23 October 2005 - Pentecost 23 - 1 Thessalonians 1:5b-10

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Please hear with me once again the epistle lesson appointed for today, this time according to the English Standard Version. St. Paul writes:

“You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

So far the text.

We can begin by noting a couple things that St. Paul says here. He writes: “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you...” He also writes: “...they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you...” Perhaps these phrases make us think of the situation of a pastor getting acclimated to a new congregation, and of a congregation getting acclimated to a new pastor.

The congregation may be wondering, What kind of man will he prove to be among us? Will he be courteous and sensitive? Will he understand and respect our local culture and customs? Will his personality be inviting or abrasive?

And the pastor, for his part, may be wondering, What kind of reception will I have among them? Will they be welcoming to me and my family and help us to get adjusted and feel at home? Will they respect me and listen to me? Will they have a positive and encouraging attitude toward my ministry, or will they be overly critical and hard to please?

I suppose we all might be at such a stage in our new relationship right now. We’re trying to understand each other. We’re being optimistic but cautious. On each side we want to put our best foot forward, but we also want to avoid missteps and stumbles.

In their dealings with each other, St. Paul and his pastoral colleagues, and the members of the Thessalonian congregation, may very well have gone through a similar process of getting acquainted with each other toward the beginning of their relationship. It may have taken a while for all the respective personalities to meld together and harmonize. And maybe there were continuing challenges in that respect. We know for example that people didn’t always get along with St. Paul. We note the instance of the unfortunate parting of the ways that took place between him and his friend Barnabas. And in any congregation, Thessalonia included, there will always be a diverse mix of people, with varying strengths and weaknesses.

We would always hope that a congregation would be favorably impressed by the kind of man its pastor proves to be among them, and we would always hope that a pastor would receive a warm reception among the members of a congregation. But in such relationships, given the weakness of the flesh that we all share, there will eventually be some disappointments on both sides. Misunderstandings will inevitably arise, and they will need to be settled with patience and humility. The words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” will sometimes become relevant in a very personal way to Christians who strive with God’s help to pray and work together, in the midst of various trials like these. Let us always remember this, as we ask the Lord to grant all of us a spirit of mutual forbearance and love, even as we would ask him to unite us ever closer together in a deeper unity of purpose as defined by his Word and by the mission that he has entrusted to his church.

These are some of the thoughts that St. Paul’s words may prompt in us. And they are important thoughts. But if we go back and take a closer look at the section of the epistle that was read as our lesson today, we see that the point Paul was actually making in each case was something a bit different than this.

Listen again to what he says: “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit...” Paul had not really been talking about his winsome personality and likeableness, but he was talking about the fact that his reputation among the Thessalonians was as a man who had received the Word of God in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit. And the Thessalonians had imitated the example of Paul - and of his pastoral colleagues Silas and Timothy - by doing the same thing in the same way.

Paul may very well have been a friendly man, just as we would want all of our pastors to be friendly, but a more important thing about him was that he was a man who believed and confessed the Gospel. The Thessalonians may very well have enjoyed Paul’s personal company, and he may have had a good sense of humor, but a more important thing about him was that his life was filled with the joy that the Holy Spirit gives through the Gospel. Paul and the Thessalonians were joined together in their mutual acknowledgment of their need for the Gospel, and they were joined together in their mutual and joyful reception of the Gospel. They confessed their sins together, and together they believed God’s word of forgiveness.

Likewise, regarding the way in which Paul had been received among the Thessalonians, the apostle writes: “...they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” The Thessalonians were no doubt very hospitable to Paul, and made him comfortable during his stay with them, but what was more important to Paul was the way in which his message - or rather God’s message - had been received by them.

They did not just listen politely when he preached against their false, man-made hopes, and against their reliance on demonic lies rather than the saving truth of God. Instead, the apostle’s words sank deeply into their minds and hearts. They turned away from their idols, and toward the true and living God. They served this God, even as that God served them with the means of grace, and opened their eyes from the darkness of unbelief to the light of faith.

The Thessalonians did not compartmentalize their faith either, with the idea that they would think about Jesus and religious matters on Sundays, but would think about other things the rest of the week. Instead, they were waiting, with an eager expectancy, for the return of Christ, who had been raised from the dead, and who is seated now at the right hand of God’s majesty and power. They knew that in this world they had no abiding home.

And the Savior for whom they waited, and for whom we wait, is a Savior who rescues and delivers us from the wrath to come. There’s a reason why God’s word was so important to the Thessalonians, and why it is so important to us. There’s a reason why Paul’s confessed faith in the Gospel, which was worth imitating, took precedence over Paul’s personality. There’s a reason why the congregation’s reception of the Gospel by faith took precedence over its personal hospitality toward the one who had preached the Gospel.

It’s because wrath is coming - a divine, just, and holy wrath. We know from Matthew chapter 25 that God did not prepare hell and eternal judgment for human beings, but rather for the devil and his angels. But there are human beings who harden themselves against God and his grace, who reject Christ and his forgiveness, and who hate the true God and his Word. These people, as God warns us in Scripture with the deepest sadness, hurl themselves into this fate. And God in his justice allows this to happen.

It is not popular today to speak about the judgment of God against unrepentant sin. It is inconceivable to most people that God, if he does exist, is anything other than an indulgent and ethically indifferent entity who wants only to bless all of our self-serving choices, and to approve all of our amoral decisions. A God of holiness and moral certitude - a God of righteousness and purity - is a God who is largely unknown in the world in which we live. But that’s actually the only God there is.

And this God - the only God there is - is also the God who became one of us in the person of Christ, to deliver us from the wrath to come. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father in human flesh, delivered us from wrath in his life, death, and resurrection. He absorbed into himself the just judgment of his own law against human sin, thereby deflecting that judgment away from us. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father in human flesh, delivers us from wrath by covering us with his own perfect righteousness in the Gospel. He unites us to himself in baptism, and feeds us with his body and blood in his holy Supper. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father in human flesh, will deliver us from wrath when he calls us forth from the grave to a resurrection of life and glory. Our destiny in Christ is the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness dwells forever.

Dear friends in Christ, today we are setting out together on a new adventure. You have a new pastor. I have a new congregation. The Lord of the church has brought us together. Let’s remember that as we get adjusted to each other, and as we grow in our ability to understand each other, and, when necessary, to be patient and forgiving toward each other. The Lord has joined us together, and is joining us together. But let’s also remember that he is not joining us to each other as much as he is mutually joining and rejoining us to himself and to his word. The word that he has spoken to me, and by which he has forgiven my sins, is the same word that he has spoken to you, and by which he forgives your sins. The deliverance that he has promised to you, to which you cling by faith, is the same deliverance that he has promised to me, to which I cling by faith. With God’s help, and in the joy that the Holy Spirit brings, we won’t forget that either.

St. Paul writes: “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit... ...they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

30 October 2005 - Reformation Sunday - Jeremiah 31:31-34

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the ancient world, the various nations each had its own religious worldview and concept of the divine. Among these nations there were some differences in their beliefs regarding the various deities that they worshiped, but there were also some significant similarities.

Most ancient pagans had a concept of a chief or dominant male deity, and of a divine female consort to that deity. For example, the Canaanites served Baal and his consort Ashoreth. The Egyptians revered Osiris and his consort Isis. The Greeks feared Zeus and his consort Hera. According to the religious belief systems and mythologies of the ancients, these gods and goddesses were not always very exemplary in their character. They were often capricious, vain, and unpredictable. They could usually not be trusted. They were generally not loved or respected. Instead, their devotees usually felt the need to appease their anger, or to flatter them into providing some kind of blessing or protection. The religious life of an ancient pagan was not characterized by certainty or peace, confidence or hope. There was little sense of intimacy or connectedness with the deities that were worshiped.

It is interesting to see how popular it is becoming in our time for people to try to reproduce and re-appropriate many aspects of the spirituality and religious beliefs of these ancient peoples. The distinctive message of the historic Christian religion is increasingly disparaged in our western civilization, and the ideas of ancient paganism are increasingly admired and praised. The desire to get back to the “feminine” side of divinity, or to rediscover the “mother goddess,” is probably the most popular pagan notion currently being embraced by our contemporaries. The God of the Bible, it is claimed, is not a proper reflection of the pure transcendence of the divine, but is instead a reflection of the anti-woman prejudices of the Hebrew patriarchs and of their patriarchal culture. The patriarchs supposedly projected their twisted, male-centered ideas about their society, and about their power within the society, up onto God. In this way they could invoke God for the preservation of the cultural status quo, which exalted them and their importance, and which oppressed and marginalized their wives, mothers, and daughters.

Such pronouncements about the God of the Bible are not limited to those who have overtly renounced the Christian faith. Soft-core versions of these ideas are to be found also within the pale of Christendom, put forth by those who want to rewrite our Bible translations, our hymns, and our prayers, in order to make them “gender-neutral” and, as it were, inoffensive.

There is a big difference between the theology of the pagan nations, which posited a wide assortment of male-female pairs in the pantheon of gods and goddesses, and the theology of ancient Israel, which confessed only one God. It is also true that the God of Israel was and is described in masculine terms. He is the king, not the queen. He is the Lord, not the Lady. And the God of Israel has no divine female counterpart. There is no Ashoreth or Isis or Hera standing by the side of the Lord Jehovah.

The neo-pagans of our time consider this to be a deficiency in the religious worldview of the Bible, which should be remedied today through the worship of Sophia, or through praying to “our father and mother who art in heaven.” But the teaching of the Bible about God and his masculinity is not a deficiency. It is not merely a cultural projection emanating from the bigoted thinking of the patriarchs. The unique features of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as compared to the various gods and goddesses of Israel’s neighbors, are an absolutely indispensable component of the revelation that the true and living God has given to us about our salvation.

In the lesson from the prophet Jeremiah that was read a short time ago, the Lord manifests his forgiving and unswerving love for his chosen people when he says: “The time is coming...when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them...”

“A husband to them.” Does the God of the Bible have a consort or a bride after all? The answer is Yes!

The devotees of the various pagan religions operated with the idea that they were, in a sense, “on the outside looking in,” as far as the intimate relationships of their deities were concerned. From a distance, as it were, they observed the supposed marriage of Baal and Ashoreth, of Osiris and Isis, of Zeus and Hera. Baal, Osiris, and Zeus had personal relationships with their respective divine spouses, but their mortal worshipers were not invited to think that they had anything like that kind of relationship with their god or gods. The ancient pagans were mostly detached and separated from what their gods were doing and thinking.

But with Israel, and the God of Israel, everything was completely different. Not only did the Lord Jehovah express a deep personal interest in those who worshiped him, but he described the covenantal relationship that he established with them in the most intimate of terms. “I was a husband to them,” he said. The nation to which the oracles of the true God had been entrusted was not “on the outside looking in” in regard to this marital relationship. The faithful people of Israel were not detached from the God who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt. They knew instead that their God cherished them with a deep and sustaining love. They knew the Lord as the husband of their nation. He was their protector, their guardian, and their provider. He was a loving Savior who made and kept promises to them.

God was a faithful husband to his bride. But his bride was chronically unfaithful to him. Throughout its history, the nation of Israel betrayed the love of its divine husband in so many ways. The Israelites served the false gods of the surrounding nations, and they served their own sinful flesh, often while still mouthing the correct liturgical formulations, and while outwardly performing the correct rituals.

They were a lot like us, I suppose. We’re not always satisfied with the loving embrace of our God either. We often seek comfort in the arms of another: material riches, earthly power, and a million and one other idols that surround us and deceitfully entice us.

But in spite of all this, the God who loved Israel, and who loves us, is indeed a God who makes and keeps promises. And the most important promise of all was his pledge that he would, in the fullness of time, establish a new covenant with his people. In the fulfillment of this promise, he miraculously entered into his chosen nation. He became a part of the human race. For us men, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

God’s covenantal love for his bride was consummated most profoundly when he in this way clothed himself with our humanity. As the epistle to the Galatians teaches, Jesus was and is the promised messianic seed of Abraham. Those who are now in Christ - Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female - are consequently also Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Jesus was and is a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel.

In the person of Christ, God loved his people as a faithful and forgiving husband would love his bride. He loved us with his perfect and obedient life, lived out on our behalf. He loved us with his innocent suffering and death, offered on the altar of the cross in our place. He loved us with his glorious and life-giving resurrection, accomplished for our eternal salvation.

And, in the person of Christ, God loves us even now, as a faithful and forgiving husband loves his bride. In Baptism he wraps himself around us and clothes us with his righteousness. In Holy Absolution he pardons all our transgressions. In the sacrament of his body and blood he unites himself to us and gives us, as it were, a pledge of the resurrection of our own bodies on the last day.

Listen again to what the Lord declares through the prophet Jeremiah: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. ... For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Today is Reformation Sunday. We remember today, in a special way, the important things that God accomplished for his church in the sixteenth century. He raised up gifted men to preach his Word purely and completely, and to administer the sacraments according to the institution of Christ. With God’s help the Reformers dutifully proclaimed the judgment of God’s law against hypocrisy and self-righteousness of every kind. With God’s help the Reformers eagerly proclaimed the comfort of Christ’s forgiving grace to every troubled conscience.

In doing this, the Reformers were reintroducing the church to her loving, faithful bridegroom. They proclaimed with renewed zeal the one true God, who had never forgotten his bride, even when his bride had almost forgotten him. They reminded the church of the enduring marital covenant that her Savior had made with her, and that he had never broken.

There is no divine couple in heaven - a god and a goddess - and there is no assortment of various gods and goddesses, in heaven or anywhere else. There is only one God. And this God, who became a man in the person of Christ, is the faithful and forgiving husband of his church. This profound truth does not oppress us or marginalize us, whether we are men or women. Instead this truth sets us free from fear and uncertainty regarding God and his ways. This truth draws us into the loving embrace of the one who saved us from sin, and who has established a new and enduring covenant with us. Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.