4 November 2012 - All Saints - Psalm 116:12-18

Please listen with me to the words of Psalm 116, beginning at the 12th verse: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds.”

“I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

So far the text.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

According to one Old Testament dictionary, the Hebrew word that is translated as “precious” in this verse means “valuable, costly, excellent.”

Picking up on the idea that “precious” means “costly,” some translations render this verse in this way: “Too costly in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful.”

That interpretation may have some merit, when we consider that a few verses earlier in the Psalm, the psalmist had prayed: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”

The implication would be that when the death of his saints occurs, this is something that God wishes would not happen. It costs him too much, and harms his kingdom too much, when his faithful people are taken from this earth - so that their godly influence is felt no more, and so that their labors for righteousness in this world are no longer performed.

The Lord does not consider the lives of his people to be cheap. He is not like the aristocratic generals in the First World War, who ordered their men to make pointless, suicidal charges across “no man’s land,” into the face of enemy machine gun fire.

It is true that the Lord values the lives of his saints. When God does allow death to come to one of his children, it is because there is a good reason for it.

Such a death is meaningful, and valuable - serving a larger, necessary purpose in God’s overall plan for his church. Such a death, when it does come, is precious in his sight.

As a child of God, you can be assured that your life has meaning in the sight of God. And when the time of your passing from this world does come, you can also be assured that your death will have meaning.

Even if you don’t know how your death fits into God’s overall plan for the world, or how it will impact others in a way that God will use for their benefit, your future death will fit in somewhere, in a larger plan for good.

As we also remember this day - in a special way - those from our congregation, and from among our family and friends, who have already died in the faith, we are comforted in the assurance that no death of any of his saints is ever wasted by God. “We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

From another perspective, though, such a death is “precious” in the sight of the Lord, because such a death is - relatively speaking - a good thing, to be desired and cherished.

In this world, all people do eventually die. All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. And therefore - since the wages of sin is death - all will die.

The question, then, is not whether you will die or not. You will die. The question is whether your death will be a good death, that will be precious in the Lord’s sight, or an evil death, that will be repugnant to him.

When the time of your death comes, which will it be? The way to know the answer to such a question regarding your future death, is to consider the character and meaning of your present life.

If your life now is precious to God, your death will also be precious to him. But if your life now is a life lived under the wrath of God - a life filled with rebellion and idolatry - your death, too, will be a death under his wrath.

Through the Prophet Ezekiel, God tells us: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

But the wicked do die, even though God takes no pleasure in it. And in their deaths, the wicked are judged for their sin and unbelief, according to God’s immutable holiness.

God is reconciled to the world in Christ. But outside of Christ, God’s judgment against sin remains.

Elsewhere in the Prophet Ezekiel, the Lord declares regarding the godless, in whom there is no repentance: “They have blown the trumpet and made everything ready, but none goes to battle, for my wrath is upon all their multitude.”

Today’s text shows you the way to a life that is precious in the Lord’s sight, so that at the end of your time on earth, your death will be a precious death. The psalmist prays:

“O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

Notice the irony of these two statements: “You have loosed my bonds,” but also, “I am your servant.” No one in this world is autonomous and truly independent. In the final analysis, “freedom” is an illusion. As Jesus explains it:

“Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

You are either a bond-servant of sin and Satan, or you are a bond-servant of God.

The psalmist rejoices, because God in his mercy has loosed his bonds to the power of sin and death. And the psalmist rejoices, because God has made him now to be his own servant, under his loving authority, and under his almighty protection.

Slavery to God is liberation! It is life-giving. The only alternative is slavery to the forces of evil and destruction, of deception and death.

But returning to the words of Jesus that we just quoted, if the Son of the household of God has set you free from your slavery to sin, you are free.

If the Son of God himself has died for your sins, and has risen again for your justification - and he has - and if he has forgiven you personally, and has justified you personally; you now live as a liberated servant of the one who has purchased you.

And your prayer echoes the prayer of the psalmist: “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

That’s why you are here, today, in the presence of the Lord’s people - his saints in this place.

No “sacrifice” that you might offer here can atone for your sin, or earns God’s favor. Jesus has done that for you already.

And there is nothing lacking in what he did for you on the cross and in his resurrection. God is not now almost reconciled to you in Christ. From his perspective, in Christ, he is reconciled to you fully.

And the plea that God makes to the world through the Gospel, is a plea that we would now be reconciled to him - that we would turn from our wicked way and live.

As you trust in the Lord this day, know that God’s Word has done this for you. It has turned you.

Today’s lesson from the Revelation to St. John reminds us that the saints of God are those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” - not in their own blood; not in their own works and propitiatory sacrifices; but in the Lamb’s blood.

The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has taken away your sin. He has made you to be one of the Lord’s saints.

He has made your life to be precious in the sight of the Lord. And therefore he has made your death - when it comes someday - also to be precious in his sight.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

In response to all this, your sacrifices - such as they are - can only be sacrifices of thanksgiving. The praise that you offer here - and in all other places where your voice is lifted in worship to the Lord - is such a sacrifice.

And the life that you now live in this world - by the Spirit of Christ, and as a reflection of his love - is also such a sacrifice. St. Paul encourages us in this way:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

The psalmist in today’s text also shares with us this “soliloquy”:

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

One modern translation has this verse say: “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation - a toast to God! I’ll pray in the name of God.”

But that’s not what is going on here. We are not toasting God. And God is not toasting us either - congratulating us for our successes.

Most properly, the imagery of lifting up the cup of salvation is not the imagery of lifting it up in the air. It is the imagery of lifting it up to our lips, so that we can drink the sweet wine of salvation that God has placed into that cup for us to enjoy.

From our New Testament perspective, the “cup of salvation” is seen to refer to the whole Gospel, as it comes to us in Word and Sacrament - and as God invites us to partake of the salvation that is carried to us in these means of grace.

The most obvious application of the “cup of salvation” reference in particular, is the literal cup that is offered to the Lord’s disciples in his Holy Supper:

“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. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

It is significant that by the time of Jesus’ ministry, in the first century, this Psalm had become one of the appointed Psalms to be chanted in conjunction with the celebration of the Passover. These very words were therefore flowing from the lips of Jesus and the apostles, and were echoing in their minds and hearts, when the Lord’s Supper was instituted.

In the moment when you today partake of the body and blood of your Savior, you are not giving him anything. You are not, in that moment, sacrificing anything to him. But in that moment, he is giving you everything.

According to his person, Jesus is your divine-human Lord. From this cup of salvation, you take him into yourself.

According to his office and work, Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for all sin. From this cup of salvation, you take his forgiveness, and all the fruits of his completed sacrifice, into yourself.

The perfect and obedient life of his Son was precious in the sight of the Lord. His Son’s offering of his body on the cross, and the shedding of his blood, were also precious in the sight of the Lord - since it was through the death of his Son that God’s will for the redemption of the world was fulfilled.

As Christ is now upon you and in you, and as you are now in Christ by faith, your life, too, is precious in the sight of the Lord.

And the great value that God places upon you for the sake of his Son - and for the sake of his own eternal love - will not be diminished, when you are transferred from this world to the next, and are joined to the company of saints and angels in heaven.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Amen.

11 November 2012 - Pentecost 24 - Mark 12:28-37

In today’s text from St. Mark, when Jesus was asked what the most important commandment is, he answered by reciting the Shema - the ancient “creed” of the people of Israel:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

As today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy reports, Moses taught this “creed” to the people of Israel, while they were still in the Sinai Desert, before they entered the promised land.

The context of Moses’ giving of this “creed” to the people was the context of their having left the land of Egypt, with its idols, and of their preparation now to enter the land of Canaan, with its idols.

The pagan religious systems of both Egypt and Canaan offered what we might call a “shopping mall” of specialized deities. Each god of the pantheon was seen to be in charge of a specific thing in the society or world, or to be the patron of people with a specific need.

There was a god of the sky and a goddess of the earth. There was a god of war and a goddess of fertility.

As a pagan in either Egypt or Canaan, you would have chosen which god to pray to, or offer sacrifices to, depending on the need of the moment. Your heart and mind would have been filled with competing loyalties, to the various deities whom you would invoke on various occasions.

But for the people of Israel, this would be a totally foreign concept - or at least it was supposed to be, according to the Shema. As Moses told them:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

This “creed” demonstrates several differences between the faith of Israel and the religious notions of the Egyptians and Canaanites. The first is that the God of Israel - who had delivered Israel from its bondage, and had protected it during its sojourn in the desert - was one God.

If the pagan pantheons can be compared to a shopping mall, filled with a multiplicity of speciality gods for each conceivable need, the God of Israel can be compared to a Walmart Superstore, where everything that is required in life, and in death, can be sought from a single almighty Being.

The Hebrews did not call upon one god for help in crossing the Red Sea, and another god for help in their travels through the wilderness. They did not ask one deity for military victory over their enemies, and another deity for food and sustenance.

The Lord Jehovah - the great I Am - was the only God they had. And he was the only God they needed. It was their duty to turn to him at all times and places, and to acknowledge him in all their ways.

Every blessing that they had received, had come from him and him alone. He alone, therefore, was deserving of their thanks, and of their love.

And that’s another difference between the God of Israel and the gods of the idolatrous nations. As a rule, the gods of Egypt and Canaan did not inspire personal love from the people who served them.

These gods were often feared, but they were generally not loved. And they were not understood to love the people who worshiped them either.

The various male and female deities loved either other. Osiris loved his consort Isis. Baal loved his consort Ashteroth. Osiris did not love the Egyptians. Baal did not love the Canaanites.

But the relationship of Jehovah and Israel was totally different. From the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through the entire history of the nation, the words that God spoke to Israel through the Prophet Malachi apply: “I have loved you, says the Lord.”

And because God had loved them, they were to love him in return. Their religious loyalty and devotion was not to be split up and divided among several deities.

Their faith was to be focused on one God - the one true God. And it was to be imbued with a deep and sincere love for that God.

Their worship was not to be a matter of just going through the motions - reciting the correctly-worded prayers; performing the prescribed rituals. Instead, they were to love the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their might.

Jesus truly understood this. His whole life on earth was the embodiment of that kind of love for God. He said: “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

The God of Israel has revealed himself in Christ to be the God of all nations - and to be a God who, in Christ, loves all nations. He so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son. Jesus commissioned the apostles: “Go, make disciples of all nations.”

This means that the ancient obligation of Israel - to love God with heart, soul, and might - is now the obligation of all nations. And especially for Christian disciples - as we confess ourselves to be - it is our obligation.

But do we act more like the ancient Egyptians and Canaanites, than like the faithful Hebrews of the past? More to the point: Do we set our hearts always and only on the one God who has created us, who has redeemed us, and who sanctifies us?

Or is the loyalty and devotion of our heart divided, among the various perceived sources of benefits and advantages that we look to, and rely on, according to our various perceived needs?

Perhaps God is still acknowledged as a source of distinctly spiritual blessings: a feeling of inner peace and contentment, and maybe other emotional and aesthetic experiences. We might even love God - as we would understand love for God - insofar as he satisfies those needs.

But do we look to the Lord, and pray to the Lord, and rely on the Lord, in all other arenas of life as well? Do we love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might?

Do you acknowledge him as the Lord of your labors in the workplace, as the Lord of your family life, as the Lord of your studies in school, and as the Lord of your leisure and recreation? Do you call upon him to be your healer when you are sick or injured, or to be your companion when you are lonely?

Do you ask for his help when you are faced with a difficult life-decision that you must make, when you are faced with a challenging ethical dilemma that you must sort out, or when you are faced with a dangerous temptation that you must resist?

Or, have you compartmentalized your life, in such a way that you no longer actively expect God to be involved in your worldly affairs; and in such a way that you no longer actively seek his direction, and the guidance of his Word, in regard to those worldly affairs?

How would that have gone for the people of Israel? Imagine Moses telling them, while they were still in Egypt:

“The God of your fathers should be worshiped on the Sabbath day, and you should seek to have an interior spiritual experience with him in that worship. But you are on your own the other six days of the week, to figure out who you can turn to, to liberate you from your slavery; and to figure out whose leadership you can follow, in finding a new country to live in.”

That would have been ridiculous. But that’s the way we often think. Except for that narrow sliver of our life that we might consider to be the spiritual or religious component of our existence, we don’t look to God as we should.

We often look no further than to ourselves - to our own reason and logic - for problem-solving. We often look no further than to the government, or some other earthly agency, to protect us and take care of us when we are in need.

To be sure, God does use various people and institutions in this world as his instruments and tools, in helping us to solve problems, and in helping us to get through certain rough patches in life. No man is an island.

But if our hearts are attached to those people and institutions as such, and if we do not in faith look beyond those people and institutions - to the God who stands behind them, and whose Lordship over them is always to be acknowledged - then those people and institutions have become idols.

They have become, for us, gods in a pantheon of gods - in competition with the true God, rather than servants of the true God.

But if this is your problem, and to the extent that this is your problem, the God who demands your undistracted and undiluted love shows himself once again to be the God who loves you first. “We love because he first loved us,” as St. John tells us in his First Epistle.

Jesus truly understood the creed of Israel, and he alone truly followed it. And he followed it for you. Again, he said, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

And Jesus tells us what the Father had commanded him to do, and had sent him into the world to do, in these words from St. John’s Gospel:

“I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The eternal life that God promises to those who love and serve him, is the eternal life that God gives to you - not because of you, and not because your love for him is as pure and undistracted as it should be. But he gives you eternal life, because Jesus’ love for him was pure and complete - in your stead, and for your benefit.

To believe in the Son of God is to be credited with the Son of God’s perfect love for his Father, and with his perfect obedience to his Father.

The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. The righteousness of Christ covers over all the stain of our sin. And the love of Christ fills in all the gaps in our sin-infected, half-hearted love for God.

St. Paul writes to the Romans, and to us: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

St. Paul also writes to the Thessalonians, and to us: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”

And St. John writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Notice, too, what Jesus hints at in today’s Gospel, about who he really is:

“As Jesus taught in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?’”

Jesus, as David’s son, according to his human nature, was and is a man who truly loved God. But Jesus, as David’s Lord, according to his divine nature, was and is the God who is loved.

Jesus himself is the great “I Am” in human flesh. Jesus is the ancient friend of Abraham, who has become one of us, to be our friend forever.

For everything that he has done for us, and for everything that he continues to do for us by the power of his gospel, we do love him. We love him with a love that his Spirit has planted within us.

We love him with a humble and penitent love, which admits our failure to love him as fully as we ought.

We love him with a grateful love, which rejoices in the divine forgiveness that he has bestowed upon us, and by which he has set us free from our slavery to sin and death.

We love him with a hope-filled love, which looks forward in confidence to the heavenly homeland that he has promised to us, and to which he is leading us.

In spite of the continuing weakness of our love for God, and for Christ - a weakness that will be with us for as long as we abide in this world - the pure, pardoning love of Jesus toward us has enabled us to sing to him:

Lord, Thee I love with all my heart;
I pray Thee, never from me depart,
With tender mercies cheer me.
Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea, heaven itself were void and bare
If Thou, Lord, wert not near me.
And should my heart for sorrow break,
My trust in Thee no one could shake.
Thou art the Portion I have sought;
Thy precious blood my soul has bought.
Lord Jesus Christ, My God and Lord,
Forsake me not! I trust Thy Word. Amen.

18 November 2012 - Pentecost 25 - Mark 13:1-13

The Bible often speaks of the “world” as something that is evil, and spiritually dangerous to us. Jesus said, for example: “The world...hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.”

And he told his disciples: “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.”

This understanding is reflected as well, in many of the hymns we sing, such as: “The world is very evil, The times are waxing late.” And we also sing this:

“Farewell I gladly bid thee, False, evil world, farewell. Thy life is vain and sinful, With thee I would not dwell.”

When the concept of the “world” is used in this way, it refers to the world insofar as the world has been corrupted by sin and death, and is for that reason a focal point of opposition to the righteousness and goodness of God.

But on other occasions, the Bible speaks of the world - together with the creatures in it - as something good, which testifies to the glory of God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”

And we confess accordingly: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them.”

The earth and all its resources, in themselves, are good gifts of God. The abilities and aptitudes with which God has endowed humanity - from which the arts and sciences flow to the benefit of all people - are also loving gifts of a loving God.

The fact that human sin has brought much ruination to the world, and has dirtied it up, does not negate the fact that the world itself comes from God, and testifies to his power and goodness.

The Biblical and Christian doctrine of sin is not well understood in our day. And when it is understood, it is often rejected. The people around us - for the most part - simply no longer believe in their own innate sinfulness, or in the sinfulness of the world in which they live.

They are not skeptical of the propriety of their own inner desires and ambitions. The sentiment, “if it feels good, do it,” governs their actions, with little if any ethical introspection.

And the world as well is usually seen as a basically good place - or at least that part of the world that they inhabit. They indulge in, and enjoy, what it offers - with little if any moral reserve and reflection. The sinful corruption of this otherwise good world - to the extent that this is also a part of what the world is like today - is not taken into account.

As our consciences are formed by God’s Word, and as we accordingly pray that our Father in heaven would deliver us from evil - the evil that is around us, and the evil that is within us - we are speaking a language that an increasing number of our neighbors and friends no longer speak, and can no longer understand.

They enjoy their life in this world, and do not see a need for God to deliver them and protect them from the problems and dangers of the world. They agree with us that the world was originally created to be good.

But until God’s law brings conviction to their consciences - as it has to ours - in regard to what has happened to this creation through humanity’s fall, they cannot join us in singing, “The world is very evil.”

But one of the points that is made by today Gospel from St. Mark, can perhaps serve as the entrance point for an awareness on their part of their need for God - as we have opportunities to speak with them of these matters, and as we pray that the Holy Spirit would work through what we say.

And to the extent that you and I are infected with such thinking ourselves - with hearts that are attached more than they should be to the things of this life - we, too, can be helped in our faith by being reminded of this point.

And it is this: The world, insofar as it was made by God, is indeed good. But the world is not permanent.

As Jesus “came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’”

When the disciple described the temple complex as an impressive compound of “wonderful buildings,” Jesus did not correct him. The temple and the buildings that surrounded it were impressive monuments of architecture. He even described them as “great buildings.”

But as with all things in this world, they will not last forever. “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down,” he soberly stated.

Jesus often taught about the temporary nature of this world, and of humanity’s life in this world. Throughout the New Testament, we are repeatedly instructed that we have no abiding home on this earth, and that the treasures of this life - such as they are - will not sustain us in the next life.

Moth and rust will consume and destroy those things that an idolatrous heart seeks to accumulate for itself. And whatever does remain until the end, will be destroyed in the final conflagration.

When you today choose the world and what it offers over God, you have thereby lost God, and have cut yourself off from him. And when, at the end, you lose the world, too - which will happen, sooner or later - then you have lost everything.

In keeping with the First Article of the Creed - where Christians joyfully acknowledge God the Father almighty as the maker of heaven and earth - we, in Christ, do not despise this world as such. We do not despise the blessings and beauty of the world, or the godly callings and relationships that still come to us in this world.

We recognize the hand of God in these things, and seek to know and fulfill his good and gracious will in the relationships into which he has placed us.

God gives us daily bread through the material resources of this world. And in the church, we believe that God even brings us the gospel - in its sacramental forms - through the earthly elements of water, bread, and wine.

But it is indeed that gospel, in word and sacrament, on which our hearts are ultimately set, and not the elements, riches, or relationships of this world. Jesus, the Son of God, tells us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

These words of our Lord deliver to us a soul-stirring warning against putting our deepest hope in anything other than God’s mercy. And these words of our Savior deliver to us a soul-soothing promise and pledge, that those who believe in him, and are baptized, will be saved.

When the world is judged and destroyed, God’s people - forgiven by the cleansing blood of Christ - will endure. We will endure forever, because Christ - who has purchased us, and claimed us as his own - endures forever.

When all the things of this world collapse - including the beautiful and noble things - God’s people will remain standing. We will remain standing in the power of Christ’s resurrection, and in the hope that is ours through that resurrection - that we, too, will rise, and live forever in him.

As we wait for the day of Christ’s return, and for the end of the world, we wait in this world. And while we wait, we are thankful for the temporary yet beneficial blessings of this world that God still directs our way.

But also as we wait, we look in confidence beyond the horizons of this world, to those things that will last forever, and that will be true and real forever. As we wait, in full assurance of faith, we wait as those whose hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and whose bodies have been washed with the pure water.

We wait, holding fast to the confession of our faith without wavering, because he who promised is faithful; and because we have a great priest over the house of God - by whose flesh and blood we have entered the holy places of the Lord.

And we wait, together, for the day of the Lord, as part of the fellowship of his church - which for now is in this world, but which is not of this world. You and I wait together, as members of this congregation.

As we wait, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

And as we wait here, let us continually sing and pray - as we did several minutes ago - with the certainty that Jesus will hear and answer us:

O Christ, who died and yet dost live, To me impart Thy merit;
My pardon seal, my sins forgive, And cleanse me by Thy Spirit.
Beneath Thy cross I view the day When heaven and earth shall pass away,
And thus prepare to meet Thee. Amen.

25 November 2012 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Isaiah 51:4-6

Through the Prophet Isaiah, God says: “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”

In recent months I had occasion to give some thought to the nature and character of heaven - specifically as understood in terms of that supernatural reality that is enjoyed by God’s people between the time of each individual’s temporal death, and the final day of resurrection.

I was prompted to think about this when my daughter-in-law Ruth - who knew that she would be in heaven before the end of the year - asked me what it would be like. I told her that the Bible does not give us a lot of details, and does not answer all our questions.

But it does answer some of them. And it answers the most important questions that people should ask about heaven, even if they are not asking those questions.

According to Scripture, the soul does have a continuing, conscious existence after the death of the body. When the Book of Ecclesiastes discusses what is happening when “man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets,” it says: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

And in the New Testament, St. Paul tells the Corinthians:

“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

And when he wrote to the Philippians, Paul said this:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. ... My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

One of the things Ruth asked me about heaven, was if people in heaven would know each other, even if they had never met each other in this world. I said that I’m pretty sure we will know the identities of other people in heaven.

I referred her to the account of the transfiguration, when, as it were, the portal to heaven cracked open, and Moses and Elijah stepped through it, and appeared with Jesus in his divine glory. I pointed out that Peter, James, and John seemed to know right away who these men were.

And regarding the level of knowledge that we will have after this life, St. Paul also wrote to the Corinthians: “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

In asking about this, Ruth was thinking chiefly of her own late father - a man whom I had also known - who had died when she was only two year old. She wanted to know if she would meet him there, and if she would consciously know who he was. I told her that I was pretty sure she would.

But something else that I also said to her - which I also want to say to you today - is that the most important person we should expect to see in heaven is Jesus. Indeed, it is the presence of Jesus, and his people’s fellowship with him, that makes heaven to be heaven.

Heaven should not be conceived of in sensual terms - as a place of endless personal pleasure. If a pot-head or crack-head imagines that being in heaven is like being high, non-stop, forever, he is dead wrong.

The Scriptures do speak of the joys and delights of heaven. But heaven is not about selfish sensations.

Heaven is about unhindered and unending relationships with others. It is about an eternal relationship with Christ, our Redeemer and Savior.

Through Christ, it is about an eternal relationship with God the Father, to whom Jesus reconciled us by the shedding of his blood. And through Christ, it is also about an eternal relationship with all the other members of his body, the church triumphant.

When we understand this, we will then also understand that the transition from earth to heaven - for those who are in fact destined for heaven - is not the entrance into something that is completely new and different in every way. To be sure, there are some great differences between this world and the next.

In this life we are surrounded by sin, and infected with sin. In heaven, those temptations and impurities will be gone in an instant.

Also, in this world we lead a very physical existence - with all the limitations, pains, and weaknesses that come with that existence. But when our souls are separated from our bodies - while those bodies rest in the earth, until the day of resurrection - we will be with the Lord in a kind of spiritual existence that we today cannot even imagine.

But there is one thing that will not change, and that will be a focal point of direct continuity between our life here, and our life there. That one thing - that one person - is Jesus Christ.

Jesus 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.”

To know Christ is to know eternal life, here and now. To know Christ - and to know the forgiveness of sins and peace that his gospel brings - is to be liberated from the fear of death and judgment, here and now.

As a Christian, you are not waiting for your passing from this world, in order to be with Jesus. There is, of course, a sense in which you are “away from the Lord” now - to quote St. Paul. You are not with him in such a way that your physical senses can experience him directly.

But at a level deeper than your physical senses can discern, Jesus is with you, and in you, already. That’s why St. Paul writes to the Galatians:

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The “faith” that Paul mentions is not just a wish for things in the future that do not exist yet. As the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Jesus is not visible to us now. But that does not mean that he is not real now.

Through his Word and Sacrament, he gives us a faith that is able to know that he is real. He gives us a faith that is able to know him.

And by faith we do know him, with an assurance that everything he has promised to us is also real and will happen. It’s not a question of “if,” only “when.”

But parallel to this continuity, is the continuity of hatred toward God, and separation from God, that is experienced and embraced by unbelievers - in this world, and in the world that is to come for them.

Jesus says: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

The number of people today who think they would like to go to heaven when they die, is a much larger number than the number of people today who recognize the importance of believing in, and obeying, the Son of God.

What that really means, is that there are a lot of people who think they want to go to heaven someday, who actually do not. And that’s because heaven is not about endless sensations of pleasure and ecstasy.

It’s about Jesus - being united to him forever; being saturated with his Spirit forever; being envéloped by his love forever. All of those dimensions of a Christian’s relationship with Christ can - and indeed must - begin in this life, so that they can be carried over to the next life, after death.

If you today love your sin, and not God, you don’t really want to go to heaven when you die. If your heart now is set on the pursuit of selfish ambition, and is hardened to the grace of God, then there is none of what you love in heaven. It is filled with what you don’t love.

If you live for power and pleasure on earth, you may think that you want to go to heaven when you die, because you may think that heaven is just more of the same. But it is not.

You also don’t get to design your own heaven. There’s only one heaven, where righteousness dwells, and where those from all times and places who truly love righteousness dwell.

And, there’s only one alternative to this one and only heaven. Remember the story of poor Lazarus and the rich man. In that story, Jesus reports:

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”

If you are concerned about your eternal destiny, be concerned about your present situation, and your present standing with God. If your present standing with God is not right and good, then your future - on the other side of death - will not be right and good either.

But if God is with you now, you will be with him then. If you know Christ now, he will know you, and claim you, and bring you to himself in heaven forever.

He says: “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

What Jesus means by “acknowledging” him is explained by St. Paul, when he writes:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

Jesus himself also says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

That is: Turn away from your sins, renounce them and forsake them. Hear and believe the good news of Christ’s cross and empty tomb. Hear and believe the good news of your salvation.

Jesus did die for you, to justify and forgive you. Jesus did rise from the grave as the first-fruits of the resurrection: so that you also can and will live in him - on this side of your grave, and on the other side of it - and so that you also can and will, on the last day, rise as he did.

St. Peter echoes the Lord’s invitation to you, to get right with him now, so that you will be right with him forever: “Repent..., and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

Through the Prophet Isaiah, God says: “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.” Amen.