15 November 2020 - Pentecost 24 - Zephaniah 1:7-16

In the time of the Old Testament, God’s people already knew that a day of divine judgment was coming. They knew this, because God had revealed this to them through the prophets.

Today’s text, from the Book of Zephaniah, is one example of this. Through Zephaniah, the Lord himself says:

“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire. On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.”

“On that day,” declares the Lord, “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills. Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off.”

No class of men is exempt from humanity’s accountability to its creator. No class of men will be exempt from God’s judgment. Three segments of society - which together embrace everyone - are mentioned in the text.

First, the Lord issues this warning to the wicked among the aristocracy and nobility, who dwell in opulence and live lives of privilege: “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire.”

The Lord also speaks of the dishonest element within the servant and laboring class, when he says: “On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.”

And divine judgment will be brought to bear also against corrupt businessmen, merchants, and traders of the middle class. We read:

“On that day...a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills. Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off.”

All men are created equal. After conception and birth, social and economic inequalities are a reality in this world, so that some people have more power and more resources, and other people have less.

But when judgment day comes, all are equal once again. All will be judged on the basis of what they did with the power and resources that had been entrusted to them during their lives on earth.

From those to whom more had been given, more will be expected. Jesus articulated this principle in St. Luke’s Gospel: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

But all will be judged. And all will be judged, and punished, righteously: if they did not fulfill their own calling faithfully; if they did not do the good they could have done; and if they did the evil they need not have done.

In earlier generations, most people in western civilization believed in a coming final judgment. They believed that the wicked would ultimately get what is coming to them, even if they had never been held to account for their evil deeds in this life. The expectation of a coming judgment day, and divine retribution, seemed tailor made, for example, for the kind of person who is described in this account from a Soviet Red Army veteran:

"When I was a young guard...they would gather twenty or thirty priests who had been behind bars, and took them outside. They rigged them up to a sled, so that they were pulling the sled. They had them pull the sled out into the forest. They made them run all day, until they brought them to a swamp. And then they put them into two rows, one behind the other.”

“I was one of the guards who stood in the perimeter around the prisoners. One of the KGB guys walked up to the first priest. He asked him very calmly and quietly, ‘Is there a God?’ the priest said yes. He shot him in the forehead in such a way that his brains covered the priest standing behind him.” He calmly loaded his pistol, went to the next priest, and asked, ‘Does God exist?’ ‘Yes, he exists.’ The KGB man shot this priest in the same way.”

“We didn’t blindfold them. They saw everything that was about to happen to them. ... Not one of those priests denied Christ.”

It was fairly easy for people in the past, who believed in good and evil, and who believed in a holy and righteous God, to believe also that a man such as this communist KGB agent would be consigned to a well-deserved damnation; even as it was fairly easy for them to believe that the Christian pastors whom this man had murdered would be welcomed, as brave and faithful martyrs, into the bliss of an eternal paradise.

But a lot of people today don’t believe in good and evil, as clearly-differentiated, objective realities. “What’s good and right for you is not what’s good and right for me.” “You can’t impose your morality on others.” Those are the slogans by which so many live in our time.

And the worst possible thing to claim in this postmodern age, is that your morality is actually God’s morality, and should be everyone’s mortality. That kind of “intolerance” is probably the single biggest remaining sin today - a sin that is pretty much unforgivable.

And the God of the popular imagination, if he exists at all, is a compliant and indulgent God, who lets each of us define our own morality, and who then blesses us in that self-defined morality. The last thing that today’s unthreatening God will do, is judge people for having a wrong morality, and for living a morally wrong life.

Yet this unthreatening God is not the real God. The real God - the God who will judge the world at the end of the world - is a God who is very much a threat to all that is dark and evil.

Still, it’s interesting to see that the Lord, through the Prophet Zephaniah, predicted that this is the way many people will be thinking about him at the end, when the Lord’s judgment comes. The Almighty declares:

“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.’ Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.”

But you know, it’s not just cruel and ruthless KGB agents who need to be serious and sober-minded as they ponder the judgment that will someday come upon sinful man. St. Paul has some important things to say to all of us in that respect, in his Epistle to the Galatians:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who doe such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

And the same apostle gives us a similar list in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

These words were not written by an uptight, prudish Victorian. They were written by an apostle - a divinely-inspired apostle. These words are God’s words. These words are God’s warning, to each and every one of us.

They are words of warning about what may happen to each of us, if we end our life in this world, and face the Day of the Lord, with an existence that is marked and defined by such ungodliness. And so, as we are thinking about this, and letting this sink in, God gives us one more severe warning through Zephaniah:

“The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry...”

At the beginning of today’s text, we also heard something else about the Day of the Lord: something that was written, we might say, in a different tone, and with a different thrust. This is what we heard:

“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.”

The Lord has prepared a sacrifice - a truly saving and forgiving sacrifice - which is able to prepare us for the Day of the Lord. In comparison to the many animal sacrifices of the Old Testament - which were a foreshadowing of this true and ultimate sacrifice - the Epistle to the Hebrews states:

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

A little further on, the Epistle to the Hebrews also explains that Christ our Redeemer

“has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Indeed, those who are waiting for the Day of the Lord with hope, and not with fear, are those who know that their sins were atoned for by the sacrifice of God’s Son on their behalf. By a daily repentance they turn away from those sins - which would disqualify them from God’s kingdom. And by a daily trusting in God’s merciful promises in Christ, they receive the righteousness of Christ, which covers over all those sins.

Indeed, “the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.” In Christ, we are the Lord’s guests, consecrated by our Savior’s righteousness, as we are justified before God by faith.

We are guests at the Lord’s Table now, having been consecrated by God through our baptism - and through his Word, which we have learned and confessed. In faith, we therefore know that the body and blood of Jesus that we receive in this Supper, are the same body and blood of Jesus that were sacrificed for us on the cross.

Each time we commune on the Lord’s Day now, we are made ready once again for the Day of the Lord yet to come.

And on that future Day of the Lord, we will - with this same faith in Christ - also be consecrated guests at the eternal banquet of our Savior’s everlasting kingdom. This promise is therefore made by Jesus to us who trust in him, concerning what will happen to us on that future day:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

When you know Christ, then - and only then - do you know that your future in Christ is a future of life, and not of death. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us,” as St. Paul comforts Christians in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians.

The way to avoid God’s judgment on judgment day, is to make sure you come to that day clothed with Christ, united to Christ, and justified by Christ.

Your sins - all of your sins, both small and great - would otherwise condemn you. They would disqualify you. But Jesus, who died for those sins, now forgives those sins and washes them away.

In him, therefore, as you are in him by repentance and faith, God the Father no longer sees those sins. And on the Last Day, he will not see those sins.

By God’s grace you are therefore able look forward to the Day of the Lord with joy, and not with fear; with peace, and not with trepidation; and with this prayer to Jesus on your lips:

When Thou shalt in Thy glory come
To gather all Thy people home,
Then let me, as Thy heavenly guest,
In anthems praise Thee with the blest. Amen.

22 November 2020 - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Psalm 39:4-5, 7-8, 12

People have been interested in knowing when the end of the world will come, and when judgment day will be upon us, for many centuries. During the Middle Ages, the approaching end of the first Christian millennium, around the year 1000 A.D., aroused a high level of apocalyptic expectation.

In the sixteenth century, the Lutheran Reformers were quite certain that the end of the world was at hand - although they refrained from specific date-setting. The early eighteenth-century German Lutheran Biblical scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel predicted, on the basis of calculations mostly from the book of Daniel, that the world as we know it would come to an end in 1836.

Closer to home, here in America, the Baptist preacher William Miller proclaimed to his followers in the first half of the nineteenth century that 1843 would be the year of Christ’s return. When 1843 came and went with no such occurrence, the prediction was adjusted to the following year, 1844. Of course, that year came and went too.

More recently, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles T. Russell, predicted that Christ would return, and that the end would come, in 1914. Later, his successors at the Watchtower made another prediction, for 1975.

Neither prediction turned out to be correct. But I suppose I don’t have to tell you that.

In our own time, interest in knowing when the end will come is not subsiding. Radio preacher Harold Camping began predicting in 2005, on the basis of his own decoding of Scriptural prophecy, that the world would be destroyed on October 21, 2011. It didn’t happen, and he went off the air.

Many with such a curiosity in our post-Christian age no longer limit themselves to fanciful interpretations of the Bible as their source material. For a while, the ancient calendar of the Mayan Indians was interpreted by some as indicating that the end of time will come in the year 2012. That didn’t happen either.

Those of a more scientific bent have wondered if an asteroid called XF11 will come so close to the earth in the year 2028 - October 26 to be exact - that it will initiate a destructive geological cataclysm.

The well-known prognosticator Nostradamus, who lived in sixteenth-century France, gave the world a little more time. Some of his flowery statements have been interpreted to be saying that the end of days will occur in the year 3797.

Now, what are we to make of all of this? Jesus - together with the prophets before him, and the apostles after him - did tell us that the world in which we live will come to an end. Jesus also promised that he will return on the last day, to judge the living and the dead.

All of these human efforts to know when the end will come, can be seen as an indication that people do in fact have a sense of the truthfulness of what Jesus predicts. They know, deep down, that the earth as we now experience it will not endure forever.

And people also wonder what will happen to them when the world comes to an end. If we survive until the last day, what then?

Will we be snuffed out, together with the world and everything in it? Or will we live on? And if we do live on, what will that be like?

And where will we stand in regard to God and his judgments? If our life and conduct are going to be weighed and sifted in the presence of our Creator, how will it come out for us in the end?

These questions occupy the thoughts of all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. I’m quite sure that all of us, at one time or another, have thought about the end of days, and about the end of our days.

Perhaps we perceive that the more we know about these things - or the more we think we know - the less scared we will be as we face the future.

But Jesus also says, “concerning that day and hour no one knows.” Only God is truly aware of his own timetable for such events.

So, all the efforts of human ingenuity, and of the human imagination, to plumb the depths of this mystery, will come to nothing. When the end does come, no one will have predicted it - beyond a general awareness that this day was coming.

The high level of interest in mastering the details of end-time prophecy that can be seen among many people in Christian history, and among many people today, is, I would suggest, a distraction - a dangerous distraction - from the things that humanity is really supposed to be thinking about.

As far as the visible second coming of Christ is concerned, it is enough for us to know in faith that this will happen, according to the Lord’s own schedule. Christ the Lord will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.

His kingdom will have no end. We confess this in the Creed, as we should.

But for now, while we await the final consummation, it’s much more important for us to consider the ways in which Christ already comes to us here and now - while we are still living in this world, and while this world still survives.

The question of where we will stand at the end of the world, as far as God’s judgments are concerned, is intimately connected to the question of where we stand with God right now. In today’s Introit, from Psalm 39, King David reflects on his standing with God, and on his standing in the broad sweep of world history.

It’s remarkable to listen to what is said here by someone who was, at the time, a king, and an important person. In unpretentious honesty, David chants these sober and humble words to his God:

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

During his lifetime, David was one of the most important men on the face of the earth. He was a king over God’s people, and a prophet.

But David knew that his short and fleeting life was as nothing before God in his eternal glory. David’s human greatness, such as it was, would evaporate before the greatness of God.

David knew that when he would someday stand before the Lord, his short and relatively insignificant life had better stand for something of enduring value.

And he knew that if his life were to have something of enduring value about it, this would have to come from God. So, that’s why he went on to say:

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

As David looked to the end - the end of his short life, and the end of the world - he looked with hope in God’s mercy. The ways in which God would use David, and the ways in which God would glorify his own name through David, were the only things that would give meaning and purpose to David’s life.

Now, if King David knew this to be true of himself, how much more should each of us know this to be true of us? “Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” That includes me, and you.

In and of yourself, you are a breath: a vapor, or a mist that disappears in the morning sun. Your personal worldly successes, from the perspective of eternity, will be as nothing.

At the end, when you stand before the throne of judgment, do not expect God to be interested in a proud recounting of your accomplishments. If your hope then is not in God and in his promises, you will have no hope.

But as with David, your hope can be in God. You can face the future with confidence. You can know where you will stand with God on judgment day, because you can know where you stand with God now.

David beseeches the Lord, “Deliver me from all my transgressions.” For the sake of the promised and coming Christ - “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” - God heeded that prayer, and granted that request.

David’s sins - which were great and many - were like quicksand, pulling him down into damnation. By his own moral and spiritual strength he could not extract himself from that fate.

But God for Christ’s sake reached out his hand, and pulled David from that muck and mire. And God, for Christ’s sake, gave David a chance for a new beginning, and a fresh start. He did this for him over and over again.

The words of the Offertory that we sing every Sunday, after the sermon, are taken from another of David’s psalms - Psalm 51 - in which David asks God for the thorough cleansing and spiritual restoration that come with God’s forgiveness.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

As David prayed that prayer, he was preparing for the end, whenever the end might come. He knew that God would also grant his request, and so he would be ready for judgment day.

“Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirt from me.”

You, too, can be assured that God will hear you, when you chant these words, in humility and repentance. For the sake of Christ - David’s Savior and yours - you are delivered from your transgressions. God lifts you from the muck and mire of your sin, and sets you down on the solid ground of Christ’s righteousness.

With the joy of a conscience that has been set free from such judgment, by God’s free Spirit, you too are able to look toward the end without fear. Of course, you still don’t know when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. That day remains hidden from you, and from everyone.

But when your Savior does return visibly to this world, to usher in the culmination of all things, you can and will know, with the certainty of the faith that the Holy Spirit works in you, that he will claim you as his own. In confidence that God will grant this petition also to you, you sing:

“Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”

As you wait for this last day, you do not wait alone. As a church - as the body of Christ - we wait together. And with God’s Word we build one another up in our most holy faith.

But what’s even more important to consider is the fact that Christ is also with us. He already comes to us, mystically, to prepare us for his final, visible return, which will take place on the last day.

In this life, while it lasts, we are already guests in the Lord’s spiritual house. And he is our gracious and generous host. David says it this way, in Psalm 39:

“For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.”

Hidden under the earthly forms of human words, water, bread, and wine, Christ comes to us even now. He is with us, and we are with him.

When we speak of the “second coming,” which we still await, we mean the second visible coming. We don’t mean to imply that Jesus is somehow locked away in a far distant place, separated from us and unable to be our companion in this life.

The number of times that the Lord has invisibly returned to the earth is far more than one or two. It is uncountable.

He comes again, to forgive us and save us, as many times as his gospel is proclaimed, and his absolution is pronounced. On one occasion, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said to his disciples: “The one who hears you, hears me.”

He comes again, to cleanse us and restore us, as many times as the sacrament of Baptism is administered. In conjunction with his institution of that sacred washing of water with the Word, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus said: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And in particular, he comes again, to heal us and renew our hope, as many times as the sacrament of his body and blood is celebrated, and offered to his church. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession we express our conviction that

“In the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly offered with those things that are seen, bread and wine. Moreover, we are talking about the presence of the living Christ, for we know that death no longer has dominion over him.”

It’s also true, of course, that those who partake of this Supper in hypocrisy and unbelief, without self-examination and repentance, and without faith in the Word of Christ, do not receive a blessing from that participation. Those who commune in an unworthy manner do still have an encounter with Christ.

It’s the Word of Christ that makes his body and blood to be present in the bread and wine, not the faith of the communicant. Therefore the unbelief of a hypocritical communicant doesn’t make the body and blood of Jesus to go away.

But for such people, their encounter with Christ in the sacrament brings judgment upon them. St. Paul says in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

This is a foretaste of that final word of condemnation that the wicked and unbelieving masses of fallen humanity will hear when the Lord divides the nations before him, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.

But for those who, like David, have put their hope in the Lord, and in what he tells them, this sacrament is a foretaste of the final vindication and justification that will be ours, for the sake of Christ, on judgment day.

We know that Jesus will forgive us then, because Jesus does forgive us now. We will believe him then, and our hearts will be at peace then, because we believe him now, and our hearts are at peace now.

We are at peace with the Lord because of the Lord’s pardon, spoken from the cross of Jesus, and spoken to us here and now in the gospel and sacraments of Jesus.

We are forgiven because of the mercy of God, and not because of our achievements and successes. We are forgiven because of the mercy of God, in spite of our failures.

That’s how we live our life now, by faith, while this transient and temporary world remains. And that’s how we await the end of this world.

O God, our Help in ages past, Our Hope for years to come;
Be Thou our Guard while life shall last, And our eternal Home! Amen.

25 November 2020 - Thanksgiving - Matthew 24:35

There has been an interesting thematic divergence and convergence this week, in the unique emphasis that characterized the service this past Sunday, and in the unique emphasis that characterizes this evening’s service.

Last Sunday was the Last Sunday of the Church Year, when the lessons, prayers, and hymns focused our attention on the coming end of this world, and on the eternal destiny of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth.

But this evening, just four days later - as we are gathered for a service that marks our national Day of Thanksgiving - we thank God for the blessings he has bestowed upon us in this world as it still exists, and as we still exist in it.

The thread of commonality that runs through both of these otherwise divergent themes, in both of these services, was and is the faithfulness and grace of God.

God is with us in this world, even in the midst of all the ups and downs we experience in this world. And God will remain with us at the end of this world, when everything comes crashing down and disintegrates - everything, that is, except for the forgiving and sustaining words of our Lord.

Jesus said, as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” As we cling in faith to those words - as we cling to them now, and as we will cling to them at the end of time - we, too, will not pass away.

And this promise of our Savior is one of the reasons why we are, in this very moment, defying the world, the flesh, and the devil: by being in this church on this evening; and by demonstrating, through our presence here, our continued gratitude to God for his blessings.

As the larger society is complaining and grumbling more than usual, we defy the world, and thank God for his faithfulness. As we may otherwise be tempted to complain and grumble ourselves, we defy the flesh, and thank God for his goodness.

And as the Old Evil Foe would use the unsettling circumstances of our time to weaken our faith, and to draw our hearts away from God, we defy the devil, and thank God for his unchanging love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the lives of those who do not know the gospel of Jesus Christ, or who know it only superficially, it is a sad thing to see how the stormy waves of earthly turmoil rock them in body and soul, in such a way that they do not know from day to day whether or not God is watching over them, or whether or not they trust in God.

When things are going well, then they may feel that he is taking care of them. But when stresses and worries come, with the loss of health, the loss of work, or the loss of stability in general, then they don’t know what they think or believe, and they don’t know if God is real or not.

What a difference it makes to know the gospel of Jesus Christ with a depth of certainty and confidence that allows us to weather all storms, to endure all hardships, and to remain steadfast in faith in all times of doubt.

This certainty and confidence do not arise from us, though. There is nothing of human pride here - or at least there should not be. Rather, the enduring comfort that we find in Christ, is a comfort that is worked in us through the enduring words of Christ - words that will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do pass away.

The death of Jesus on the cross, as a real event in human history, can never be undone. It stands as an enduring testimony to God’s redemptive love for the world.

The resurrection of Jesus, as a real event in cosmic history, likewise can never be undone. It stands as an enduring testimony to the way to eternal life that God has opened for the human race.

And someone’s baptism into Christ, as a real event in his personal history, can never be undone. Those who fall away from their baptism, and in unbelief turn away from its blessings, never become unbaptized persons.

Their baptism continually calls out to them, urging them to repent and believe once again, and to return to Christ and to their proper place in God’s family.

Your own baptism, as a real event in your life, can never be undone. God calls upon you to cling to your baptism every day, as your baptism clings to you every day; and as the objective truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection for you, which are in baptism, thereby clings to you.

And so, regardless of what might be swirling around you and threatening your bodily life, and regardless of what might be swirling around inside of you, and troubling your conscience, you can know, with thanksgiving, that you are and remain a child of God.

You can know, with thanksgiving, that your sins have been and are forgiven. You can know, with thanksgiving, that you are and will be an heir of heaven through faith in Christ Jesus your Lord. As St. Paul explains it in his Epistle to the Romans,

“We were buried...with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This is what gives us the ability to heed St. Paul’s exhortation in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, where he writes:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Has the coronavirus pandemic disrupted your life, and does it cause you to fear that you might be carried away in death before the pandemic is over? Rejoice! Rejoice always, because your loving heavenly Father is with you.

Is your livelihood threatened by this pandemic? Or have you become lonely, and isolated from those whom you hold most dear? Pray! Pray without ceasing, because your Savior Jesus is with you.

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by depression or anxiety, because of all the uncertainties of life at this time? And do you find it difficult to be thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, because of these circumstances? Give thanks! Give thanks in all circumstances, because the Holy Spirit is with you - and with all of us who know Christ.

The Holy 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,” as St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans.

The instrument, tool, and means that the Holy Spirit uses to sustain your faith, and to sustain the gratitude toward God that he has placed in your heart, is the eternal and indestructible gospel of your salvation from sin and death. This is a gospel that Jesus himself speaks to you: through the pages of Holy Scripture, and through the lips of his called servants.

These words of Jesus - these absolving and sacramental words - are filled with God’s life. And as you believe these words, they fill your life with God’s life, both now and in eternity. To quote Jesus again, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

There are many things for us to be thankful for, even with the extraordinary stresses and strains that we are experiencing in this troubled and troubling year. The final day of judgment has not yet come. Therefore, the earth as we have always known it remains.

So many of the blessings of life on earth also remain, for us to enjoy in gratitude to God. And we are grateful.

But each of us also knows - in a way that has perhaps become more clear to us this year than in other years - that the greatest blessing of all, is the blessing of God’s Word. And this blessing has most definitely not been taken from us.

The blessing of God’s Word, with the enlightenment and hope that this blessing brings, allows me to see and appreciate all the other blessings in my life that come from his benevolent hand. And this blessing rejuvenates my faith and renews my joy, now and always, so that

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” Amen.

29 November 2020 - Advent 1 - Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

Jesus is not saying, therefore, that he will visibly return to the earth within the lifetime of the people who were then on the earth. “This generation” could also mean - and in the context does seem to mean - “this human family”: that is, the total body of Adam’s descendants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the secular brainwashing to which students are often subjected in many schools and colleges, and through the influence of the general cultural environment of skepticism and relativism in which we all now live, there has been a massive loss of faith in our day.

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

And if he is not made up, then he was just an ordinary man who seems to have gotten himself in trouble with the authorities - and whose wife Mary Magdalene then fled from Palestine to ancient France. Yes, people who think they are too smart to believe the first-hand eye-witness reports of the apostles, regarding who Jesus was and what he did, are willing to believe the storyline of a fictional novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the words of Jesus will not pass away. The words of Jesus will never pass away.

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

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

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

The Christian religion did not create the words of Jesus - as Bart Ehrman and other unbelieving scholars claim. Rather, the words of Jesus created the Christian religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even as there will always be people on earth while the earth exists, so too will there always be people on earth who believe in Jesus - and who believe Jesus when he speaks his words to them. His words reach out and grab people: penetrating to the heart, and filling the mind. They kill and they make alive. They drive the conscience to repentance, and they draw the conscience to faith.

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

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

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

And, if you cling to those words, and find your identity and your hope in those words, you, too, will not pass away. When heaven and earth do pass away, you will remain, as a member of God’s family and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.

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

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

By his words, Jesus is warning you about your sins, and about the harm your sins can and will cause: to you, and to your relationships with him and with other people. And he drives you to repentance. Jesus said, and Jesus says here and now:

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And by his words, Jesus is mystically coming to you with his pardon and peace, and he is inviting you to come to him in faith. Jesus said, and Jesus says here and now:

“Son, your sins are forgiven.” “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

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

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

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

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

Do you want to experience something, and ponder something, that will never pass away or change? If so, then do not think about this earth. Do not think about anything that comes from this earth, or about the heavens that surround this earth.

Think about these words of Jesus. Listen to these words of Jesus. Believe these words of Jesus. And as you believe, receive him and everything that he brings to you, in and through his words - his certain and unchanging words.

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

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

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

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

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

And if you are not able to come in person, at least for now, then come virtually. Every week, videos of the service will be available online. Every week, you can set aside whatever else you might do - for one hour - and you can watch and listen to these videos. You can listen to the words of Jesus that are spoken through these videos.

In whatever way you hear his words, allow his words to take hold of your mind and heart, as your mind and heart take hold of his words. Find your life in those words. Find your hope and your destiny in those words. Find your forgiveness before God, and your eternal peace with God, in those words.

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