2 November 2014 - All Saints - Psalm 30:1-5

Please hear with me a reading from Psalm 30, beginning at the first verse:

“I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.”

So far the text.

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” The saints of the Lord sing praises to him, and they offer thanks to him.

That’s one of the defining features of a saint. Everyone would understand that.

But why do they praise and thank God? What is it in the life of someone who can rightly be called a saint, that prompts these praises and thanksgivings?

In the popular imagination, a saint is someone who is above the fray of the spiritual and moral turmoil that afflicts those of a weaker religious stature. Saint are often perceived to be those who, through inner discipline and piety, have elevated themselves to a higher level of sanctity.

Their closeness to God means that they experience only tranquility in their relationship with him. The wickedness and corruption of the fallen world does not touch them, because they have risen above all that.

They are saints, after all. They are not like us.

But these assumptions about what a saint is, or what a saint’s life is like, do not comport with what King David teaches us in today’s text. Certainly David does call upon the saints of the Lord to praise and thank God. But why?

Is it because God has preserved them from the spiritual struggles that trouble ordinary people? Is it because God endowed them with an inner moral fortitude, by which they were able to elevate themselves above the conflicts and crises that often trouble the rest of us?

Just before his exhortation to the saints to praise and thank the Lord, David - who is among the saints, and who was speaking on their behalf - had offered this prayer to God:

“I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”

The first thing we notice, is that David is not thanking God for an inner strength of character by which he had pulled himself up from a lower and more tumultuous kind of existence. He is extolling God for having drawn him up to where he is now.

Before this, David was sick - spiritually and morally sick. He had no inner energy by which to raise himself up from this condition. Only God could heal him, and raise him. And God did heal him, and raise him.

And David is not talking here about a relatively small spiritual or moral impairment - a bump in the road to sainthood that God helped him to get over. David was lost in a deep and dark place of sin and death, before God lifted him out of it.

He had cried to the Lord for help. He was desperate. David uses the imagery of death and hopeless destruction to describe where he was, when the Lord intervened and rescued him.

In his prayer, David recalls: “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”

The Hebrew word “Sheol” means the place of the dead. Sometimes the context indicates that what is being referred to is simply the grave.

But in other contexts, the word carries the connotation of a place, or state of existence, wherein the dead are judged, and await their final judgment. The word Sheol does not call to mind pleasant thoughts, or stimulate happy feelings.

In his use of this word, David was talking about the living hell - the fearful foreboding of divine judgment - that he had previously experienced because of his sin. David explicitly refers to the Lord’s “anger.” So, that was on his mind.

You can’t think about the Lord almighty being angry at you, in a nonchalant way. This is a fearful thing to ponder. But David was pondering it.

To be sure, when David was, as it were, in Sheol, he was an object of divine pity. He was desperately sick and in need of supernatural healing.

But from another perspective, David knew in his conscience that he was, or could expect to be, also an object of divine wrath and punishment.

Was David thinking of the humbling discouragement that he had experienced as a young man, when King Saul pursued him and tried to kill him? Was he thinking about the danger, the grief, and the chastisement that he had endured when his son Absolom rebelled against him, and tried to usurp his throne?

Was he thinking about the way in which he had disgraced himself, in his adultery with Bathsheba; and about his treachery in arranging for Bathsheba’s husband - a decent and honorable man - to be killed, so that he could have Bathsheba for himself?

He was probably thinking of all these things. He was probably thinking of an entire lifetime of moral and spiritual fluctuations and struggles; an entire lifetime of humiliations and exaltations; of dying to self, and of rising in the life of God.

He was reflecting on the many times in his life, when God’s accusing law has crushed his conscience; and when God’s forgiving grace had then lifted him up - up from his sickness; up from his inner death.

And that’s what a saint is: someone who, throughout life, is pursued by God, and haunted by God; and someone who, throughout life, also has God as his faithful companion and loving protector.

A saint is not someone who has lifted himself up from the muck and mire of this corrupted world, or who has successfully overpowered - within himself - the destructive impulses of his own sinful heart. A saint is someone who has been lifted up by God; who has been delivered from sin and death by God; who has been forgiven, and healed, and cleansed, by God.

God makes saints. They don’t make themselves. And he makes them by slaying them with his law, and then recreating and resurrecting them with his gospel.

He shows them his anger, but then he shows them his favor and his love. And God’s loving side is his real and enduring side. God is love. His anger is but for a moment, but his favor is for a lifetime.

God makes saints out of sinful and weak people. He makes saints out of people who have no other hope.

He makes saints out of people like David. he makes saints out of people like you.

Are you a saint? What do you say? What does God say?

God makes saints out of people through, and because of, his Son Jesus Christ, who was and is the quintessential saint: the only truly holy, righteous, pious, and obedient man.

In our place, and for our benefit, Jesus actually experienced the things that David describes in Psalm 30. As humanity’s substitute and Savior, the prayer of David could have been, and is, his prayer.

As the victor over the grave, whom God has raised from death, Jesus can and does pray: “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me.”

As he recalls the agony and suffering of the cross, and his atoning death for our transgressions, the resurrected head of his church can and does say to his Father:

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”

A rescue from judgment and death is possible for you, because Jesus endured judgment and death, and was himself rescued from it, in your place. A new life, and a new beginning with God, is possible for you, because Jesus rose from the dead, and is now your living Lord.

A lifetime of rejoicing in the mercy of God is possible for you, because the blood of Jesus washes away your sins; and because the Spirit of Jesus lives within you, where he is conforming you to his image.

Jesus carried your sins to the cross. God’s anger rested upon Jesus then and there, to the bitter end, until the price for your sins was fully paid. That’s why his anger against you is now lifted, as soon as Jesus is brought into the equation.

An embracing of Christ is an embracing of deliverance and salvation, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of life and peace. To embrace Christ is to have Christ, and to have everything he accomplished for you.

The promises that David believed - as God lifted him up, and made him to be a saint - were promises that connected David’s faith to the ultimate son of David - and the Son of God - who would someday come among men, to reign over all of God’s people, of all nations, forever.

These are the promises that you also believe - promises that flow from the royal Savior who has now come, and has accomplished everything that his Father planned for him to accomplish. You believe these promises, as God lifts you up in Christ, and makes you to be a saint, in Christ.

All Saints Sunday, from the perspective of Psalm 30, could also be called all forgiven sinners Sunday, or all believing Christians Sunday.

Perhaps the focus of our thoughts today is on those saints who have departed from this world, who now rest from their labors, and who are at peace in the embrace of their Savior. But the reason why we have confidence that those who have departed in the faith are with God now, is the same reason why we have confidence that when we pass from this world, we too will be with the Lord.

It is not because of what they have done, or because of what we have made of ourselves. Left to ourselves, we only flounder and fall; we sink and die.

The confidence that we have - our saintly confidence; for them, and for ourselves - is because of what has been done to us by God, and because of what God, in his grace, has made us to be.

That’s why we know that we will be with the Lord - in this lifetime, and in the life to come. That’s why we - even we - are his saints.

We believe, and are comforted by, God’s absolution, knowing that it is intended for us. We partake of the body and blood of his Son in the Lord’s Supper - in repentance and faith - knowing that this body was given for us, and that this blood was shed for us.

“I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.” Amen.

9 November 2014 - Pentecost 22 - Matthew 25:1-13

The full meaning of some of the Lord’s parables is not immediately clear to us. Jesus’ parables were spoken to a first-century Jewish audience.

He often told stories that drew on certain unique customs of first-century Jewish people which are not familiar to us today. Today’s parable from St. Matthew, about the ten virgins, is one of these.

One of the wedding customs of the Jews, was that on the day of the wedding, the bride, and several of her friends - her bridesmaids, as it were - would wait at the bride’s home, until the bridegroom came, to escort his bride to what was then going to be their new home.

The bride’s friends followed along, and became a part of the procession to the bridegroom’s home. When they all arrived, they went inside for a big wedding banquet.

This is the frame of reference for the parable of the ten virgins. These ten girls, or young women, were - in effect - bridesmaids for a wedding.

In this particular case, the bridegroom was delayed. For five of the virgins, this didn’t matter, as far as their preparedness to be a part of the nighttime wedding procession was concerned. They were ready for the wedding, whether it started on time or started late.

But for the other five, this delay did matter. They did not have enough oil for their lamps.

They were not prepared for the possibility that the bridegroom might be tardy - in coming to meet his bride and her retinue, and in leading them to the banquet. So, when he did end up coming later than they expected, they were not prepared.

The focus of their lack of preparedness was their lack of oil for their lamps. These lamps were necessary for a nighttime procession.

The five foolish virgins had not brought along an extra supply of oil when they went to the bride’s house, to wait with her for the bridegroom. So, when that oil was needed - once the relatively small amount of oil that had been in the lamps had been burned off during the time of waiting - it was not there.

When it was announced that the bridegroom was finally on his way, and the foolish virgins realized the situation they were in, they tried to get some oil from the wise virgins - who had each brought an extra supply for their own lamps. But the wise virgins told them that they would not have enough for themselves, if they gave them some of their supply.

They told them to go instead to buy more for themselves. The foolish virgins accordingly left - in a hasty attempt to find someone who would sell them some oil.

But remember that according to the scenario of the parable, it was now midnight. We can assume, therefore, that there were no oil venders open for business at that hour of the night.

So, when the bridegroom arrived, to pick up his bride, and lead her and her bridesmaids to the wedding at his house, the foolish virgins were not there. They were not a part of the procession.

They were not a part of the banquet. They were, ultimately, excluded from the wedding.

The point of the parable, was to teach the church to remain always ready for the coming of the Lord on the last day, when he will finally usher his beloved church into the joys of eternal life, in the new heavens and the new earth. In the parable, Jesus is the bridegroom.

The parable doesn’t actually mention the bride in so many words. Christians are described on this occasion as those who are the friends and companions of Jesus’ bride.

What is preserved through the use of this illustration is the corporate nature of the church. You and I, as Christians, are not awaiting the Lord’s Second Coming all by ourselves.

We are waiting together. Even when the Lord seems to be delayed in his visible return to this world, we stay together, and continue to wait together.

The church is often thought of as a big supernatural hospital, where the spiritually sick or wounded are treated and made well. But from the perspective of today’s parable, we might think of the church also as a big waiting room at the Doctor’s office.

We know that our ultimate healing and cure will come, and that we will be delivered once and for all from the afflictions that we endure in this sinful world, when the great physician comes bodily to raise our bodies from the grave, and to bring us into his eternal habitations.

But for now, we are still waiting for this. It has not yet happened.

Now, in general terms, the act of waiting for something can have one of two effects on those who are waiting. If you are confident that the thing you are waiting for is really going to happen, and if you know that this thing will be a good thing when it does happen, then the act of waiting helps to build up your anticipation, and your yearning for that desired, future thing.

Think of a young couple in love waiting for their wedding day, or of a young married couple waiting excitedly for the birth of their first child.

But for those whose hearts are not really in the waiting - and if they are not so sure that the thing they are waiting for is really all that significant - then the act of waiting can wear down the resolve and patience of those who are waiting.

It’s like being put on hold on the telephone, when you are trying to talk to someone, somewhere, about a relatively unimportant matter. If you are kept on hold for, say, five or ten minutes, and there are other things you would rather be doing, you may very well hang up, and not just keep waiting indefinitely.

Another thing that has happened to me, when I have been on hold for a long time, is that I get distracted from the act of waiting, and start to do, and think about, other things - even though the line is still open, usually on speaker phone. And then when someone at the other end does finally pick up, and say “hello,” if I do not immediately respond to that “hello” within a matter of one or two seconds, he hangs up!

So, all that waiting was for nothing, because it was not an intense and focused waiting. I was not ready - in an instant - to talk, when the opportunity to talk came.

Jesus has, as it were, put the church on hold. He has told us that he will get back to us, and return to this world to judge the living and the dead.

He has not told us when he will do this. But he has told us to wait, and to remain ready, for when he does do this.

Because of what may appear to you to be a delay in his fulfillment of this promise, have you, perhaps, stopped waiting? Have you hung up the phone, and moved on to do other things that seem to be more pressing, and more real, as far as life in this world is concerned?

Or have you become distracted and unfocused in your waiting, so that there is a part of you that is now thinking about other things, and prioritizing other things, instead of remaining firm and steadfast in an active and lively expectation that Jesus can return at any time - and that you must therefore be ready for him at any time?

Again, the focal point of the virgins’ preparedness, or lack of preparedness, in today’s parable, is the presence, or absence, of a supply of oil. This oil is faith.

Jesus elsewhere asks the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The answer, of course, is that he will, because his true church will endure until the end.

He promises that he will be with his disciples always, even to the end of the age, through the ministry of Word and sacrament that he has commissioned them to carry out among all nations in perpetuity.

But throughout the history of the church on earth, and also at the present time, there have been many who visibly assemble with the church; who are - at least outwardly - waiting for Jesus; and who seem to have faith. But, they do not believe.

The oil lamps and oil flasks of the first century were made out of clay, not glass. Just as with the human heart, you could not look through those oil containers to see if there was really anything inside.

In the case of five of the bridesmaids in today’s story, there was no oil in their lamps. They seemed to be ready for the bridegroom’s appearance. Externally, they were holding lamps. But their lamps were empty.

There was no oil in their lamps. Their was no faith in their hearts.

Do you have oil? Do you have faith? Outwardly, you appear to be waiting with everyone else. Outwardly, you seem to be ready - if the Lord were to come today for you and his church. But are you ready?

Some people within the outward fellowship of the church, even if they do not say it in so many words, think that they are ready, even when they are not, because of a borrowed faith. Do you consider yourself to be a Christian because your spouse is a Christian, and is serious about the faith, even though - when push comes to shove - you remain personally indifferent?

Do you think that you have faith, because you were born into a Christian family, and your parents have faith? God does not have any grandchildren, you know. Or do you not know that?

The faith that prepares you for Christ is your own faith, not someone else’s. The faith that keeps you ready for life in the next world - and that fills you with the hope of Christ in this world too - is your own faith in Christ.

Over and over again, Jesus said things like this to the individuals to whom he had ministered: “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

And what is most pertinent is what he said to Peter: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Peter’s faith was very much in danger of failing. But Jesus prayed him through it. And when your faith is in danger of failing, or if it has actually failed, Jesus will pray you through it as well, as he intercedes for you at the right hand of the Father.

In a comment on today’s text that is quoted in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the fourth-century church Father Saint Hilary said this:

“As the foolish virgins could not go forth with their lamps extinguished, they sought those who were prudent to lend them oil; to whom they replied that they could not give the oil because there might not be enough for all. In other words, no one can be aided by the works and merits of another, because it is necessary for every one to buy oil for his own lamp.”

The nature of this buying of the oil, or this acquiring of faith, is best understood in terms of the divine invitation that was issued through the Prophet Isaiah:

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. ... Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.”

As God himself explains it, buying wine and milk without money, means listening to God’s Word, inclining your ear to God’s Word, and hearing God’s Word.

This involves a real appropriation - a deeply personal appropriation - like unto what happens when you buy something, so that it becomes your own personal property. But what the gospel offers is not actually for sale. The faith that the gospel creates in those who hear it, is a gift of grace.

The vendor to which you have recourse, for a continual replenishing of your faith in Christ, is the Holy Spirit. And the place where he is, as it were, open for business - and is available always to renew your supply of faith - is in the Word and Sacraments of Christ.

Where the message of Christ crucified is proclaimed, where baptism is administered and recalled through confession and absolution, and where the Lord’s Supper is administered, is where you come, to buy without money.

This is where we all come to be renewed in our confidence that the Savior who once did redeem us and forgive us, will in glory come again for us at the end of the age. This is where our flagging faith is reinvigorated by the gospel, and where we are continually justified by faith in the promises of that gospel.

To find faith is really to find Christ, who is the object of faith. To be given a new supply of faith is really to be given Christ. To him we cling, and in him we trust.

In repentance you do need to “take ownership” of your sins - to “buy in” to the honest admission that you have not been eagerly and undistractedly awaiting Christ as you should have been. And maybe you have stopped waiting for him altogether, so that your faith is now dried up, and is in need of a complete restoration.

But then, for the renewal and replenishing of your faith, God invites you to “take ownership” of Christ - to “buy in” to him, and his grace, without money, and without price. God invites you to receive faith, by receiving Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.

And as you mystically receive Jesus by faith now, and continually receive him in this way as you hear and believe his Word, you will be ready - when the time comes - to receive him also in his glorious bodily appearance on judgment day.

Until he does come in that final way, you and I - and all of his people - will truly be waiting for him together, when we are waiting for him in the fellowship of his church.

His Word will be proclaimed among us until the end. And his sacraments - in which his Word is combined with elements of the earth - will be administered among us until the earth, as we know it, is no more.

For as long as we have to wait - as each of us stays close to Christ, and as we also stay close to each other in a mutual encouragement of the faith that resides in each of us - we will pray together, and we will pray personally, these words from the last verse of today’s last hymn:

With my lamp well trimmed and burning,
Swift to hear and slow to roam,
Watching for Thy glad returning
To restore me to my home.
Come, my Savior, Come, my Savior,
O my Savior, quickly come. Amen.

16 November 2014 - Pentecost 23 - Zephaniah 1:7-16

In our existence on this earth, the various arenas of life in which we find ourselves provide us with opportunities to love and serve our neighbor, according to the callings that God has given us. This can be in the realm of public service, as a government official or a government employee.

This can involve those who work with their hands, and make a living through things like fishing, farming, carpentry, and bricklaying. Merchants, bankers, and others who work in the world of finance, also have opportunities in their professions to serve God’s purposes for them in this world, by serving their neighbor.

And probably most important of all, the homes in which we live, with those family members who are closest to us, are places where we can demonstrate love and kindness to others, in keeping with the expectations of God’s law.

But these arenas of life are places where much mischief and wickedness can also occur. Places of business, commerce, and labor are places where sinful men can sin against their fellow men - with the strong exploiting the weak; the wealthy humiliating the poor; and those who are dishonest and without human compassion hurting and destroying those who are honest and honorable.

Even in the home - which should be the safest and most peaceful place for anyone - violence and abuse, cruelty and betrayal, can inflict painful wounds on the bodies and souls of those members of the human family who are most vulnerable.

All of this invites the anger and punishment of a just God. He knows about these things. He does not like them. And he will not ignore them.

The immediate historical context of today’s text from the Prophet Zephaniah, was the impending destruction of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. The Kingdom of Judah had turned away from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

They no longer cared about the Lord or his Word. And they no longer believed that the Lord would do anything about their sins.

They were indifferent to him, and assumed that he was indifferent to them. But they were wrong.

The Babylonians, with God’s permission and as his instruments, would soon descend upon Judah. And Jerusalem itself - the beloved city of David, the city of the Temple - would be breached, plundered, and destroyed.

Many of its inhabitants would be killed. Those not killed would be taken away in captivity.

In today’s text, the Lord is announcing, and warning about, this impending judgment. He says: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.’”

But at a deeper level, today’s text also points forward beyond this localized judgment, to something more comprehensive, and more frightening. A few verses earlier in the chapter from which today’s reading is excerpted, we read this:

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.

That’s not just a description of God’s judgment on Jerusalem in the seventh century B.C. That’s a description of God’s judgment on the whole sinful world.

That’s a description of the end of the world as we know it - the day when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Do you feel safe in your places of work, commerce, and industry, in your communities and homes? The people of Jerusalem did.

Do you assume that all things in this world will continue as they are now, without interruption? The people of Jerusalem did.

But this is what the Lord almighty said to the people of Jerusalem, and what he says also to you:

“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons... On that day I will punish...those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. “On that day, declares the Lord, a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate...”

“Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off. ...”

“Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.”

“The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast... A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

This was God’s warning to Jerusalem. This is God’s warning to the world in which we now live. This is God’s warning to you, and to me.

All will not continue forever as it is now. There will be a day of accounting.

And to quote God directly, there will be a day of punishment. God and his law will not be mocked forever. God’s patience will eventually come to an end.

But please do note this interesting phrase in today’s text: As God describes the fiery judgment that will come upon Jerusalem because of its sins, the city itself is called the “sacrifice” that God himself is preparing. He says:

“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice, I will punish the officials and the king’s sons” – and so forth, as we have already heard.

Because of their sins, and because their refusal to turn to the Lord, and to believe his promises, the people of Jerusalem will be sacrificed, as it were. Their own iniquity will be visited upon them, and they shall suffer under God’s justice.

On the final judgment day, when this world is brought to an end, this will happen again, on a massive scale. Not believing that this will really happen someday, is not going to cause it not to happen.

It really will happen. But something else, like this, really did happen already, also in Jerusalem.

Through the Prophet Zephaniah, God did reveal what would happen in Jerusalem when the Babylonians would conquer the city. At a deeper level, he also revealed what would happen to all cities, and all nations, at the time of his Son’s second coming.

But there was something in his words that also spoke to the hearts of those among the people of Judah who still trusted in him, and who still placed their hope in his mercy and deliverance, in spite of the apostasy of the rest of the nation.

Listen to these words again, but this time from the perspective of what happened on the cross of Calvary, at the time of Jesus’ first coming: “The day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice.”

Jesus was the true and final sacrifice of the Lord - a sacrifice prepared by the Lord. The Prophet Isaiah explained it in this way:

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

The many punishments that God threatened, he did actually pour out, not just on the impenitent people of Jerusalem, but also and chiefly on their divine-human substitute Jesus. God, according to the demands and threats of his law, poured out those punishments on his own Son, whose suffering and death was a sacrifice for all men of all nations.

As this divine message about the vicarious sacrifice of Christ was implicitly conveyed to the people of Jerusalem - in, with, and under God’s explicit warnings about the impending destruction of their city - the way for individuals to be spared and forgiven was also spelled out for them. A few verses after the section of the Prophet Zephaniah that was appointed to be read today, a way out is offered to the people through these words:

“Gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect, ...before there comes upon you the burning anger of the Lord... Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.”

The city would be destroyed. But for those who would seek the Lord - who would in penitence and faith seek righteousness and humility - there was hope. There was hope for deliverance, and there was hope that they would be hidden - under the covering of God’s mercy and forgiveness - from the wrath of God.

There’s an interesting expression in the prayer of confession that we often say together at the beginning of the Sunday service. After we admit that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, we recognize that we need to flee for refuge from his judgment.

But where could sinners possibly go, to escape from God, and from his displeasure? Well, this is what we pray : “We flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is no place to hide from God’s judgment, except under the covering of God’s own grace. Because Jesus did in fact endure the punishment that all Jerusalem, and all the world, deserved, we can flee to him. Jesus now protects us from that punishment.

Of course, this isn’t a matter of Jesus the man protecting us from a mean and vindictive God. Fleeing to Jesus is not fleeing away from God. Fleeing to Jesus is fleeing to God.

Jesus is himself God - the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

God’s justice and holiness prevents God from ignoring human rebellion, human cruelty, and human idolatry. If he were to accommodate himself to sin without punishing it, then he himself would be neither just nor holy.

But as St. John tells us, God is not only a just and holy God. God is love. And that means that he loves his creatures. He loves you.

If it would be possible for him to absorb his punishment of our sins into himself, and to deflect it away from us, that’s what he would rather do. And it is possible for him to do this. In Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he did do this.

If you are in Christ, therefore - if he has taken hold of you, and if you cling to him - you have found your refuge. You are covered. You are forgiven.

You have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. His death is your death - the death of your sin. His life is your life - the life of God, and of godliness, that is now in you by his Spirit.

And you are ready for judgment day. The decree of judgment against you has already been handed down on the cross.

Your fine has been paid in full. Your own execution has been stayed. And you, personally, have been pardoned.

All of your offenses, and all of your failures to love and serve those whom God has brought into your life - in your family, in the workplace, and everywhere else - are covered over by the righteousness of Christ.

In prophecy, the Lord said to the people of Jerusalem: “Perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.” But now, in the clear fulfillment of God’s revelation in Christ, God’s word to you - who have turned away from your sins, and who have turned to him - is that you can be certain of your salvation.

You can be certain of it, because it does not depend on you, but on him. In the Gospel according to St. John, the Lord declares:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

But of course, the very next line must never be ignored or forgotten, where the world is given this warning: “But whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The Babylonians did take Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was punished. And on the last day, all nations will stand before their divine judge.

On that final day, those who are still in their sins, and not in Christ, will likewise be punished. As St. Paul elsewhere tells us, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

But this need not be your fate. In Christ, and in the mercy and forgiveness that you know in Christ, this will not be your fate.

In repentance and faith - as you live out your life in this world under his grace, and as you look forward to the inevitable end of this world - you can sing these words about your Savior, and about your confidence in him:

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne!
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand. Amen.

23 November 2014 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Matthew 25:31-46

On Wednesday of this past week, I had the opportunity to visit the grave of Mary Colville, a member of our congregation who passed away in March. She is buried at the national cemetery, surrounded by the graves of many veterans and spouses of veterans.

Each of these graves is marked by a bronze plaque, and each of these bronze plaques is ornamented by a religious symbol - which testifies to the beliefs of the deceased person whose remains rest beneath each respective plaque.

It is understandable why people would want a emblem of their religious faith to be emblazoned on their grave marker, because almost all religions include - as one of their chief purposes - the preparation of those who follow that religion, for their passage from this life into the next life.

If someone has a specific hope for the next world, or an expectation of what will come after physical death, such a hope, or such an expectation, has no doubt been shaped by the teachings of that person’s religion.

Many today think that religion in general is little more than a human psychological phenomenon, invented by people to help them cope with the anxiety of death. According to this notion, people in different times and places invent different kinds of religions. None of them are objectively true, however.

This modern, secular way of thinking might seem to be confirmed by the diversity of religions, and of religious teachings, regarding the afterlife, and the ultimate destiny of those who have died. As I looked around on Wednesday, at the cemetery, I saw quite a diversity of religious symbols on the grave markers in Mary’s section.

There were several plaques with a Mormon symbol, indicating that the person whose body is buried under that marker had believed that in the next world, he would have an opportunity to be exalted to godhood, to be married to many god-wives, and to oversee his own planet somewhere in the universe - populating it with the spirit children that he and his god-wives would produce.

One of the grave markers had an inverted pentagram on it - the symbol of the religion of witchcraft. It’s difficult to guess what that poor deluded soul had expected to find on the other side of death.

And, as we might expect, there was a wide assortment of crosses, in various styles, representing the diversity of confessions and denominations that exist in Christendom - each of which may have its own unique interpretation of the afterlife, and of what a soul will experience in the afterlife.

Is it possible to know what will happen after we die, and to know what our ultimate destiny really will be? There are so many competing claims, and promises, and warnings out there.

Which ones can be believed? Can any of them be believed? Is it possible that it is all just made up, and that there is actually nothing awaiting us?: when you’re dead, you’re just dead, and nothing of you continues on.

Two thousand years ago, there was a man - a unique and extraordinary man - who did cross over the threshold of death, and who then came back from death. He had predicted that he would, and then he did.

If anyone should be listened to, for reliable information about these matters, it would be this man. If anyone would be able to tell us what to expect, and how to prepare for what will happen on the other side of death, it would be this man. It would be Jesus.

In today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus does in fact tell us some important things about what will happen, and about why it will happen.

We don’t have time today to explore in detail all the things that Jesus says in this text. But we do have time to examine a couple of his main points.

We know from other passages of Scripture that in temporal death there is a separation of the soul and the body. On the last day, when Christ returns visibly to this world, all the dead will be miraculously raised - with a reunion of soul and body - and will then stand before Christ, who will judge them.

Today’s text picks up the story at this point. Jesus says:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

“And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

In the original Greek, the word translated here as “blessed” is “eulogeo.” This is the same Greek word on which the English term “eulogy” is based.

Literally, it means “good word.” The kind of blessing that Jesus is talking about, therefore, is a “good word” that has been spoken by God the Father over those who will be invited to enter the kingdom prepared for them.

The works of love and kindness that these people had performed during their lives on earth will be referred to. But what will be referred to first, is the “good word” - the eulogy - that had been spoken over them by God.

Our good works are the fruits of a saving faith. But what makes a saving faith to be a saving faith, is that it believes the gospel of salvation. This salvation does not depend on the good works that we do, but on the good works that Jesus did - for us, and for our benefit.

The gospel that the Lord’s sheep hear and believe is a gospel that announces to them, and bestows upon them, the divine gift of forgiveness, through the death and resurrection of Christ; the divine gift of justification, through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ; and the divine gift of adoption as children of God, through the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ.

On judgment day, when the saints of God stand before their judge, they will also be standing before their Savior. When they give an account of their lives, they will be giving an account of the good things that God has spoken over them, that God has worked within them, and that God has accomplished through them.

And they will be welcomed into the kingdom that their heavenly Father has prepared for them “from the foundation of the world.” God’s grace toward those who - in time - repent of their sins, and receive God’s reconciliation, is a grace that extends beyond time, in both directions.

It is an eternal grace, toward those who are chosen in Christ from the foundation of the world. This is an incomprehensible mystery.

But one of the ways in which you can be comforted by this, is to know that God’s desire to save you from sin and death, is not an afterthought on his part, or a contingency plan based on anything you have done or earned. This is something he has always been planning.

Whenever his law drives you to penitence and remorse, and to a desire to forsake your sins and amend your life, God’s plan for you is thereby being implemented. Whenever the comfort of the gospel is applied to you, filling you with the assurance that your sins have been put away, and that God is at peace with you for the sake of his Son, God’s plan for you is thereby being implemented.

Whenever you in your human failures are restored to faith, or in your human weakness are strengthened in faith, God’s plan for you is thereby being implemented. And when on judgment day, Jesus opens the door to his Father’s eternal kingdom to you - prepared for you from the foundation of the world - God’s plan for you will, in the ultimate sense, be fully implemented.

If you know Christ’s pardon and acceptance now, you will know Christ’s pardon and acceptance then. If you have eternal life now - by faith in the one who has claimed you for eternity - you will have eternal life then.

But there is more to the story of what will happen on judgment day, that we must also consider. In today’s account, Jesus goes on to say:

“Then [the Son of Man] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

These fearful words will be spoken to those who are cursed by God because of their sin - manifested chiefly in their indifference, during their lifetime, to the needs of others. And that, too, will be referred to.

But the Lord does not link this curse to an eternal plan on God’s part, to reject them and damn them. Jesus will not send unbelievers to a place, or a form of existence, that had been prepared for them.

Rather, they will enter into an eternal destiny that had actually been intended only for “the devil and his angels.” In other words, people do not go to this fiery judgment because God wants them to be there, or because he takes any pleasure in their condemnation.

They go to this judgment because they had believed the lies of Satan instead of the truth of God; because they had aligned themselves with the rebellion of Satan instead of with the peace and harmony of God; and because they had made themselves to be servants of Satan - in the way they had lived, thought, and believed - instead of servants of God.

There is a very noticeable lack of symmetry between heaven and hell in this account. Those who end up in heaven, end up there because of God’s unmerited grace, in Christ, from the foundation of the world. But those who end up in hell, end up there because of their own sin and unbelief, and not because God had prepared hell for them.

God does send the devil and his fallen angels to hell. There’s no doubt about that. A way of redemption for these rebellious spirits has not been provided.

But there is a sense in which God does not send people to hell, as much as he allows them to send themselves there. But he does allow this.

In life, God does not coerce people to forsake evil and to turn to him. Likewise in death, God does not coerce people who in their hearts actually hate God, to spend an eternity in the gracious fellowship of God and his saints.

Instead, in eternity, he lets them have what they want. If in life, they had chosen companionship with the devil over companionship with God, then they will share in the fate of the devil also in death - in an eternal death.

As we all think about the inevitability of our departure from this world; and as we - with all human beings - would seek to glean from the teachings of our religion some kind of hope or expectation concerning what comes after this departure: I implore all of you to make sure you are adhering to the teachings about life, about death, and about life after death, that Jesus delivers to you, and to all people.

Neither Jesus, nor the Bible as a whole, answer all the questions you may have about the afterlife. Neither Jesus, nor the Bible as a whole, satisfy your curiosities about specific departed souls - whether certain people you knew did, or did not, repent of their sins, and come to faith, before they departed from this world.

But what Jesus teaches - what the prophets and apostles teach - does answer the questions you need to have answered, as you look forward to the rest of life, and to the end of life.

Make sure that there is more than just a cross emblazoned on your grave marker, after you die. Allow the cross - the real saving cross of humanity’s Redeemer - to be emblazoned on your heart, before you die.

St. Paul elsewhere writes, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

He also writes: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Many are perishing even now, and - if there is no course-correction - in the final judgment will ultimately perish. Many others, in Christ, are being saved even now, and in the final judgment will ultimately be saved.

St. Paul, because of the mercy that God had showed to him, knew which company he was a part of, and which company he would be a part of. Do you know? You can know.

You can know, right now, that Jesus is your Savior, and that Jesus will be your Savior. You can know, right now, what he will say to you when you - and all people - stand before him.

Since you are still alive, that means that the gospel - the “good word” from God about his grace in Jesus - is still being preached to you. The blessings of this gospel are still being offered to you.

The invitation which comes through this gospel - to know Christ and his forgiveness here in time, so that you will know him and his forgiveness also in eternity - is still being issued.

And you can believe him. Whoever you are - whatever evil you have done in the past, or whatever good you have not done in the past - you can believe him.

Believe him today. And pray. We can all pray - again - the prayer that we prayed in today’s Introit, from Psalm 39:

“O Lord, make me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!”

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions.”

And then, with the grateful confidence that comes from knowing, through God’s promises in the gospel, that he has delivered us from all our transgressions, in the death and resurrection of his Son, we can all confess - again - what we confessed in today’s Introit, from St. Peter’s Second Epistle:

“In keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” Amen.

30 November 2014 - Advent 1 - Mark 13:24-37

In today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Mark, Jesus tells his disciples what will happen at the end of the world, when he returns visibly “with great power and glory.” The things he describes are probably a bit frightening to them. But He then comforts them with these sentences:

“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

The term in the original Greek that is translated as “generation” is “genea.” It literally means a body or category of people who have been generated together, or who come from a common genetic or genealogical source. It does not necessarily mean people who are of the same age, or who are alive at the same time in history.

Jesus is not saying, therefore, that he will visibly return to the earth within the lifetime of the people who were then on earth. “This generation” could just as likely mean “this human family” - that is, the total body of Adam’s descendants.

In other words, the human race will not be destroyed before the end of the world occurs. At least some human beings will still be here at the end - even if there have been nuclear conflagrations, meteor strikes, worldwide epidemics, a global flood induced by climate change, or any of the other doomsday disasters that have been imagined by Hollywood script writers.

At a human level, there is some comfort in this promise. The stories we have often heard about the willingness of parents to sacrifice themselves so that their children will survive, are an indication of the inner desire that we all have, for the human family of which we are a part, to be perpetuated.

If our descendants, or those who come after us in the larger human family, live on, then a part of us also lives on in them. That’s the instinct for the survival of the species that inhabits people, even if at a subconscious level.

But there is more comfort in these words of Jesus than that. He also says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

The world in which we live is an ever-changing world. Many of the things of this world that we used to value, no longer exist. The ethical certainties that we used to be able to take for granted as a society, have been largely replaced in more recent decades by moral chaos.

One of the things that has been jettisoned by many in our time, is a belief that God is real, and a confidence that the Christian faith is true. As a history and genealogy buff, I often interact with people who - at a certain level - are very interested in knowing about their forbears, and about the times in which they lived; but who could not care less about the religious faith that animated and guided their ancestors.

Through the continual secular brainwashing to which students are subjected in school and college, and through the influence of the general environment of skepticism and relativism in which people of all generations now live, there has been a massive loss of faith in our day.

There is a common assumption - as rampant as it is false - that science, and modern knowledge, have discredited the Bible. Jesus? Who was that? Did he really exist?

He is probably just a made-up character. And if he is not made up, then he was just an ordinary man who seems to have gotten himself in trouble with the authorities - and whose wife Mary Magdalene fled from Palestine to ancient France.

Yes, people who think they are too smart to believe the first-hand reports of the apostles regarding who Jesus was and is, are willing to believe the storyline of a fictional novel.

In the midst of all the changes that are taking place in this world - intellectual, social, political, and moral changes - people do generally perceive that the world itself, and the cosmos of which our world is a part - will remain. Those who have given up faith in God, still do believe in the natural laws that govern the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe.

That all seems so definite and so objective, even as the spiritual worldview of earlier decades and centuries is now dismissed as irrelevant at best, and harmful at worst. The cosmos is the one ultimate, unmovable reality.

The late Carl Sagan was the popular prophet of this new certitude. And the scientists of our time, as a class, are perceived to be its priests.

Modern men, who cannot abide the dogmatism of Christians, can so often be heard to declare that a certain matter is now a settled and unquestionable fact, because “science” has spoken, and has settled it.

In such a context, among people who are caught up in this kind of thinking, what Jesus says today would be downright bizarre: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

The cosmos - all that exists in the created order - will pass away. Someday, it will all be utterly transformed: purged by fire, renewed by its creator, and elevated to a new form of existence.

But the words of Jesus will not pass away. The words of Jesus. Will. Never. Pass away.

Jesus teaches elsewhere that the Holy Scriptures are divinely-inspired, and are of unquestionable authority among both men and angels. He also teaches elsewhere that his holy church - his mystical body - is eternal, and that Satan’s machinations will never prevail against it.

But the precise point that Jesus is making in today’s text is different from those points. He is talking about his words - the words he spoke personally.

He is talking about his specific predictions, his specific warnings, and his specific promises - spoken to his disciples and others, and infallibly recorded in the Four Gospels.

The Christian religion did not create the words of Jesus. The words of Jesus created the Christian religion.

After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples to make disciples of all nations: by baptizing them, and by teaching them to observe all that he had commanded. They - we - were to pass on, to all newly baptized Christians, the words that Jesus had spoken.

And Jesus promises, in conjunction with the fulfillment of this mission: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Through the teaching of his commandments - his words - he will be present with his church.

Unlike any merely human words, there is something mystically powerful about the words - the divine words - of Jesus. Whenever those words are spoken again, he is speaking them again. On another occasion, Jesus says to his disciples: “The one who hears you, hears me.”

This is why the promise of his abiding presence with his disciples is not made to them in the future tense, which is what we might have expected. He does not say, “I will be with you always.” He says, “I am with you always.”

Whenever the words of Jesus are spoken - his words which shall never pass away - Jesus is right there, making those words to be a personal address, in that moment, to those who are, in that moment, hearing them. The words of Jesus are never locked in the past.

They are always in the present. His words cannot ever be silenced, and buried on the ash-heap of history. They are always alive, because the one who speaks them is always alive.

Jesus’ words are active and powerful, creating the faith that they call for. Therefore, no one - not the most ardent of communist propagandists, or the most clueless of university professors - will ever accurately be able to say, “Yeah, some people used to believe those words.”

There will always be people who believe Jesus. Even if the earth as we know it falls to pieces and disintegrates, and even if the heavens collapse and get sucked into a black hole, the words of Jesus Christ - the redeemer of the world and your redeemer - will not pass away.

His words reach out and grab people - penetrating the heart, and filling the mind. They kill and they make alive. They drive the conscience to repentance, and they draw the conscience to faith.

They regenerate and save. They bring light in the midst of deep darkness. They vanquish evil and justify the ungodly.

They make all things new. They sustain and preserve the people of God, for this life, and for the life to come.

Nothing of this world is permanent. It will all, someday, pass away. But the words of Jesus will not pass away.

And, if you cling to those words, and find you identity and your hope in those words, you, too, will not pass away. When heaven and earth pass away, you will not pass away.

You will never perish, even as the words of Jesus - which have encountered you and challenged you; healed you and re-created you - will never perish.

And Jesus is speaking those words to you. He didn’t just speak them in the past - so that the most you can do is sentimentally remember them, but not experience their power here and now.

He is speaking them now. He is speaking them to you now. The church of Jesus Christ lives in his words, and by his words.

At the center of the church’s life are some very specific words of Jesus - words that fill the church with Christ and his forgiveness; words that protect the church against all demonic threats and attacks; words that sacramentally unite the church to its Bridegroom and Head, its Lord and Savior.

These special words of Jesus - these words that will not pass away - do not merely echo in the church. Whenever they are spoken, Jesus is right there speaking them afresh.

Through his ministry, he is speaking them. To his people, whom he loves, he is speaking them. Until he comes again in glory, he will speak them.

He says, “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

Do you want to experience something, and ponder something, that will never pass away or change? Do not think about this earth. Do not think about the heavens that surround this earth.

Think about these words of Jesus. Listen to these words of Jesus. Believe these words of Jesus.

As we begin a new church year, we once again begin a cycle of lessons and prayers, hymns and sermons, that will - over the course of a year - expose us to the whole counsel of God as revealed in Holy Scripture. Especially in the carefully-chosen readings from the Gospels that we will hear on each Sunday, the words of Jesus will sound forth.

Jesus will be speaking to us this year. We will not just be reminded of what he said in the past - two thousand years ago. We will hear him. And everything that his words do, they will do among us.

Do you sometimes have doubts about your faith? Do those secular voices that surround you sometimes wear you down, and cause you to wonder if the things you believe as a Christian can really all be true?

Are you sometimes tempted to think - as so many people today do think - that the only things that are real, and permanent, are the things of this cosmos? If this describes you at all - in whole or in part - then there is a solution.

Come to church. Come every Sunday of the church year, and listen to the appointed Gospels for every Sunday of the church year.

Listen to the words of Jesus. Allow the words of Jesus to take hold of your mind and heart, as your mind and heart take hold of his words.

Find your life in those words. Find your hope and your destiny in those words. Find your forgiveness before God, and your eternal peace with God, in those words.

Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Amen.