Monday, November 24, 2008

Proper 28 of Series A (Matthew 25:14-30)

“For to everyone who has more will be given, and he will have an abundance.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read just a few moments ago from Matthew chapter twenty-five. Dear friends in Christ, we have just recently elected a new president. Today, a president-elect can travel throughout the country in a flash, he can go back and forth between his home and Washington in the same day. This was not the case a hundred and fifty years ago. Abraham Lincoln had to make a long trek across the heartland of the nation he had been chosen to lead, making many stops along the way. There was no triumphal entry for Lincoln- war was on the horizon. Instead he was almost smuggled into Washington to take power. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was much more dramatic, with giant crowds singing and waving palm branches, the people turned out to praise the one who would be their king. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. He did not enter Jerusalem to take the reins of power, He instead entered to depart. Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem to be crowned alright, but with thorns. He came to do battle against sin and Satan on our behalf, to slay them with all of their cruel power. Jesus came to die, and to die for us! He therefore told the parable in our text today to remind all people that He must depart, but that He would return.

But Christ did not leave us alone. He instead left us with His gifts, as He states in our text: “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” Jesus may have left us visibly, but He remains with us through means. His promised Holy Spirit continually preaches Christ to us, He works to keep us focused on the king who departed. The Holy Spirit brings us Christ through the gift of the Word, both heard and read. He brings us Jesus in the waters of Holy Baptism, where He raises up a new person to live before Christ in His kingdom. In the Lord’s Supper the Holy Spirit brings us Christ’s very Body and Blood, Christ’s own physical presence. Even though we cannot see Him with our physical eyes, we know that Jesus is fulfilling His promise: “I AM with you always, to the end of the age.” The ‘ability’ that Jesus speaks of is not our own human ability, but instead, the word used here indicates the power given by the Holy Spirit, the very power given in those gifts, the power to live as Christians, as children of God. His grace overflows to us, from the cross through the Word and Sacraments to each and every one of us. This ability is the gift of faith, the gift of living a Christian life, if even in a weak and stumbling way. We are made able to live as Christians through the Holy Spirit- this ability is a gift of God. Without all these gifts, we would not be able to endure His departure, we would not be able to survive until His return. The Word and Sacraments are the beating heart of the Church, because through them the Holy Spirit strengthens your faith and continually forgives your sins. They are food for the journey, as we make our pilgrimage in the time between Christ’s first coming and His second.

Christ has given us gifts according to the overflowing grace and power that is given to us by the Holy Spirit. What do we do with such great gifts? “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.” Like the servants in our text, we spread the gifts we have been given to others, we multiply the gifts that have been given to us. We have the beautiful, wonderful Gospel message that Christ died for our sins, and not only our sins but the sins of the entire world. This message we show forth before others, we proclaim it to all whom we come into contact with. This message cannot stay trapped within us, but instead must get out to all people. In doing so, in proclaiming the Gospel entrusted to us, the Holy Spirit gains other people for Christ. God’s Word does not return empty, but instead works in the hearts of sinful people to create faith, to claim them for the kingdom, to bring those same gifts to them. He takes the gifts that were given to you and multiplies them, bringing others to the Savior.

But the last servant did not wish to proclaim his gift, he did not want to multiply what had been given him. “But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” How often are we like this last servant!? We have received such amazing gifts from God, gifts that give us life and forgive our sins, but yet we often hid them in the ground. We do not speak of the hope that is within us, we do not even show with our lives that we have such a hope. Our faith becomes a private thing, something to be hidden and only spoken of within these walls. We gather here to receive the gifts of God, but do we take these gifts back with us into the world? Or does this place become the only place that we talk about Jesus? How often do we avoid opportunities to spread the Gospel to our friends and family, how often do we not even seek out such opportunities?

That final servant showed that he did not want the gift of the master, he showed that he despised his lord and all his gifts. “He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’” We also have many excuses for burying the gifts given to us, but the master will have none of it. “But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” And that is what we all deserve for not spreading the gifts of God into a world of darkness, we only deserve to be a part of that darkness, forever.

Thanks be to God that we have a Savior who is the Light, as Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson for today: “But you are not in darkness, brothers… For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” How can that be, since we have not only failed to spread the Gospel, but have rebelled against God in every other aspect of our lives? Paul once again gives us the answer: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.” Jesus Christ bled and died on a cross for our sin, He shed His blood in our place, granting us life and salvation. On that Friday which we call Good, the Light was surrounded by the powers of darkness. When the sun was snuffed out that afternoon, it was only a picture of the Light of the world being smothered and snuffed out, it was a picture of what we deserve. We deserve to be cast into outer darkness, we deserve to spend eternity apart from God, but instead the Light was cast into the outer darkness for us. Those who love the darkness thought that they had won, but instead three days later light once again shone forth from the empty tomb, and the Light, Jesus Christ Himself, God in the flesh, rose victorious over all darkness. And now Christ makes us children of light. Whether we are asleep or awake we live with Christ, we shine forth as children of light not because we ourselves are light, but because we have been illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

As children of the light, the grace of God for the sake of Christ comes into our lives each and every day. Every time that we sin, every time that we fail to share the gifts given to us, every time that we do not let our light shine before others, we repent and are forgiven by God. Because the Light died on the cross for us, because He has made us children of light through Holy Baptism, we are forgiven each and every time that we repent, and grace comes to us, overflowing like a spring.

As our text states: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.” Because we have been given those gifts, because the Holy Spirit has worked faith within our hearts that grasps onto the grace of God through Christ, we are given ‘more.’ Now, ‘more’ in our translation is much too weak. The Greek word here is the word used for ‘all.’ We are given all things for the sake of Christ, His gifts deliver to us everything, all the inheritance that He earned on the cross. When the king, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, returns, He will say to us as the master said to the first two servants in our text: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” Because the Light was crucified for us and our sins, we will enter into the joy of our Lord. We will be a part of heavenly joy, the joy that can only come at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, the joy that comes on the Last Day, where we will rise just as Christ rose and will dwell with God forever. Christ sets us over much in heavenly glory, Christ gives us a seat at the feast, Christ has won us a place in the joy of eternal life! Christ has done all that for us! He did that by dying on the cross and rising again, and He delivers to us the benefits of that death and resurrection in His gifts, the Word and Sacraments.

Because we have a seat at the feast for the sake of Christ, because we are given forgiveness in this place every day through the abundant and overflowing grace of God, we then go out and live as children of the light. We do not need to be prodded or threatened to speak the Gospel to others, but instead it is simply something we do because of who we are, those redeemed by Christ. A living faith within us simply cannot keep the Gospel bottled up- it must get this message out into a world that is still living in darkness. May the Lord shine His light through you into this dark world, strengthening you to bring the message of the Gospel out to people who so desperately need its comfort, assurance and salvation, Amen.

Proper 29 of Series A (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24)

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Ezekiel chapter thirty-four. Dear friends in Christ, just because someone has been given authority does not mean that they will do a faithful job. That is probably no surprise to any of you. You have all encountered employers or political leaders that have fallen down on the job, who maybe even have abused those who they were supposed to care for. In Ezekiel chapter 34, God begins by railing against the shepherds who were supposed to care for His chosen flock, the people of Israel. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” All that God says in our text for today is in response to those shepherds and their mismanagement of the flock. God has appointed people to shepherd His flock throughout history, and in many cases, those shepherds have let Him down.

The shepherds of Israel have not only neglected the flock, but they have actively persecuted it. God says in verse sixteen that “I will bring back the strayed.” The word used here for ‘strayed’ has the sense of being driven away, of being banished from. These shepherds actively drove away the flock they were entrusted with! By their sinful living, by their overbearing rules and regulations, and by their neglect, these men entrusted with leadership drove the people of Israel into sin and despair. The flock was driven into sin by the example and prodding of the very ones who were to protect God’s Law! We too are driven away from God and His Word through many things in this life. Secular rulers in this world try to separate our faith from our lives, and encourage sin. Satan is constantly working through our own sinful nature to drive us from God, to send us in the wilderness of this sinful world. We are surrounded by influences that drive us away from God- all you have to do is turn on a television or log onto the Internet. Finally, though we hope and pray that this does not happen intentionally, even pastors and vicars can drive people into sin and away from God through their teachings or their life.

The sheep- you, me, and all Israel- have much to complain about. There are many things in this world that are driving us away from God, that are driving us into sin. But the sheep are not innocent. “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad.” We are as much to blame for wandering away as sin, Satan, and our leaders are for driving us away. We separate ourselves from God, we get ourselves lost every time that we sin. Very often we get satisfied with our sin, we soak up our sinful lives, even if it is a ‘minor’ sin. We feed on our sin and become like the fat sheep in our text, dwelling comfortably in the muddy fields of sin. Like a sheep who has forgotten what green pastures look like, we prefer to graze in the filth of this world, we encourage our ‘shepherds’ to lead us astray. When we do this, we lead others astray, we encourage them to wander off as well, we encourage them to be separated from God and His Word. We often have no regard for the weak sheep, those who are most susceptible to wandering into sin. Through our own wanderings, we drive them out into the wilderness, our own sin helps to separate them from God. We forget that we are all examples to one another, whether we are parents, teachers, or simply Christians.

God promises in our text that He will “judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” Those who have become filled up with sin, those who have grazed on the pastures of sin, will be judged. Jesus speaks of that terrible day in our Gospel lesson for today. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Those who are separated from God, and have even helped to separate others from God will be judged- “And these will go away into eternal punishment.” When we wander in our sins, when we allow sin, Satan, and the world to drive us away from God, that is all that we deserve.

But God did not leave His flock scattered. He declares in our text for today, “I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.” He was not willing to leave His flock in the wilderness of sin, subjected to eternal death. His love for us moved Him to do something about our wandering. “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and He shall feed them: He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” All the shepherds that try to take over our lives- secular rulers, TV preachers, sin, Satan, and our own sinful mind- will be replaced by one Shepherd, the Shepherd, who will truly take care of God’s flock. This one Shepherd will be ‘set up’ by God, He will not be chosen by the sheep in a popular election, He will not be a sheep who decides to take on this role. Instead He will be a Shepherd risen up by God from amongst the sheep, He will be one of them, but one that does not feast on the pastures of sin. This Shepherd will be the promised Messiah of God, the one who came from the line of David, the one foretold in all of Scripture. He will be David’s Son according to the flesh, one of the sheep, but yet David’s Lord, God in the flesh, God in the form of one of His sheep. This man, born of David’s line, is named Jesus Christ, and where He is, there you have salvation! He was appointed from before creation as God’s agent of rescue and salvation for sheep who have wandered. The mismanagement of our shepherds had put us at risk, our own wanderings deserved punishment, but in the person of Jesus Christ God dealt with our sin and rescued us from its bonds. He came as the Shepherd, as God’s servant David, the location of God’s presence among His people. “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.” In Jesus Christ, the prince from the line of David, God was present with His people, and He was present to rescue.
For the Shepherd and the Prince was also the Lamb, the Lamb whose blood would be shed for a wandering flock. Those shepherds of Israel, those who had been appointed by God to care for His flock, did not recognize God’s presence among them, they did not recognize the Chief Shepherd. Instead they put Him to death, they hung Him on the cross. But there the Lamb’s blood cleansed us of all our sin, His death forgave us for every time that we have wandered or caused others to wander. Those who drove us away from God did not have the final victory, because God acted to restore wandering sheep, He acted to gather His flock.

When the Shepherd, Prince, and Lamb- Jesus Christ- rose from the grave on Easter Sunday, God began to gather His flock again. “For thus says the Lord God: Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep.” For the past two thousand years He has been gathering His flock through His Church. He has been seeking out these sheep, calling to people in each and every age, bringing them back into His fold. The Church can only be this instrument because the Shepherd remains among His sheep. Jesus Christ is God’s servant David, who “shall be prince among them.” We cannot see Him, but He is present among His sheep invisibly through the Word and the Sacraments. In the Word read and proclaimed, in the washing of water with the Word in Holy Baptism, and in the feast of the Lamb’s very own Body and Blood, the Prince is still present among His people, the Shepherd still seeks out His sheep. Wherever Christ’s presence is, there God is gathering sheep, and He has gathered us into His flock through those gifts.
God tells us that “I will seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” On the Last Day, when Christ comes again in glory, God will gather all of His sheep, living and dead, together forever. It is on that Day that the rescue which our Shepherd and Prince affected with His blood will be completely fulfilled. We are the ones God is speaking about when He says “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.”

Our own land is the inheritance promised to us, the heavenly pastures that Christ’s shed blood delivers to we who as sheep have wandered. “And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.” We will dwell in safety and security for eternity in the heavenly pastures. We will no longer be led astray and driven away by false shepherds and the ways of this world, because we will have a new Shepherd, as God declares: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured.”

We have this promise and carry it with us because we know that Jesus Christ has died for our sins, and we know that God has accepted the sacrifice of the Shepherd, of His Prince, because He raised Jesus from the dead. Without the resurrection, none of what God described in our text belongs to us, and we are still in our wanderings, doomed to be separated from God forever. But as Paul reminds us in our Epistle lesson: “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” We place our confidence in the resurrection, that just as the Shepherd was raised, so we too shall be raised and will dwell forever in heavenly pastures. May the Lord preserve you in that faith and confidence until that Day when He gathers you to Himself to dwell as members of His flock forever, Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Proper 27 of Series A (Matthew 25:1-13)

“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago, from Matthew chapter twenty-five. Dear friends in Christ, weddings again? It seems like we just talked about weddings a couple weeks ago, and in fact we did. Jesus told a parable about a king who invited people to His wedding feast, but they refused to come, and so others were invited into the feast. If we have any wedding haters here today, you probably find yourself skipping over quite a few sections of the New Testament. Jesus loved weddings, though He may be less enthused with many of today’s over-commercialized ‘bridezilla’ versions. The fact was, our Lord was quite eager to use weddings as illustrations, for two main reasons, I think (there are probably more). First of all, Jesus Christ loved to celebrate- if you remember, His first miracle was making sure that a bridegroom had enough wine to survive the feast. Second, weddings provide so much imagery that connects with the kingdom of God, and this imagery reaches across the boundaries of time. Weddings are still very much a part of our experience today.

But even if we are experienced with weddings today, we still need a little education on first-century Jewish weddings to completely understand Jesus’ words. In our text, Jesus speaks of a specific part of the wedding ceremony. “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” In a Jewish wedding, the bridegroom prepared for the ceremony at his own home, then came to the bride’s home at a time and hour unknown. Meeting the bridal party there, he then conducted his bride and the rest back to his home. Jesus divides the virgins in our text into two groups: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” The wise ones knew that the bridegroom could return at any time, and so they were prepared: “the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” They were eagerly anticipating the return of the bridegroom, and so all was in perfect readiness.

The second group, however, was a study in contrasts. “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” They were completely unprepared for the return of the bridegroom, they thought that the mere act of having a lamp would be enough, they had no need for extra oil. Aren’t we all like these foolish virgins? We too often depend on our outward acts, thinking that they will give us standing when the bridegroom returns. We are in the pews, aren’t we? We have a bible at home, right? No matter that while we sit here our mind is on football, or our bible only exists to hold up coffee mugs. Those with no oil in their lamps are those who cling to the show that they make before others, hoping that it will sway God when Christ returns in glory. As long as my name is on the membership roll, I’m alright, correct? God has some very harsh words to say for those who do this in the Old Testament reading for today: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” God has no patience for simply going through the motions, trusting in our outward acts, whether in the Old Testament or today. Instead, He wants to see lamps full. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” When we trust in our outward acts, in the ‘I am Christian’ nametag on our shirt, to save us before God, we often feel very secure, we feel comfortable, we feel sleepy. “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” We are all guilty of sleeping in our spiritual life, of not paying attention and keeping watchful. The disciples themselves could not keep watch with Jesus in Gethsemane for even one hour, and so we too find it hard to wait, we become lazy with our spiritual life, wondering if Christ will ever return.

But as the foolish virgins discovered, this is a terrible mistake. “But at midnight there was a cry, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise answered, saying, 'Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he answered, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” They had finally been moved to seek out oil, but it was far too late, for when the bridegroom arrives the door of the feast is shut- forever. For those who were not prepared, the return of the bridegroom is exactly as Amos described in our Old Testament text: “Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”

The day of the Lord is darkness, it is gloom, and it has already happened. Judgment Day happened on Good Friday- it was that day that darkness covered the earth, it was on that day that God declared His judgment on sin. Sin deserves death, it deserves wrath, it deserves punishment. But the bridegroom Himself, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, was the one who was judged. He was condemned by the Sanhedrin, He was sent to the cross by Pilate, but in the courtroom of God, He was judged as the sinner, and therefore deserving of punishment. But this was not simply the judgment for His own sin- Jesus Christ had no sin of His own for which to suffer. He instead was judged for your sin, each and every one of them, and every sin committed in all of history. He hung in agony upon that cross for your sins, He suffered the anguish of hell for you when God abandoned Him upon the tree. Judgment day was Good Friday, and it was on that day that God judged Jesus Christ ‘guilty.’ But because Christ was judged guilty, because He suffered and bled and died for your sin, your Judgment Day was also Good Friday. On that day, as the ground shook and sun refused to shine, God declared you ‘not guilty’ for the sake of Christ. God then affirmed this judgment, He showed that Christ really did die for your sins three days later, when the women came to the tomb and found it empty. The stone was rolled away and Jesus rose victorious over sin, death, and Satan, He rose and God confirmed His judgment of ‘not guilty.’ His judgment fell on the bridegroom, it fell on His Son, and so you do not have to fear it falling upon you.

Christ then walked this earth again for forty days and ascended back into heaven, promising to return. And like we believe all of God’s promises we believe that He will truly return, though we know neither the day nor the hour. But we do not have to fear this return, because Judgment Day already occurred, and it occurred on Good Friday, where Christ was judged ‘guilty’ and we were judged ‘not guilty.’ As Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” We therefore watch with joy for Christ’s return, because it is a joyous day, a day on which we will be ushered into heavenly glory. Our lamps are filled with the Gospel, they are filled with His Word, they are filled to the brim by the Holy Spirit.
The Christian Church, the bride of the bridegroom, has been waiting for that Day since Christ ascended. In our text, the bridegroom ‘delayed,’ and to us it seems as if Jesus is doing the same thing. He has waited centuries to fulfill His promise, but slowness is not the explanation. He is not waiting around for us to do something, He is not frittering away His time in heavenly glory. Instead, He has picked a specific day, hour, and minute or His return, and all we know is that we are closer to that time than we have ever been. Without the promise of eternal glory, without the gift of the Word and Sacraments, the Church would not be able to survive this interlude between Christ’s first coming and His second. But with these gifts we look forward to what Paul describes: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” These words truly provide us comfort and encouragement, because in them we have the promise of resurrection, that just as Jesus was raised, so we too will rise again someday. On that Day we will meet Jesus face to face, we will join with the Trinity in heavenly glory. On that day the messengers will cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!”

Jesus cautioned us at the end of our text, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Throughout history, Christians have been watching and waiting for the Lord to return. When you read the letters of Paul, you become convinced that He expected Christ’s return any day, and you see that also in Luther, and many other saints throughout history. They eagerly anticipated His coming, they watched with joy. That is how we, as those judged ‘not guilty’ by God, also live- in eager anticipation of the Lord’s coming. We hope for His return, we yearn for it, because it is on that Day that the Lord will fully give to us the inheritance that He earned for us, it is then that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, as we heard last week. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can enable us to remain watchful, only the Gospel can prepare us to meet Him on that glorious day. May the Lord preserve and strengthen you in the true faith in anticipation of that Day, and may you eagerly look forward to when you will meet the bridegroom face to face, Amen.

All Saint's Day (observed) (Revelation 7:2-17)

“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this All Saints’ Day is first lesson, from Revelation chapter seven. Dear friends in Christ, we all have had the experience of losing a loved one. Since we moved to Fort Wayne to attend the seminary, Bethany and I have lost three grandparents. It is never easy, especially when you are far from home, when you can’t be there, but instead get the phone call and then start looking for plane or train tickets. My grandfather passed away this past Memorial Day weekend, and when we came home again in late June, I had the opportunity to climb a pulpit and preach a sermon. I said then that Grandpa’s most important death happened more than eighty years ago, when God put the old sinful Adam in him to death and brought forth a new man to live before Him forever. God knew what He was doing when He established Baptism- it gives us a rock to hold onto, a place to put our trust.

Baptism is this rock, because in the washing of water with the Word, God places His seal upon you. “Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’” On your Baptism day, water was poured on your forehead “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The name of the Triune God was placed upon your forehead- there God claimed you as one of His own. A seal is a visible sign of ownership and of protection. In Baptism, God gave you that visible sign, declaring to you and the entire world that you are His child, that you are under His loving care. But God does not stop placing His seal on you in Baptism. He is continually sealing you each and every day, placing His Name on you through His Word. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ once again uses visible means, the bread and wine which are His Body and Blood, to seal you. They bear His name and His strength. The seal of God is not a one-time thing, but instead is continual and stretches throughout your life. Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper are all means by which He declares that you are His child.

We need this seal, we need this assurance, because once we are sealed, we are sent out into the world. When you were Baptized, Satan became your enemy, and he is continually working to separate you from the one who claimed you in those waters. He has little need to persecute someone who is already in his camp. Instead, Satan uses the turmoil of this world to divide people from Christ, to tear them away from their Savior. The book of Revelation describes the terrible events that will ravage the earth in the Last Days. What Christians often fail to realize is that we are living in the Last Days right now. Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we have been living in the Last Days, as history moves toward its climax in the Return of Christ. Revelation does not contain things to look for to know if we are near the End, it is a description of the trials and tribulations that will occur in the great sweep of history from Christ’s first coming until His second. When we see the death and destruction of a fallen world all around us, when we experience the tribulation that surrounds us, we are tempted to despair, to give up hope. So many throughout history have turned their back on their Lord because they are angry at God for something that has happened in their life, or they cannot see any God at all in the chaos of this world. Satan is constantly working to put distance between you and God, whether it is through the tribulation of this world or your own sin. Every sin that you commit puts space between you and God, and an unrepented sin only increases that distance day by day. Satan wants to see you wallow in sin, pushing God further and further away. He only wants you with him in hell. The same day that Christ claimed you in Baptism, Satan declared war on you, and he does not intend to quit.

With such a vicious enemy and such great tribulation all around us, where are we to turn? From where can we draw confidence? John shows us in our text for today: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” We draw strength from the great multitude around us, all those who have been sealed by God in Baptism. First we look at those around us today. We look at the courageous example of Christians living under persecution, those who risk their lives to serve Christ. Christianity is not an individual ‘experience,’ it is a community, it is a family, it is a Church, the entire Church throughout the world. That is why we come here and join with others, because we are called to strengthen and be strengthened by others. But this community, this communion of saints, does not only include those within these walls, or even all Christians living right now. The communion of saints encompasses every person sealed by Christ who has ever lived, from the first disciples of Jesus until this very day. The Church transcends time. That is why we worship the way we do, that is why we hold so firmly to the teachings handed down from the apostles. In our worship, in our teachings, we are joined with the Church of all ages in giving praise to the Lamb, we join with all those sealed by Christ in crying out: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” As Hebrews tells us, we are constantly surrounded by a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’

We draw strength, confidence, and courage from this cloud of witnesses, but this is only because their strength, confidence, and courage is in the Lord. In our text, John writes that “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” The word used here for ‘shelter’ is the same word used in the Old Testament for the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the center of God’s presence during Israel’s desert wanderings. In this tent God dwelt amongst His people, He ‘tented’ with them in His love and mercy. In John’s Gospel, the apostle uses the same word to talk about someone who appeared to be simply a man. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem, was the Son of God, God in the flesh, God ‘tenting’ with us. Just as God dwelt with His people in a tent in the desert, so in Jesus He dwelt with all people in the tent of our flesh. He was present among us, and He was present for a purpose
Jesus Christ did not ‘tent’ among His people simply to be present, but He came in order to restore the broken relationship between God and man, He came to take away our sin. And in order to take away our sin, He came as the Lamb. “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” Just as the blood of lambs bore the sins of Israel throughout the Old Testament, so now the shed blood of the Lamb bears the sins of the entire world away, as John the Baptist cried: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus Christ came to this earth to tent, to tabernacle, to dwell amongst His people, but His primary purpose was to die, to shed His blood as the sacrifice for all of our sin. As Isaiah says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” The Lamb of God was nailed to a cross, and there His blood was shed for all of your sin. And now your filthy, sinful robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, making them white and pure as snow. Your seal in our Baptism is founded in this blood, it is there that you wash your robes in the blood of the Lamb, it is there that your robes are made white.
Because of what Jesus did, because He offered Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb for all of our sins, God now dwells with us, we are the ones described by John in our text: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” Despite all of the tribulations of this world, despite all that Satan does in an attempt to tear you away from Jesus, you will stand before God’s throne forever, He will shelter you with His presence, He will tent with you forever. God dwelt with His people Israel in the desert, He dwelt with all people in the flesh of Christ, and now He will dwell with you into all eternity. Because the Lamb shed His blood for you, because you have washed your robes in the blood of the Lamb, because you have been sealed in Baptism, you will live forever in the glory of God’s presence. We are already in His presence for the sake of Christ, He comes to dwell with us when we gather in this place and when we are in His Word. But as John says in our Epistle lesson, we have much to look forward to, for in the new heavens and new earth “We will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”
Jesus is not only the Lamb, He is also the shepherd. John describes heavenly glory like this: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of their throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” What a glorious picture of what we look forward to! Christ has sealed us through the Word in our Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, and He has sealed us in order to bring us through every attack of Satan that faces us. He has sealed us to bring us through every tribulation that we face as we live in the Last Days before He comes again. It is in the seal that we take our confidence, it in the great cloud of witnesses that we draw our strength, and it is in the shed blood of the Lamb that we find our assurance. God has claimed you, He has sealed you, He has washed you, and He will bring you to His throne!

Our only response to this promise is to join with all the saints in the praises that echo out from every person claimed by Christ in every age, the praises described in our text. “And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”