SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2013
3 November 2013 - All Saints - Psalm 45:6-9, 17
Please listen with me to the words of Psalm 45, beginning at the sixth verse:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir. ... I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.
So far the text.
The hymnal that was used in the church in which I grew up, included the hymn “I Love to Tell the Story.” As I was growing up, I used to love singing that hymn.
I love to tell the story Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, Of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, Because I know its true;
It satisfies my longings As nothing else can do.
Most people like a good story. Children enjoy hearing bedtime stories. A book that tells an interesting story will be a best-seller.
Technical manuals, and do-it-yourself manuals, do fulfill necessary functions, in certain limited areas of life. But a gripping story touches us at a deeper level.
Sometimes, though, people are not as careful as they should be, in making a distinction between well-told fictional stories, and stories that recount real history. When Dan Brown’s book, “The Da Vinci Code,” came out, I recall hearing an interview with a young woman who said that she had changed her religious beliefs because of that book.
Dan Brown made up a story about Jesus’ wife and daughter, about the Knights Templar, and about all the other contrived events that are found between the covers of his novel. But this young woman found that fictional story to be more convincing and believable than the story of Christ and his church that she had heard in church.
For a long time, I thought that the movie “Fargo” was based on a true story. At the beginning of that film, these lines appear on the screen:
“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
But you know what? “Fargo” is actually a work of pure fiction. None of the things in the movie really happened. And “Fargo” is not the only movie that states at the beginning that it is going to tell a true story, even though it is not going to do so.
Movie-makers justify this sort of thing, by saying that such a caption in the opening credits is itself a part of the fictional story that is being told in the movie. It contributes toward the creation of a story that is believable, and therefore enjoyable - even when the story in question is not historical!
In its liturgy, in its hymns, and in the festivals and commemorations of its calendar, the Christian Church tells a story. Through these means, and in these ways, the church - over all the centuries of its existence - has been telling the old, old story of Jesus and his glory; and of Jesus and his love.
According to this story, God in Christ became a part of the world that he had created, but that had fallen into sin: to redeem and save that fallen world; to call all people in that world to the life and peace that his forgiveness brings; and to prepare his believing children for a new world, filled with unspeakable joy, where pain and suffering will be no more.
All Saints Sunday is an important part of that story. The lessons we hear today, and the hymns we sing today, tell us about the grace of God - and about how that grace transformed the lives of the millions upon millions of believers in Christ who have gone before us.
All Saints Sunday recalls the fortitude and courage that God instilled in his people, in all times and places - so that in the strength of his grace they were able to endure trials; to withstand temptations; and to live and die with a sure confidence, and a certain hope.
The story of Jesus is a gripping and inspiring story - the most gripping and most inspiring of all stories. This story grips our minds and hearts; and it inspires us to a life of faith, and faithfulness.
And we are also a part of this story. You and I have been written into it, together with the saints of old.
According to this wonderful story, we on earth are united now, in a mystical communion, with all the saints of God in heaven - through Christ, our common Lord and Head. They and we both were conceived and born in sin, and throughout our lives in this world, were - and are - in need of God’s forgiveness.
But that forgiveness was, and is, offered - and was and is received by faith. They and we both are now holy before God, through the holiness of Christ that has been given to us.
They and we both are now righteous before God, through the righteousness of Christ that has been imputed to us. They and we both are now alive before God - and in God - through the life of Christ that has been bestowed upon us, and that fills us.
Christ is the divine Savior of his church on both sides of the curtain of temporal death. He came in the flesh to purchase us with his blood, and by his resurrection to open for us the way to everlasting life.
In the resurrection on the last day, he will raise up and glorify the flesh of all of us. And soul and body will be reunited forever.
The Psalmist in today’s text prophetically addresses the divine king - that is, Christ Jesus - with these words: “I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations.”
This is what the church does, on All Saints Sunday, and on every Sunday. This is the story that the church tells, and has been telling in all generations.
I love to tell the story; ‘Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it, More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, For some have never heard
The message of salvation From God’s own holy Word.
It is a sad fact that some segments of outward Christendom no longer care very much about this story, and in large measure no longer tell it. Their public services have been changed into the equivalent of a technical manual - putting forth pragmatic principles that, if followed, will result in earthly success and material prosperity.
Their sermons have been replaced with the equivalent of a do-it-yourself manual, preaching easy law and practical morality, absent the cross of Christ. Snippets of the old, old story of Jesus and his glory, and of Jesus and his love, are few and far between.
One of the blessings of being in a liturgical congregation is that this story is still told among us. And in the telling - through the Word that is proclaimed to us, and through the sacrament that is administered to us - you and I are also continually being written into that story.
As the Lord causes his name to be remembered in all generations, all generations are blessed by that name, and are brought under its protection.
You are written into this grand and sweeping story, when God’s Trinitarian name is spoken over you. You are written into this awesome and mysterious story, when the Eucharistic Words of God’s Son are addressed to you.
In this postmodern age, which in general has a renewed appreciation for story-telling and narrative, we may very well see a major revival of liturgical Christianity. In fact, we are already seeing that revival.
Many studies have shown that younger people, if they want to go to church at all, tend to be gravitating now to churches that give them a connection to the past... that honor the ancient Christian traditions... that tell them... the story... of Jesus.
Perhaps we are repelled by the dry and sterile “lecture hall” atmosphere of some churches, and by the manipulative “rock concert” atmosphere of other churches.
Perhaps we are drawn instead to a church like this one, where we hear the story - the old, old story of Jesus. That story comes at us in so many different ways; it engages us at so many levels; and it pulls us into itself.
We are indeed mystically pulled into that story - in the company of all the saints of history who likewise heard and believed that story. The story of Jesus stimulates our imagination, calms our fears, and renews our hopes.
But in this postmodern age, there is also a very important point that needs to be made in regard to that story. It is a point that might seem self-evident, but to the postmodern mind, it is not.
The old, old story of Jesus and his glory, and of Jesus and his love, is true. This is not like the “Fargo” movie, where the statement that the story is “true,” is a part of a story that is actually untrue.
The Christian gospel not only claims to be true. It is true.
The objective truth of Christ, is the source and basis of the story of Christ. The events of Jesus’ life - including his death and resurrection - really happened.
These things remain objectively true, regardless of whether you ever hear the story about these things, and regardless of whether you ever believe the story about these things, and thereby receive the benefit of them.
Going to the Lord’s house is not like going to the movie theater to see “Fargo,” where everybody pretends that the story is real. Instead, what happens in the Lord’s house, is that the church, under the commission of Christ, causes the name of the Lord - the real and living Lord - to be remembered in all generations.
The generations of Christians that have gone before us believed this story because it was true. The story was not true “for them” because they believed it.
The story of Jesus may “work” for you in this world, with practical benefits. It may also cause all kinds of outward grief to come upon you - since, as Jesus tells us, the world will hate us, even as it hated him.
But we do not believe the story because it works for us in a practical way, even as we do not reject it because it does not work for us in a practical way.
We believe the story, because what the story tells us really happened, really happened. And as far as the work of God’s Spirit through the means of grace today is concerned, this story is still really happening, today.
Jesus really is, and always will be, what the story tells us he is, and always will be.
He was alive. He was dead. And then he was alive again. Gloriously and eternally alive.
Real historical people saw it. Real historical people were willing to die, for the sake of proclaiming it.
On All Saints Sunday, we remember that we are not the only ones who have believed this story. It is a long and rich story, about Jesus, and about what he has done in and through his church for two millennia.
It is a deep and satisfying story, about Jesus, and about what he is doing even now in your life: calling you to repentance, forgiving your sins, uniting you to himself and to his body, assuring you of your place in the communion of saints.
I love to tell the story; For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting To hear it, like the rest,
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
‘Twill be the old, old story, That I have loved so long. Amen.
10 November 2013 - Pentecost 25 - Luke 20:27-40
There are two reasons to ask someone a question. The first is because you believe that the person to whom you are posing a question knows something that you do not know, but that you want to know.
So, you ask a question, because you really want an answer - and because you expect that you will be benefitted by that answer.
The second reason to ask someone a question, is not very honest or honorable. It is to “trip up” the person to whom you are posing a question.
You expect, or hope, that the answer that is given will make that person seem foolish - and make you seem wise.
As a pastor, I am often approached by people - either in person or on the Internet - who ask me questions about God and the Bible, or about theology and morality. It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether the questioner’s motivation is a sincere desire to learn something, or a desire to stump me.
Criticism and rejection of my beliefs as a Christian, are often thinly veiled behind insincere questions about my beliefs as a Christian.
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is approached by some Sadducees, who have a question for him about the resurrection, and about the nature of the relationships that people will have with one another in the resurrection.
The Sadducees were the “high church liberals” of first-century Judaism, who focused their religious life on the rituals of the Temple.
They did acknowledge the first five books of the Old Testament - the books of Moses - as Scripture. But they did not believe that the Psalms or the writings of the Prophets were inspired.
The Sadducees sought to absorb into their worldview as much of the culture and outlook of the Greeks and Romans as they could. Within first-century Judaism, the Sadducees were engaged in ongoing theological debates with the Pharisees, and also with the scribes - who were aligned with the Pharisees.
The Pharisees believed in the divine inspiration of the Psalms and the Prophets, in the existence of angels and demons, and in a future resurrection. Jesus and his disciples also held to these things.
But the Sadducees did not. So, their question to Jesus - about the resurrection - was not a genuine, sincere question. It was a trick question.
They thought that their reasons for rejecting a future resurrection were thoroughly rational and irrefutable. In drawing Jesus out on this topic, they therefore thought that they could make Jesus seem ignorant, or seem not to be as smart as they were.
Jesus knew what they were up to. But he responded anyway.
In his response, though, he did not dwell long on the specific trick question that had been posed to him - about a woman who had been married to seven different brothers while on earth. Jesus took charge of the conversation, and began to discuss instead the underlying doctrine of the resurrection - at a deeper and more serious level.
And, he responded with reference to one of the books of Moses - the Book of Exodus, to be precise. So, he appealed to an authority that they, in principle, recognized.
St. Paul did the same sort of thing in his missionary work. When he was preaching to Jews, he appealed to the Hebrew Scriptures.
When he was preaching to gentiles, however, he appealed, initially, to the natural knowledge of God - and to the various ways in which the natural knowledge of God had been manifested in the philosophy, poetry, and religious practices of the gentiles.
Jesus, in the conversation that is reported in today’s text, pointed out to the Sadducees that when the Lord revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, he described himself as “the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
According to Jesus, this shows that the dead are raised. And he added: “Now [the Lord] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
The primary focus of Jesus’ remarks, concerns the resurrection that will occur on the last day. We are told in Scripture that when the Lord returns visibly to judge all nations, all the dead will rise with their bodies.
Our hope as Christians in particular, is reflected in what we confess in the Small Catechism: On the last day, the Holy Spirit “will raise up me and all the dead, and will grant me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
But in his remarks to the Sadducees, Jesus stated that the Lord is God of the living - not just that he was, and will be again, God of the living. And Jesus says that, to the Lord, all live - not that all did live, or that all will live, but that all are living, now.
When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were even then alive - to the Lord, and in the Lord. All who live in the Lord, and who die in the Lord, live in the Lord still.
The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches that at the time when a mortal, earthly life is coming to an end - and when “man is going to his eternal home” - “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
The souls of the dead are not annihilated at the time of temporal death. If the souls of the dead did cease to exist, then that would mean that in the resurrection, God would not be re-clothing the deceased person himself with a glorified and immortal body.
Rather, it would mean that God would first have to create a copy of the deceased person’s soul - on the basis of his memory of that person - so that he could then cloth that copy of you or me with a new body.
But that’s not what happens. You will live in the resurrection, not a copy of you. The Lord is God of the living.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive on earth. They are now alive with the Lord, and in the Lord. They will be alive again, in the resurrection.
The Sadducees did get an answer to the smart-aleck question they had asked about husbands and wives in the resurrection. They also got an answer to the question they should have asked about the reality of life after death, and the resurrection on the last day.
But this did not trigger within them an honest interest in what other things they might have been able to learn from Jesus. Rather, as St. Luke reports, “they no longer dared to ask him any question.”
They did not follow up their insincere question, with any real questions. They thereby lost an opportunity of a lifetime. They lost an opportunity to alter the trajectory of their eternal destiny.
Some pharisaical scribes were also there when this conversation took place, and they listened to it. St. Luke tells us that, after Jesus finished speaking, they said to him: “Teacher, you have spoken well.”
Jesus had, as it were, “taken their side” in this aspect of their ongoing dispute with the Sadducees. They agreed with Jesus that there will be a resurrection, because he had agreed with them.
Unfortunately, the scribes likewise did not take advantage of the opportunity they had, to follow up with some additional questions of their own. And that’s because they - like the Sadducees - didn’t think they had anything to learn from Jesus either.
How much better off they would have been, if they has asked Jesus to explain to them how an individual can be confident that his own sins are forgiven by God, so that he will indeed live before God.
If they had asked that question, Jesus would have said something like this: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This way of salvation, through faith in Christ, had also been presented to the patriarchs of old - through the messianic promise that was made to the patriarchs. And the patriarchs had believed that promise:
The promise of the Seed of the woman, who would crush the head of Satan on humanity’s behalf. The promise of the Seed of Abraham, through whom all nations of the world would be blessed, and have a dwelling place with God.
The patriarchs of old lived, now live, and will live forever, because of Christ - their Savior from sin and death.
That’s why Jesus said: “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it, and was glad.”
And Christ himself - in his pre-incarnate existence as the Second Person of the Trinity - was with them personally. He was and is, in his divinity, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
He was and is the God who told Moses, from the burning bush, that his name is “I Am Who I Am.” That’s why Jesus also said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
Today we have our own Sadducees, and our own pharisaical scribes, who either ask the wrong kind of questions, for the wrong reasons; or who simply do not ask any questions at all.
They think that they already know everything they need to know. Jesus - and those who speak for him in his church - do not have anything to teach them.
Skeptics and militant atheists who do question the Christian faith, generally do so because they want to demonstrate their superior knowledge - and not because they think that Jesus has superior knowledge, from which they could benefit.
Humanitarians and social moralists who refrain from asking questions - but who are quite free with patronizing expressions of agreement with Jesus - generally assume that what Jesus would want to promote among men, is the altruism, and the “golden rule” lifestyle, that they think already characterizes their lives.
So, they already know everything that Jesus might otherwise teach them. They congratulate him that he agrees with them, and go on their way - without asking him deeper questions, about a deeper truth.
People today absorb all kinds of false notions about God and spirituality, about divine wrath and divine mercy, about morality and ethics, from the culture in which they live. But people in general are remarkably uncurious to know what Jesus would say about these things. And so, they do not ask him.
They do not open a Bible, to see if a careful reading of the Sacred Scriptures would give them a different and better perspective. They do not ask a pastor to share with them what the orthodox Christian faith has to say about the issues of our day.
They might ask a pastor something, in mockery or derision - without really intending to listen to the answer. But what happens more often, is that they don’t ask at all.
A teacher or professor says that “science” proves that evolution fully explains where all life comes from - and that all scientists believe this. An activist declares that homosexuals were born that way, and that no homosexual has ever been able to change his orientation.
People don’t stop to consider that these things may not be true. People don’t stop to consider that God’s Word, and God’s church, might have an informed response to these claims, and may indeed provide a more accurate explanation of these matters.
It does not cross their minds that God, in Christ, may indeed be willing and able to answer questions - fundamentally important questions - about the way to know God, about the meaning of life, or about what will happen to us after we die.
But what about you? Are you cautious and skeptical regarding the values and attitudes that the world is pushing upon you, in almost every song you hear on the radio, and in almost every program you see on television?
Do you ask Jesus to show you a better way, in his Word? Do you ask your pastor if the classic Christian wordview presents a consistent and superior alternative to these values and attitudes?
Many of the questions that you should be asking, do not pertain only to matters of intellectual curiosity. You have real fears, real anxieties, and real emotional burdens.
You need answers that will calm those fears, alleviate those anxieties, and lighten those burdens. You need to know that your sins are forgiven, and that there is a way to peace with God, open to you.
Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
What Psalm 91 says prophetically about Christ, it says as well about the one who is in Christ, and who in faith clings to Christ:
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.”
And so, ask Jesus the questions you need to ask. Aks the questions - with a genuine desire to learn from him - and listen to his answers.
Listen to his answers - with humility - and believe what he says. To whom else can you go? He has the words of eternal life. Amen.
17 November 2013 - Pentecost 26 - Malachi 4:1-6
Soon before Moses died, he admonished the children of Israel to make sure they never depart from their faith in the Lord, and veer off into idolatry. As recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, he said:
“Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image... For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
In the New Testament, the Epistle to the Hebrews quotes this passage, in its admonition to the church always to remain serious and respectful in its liturgical life, and never to approach God - or worship before him - in a frivolous manner. What we are told is this:
“Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Now, does the imagery of God as a “consuming fire” scare you? Does it alarm you, and unsettle you? Or does the idea that God is like a consuming fire comfort you, and give you hope?
In today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Malachi, the imagery of God as a consuming fire is also alluded to. We read:
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
A literal oven intensifies the heat of the flame that is burning in, under, or around the oven. If a flammable object is placed into such an oven, the heat of that intensified fire will destroy the object.
It will not simply be scorched, or burned around the edges. It will be turned to ashes.
That’s what the judgment of God will do, on the day of judgment, to all who are judged by God as arrogant, and as doers of evil. They will be turned into stubble.
The arrogant and evildoers are compared to trees, on the surface of the earth. An intense heat of divine wrath will descend upon them, and - as the prophet reports - “it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
What will happen to you on judgment day? As you encounter the “consuming fire” who is almighty God, will you survive that encounter? Or will you be destroyed by it - down to the root?
Well, look at yourself now. Are you arrogant? The Hebrew word can also be translated as presumptuous, or proud.
Are you an evildoer? The Hebrew word for that means, more literally, one who does wrong.
How many wrong things have you done, in your lifetime? How many wrong things have you done in the past week?
How many wrong thoughts have been in your mind, and how many wrong words have been on your lips, since you got up this morning?
If Malachi’s description of those who will be incinerated on the Day of the Lord matches who you are, then you’ve got something to be concerned about - whether you survive until that day comes; or whether you pass from this world, and stand before God, before that final day.
In his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul elaborates on all of this. He writes there of that final day yet to come,
“when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
If you are thinking right now that this all just has to be an exaggeration, and that God would never destroy and damn you in this way, that’s the presumptuousness that God also condemns!
And if - in comparison to others - you are thinking right now that there are plenty of people who do more evil things than you have done, that’s the pride that God also condemns!
You will never avoid God’s judgment with such defenses. Such defenses just dig you into a deeper pit of guilt before God’s holiness.
God is, and will be, a “consuming fire.” You will not be able to talk him out of being what he is - not now, not when you die, and not on judgment day.
But today’s text does not end with these frightful warnings. As we continue to read in the Prophet Malachi, the Lord says this to you:
“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.”
The literal sun in the sky is, basically, a continuous hydrogen bomb explosion. There is no better example of a literal “consuming fire” in this solar system. But the literal sun is also one of the best examples of a beneficial and life-giving fire.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has come among us to save us from our sins, is portrayed here as the “Sun of Righteousness” - not “sun” as in only-begotten Son, but “sun” as in the sun in the sky.
The rays beaming from the fiery Sun who is Christ, are pictured in the text as “wings.” And The Lord comforts you with the thought that there is “healing” for you in those sunbeams.
Another translation from the Hebrew could be that there is “medicine” in those rays of light and heat that extend out from Christ, and shine down from Christ.
The Sun of Righteousness is not a fire that destroys you. It - he - is a fire that cures you.
To fear the Lord means, in part, to admit that his judgments are just. He is holy and righteous. We are not.
To fear the Lord also means to accept as true what he declares to be true. And that includes what he declares about himself, as the forgiver of sins; and what he declares about you, as one whose sins have been forgiven, through his only-begotten Son.
There is arrogance and evil in you. There is arrogance and evil in everyone. There is unrighteousness in everyone.
But as you - in repentance and faith - “fear” the Lord, the Lord gives you a new life, and a new identity.
And there is much joy in this new identity before him. There is much happiness, and much forward-looking optimism, in this new self. “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall,” the Lord says.
The Sun of Righteousness cures you, by burning away the unrighteousness; and by purging you - with his forgiveness - of the arrogance and evil that would otherwise damn you, and be your undoing.
You are cured. You are purged.
God in his holiness and power is a consuming fire. God, in Christ, is still a consuming fire.
But also in Christ, and in the forgiveness of sins that you know through the gospel of Christ, God does not consume you. In Christ, the real you is what is united to Christ, and covered with the righteousness of Christ.
So, the real you is not consumed. It is the arrogance and the evil of the old you - these remnants of the unreal you - that are consumed.
This is strong medicine. But it is indeed medicine - a medicine of immortality - that is dispensed to you, here and now, in Christ’s Word and Sacraments, getting you ready for judgment day. And there is indeed healing in the wings of the Sun of Righteousness, not judgment.
God is still a consuming fire in your life. He consumes what burdens you, what pollutes you, and what makes you spiritually sick.
That’s why the Sun of Righteousness rising upon you brings life, and not death - just as the literal sun rising in the sky at the break of a new day, is an emblem of life, and is in fact a crucial source of life for all plants and animals - and all human beings - that live on earth.
Judgment day is coming. The day of God’s destruction is coming. And for you who know Christ, “the Sun of Righteousness,” the day of God’s ultimate healing is coming.
When the day of judgment does come, what God has made you to be will endure, and not be destroyed.
Your joyous life with God in the new heaven and the new earth, in the glory of the resurrection, will be like the joy of a calf that is released from the confinement of its stall in the morning, after a long, dark night.
O Christ, who died, and yet does 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.
24 November 2013 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Luke 23:27-43
A good king reigns for the benefit of his people, and not for his own benefit. His fundamental concern is for the safety and well-being of his subjects.
A good king does not misuse his power by exploiting his people, for his own enrichment. He does not put his subjects in jeopardy or in danger, in order to keep himself secure and comfortable.
History shows, however, that many if not most kings of centuries past, were not consistently good kings. Even those who were mostly good, were sometimes not good.
The kings of history often thought first of their own needs and wishes, before thinking of the needs and wishes of those for whom they were responsible.
Many kings in history were indifferent to the plight of the poor and needy of their lands. And they felt free to indulge their adulterous and licentious passions, without restraint, and without concern for the way in which their example was corrupting the morals of their country.
We live in a land without kings - or at least without literal kings. But you don’t have to be a king, to be someone whose example is noticed; to be someone to whom others look for guidance and protection; or to be someone who is responsible for the well-being of others.
How often do people exercise such roles in a good way - thinking first of what is good for those who depend on them? How often, instead, do people take advantage of their prestige in the eyes of others - or of their influence over others - for their own selfish benefit?
Corrupt politicians use their office to enrich themselves. Selfish parents neglect their children - spending on liquor and drugs what they should be spending on their children. Licentious men tell an emotionally-vulnerable girlfriend, “I love you,” when what they really mean is, “I love me, and I want you.”
The world is full of people who are not “good kings,” as it were. And, perhaps in a less overt way, the church is, too.
Are you always selfless and compassionate in the roles of leadership, influence, and responsibility that have been entrusted to you - either by election, or by providential circumstance? How often do you disappoint those who depend on you?
Do you take advantage of the weakness of others, the immaturity of others, or the inexperience of others, to puff yourself up, or to get what you want for yourself?
Can your spouse or children always depend on you? What about your friend or neighbor in need? What about those who work under you, or with you?
Do you think about these various people, and their needs - and do you work for them, and for the fulfillment of their needs - as your vocation would require of you?
Or do you think about yourself, and work for yourself; and do what you do, because it benefits you - sometimes at the expense of those whom you are called to serve?
Are you, as it were, a “good king”? Or are you a bad king?
Getting back to real kings - indeed, to the most real King... When Jesus was crucified, a sign was placed over his head, on the wooden cross to which his bloody body was nailed: “This is the King of the Jews.” Today’s Gospel from St. Luke reports this - as do all the other Gospels.
When Pontius Pilate ordered that this sign be placed there, he no doubt intended it to be a mockery of Jesus, and to be an insult to the Jewish leadership. He had no idea how true that inscription was!
Jesus was and is, and always will be, the true Davidic King of Israel; the true Savior King over all nations; and the true divine King of the Universe.
He was the king over everyone who was there with him at Calvary. He is the king over you, and over all of us gathered here today. He was and is a king with real power, too.
Not long before the events of today’s text, when Peter had drawn his sword against the temple guard in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had reminded him: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
Now, Jesus did not exercise such self-preserving power. But the reason why, is not because he did not have such power.
Rather, as Jesus had also said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus was a good King. His reign - hidden though it was on this occasion under the cloak of great humility - was a reign that was for the benefit of his subjects, and not for his own benefit.
This commitment was tested, from every direction, during the time of his suffering on the cross. St. Luke tells us that the rulers who were there to gawk at him, called out, “Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
We are told as well that the Roman soldiers who were there - the execution squad - also mocked him, coming up to him as he hung there in agony, saying: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
And even one of the criminals who were crucified with him, joined in this evil chorus: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself - and us!”
All of these voices were cajoling Jesus to be a bad king. Without any idea of what they were really asking for, they were tempting him to turn away from his responsibility as King; and from his hard and painful duty to do what needed to be done, for the benefit of those he had come to serve.
These voices were trying to alter his course, and to change his mind, so that he would start thinking about his own comfort, and not about the deepest needs of his people - which only he could meet.
Everyone who was there - indeed everyone in the world - needed things that only Jesus, their true King, could give.
The human race needed reconciliation with the God whom it had offended and pushed away, in its universal rebellion against him. The human race needed the forgiveness of its sins, and a new beginning with God, in peace.
The human race needed the hope of eternal life, to replace its deep-seated fear of the hellish destruction that it has earned and deserved.
If Jesus had heeded the voices that were calling out to him that day, and if he had indeed “saved himself” in that dark hour, he would not have been a good king.
If Jesus has not sacrificed himself, to save his people, rather than himself; and if he had not forgiven the sins of his people, he would have been a bad king. And they - we - would be lost forever.
But Jesus was not a “bad king.” He was a good king!
He did not act and speak for his own benefit, but for the benefit of those over whom he was mystically ruling - even then. This is what St. Luke tells us:
“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him... And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
“Father, forgive them.” Father, forgive the soldiers. Father, forgive the rulers. Father, forgive the criminal. Father, forgive them all.
Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of all who were hurting him, and mocking him, and tempting him.
Implicit in this prayer was, of course, also a wish that the Spirit of his Father would work repentance and faith in these various people, so that the forgiveness that Jesus was winning for them - and for all men - could and would be received by them, to their eternal benefit.
But even if some or all of these people did sadly remain hardened in unbelief for the rest of their time on earth, Jesus, their good King, did not leave anything undone - as far as he was concerned - that he needed to do for them, for their salvation.
He was even then suffering and dying for them, under the curse of the law that hung down over them. And he, in his heart, was forgiving them.
Jesus, on the cross, showed himself to be a good King also in a very personal way, to one of his most needy and remorseful subjects. The other of the two criminals rebuked the one who had joined in verbally harassing Jesus, and said to him:
“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then the penitent criminal - very new in his faith and understanding - said to his King, in the simple trust of his new faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus - his good King; his Savior King; his forgiving King - said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus was dying on the cross for all people. He was and is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Sometimes, though, that statement - as true as it is - can seem a little abstract or distant - especially when an individual sinner is weighed down by guilt beyond all human relief; or is scared of dying, or of living, beyond all human consolation.
At such a time, a solitary, troubled soul will ask: not only “Do I have a king?”; but, “Do I have a king?; Do I have a good king?”
Do I have a Savior who knows about me, who loves me, and who is taking care of me?
Do I have a good King, who will give me what I need, even at great cost to himself? Do I have a good King, who will watch over me, and welcome me into his kingdom?
The penitent criminal had - and has - such a King. And you, my friend, have such a King!
Each of you has a good King, who reigns over you with a selfless and completely self-giving love. What Jesus spoke from the cross, he speaks now also in regard to you - and to you.
He prayed, “Father, forgive them,” from the cross. And now, at the right hand of the Majesty on high, he still says, “Father, forgive them.”
God’s law, and your own consciences, accuse all of you. God’s law, and your own consciences, remind you of all the times that you have been, as it were, a “bad king” over those who have been placed under your care or influence, and who had a right to expect better of you.
But Jesus is also thinking of all of you, when he says - as your intercessor in the courts of heaven - “Father, forgive them.”
And when, in the personal loneliness of your inner regret - and in the personal anguish of your inner remorse - you call out to your King, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he softly says to you, personally, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
When the liberating words of Absolution are pronounced upon you in the stead of Christ by the Lord’s servant - “I forgive you all your sins” - in and under those words, your King is also saying: “You will be with me in Paradise.”
When the life-giving words of Christ’s institution are declared to you in his Holy Supper - “This is my body, which is given for you; This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins” - in and under those words, your King is also saying: “You will be with me in Paradise.”
In good times and in bad, Jesus is your King. In times of joy and in times of trial, Jesus is your King.
On earth and in heaven, Jesus is your King. And he is a good King.
“Lord Jesus Christ, You reign among us by the preaching of Your cross. Forgive Your people their offenses, that we, being governed by Your bountiful goodness, may enter at last into Your eternal paradise.” Amen.