth, and those who have been forgotten, or who were never known. Through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord says to his people: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
While their bodies slumber in the ground, they live on. And in the resurrection to come, when their bodies are called forth from the grave, and from the elements of the earth, they will be fully and completely alive, in every way, for ever.
In their lifetime on earth, the saints of God did not obsessively seek to find a human technique to “live on,” in some small way, in the memories of other people.
Rather, during the earthly lifetime of the Lord’s saints, the resurrected Christ graciously sought them out, in his divine Word and Sacraments. And by his forgiving grace he bestowed on them a genuine immortality - an immortality that his own resurrection guarantees to all who trust in him.
St. Paul writes that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
And that means that God’s Son guarantees such an immortality to you, too, as you trust in him. One of the purposes of the Lord’s death on the cross for you, was to slay within you the compulsion to waste the limited time you have on earth, in a desperate search for your own limited version of earthly immortality.
In his death for your sins, he reconciled you to his Father in heaven, and thereby reintroduced you to the only true source of true eternal life. As the resurrected Lord of his church, Jesus now bestows this eternal life on you, through the preaching of his Gospel, and through the administration of his Sacraments.
He says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
As you are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and as you abide in your baptism by daily repentance and faith, Christ continually delivers you from the false hope of earthly immortality - in little bits and pieces - in all the various forms that this false hope may take.
And he delivers to you, in its place, the genuine hope of the resurrection. This is a real hope for a real immortality, which enlivens the church militant, still struggling on earth; and which enlivens the church triumphant, at rest in heaven.
As St. Paul writes: “we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” And so now, as Paul also writes,
“none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
And so we acknowledge and embrace the blessed hope - and the blessed reality - of eternal life, which is shared by all of God’s people, on both sides of the grave. It is a hope and a reality that exists for us already in this world, and that sustains us while we remain in this world.
But it is also a hope and a reality that lifts up the eyes of our faith, so that we can look with confidence and certainty beyond this world, to the next world. And as we look, perhaps we sing:
The church on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee. Amen.
14 November 2010 - Pentecost 25 - Luke 21:5-36
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus told his disciples about the future. And I’m sure that they listened very attentively.
There is a built-in curiosity in all of us about what the future holds. That’s why people often take a look at their daily horoscope in the newspaper, and that’s why they read what’s written on those little slips of paper in their fortune cookies at the Chinese restaurant.
People who are more serious about trying to find out about the future might go further than this. They might consult a fortune teller, or an astrologer.
Now, God’s Word forbids his people to do this. We read in the Book of Deuteronomy: “There shall not be found among you anyone who...practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, ...for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.”
The Lord’s disciples, as pious Jews, would have obeyed this prohibition. Unlike the pagans - who did consult oracles and fortune tellers, without any scruples against doing so - the disciples’ curiosity about the future would therefore usually go unsatisfied.
But now, as Jesus is willing to tell them what the future holds, they are listening with rapt attention. Now their curiosity can be satisfied after all!
They were, of course, hoping to hear something good about their future. In the same way, those who go to fortune tellers don’t want to hear about impending tragedies.
The people who write the fortunes for fortune cookies know that, too. Have you ever read a fortune in a Chinese restaurant that told you of coming evil or failure in your life?
People don’t want to hear about such things. We can assume that the disciples didn’t want to hear about such things either, as they listened to Jesus begin his discourse.
But when you open yourself up to hear about the future from someone who really does know what will come to pass - someone like Jesus - you take the risk of hearing things you don’t want to hear. You take the risk of hearing about sad occurrences and destructive events that you will not enjoy at all.
Because of the sin that infests this world, and that corrupts the people in it, your future - if you are able to know what it will be - will not be a completely good future. Because of the devil’s constant efforts to turn the affairs of human history toward humanity’s destruction, the future - for all of us - will in fact often be characterized by much pain, suffering, and hardship.
And that’s what the disciples of the Lord find out when Jesus tells them what is going to happen in the coming decades - to them, to the church, and to the city of Jerusalem.
The Lord, as he looks to the future, sees and describes religious deceptions, and the intrusion of religious error: “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’, and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.”
Jesus sees and describes religious divisions, and troubling religious persecutions: “they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. ...”
“You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
And Jesus sees and describes natural catastrophes and political upheavals: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.”
“when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.”
“...there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles...”
Indeed, in the year 70 A.D. a Roman legion under the command of Titus Flavius did brutally crush a Jewish revolt against Roman rule that had been stirred up by the Zealots. And in this Roman victory, as a punishment against Jerusalem and the Jews in general, the city and everything in it - including the temple - were destroyed.
Can you imagine how the disciples’ eyes would have been gradually opening wider and wider, as Jesus continued to speak these frightening words to them? This is not what they wanted to hear.
This is not the kind of future they would have expected God to plan out for them. They may very well have regretted asking Jesus to tell them what was to come. Perhaps they would have been better off not knowing these things.
And of course, that’s the way it is for us, in regard to our future. We’re not able to ask Jesus face-to-face what will happen to us in the future.
And so we don’t know. But if we are able to get past our wishful thinking regarding the future, we could probably make some educated guesses about how things might go, on the basis of the Lord’s teaching about life in this world in general.
If the original disciples were persecuted by hardened unbelievers for the sake of Christ’s name, then we too - who also bear that name - can expect persecution. If the climate and tectonics of the earth were destructively active in the days of the Lord’s original followers, and if we live on the same planet as they did, we should not be surprised if the same sort of storms and earthquakes happen now.
If the sinfulness of the human heart inspired men and nations in the apostles’ time to stir up political turmoil and violence, and if human nature is just as bad now as it was then, then we can expect this kind of turmoil and violence in our day as well.
And just in case ours is the last generation, in today’s text Jesus predicts what that last generation will experience when the world, as we know it, comes to an end. He says:
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Some people have the idea that if they believe in God, and pray, and go to church, then their future will be bright and happy; God will solve all their problems; and they will be protected from all hardships. But Jesus never promised this to those who serve and follow him.
In fact, he promised just the opposite. He said: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
As far as your future on earth in concerned, this, my friends, is what you should expect. When things unexpectedly go well for you in earthly matters, and when you do prosper and succeed, then you should be thankful for God’s special grace, and for his special intervention in preventing the forces of sin and evil from wrecking your plans, and ruining your accomplishments, as they would want to do.
But when things don’t go well for you in the affairs of this world, it shouldn’t surprise you. Hardship for God’s people, and trials and tribulations, are the norm, not the exception.
If God has allowed us, in this free and stable land, to experience exceptional happiness, that should not cause us to forget that it is exceptional.
There are many Christians today, living under various forms of oppression, who are experiencing right now the kinds of things that Jesus was talking about. And the time may come when we, too, will begin to taste more of the kind of suffering in this life that Jesus tells us we should actually expect.
To one degree or another, and in one way or another, our future in this world, and the church’s future in this world, will include pain and hardship, suffering and disappointment, mistreatment and oppression.
But that’s not all that our future holds for us. When Jesus told his disciples in today’s text, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” and “some of you they will put to death,” he also added these words: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.”
And when he described the end of the world, with all the upheavals associated with it, he concluded with this: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
And so, while it is true that trials and hardships are in your future, what is more important is that Jesus is in your future. You are a child of God who trusts in the Word of Christ, and who lives in Christ. Nothing that you will face, therefore, will be faced without Christ.
As Jesus promises, even if physical suffering and death may be your fate in this world; as far as your relationship with God is concerned, “not a hair of your head will perish.” When everything around you is burned away like chaff, and the world itself is coming to an end, “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The reason why we can have confidence that Jesus will be in our future, with his protection and redemption, is because he is with us now, in the present, with his protection and redemption. And he is with us with his promise that he will never leave us or forsake us.
As we sang in today’s Introit, from Psalm 121: “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
In Christ, your “going out” - your moving forward into the future - will be in the confidence of faith: a faith in God’s forgiving and renewing grace, and a faith in God’s fatherly kindness toward his children.
The world that you will face in the future will be a world that hates you. That is true. But you will not face that world in the paralysis of fear and uncertainty, because you will face it in union with a God who loves you in Christ.
And the love of God is stronger that the hatred of the world. The love of God, as it carries you into the future, and as it carries you through all the difficulties that you will face in the future, is an eternal love.
It is a love from which nothing can separate you, as you abide in the Word of Christ, and as you walk, with a clear conscience, by the Spirit of Christ. As St. Paul writes in today’s epistle: “the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”
Do you want to know what the future holds for you? Probably you are curious. Most people are.
But in the last analysis, you can’t really know very much about the future. You do not have access to a legitimate and reliable source for such information, as Jesus’ disciples did when he spoke to them of such things.
But when you know now, in faith, that your sins are forgiven through the cross of Christ; and when you know now, by the power of God’s living Word in your life, that Jesus rose from the grave for you; you can know that Jesus Christ is in your future.
He is in your future on earth, as your companion and shepherd in the midst of all the struggles you will face. And he is in your eternal future, in the joy of the everlasting life that he has promised to those who believe in him.
The Lord declares through the Prophet Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me.” Amen.
21 November 2010 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Luke 23:27-43
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. It is a day when we think about the “last things,” and about judgment day.
The story of judgment day is a story of trial and punishment, and of trial and vindication. Everyone whose conscience tells him that someday he will stand before the Lord almighty - to be judged, and to give an account of his life - does think about what the outcome of that trial will be.
We all think about it. And if not, we should.
As we think about it today, however, we would note that the Gospel reading from St. Luke that is appointed for us is not actually about that ultimate, future day of judgment. It is about the suffering and death of Jesus on Calvary’s cross, almost 2,000 years in the past.
But that doesn’t mean that today’s Gospel is not also about judgment - about trial and punishment; trial and vindication. In some ways the events that took place on Calvary are a foreshadowing of the final day of judgment.
Therefore, if you want to know how you will fare on that final day, as you stand before the Lord with your life laid bare before him, look at the events in today’s text. Look especially at the two thieves, who were crucified on either side of Jesus.
And listen to them. And as you listen, compare what each of them says with what you think, and perhaps say. And then ponder the fate and destiny of those two men, in view of what they say in today’s text.
Before he was nailed to the cross, Jesus had been tried before the Sanhedrin, and before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Jesus had been accused of many things - none of which he had actually committed. But he was found guilty anyway.
At a deeper level, he was found guilty according to the predetermined purpose and will of God. According to God’s plan for our salvation, our sins, and the sins of the whole world, had been credited to him, and placed upon him.
And we are guilty of all the things of which Jesus was accused - and then some. So, having been put on trial, and then having been found guilty, he was now, on the cross, suffering the punishment that his guilty verdict - our guilty verdict - deserved.
But Jesus’ “trials” were not yet over. He had to endure yet another trial - another evaluation, another judgment. “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”
This criminal, like Jesus, had had his day in court. He had been tried and convicted. And now he is being punished for his misdeeds.
But even in such a circumstance, as his earthly life is being drained out of him on his cross, and with his last bit of strength, he, as it were, puts Jesus on trial once again. He tests Jesus.
The thief demands that Jesus prove himself - that Jesus demonstrate to the thief’s satisfaction that he deserves to be called the Christ. Otherwise, in the tribunal of the thief’s unbelieving and arrogant mind, Jesus will once again be found guilty - guilty of fraud, for not doing what a Messiah is supposed to do.
And, of course, Jesus fails the test. He does not climb down off the cross.
Jesus does not deliver the thief from his deserved fate. And so he is, according to the thief, deserving of the punishment he is receiving, for not being the kind of “Christ” that the thief demands he be.
But as the thief was judging Jesus in this way, he was really judging himself. By refusing to acknowledge Jesus on Jesus’ terms, as the Redeemer and Savior of sinners, his sins remained upon him.
Jesus was dying for him, and for all people. He was fulfilling his divine mission. As God in the flesh, Jesus was rescuing and restoring his own creation in his suffering and death.
But contrary to what God would have wanted, this death will now be of no benefit to the thief. The thief is so busy judging Jesus, that he cannot see that he himself is being judged - not just by the Romans, but by God’s holy law.
He was so busy passing sentence on Christ, for his failure to do as the thief wanted him to do, that he could not see that sentence was being passed on him, for his hardness of heart, for his unbelief, and for his crimes.
The thief’s suffering on his own cross, for his own sins, was indeed a foretaste of his final judgment. And it was a picture of the final judgment of all who are like him - of all who in their own minds put Christ on trial, and in their hearts condemn Christ because of his failure to be and do what they want him to be and do.
Does that describe you? What kind of attitude toward the Lord do you harbor, when he doesn’t do what you want him to do; when he turns out not to be the kind of God you would be willing to believe in?
In modern times, the unquestioned existence and authority of God is not the starting assumption for people, as it used to be. God is now expected to prove himself.
And when he doesn’t, he is judged by the children of our skeptical age to be unworthy of their faith and obedience.
Of course, such people are willing to obey God only when he commands or allows what they have already decided they want to do anyway. That’s usually the criterion people use to judge God, when they, as it were, put him on trial.
If I were to acknowledge that God is God, and let him be my God, would he cramp my style, and stifle my ambitions? Would he deprive me of my happiness, as I have defined it?
Would he decline to satisfy the aspirations and wishes that I bring to him, and try instead to impose his will over mine?
If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, then I will judge him to be unworthy to be God. And I will pass sentence on him, and punish him with my unbelief and indifference.
Sounds silly, you say? Well, it’s not.
Because that is exactly the kind of thinking that is taking place, even if it’s not formulated in precisely those terms, when people who should know better choose their agenda over God’s; when they choose their standards for happiness over God’s; when they chose to live by their own moral code - or usually their own immoral code - rather than by God’s.
That’s the kind of thinking that is taking place when people ponder the question of whether faith in God is useful or not; or whether God, if he does exist, will make himself useful to them or not.
If God is not useful, and if faith in God does not produce the desired practical results, then there is no reason to believe in him, or to acknowledge him.
To the extent that you think in this way, and put God to the test in this way, and live in this way, you are like the wicked thief on Calvary, who was, in effect, putting Jesus on trial all over again.
And if this attitude defines your life, and your relationship with God, you had better be concerned - very concerned - about what judgment day will hold for you.
But the other thief in today’s story was not thinking or speaking in this manner. In the case of the penitent thief, there was no testing of Jesus, and no demand that he prove himself to be a Savior worth believing in.
Instead, this other thief tested himself, and in his conscience put himself on trial. And in his honesty before God, he found himself guilty of his sins, and admitted his fault.
He realized that in himself he had no defense before the bar of divine justice, and that in himself he had no hope for vindication and acquittal. But at the same time, he looked to the sinless man dying next to him, and he listened to the words that this man was speaking about forgiveness for sinners.
And he knew - he really did know - that this man, with his divine grace and love, was his hope.
This other criminal therefore rebuked the first one, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
And then the penitent thief looked toward Jesus, in hope, and said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus is the king. He will not be ruled by the demands of any man. Jesus is the judge. He will not be put on trial by any man.
But Jesus is also the Redeemer. He had done nothing wrong, as the penitent thief confessed.
His death, therefore, was a vicarious death. That means that it was in the stead of others, and for the benefit of others. It was in the stead of the penitent thief, and for his benefit.
And it was in the stead of you and me, and for our benefit. Jesus represented us, and died for us, as he carried our sins to the cross, and as he submitted himself to the judgment of God’s holy law against our sins.
The penitent and faithful thief would be vindicated, therefore, and acquitted before God, because all the penalties that he owed were being paid in full for him, by Christ. And that payment would be acceptable - eternally acceptable - because it was the Son of God himself, in human flesh, who was making that payment.
For this reason - and for this reason alone - the penitent thief, who now trusted in Christ and in Christ’s righteousness, would not face his imminent death in fear of divine punishment. He would face his death in peace.
Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And the penitent thief knew, with the confidence that Christ’s words instilled into him, that on the last day, as he stood before his Savior’s throne, he would be vindicated in Christ, and acquitted in Christ, and forgiven in Christ.
At the final judgment his sins would not be held against him, because his sins had already been lifted off of him, and had been placed onto the Lamb of God, who carried them to the cross.
And the words that Jesus spoke to this penitent thief, he says also to you: as you cease and desist from judging him, and putting him on trial in your mind and heart; as you judge yourself instead, and admit your sins; and as you turn to him in faith and pray, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He then says to you, “you will be with me in Paradise.” With these words, he removes from you the fear of God’s judgment. And he fills you instead with the hope of an eternal enjoyment of God’s fatherly love.
On judgment day, your sins will not be held against you either, because of Jesus. You will stand before your Savior without fear, having been justified with his righteousness, regenerated by his Spirit, and transformed into his image.
The penitent thief didn’t have very much time to enjoy his new life in Christ, in this world, before he passed - with God’s peace - into the next world. But you have the blessing of time - time to be what the forgiving and regenerating word of Christ has made you to be, from now until you do fall asleep in the Lord.
You have time to be bonded ever more closely to Jesus in your faithful partaking of the Lord’s Supper. You have time to glorify God in a life that is fruitful with good works, performed in godly love for your neighbor.
You have time to live out, in faith, the acquittal and vindication that is yours in the death of Christ on your behalf. You have been baptized into the death of Christ. As with the penitent thief, the cross of Christ is where your sins were judged.
On judgment day you will stand before Christ, to give an account of yourself. But this will not be a time of shame and disgrace, because the account you will give will be an account of God’s pardon.
The account you will give will be an account of God’s grace in your life, as his grace is even now filling you, and working through you.
We close with these words from today’s Old Testament lesson, spoken by God through the prophet Malachi:
“They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” Amen.
28 November 2010 - Advent 1 - Isaiah 2:1-5
Once again, the news is filled with troubling reports of conflict and warfare in this world. The focus of these reports now is the Korean peninsula.
North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing several people. A carrier task force of the U.S. Navy is now in the coastal waters off South Korea. What will happen next? God only knows.
But of course, Korea is not the only place where violence and conflict are flaring up. Iraq, Afghanistan, and even the border area between Mexico and the United States, are the other current hot-spots.
And it’s not just these larger-scale episodes of violence and conflict that trouble our world. Our cities and neighborhood are afflicted with crime. Tensions, hard feelings, anger, and perhaps even violence characterize many of our personal relationships as well.
Why is the world like this? Why are we like this?
People in general wish for peace and harmony with others. But people in general never seem to achieve this wish, and they easily succumb to temptations to act in ways that are contrary to this wish. Why is this?
According to God’s Word, the reason for such violence, conflict, tension, and hard feelings - and for all the other evils that we experience in our damaged world, and in our fractured relationships - is, quite simply, the sinful corruption of the human heart.
Our Lord tells us: “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” And as much as the higher part of our human reason would desire peace and harmony in this life, we cannot, by our own strength or efforts, shed our sinful nature, or cleanse ourselves of it.
Our sinfulness is like the tin cans that boys used to tie to the tails of puppies. No matter how hard we try to run away from it, and leave it behind us, our sin sticks to us, and follows us wherever we go.
Organizations like the United Nations may from time to time be able to do some good, in minimizing some of the violence between nations. But ultimately this violence will remain. Conflict, tension, and anger will not be completely erased from the human experience, for as long as humanity exists in this world.
“But what about God?”, we might ask. If there is a God in heaven, doesn’t he care about these problems? If God is all-powerful, can’t he do something about the violence and conflict in the world, and about all the suffering and anguish that are caused by this violence and conflict?
Some atheists have concluded that the existence of such human sinfulness in the world proves that God does not actually exist. That is foolish reasoning, of course. What human sinfulness proves is that sinful humanity does exist, not that God does not exist.
But even so, doesn’t God care about the violence and conflict that exist in our world, and in our lives? Can’t he do something about it?
Well, remember what Jesus tells us. Evil thoughts and murder - indeed, all human cruelty and all human conflict - proceed from the human heart.
The problem is inside of us, and is not external to us. We are not just the victims of human wickedness.
We are perpetrators - collectively and individually. We are all a part of the problem, because we are all infected by the sinful corruption from which these evils arise.
Some people have the idea that God should use coercive techniques, physically to prevent people from saying and doing bad things to each other. There is a certain appeal to that wish.
If I am the victim of a crime, I would be happy if a supernatural power would descend from heaven, and physically restrain the hand of my assailant. But I would venture to say that God does indeed externally restrain evil much more often than we would ever imagine.
Who knows how many bad things would have happened to us, that did not happen; or how much violence would have been perpetrated against us, that was not perpetrated, if God’s angels had not protected us from these dangers, and turned them away from us, at various times in our life?
The reason why we don’t know about these supernatural interventions, is precisely because these interventions did occur! And nothing bad happened.
But God does not intervene every time. The history of human warfare, and our own personal history of conflict with other people, proves this.
I believe that one of the reasons why God does not step in and externally prevent every potential act of violence, is because it would not be a real solution to the problem, but would instead hide and mask the real problem.
When violent criminals are thrown into prison, there is the benefit to society of their violence now being contained. Incarceration prevents them from causing further harm to law-abiding citizens.
But when a criminal is put into prison, his heart stays the same as it always was. If his heart was filled with anger and violence when he was physically free, it will still be filled with anger and violence when he is physically restrained.
In regard to the anger and violence that afflict the human race as a whole, God is not satisfied simply to tie a straight jacket around this problem, or just to treat the external symptoms of this problem. His agenda is to get into the human heart, and to change the human heart.
And the tools and methodology that God uses to solve the problem of human conflict, at its root, do indeed have the capacity actually to work in the human heart, for the accomplishing of this end.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Isaiah looks forward to the age of the Messiah - that is, the age in which we live. With the use of some beautiful imagery he describes what God will do - what God is doing - to heal our human brokenness, and to correct our human destructiveness:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.’”
“For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
When God’s law goes forth out of Zion, to all nations and to all people, one of the first things it does is to reveal to our hearts the true source of our conflict and antagonism with each other: namely, our conflict and antagonism with God.
As St. Paul writes, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”
So, while outward violence is really just a symptom of our inner anger and animosity toward our fellow men; that inner anger toward men is itself really a symptom of a deeper spiritual pathology - anger toward God.
The sinful human heart is angry at God, and hostile toward God, because God is both a threat and a rival to it. He is a threat, because he judges and punishes sin, and therefore judges and punishes the sinner.
And he is a rival, because sinful man - who is turned in on himself - worships himself as an idol. In our sinful nature we cannot stand to hear the First Commandment, or to be told that we must fear, love, and trust in a different god - other than ourselves, and our own greed and ambitions - above all things.
But when the Word of the Lord goes forth from Jerusalem - to all nations and to all people - what it also does is reveal to the human heart that the Son of God died in Jerusalem.
Jesus came to Jerusalem, and he died in Jerusalem, to put an end to our anger and idolatry, our conflict and violence. In his suffering and death for us, he diverted God’s wrath away from us. And he crushed down and pushed back our impulse toward self-worship, by restoring us to fellowship with the true God.
The Word of the Gospel - the message of the cross - does not just suppress our outward sinful behavior, and restrain us against our will. It penetrates to our heart, and transforms our will.
The Word of the Gospel - the good news of Christ’s salvation - recreates us in the image of Christ, and unites us to the resurrection of Christ, who now lives his life in us.
It brings pardon and forgiveness, for our old life of inner and outer conflict. And in the new birth of the Spirit, it brings a new nature to us, and a new life of inner and outer peace.
There are all too many people in this world who harden themselves to the Word of God. They do not receive the law of the Lord.
And so they are not set free from their inner slavery to anger and hatred. They still perpetrate acts of violence and conflict. The are not liberated from the blindness of their idolatry of the self.
In their continuing violence, they testify to their deep need for God’s grace. But in their continuing violence, they also remind us of what we have been rescued from by God.
In an indirect way, the violence and anger of the unbelieving world prompts us to remember, and be thankful for, our deliverance from this pathway of destruction.
We do still struggle against the lingering impulses of the old nature, which continues to lurk inside of us, and which carries out a life-long insurgency against the new nature. The old nature, in its desperation, tries to overturn within us the peace of God that passes all understanding, which is ours in Christ, by faith.
But God, and the peace of God, fight back. Whenever you show love and compassion for your neighbor for the sake of Christ, without waiting for your neighbor to show love and compassion for you first, this is a sign that God has won a victory in you.
Whenever you find yourself forgiving an offense that had been committed against you, or apologizing for an offense of your own, this is a sign that the Lord’s peace is with you. Your willingness to forgive others in the name of Christ, is evidence that Christ has forgiven you, and that in the power of this forgiveness he has changed you, on the inside.
The Large Catechism explains it this way: “if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven - not on account of your forgiving, for [God] does it altogether freely, out of pure grace, because he has promised it, as the gospel teaches; but instead because he has set this up for our strengthening and assurance as a sign...”
By the power of his Word in the minds and hearts of men, God in Christ “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.” In the midst of human conflict, God shows his people a better way than the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Jesus calls you, and impels you, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. In the words of St. Paul, we “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us...” And as St. John writes, “We love because he first loved us.”
This love, which suppresses and supplants the envy, suspicion, and jealously of your sinful nature, flows out from God himself, as he abides within you.
By the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, God has broken through and halted the destructive pattern of anger and violence that infects sinful humanity. And for each of us - one person at a time - he has indeed shown us a better way, and in Christ has given us a better way.
In our personal relationships with others, as we live in our baptism into Christ, and as we walk in the newness of life that Christ gives, we shall, as it were, beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks. We shall not lift up our sword, and shall not learn war any more.
In our reconciliation with God, we are reconciled to each other. In Christ, the Prince of Peace, we are now a part of a kingdom of peace.
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.” Amen.