SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2015
1 November 2015 - All Saints - Revelation 7:2-4,9-17
A lot of world history has happened over the past 2,000 years. The Roman Empire reached its peak, and then declined through the invasion of Germanic tribes from the north.
The Frankish Empire arose in Europe, appropriating to itself the legacy of Rome and absorbing into itself many of those Germans. But then the Frankish Empire was divided, and its successor states descended into fratricidal wars for centuries.
The Ottoman Empire established itself in what is now Turkey, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe; but then declined, and was destroyed as a result of the First World War. The Mongol Empire arose in Asia and spread out in all directions - to China, to India, and to Russia - before it collapsed and contracted.
And there are famous names associated with these major sweeps of world history - names of powerful people, who dominated and controlled the times in which they lived: Caesar Augustus, Charlemagne, Suleiman the Magnificent, Genghis Khan.
These are just the high points of humanity’s history over the past two millennia. Lots of other people who made a mark on this world during that time frame, and who during their lifetimes sat at the top of their own empires, are also remembered long after they are gone.
Their victories and achievements are remembered. Their ruthlessness and power are remembered. Sometimes cities are named after them. Sometimes monuments are built to them.
But also during the past 2,000 years, another empire or kingdom has existed, and has left its mark in the lives of many people on earth. To be sure, this other kingdom is very different from the kingdoms we have already mentioned.
And those from within this other kingdom who are remembered today, left their mark on others in a very different way than was the case with the kingly personages we have mentioned.
The founder of this other kingdom said, in fact, that his kingdom was “not of this world” - although it definitely has impacted this world. And while all the members of this totally different kind of kingdom are described as a nation of “kings and priests,” their collective kingship - such as it is - is anything but a kingship that follows the pattern of Roman, Frankish, Ottoman, and Mongolian rulers.
On All Saints Sunday, we think about this other kingdom - the Kingdom of God, over which the Lord Jesus Christ reigns. And we think about the people - the real, living people, like us - who have been members of this kingdom, and who have helped to make the church on earth to be what it is today.
But the mark that these saints of old have left on the church - and on the world through the church - is the kind of mark that will not be noticed by many people. For example, the world - with horror - certainly does notice the impact that was left by Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler on human history.
Whenever the History Channel gets done showing its programs about ancient aliens, you may very well see TV shows about Stalin and Hitler.
You will likely not see a TV show about Teodor Yarchuk, the Ukrainian Lutheran pastor who was arrested by the Soviets when they invaded western Ukraine in 1939. A year and a half later, Pastor Yarchuk - a faithful preacher and teacher of God’s Word - was forced to kneel down, and with thousands of others, received a bullet to the back of his head.
You will likely not see a TV show about Casper ten Boom, the 84-year-old Dutch watchmaker and Christian layman, of frail health, who rescued and hid his Jewish friends during the German occupation of the Netherlands - protecting them at the risk of his own life, and at the risk of the lives of his children.
When he was found out by the Gestapo, he was brought to a prison where he died ten days later. A daughter and a grandson also died in German custody.
The world usually does not notice such people. But we notice them, and claim them as our own. Under God, they were and are a part of what we are a part of.
To us they are not unknown. And to us they are not unimportant.
We admire how they lived. We honor them for how they died. On All Saints Sunday, we remember them.
We remember Pastor Yarchuk, Mr. ten Boom, and millions more like them - over all the centuries of Christian history - who died as they had lived, and whose examples show us how to live, and how to die.
The saints of the Lord who have gone before us, as citizens of God’s Kingdom, were made to be saints by the justification of Christ, received in faith. And as they put on the mind of Christ, and grew into the image of Christ, they bore the fruits of the Spirit of Christ.
They were not, in themselves, without sin. But when their sins were pointed out to them by God’s law, they humbly repented of those sins. When forgiveness in Christ was proclaimed to them, they joyfully embraced that forgiveness, and lived in it.
They trusted in Christ and in his goodness - in the face of every evil threat that was brought to bear against them and their faith. They resisted the popular lies of their time - whatever those lies may have been - and as God helped them, they believed his unchanging truth instead.
In their weakness - when they were weak - they found their strength in Christ. In their fear and doubt - when they were fearful and doubting - they found their confidence in Christ.
They loved God and their neighbor more than life. They loved even their persecutors and slanderers, those who despised them and killed them.
They took up their cross, and as disciples of Jesus followed their Savior all the way to death. Now they live in Christ. And in the resurrection they will live forever.
This is the history of Christ’s church in this world, repeated over and over again - hundreds of thousands of times. This is our history. And this is what All Saints Sunday is about.
“We are not alone.” You hear that sometimes on those silly alien shows. But we can also say this. We are not alone.
Jesus is with us, as the living Savior who really is alive in his Word and Sacraments: calling us to repentance and forgiving us; healing us and saving us.
Our fellow believers are with us, too: lifting us up before God in prayer; encouraging us in our trials and temptations; and helping us in our needs.
And from the perspective of the entirety of the church’s history, over the past 2,000 years, all the saints of God are, in an important sense, likewise with us. They revered the same Scriptures we revere.
Their sins were washed away by the same baptism into Christ that we have received. They died in the same hope in which we also will someday depart from this world.
And even now, they in heaven enjoy a mystic sweet communion with the same Savior to whom we are united - in the gospel in general; and in the Lord’s Supper in particular, as he comes to us, and draws us to himself, by means of his sacred body and blood.
The “communion of saints” in which we believe, is a communion of God’s kings and priests from both sides of the grave, converging in God’s Son. We’re all connected to each other, not directly, but through our mutual connection to Jesus.
Jesus is just as real to us, in the midst of our struggles in this world, as he is to those who are with him - without sin or temptation - in the next world. And because we are not alone, in all these ways, we are indeed strengthened and encouraged for the challenges that we face.
When Christians in America are mocked, ridiculed, and harassed, because we still believe in God’s institution of natural marriage and the family; and because we still believe in the healing power of God’s forgiveness for all sins - including popular sins and besetting sins; our sins and the sins of others - it helps us to know that millions upon millions of God’s people have believed what we believe.
When they say, “Nobody believes that any more,” they are wrong. But even if they are partly right - as far as modern times are concerned - it would not matter, because across the centuries, we are not alone in what we believe.
We are not alone in knowing the mercy of God; and in receiving the salvation from sin and death that God gives by grace to his people - and has given to his people over two millennia.
When Christians in Syria, Iraq, or North Korea are killed because of their confession of the name of Jesus, it helps them in that last moment to know that they are members of God’s Kingdom - a kingdom that will have no end.
When they close their eyes in martyrdom, and then in the next second open them again, they see Jesus. And with Jesus, they see the multitude of those who have already come out of the great tribulation; and who have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
They are not alone in life. They are not alone in death. And they are not alone after death.
Following his resurrection, and before his ascension, Jesus gave his apostles, and his church, a great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
And then he gave his apostles, and his church, a promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
From the day of his ascension until today, Jesus has been with his people on earth. And his people have been with him.
Jesus is with us. And we are with him. And until this world comes to an end, Jesus will be with his church.
The church of Christ will always remain on earth, and will be here to welcome Jesus when he visibly returns on the Last Day. But invisibly, Jesus is already here with us.
Invisibly he has always been here, with his people and in his people: leading them and guiding them; inspiring their devotion and fortitude; accomplishing through them noble and honorable things; loving and gracious things.
This we recall on All Saints Sunday. And this encourages us beyond words.
When we look to the past, we can see that Jesus kept his promise, in the lives of those who lived in him, and died for him. When we look to the present, and hear his Word of life spoken to us today, we can see that Jesus is keeping his promise even now.
And when we look to the future - the church’s future, and our own personal future - we are sure that Jesus will keep his promise.
And so, in the confidence of this faith, all the Lord’s saints - his saints on earth, and his saints in heaven; his saints of the past, and his saints of the present - sing together the song of saints and angels:
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! ... Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” Amen.
8 November 2015 - Pentecost 24 - Mark 10:46-52
Some people are very bold and outspoken. You always know what they think about any subject.
Other people are more timid and quiet. They tend not to speak up very much, but keep themselves in the background.
In today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel, we are introduced to a man named Bartimeaus, son of Timaeus. He is someone who, especially in the first century, would be expected to be one of those quiet and timid people.
He was handicapped by blindness. And at that time in history - unfortunately - there were no special educational or training programs, and no social safety net, for handicapped individuals.
The life of someone like Bartimaeus was a very hard life, lived out in poverty on the fringes of society. The sad daily existence of a blind person in the first century would be filled with one humiliation after another, one deprivation after another.
Bartimaeus, therefore, was likely not a very outspoken, assertive, or proud person. He was in fact a beggar, who would sit by the roadside just outside of Jericho, hoping that people - as they passed by - would feel sorry for him, throw a few coins his way, and help him to survive.
But in today’s text, St. Mark reports that on the day Jesus was in town, Bartimaeus acted in a different kind of way, with a different demeanor.
He had heard about Jesus. And from what he had heard, he had already come to a belief that Jesus was the Messiah - the son of David promised of old, who in mercy would reign over God’s people.
And so, in an manner that was likely not typical for him, Bartimaeus began to call out to Jesus, at the top of his voice, when he found out that Jesus was nearby to where he was sitting: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
We are told that many of the people in the crowd that had gathered to see Jesus rebuked him as he called out, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
There was something inside of him that prompted him that day to be very bold and assertive in his pleas for mercy. He knew, somehow, that Jesus would not be offended by his outspokenness and confidence in asking for help - even though other people, seeing his circumstances, admonished him to remember his humiliated condition, and not to think of himself as being important enough for Jesus’ attention.
But he didn’t listen to them. And he did whatever he could to make sure that Jesus would listen to him. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus believed not only that Jesus was the Messiah for the nation of Israel, but also that he was his own Messiah, who would take a personal interest in him and his needs. And he was right.
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.
Bartimaeus had been confident in calling out to Jesus. And now that he knew exactly where Jesus was, and that Jesus was waiting for him and wanted to speak with him, he was confident in going to him as quickly as he could.
Bartimaeus had been calling out to Jesus to have mercy on him. Even though he was confident and persistent in his plea, what he was seeking was an act of divine mercy.
He was not demanding something with the presumption that he had a right to it, and that Jesus had an obligation to give it to him. There was, then, a proper combination of confidence and humility in Bartimaeus.
His confidence was not tainted with arrogance. But his humility did not result in a lack of faith in God’s goodness, or in a lack of persistence in his prayer to Jesus.
When Bartimaeus came to Jesus, Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.”
And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.
Bartimaeus had believed and confessed that Jesus was the true and ultimate Son of David - his nation’s Savior and his own Savior. And in this faith, he received from his Savior the blessing which Jesus spoke upon him and into him. “Your faith has made you well.” And indeed it had.
But his wellness consisted not only in the recovery of his physical sight. Clarity was brought also to his spiritual sight. In faith he could now see that Jesus was a Savior for him, not only in that moment, but for a lifetime - from that point forward and even to eternity.
Jesus told him, as a healed man, to go his way. But his way was now Christ’s way. And so we are told that Bartimaeus, with his sight restored in more ways than one, followed Jesus on the way.
There was no doubt a reason why St. Mark knew his full name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. We have every reason to believe that Bartimaeus was a known person in the church, at the time when Mark was writing this down many years later.
On the day of his healing, Bartimaeus began following Jesus. And he never stopped.
In his faith he was both humble and confident. He was humble in asking for mercy, and not for something that he thought he deserved. And he was confident, in asking for this mercy with persistence.
By his faith - his humble yet confident faith - he received what he sought. And the direction and priorities of his life were permanently changed.
Bartimaeus sets an example for all of us. In fact, we follow his example every Sunday, as we chant together a simple canticle that was in part inspired by his story:
“Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.”
And we are persistent in asking for the Lord’s mercy. Not only do we beseech God to be merciful to us three times at this part of the service, but we also sing this song, soon thereafter:
“O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world: have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world: receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father: have mercy upon us.”
Because these chants are repeated week after week, and year after year, we might slip into a thoughtless repetition of them, without paying attention to the seriousness of what we are asking for.
But Bartimaeus, who repeatedly asked for Jesus’ mercy, certainly did not lose his focus on the meaning of what he was saying. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And neither should we.
The focus of our plea for mercy, as we call out to Christ, is not relief from a physical ailment - although we certainly may pray for such relief, for ourselves or others, when we are in need of a healing. But as we join together in our prayer for the Lord’s mercy in the liturgy, we address that prayer to the one whom we also confess to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And so, the mercy we crave, we crave as penitent sinners, who are aware of our moral failures; and who yearn for pardon from God - and reconciliation with God. We also pray for the healing of relationships that have been strained or severed because of our sins, so that we can be reconciled to each other in the love and mutual forgiveness of Christ.
We accordingly pray for this mercy in humility, knowing that we have disappointed God by our disobedience and negligence, and deserve no favors from him. And yet we pray for this mercy also in confidence, because the good news of Christ - which he wants to be proclaimed to us - reveals him to us as the divine-human Savior who has indeed suffered and died to atone for our sins; and to win forgiveness for an entire world of sinners.
We know, then, that if Jesus has taken away the sin of the world, he has certainly also taken away our sin. And we know that God, who is faithful to his word, does not hold our sins against us, for the sake of his Son - to whom we cling with an ardent faith; and who intercedes for us at the right hand of his Father’s majesty.
What God gives us in Christ, instead of judgment, is his peace. And that is also what we pray for, just before our partaking of the Lord’s Holy Supper; and right after praying to Christ as the Lamb of God yet again - two times more, in fact - for his forgiving mercy.
O Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world: have mercy upon us; Have mercy upon us; Grant us thy peace.
But Jesus never gets tired of hearing these prayers. And he never gets tired of granting what these prayers are asking for.
As with Bartimaeus, so also with us, Jesus asks - in effect - “What do you want me to do for you?” And we reply - in the words of the Lord’s Prayer - “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And then Jesus says to us: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”
In faith, we pray for what God wants us to have. And in mercy, God grants us what we need.
Our faith makes us well, as we in faith believe what Jesus says, and receive what Jesus gives. This is true for all of us who know him as the Son of David - that is, as our Messiah and Savior.
Whether your personality otherwise is that of a reserved and timid person, or that of an outspoken and confident person, the way in which God teaches you to believe in him, and to pray to him, combines both humility and persistence.
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything - by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving - let your requests be made known to God.” “Pray without ceasing.”
In the gospel, Jesus grants the forgiveness you need, as only he can grant it. In Holy Absolution, he grants it.
In the sharing of the message of Christ crucified for sinners - which you, as a member of the priesthood of the baptized, speak and believe - he grants it.
When God is merciful, and with his forgiveness sets us free from that which disables us in our souls, this doesn’t mean that we are free also from God. Just the opposite is the case.
When Jesus tells us that we have received what we needed, and that we may now go our way, our way has become his way. We follow him. His mercy has changed everything - our standing with God, and what we are on the inside.
And so we follow him in the way that he is going, because we now have a new and liberated will that wants to follow him; and because we now have a new mind - the mind of Christ - that cannot imagine a better way to live, than as a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus is with us and helps us, not only in occasional moments of crisis and relief, but throughout life. As was the case with Bartimaeus after his encounter with Jesus, we likewise remain as living members of the Lord’s church, and as a part of the fellowship of the church.
We are members for life, and follow Jesus to the grave - and beyond - as the word and promise of Christ continue to clothe us with Christ, and fill us with Christ.
In the humble yet confident faith that God’s Spirit works in you, you remain as a member of the Lord’s body and spiritual family, as your eyes - and your heart - are opened to see the truth of your need for Christ; and to see the truth of the salvation that Christ brings.
You become, as it were, a “known person” among the disciples of Christ, as your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Therefore my hope is in the Lord And not in mine own merit; It rests upon His faithful Word To them of contrite spirit
That He is merciful and just; This is my comfort and my trust. His help I wait with patience. Amen.
15 November 2015 - Pentecost 25 - Hebrews 10:11-25
This past week, Carol and I visited our son and his family in Utah. On our way, after we entered the greater Salt Lake City area, we drove past two Mormon temples. And there are plenty more such temples, not only in Utah, but throughout the world - including in our area: Mesa, Gilbert, and Phoenix.
Mormon temples are places where important rituals of that religion take place, such as the solemnizing of celestial marriages that supposedly last for eternity, and allow those who are married in this way to become exalted to godhood someday; and proxy baptisms for the dead, which supposedly allow those deceased persons in whose names these baptisms are administered to be converted to Mormonism in the next life.
Is that the sort of thing the temple of the Lord in ancient Jerusalem was used for? Absolutely not!
But the real temple was used for important functions in the religious life of the people of Israel. The various sacrifices and offerings which the Lord had commanded for the people, through Moses, were performed at the temple.
On the Day of Atonement in particular, a goat without blemish was sacrificed. And then the high priest - and him alone - passed through the inner veil of the temple and entered into the holy of holies, with the blood of the sacrifice, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
This annual ritual, which was the centerpiece of the temple’s purpose, reminded everyone - from the lowest to the greatest - not only that they were sinful; but also that their sins were an offense to the holiness of God; and that his righteous wrath against their sins would not be satisfied and turned away, without the sacrificing of a sinless substitute on their behalf and in their place.
In today’s reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicted that this temple would be destroyed:
“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’”
In the year 70 A.D., Jesus’ sad and grievous prophecy was fulfilled. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by an invading Roman army. It has never been rebuilt.
The sacrifices and offerings of the temple no longer take place. There is no more sprinkling of the blood of the goat in the holy of holies by the hereditary high priest, because there is no more holy of holies.
And there is no more hereditary high priest either. It’s all gone.
Does this mean that the people of Israel - the Jewish people - have no more access to God’s pardon? Does this mean that God’s wrath against their sins can no longer be turned away from them? Does this mean that there is now no longer a substitute whose blood is shed on their behalf, so that they can be reconciled to God?
Well, as far as the prescribed rituals of the Old Testament are concerned - which require a temple, or at the very least a tabernacle, in order to be performed according to the Lord’s demands - these things are in fact no longer happening.
The loss of the temple in Jerusalem has meant the loss of more than a majestic and glorious building. The ritual that was appointed by God through Moses, to illustrate and implement God’s forgiveness of the sins of his people, is now also lost.
But this does not mean that there is now no chance for the people of Israel to know and receive the forgiveness that they still need. Another avenue of reconciliation with God has been opened before them - and indeed before all the peoples on earth.
It was not only the sins of the Hebrew people that offended and disappointed God. The sins of all nations offend and disappoint him. Your sins offend and disappoint him.
But now, in the fulness of time, a way back to God has been provided by God for the whole human race. A way back to God has been provided by God for you.
The Mosaic way is no more, but this other way - this new way - remains. And neither Roman armies, nor the armies of any tyranny of man, can close off this new way.
The goat that was sacrificed for the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement, and the sprinkling of its blood in the holy of holies in the temple, were, at a deeper level, enacted prophecies and foreshadowings of an ultimate sacrifice, and an ultimate sprinkling, and washing away of sin and guilt, which were fulfilled in the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.
The temple itself, as the place where God’s peace with his people was continually reestablished and renewed, was also a foreshadowing of the new spiritual temple, or dwelling place of God, that can be found now wherever the risen Christ can be found according to his promise, where his saving voice is heard in the means of grace.
This ultimate sacrifice of Christ, toward which the Old Testament sacrifices pointed, is actually what gave those animal sacrifices whatever power they did have, to illustrate and implement God’s forgiveness toward his people. In and of themselves, these slain animals, and the spilling of their blood, did not really turn away God’s wrath.
That’s why those sacrifices - those temporary and provisional sacrifices - needed to be repeated over and over again. They served to turn away God’s wrath, only because of what they pictured, and because of the Messianic promise and hope that they embodied.
In the truest sense, though, human sin must be paid for by a human sacrifice. And it must be paid for by a spotless and innocent human sacrifice.
The pagan nations that surrounded the ancient people of Israel offered human sacrifices to their false idols. God strictly forbade the Israelites from following their example, in part because such human sacrifices would not work.
No such sacrifice - of a sinner from among sinners - would have been acceptable. Nothing that is itself tainted by sin could serve as a perfect substitute for sinful man. Only a pure and spotless man could truly reconcile sinful humanity with God, and turn away God’s wrath from man forever.
Because of humanity’s universal corruption, if there would ever be such a sacrifice, God himself would have to provide it. In the sending of his Son into human flesh, God did provide this sacrifice.
In the Person of the eternal Son of the Father, born of the virgin Mary as true man, God himself became this sacrifice for all of us, both Jews and Gentiles.
The suffering and death of Christ occurred once and for all time. His death is not repeated, and indeed cannot be repeated, because he is now risen from the dead - in glory - and can never die again.
In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are told that “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.”
Through the gospel that Jesus commissioned his church on earth to proclaim in his name to all nations, the blessings of his unique sacrifice are continually distributed. And access to his temple - his new and living temple - is continually granted to all who repent of their sins, and believe his Word, by means of the sacraments that he instituted for his church.
The Lord’s Supper - which unites us to the sacrifice of Christ by uniting us to the body that he gave, and to the blood that he shed - also gives us access, by faith, to the inner sanctuary of God, and of God’s forgiving embrace through his Son. Indeed, our baptism into Christ has washed away our guilt, as the cleansing power of his blood has been applied to us; and as we have been united mystically to his body the church.
Where the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is proclaimed, and where the sacraments are administered, there, too, is the temple of God. There is access to God, and to God’s forgiveness, for Jews and for Gentiles.
Jesus loved, and sacrificed himself for, his own nation, and also for all other nations; for the children of Abraham, and also for all the children of Adam. And so in the final analysis, the temple in Jerusalem is no longer needed.
Some of what took place there is no longer taking place anywhere, because the fulfillment and completion of those things was brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus - the true and eternal high priest, who offered up his own life for us all.
And some of what took place there is now taking place within the fellowship of the church of Christ - by the power of his Word, in the laver of baptism; and in sermon and Supper. This will continue until the end of the world as we know it: until the day of Christ’s return, and on the day of our resurrection and complete restoration.
All who repent of their sins now, and who know Christ as sacrifice and Savior now, are therefore addressed by these encouraging and hopeful words from the Epistle to the Hebrews:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Amen.
22 November 2015 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Mark 13:24-37
Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Back in the 1990s I lived in Massachusetts, where it snowed in the winter. I didn’t own a snow blower. So, whenever snow needed to be removed, I used my snow shovel.
One year there was a particularly significant snowfall. And when the snowplow came through, to clear the street, it threw a huge amount of snow off to the side of the roadway. This extra concentration of snow blocked my driveway and my mailbox.
When it stopped snowing, I went outside with my modest shovel, and went to work clearing the entrance of my driveway, and clearing the area around my mailbox so that the mail could be delivered. A lot of snow had been piled up by the snow plow, so it took me a lot of time and effort to do this.
But finally, after perhaps a couple hours of work, I was done. With fatigue, but also with some measure of satisfaction, I began to walk up the driveway toward my garage, to put the shovel away.
But just then, another snowplow came around the corner. In an instant that truck undid all the effort I had expended in clearing away all that piled-up snow.
It filled in all the cleared-away areas with fresh piles of snow, just as high as they had been before. All my work had been for nothing.
In this life, we expend a lot of time and energy trying to accomplish important things. We invest ourselves in family businesses and family farms.
We go to a lot of effort to establish and maintain a house for ourselves and our family to live in. Home ownership is often pointed to as the quintessential example of achieving the American dream - to which we all aspire.
We build monuments, in our city squares and on our battlefields, to the honor of noble people and noble ideas. We help to endow libraries, museums, universities, and other institutions that we think serve a worthwhile purpose in this world.
And for Christians, that would include ecclesiastical institutions: church buildings, church-related colleges, or mission centers.
On a smaller scale, we also sometimes spend money building up our collections of things in which we have a great interest. Maybe a display case full of ceramic figurines; a library of books, CDs and DVDs; antiques; or paintings and sculptures.
All of these things, insofar as they are comprised of the materials of this world, are a part of this world. I don’t mean the “world” as in the evil and sinful influences that surround us in this life, because none of the things I have mentioned are evil or sinful things, in and of themselves.
I mean the world simply in its physical existence. All of us, in one way or another, invest ourselves in these things, and expend effort in building up these things.
When people approach the end of their bodily life, and look back on their efforts in this respect, they may take a certain amount of pride in what they have built. They may have a sense of satisfaction in their earthly accomplishments, and in the things that will endure in this world beyond their lifetime.
But what will eventually happen to these things - to these material objects? What will be the ultimate fate of the buildings, the institutions, and the monuments we have erected in this physical world, and as a part of this physical world? In his Second Epistle, St. Peter tells us:
“By the word of God...the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. ...the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
On the last day, in an instant, when God’s ultimate judgment against sin and its corruption is poured out, all the material things on earth that we have constructed, built up, and established, will also be dissolved - assuming, of course, that these things have not already crumbled by then. At the end, everything that is still a part of the earth will be destroyed together with the earth, by fire.
It will all be gone. It will be as if we had done nothing, as if we had expended our effort for nothing, and as if we had invested ourselves in nothing.
St. Peter then goes on to ask: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be, in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”
This is a sobering truth.
Now, does this mean that we should therefore not expend ourselves in providing a nice home for our family, or a nice church building for our congregation? Does this mean that we should not endow universities, museums, and libraries?
Does this mean that we should not go to the effort of shoveling out the driveways and mailboxes of life? No, it does not mean this.
There are lots of things that we make use of in our daily life that do not have the illusion of permanence attached to them. We spend our money on newspapers and magazines that we read, and from which we learn, but which we then throw away.
We work hard in pulling out the weeds from our garden, knowing that they will grow back and will need to be pulled out again. We vacuum the floors of our home, knowing that the dust and dirt will continue to accumulate, and will need to be vacuumed up again.
We use many disposable items every day. We have no grief or regret when we throw away a burned-out light bulb, or discard an empty soft drink bottle, or replace a worn-out pair of shoes.
And in general terms, this is the way we should think about all the other things in this material world that we have, make use of, and value - even the big and expensive things.
It’s not wrong, in and of itself, to go to the effort of building up these things, and investing yourself in them, so that they can exist and serve their proper purpose while the world does still endure. As we follow our callings in life - serving others according to the abilities and opportunities that God gives us - we should keep ourselves busy with godly projects and wholesome efforts, for as long as we can.
Jesus speaks to this in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, when he says that his ascension, and his future visible return, are “like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”
But just make sure you don’t think that you are in these ways building up something that will last forever. Don’t let your heart become attached to these physical things with the feeling that they are permanent, and that they will be an eternal monument to your efforts.
Don’t focus your deepest devotion, and strongest commitment, on these ultimately temporary and transient things. Your deepest devotion, and your strongest commitment, are to be focused instead on that one thing that we have in this life that will never be destroyed, and that will in fact last forever.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us what that is: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
On judgment day, every object in this world that you built, or endowed, or collected - if it still exists - will pass away. But the words of Jesus will not pass away. The Word of the Lord endures forever.
If you have truly invested yourself in God’s Word, by faith, and if you have invested God’s Word into the lives of other people by sharing the gospel with them - so that they too would know their Savior, and the eternal life that their Savior gives - that investment will not be for nothing.
When the world melts away, the Word of the Lord will still remain, strong and invincible. And those who dwell in God’s Word, and in whom God’s Word dwells, likewise will remain strong and invincible.
The words of Jesus bring life to those who otherwise would know only death and separation from God. The words of Jesus bestow peace on those who otherwise would know only confusion and turmoil.
The words of Jesus infuse love into those who otherwise would know only fear. The words of Jesus establish reconciliation for those who otherwise would know only hostility and anger toward God, and judgment from God.
And the words of Jesus create faith in those who otherwise would know only doubt and darkness. The words of Jesus, and everything they touch, will never pass away.
And that’s because the words of Jesus are filled with Jesus himself. Jesus - our resurrected Lord - lives in his word, invisibly comes to us by means of his word, and saves us through the power of his word.
His words are the means by which he mystically abides with us in the fellowship of his church. His words are the outstretched arms by which he draws near to us in love and forgiveness, and by which he gently beckons us to draw near to him in repentance and trust.
His words are the power of regeneration, by which he makes us to be new creatures: filled with an eternal hope, and destined for an eternal fellowship with God, our Creator and Redeemer.
Think of this, my friends, when you consider the relative importance of those things that you are trying to build up and establish in this world, as compared to the supreme importance of that one thing which is eternal.
For example, your house, and all the objects that are in it, will pass away. But the words of Jesus, which you share with your family members inside that house, at times of family devotion and prayer, will never pass away.
The family business or family farm on which you expend so much energy, and in which you work so hard, will pass away. But the words of Jesus, which motivate you in your work, and which fill your work with joy and godly satisfaction, will never pass away.
The church sanctuary in which we are seated now, in which we take so much pride, will pass away when the end of the world comes. But the words of Jesus that are spoken here - for our forgiveness before God, for our comfort in life, and for our confidence in death - will never pass away.
The words of Jesus - which are spoken over God’s people in Holy Baptism, and which are spoken to God’s people in Christ’s Holy Supper - will endure forever.
That’s the reason why Christians build churches - not so that there can be a permanent monument to their piety, but so that there can be a suitable place here and now: where the words of Jesus can be spoken, sung, and heard; and where God’s people can gather around those words, in sermon and sacrament, for the revitalization of their faith toward God, and for the renewal of their love toward one another.
Of course, if the words of Jesus have ceased to be spoken and heard in a particular church building, well, that’s a place where God’s people no longer have a reason to go - regardless of the name that may still be on the sign outside that church.
We need his words, in life and in death. For the sake of our souls we therefore need to be in a place - any place - where his pure and saving words are present and active.
The salvation from sin, death, and the devil of which these words speak - and which these words actually deliver to us - will likewise endure forever. As you cling to the words of Jesus in all these ways, and as those words cling to you by the mercy of God, you, too, will endure forever.
You will not die, but live, and be raised to life everlasting. You will enjoy a place in God’s family forever, in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness dwells.
Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Amen.
25 November 2015 - Thanksgiving - 1 Timothy 2:1-4
The Christian faith gives us a certain perspective on all people, and certain ways of thinking about all other human beings. Our faith is not a tribal religion, in which it is only the members of our tribe, or our group, who have a place in the schemes of the tribal deity in whom we believe.
Our faith teaches us that the one God who really exists is the creator of all people. Our faith teaches us that his Son Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of all people.
And our faith teaches us that the Holy Spirit is ever reaching out, through the means of grace, to all people, inviting everyone - regardless of their current moral and spiritual condition - to repent of their sins, and to trust in Christ for forgiveness.
The Christian church, when it is what Jesus established it to be, invites all descendants of Adam to embrace the salvation that was made available for them by the Second Adam, who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
These facts provide the backdrop for what St. Paul tells us in his First Epistle to St. Timothy, regarding the petitions, and the thanksgivings, that we offer to our Father in heaven, in our life of prayer. He encourages us as follows:
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people... This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
When we pray, we are to pray for everyone, according to their needs, and in keeping with God’s revealed will for them. I suppose it is easy for us to pray for our own loved ones - the relatives and friends who are important to us and whom we care about personally.
I suppose it’s also not too hard for us, as Christians, to offer supplications and intercessions even on behalf of people with whom we do not have a good relationship. So, we pray for the conversion of those who reject Christ and bring harm to his church. We pray that God will change the hearts of those who are angry at us, and have hurt us, so that there can be reconciliation.
But note, on this evening of Thanksgiving Day, that we are not just to offer prayers for all people. We are also to offer thanksgivings for all people.
There is something in the life of everyone on the face of this earth that we can be thankful for. We can be thankful that they exist, so that it is possible for them to be called to faith - or back to faith - and to become servants of God alongside of us, even if they do not believe the gospel, or live according to it, at the present time.
We can be thankful for the good things that God accomplishes through them, according to their station in life, even if the devil on other occasions also uses them as his instrument for evil.
We do not have to be thankful for everything that everybody does. To care about people, and to lift them before the Lord in supplications and intercessions, does not mean that we approve of all the words and deeds of the people we care about.
There is a lot of sin and wickedness in this world, and we are not thankful for that. But as far as the human perpetrators of wickedness are concerned, insofar as they are God’s creatures, and have the capacity to be reclaimed and turned around by God, we are thankful for their existence, and sincerely implore the Lord to be merciful to them in those ways.
On Thanksgiving Day we are often thankful for things. We are thankful for food and clothing, a home and a job, good health and safety. And we should be thankful for these things.
But this year, let us also be reminded by St. Paul to be thankful for people. Let us be thankful for the people whom we love, and with whom we enjoy rewarding personal relationships.
It is easy to take for granted those people in your family - spouse and parents, siblings and children - who are patient with you, and are committed to you and your happiness. We can forget to be thankful for them. Offer to the Lord thanksgiving for them tonight.
Let us be thankful for the people with whom we worship at church, who encourage us in our faith, and who are there to help us and support us when we need help and support.
Your fellow Christians are the people with whom you will spend eternity. They are you eternal family.
And God has brought them into your life here and now for a reason, so that he can bless you through them, and them through you. Offer to the Lord thanksgiving for them tonight.
Let us be thankful for the people who protect us and watch over us in the civil realm, such as police officers and firefighters, and members of the armed forces. They risk their lives to serve their fellows citizens on a daily basis.
We should not take that for granted. Offer to the Lord thanksgiving for them tonight.
And, as St. Paul instructs us, let us be thankful for all people - for those we know and for those we don’t know; for those we like and for those we don’t like; for those who have been a blessing and a comfort to us, and for those who have disappointed us and hurt us.
Let us be thankful for all people because they are people: people whom God has created; people for whom Jesus died; and people to whom the Holy Spirit is continually reaching out, through the forgiving and transforming gospel of Christ our Savior.
Indeed, they are the people to whom you are called to reach out, in God’s name, with the divine message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, that you believe.
If a consideration of St. Paul’s admonition to you this day has caused you to reflect on how weak and incomplete your thanksgiving for all people has been - because of pride and callousness, selfishness and indifference - then there is one more person for whom you can and must be thankful today.
Father in heaven, we thank you for the immeasurable love by which you have sent your only-begotten Son into our world: to bear, and atone for, our sin; to rise again for our justification; to bestow upon us the gift of faith by which we know him and cling to him; and to fill us with his own Spirit. Father in heaven, we thank you for Jesus.
In penitence for our failures, yet also in hope of God’s pardon, this day we offer thanksgiving for the only Savior we will ever have, and for the only Savior we will ever need. We offer thanksgiving for the most special and most important person who has ever walked on this earth.
And that Savior is thankful to his Father in heaven to have people like you in his kingdom, who call upon his Father in his name. Even when your faith is weak and wavering, undeveloped and immature, Jesus is thankful for you. On one occasion he prayed:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”
We offer thanksgiving for all that Jesus has done and continues to do, so that we shall not perish, but have eternal life. We offer thanksgiving for his Word and Sacrament, by which he continues to come to us, to bless us with his forgiveness; and to bless us with his abiding grace, so that by his grace we become more like him in how we live, in how we love, and in how we pray.
St. Paul writes: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people... This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Amen.
29 November 2015 - Advent 1 - Jeremiah 33:14-16
The Eighth Commandment says: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” One of the applications of this commandment that is indicated in catechisms is that a broken promise is a violation of this commandment.
And when you think of it, a broken promise is probably one of the more egregious and severe violations of God’s law against speaking falsely. When you look back on your life, it is likely that the most distressing disappointments you have experienced over the years, have been occasions when someone you cared about broke a promise that had been made to you.
And among the sins of your own past that you most deeply regret, your breaking of promises that you had made to people who were counting on you, are no doubt among those sins that weight most heavily on your conscience.
On the occasion of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, and the capture of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., it seemed to many people that God had broken his promise - to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to Moses; and to David - about the preservation of the people whom he had chosen to be his own.
The northern kingdom of Israel, which had separated from the southern kingdom of Judah many years earlier, had already been destroyed by the Assyrians. Its inhabitants, who had been polluted by much idolatry, and who had, for the most part, turned their backs on the God of their fathers, were basically absorbed into the larger pagan world of the Assyrian empire.
But Judah - the tribe of David and of the royal lineage - had remained as a nation. Therefore, the Godly heritage of the patriarchs and prophets had remained. It was, however, a heritage that too few people in Judah appreciated, so that their sins, too, were now inviting the Lord’s chastisement upon them.
When the Babylonians did finally invade the southern kingdom, wreaking havoc and destruction, including the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Lord’s sacred temple; and when, in their victory, the Babylonians began their preparations to take the survivors of the now-desolate kingdom of Judah away into captivity, the faithful remnant wondered about the Lord’s promise.
Would the nation survive? Would the temple someday be restored? The events of the time gave every outward indication that these things would not happen. The events of the time gave every outward indication that the Lord’s ancient promise would not be kept.
Imagine the grief, the despair, and the hopelessness of those who contemplated such things about God, and about their own future, on this occasion. The physical suffering was bad enough. It was compounded by a deep spiritual anguish, and by doubts about everything they had always believed about God.
But the Prophet Jeremiah, who spoke for God, assured the people that their Lord would keep his promise. In the verses that precede today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah, we read as follows:
“Thus says the Lord: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’”
“For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In this place that is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks.”
The exiles would return. The temple would be rebuilt. The promised land would once again be the home of God’s people.
But then, as the prophet continued to speak the divine words that the Lord gave him to say, he went on to describe mysteries, and fulfillments, and blessings that went far beyond the more immediate concerns that were on the minds of most of the people at that time.
Jeremiah’s audience was certainly glad to know that the physical nation of Israel would be restored, as in fact did happen after seventy years. But now his listeners were also made to know that the Lord’s promise would find its ultimate fulfillment in something - in someone - beyond this political restoration.
There would be a new David, who would rule forever; and a new Jerusalem, which would endure forever as the dwelling place of the Lord’s holy nation. Listen to what he says.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
A literal rendering of the phrase translated here as “promise” would be “good word.” In Hebrew, a “promise” is a “good word.”
Of course, in reaction to the sins of his people over the centuries, the Lord had often been compelled, by the requirements of his own holiness, to speak a bad word to them: a word of judgment; a word of punishment. In fact, the nation’s captivity in Babylon for seventy years was the result of a bad word - a chastening word - that the Lord has previously spoken to Judah because of its idolatry and lack of faithfulness.
And the Lord will speak a bad word to us too, whenever we need to hear it. God is not a God who only makes promises. He is also a God who makes threats.
He threatens to punish those who are ungodly, unjust, unfaithful, and uncaring about the needs of others. And his threats are never idle. They are always to be taken seriously.
The people of the southern kingdom, once they had been wrenched away from their land, were given seventy years in exile to think about this, before God gave them another chance as a nation. And we have been given time to think about it too, since the time allotted for our repentance has not yet expired - although someday it will.
And yet, God makes it clear that he does not enjoy speaking a bad word to those who despise him, but would much prefer to speak a good word to those who turn to him and call upon him. We read, for example, in the book of Ezekiel:
“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
God had often spoken a good word - he had made a recurring promise - about the coming Savior. He first made this promise to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He repeated it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to Judah; to Moses; to David; to Solomon; to the prophets; and to many others, who clung to that promise by faith.
And God was going to keep that promise, because his promises are never empty or unreliable. Jesus would emerge from the royal house of David, as a part of the nation of Israel, in the land of Judah.
But unlike David of old, who fell into notorious and shameful sins during his lifetime, Jesus would - in all things, and at all times - “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus would be the “righteous Branch” of David’s royal tree - perfect in all his thoughts, words, and deeds.
Jesus would be righteous, not only in his behavior, but also in his person. Indeed, David prophetically addressed him as his own Lord - as God in human, Davidic flesh. He was to be David’s son, yet he would also be one greater than David - David’s Creator, David’s Redeemer.
Another aspect of the Messianic promise that God was ultimately going to keep, pertained to “Jerusalem,” where the Lord’s temple was located. Here was the Lord’s own dwelling place, and here too was the special abode of the Lord’s people.
When the Messiah would come, he would transform and exalt these sacred realities. The living temple, and the new spiritual Jerusalem, are now among us in the fellowship of the church. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? ... God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Again, hear what the Lord says through Jeremiah:
“In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
Jesus in his divine-human person is righteous. Jesus in his thoughts, words, and deeds is righteous. And Jesus, in the midst of his people, bestows his righteousness upon them, and credits it to them.
This is the greatest aspect of the promise that God has made, and that God will keep. This is the greatest aspect of the promise that God has kept for us.
Christ, in obedience to his Father’s gracious will, died under the curse of the law in our place; so that we, who by faith are a part of his church - inhabitants of the spiritual Jerusalem - are now included under God’s acquittal through his Son.
In Christ, God forgives all your sins. In the fulfilling of his promise through Christ, God forgives all your broken promises.
We are righteous before God, not because of what we are in our person, but because of who Christ is in his person. We are righteous before God, not because of our obedient life, but because of Christ’s obedient life.
When the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, and makes us to be living stones in his living temple, he does make us more experientially righteous than we used to be. He does sanctify us, and cause our thoughts, words, and deeds to be better and more Christ-like than they used to be.
If this process is not happening, and if no inner changes are taking place, then we are not really living in the heavenly security of the new Jerusalem, but are instead unbelieving hypocrites.
But for those who do cling in faith to Christ, and to the unbroken promises of God, it is not the process that causes us to be righteous before God. Rather, the fact that we are righteous before God - by being cloaked with the perfect righteousness of Christ - is what causes and energizes the process.
As the Holy Spirit makes us ever more righteous in our daily Christian life, we are not becoming what we are destined to be, as much as we are becoming what we already are.
We are citizens of the holy city of God. And as such, we are included under the name by which that city is called: “the Lord is our righteousness.” The Lord is our righteousness. The Lord is your righteousness.
God keeps all the promises he makes. Even when it may seem that he will not be able to keep a promise, he finds a way to do so. He is God, after all.
And his keeping of his promises often turns out to be greater and more wonderful than the best that we ever could have expected, even from God.
God doesn’t promise us the moon - although if he did, we would eventually have it. But he has promised something much better, and much bigger.
God has promised us the saving and cleansing righteousness of his Son: the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of all nations, who came into this world just as God had promised that he would.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
“In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” Amen.