3 November 2019 - All Saints

A while back, as I was watching an old episode of the CSI television program, I heard this line, spoken by a criminal character on the show, in explaining why he had perpetrated the notorious “signature” crime that he had committed:

“I want something of me to be left behind, so that people will speak my name, and know who I was.”

People who commit notorious crimes do sometimes have this motivation. They want to be remembered by history for something. And if they cannot be remembered for their positive contributions, then they will settle for being remembered for the way in which they shocked or scandalized society.

Quite often, when famous public figures have been assassinated by previously unknown persons, it was partly because that previously unknown person wanted to become a known person. And killing a famous individual was the quickest way to become a known person, and a remembered person.

Most people, of course, do not resort to such horrible methods of achieving a level of “name recognition” for themselves that will endure beyond their mortal lifetime. But it is common for human beings in general, who are conscious of their mortality, to entertain in other ways the thought that was expressed by that character on CSI:

“I want something of me to be left behind, so that people will speak my name, and know who I was.”

I know that physical death will eventually catch up with me. I know that it is impossible to live forever physically in this world. But in my human desire not to be forgotten completely after I am gone from the earth, I might still try to figure out some way to fulfill the wish for at least “something of me to be left behind.”

So, for example, even though George Washington is now dead and gone, the country that he worked to establish - the United States of America - has been “left behind” as evidence that he once did live.

William Shakespeare passed away over 400 years ago. But whenever people read one of his plays, or watch a performance of one of his plays, they remember him, since “something of him” does live on in his literary work.

Back in 2010, I visited the high school from which I had graduated 30 years earlier. I thought at the time that there wasn’t much evidence left, from 30 years previous, that I had ever been a student there.

But on one wall, mixed in together with a bunch of other class pictures spanning the decades, was a group photo of the class of 1980. And there I was, one face in the crowd of my classmates, looking out from that picture.

When I have passed away - as some of my high school classmates already have - that picture will still be there. Something of me will be left behind, so that people - at least maybe a few people, at my hometown high school - will know who I was.

What are you doing in your life, right now, that is calculated to leave a mark on the world that will remain after you are physically gone? Are your various actions - in your church, in your society, and in your family - motivated only by a selfless desire to serve others according to your calling?

Or is there sometimes a wish - a prideful wish lurking behind the various things you do - that you will be remembered for these deeds? Is there sometimes an expectation - a selfish expectation connected to your actions in this world - that people in the future will speak your name, and know who you were, because of the impression that your actions left on them?

How important is it to you, that you name might be inscribed on a plaque mounted on a wall somewhere, or on a trophy in a display case at a school you once attended? Is it important to you that your name would be printed in the newspaper at some point in your life, so that people someday who are doing research in that newspaper would see it, and know that you were once alive?

Because of the various little “remnants” and “relicts” of your existence in the world - which will still be able to be found here and there when you are gone - do you now feel a certain level of satisfaction that after you die, something of you will indeed be left behind, so that people will speak your name, and know who you were?

In his message of salvation to humanity, Jesus Christ does speak to the inner yearning to “live on” in some way that is found within all of us.

But Jesus does not promise merely that “something of us” - some inanimate influence or footprint - will be left behind in this world, when we are no longer here. Rather, he promises that through faith in him, what will live on is our whole being, our whole human existence, our whole person.

Those in Christ who are still alive on the earth, and those in Christ who are now with the Lord in death, have all been baptized into his death and resurrection. Their destiny - our destiny - is a destiny of resurrection.

We still confess, in the words of the Creed that these departed Christians also confessed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.” The saints on earth and the saints in heaven will live forever, body and soul, in glory and immortality.

Today we are observing the Festival of All Saints. The saints of God in heaven - Christians from all times and places - are indeed still alive in Christ. They trusted in Christ’s cross for their justification before God, and they now share in Christ’s victory over death and the grave.

Some of them did leave a memorable mark on the world - and on the church within the world - during their time on earth. Humanly speaking, something of them is left behind.

We speak their names, and we know who they were: Mary and Mary Magdalene, Peter and Paul, John and James, Athanasius and Ambrose, Monica and Augustine, Patrick and Boniface, Francis and Clare, Luther and Melanchthon, Chemnitz and Andreae, Walther and Krauth.

But most of the saints of God, who over the centuries lived and died in faith, are anonymous to us. We don’t speak their names. As individuals, we don’t know who they were. Practically speaking, nothing of them remains in this world any more.

But that doesn’t really matter, because all of God’s people - forgiven in Christ, and reconciled to God in Christ - have found true immortality in Christ. And God knows all of them - the famous and the obscure; those who are still remembered on the earth, and those who have been forgotten, or who were never known.

While their bodies slumber in the ground, they live on. And in the resurrection to come, when their bodies are called forth from the grave, and from the elements of the earth, they will be fully and completely alive, in every way, forever.

During their earthly lifetime, the saints of God did not obsessively seek to find a human technique to “live on,” in some small way, in the memories of other people, or in the institutions and monuments of this world.

Rather, during their earthly lifetime, the resurrected Christ graciously sought them out, in his divine Word and sacraments. And by his forgiving grace, he bestowed on them a genuine immortality: an immortality that his own resurrection guarantees to all who trust in him.

The Lord knows and remembers them; and the Lord knows and remembers you, since by faith you are among them. Through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord says these things to his people:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

And that means that God’s Son guarantees such an immortality to you, too, as you trust in him. One of the purposes of the Lord’s death on the cross for you, was to slay within you the compulsion to waste the limited time you have on earth, in a desperate search for your own limited version of earthly immortality.

In his death for your sins, he reconciled you to his Father in heaven, and thereby reintroduced you to the only true source of true eternal life. As the resurrected Lord of his church, Jesus now bestows this eternal life on you, through the preaching of his gospel and the administration of his sacraments.

As St. John’s Gospel records it, 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.”

Again, Jesus says: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

As you are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and as you abide in your baptism by daily repentance and faith, Christ continually delivers you from the false hope of earthly immortality, in little bits and pieces, according to all the various forms that this false hope may take.

And he delivers to you, in its place, the genuine hope of the resurrection. This is a real hope for a real immortality, which enlivens the church militant, still struggling on earth; and which enlivens the church triumphant, at rest in heaven.

When you partake of the sacrament of your Lord’s body and blood - his glorified and resurrected body and blood - this is a pledge and a down-payment on your own future resurrection. This is Jesus’ reassurance to you and to those who commune with you, that everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die.

St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “We know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” And so now, as Paul also writes in his Epistle to the Romans,

“None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

And so we acknowledge and embrace the blessed hope - and the blessed reality - of eternal life: which is shared by all of God’s saints, on both sides of the grave.

It is a hope and a reality that exists for us already in this world, and that sustains us while we remain in this world. But it is also a hope and a reality that lifts up the eyes of our faith, so that we can look with confidence and certainty beyond this world, to the next world.

And as we look, perhaps we sing:

The church on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee. Amen.

10 November 2019 - Pentecost 22 - Luke 20:27-40

“There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question.”

There are two reasons to ask someone a question. The first is because you believe that the person to whom you are posing a question knows something that you do not know, but that you want to know.

So, you ask a question, because you really want an answer - and because you expect that you will be benefitted by that answer.

The second reason to ask someone a question, is not very honest or honorable. It is to “trip up” the person to whom you are posing a question. You expect, or hope, that the answer that is given will make that person seem foolish - and make you seem wise.

As a pastor, I am often approached by people - either in person or on the Internet - who ask me questions about God and the Bible, or about theology and morality. It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether the questioner’s motivation is a sincere desire to learn something, or a desire to stump me, or “expose” me.

Criticism and rejection of my beliefs as a Christian, are often thinly veiled behind insincere questions about my beliefs as a Christian.

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is approached by some Sadducees, who have a question for him about the resurrection, and about the nature of the relationships that people will have with one another in the resurrection.

The Sadducees were the “high church liberals” of first-century Judaism, who focused their religious life on the rituals of the Temple. They did acknowledge the first five books of the Old Testament - the books of Moses - as Scripture. But they did not believe that the Psalms or the writings of the Prophets were inspired.

Within first-century Judaism, the Sadducees were engaged in ongoing theological debates and controversies with the Pharisees, and also with the scribes - who were aligned with the Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees believed in the divine inspiration of the Psalms and the Prophets, in the existence of angels and demons, and in a future resurrection. Jesus and his disciples also held to these beliefs.

But the Sadducees did not. Their question to Jesus - about the resurrection - was not a genuine, sincere question. It was a trick question.

They thought that their reasons for rejecting a future resurrection were thoroughly rational and irrefutable. In drawing Jesus out on this topic, they therefore thought that they could make Jesus seem ignorant, or seem not to be as smart as they were.

Jesus knew what they were up to. But he responded anyway.

In his response, though, he did not dwell long on the specific trick question that had been posed to him - about a woman who had been married to seven different brothers while on earth. Jesus took charge of the conversation, and began to discuss instead the underlying doctrine of the resurrection - at a deeper and more serious level.

And, he responded with reference to one of the books of Moses - the Book of Exodus, to be precise. So, he appealed to an authority that they, in principle, claimed to recognize.

In the conversation that is reported in today’s text, Jesus pointed out to the Sadducees that when the Lord revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, he described himself as “the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

According to Jesus, this shows that the dead are raised. And he added: “Now [the Lord] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”

The primary focus of Jesus’ remarks is on the resurrection that will occur on the last day. We are told elsewhere in Scripture that when the Lord returns visibly to judge all nations, all the dead will rise with their bodies.

Our hope as Christians in particular is reflected in what we confess in the Small Catechism: On the last day, the Holy Spirit “will raise up me and all the dead, and will grant me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”

But in his remarks to the Sadducees, Jesus stated that the Lord is the God of the living - not just that he was, and will be again, the God of the living. And Jesus says that, to the Lord, all live - not just that all did live, or that all will live, but that all are living, now.

When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were even then alive: alive to the Lord, and in the Lord. All who live in the Lord, and die in the Lord, live in the Lord still.

The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches that when a human being’s earthly life is coming to an end - and when “man is going to his eternal home” - “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

The souls of the dead are not annihilated at the time of temporal death. In the resurrection, those souls will be clothed once again with an immortal body. But until then, the Lord is God of the living. The souls of the dead are not dead.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive on earth. They are now alive with the Lord, and in the Lord. They will be alive again, in the resurrection.

The Sadducees did get an answer to the smart-aleck question they had asked about husbands and wives in the resurrection. They also got an answer to the question they should have asked: about the reality of life after death, and the resurrection on the last day.

But this did not trigger within them an honest interest in what other things they might have been able to learn from Jesus. Rather, as St. Luke reports, “they no longer dared to ask him any question.”

They did not follow up their insincere and phoney question, with any sincere and real questions. They thereby lost an opportunity of a lifetime. They lost an opportunity to alter the trajectory of their own eternal destiny.

Some scribes were also there when this conversation took place, and they listened to it. St. Luke tells us that, after Jesus finished speaking, they said to him: “Teacher, you have spoken well.”

Jesus had, as it were, “taken their side” in this aspect of their ongoing dispute with the Sadducees. They agreed with Jesus that there will be a resurrection, because he had agreed with them.

Unfortunately, the scribes likewise did not take advantage of the opportunity they had, to follow up with some additional questions of their own. And that’s because they didn’t think they had anything to learn from Jesus, either.

How much better off they would have been, if they had asked Jesus to explain to them how an individual can be confident that his own sins are forgiven by God, so that he will indeed live before God.

If they had asked that question, Jesus would have said something like this: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

This way of salvation, through faith in Christ, had also been made known to the patriarchs of old, through the messianic promises that were made to the patriarchs.

And the patriarchs had believed those promises: the promise of the Seed of the woman, who would crush the head of Satan on humanity’s behalf; the promise of the Seed of Abraham, through whom all nations of the world would be blessed, and have a dwelling place with God.

The patriarchs of old lived, now live, and will live forever, because of Christ - their Savior from sin and death.

That’s why Jesus said, at another time and place: “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it, and was glad.”

Today we have our own Sadducees, and our own scribes, who either ask the wrong kind of questions, for the wrong reasons; or who simply do not ask any questions at all.

They think that they already know everything they need to know. Jesus - and those who speak for him in his church - do not have anything to teach them.

Skeptics and militant atheists who do question the Christian faith, generally do so because they want to demonstrate their superior knowledge, and not because they think that Jesus has superior knowledge, from which they could benefit.

Humanitarians, social moralists, and progressive activists often refrain from asking questions, even though they are often quite free with patronizing expressions of agreement with Jesus. They are quite certain that if Jesus were among us today, he would be doing what they are doing, and in the way they are doing it.

They think they already know everything that Jesus might otherwise teach them. They congratulate him that he agrees with them, and go on their way - without asking him deeper questions, about deeper truths.

People today absorb all kinds of false notions about God and spirituality, about morality and ethics, from the culture in which we live. But people in general are remarkably uncurious to know what Jesus would actually say about these things. And so, they do not ask him.

They do not open a Bible, to see if a careful reading of the Sacred Scriptures would give them a different and better perspective. They do not ask a pastor to share with them what the orthodox Christian faith has to say about the issues of our time.

Like the Sadducees, they might ask a pastor something, in mockery or derision - without really intending to listen to the answer. But what happens more often, is that they don’t ask at all - like the scribes.

People don’t stop to consider that what the spirit of the age is teaching them may not be true. People don’t stop to consider that God’s timeless Word might be able to offer a response to the popular voices of our time, and an alternate and more accurate vision of reality.

It does not cross their minds that God, in Christ, may indeed be willing and able to answer important questions - deep and fundamental questions - about the way to know God, about the meaning of life, or about what will happen to us after we die.

But what about you? Since you are here today, I doubt very much that you are overtly hostile to the Christian worldview, or that you mock or deride the Christian faith. But is your mind filled with assumptions that should actually be questioned, as you question the Lord, seeking his answers?

Are you as cautious and skeptical as you should be, regarding the values and attitudes that the world is pushing on you, in almost every song you hear on the radio, and in almost every program you see on television?

Or are you subconsciously absorbing some of these values and attitudes, and letting them draw you away from God’s truth - perhaps without your realizing that this is what is actually happening?

Do you ask Jesus to show you a better way, in his Word? Do you ask your pastor if the Christian wordview presents a consistent and superior alternative to these values and attitudes?

Are you losing your curiosity about, or interest in, what the Bible has to say to the issues of our time, and to contemporary challenges to the Christian religion?

Many of the questions you should be asking, do not pertain only to matters of doctrine and ethics. Maybe you also have real inner fears and anxieties, and real emotional burdens, at a very personal level.

You need answers that will calm those fears, alleviate those anxieties, and lighten those burdens. You need to know that your sins are forgiven, and that there is a way to peace with God open to you.

As recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

What Psalm 91 says prophetically about Christ, it says as well about the one who is in Christ, and who in faith clings to Christ:

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him. I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will rescue him and honor him.”

There are important things that you should want to know about God, about his thoughts toward you, about his expectations of you, and about his gifts to you. There are important things that you should want to know about what you should believe, and about how you should live.

It is possible for you to know these things. The answers to these questions are available. And so, ask Jesus the questions you need to ask. To whom else can you go? He has the words of eternal life.

Jesus is not walking the earth today as he was 2,000 years ago. So he is not accessible in that way any more. But he is mystically present with his church, and in the lives of his people. And he still speaks, teaches, and preaches through the pages of Holy Scripture.

So, approach the Scriptures with your questions, or let your pastor guide you into and through the Scriptures. And ask your questions with the right motive - that is, because you really want to know the answers.

And when God’s Word gives you those answers, believe that what Jesus says to you is true. Then, let his answers reshape your convictions, and reform your life. Let his answers change you and transform you, in heart and soul, in mind and will.

In the Old Testament, through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says:

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them.”

In regard to the coming of the divine Messiah, the Prophet Zechariah says:

“The Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. ... On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem... And the Lord will be king over all the earth.”

And in the New Testament, as recorded in the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus say:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

Again, in the Old Testament, the Psalmist prays in Psalm 119:

“Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word.”

And in the New Testament, as recorded by St. John, Jesus gives us these promises:

“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. ... The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

We close with these words from Psalm 34:

“Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

“This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. ... Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” Amen.

17 November 2019 - Pentecost 23 - Malachi 4:1-6

Fire. Heat. Sunshine. Light.

This imagery resonates very naturally with people like us, who live in Arizona. Sometimes these images frighten us. Sometimes they soothe and comfort us.

But in one way or another they do speak to us. Our familiarity with images like fire, heat, sunshine, and light, may help us to appreciate what God says through the prophet Malachi in today’s Old Testament lesson.

God uses this imagery to illustrate his judgment against unbelief and wickedness. He also uses this imagery to illustrate the righteousness of his Son Jesus Christ - a righteousness that Christ embodies within himself, and that he bestows upon us.

The section of Malachi that was read today begins in this way:

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”

What is pictured here is an intense fire. It does not simply singe the plants with which it comes into contact. And it is not limited just to the destruction of the part of the plant that is exposed above the ground. It is, instead, a thorough, raging inferno, which burns like an oven, with its intensified heat.

Such a fire reaches down into the root of the plant, and thoroughly destroys it. When a conflagration like this consumes the land and everything in it, nothing will survive. This is the way God wants us to understand the nature of the judgment that he will bring on the wickedness of sinful humanity.

In one sense, this prophecy points forward to the final judgment day, at the end of the world. All humanity is warned here of the fate that awaits the arrogant and all evildoers - those who rebel against God, who ignore him, and who defy him.

In the chapter of the book of Malachi that immediately precedes today’s appointed lesson, we can see some descriptions of exactly what God is talking about. The evildoers of whom the Lord speaks are such as these:

“I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, [and who oppress] the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

There is quite an assortment of offenses here, involving various forms of betraying others, deceiving others, mistreating others, and taking advantage of others. God judges these things very severely.

The Lord also accuses those who have “robbed” him, through their stinginess and greed. We read:

“Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.”

I suppose this will give all of us something to think about the next time we write out our Sunday offering checks.

When you contribute toward the Lord’s work, and toward the support of the Lord’s house, don’t think that you are giving God something that he doesn’t already own. You are, instead, exercising the privilege that your Lord has given you, to participate in the important work that he is accomplishing through his church - in our community, in our nation, and in the world.

But those who close their purses to these needs, show that they have also closed their hearts and minds to the Lord’s voice. Therefore these words of warning are delivered from on high against them.

God also tells us what he means in his declaration of judgment against those who are “arrogant”:

“Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge, or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? ... Evildoers not only prosper, but they put God to the test, and they escape.’”

In other words, the arrogant - in their arrogance - observe that those who defy God, and disobey him, seem to get away with it. Nothing bad happens to them. So, of what use is it to be reverent and submissive before the Lord, or to govern our lives according to his law?

But on the day when Jesus returns visibly to judge the living and the dead, all will have to give an account of their actions. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

But in another sense, according to a more immediate application of the text, the burning that it describes can be seen as a reference to the judgment that God’s law brings even now, when it encounters and suppresses the sinful nature that resides in each one of us. Insofar as you are still arrogant toward God in your attitudes, and insofar as you yourself still think, speak, and do evil, you too are the object of this purging fire.

When you repent of your sins, and ask the Lord to cleanse you of those impulses that lead you to sin, you are asking him to burn away the arrogance and evil that still reside in you. You are asking God to destroy the power of sin within you, so that you will become, instead, a person who remembers the law of his servant Moses.

This purging process doesn’t always go smoothly. In fact, it never does. The old nature resists it every step of the way.

The roots of our sin bury themselves ever deeper into the soil of our pride and self-justification, to try to avoid the destructive heat of the flame. The old Adam within each of us has a very strong survival instinct.

But within the Lord’s redeemed and regenerated children, the old Adam will not ultimately survive. God is faithful. He will give us the mind of Christ. He will conform us to the image of his Son.

Fire. Heat. Sunshine. Light.

Today’s lesson from Malachi goes on from its warning about the hot fire of God’s judgment, to a different kind of message: a message of hope and joy for those who do in fact repent of their sins, and humble themselves before the Lord. Through his servant the prophet, God goes on to say this:

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Martin Luther’s comments on this passage are so helpful that I doubt that I could improve on them. So, I will just let him speak to us:

“Indeed, a new Sun will shine... It is the Sun of Righteousness, who justifies, who sends out the sort of rays that make men righteous and free from their sins, who drives out every harmful attitude of fleshly lust. Those rays are the Word of the gospel, which penetrates hearts, and [which] is seen...only by the eyes of the heart, that is, by faith.”

“[The Sun of Righteousness] shines by the Holy Spirit. It shines day and night. Clouds do not hinder it. It is always rising. ‘It will rise for those of you who fear’...the name of God...; that is, the humble, those who are not presumptuous, those who do not trust in their own works but recognize that they are sinners.”

“There will be salvation and protection under the shadow of Christ. Such, then, is the reign of Christ, that he himself is the Mediator and Protector, the way a hen protects her chicks from the hawk. Therefore, let everyone who wants to be safe from the wrath and judgment of God seek refuge under the wings of Christ. ... Under the Law there is weakness and condemnation; under the wings of Christ, under the gospel, there is strength and salvation.”

“The Sun [of Righteousness] rises when the gospel is preached. One hides under the wings when he believes. Therefore, although you may be a sinner, yet you will be safe when you flee for refuge under his wings. You will not fear death. The lust of the flesh will not overpower you.” So far Luther.

Jesus, the divine Son of the Father from heaven, who shines upon us on earth, is the Sun of Righteousness. He is, of course, righteous in himself - perfect and complete in every way. But he does not hoard his righteousness for himself, just as the literal sun - around which the earth orbits - does not hoard to itself all of its hydrogen.

The literal sun, with its continuous hydrogen explosions, keeps the earth illuminated and warm. Likewise, Christ’s righteousness continuously bursts forth upon us, and shines down into our hearts and minds. His righteousness covers us completely as we trust in his mercy. And we bask in its brilliance, in the presence of almighty God.

The beams of righteousness that shine upon us through the gospel are also able to heal us of our spiritual infirmities. Mental health professionals tell us that literal sunshine is actually one of the best treatments for clinical depression. Those who suffer from depression are usually told to spend more time outside during the day, since the sunlight will benefit them both physiologically and psychologically.

Jesus, the heavenly Sun of Righteousness, brings healing to our souls as his light descends to us in his Word and Sacrament. He lifts us from sadness into the joy of eternal life. He soothes our troubled consciences with the peace of his forgiveness.

In a few minutes we will have yet another opportunity to step outside the earthly house of shadows in which we now live, and to go, as it were, into the brightness of the Sun. As we partake in faith of the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, it will be a time of sacramental “high noon” - when the Sun of Righteousness shines on us more brilliantly and more intensely than at any other time.

And in this most intimate encounter with our Savior, we will nestle once again under the protection of his wings, to be comforted and healed.

Fire. Heat. Sunshine. Light.

Every day, God burns away the sin and death that lingers within us, refining us with the fire of his love. Every day, God shines the light of Christ upon us, and into us, to illuminate the darkness in our minds, and to bring warmth to the coldness in our hearts.

We close with these words from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where St. Paul writes:

“What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Amen.

24 November 2019 - Last Sunday - Colossians 1:13-20

Over the decades, refugees from countries afflicted by chronic warfare, and by political and social chaos, have often found their way to the United States, where they were able to find a new and safe place to live. In this world, the United States does stand out as a uniquely stable nation, governed under the oldest written constitution in the world.

It is indeed a place of refuge, peace, and emotional healing, for those from violent lands who have been welcomed into the United States, and have been allowed to become naturalized citizens of the United States.

This is the basic kind of image that St. Paul is painting in our minds in today’s reading from the Epistle to the Colossians, where he tells us about a different and higher kingdom, into which all of us have entered as refugees. He writes that God the Father “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The spiritual place of chaos and warfare in which we all formerly lived, was the “land” of sin and death. All human beings, since the fall of Adam, are native citizens of that territory. This original homeland of ours - this domain of darkness - is a terrible place: full of supernatural warfare and chaos, and full of danger and turmoil in the souls of men.

Those who still live in that old country of hopelessness are under constant assault, from the inside and from the outside, with coordinated attacks by the sinful flesh, and by Satan and his minions. And in their moral weakness, those who are still locked into that place - stuck behind the barbed wire of captivity in that oppressive country - are vulnerable to every attack, and are wounded by every attack.

In the darkness, they fearfully grope for something to hang onto for stability, and frantically look for something to hide behind for security. But by their own vain efforts, they never find that moral stability, or that spiritual security.

They will never find peace with God, or within themselves, until and unless they are transported to another place; to a different and better country; to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Indeed, you and I have been admitted as refugees to this new and life-filled kingdom of light and hope. And we are safe and content there, because of who is in charge there.

Now, in the earthly realm in which we also still live, as far as our own country is concerned, the United States Constitution is the supreme authority over all elected officials and government institutions. In other countries, where their own constitutions are not respected, we hear stories of presidents who are not allowed to run for office again because of term limits, but who decide to do so anyway.

And such unconstitutional elections are corrupt as well, with ballot box stuffing and suppression of opposition parties. In the United States, even with its many human imperfections, such a level of governmental dysfunction, and betrayal of the country by its leaders, is, by comparison, virtually inconceivable.

Translate that into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and what is virtually inconceivable here, is absolutely inconceivable and impossible in that higher and purer kingdom. St. Paul reminds us that Jesus

“is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

It is impossible to bribe such a ruler with a thing of value, because he is already the creator and ultimate owner of all things. It is impossible to temp such a ruler with promises of more or greater power, because he is already the almighty master of all things, which are held together because of him.

And it is impossible to corrupt such a ruler at a personal level, because in his person he is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh, righteous and perfect in all his thoughts and deeds. As the apostle goes on to say, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

But such a king, in such a kingdom, is not austere and distant, disconnected and aloof from those he governs and protects. In his regal authority, he is also, as we might say, a “man of the people.” Our Jesus is the redeemer of all men, and the loving Savior of those who put their trust in him.

And so St. Paul also writes that God was pleased, through him, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Jesus has the right to rule us, because Jesus has purchased us with the price of his own life.

He atoned for our sins through his sacrificial death on the cross: to bring us peace and reconciliation with God, as far as our standing with God is concerned; and also to give us a clear and peaceful conscience, as far as the life of our own inner spirit is concerned.

But of course, Jesus does not reign as a dead king, still in the tomb. His authority in his kingdom is not like the enduring influence of the speeches of, say, Abraham Lincoln, in our earthly country - only in the realm of ideas.

Jesus is not figuratively “alive” only through the enduring influence of his historic teachings, but he is really alive, in his resurrected person. He is actively controlling all things in heaven and on earth.

As today’s text also teaches us, Jesus Christ, as the resurrected Lord, “is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”

Jesus is setting limits to the schemes of the devil in this world, and ultimately always turns those schemes against him. He is pulling the strings of human history, in order to make openings for his church on earth, to move forward in its mission of bringing his gospel to all nations, before the end of this world comes.

And with us personally, by his Word and Sacraments he is transforming our minds, and is reorganizing our values and priorities. He is continually renewing to us the gift of his Spirit, and through the fruit of his Spirit in our lives he is reshaping our character.

And, what is probably most important and most fundamental of all, he is forgiving our sins, as often as we sin and then truly repent, thereby showing us the patient, Fatherly heart of God. And in our hearts, he is showing us the way of forgiveness, toward those who have hurt us and trespassed against us.

It is a wonderful thing to have found refuge in this kingdom, and to be living under a sovereign Lord like this.

Sometimes, in this world, people enjoy a visit to the homeland of their ancestors, or an overseas visit to the place of their own birth, before their immigration to America. But in the higher realm of Christ’s eternal kingdom, as compared to the domain of darkness from which he rescued us, we don’t ever want to go back to the “old country” that we came from.

When we left, by faith in Christ; and when we, with the passport of our baptism, found entrance into Christ’s kingdom, there was nothing behind us, in that old death-filled place, to keep us from departing. And there is nothing there now that would legitimately draw us back.

Any desire to go back to that dark and evil place, is a misguided death-wish. Any suggestion that there is anywhere else to be that would be better and more satisfying than living forever in the kingdom of God’s Son - under his loving Lordship and wise guidance - is a deception.

And this kingdom - this kingdom of light and life - will indeed endure forever. Actually it will get even better than it is now, after the resurrection of our bodies and the inauguration of the new heavens and the new earth, where only righteousness will dwell, when the old sinful world will have passed away.

But we are already in Christ’s kingdom, and Christ’s kingdom is already in us - because his Word is in us - even as we wait for the final culmination and fulfillment of all that God has promised regarding that kingdom.

We are already citizens, under his protection. He has already taken us into his new and beautiful country; and has given us a safe and peaceful home, with him and the rest of his people, in the fellowship of his church.

As spiritual refugees from the domain of darkness who have become “naturalized citizens” of God’s kingdom, and as spiritual orphans who have been received into God’s family, we rejoice today, and will rejoice tomorrow and every day, as we ponder the great and unspeakable gifts that have been bestowed upon us in our adopted homeland: according to the goodness of our Father in heaven, through the redemption accomplished for us by his only-begotten Son.

“[The Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.”

“And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Amen.