10 October 2021 - Pentecost 20 - Hebrews 3:12-19

Past, present, and future.

In Scripture, a person’s relationship with God is viewed and understood according to each of those three perspectives. Today’s text from the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that the relationship of the people of Israel with God, during the time of their wandering in the wilderness, was considered in these three ways.

As a matter of empirical awareness, they knew that in the past, they had “left Egypt, led by Moses.” They had seen with their own eyes the miracles that the Lord had performed for them in the past - the plagues, the parting of the sea, and many other things - by which God had supernaturally liberated them from their slavery in Egypt.

But also, Moses reminded them of the promise for their future that the Lord had made to their forefathers: namely that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would someday have their own homeland.

That was the whole point of their Exodus from Egypt: so that they could travel to that new land, and live there to the glory of God, serving him and enjoying his favor. As a matter of intellectual knowledge, they knew about that, too.

But what about the present? As they were wandering in the desert of Sinai, they were aware of what God had done for them in the past, by which God had earned their trust. And they were aware of the future that God had promised for those who do trust in him.

But did they - in the in-between time; in the present time - actually trust in God? Did they, in faith, have a heartfelt remembrance of the Lord’s grace in their past? Did they, in faith, look forward to the blessings that God had promised for their future - a time of rest from their sojourning, in their own country?

Sadly, in regard to most of them, they did not. The author tells us:

“Who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt, led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”

As a matter of mental recollection, the Israelites did still remember that God had engineered their deliverance from Egypt. But in their hearts, they had lost their devout and grateful embracing of this memory of their deliverance.

They had lost their faith and confidence in the God who had delivered them. This faith and confidence had been replaced by a poisonous cocktail of indifference, presumption, arrogance, and rebellion.

And so the generation that left Egypt was not allowed by God to enter the Holy Land. That generation, in the depths of their hearts, had forgotten their past with God. Therefore that generation had no future with God, in God’s country, either.

Past, present, and future.

Your relationship with God is also to be viewed and understood according to each of those three perspectives.

What has God done for you in the past? In your baptism, he, as it were, “parted the sea” for you; and by the liberating grace of the gospel of his Son, he set you free from your previous captivity to sin, death, and the devil.

Jesus’ victory over these enemies, won by him in his crucifixion and resurrection, was given to you in baptism, to be your victory in Christ. A new life of faith, in the Spirit of Christ, was also given to you.

And, God also pledges wonderful things for the future of his people. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, he says: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And according to the New Testament, whoever believes in the only-begotten Son of God will not perish but have eternal life.

That’s what God has done in the past, and that’s what God promises for his church in the future. But what about the present? What about your present, right now, today?

As you are wandering through the “desert” of life in this fallen and spiritually dangerous world - where God’s people walk by faith, and not by sight - are you walking by faith?

Do you devoutly recall and reclaim your baptism, in daily repentance and faith? Or do you think about your baptism - if you think about it at all - only as a quaint ceremony in your past with no deep and abiding impact on your present life?

Do you live in a godly hope of the things that are to come, according to God’s Word and promises regarding what he will someday bring to pass for his people? Or do you live only for the earthly pleasures of the moment, with little regard for what God has done, or will do?

In view of the temptations to doubt and indifference that surround you and all Christians in our secular and materialist environment, today’s text gives you this solemn charge:

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”

In the Reformed tradition of Christianity, “once saved, always saved” is a popular slogan that is often used to summarize the Calvinist doctrine that everyone who at some point in his life did have a saving faith, will inevitably make it to heaven, and cannot be lost.

There is a sincere desire here to give honor to God, and to emphasize that our salvation is by God’s grace alone. But it is difficult to harmonize this Reformed slogan with the warnings of today’s text:

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”

It is a dangerous presumption to think that because you were baptized in the past, you will certainly have a place in heaven in the future, even if you have no genuine faith in God’s Word in the present. If you do not know Christ now, it is of no saving benefit to you that you once did know him, but know him no longer.

According to the Scriptures, it is possible for a Christian to hurl himself out of the hands of God, to embrace the lies of the devil instead of the truth of God, and thereby to cease to be a Christian. The warnings of today’s text are not for nothing.

If you set your heart on the things of this world once again, and harden your heart against the things of God, then you will perish, just as this world will perish under the judgment of God.

As you consider your weak and wavering commitment to Christ, and as you may even be wondering right now if you still do truly believe in him, your conscience can find no true comfort today in the abstract slogan, “once saved, always saved.”

But your conscience can find comfort today in the living Word of God that is engaging you in the present moment, as that Word comes to you today, and renews the salvation of Christ to you today.

We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Today, if you hear his voice, believe that voice.

Cling to Christ now, in the present, when Christ tells you in his Word now that he has taken away your sins, and has redeemed you to be his very own, with the price of his blood. Trust in Christ now, in the present, when Christ tells you in his Word now that in him you are an heir of eternal life.

Believe Christ now, in the present, and receive his gifts, when he bestows his Spirit upon you, and comes to live within you. Receive Christ now, in the present, when he renews and seals to you - in the sacrament of his body and blood - the same enduring blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that God first bestowed upon you in your baptism, when you were united to Christ, and to his death and resurrection for you.

When your faith in the present is in these ways reinvigorated by Jesus’ Word and Spirit - coming to you and abiding with you here and now - then your perception and appreciation of what God has done for you in the past, and what he promises for your future, are also brought back into a proper focus.

You are filled with humble gratitude for your Savior’s past faithfulness, and you are filled with an expectant and joyful hope as you await what is yet to come from him in the future. And these words from elsewhere in the Epistle to the Hebrews - “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” - take on a fresh meaning and a new significance.

God is faithful, even when we are not. God has been strong for us, even when we were weak and vacillating. And God will be our rock and our fortress in all the trials that will come, as we - in our mortal frailty - will cling to him, and rest under the shadow of his protection.

From the perspective of what God, in Christ, is doing for you and in you today, you can look forward all the way to your future heavenly rest, and to the resurrection life that will be yours in the new heavens and the new earth that God will establish after this world is destroyed.

Past, present, and future.

You can be comforted to know that God has been in your past, and that God will be in your future, because God is in your present. He is with you now, speaking words of judgment and pardon and calling you to repentance and faith; washing away the guilt of past sins and preparing you to resist future temptations.

As your faith is in these ways renewed and built up by the Word of God - as his means of grace touch you and envelop you - know that God wants to do the same for others - including others whom you know - who are forgetting what God has done for them in their past, and who are losing their desire to have what God has promised for their future.

Pray for them. Warn them. Encourage them. Bring them with you to the Lord’s house. Speak to them yourself of the God who is in their past, present, and future, with his forgiveness, life, and salvation. Today’s text directs us:

“Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ.”

Jesus Christ lived for us all, he died for us all, and he rose from the grave for us all. As St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, God the Father

“raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Indeed, Jesus does fill all in all, in the past, in the present, and in the future. He is the alpha and the omega - the beginning and the end - of the universe. He is the alpha and the omega - the beginning and the end - of your life with God. And, with words from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians,

“We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

We close with these lines from the hymnist Steven Starke:

Lord, give us faith, to walk where You are sending,
On paths unmarked, eyes blind as to their ending;
Not knowing where we go, but that You lead us - With grace precede us.

You, Jesus, You alone deserve all glory!
Our lives unfold, embraced within Your story;
Past, present, future - You, the same forever - You fail us never! Amen.

17 Oct 2021 - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:23-31

A crass materialism, greed, and a love for money, would generally not be considered by most of us to be virtuous attitudes and priorities. If someone we knew seemed to be living just for the accumulation of material wealth, we would likely encourage that person to consider that true wealth is to be found in non-material things - in things like loving relationships with our family members.

With sentimental sincerity, we would look at a picture of a man surrounded by piles of money, as a picture of a man who is not really wealthy. But we would look at a picture of an elderly couple celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary, surrounded by a multitude of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as a picture of people who are truly rich.

In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus does confirm our suspicion that material wealth is not the most important thing in life. When money becomes our idol, we become blind or indifferent to the non-material wealth that God actually wants us to value, and enjoy. Jesus says:

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! ... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Why would this be? Because money is power - an intoxicating power.

Wealth serves as a very effective idol in this world, because as far as the affairs of the world are concerned, it can make things happen for you more quickly and more easily than anything else - more quickly than your personal charm, your personal cleverness, or your personal intelligence.

In this world, people will do what you want them to do if you pay them, regardless of whether they like you, or respect you, or agree with you. Money talks. And because money talks, money works.

And it’s not just people who are rich in this world’s goods who are easily tempted to be captivated by that kind of idolatry. Poor people as well, who have persuaded themselves that getting rich would mean getting powerful and happy, also bow down at this altar.

Some worship money by worshiping the money they have. Others worship money by worshiping the money they desire. No one in this world - whether rich or poor, or somewhere in between - is fully immune from such temptations.

Wealth is an effective idol. But wealth is also a demanding idol. As we read in today’s lesson from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; vanity.”

When money is what you crave, you can never get enough of it. It will never fill you or satisfy you. As you spend and consume your earthly wealth, your earthly wealth will spend and consume you.

After Jesus had made his disciples think through all these matters, they asked him: “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus replied:

“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

It does take a miracle of God - the miracle of repentance and faith as wrought by his Spirit; the miracle of a new spiritual birth - for someone who loves and trusts in riches above all things, to become instead someone who now loves and trusts in God above all things.

We are, of course, talking about the God who has the right to our exclusive worship, since he is the God who created us, and who has redeemed us by the blood of his Son.

But monetary wealth - either the wealth we have, or the wealth we desire - is not the only idolatrous alternative to true faith in the true God, that Jesus discusses in today’s text. A love for money is not the only misdirected love in the sinful heart of man, that requires a supernatural deliverance and re-orientation. Jesus goes on to say:

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Now, I can understand why I must be willing to give up my love for my money, and perhaps even give up my money itself, in order to be a Christian. But must I also give up my home, my brothers and sisters, my parents, and even my children, for the sake of God’s kingdom?

Is my love for my family members - people whom God himself has given me, and brought into my life - an idolatrous love? Well, it can be.

If you love these people with the understanding that God has given them to you to love, that will ordinarily help you to remain faithful and focused in your love for them. You are actually honoring God, when you honor them in his name.

But that understanding will also help you to see that if the time ever came when you would have to choose between these relationships, and your relationship with God, then there would be only one choice that would comply with the supreme demands of the First Commandment.

Many unmarried people over the centuries have entered monasteries and convents, and have taken vows of lifelong celibacy, with the belief that foregoing family life in this way, and remaining single, would be a good and God-pleasing work: which would help them in becoming more spiritual, and more worthy of heaven.

But there have also been cases, especially in the Middle Ages, when married men - who already had wives and children - decided to abandon their families, and join a monastic order, for these reasons.

At that time in history, this was allowed by church authorities. Those who did this, or who condoned this, defended the practice by quoting today’s text.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession responded to these claims. And as it did so, it also explained - for our instruction - what these words of the Lord actually mean. We read:

“Christ does not mean that leaving parents, wife, and siblings is a work that must be done because it merits the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Indeed, such leaving is cursed. Anyone who leaves parents or wife to merit the forgiveness of sins or eternal life by this work, dishonors Christ.”

“There are two kinds of leaving. One happens without a call, without God’s command, which Christ does not approve. ... We know that God’s commandment forbids leaving wife and children.”

“God’s command to leave is different, that is, when power or tyranny pushes us either to leave or to deny the gospel. Here we are commanded to bear injury, and should rather allow not only wealth, wife, and children, but life [itself], to be taken from us.”

“Christ approves of this kind of leaving, and so He adds [that it is] for the Gospel’s ‘sake.’ He does so to illustrate that He is speaking, not of those who injure wife and children [by selfishly abandoning them], but who bear injury because of the confession of the gospel.”

So far the Apology.

We would hope and pray that such a trial would never come upon us in this life. We would hope and pray as well, that those whom we love in this world would never abandon us, or turn away from us, because of our embracing of Christ.

But sometimes these things do happen. In the Islamic world in particular, these things are happening with ever greater frequency, as people are converted to faith in Jesus as their Savior, and as their family members then shun them at best, or murder them at worst.

Another example is the requirement of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that its adherents shun any relatives who renounce or leave that religion: not taking their phone calls, not opening their letters, and not welcoming them for personal visits. A friend of mine who was raised an Orthodox Jew received similar treatment from his father, when he became a Christian.

When such things do happen, and when it is demanded of us that we must choose between Christ or our family members, the faith that God has given us through the gospel, is a faith that will choose Christ. As Jesus says elsewhere:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Parents and children, spouses and siblings, are indeed great treasures. It is God’s will that we value these treasures, and treat these people in our lives with great love and deep respect, for as long as he allows them to be in our lives. And even when they are gone, we are still to treasure our memories of them.

But Jesus is our only priceless treasure, for whom we must be willing to surrender everything else, and everyone else, if it ever comes to that. What he has done for us, in bearing our sin, restoring our fellowship with God, and saving us from eternal damnation, is immeasurably more valuable than any earthly benefit from any earthly relationship.

It can be a very heart-breaking experience to be parted from loved ones because of Christ, or to have them turn against us because of Christ. But as today’s Introit from Psalm 34 comforts us, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”

And remember, too, what Jesus himself says to comfort us. He encourages his disciples to know that if they are forced to give up their home and family for his sake - by circumstances beyond their control - they will “receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands.”

The fellowship of the Christian church that you enjoy “now in this time,” and in this world - even if you are the only member of your earthly family who enjoys it - compensates you for the human relationships that you may have lost because of the kingdom of God.

In the body and family of Christ, as we grow ever closer to Jesus by faith, we grow ever closer to each other in love. And in this God-given mutual consideration and mutual compassion, we lift one another up in Christ: in good times and in bad, in times of prosperity and in times of want, in times of celebration and in times of grief and pain.

To be sure, life in this world can be - and often will be - punctuated by persecutions, as Jesus warns. But the love that we now know as members of the family of God, and as children who have a permanent place in our heavenly Father’s house, is only a foretaste of the love - and of the enjoyment of God - that we will know forever in his kingdom, when we fully enter into that house in the resurrection.

Jesus promises his disciples that “in the age to come,” eternal life will be given to them. And Jesus promises you - even if you are despised and forsaken, exiled and alone in this world - that in the age to come, eternal life will be given to you.

Truly, he makes such a personal promise to you especially if your faith in him, and your faithfulness in confessing him and following him, have brought you injury.

Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.

If money is your true treasure and your god - which you currently think you could never give up for anything - then you will not be able to understand what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.

If family members, and family relationships, are your true treasure and your god - which you currently think you could never give up for anything - you likewise cannot really grasp the significance of what Jesus teaches us in today’s text.

But what Jesus also teaches us is that with God, all things are possible. God can change you, and he can give you a new heart, which looks to him alone for everything, all the time; and which is willing to give up all that would compete with him for your loyalty.

By human strength, you can never muster up this kind of faith. By human strength, you can never turn your own heart away from your idolatries, or open your own heart to God’s sovereign love.

But God can do these things. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” And God will do these things, through his Word and Sacrament, for you, today.

With fear of what the answer might have been, the disciples had asked Jesus: “Then who can be saved?” It’s possible that you are asking him the same question - with the same kind of fear of what the answer might be.

But the answer is not frightening. The answer is life-giving. You can be saved. In Christ, you are saved. Amen.

24 October 2021 - Pentecost 22 - Mark 10:46-52

Bartimaeus, whose story is featured in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, was afflicted with blindness. He was not able to see the natural world in which he lived, and he was not able to see the people with whom he shared that natural world.

This was a difficult thing to bear. In the first century there was no social safety net for handicapped people. There were no reading materials available in braille, and no audio books that a blind person could listen to.

And, there were no jobs available to someone who could not see. As was the case with Bartimaeus, most blind people needed to resort to begging to survive.

Bartimaeus had no doubt grown accustomed to this life, with its humiliations and limitations, its discomforts and hardships. He had no doubt gotten used to the loneliness that his blindness brought.

This was a loneliness that he felt even when he was in the midst of great crowds of people, because he was not a part of what those people were doing. His only connection to them, is that he daily held out his hand to them, pleading for a few coins so that he would not starve.

Bartimaeus’s blindness was at the root of all these problems. And if - just if - his blindness could be healed, and he could be given the ability to see the world and everything in it, these problems would be solved.

Bartimaeus could not see, but he could hear. And apparently he had been hearing about Jesus, and about the miracles that Jesus was performing for people with various diseases and handicaps.

From a distance, he may have heard Jesus himself, preaching out in the open. But whatever it was that convinced him that Jesus could help him, and could miraculously open his eyes, he did believe this.

And so he began to call out to Jesus, loudly and persistently. He was persistent, but he was still humble. He was not arrogant in his requests for help, but he did call out with confidence and conviction, believing with all his heart that Jesus could change his circumstances, and change his entire life.

Bartimaeus did not demand a healing as if he had a right to it, but he asked for his blindness to be removed as an act of divine mercy. St. Mark tells us that he repeatedly called out:

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Bartimaeus wanted to see. He wanted to see the world in which he lived. He wanted to see the people with whom he shared the world.

And now, as he called out to Jesus, he wanted to see Jesus. We are told that Jesus heard his pleadings, and responded to them.

“Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.”

Bartimaeus had asked Jesus to be merciful to him, and Jesus was merciful to him. Bartimaeus had asked Jesus to open his eyes, and let him see things he could not previously see, and Jesus did open his eyes.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

These pleas of a man who wanted Jesus to give him sight, are very similar to what happens in two distinct sections of our Sunday Divine Service. Toward the beginning of the Liturgy, as we are preparing to hear the reading of Scripture, and to hear the exposition of Scripture that takes place in the sermon, we chant:

“Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.”

And again,

“O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” “You are seated at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.”

Like Bartimaeus, we repeat this plea, and do not speak it only once. But as you have prayed these texts Sunday after Sunday, have you given thought to why you need the Lord’s mercy, and what exactly you need or want from him according to his mercy?

Bartimaeus knew exactly what he was asking for, and why. He wanted Jesus to enable him to see, and he wanted to have all the other joys and blessings of life in this world that would come to him once he could see.

For each of us, there are no doubt a whole lot of issues in our lives that could certainly benefit from a merciful intervention by Jesus. But there is an important sense in which we are also asking for the same specific thing that poor Bartimaeus was asking for.

Through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord describes what he will do in the Messianic age, in these words:

“I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.”

And in the New Testament, on the occasion of his healing of a man born blind - as John’s Gospel recounts that event - Jesus said something that has far wider ramifications than an application merely to physical blindness. He declared:

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

And so, when we call out to Jesus at this point in the service, “have mercy upon us,” it is, most fundamentally, because we too, by his mercy, want to be healed of our spiritual blindness, and to see what we cannot see in our own human strength.

We want to see Jesus, with the eyes of faith, as he comes to us and speaks to us in his Word. Our natural eyesight sees and hears a mere mortal man, vested in the robes of a pastor, reading from a page and speaking from a pulpit.

But we ask Jesus to have mercy on us, and by the enlightening grace of his Spirit to enable us also to see him - in, with, and under what our physical eyes see - and to know that he himself is speaking his words of pardon and peace to our confused minds and our troubled consciences.

We ask Christ to be merciful to us, so that we can know and experience the truth of what he describes in Luke’s Gospel, where he says to his disciples, and through them to all who speak in his name: “The one who hears you hears me.”

We want to know that Jesus is really and truly not holding our transgressions against us, and is himself saying “I forgive you all your sins,” as he does also in his absolution.

We want to see him in this. And by his Word and Spirit, in the faith that his Word and Spirit instill in us, we do see him, and hear him, and thus are comforted by him.

And in a world that is corrupted by sin, and filled with so much evil and pain, chaos and confusion, we also want to be able to see that underneath all this, it is still the good world that God created, in which God still blesses us with daily bread and with many earthly gifts: love and friendship, fruitful work and wholesome entertainment, music and art, literature and science, history and genealogy.

With such sight - a sight that is able to look beyond what the physical eyes see, and to perceive in faith the deeper truths of God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness - we want to be able to live in the world with joy and hope, and not only with fear and discouragement.

And so we ask Jesus, in his mercy and by means of his Word, to give us this kind of sight, and through it to give us this kind of life. And he does.

The second place in the Divine Service where we repeat the refrain of asking Jesus to have mercy on us, is just before we receive the Lord’s Supper. At that point we chant:

“O Christ, the Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, the Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.”

Again, like Bartimaeus, we repeat this plea, and do not speak it only once. And like Bartimaeus, we are once again asking that our eyes would be opened, and that we would not be blind to the hidden realities of this Blessed Sacrament.

I recently watched a video featuring an interview with a man who converted from Roman Catholicism to some kind of Baptist or Evangelical Protestant church. As he explained why he no longer believed that the body and blood of Christ were truly present in the Sacrament, his main argument was that the bread and wine in the Supper still look like bread and wine, and therefore are bread and wine and nothing more.

He was blind. He could see, but yet he could not see. We are asking, when we pray to Christ the Lamb of God to have mercy upon us in this sacred meal, that we will not be blind.

It is obvious that bread and wine are here. No one denies that our physical eyes can see this. But with the eyes of faith we want to see more.

And when I speak of the eyes of faith, I’m not talking about wishful thinking or human imagination, which pretends that something is there that is not really there. I’m talking about hidden realities that are defined and revealed by the Word of God, and that exist in a supernatural realm that is above and beyond the limited range of what our bodily senses can perceive.

Human reason, though it ponder, Cannot fathom this great wonder,
That Christ's body ever remaineth, Though it countless souls sustaineth,
And that He His blood is giving, With the wine we are receiving.
These great mysteries unsounded Are, by God alone, expounded.

According to the pledge and promise of Jesus, who is the host of this Supper, we want to know him, and see him by faith as he holds his true body and blood out to us. According to the divine power of the Word and will of Jesus, who is the content of this Supper, we want to receive him, as he unites himself to us, and us to him, in the mystery of this sweet communion.

Jesus is the Lamb of God who, in his death and resurrection, takes away the sin of the world. You can therefore know that your own sins are taken away, since you are a part of the world of sinners for whom Christ died and rose again.

And in the Lord’s Supper in particular, in which Christ is both the giver and the gift, his touch cleanses you personally, lifts from you the weight of your guilt, and fills you with a new zeal to love and serve him and your neighbor.

You want to see this. And Jesus, the Lamb of God, in his mercy allows you to see this, and know this, in the depths of your conscience.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.”

Thou, mighty Father, in Thy Son
Didst love me b’fore Thou hadst begun This ancient world’s foundation.
Thy Son hath made a friend of me,
And when, in spirit, Him I see, I joy in tribulation.
What bliss Is this! He that liveth To me giveth Life forever;
Nothing me, from Him, can sever. Amen.

31 October 2021 - Reformation - Revelation 14:6-7

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”

This verse from the Book of Revelation was interpreted in the earlier generations of Lutheran history to be a reference to Martin Luther, and to the reforming work that was accomplished through him in the sixteenth century. When we remember that the word “angel” means “messenger,” and does not necessarily refer to a heavenly spiritual creature, I suppose we can understand why those who valued Luther’s work so highly might draw this conclusion.

But today I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the identity of the “angel” in this text. Instead I want to consider with you the identity of the “eternal gospel” that this angel proclaims - and indeed that all true angels or messengers of God proclaim.

That is, after all, what the Lutheran Reformation was all about. Most fundamentally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century wasn’t about Luther, or about any other human or heavenly angel. It was about the eternal gospel.

The eternal gospel is the living and universal message of a loving heavenly Father, who sends his Son into the world to save that world from sin, death, and the devil.

The eternal gospel is the powerful and personal message of a divine-human Savior who brings his forgiveness to poor wretched sinners; and who, by his Spirit, bestows upon them the faith by which they receive and enjoy all the blessings of salvation, and reconciliation with God, that Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection.

The Bible calls this the “eternal” gospel because it never changes. Even when human beings, at different times in church history, have not fully understood or appreciated this gospel, this was always the gospel that God was offering to the world, in the Scriptures and in the sacraments.

And even when various heretics, through the centuries, twisted and distorted the message of the gospel, and changed it into a different kind of message, the genuine gospel always survived, and emerged again with its full saving force, to bring God’s grace to a new generation.

The Lutheran Reformers of the sixteenth century were very much aware of the fact that the only gospel they had the right to proclaim, and to use as the basis for correcting errors that had crept into the church in their day, was this one, unchanging, eternal gospel.

They knew that they would be inviting upon themselves the judgment of Almighty God, if they presumed to invent something new to proclaim to his people, or if they set forth a message that differed from the message that the apostles and earliest Christian Fathers had preached to the world in God’s name.

In the Smalcald Articles, in the Book of Concord, we see a clear summary of what the Lutheran Reformation stood for in this respect, in the historical circumstances that the Reformers faced in the sixteenth century:

“The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification. He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all. All have sinned, and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood.”

“This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped, by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

“Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls. For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. And with His stripes we are healed.”

“Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost.”

This eternal gospel, which had been hidden and distorted by a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy at the time of the Reformation, is under attack also today, even from within religious institutions, and by religious leaders who should know better.

This gospel, and God’s Word generally, are being attacked, for example, whenever a minister or religion professor claims that much of what the Bible teaches is out of date, and reflects the superstitions and ignorance of ancient times, so that it is not relevant to us and to the more enlightened age in which we live.

We are all familiar with recent examples of this sort of arrogant attitude regarding things like the special creation of humanity, the special value of human life, and the divine design of human sexuality and human existence as male and female.

And Jesus is also diminished as a mostly legendary figure who may have been inspired by God, but who was not God himself; and whose message - whatever it was - may be uplifting, but whose body stayed in the ground after he died.

We, of course, are members of a more “conservative” church, who do not endorse or approve of these errors. But we cannot let ourselves off the hook too easily.

There are plenty of ways in which we may also have departed from what the Scriptures teach, and may have succumbed to the temptation to ignore those parts of God’s Word that do not align with beliefs and values that we, too, have absorbed from our fallen and confused world.

It’s not easy to paddle against the current. It’s easier to “go with the flow” of the current fads of our “woke” society. And so that’s what we often do, sometimes without fully realizing that this is what we are doing.

The eternal good news of forgiveness through the death and resurrection of God’s Son, is good news only to those who admit their need for this forgiveness. But it is often too easy for us to redefine sin, and thereby to redefine our need for the eternal gospel.

Sometimes the only sins we are willing to admit are sins - to be avoided - are the sins that we perceive ourselves already to be avoiding. Otherwise, we tend to find ways to rationalize and justify the improper actions and attitudes that we are no longer trying to avoid.

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, where St. Paul warns against sins that we likely do usually try to avoid, he also warns against sins that we may not try to avoid as we should. Paul asks:

“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.”

In his First Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul also writes that the Law of God is laid down “for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

Maybe it’s not just “liberal” churches and denominations that have compromised with the world. Maybe we, too, are willing to agree only with some of these Biblical prohibitions, while choosing to ignore others - even though St. Paul says that all of them are “in accordance with the gospel.”

And regarding the gospel itself, how deeply persuaded are you that Jesus really accomplished and endured what his apostles declared to the world he accomplished and endured? How deeply persuaded are you that Jesus rose bodily, as victor over death and the grave, on the third day?

And how deeply persuaded are you that God has instituted specific means of grace - including sacraments that are filled with the power of his Word to forgive and to save - that we cannot abandon, without thereby abandoning God himself, according to where he promises to make his saving grace accessible to us?

Again, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes soberly and seriously:

“I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you - unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

Paul then goes on to say:

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

Turning the Christian faith into little more than an ever-developing philosophy of life, an ever-evolving moral code, or a mere matter of emotion and sentiment, is not an option that is open to us, if we, on this Reformation Sunday, wish to acknowledge and honor the eternal gospel.

The eternal gospel cannot be fully embraced, in a completely honest and consistent way, until and unless God works yet another “reformation” in us, and in our hearts and minds.

To the extent that we have tried to reform the eternal gospel, and to make it compatible with our lowered expectations of God and of ourselves, we need to be reformed. Our way of thinking must be cleansed and purged, and be restored to what it used to be, and what it was always supposed to be, according to God’s Word.

Reconciliation with God, and justification and forgiveness before God, are received by those do receive it, through repentance of sin, as God’s Word defines sin; and through faith in the gospel, as God’s Word defines the gospel.

Immediately following the first list of sins and sinners that I quoted from St. Paul a few minutes ago, the apostle says this: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

From God’s perspective, his ancient ways of enlightening the benighted, seeking and finding the lost, and breathing life into those who are spiritually dead, are still his ways of doing these things -these wonderful things - today. This has always been so, regardless of what misguided people in the past may have thought; and this remains so now, regardless of what misguided people today may think.

The eternal gospel that God has always wanted people to believe, is the eternal gospel that God wants you to believe: not a made-up gospel that is customized to fit the desires and expectations of our time, but the one unchanged and unchangeable gospel that fits the true needs of all people in all times.

Repent of your sins, my friends, and believe that gospel.

And remember that this gospel is a powerful gospel, and a personal gospel. Through the gospel itself, the Spirit of Christ gives you a faith by which you know that what Christ did for all, he did for you; and by which you know that what God says is true for all, is true for you.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”

The eternal gospel is the same gospel that God has always offered to the world, as far back as you can recall. And it is the same gospel that God will always offer to the world - as far into the future as you can imagine.

But when we speak of the eternal gospel, we speak also of a gospel that reaches out in all directions - not just backward and forward, but out to all nations, to all cultures, and to people in every conceivable life circumstance.

The Lutheran Reformation movement of the sixteenth century was inaugurated in Germany, and was triggered at first by the pastoral protests of a German theology professor and Augustinian friar. But the Lutheran Reformation was not just for the benefit of Germany, or for people of German extraction.

The eternal gospel - which is what the Reformation was all about - is a gospel that God wants people in every nation to hear and believe. And in the midst of the upheavals and trials that people in many lands face, this gospel, in all of its supernatural power, can and will give to God’s people the assurance of his unchanging love that they need.

This, my friends, is the legacy that has been entrusted to us, as Lutherans, here and now in the Valley of the Sun, in the State of Arizona, in the United States of America. An unchanging and unchangeable gospel has been passed down to us, for the sake of our own salvation.

God wants you and me to be honest about our sins, and about our need for what this gospel offers. And God also wants you and me to believe the promises that God makes to us in this gospel - promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation - and by faith to live in those promises.

This gospel - this eternal gospel - is not for us to modify, or modernize, or revise, according to the dictates of the contemporary world, or according to the desires of our flesh. It is a gift from God, to be received and believed as it is, intact and pure, precisely as it flows out for us from the cross and empty tomb of our Savior.

And this gospel - this eternal gospel - is not only for us. It is for all men - for all nations, tribes, and people. It is for everyone we know. And it is for everyone we don’t yet know, in all corners of the world.

It is a gospel that brings an eternal hope to those who are trapped in a maze of deception and discouragement. It is a gospel that brings deliverance to those who are slaves of their sinful flesh, and captive to their fears.

Maybe the angel who has an eternal gospel to proclaim, in the Book of Revelation, is indeed Martin Luther. He certainly did have an eternal gospel to proclaim - even as he had an eternal gospel to believe for his own salvation.

Or maybe, in another sense, what the Book of Revelation says about the angel who has an eternal gospel to proclaim, can be applied to all faithful Christian preachers, who at various times in history have testified to the unchanging reality of Christ and of Christ’s kingdom.

Or maybe, in yet another sense, what the Book of Revelation says about the angel who has an eternal gospel to proclaim, can be applied to you. You have that gospel, for yourself, and for everyone else who will hear about the Savior through your testimony.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” Amen.