SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2011
6 November 2011 - All Saints - 1 Corinthians 11:1-2
Please listen with me to the words of St. Paul, as written in the eleventh chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, the first and second verses: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” So far our text.
The word “tradition” means literally “that which has been handed over, or handed down.” Sometimes in Lutheran usage, the word “tradition” has a negative meaning. In certain contexts we might say, “We believe in Scripture. We don’t believe in tradition.”
But that is a very technical and specific application of the term, in a context where “tradition” is understood to be something that does not originate in the Scriptures, and that even contradicts the Scriptures. But in a different sense of term - the ordinary sense - we would recognize that the Scriptures themselves have come to us by means of a process of tradition.
For almost 2,000 years, the Bible, and the message of the Bible, have been continuously passed down from one generation to the next within the Christian church.
I’m not necessarily speaking of specific bound copies of the Bible, but of the canon, the content, and the Christ-centered message of the Bible as a whole. But a particular Bible can serve to illustrate the concept of tradition.
I have an old photograph of one of my great-great-great-great-grandmothers, holding on her lap the family Bible that she used to read, with great devotion and reverence. I also have that exact Bible. It has been handed down or “traditioned” to me, through seven generations of my family.
Within that Bible are entries of birth, marriage, death, and other memoranda, for scores of my ancestors and relatives. The writing styles of various hands, spanning well over a hundred years, can be discerned.
The faith of anyone, from any family, would be aided and strengthened through the reading of this Bible. The printed text is the same as one would find in any King James Version of the Scriptures.
But because of the way in which this particular Bible has been handed down to me, from my perspective this Bible is more than a Bible. It functions also a testimony to the Biblical faith and Biblically-based values of each of those ancestors of mine through whom this particular Bible has passed, on its way to me.
I am grateful for this Bible, and for the saving message of Jesus Christ that comes to me in its printed pages. And I am grateful for the testimonies of faith and devotion - spanning more than a hundred years of my family’s history - that have also come to me - in, with, and under this particular Bible.
This precious book is, as it were, a very concrete “tradition” within my family. It originated with my great-great-great-great-grandmother, and has been faithfully passed down to me, intact, through all the intervening generations.
Some traditions, however, are not as worthy and beneficial as this one. I heard a story once about a Lutheran church where all the communicant members had an odd custom. On their way back to their seats, after communing, each of them would slightly bow his or her heard while walking past a particular section of the front wall of the sanctuary.
This was intriguing to a teenage girl in the church, who asked her parents why they did this. They didn’t know why. They did it because everyone else did it.
She then began asking around among the other members, but none of them knew why this was done either. They all did it, but they didn’t know why.
Finally, she asked an elderly woman in the congregation. This lady told her that many years previously, before a major renovation in the 1920s, there had been a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall at that point. As people back then passed by that painting, they would bow in front of it as a gesture of respect.
When the picture was removed in the remodeling, the members who were used to bowing continued to do so, even though the reason for the bowing was now gone. And the succeeding generations of the church continued to imitate this now meaningless custom for many decades.
This, too, was a tradition. But it was an empty tradition. This gesture was passed down through the generations, but the gesture no longer testified to anything, or taught anything about God and his Word.
I would say that this church was clearly in need of a “reformation.” Either the people should stop bowing their heads to an empty wall, or they should find another picture of Jesus to put on that wall.
In the history of the larger church, there have been other flawed traditions like this - traditions that did not serve a proper purpose in advancing and promoting the Christian faith. In many cases, such traditions were not simply empty and meaningless, but they conveyed ideas that distracted people from the purity of the Christian Gospel, and obscured and distorted that Gospel.
At the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the various traditions of the church that the Reformers had inherited from earlier generations were tested and weighed in the light of the Scriptures, and many of them were on this basis either corrected, or discarded altogether.
Indeed, in each generation of the church, we should test and evaluate the traditions we have inherited, to determine if they are sound, or not. If they are not sound and Biblical, they should be discarded. If they are sound and Biblical, then they should be valued, and preserved, and passed on to the next generation.
There were indeed many worthy traditions like this, too, at the time of the Reformation, which had been passed down from the medieval church, and which the Reformers did not correct or abandon. Instead, they eagerly embraced and perpetuated those proper and beneficial traditions.
This included those “traditions” that were actually of a direct divine origin, and that had been preserved in the church from the time of the apostles: the faithful teaching of the mandates of the divine law, and the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. This also included other edifying practices, which clearly served God’s saving purposes, and testified to the faith that God’s Word reveals.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”
The traditions that Paul had delivered to the Corinthian church - and to all the churches in which he taught and preached - were not meaningless and empty traditions. What he handed on to those to whom he ministered, was the saving Word of Jesus Christ, in all of the ways in which that Word comes to us.
He “traditioned” to them his apostolic doctrine - his expositions of the Ten Commandments, showing them their need for Christ; his preaching of Christ crucified for sinners as their only hope. He “traditioned” to them the actual epistles that he wrote by divine inspiration, through which he would continue to instruct them, to warn them, and to encourage them, even when he was physically absent from them.
Between the time of St. Paul and our own time, these apostolic “traditions” have, in the providence of God, been transmitted all the way down to us - passing, en route, through the hands of hundreds of generations of Christians.
In those many past generations, Christian parents passed the apostolic faith down to their children. Christian theologians passed this faith down to their students. Christian pastors passed this faith down to their parishioners.
And in each generation of the church’s history, those who truly embraced this apostolic doctrine, and who faithfully defended and proclaimed it, also, in a sense, put their own mark on it, before they then transmitted it to the next generation. They marked it as that which they believed for their own salvation, and as that which they would encourage us - who have come after them - likewise to believe.
What is handed down to us, then, is not only the Gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us, in and of itself - as wonderful and beneficial as that is. But along with the Gospel comes the witness of saints and servants of God in all generations: their testimonies to the truth and saving power of this Gospel.
The creed of the Nicene Fathers, the hymns of St. Ambrose, and the catechisms of Luther, are just three examples of such good and honorable traditions, which remain among us today. They abide among us in order to serve us and help us in our faith, by drawing our attention to the Scriptures, and to the message of Christ in the Scriptures.
On All Saints Sunday, we remember the people who, in one way or another, participated in passing the Gospel of Jesus Christ down to us. We remember those who also added their personal “amen” to this Gospel, declaring to future generations - in creed, hymn, and catechism - that this Gospel is true.
The fact that hundreds of millions of Christians of the past have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, is not what causes our sins to be forgiven. But it is encouraging to us, who sometimes may feel alone in our trials and doubts, to know that the peace of the Lord’s forgiveness has indeed filled the hearts of so many, who have gone before us.
The fact that Christians throughout the centuries have believed that Jesus really does come to his church in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, is not what makes the mystery of the Real Presence true for us. But it is reassuring for us, to know that God’s people have been clinging to these promises, at his altar, for almost 2,000 years, as we today likewise cling to these promises, and partake of the body and blood of our Lord.
We cherish the apostolic Scriptures, the Gospel, and the Sacraments, as these have been passed down faithfully, from generation to generation, in the fellowship of the church.
These sacred and divine “traditions” bring Christ and his grace to us. They instill within us the new birth of his Holy Spirit, and cover us with his righteousness.
We cherish many other inherited traditions as well - which have passed the test of truth and soundness - because they faithfully point our hearts and minds to the Savior who comes to us in the means of grace, and who in love abides with us always.
The faith that the church proclaims, and the church itself, have existed in this world for centuries upon centuries. When you were baptized into this church - into the living body of Christ - you were baptized into something bigger than yourself.
You were thereby mystically united to a sacred community that transcends the limits of your personal religious experience. By faith you are a part of a holy people, and a family of faith, that enjoys today the same salvation that it has enjoyed for almost 2,000 years.
By faith you are part of an enduring fellowship of saints in Christ, that continually receives, and passes on again, that heavenly message which is the hope of the ages, and is the hope of all nations and tribes and tongues.
Abide in this faith, cling to it, never let it go. And then hand it on - “tradition” it - to those who come after you, even as it was handed on, and “traditioned,” to you.
St. Paul writes: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Amen.
13 November 2011 - Pentecost 22 - 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
In an old episode of the T.V. show M*A*S*H, the Frank Burns character was talking with the Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McEntyre characters about fear of the dark. He told them that he was not afraid of the dark, because there’s nothing there in the dark that is not there in the light.
I suppose there’s some validity to that, as far as inanimate objects are concerned. But this world is not filled only with inanimate objects. There are also living beings in this world, who think, plan, scheme, and connive.
And these living beings - whether it is a cockroach crawling onto your kitchen counter, a mouse crawling into your pantry, or a thief crawling through your window - quite often make an intelligent decision to use the cover of darkness to do what they want to do, at a time of day when you will not see them coming, and therefore when you will not know what they are up to - until it’s too late.
In today’s lesson from his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul uses the illustration of a thief in the darkness to describe the great shock and surprise that will come upon the unbelieving world when the Day of the Lord arrives. Do notice, though, that it is not Jesus himself who is being described as a thief.
When Jesus returns visibly to call all men forth from the grave, and to judge the world, he is not going to be stealing anything that does not rightfully belong to him. All things were created through him.
And he has redeemed all men by the shedding of his blood. We therefore do not belong to ourselves. We were bought with a price.
Jesus is the rightful Lord over all people, both those who acknowledge him, and those who resist in unbelief until the end, and enter into judgment. But they will enter into judgment because of the hardness of their own hearts, in spite of the fact that Jesus was their creator and redeemer.
And so, according to Paul’s imagery, It is not Jesus who is a thief, but it is the Day of the Lord that comes like a thief. In other words, that day sneaks up on people who are not expecting it, and who cannot see that it is coming, because of the darkness of their minds.
“While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”
As he goes more deeply into the metaphor of darkness and nighttime, St. Paul expands on the reasons why those who are in the dark do not notice what may be sneaking up on them.
Not only is the darkness itself like a curtain or pall that hides the approach of a nighttime intruder; but the person who is being intruded upon is also distracted from his watchfulness, by those things that he is engaged in, in the darkness. The apostle writes that “those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night.”
When my son was a baby, he was a very sound sleeper. He could sleep through anything.
One time, when he was just a couple months old, he was napping directly below the smoke alarm in the apartment where we were then living. Something on the stove, in the adjacent kitchen, started to burn, which set off the smoke alarm.
As it was blaring with its loud and shrill tone, my son did not stir at all. He just kept on sleeping, the whole time the alarm was sounding.
Today, while the world still awaits the return of God’s Son, God is giving us every opportunity to become ready for his coming. The condemnation of God’s law is continuing to blare at us - in the Ten Commandments and in our own consciences - as it warns us of God’s impending judgment against all our sinful rebellions against his word; all our arrogant defiances of his authority, and all our selfish exploitations of others in the pursuit of our proud ambitions.
God’s law is blaring its warnings to you, and against your transgressions. God is graciously working to rouse you from your slumbers of moral and spiritual indifference.
Are you listening? Or are you still in the darkness, asleep, unresponsive to his warnings, ignoring his voice?
St. Paul writes elsewhere that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God. Literal intoxication is a violation of the fifth commandment, and is an affront to the God who insists that we honor him with our bodies and minds.
“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,” the apostle writes.
But drunkenness, in the context of today’s lesson, is also a metaphor for a deeper and more pervasive kind of problem - when people are driven by an inner, destructive compulsion to fill up that place in their life that is supposed to be filled with the joy of Christ, with a craving for carnal pleasure instead; and when they seek to find in chemicals - or in any other earthly thing - what they should seek to find in God’s Word alone.
Are you filled with the Holy Spirit? Do you know the renewing and cleansing power of the Spirit of Christ in your life?
Or do you, in the darkness, fill your mind and soul with other spirits - with other things: things that do not renew you, but that wear you out, and use you up; things that do not cleanse you, but that pollute and poison you?
Those who pollute their minds and souls in this way, as a literal drunkard pollutes his body with alcohol, do not know that the day of the Lord is approaching. Those who “tune out” the warnings and admonitions of God, as a physically sleeping person “tunes out” the sounds of the world around him, are totally oblivious to what is coming.
The Day of the Lord is sneaking up on them. When it does come, therefore, they will be unprepared. They will be judged, and condemned.
And if you are in this situation - if you are, on the inside, trapped in the darkness of unbelief; if you are blinded by this darkness to the truth of God - the day of the Lord will come upon you as a thief in the night.
That day will come. Nothing will change that. But you will not be ready for it. And you will be eternally destroyed by it.
But if you repent of your sins, and turn away from them; if you truly want to rise from your sleep, and be purged of your drunkenness before it is too late, then know this: Jesus Christ is the light of the world, who dispels all darkness, and who overcomes all the works of darkness. And you, who know him by faith, are not in darkness.
St. Paul says to those who abide in their baptism - who die daily to self, and who rise daily in Christ: “you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.”
“So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake. ... Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.”
As you live in Christ - by faith in his word of pardon and life, and bearing the fruits of a wholesome love for your neighbor - the day of the Lord will not surprise you like a thief. The visible coming of Jesus on the last day will not shock you.
And that’s because those who are children of the day, and who live in the light of Christ, are actually quite used to Christ coming to them all the time. He doesn’t come visibly, of course. That unique mode of his coming is yet to occur.
But invisibly, he comes whenever his word of life is proclaimed. Jesus said to those ministers whom he sent forth to preach in his name, “He who hears you, hears me.”
And this is especially so when Christ speaks these words through his ministers: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”
In his Gospel, Jesus is here among us. As we abide in him, and he is us, we do grow in humility, and in our awareness of how desperately we need him in life and in death.
We also grow in our trust in him, as he remains ever faithful toward us. And we grow in our desire to be like him.
Those who are without the faith that God’s Spirit gives, are blind to the things that Jesus does among us. They are in the dark. They cannot see him, even as they cannot hear him.
But we are in the light. It is always daytime for us, as we walk by the light of Christ. By faith we can see and hear everything that he does and says in Word and Sacrament.
According to the new nature that his Spirit has birthed within us, we are very comfortable with Jesus, and rejoice to be where he is. He does not frighten us.
And so, on the last day, when Jesus makes the transition from his many invisible comings, to his one, ultimate, visible appearance, we, by faith, will be ready. We will welcome him, and we will rejoice.
The children of darkness will be terrified by his appearing: terrified and shocked. We will not be.
In the peace of the Gospel we will be calm, as our beloved Savior, and our familiar friend, comes among us once again - and ushers us into something new, something wonderful, something eternal.
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that...we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another, and build one another up, just as you are doing.” Amen.
20 November 2011 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - John 12:46-48
Nobody likes to be judged. I can’t think of anyone who has ever been happy about being charged with a crime, so that he would have to go to court to be judged, as guilty or not guilty.
But even in less severe circumstances, people bristle at criticism from others. We don’t like it when a boss or supervisor demands an explanation from us, of why we did something that he didn’t want us to do, or why we didn’t do something that he wanted us to do.
And we especially resent criticism from those whom we think don’t have a right to set themselves up as our judges. “Who do you think you are, to judge me? Mind your own business!”
In our pride, deep down, we actually don’t think that anyone really has the right to judge us. We never welcome it.
As sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we don’t want to be accountable to anyone. In our sin, we all want to be the master of our own lives. We all want to be like God.
But even if we are able to make our way through life, persuading ourselves that we are unaccountable, and that no one has the right to judge us, eventually that myth will be unraveled. And boy will it ever be unraveled!
Because the truth of the matter is that God, our creator and redeemer, does indeed have the right to judge us. And on the Last Day, when Jesus returns visibly to this world, to usher in the consummation of all things, God in Christ will judge us.
It will be a universal judgment. Believers and unbelievers alike will stand before the Lord’s tribunal.
St. Paul writes to the Romans that “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Not “each of them,” but “each of us.”
He elaborates on this in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
We are perhaps more accustomed to emphasizing St. Paul’s teaching that we are justified before God by faith, and not by works. And for those who do repent of their sins, and trust in the promise of forgiveness in Christ, St. Paul writes that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
We might wonder, then, how it is that we will all be judged when Jesus returns, if it has already been settled that there is no condemnation for those who believe in Christ now. But the fact remains that there will be such a judgment, and that the works of all people will be pointed to, and evaluated, by the holy and almighty Lord of the universe.
That’s what St. Paul plainly teaches. And that’s what we confess in the Athanasian Creed:
“At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. This is the catholic faith...”
This should keep us sober and serious regarding God and the things of God. A true faith in Christ and in his forgiveness cannot coexist with an active desire for wickedness. A true love for God’s Word cannot coexist with an active love for sin.
And so, if you find yourself actively desiring sin, do not presume on God’s grace, just because you have repeated the correct creedal formulas, or recited the correct wording of a prayer of confession. If you would die in a love for that which God hates, how will you give an account of yourself to him?
We need to think about this, when sin crouches at our door, and begins to push its way through. In this world of temptation, we also need to come to grips with the sin that still resides in us, and that is always trying to reinfect all aspects of our lives.
We read this in the Smalcald Articles - one of our church’s official confessions of faith:
“...some...held that those who had once received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sins or had become believers - even if they later sin - would still remain in the faith. Such sin, they think, would not harm them. They say, ‘Do whatever you please. If you believe, it all amounts to nothing. Faith blots out all sins’...”
“So it is necessary to know and to teach this: When holy people...fall into manifest sins (as David did into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), then faith and the Holy Spirit have left them. The Holy Spirit does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand..., but represses and restrains [sin] from doing what it wants.”
“If sin does what it wants, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present. For St. John says, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning...and he cannot keep on sinning.’”
When the devil and your own flesh seek to draw you away from God and from the life of God, in these and other ways, think about judgment day. Consider what your surrender to these evil forces now, will mean for you then.
Let these thoughts scare you - as they should. And then let these thoughts drive you to repentance - as they should.
As recorded in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus says:
“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me, and does not receive my words, has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”
Jesus is speaking in a very nuanced way here, but this is his point: He is the divine Savior who came among us to live for us, to die for us, and to rise again for us. He did not accomplish any of these saving deeds for the purpose of condemning sinners, but for the purpose of rescuing sinners from their sin, and forgiving them.
His “words” are his word of warning, which admonishes all to forsake sin; and his word of light and life, which invites all to embrace and receive him.
Those who repent and believe his words, and who abide in his words, receive his salvation - continually and repeatedly. But those who harden their hearts and minds against his words, and reject them, remain under the condemnation that was already upon them, without Christ.
Jesus, in his person, is not an arbitrary or capricious judge of humanity. Rather, humanity is judged, predictably and honestly, by the clear and public words of Jesus.
His words comes to us now, and encounter us now. And on the basis of whether and how those words are received now, those words will judge us on the Last Day.
The words of Christ will judge what you believe, and they will judge the fruits of what you believe. If you actually believe now that you are your own god, and that your own will is the proper basis for your actions, you will be judged in this presumption by the perfect law of God, even as Jesus speaks that law to you now.
Your self-serving works will be judged according to the law. They will be found to be empty of righteousness, and to be filled with idolatry and pride. And they will damn you.
But if you actually believe now that Jesus Christ is your Lord and God, and that his good and gracious will is always to be sought, you will be judged in this faith by the justifying Gospel of God, even as Jesus speaks that Gospel to you now - in absolving you of all your transgressions over and over again; and in miraculously feeding you with his own body and blood, for the remission of sins, over and over again.
Your works of faith will be judged according to the Gospel. They will be found to be full of righteousness - not your own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ.
The way to be ready for judgment day is to believe the words of Christ today - to find your rest in those words, and to live in those words. If you have slipped into sin, renounce the sin, and cling to the cross. You will be cleansed.
If you are weak in faith, and concerned that you might fall away, recall your baptism. Christ put his claim on you there, and assured you that no one will pluck you out of his hands. He promised then, and he promises now, that he will never leave you nor forsake you.
And as you contemplate the judgment of your works - the fruits of your faith in Christ - don’t concentrate on the works. Concentrate on their source - on Christ, the giver of all good things. By his Spirit he is the giver of faith, and therefore also the giver of the fruits of faith.
Under the cross, we don’t really notice our good works, such as they are, because we are too busy noticing Christ, and imploring Christ’s forgiveness, and thanking Christ for his mercy, and asking Christ to strengthen and help us, and receiving Christ - as he comes to us, to abide with us and make us fruitful.
These wise and true words of Luther are quoted in the Formula of Concord - another of our church’s Confessions:
“Faith...is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. ...”
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures. And this is the work that the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”
Jesus teaches that the good works of the saints will be rewarded in the judgment. But as St. Augustine said, “If...your merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as his gifts.”
The good works of the Christian are always externally marred by our human weakness, so that from our human perspective they are imperfect and flawed. But internally, in their essence, these works of love are highly pleasing to God because of where they come from - that is, from Christ himself, and from the life of Christ within us.
And on judgment day, as God’s grace toward us is confirmed for eternity, and as his covering over of our sins with the righteousness of his Son is finalized forever, God’s pleasure in our good works will likewise be made know.
In closing, we recall these words from Psalm 39, and from today’s Introit:
“O Lord, make me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions.” Amen.
27 November 2011 - Advent 1 - Mark 11:1-10
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Today we are entering into the season of Advent. The word “advent” comes from the Latin language, and means “coming.” It refers to the coming of Christ.
In the expression that was chanted by the crowd on the first Palm Sunday, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the phrase “he who comes,” in the Greek, is actually one word.
The “coming” of Jesus is not incidental to who he is as the incarnate Son of God. We would not say that it doesn’t really matter whether he comes, or doesn’t come, as far as his status as the Messiah is concerned. It matters a great deal.
Jesus doesn’t just exist in a stationary position, still and unmoving. In his office and calling as the Christ of God, he is always the coming one. He is always “on the move,” as it were, toward us.
The God of Israel in general, is a God who comes to humanity. This is an important point, because the imagined gods of various human religions - even monotheistic religions - are not gods who are thought to “come” to us in such a way.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that God sent the angel Michael to us to be our Savior. He himself did not come.
Islam teaches that God sent the prophet Muhammad to us, to teach us God’s ways. He himself did not come.
Much of the popular spirituality of our time doesn’t conceive of a God who comes to us, either. Rather, it is we who search for God, and who rise up to God, and who come to God.
But none of these concepts are correct. The only God who actually exists, is not a God who stays in place, waiting for us to come to him. He is also not a God who limits himself to sending intermediaries to us, while he remains remote and distant.
The God of Israel comes to us. And Jesus, as the Son of God and the son of David, comes to us.
But the question of whether God, in effect, stays where he is, or whether he comes to us, is not the only question to be asked. We also need to ask why he is coming.
What is the purpose of his movement toward us? What is he going to do when he gets here?
The Tim Burton movie “Mars Attacks” is a fun and silly film. But even with its silliness, it can teach us a couple things.
In the film, after the Martians had arrived at the earth, but while they were still in orbit, the somewhat spacey “New Age” character “Barbara,” played by Annette Bening, was excited and gleeful over their appearance. She exclaimed, “the Martians heard our global common call for help. ... I think they’ve come to show us the way.”
In her naivete, she could not imagine that these extraterrestrial visitors had actually come to bring destruction and death. But if you’ve ever seen this film, you know how wrong she was.
In regard to the coming of God - which is reality, and not the stuff of silly movies - should we be like the “Barbara” character, and simply assume that his various comings among us will always be pleasant and happy occasions for all concerned?
When the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, he said this:
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. ... I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.”
“I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”
This coming of God to the people of Israel would be a good thing - for them. God was coming to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, and to bring them to their own country.
But what would the Lord’s coming be like for the Egyptians, who would suffer from many plagues, and whose army would be drowned in the sea, before this was all over? And what would the Lord’s coming be like for the current residents of the promised land, who would be either killed or expelled from the land, at God’s command?
As you consider the various ways in which God may come to you, will you encounter him in the way that the Israelites encountered him, to your blessing and salvation? Or will you encounter him in the way that the Egyptians and Canaanites encountered him, to your judgment and destruction?
Sometimes God comes to bring his salvation and deliverance. And sometimes he doesn’t. The Prophet Isaiah says:
“For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus said. “I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”
In regard to our own personal preparedness for his coming, each of us needs to ask ourselves, “Which aspect of the Law and the Prophets is he coming to fulfill with me?”
“When he does come, will he bring me a new revelation of the mercy of God, as with the children of Israel, in their captivity? Or will he bring me a new revelation of the wrath of God, as with the Egyptians and the Canaanites, in their unbelief and wickedness?”
The theme of Jesus “coming” to the world, and of his coming to us, is a recurring theme in Scripture. His comings are repeated, and deepened, and compounded, as they progressively move forward to his final coming again on the Last Day, to judge the living and the dead.
In the season of Advent - serving as it does as a preparation for Christmas - we think chiefly of his first coming, in Bethlehem. The eternal Son of the Father - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.
But during this season we also think of the coming of Christ from obscurity to public life, and to a public ministry - which occurred in conjunction with his baptism. And as today’s lesson from St. Mark indicates, we think as well of Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem: to die on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for all human sin, and to rise again from the grave for the justification of those whose sins he bore.
Last Sunday, we recalled the Lord’s promise that he will come again visibly at the end of the world. And on every Sunday - as the Word of Christ is preached, and as the sacrament of his body and blood is celebrated - he comes in yet another way, invisibly, over and over again.
We say now, as we will say until the world comes to an end, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
He is indeed blessed as he comes. But does he come to make you blessed, or to punish you?
It was not simply a rhetorical question, when we asked in the hymn that we sang a few minutes ago, “O Lord, how shall I meet thee, how welcome thee aright?” How indeed?
When Jesus was on trial, he said to Pontius Pilate: “For this purpose I was born, and for this purpose I have come into the world - to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
And the truthful voice of Christ is saying this to you right now: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Are you listening?
If you admit that you are a sinner - if you look around yourself and see the people you have hurt; if you consider the promises you have broken, and the obligations you have neglected - then you are partly ready to meet Christ, as he comes to you.
But the Lord has not come just to make sinners admit that they are sinners. As he says, he has come to call sinners to repentance. Jesus comes to you, to call you to regret your sins, to renounce your sins, to turn away from your sins.
Now, if you do not heed his voice and repent, that doesn’t mean he will not come. He will still come. That’s what the God of Israel does. He comes.
But he will come to judge, and not to pardon. He will come to condemn, and not to save.
And so, please do listen to him. Listen to what his beloved disciple John writes in his First Epistle. Listen now, during Advent. And listen always, in all times and seasons:
“If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Jesus himself says: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” He also says that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
If you confess your sins, Jesus comes to you in the name of the Lord to forgive your sins, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He comes in his Word. He comes in his Sacrament.
He comes, and he comes again. And when he comes, you are clean.
Blessed is he who comes, to make you blessed: to liberate you from slavery to sin, and from the devil’s captivity. Blessed is he who comes, to bless you with the promise of a new homeland - an eternal dwelling place with God in the heavens.
Blessed is he who comes to live with you now, as your companion and friend. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
He came, and he comes now, that you may have life: life in the midst of death; hope in the midst of despair; light in the midst of darkness.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Amen.