SERMONS - NOVEMBER 2018
11 November 2018 - Pentecost 25 - Mark 12:38-44
In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus refers to widows two times. In his first reference to them, he criticizes the religious scribes of his day - whose vices include their practice of “devouring widows’ houses,” as Jesus describes it.
Through smooth words, perhaps with vain promises or insincere flattery, they take advantage of the poor judgment of these women, and talk them into donating all that they have in this world to those scribes - so that they are left homeless and completely impoverished.
We could probably imagine certain TV preachers and prosperity gospel hucksters in our day doing the same sort of thing, playing on the naiveté of gullible elderly people, and persuading them to empty their bank accounts and give their money to help pay for these preachers’ million-dollar mansions and Leer jets.
This is not the way we encourage people to support the ministry of Word and Sacrament, either locally or in the larger world. Christians do, of course, have the duty to uphold the work of the Lord’s church, with their contributions of time, talent, and treasure.
But that is not their only duty under God. God calls us to fulfill a assortment of roles in this life, and to serve others from within a variety of positions of responsibility.
To the extent that spending money is involved in these roles and responsibilities, then to that extent we are to use our finances for things like maintaining a home for ourselves and our family; or providing food and clothing, education and health care, for those for whom we have such responsibility.
St. Paul admonishes people who have the duty to care for family members - under the Fourth Commandment - to fulfill that duty, and not to push their obligations off onto others. He writes in his First Epistle to Timothy:
“if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household, and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. ... But if anyone does not provide for his relatives - and especially for members of his household - he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
We should not foolishly impoverish ourselves - through a careless use of our money - and thereby unnecessarily make ourselves to become a burden on others. And in keeping with Jesus’ criticism of the unscrupulous scribes of his day, we certainly should not encourage or facilitate this kind of careless misuse and misspending of money in a self-serving way - especially with respect to people who don’t have very much to begin with.
We are taught in the Small Catechism that “We should fear and love God, so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his goods and means of making a living.”
And we are not to forget the poor. We have an obligation of love to help them in their need, even as God has helped us, and has been compassionate toward us.
The Bible is full of admonitions in this respect - and, it is full of divine judgment against those who do not share their bounty with the less fortunate. St. James provides us with one of many examples:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
In order to be able to fulfill your duty of Christian love toward those in need, and in order to be able to fulfill your ordinary responsibilities within your family and community, you need to conserve and manage your earthly resources, such as they are, and not squander or waste them.
Having said all that, supporting the work of the church is also a priority. As we seek to understand our responsibility to contribute - according to our ability - toward the support of our local congregation and pastor, and toward the work of world and home missions, we need to listen to St. Paul, who writes on behalf of all ministers of the Gospel in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife...? ... Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?”
“Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’”
“Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope, and the thresher thresh in hope, of sharing in the crop.”
“If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?”
What the apostle says here - about Christians providing for their pastor and his family - is not a new idea, just for the New Testament era. In Old Testament times, the people of Israel were likewise obligated to provide for the priests and Levites, as they served in the tabernacle and in the temple on behalf of the nation.
In the time of Christ, rabbis and other religious teachers were also supported in the same way. Some of the scribes abused this - as Jesus pointed out. But as a general principle they, as religious scholars whose work was valuable to the community, were supported by the community.
And this kind of material support allowed Jesus to travel with his disciples, and to preach on a full-time basis, during the time of his earthly ministry. St. Luke reports that
“He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out; and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager; and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
That is the context for what today’s text from St. Mark goes on to describe, when it tells us that Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box”; and that Jesus saw “Many rich people put in large sums.”
Now, this is nothing particularly remarkable or heroic. Those who have been materially blessed more than most others, will accordingly give more than most others - if all concerned are giving proportionally.
Jesus is certainly not critical of the fact that the wealthy people he sees, are giving large amounts toward the support of the Temple and the Temple clergy. But he is also not praising them in a special way. This is simply what is expected of them.
In this world, people with a lot of money often have a lot of power and influence. But in our conscience, as each of us stands before God - and under his scrutiny and his authority - that’s not the way it is.
Instead, whether we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between - as we reflect on the material support we offer toward the church’s fulfillment of the Lord’s Great Commission - we recall the instruction of Christ. He says to us:
“When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
God is the true owner of everything in this world that he has entrusted to us - as temporary stewards and managers of his property. In the humility of faith, we know that “we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” - to quote St. Paul.
Again, Jesus did not think it was remarkable or worthy of special comment, that “Many rich people put in large sums.” But something else that he saw on that day was remarkable, and drew from him some important commentary. We read:
“And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This woman was a special case. For all the reasons we have already discussed, God does not ordinarily expect people to give away all their money, or all their possessions. But this woman’s situation, and her actions, do serve as an illustration of a deeper point.
The two copper coins that this woman had, were not enough to provide for her the necessities of life. But as long as she kept those small coins, she might have clung to the delusion that she did not really need help from others, and could take care of herself. Pride is a vice shared by both rich and poor.
The widow’s willingness to divest herself of these tokens of self-sufficiency was, however, an indication of her acceptance of the fact that she was, and needed to be, completely dependent on God - not just for her material support, but in all other ways as well.
Among the Jews in Jerusalem, there were humanitarian agencies in place for supporting the poor. And now she would humbly avail herself of those agencies. So, she was not now going to die of starvation or exposure. She would be taken care of.
But the deeper point that Jesus made - with respect to her attitude toward God, and toward her own needs - is a point that should not be lost on us.
Regarding the more wealthy donors, Jesus noted that “they all contributed out of their abundance.” But regarding this woman, he observed that “she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had.”
At a level deeper than how much money we have, or how generous our contributions to the church are, all of us are to approach God with a similar sense of our own “poverty.” The very first of our Lord’s Beatitudes, from the Sermon on the Mount, is this one:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
When Jesus speaks this word of special blessing on the poor in spirit, he is not describing a situation where someone who was originally rich in spirit has earned God’s favor by impoverishing himself through some kind of religious asceticism.
Rather, he is describing the enlightenment and wisdom that come with repentance and faith - so that those who are now destined for the kingdom of heaven through Christ realize, in their new standing with God, that they had nothing - of themselves - that could have been presented to God, so as to impress him, or cause him to be favorably inclined toward them.
It was Jesus, their substitute and Savior, who made them acceptable to God. And as St. Paul explains what it means to be a Christian - in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians - he writes:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor; so that you, by his poverty, might become rich.”
In our salvation from sin and death, and in the peace with God that we now enjoy through the death and resurrection of our Lord, we truly are enriched - by God.
For us men and for our salvation, the Son of God “came down from heaven” - down into the poverty and pain of our sin-sick world, to suffer and die for the redemption of that world. As the risen Lord of his church, Jesus now fills us up with his forgiveness and his life, with his grace and his love.
Indeed, we are enriched to the brim by our Triune God, as he fills us up with himself. St. John’s Gospel records these words, spoken by Jesus to his disciples - and to us:
“The Father...will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. ... If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.”
God’s gift to us of himself, truly does enrich us - in a way that nothing else, ands no one else, could do. And so St. Paul also writes in his Epistle to the Romans that
“The Spirit...bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ - provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Because of the total spiritual poverty with which we, in our fallen humanity, approach God - bringing nothing to him, but receiving everything from him - we know that we are completely dependent on him.
We cannot wash away our own sins, but need the washing of regeneration that only God can perform. We cannot nurture our own souls with heavenly sustenance, but need the bread of life that only God can provide.
For these reasons, therefore, we also need the church, and the ministry of Word and Sacrament that God makes available to us in the fellowship of the church. And because of our love for the world - a love that we have learned from God - we know that all nations need what we need, even as we know that God wants all nations to have what we have.
With this sense of profound need - as we give to the Lord “out of our poverty,” and not “out of our abundance” - we will donate generously, as God enables us and as God leads us. We will support our own congregation and pastor here in this place, and we will support the work of missionaries and evangelists in other places.
And above and beyond the money that we give for the Lord’s work, we will give our whole life, and our whole self, to the Lord - asking him to guide us and use us, according to his will and good pleasure: in all our earthly vocations, in all our relationships, and in all the moments of all our days.
In our complete dependence upon God, in our unqualified thanksgiving toward God, and in our desire to serve and honor God in all things, we know that Paul is addressing us when he writes in his Epistle the Romans:
“I appeal to you..., brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In all these matters, God truly is all in all. He makes us poor - or at least he works in us an honest awareness of our poverty - through the convicting power of his law. And he then makes us truly and eternally rich through the gift of faith - and through everything that faith receives, for time and for eternity, in the cross of Christ.
We close with these words from the hymnist William McDonald:
I am coming to the cross; I am poor, and weak, and blind;
I am counting all but dross; I shall full salvation find. Amen.
18 November 2018 - Pentecost 26 - Mark 13:1-13 & Hebrews 10:11-25
When a church building is destroyed by a fire, a flood, a hurricane, or a tornado, this is an extremely traumatic and sad event for a congregation. Religious people develop a close sentimental attachment to their houses of worship. They are deeply shocked when these special gathering places are destroyed.
But, a typical Christian congregation will not disband when it loses its building. It will continue on, and probably build another church. The destruction of a church is a great trial, but it is not in itself a death blow to a congregation.
The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem - which Jesus predicted in today’s Gospel from St. Mark - was in many ways similar to the experience of a modern congregation losing its church building. But in other ways it was something much worse.
To the Jewish people, their temple was a sign of their special standing with God. They were the chosen people, to whom the oracles of God had been entrusted.
They were the nation that had the sacrifices that the Lord had commanded. They were the nation that had the temple - the special dwelling place of the Lord, where he met his people, and where they met him.
When Jesus walked the earth, the Jewish people of his day had the feeling that their temple was virtually indestructible. It was so big, and so sturdy, and so seemingly permanent.
The disciples of the Lord shared this general feeling. But in today’s text Jesus told them something about the future of the temple that they didn’t want to hear.
“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.’”
The temple, and what happened in the temple, were at the heart and center of the Old Testament Mosaic revelation. God used the temple sacrifices as perpetual pictures, as it were, and acted-out prophecies, of the ultimate saving work that the coming Messiah would someday accomplish.
The layout of the temple was also an image of the relationship between sinful man and the holy God - a relationship of distance and separation because of human sin, but reconciliation and forgiveness because of the vicarious sacrifice of a sinless substitute.
There were outer courts where the people in general could gather. There was also the most holy place, sealed off by a curtain, where God specifically was understood to dwell, and into which only the high priest could enter once a year on the Day of Atonement, with the blood of the special sacrifice that was offered on that day.
Lambs and bulls were, of course, offered at the temple by the priests also on other occasions through the year, on behalf of the Jewish people. But when Jesus came, he - as the eternal high priest - offered himself, once and for all, as the true sacrifice to the justice and holiness of God.
He as God and man willingly sacrificed himself, on behalf of all people of all times and places, and from all nations. He was and is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It had never been the stones, the mortar, and the golden vessels that had made the temple to be the temple. It has never been the sacrificing of the animals, in and of itself.
What had always made the temple to be the temple - to be the house of God, and the dwelling place of God’s forgiving mercy - was the promise of Christ: the promise of a redeemer from all sin, and the promise of eternal reconciliation with God through the redemption that he would wrought.
The stones and the mortar, the golden vessels and the animals, had always pictured this, and manifested this. The temple and its appointments had always pointed forward and upward to the true and ultimate temple of God - that is, to the Savior in whose very person God would dwell among men; and who would live out and fulfill everything that was portrayed and symbolized in the temple building.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains that the law of Moses “called certain sacrifices atoning sacrifices, on account of what they signified or foreshadowed, not because they merited forgiveness of sins in God’s eyes...”
“In point of fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, the death of Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches when it says, ‘For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’ A little later it says about the will of Christ, ‘And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’”
That’s a large part of what Jesus was driving at in this passage from the Gospel of St. John:
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’”
“But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
May we, too, believe this word. May we, with the Lord’s disciples, believe that our peace with God has been established and secured for us by the sacrifice of Jesus, whose blood has been shed in our place, and whose innocent suffering and death has turned God’s wrath away from us forever.
We know, of course, that most of the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus when he came among them as their Savior and Lord. Not all, but most. We also know that most of the Jewish population did likewise. Again, not all, but most.
Still, for approximately forty years, following the resurrection of Christ, God called out to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through the voice of the apostles. He pleaded with them to repent of their sins, and to see, in faith, that the salvation Jesus provided is exactly the salvation they really needed.
Ultimately, they didn’t need political deliverance from the oppressive power of the Romans, but they needed eternal deliverance from the power of sin and death. They didn’t need an abiding homeland in this world, or a sacred earthly city, but they needed an eternal dwelling place with God in heaven, and citizenship in the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband.
God knew that the literal temple would be destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. In fact, he himself - according to the mystery of his saving will for all nations - was purposefully going to allow it to be destroyed through the instrumentality of the Romans.
The Romans had their own cruel and self-serving purposes in doing what they did. But in, with, and under these wicked motives, God had his own purposes in allowing these events to play out.
God permitted the destruction of the temple, not because he no longer needed or wanted a special dwelling place among men, but because a new and eternal temple had now taken its place.
This was the temple of his Son’s crucified and resurrected body. In and through Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity in human flesh, God is personally present among us, dwelling and abiding with us. Jesus is Immanuel: God with us. And he, in his person, remains as the true temple of God among men.
The destruction of the old temple was certainly a sad occurrence even for those Jews who had placed their hope in Jesus. They loved that temple, and everything that it had stood for according to God’s Old Testament revelation.
But their sadness was tempered by the knowledge that they had already been transported into the new living temple of Christ. In baptism they had been united to Christ. By faith in the gospel, they knew that the blood of Christ had covered them for all time, and that they were a part of God’s church.
But for those Jews who had refused to believe in Jesus, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was an unspeakable and unimaginable tragedy. In the blindness of their unbelief, they now thought that they had no temple. What a desperate and unconsolable grief must have consumed them.
And there is still no temple like this in Jerusalem. The presence of an important Islamic mosque on the exact site of the former temple virtually guarantees that such a temple will never be rebuilt.
But even if someday a new building called the “temple” is erected there, it will not be the “temple” in the true Biblical sense. And that’s because God already has a new temple - a new dwelling place that will never be destroyed.
That dwelling place is not this building, where we are worshiping today. It is also not the sum total of all buildings that are dedicated to the worship of almighty God. The dwelling place of God is Christ, our eternal high priest. Where Christ is, God is.
And where is Christ? He is where he has promised to be: in his Word, whenever and wherever it is proclaimed and confessed in this world; and in his Sacraments.
Christians, as they are gathered together in the name of Christ, are sometimes called the temple of God. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians:
“You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
But this is so, only because Christians are gathered around Christ, and are imbedded into Christ by faith. Jesus Christ is the temple. He is God’s dwelling place among men.
And it is Jesus Christ who makes those who are connected to him to be a temple, too - by extension. Without him - without his Word and Sacraments in the middle of everything that is going on in the life of the church - the church as such would be no temple.
Do you personally know about the temple that God has provided for you? Are you aware of the fact that there is a way to be in the very presence of God - even during this lifetime?
God dwells among us in Christ. And God wants you, by faith, to dwell in Christ, and thereby to dwell with God. What a marvelous and miraculous thing that is: to know God, to live with God, and to have God living with you.
But apart from the Lord’s holy temple, and without your being a part of that temple, you will not know this blessing, or this joy. You will be like the unbelieving Jews in 70 A.D., who had no temple, no hope, no assurance of God’s presence among them.
They did, of course, have the option of entering into the true and eternal temple that God had indeed provided for them, by the death and resurrection of their Messiah. The Jewish people of today still have that option.
And Christians, in love for their Jewish friends and neighbors, will always be willing to invite them into the fellowship of the church, by inviting them to faith in Christ, the Head and Lord of the church.
Indeed, God’s temple still stands, and it always will. Christ still lives, and will never die again. The church of our Lord still remains in this world, and will never be destroyed or silenced.
In today’s lesson from the epistle to the Hebrews, we are encouraged to see the deeper reality of what is going on in the church, when God’s people are called into God’s presence in Christ. We read:
“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.”
This is one of the best summaries in Scripture of what the Christian faith is all about, and of what is really going on in Christian worship. This is one of the best descriptions of what it means for us to have found a dwelling place in Christ - in God’s temple.
As those who have been cleansed by the Lord’s grace in Holy Baptism, we sacramentally approach our divine high priest by means of the very flesh that he sacrificed for us on the cross, and that opened the way for our reconciliation and union with God.
As those whose consciences have been bathed with the forgiveness of God, we draw near to our heavenly Father without fear, by means of our eucharistic sharing in the very blood that Jesus shed to wash away all sin.
And as we are all united together to Christ in these marvelous ways, we are thereby also united to each other in a forgiving and loving communion. We confess the truth of God’s salvation to one another, and together we confess that truth to the world.
We encourage one another, and help one another in the life of faith and service that we share in Christ. We have a home together in God’s house. We have a home together in God’s living temple. We have a home together in Christ.
Wherever Jesus is, forgiving and saving by the word of his gospel, and washing away sin, there is the temple. There is God’s dwelling place among men. There is our dwelling place in God.
We love our church building. Over the years, the members and friends of the congregation have invested a lot of time, talent, and treasure in maintaining and improving this church.
But if - God forbid - this structure, dedicated to the worship of humanity’s Redeemer, would be destroyed, our congregation would not be destroyed along with it. The ministry of Word and Sacrament that takes place here - which is what makes this building so precious to us - would continue in another place.
Jesus would admonish us, forgive us, instruct us, and comfort us, somewhere else. The true temple of God that is among us, would remain among us, because Christ would remain among us.
God’s temple can now never be burned down, shattered, or blown away. It is indestructible. It will last forever.
The material world as we know it will someday be destroyed with fire, and will come to an end on the day of judgment appointed by God. But God’s living temple will always endure.
Those who in faith are united to that temple, and who have been built into it and made a part of it, will always endure. Jesus and his church will always endure.
Surely in temples made with hands, God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands, All earthly temples excelling.
Yet He whom heavens cannot contain Chose to abide on earth with men, Built in our bodies His temple.
We are God’s house of living stones, Builded for His habitation;
He through baptismal grace us owns Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
Were we but two His name to tell, Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
With all His grace and His favor. Amen.
21 November 2018 - Thanksgiving Eve - Psalm 138:1-5
Please listen with me to the words of King David, as recorded in Psalm 138:
“I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased. All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.”
So far our text.
When I was sixteen, the son of my grandfather’s cousin in Czechoslovakia - and the daughter of that man, who was my age - visited us in New York. I can remember seeing my grandfather, and other friends and relatives, sitting with the visiting cousin on lawn chairs in a circle in the back yard, speaking Slovak.
I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying. But I could tell when the visitor from eastern Europe was saying something critical of his government, because he hunched over and softened his voice.
He was in America, but the fear of punishment for speaking his mind that had been ingrained in him through living in a communist country - where there was no freedom of speech - remained with him even when he was in a country where he could have said whatever he wanted to say, about anything or anyone.
Even as a teenager - inexperienced in geopolitics, and not having thought seriously about what it means to live in a free country - that made a deep impression on me.
Thanksgiving is a national holiday. Christians in any country should always be thankful for all of God’s blessings, and Christians in America should likewise always be thankful for everything God has done for them, both spiritually and temporally.
But on the occasion of our national day of Thanksgiving, we do tend to focus more narrowly on the blessings that God has bestowed upon our country, and upon us within our country. Our society has always been characterized by a strong commitment to freedom of speech. And this is something for which we should be thankful, for a number of reasons.
When that freedom is exercised responsibly, it allows people with strongly-held religious or political views to express those views, and to spread their message, with their words, so that they will not be tempted to resort to violent protests instead. A vigorous and robust debate or discussion is America’s alternative to the suppression of unpopular or critical speech, and to the imposition of a required belief system, that unfortunately characterize all too many other countries.
As we are thankful for this freedom, and as we benefit from it in our advocacy of the ideas that we believe in, in the realm of politics or civic affairs, we must also not hesitate to use our freedom of speech in ways that are directly inspired and guided by our Christian faith, and by our calling as Christians always to be ready to give a defense and an explanation of the hope that is within us.
Christians as Christians are indeed a people of speech. This is fundamental to our belief system. Indeed, our Word-oriented faith thrives, and is most at home, in an environment where our right to proclaim our faith is guaranteed - and also where the right of others to disagree with us, and not to listen to us, is likewise guaranteed.
In Psalm 138, David says: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.”
We, too, sing the praises of the Triune God before the many false gods of our age. And as Christians in America, we do not want the civil authorities in our free land to suppress the speech of those who oppose the gospel of Christ, who seek to spread their own faith, or who desire to offer idolatrous worship to their false gods.
In America everyone has the right to be wrong. And so in our own preaching, we are indeed competing in the marketplace of ideas: contradictory and confusing ideas about God, and about humanity’s relationship with God and standing before God.
But that should not bother us too much. This competition helps us to see the importance of fine-tuning our message, and of being careful and clear in how we express it - which is a good thing.
It is, of course, sometimes difficult for people in our land of free speech, to hear the voice of those who are proclaiming the genuine gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, over the din of all the other voices that surround them. And that can be frustrating.
Sometimes those other voices are not just putting forth mistaken human guesses about what God is like, and about what he demands from us and what he gives us. Sometimes those other voices are putting forth deeply toxic deceptions of Satan that can do serious harm to souls.
But even when that is the case, we still have a sure confidence in the persuasive, prevailing power of the gospel that we preach, over against all the lies of men and devils.
This confidence does not arise from pride in our own rhetorical skills. Rather, with St. Paul, we are “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” - as the Epistle to the Romans affirms.
There is a supernatural power in the gospel message itself - a power that God’s Spirit has placed there, as he himself works to implant faith in the hearts of those who hear the gospel and who are touched by its promises.
God’s truth restores, creates, and gives life. The devil’s lies, and the lies of human flesh, can only destroy and bring death.
In his Great Commission, Jesus told his disciples to go and make more disciples - of all nations - not by forced conversions, but by baptizing them and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” People are taught the faith through speech.
St. Paul also wrote in his Epistle to the Romans that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And he put this conviction into practice in his own ministry, declaring:
“We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
A coerced faith is no faith at all. God’s way of creating and sustaining faith is through the words that his people speak - to one another, and to the world.
And Christians are a people of speech also with respect to the prayers that we speak to our Father in heaven. St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.”
And “all people” truly does mean all people. Jesus himself teaches us in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” If Christians in general are to pray in love for their enemies and their persecutors, then Christians in America are certainly to pray for all of our fellow citizens, according to their circumstances and needs - including those fellow citizens who despise us, and who despise the holy yet forgiving God whom we serve.
What a wonderful blessing we are able to enjoy, when God allows us to speak freely to neighbors and friends of those things that are of eternal significance for them. What a wonderful blessing we are able to enjoy, when God allows us to speak freely to him in prayer, about our neighbors and friends, as we intercede for them, and in the name of Jesus invoke God’s grace and enlightenment upon them.
There are people in our land who no longer believe in freedom of speech - or at least they no longer believe that people who want to say the kind of things Christians want to say, regarding morality and theology, should be allowed to say them. As Americans, we need to be vigilant, and to protect the blessing of freedom of speech for which we are thankful today, through the means that are available to us as speaking and voting citizens.
But even if these forces of hostility and oppression succeed, and the liberties we have enjoyed until now are curtailed, or eliminated altogether, Jesus will never be silent - not in America, and not in any country where his people are gathered in his name.
The risen Christ is not a citizen of the United States, and so he is not subject to U.S. laws as we are, and he is not active in U.S. political debates as we are. Still, his speaking will never be silenced.
Even in the most totalitarian societies that exist in the world today - communist and Islamist - the voice of Christ continues to sound forth in his Word and Sacraments.
Jesus continues to speak forgiveness and eternal life into the minds and hearts of his suffering and persecuted people in those benighted lands. And he continues to speak forgiveness and eternal life into our minds and hearts as well.
Jesus has already spoken to us this evening - as we have been gathered here in thanksgiving for the blessings of God. He spoke his peace and pardon upon us in the absolution. He spoke his instruction to us in the readings from Holy Scripture. He is speaking to us now.
And he will speak again, in a few moments: when he offers and gives to you, in the consecrated bread and wine, his very body and blood, given and shed for your salvation; and when he tells each of you personally that his body is indeed given “for you,” and that his blood is indeed shed “for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Lord is free to speak these things to us, with a freedom that comes not from human governments or national constitutions, but from the eternal will of his Father in heaven. Christ, in his love for us all, gives us this assurance in St. John’s Gospel:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
We know, therefore, that someday, when all the enemies of Christ have been made to be his footstool, and he has assumed his rightful place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, his word, and the speaking of his word, will prevail over all things. Jesus says:
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
And with David, we also say:
“All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.” Amen.
25 November 2018 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Isaiah 51:4-6
Through the Prophet Isaiah, God says:
“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”
What is the nature and character of heaven - specifically as understood in terms of that supernatural reality that is enjoyed by God’s people between the time of each individual’s temporal death, and the final day of resurrection?
The Bible does not give us a lot of details, and does not answer all our questions. But it does answer some of them. And it answers the most important questions that people should ask about heaven, even if they are not asking those questions.
According to Scripture, the soul does have a continuing, conscious existence after the death of the body. When the Book of Ecclesiastes discusses what is happening when “man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets,” it says: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
And in the New Testament, St. Paul tells the Corinthians:
“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”
When he wrote to the Philippians, Paul said this:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. ... My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
One of the things that people who are contemplating their own passing into heaven often wonder, is if people in heaven will know each other, even if they had never met each other in this world. I’m pretty sure we will know the identities of other people in heaven.
Consider the account of the transfiguration, when the portal to heaven cracked open, as it were, and Moses and Elijah stepped through it, and appeared with Jesus in his divine glory. Peter, James, and John seemed to know right away who these men were.
And regarding the level of knowledge that we will have after this life, St. Paul also wrote to the Corinthians: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
People do, of course, hope and expect that when they get to heaven, they will see and interact with their own loved ones who had previously departed in the faith. They look forward to those reunions, and for many it is what makes their thoughts about heaven to be of such great comfort to them.
But the most important person we should expect to see in heaven - and should eagerly yearn to see - is Jesus. Indeed, it is the presence of Jesus, and his people’s eternal fellowship with him, that makes heaven to be heaven.
Heaven should not be conceived of in sensual terms - as a place of endless personal pleasure. If a drug addict imagines that being in heaven is like being high all the time and forever, he is dead wrong.
The Scriptures do speak of the joys and delights of heaven. But heaven is not about selfish sensations. Heaven is about unhindered and unending relationships.
It is about an eternal relationship with Christ, our Redeemer and Savior. Through Christ, it is about an eternal relationship with God the Father, to whom Jesus reconciled us by the shedding of his blood. And through Christ, it is also about an eternal relationship with all the other members of his body in the church triumphant.
When we understand this, we will then also understand that the transition from earth to heaven - for those who are in fact destined for heaven - is not the entrance into something that is completely new and different in every way.
To be sure, there are some great differences between this world and the next. In this life we are surrounded by sin, and infected with sin. In heaven, those temptations and impurities will be gone in an instant.
Also, in this world we lead a very physical existence - with all the limitations, pains, and weaknesses that come with such an existence. But when our souls are separated from our bodies - while those bodies rest in the earth, until the day of resurrection - we will be with the Lord in a kind of spiritual existence that we today cannot even imagine.
But there is one thing that will not change, and that will be a focal point of direct continuity between our life here, and our life there. That one thing - that one person - is Jesus Christ.
Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
To know Christ is to know eternal life, here and now. To know Christ - and to know the forgiveness of sins and peace that his gospel brings - is to be liberated from the fear of death and judgment, here and now.
As a Christian, you are not waiting for your passing from this world, in order to be with Jesus. There is, of course, a sense in which you are “away from the Lord” now - to quote St. Paul. You are not with him in such a way that your physical senses can experience him directly.
But at a level deeper than your physical senses can discern, Jesus is with you, and in you, already. That’s why St. Paul writes to the Galatians:
“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The “faith” that Paul mentions is not just a wish for things in the future that do not exist yet. As the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Jesus is not visible to us now. But that does not mean that he is not real now. Through his Word and Sacrament, he gives us a faith that is able to know that he is real. He gives us a faith that is able to know him.
And by faith we do know him, with an assurance that everything he has promised to us is also real and will happen. It’s not a question of if, only when.
There is a deep continuity between our present union with Christ by faith on this side of the grave, and our future union with him in heaven, when we pass to the other side of the grave, and will see him face to face.
Sadly parallel to this continuity for believers, is the continuity of hatred toward God, and separation from God, that is experienced and embraced by unbelievers - in this world, and in the world that is to come for them.
Jesus says: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
The number of people today who think they would like to go to heaven when they die, is a much larger number than the number of people today who recognize the importance of believing in, and obeying, the Son of God.
What that really means, is that there are a lot of people who think they want to go to heaven someday, who actually do not. And that’s because heaven is not merely about endless sensations of ecstatic pleasure.
It’s about Jesus: being united to him forever; being saturated with his Spirit forever; being envéloped by his love forever. All of those dimensions of a Christian’s relationship with Christ can - and indeed must - begin in this life, so that they can be carried over to the next life, after death.
If you today love your sin, and not God, you don’t really want to go to heaven when you die. If your heart now is set on the pursuit of selfish ambition, and is hardened to the grace of God, then there is nothing of what you love in heaven. Heaven - the real heaven that actually exists - is filled with what you don’t love.
If you live for power and pleasure on earth, you may think that you want to go to heaven when you die, because you may think that heaven is just more of the same. But it is not.
You also don’t get to design your own heaven. There’s only one heaven, where righteousness dwells, and where those from all times and places who truly love righteousness dwell.
And, there’s only one alternative to this one and only heaven. Remember the story of poor Lazarus and the rich man. In that story, Jesus reports:
“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his side.”
If you are concerned about your eternal destiny, be concerned first about your present situation, and your present standing with God. If your present standing with God is not right and good, then your future - on the other side of death - will not be right and good either.
But if God is with you now, you will be with him then. If you know Christ now, he will know you, and claim you, and bring you to himself in heaven forever.
He says: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
What Jesus means by “acknowledging” someone, is explained by St. Paul, when he writes to the Romans - and to us:
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Jesus himself also says, in St. Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Turn away from your sins. Renounce them and forsake them.
Hear and believe the good news of Christ’s cross and empty tomb. Hear and believe the good news of your salvation from sin and death through Christ, and of your reconciliation with God on account of Christ.
Jesus did die for you, to justify and forgive you. Jesus did rise from the grave as the first-fruits of the resurrection, so that you also can and will live in him, both here and in heaven; and so that your body likewise can and will, on the last day, rise from the grave, as Christ was raised.
In the Book of Acts, St. Peter echoes the Lord’s invitation to you, to get right with him now, so that you will be right with him forever:
“Repent..., and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
Let us heed, and heed again, these words of Peter concerning God and his salvation. And let us ponder, and ponder again, these words of God himself:
“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.” Amen.