Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent 1 of Series A (Matthew 21:1-11)

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew. Dear friends in Christ; Jesus is coming! We learn from the Gospel according to Saint John that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem each and every year, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we only have one journey recorded, emphasizing its importance. Jesus is coming! He has wandered throughout Galilee, drifting north, sometimes south. He has spent time in Samaria, even a few days near the coast. In short, throughout the Gospel of Matthew He has been everywhere but Jerusalem. But now Jesus is coming! He is coming near, and this will be no covert entrance. He sends His disciples ahead of Him to secure the transportation, and soon He is seated on a donkey, ready to come into God’s holy city. Jesus is coming, and the crowds are ready. “Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before Him and that followed Him were shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” Jesus is coming! The crowds shout, they line the road, all of Jerusalem is shaken. They celebrate Him, they call forth His name, they quote psalms. Jesus is coming- it’s time to celebrate!

At least the crowd thought that there was ample reason for a celebration. This miracle worker, this prophet from Galilee, who had loitered about in the boonies for most of His three year ministry, was finally going where all the action was. Jesus is coming to the Holy City, to Jerusalem, and surely there He will set things right! Jesus is coming, and they practically drooled at what He could do for them when He arrived. Some were outraged at the corruption and decadence of the Jewish religious leadership. They had heard about Jesus’ sparring with the Pharisees in Galilee, now they wanted to see him come up against the Sadducees, the group that controlled the temple. Jesus is coming, and He might take on the high priest himself! Many more could hardly believe that God’s holy land, His chosen people, and His great city were all under the thumb of Caesar. If Jesus truly is the Son of God, then He can deliver us from Roman occupation and restore our nation to its rightful prominence. That’s what a messiah’s supposed to do, right? Jesus is coming, and He just has to say the word and the scourge of Roman rule is over. They had Jesus all figured out, they lined the streets that day to greet the King coming to give them what they wanted. And because they had Him figured out, very few stopped to think about what His coming truly meant.

Jesus is coming, but is that really a good thing? If Jesus is who He says He is, the Messiah, the Son of God, God in the flesh walking this earth, do we really want Him all that near us? We do not have a tame God, instead we have a God of justice, a God of holiness, a God who despises sin. We have a God whose hot wrath has burned before, more than once. Jesus is coming, but do we really want to answer the door when He shows up? When God comes, people are stirred up, they are shaken, and it happened once again in Jerusalem that day. “And when He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up.” Jesus shakes things up, He throws things into an uproar, He has a habit of overturning tables, of upsetting those comfortable lives that we are gladly living.

Jesus is coming, but you know, it seems much safer if He stays where He is at. Yes, it is much more convenient when God stays up there doing His thing and stays far away from my life, and especially my sin. When it comes down to it, a God who comes to us is a frightening and uncomfortable concept. I have sins I really don’t want Him to see and I would rather not have Him poking around my life. In our Epistle lesson for this morning, Paul says, “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” But you know, sleep is good! It is much easier to stay in bed than to actually live out this Christian life, and if Jesus comes, then I’m probably going to have to love my neighbor, serve others, and demonstrate with my life who I am in Christ. The works of darkness are so much easier than those of the light, but if Jesus shows up, then I should probably strap on this rusty, heavy armor of light. Jesus is coming, but it sounds like He is just going to stir up trouble in my life. When God stays safe and sound in heaven where He belongs, then I can get away with all of my favorite pet sins, with living my life the way I want. I’m pretty good at keeping those hidden sins from my friends and family, and as long as God doesn’t interfere, I’m pretty good at keeping them from Him. But if Jesus is coming, I have a feeling that He’s going to find them, because He just seems to have a nose for the stuff. Jesus is coming, and I’m pretty sure that it isn’t a good thing.

But yet Jesus is still coming, whether we want Him to or not, whether we celebrate His arrival for all the wrong reasons or quickly try to sweep our sins under the rug, He is coming. Jesus is coming, for this is the goal and culmination of His entire life on this earth, because it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the Father’s will. Take note of that final phrase. Jesus’ coming is ‘absolutely necessary to fulfill the Father’s will.’ His coming does not aim to fulfill human expectations and fears, the expectations of the crowd gathered that day or the fears of the religious leadership. His coming does not aim to fulfill our fears of God nosing around in our sinful lives. His coming is in fulfillment of the Father’s will and the Scripture that the Father gave, specifically this prophecy: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” Jesus doesn’t come seeking glory, He doesn’t come in triumph. He doesn’t come to debate the Sadducees or kick out the Romans. He has proclaimed the Law powerfully throughout His ministry, but He doesn’t come now to root around in your life, looking for secret sins. Jesus is coming, and He is coming in humility.

He comes in humility, not in power, because Jesus is coming in order to die. He is coming for a victory and a conquest, all right, but His victory and His conquest will only come by submitting in humility to death. He enters Jerusalem as the sacrificial Lamb, there to offer Himself up as the payment for all of our sin. Jesus is coming for one last week of teaching and preaching, healing and miracles, He is coming to stir things up one last time, and Satan is waiting to take full advantage of this opportunity. He will incite one of those closest to Him to betray Him unto death. Satan will then successfully tempt another crowd, this time not lining the entrance into the city, but instead standing before Pontus Pilate, to cry out “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Finally Satan will tempt the governor to lose his backbone and give Jesus over into the cruel torture and execution of the scourge and the cross. But Satan doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that Jesus entered Jerusalem in humility, not in power and glory. He finds out only to late that Jesus is coming to win a victory, but not the victory that the crowds nor the evil one expected. Jesus is coming to crush Satan’s head, but He will do that by humbly submitting to the humiliation, pain, and torture of the cross. Satan’s seeming triumph will be Christ’s great victory. Death will be conquered by His death, and His resurrection on the third day is the seal on that victory. Then Jesus will have glory, then He will have power, but only after the humiliation of the cross. He submitted to that humiliation for me, for you, to pay for all of those sins that we foolishly think we can hide from God. Jesus is coming, not to condemn us for our secret sins, but to pay for them, to destroy its power and hold over us, and the penalty of death we deserved for it. Jesus is coming, and He comes bearing salvation!

Today, here and now, Jesus is coming, and because He is coming in humility, you have no reason to fear His arrival. He comes bearing the gifts that He won by entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday centuries ago. Jesus is coming, with healing in His wings, with forgiveness for all of your sins. Jesus is coming to bind up your wounds, to give you Himself. Jesus is coming so that you can participate in the victory that He won through His humiliation and death. The crowds may have misunderstood His entrance, but their cry of praise is one that we echo. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Those words should sound a bit familiar, because we sang them last week, and we will sing them again next week. Just before communion, when our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us with the gift of His Body and His Blood, we sing the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest!” Jesus is coming, and He comes bearing forgiveness for all of our sins each and every day, but especially when He invites us to partake of His Body and His Blood, the very redemption price that He in humility paid for you and me.

Jesus is coming, and in this Advent season we look toward His first coming, when He became man and was born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Eve. We have a God who knew that we are unable to come to Him, and so He came to us to accomplish salvation for us, to bring us salvation and peace. Jesus is coming: He came as a baby in Bethlehem, He came into Jerusalem to deliver us, He comes to us in the Supper of His Body and Blood, and He will come again to bring us to be with Himself. That is also what we anticipate this Advent season, Christ’s return in glory. His coming for our salvation was in humility, but His coming again will be in His unveiled glory, to bring us forgiven sinners to His side for eternity. Jesus is coming- Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Proper 29 (Malachi 3:13-18)

“They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Dear friends in Christ: The accusation from God thunders forth from the heavens in the first verse of our text. “‘Your words have been hard against me,’ says the Lord.” The scene is the heavenly courtroom. You and I are sitting in the witness chair, face to face with our God who is at the same time the prosecutor and the judge. Doesn’t seem all that fair, but hey, He’s God. He is always the judge, because who else can the Creator of all things be, and in this case He is the accuser, because our sin is against Him. We stammer, our minds searching for an answer, an explanation, or an excuse that will satisfy our God, but all that comes out of our mouths is a question. “How have we spoken against you?” It’s a good strategy- make God prove His case. Unfortunately, God is ready to do so, and He has all the evidence He will ever need. He will quickly show us that we are on trial for putting Him on trial, for accusing Him of injustice. God wants us to wrestle with Him in prayer, but the prosecution plans to demonstrate that these words go far beyond the prayer of faith to the very edge of unbelief.

God reads the charges, quoting from our own words. “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” Wow, we really said all that? It doesn’t seem possible that we would be so bold, so rebellious, so disrespectful. We open our mouths to protest, but God is ready to press this point home. He shows us our thoughts and our words, the thoughts and words that come forth when we see how non-Christians live. Why do non-believers have all the fun? They get to do what they want, live how they want, enjoy life to the fullest. They seem to live such carefree lives, without being burdened with all the rules and responsibilities that come with being a Christian. Do you hear us, God? Your rules are dragging us down! Being a Christian is like going to a funeral each and every day. All we talk about is your rules and our sin, and to be quite frank, God, its ruining my life! There are so many things I want to do, but because I’m a ‘Christian,’ I can’t. And that wouldn’t be so bad if what you offered was exciting, but this Christian life is boring! That pastor stands up and talks about sin and Jesus, sin and Jesus each and every week, and I’m tired of it! Why can’t I have all the fun that my neighbors have, why can’t I live life to the fullest? I mean, look at all those other people- if they are truly breaking your Law each and every day, why do they prosper? Why don’t you just strike them down?

God pauses in His presentation, and the entire courtroom senses that the prosecution has reached a turning point in its argument. It is one thing to say that Christianity is a downer, but what follows is even worse. “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” This statement calls into question God’s justice. God, if you do not punish those who defy you, I’m going to go all in; I’m going to call those who disobey your commands blessed. That’s what they are, blessed because you have not executed your justice against them. Christians aren’t the blessed ones, because we just suffer, we just walk around in funeral clothes. We don’t prosper, but those who despise you do. They put you to the test and they escape. God, you just sit there and let them defy you, and therefore they are blessed. There is only one conclusion to this line of thought, and that is where the prosecution concludes its case. God calls our attention once again to Exhibit A: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God.” He pulls out His Hebrew dictionary and looks up the word translated as ‘vain.’ “Let the court note that this word has the meaning of worthlessness or emptiness.” This is about as bad as it can get. God accuses us of saying that serving Him is pointless, it is worthless. It literally has no meaning at all, it has no benefit, and indeed those who do not serve God seem to have His blessing. This line of accusation toward God has taken us to the very verge of unbelief; now we see exactly what God means when He said to us, “Your words have been hard against me.”

The courtroom sits in stunned silence. What will God do? Will He destroy us, condemn us eternally as we deserve, or will He allow us to put Him on trial, will He provide the evidence that He is indeed a God of justice, that He has not forgotten about us? In the back another prosecutor, the one whose is called by Scripture the ‘accuser,’ Satan, sits with a smirk on his face. He wants us to be isolated complainers, he wants us to be alone, to face the sin of this world by ourselves. When we are Christians in isolation, we are so easily enticed to complain and accuse God, we are so vulnerable to unbelief. But God knows this, and so as the judge deliberates, He tells us, those on trial, to gather together. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another.” He calls on us to be the Church, a community of believers that support one another in good times and bad. In this community of faith, we call each other to repentance when we sin, we work to bring back those who have been isolated and come dangerously close to unbelief, we help each other through the difficulties and questions that come from living in a sinful world. But it is not all about us in the Church, it is about Him. God gives His promises in the context of the community, within the Church. And it is within the Church that He gives His verdict.

God’s answer to our complaint, to our hard words against Him is one word, one name, one person: Jesus. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” The Lord inclined His ear to you in your time of trouble and He sent His Son to deliver you. He heard your complaint, He knew your sin, and He sent Jesus to pay for that sin. Jesus is His answer to our sin, even our sin of complaining and accusing Him, He answers the charge by the prosecution: “Your words have been hard against me.” Jesus took that sin upon Himself and carried it to the cross, where He paid for it with His own blood. But Jesus does not only answer for our sins of hard words against our God, but through Him God in His grace provides an answer to our complaint. God has not forgotten us, He has not abandoned us, but instead He has written our names in the book of remembrance. This is a book written with the blood of Jesus. This is a book of those who have been claimed by our Lord Jesus Christ, who have been baptized into His Name, and therefore bear that Name into eternity. God has not forgotten you, and you know the truth of this because Jesus died and rose again for you, inscribing your name in the book of remembrance. His cross and empty tomb are the seal on God’s promises, the proof that despite all appearances to the contrary, you are loved by God and He has remembered you.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that God has vindicated Himself, He has shown Himself to be both a God of justice and a God of love. His just wrath was poured out upon Jesus on that cross so that you could be shown love. And on that basis of that sacrifice God will deliver us on the Last Day, He will show things as they truly are. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Because Jesus shed His blood on our behalf, we will be God’s treasured possession on the Last Day, we will belong to Him. Listen again to what He says: “They shall be mine.” He looks at each of you today and says, “You will be mine!” Jesus died for you, to make you the Father’s own, to make you His child, to write your names in the book of remembrance. Being a Christian does not mean that we are condemned to a boring life of rules, but instead it is the proclamation each and every day that we have a God who loves us, and who proved it by sending Jesus Christ to die for us, delivering us from all our enemies and bringing us to the joyous halls of the new heavens and the new earth for all eternity, which will be anything but boring.

Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection means that the Last Day is not a day of terror or punishment for us, but is instead the great and glorious day when God makes us His own for the sake of His Son. God said, “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” On these last two Sundays of the Church Year, we hear a lot about the fire and brimstone of the Last Day. Jesus is very graphic when describing the tribulations that will come upon the earth on Judgment Day, as well as the harsh punishment that those who have rejected Him will face. Hell is a reality that we cannot ignore. But as God declares to the court, on that Day you will be spared from eternal punishment for the sake of Jesus Christ. He endured that punishment, the very punishment of hell, for you so that He could spare you from it. On the Last Day, God will make all things clear, as He says in His closing statement: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” On that Day the Lord will spare you and me in His great compassion, His compassion for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. The case is closed, for the judge has satisfied His own accusation against us. He not only has provided forgiveness for whenever we speak hard words against Him, but He in His grace has provided an answer to our complaint. His answer is always Jesus, and it is an answer that is true, that is real, that is founded on the blood that He shed for you and for me. Thanks be to God that He will spare us for the sake of Jesus! In His life-giving name, Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Proper 28 of Series C (Luke 21:5-28)

“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: Mohamed Gurhan was born and raised as a faithful Muslim in the country of Somalia. It was not until he was in his twenties that he began to question the faith he had been raised in, and soon he embarked on a religious journey that finally ended when a friend gave him a Bible. As he read about Jesus, the Holy Spirit created faith within him, and he was baptized. What joy there was for him to finally know his Savior! But if he had any illusions that the life of a Christian is easy, they were soon shattered. Being a Christian in Somalia brings dire consequences. He was arrested, fired from his job, twice lost his home and worldly possessions, and had his children kidnapped multiple times by Muslim relatives. But the worst was yet to come. When he began to work as a translator with Lutheran Heritage Foundation, the government issued an order for his death, and he and his family were forced to flee into hiding, where they remain to this very day.

Jesus was thinking about people like Mohamed Gurhan and his family when He spoke the words of our text for today. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Martin Luther liked to say that when we baptize a child, as Samantha was this morning, we do them no favors. Now, obviously Baptism has wonderful benefits, but what Luther emphasizes with such a statement is that being a Christian means having enemies, those who want to harm us spiritually or perhaps even physically. It’s easy for us to simply shrug off this story or the others I will tell this morning, because we live in a country where no one is going to issue an order for our death because we confess Christ- at least not yet. But that would be a mistake, for we still have determined enemies, and while persecution is much more subtle among us, it is no less real. Baptism has made you and me enemies of Satan and this sinful world, and they will stop at nothing to attempt to tear us away from our Savior. Jesus has told us that this will happen, and history tells us the truth of His words.

The year was 1523. Only a few years earlier, Martin Luther had started the Reformation, and it was already spreading throughout Europe. With great joy at the rediscovery of the Gospel, two Augustinian monks from the town of Luther’s birth traveled north to the Netherlands. These two men, Johann von Essen and Heinrich Vos, then proceeded to preach the doctrines of Martin Luther, that man is made right with God not through any work of his own, but only through the grace of Christ alone, which is grasped through faith alone. But such preaching and teaching could not be tolerated in an already troubled country. They were brought before the rulers and told to repent of their errors and reject the teachings of Luther. They refused, and on July 1st, 1523, Johann von Essen and Heinrich Vos became the first men to die for the sake of the Reformation. They were burned at the stake, an act that demonstrated to people on both sides how serious this religious conflict really was. They were the first Lutherans to give their lives, but would hardly be the last.

Jesus declared to the disciples, as well as to you and me, that persecution would come not only from friends and family, but from the political and religious leadership as well. “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” Persecution is a public thing, and throughout history it has often been official government policy. But as I’ve said before, this often happens in a more subtle way. Religious freedom is slowly eroded away, and Christians are restricted in how and where they can express their faith. Secular atheism is pushed on our students in high school and especially in college, as our children have their faith attacked by those whom we trust to educate them. The word Jesus uses here for ‘persecute’ means to run after someone, to harass them, and when we understand this definition, we can see persecution all around us. It is difficult for us to see this as a good thing. Facing persecution from our friends and family is one thing; how can we stand up against the power of rulers and governments if they choose to persecute us? But Jesus resolves to use the persecution of His saints before kings and governors to serve the cause of the Gospel.

Polycarp of Smyrna, besides having a funny name, was one of Christianity’s earliest bishops. So early, in fact, that he probably knew the apostle John personally. He fled from persecution several times, but finally gave himself up, saying, “The will of God be done.” His Roman captors drug him to the arena, where they demanded that he reject Christ and offer incense to the emperor. The local ruler wanted to let this elderly man go, and said to him, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ.” Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Having made this bold confession of his faith and trust in his Lord Jesus Christ he was condemned to be burned alive. There in the arena, before kings and governors, Polycarp of Smyrna gave his life for the sake of Christ.

Jesus warned us about persecution, he even warned us that we may, like Polycarp, be called upon to stand before rulers and authorities for the sake of His Name. But even this tragedy, that someone should be persecuted or even killed simply for confessing the truth, can be used by Jesus for the good. He says, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Persecution is an opportunity to witness, to confess the faith that has been delivered to us. The martyrs of Christian history went to their deaths confessing Jesus, and many people were converted as they died. We may perhaps never receive a greater chance to stand up and confess the hope that is within us than when someone is persecuting us for our faith. Jesus uses persecution, He uses the deaths of His saints to spread the Gospel, the proclamation of His own martyrdom.

The year was 33 AD. Only a few years earlier Jesus of Nazareth had emerged, claiming to be a prophet of God, claiming to be the promised messiah, but more than that, declaring Himself to be the Son of God. For this He is persecuted, they drag Him before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor. There He gives the good confession: “so they all said, ‘Are you the Son of God, then?’ And He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’” He is condemned for that confession, for daring to identify Himself as God in the flesh come to bring salvation. His own family, the Jewish people, hand Him over to the Romans to be crucified, and there He gives His life, He sheds His blood. But there is an important difference between the martyrdom of Jesus and the other accounts I have told you about today. Mohamed was persecuted and Johann, Heinrich, and Polycarp gave their lives for Jesus, but Jesus gave up His life for you. He gave up His life to defeat your enemies, those who persecute you, those who attempt to tear you away from Him. On the cross that day He crushed Satan’s head, meaning that while your enemy can rage and roar, even stirring up persecution against you, he does not have the final victory. Christ has defeated him and delivered you. He paid for all of your sins so that Satan has nothing to accuse you with. And with His resurrection on the third day, even death has no victory. Persecution can even take the lives of God’s saints, but as Johann, Heinrich, Polycarp, and countless other Christians throughout history knew, death has no final victory, but instead the victory remains with Christ. They triumph even as their lives are taken because Jesus has paid for their sins, just as He paid for your sins and my sins. We are reconciled with God, and so we can face persecution with confidence that the victory has already been won.

Jesus teaches us in our text for today that persecution is a sign of His return again in glory. It is a characteristic of living in the last days, the time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and His coming back as He has promised. On that Day, the persecution of Christians which has characterized human history since the cross will end. “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” All of creation will quake in anticipation of Christ’s long awaited return, and then He will appear. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory.” For those who trust in Jesus Christ, those who have been claimed by His blood, those who have been baptized into His death and resurrection, this is a sight of rejoicing. We will look and see the crucified one returning to bring us from this valley of the shadow of death into His new creation, where there will be no more sorrow, no more sin, no more persecution. Our enemies will be trampled under, and victory will be given to those sinners, you and me, who have been covered in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, while on this earth we languish, suffering under sin and persecution, we know that our Lord has not abandoned us. We know that the persecution and even the death of Christ’s saints are simply the signs that Christ’s return is coming ever nearer. Because we have been delivered by Jesus, because He holds the victory, He says to us: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption is indeed drawing near, and so we cry this day and every day: “Come, Lord Jesus!” In the name of our returning Lord, Amen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

All Saints' Day (Revelation 7:9-17)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this All Saints’ Day comes from the first lesson read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of Revelation. Dear friends in Christ: In chapter thirteen of Genesis, God gives to the patriarch Abraham a great promise. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be.” In chapter twenty-eight of that same book, God says to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” God promised these two men an abundance of offspring, a multitude that would be difficult, if not impossible, to count. In our reading for today from the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw the fulfillment of that great promise, a promise that spans the entire Bible: “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.”

The elder who is showing John around this great vision asks the obvious question: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” Can you really blame John for deferring to his angelic tour guide? “I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’” The answer of the elder is striking and beautiful. “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.” These are the saints, all the saints who from their labors rest, they are the unnumbered multitude of spiritual children promised to the patriarchs of old. These are those who have gone through great tribulation. They have faced the evil and sin of this corrupt world and they overcame- not by themselves, but because of the gracious deliverance of the God of Abraham and Jacob. Many of them shed their blood for the sake of Jesus Christ, dying horrible deaths because they refused to forsake Him. In giving up their lives they followed the pattern of Jesus, the Lamb who shed His blood to atone for our sin, who shed His blood to make us clean. These are all the saints, they are you and I, all those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, those who bear the white robes of purity before God forever.

What do saints do? They worship. More specifically, they worship the One who brought them salvation, the Triune God. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Both the Father and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, are given heavenly worship because they are together with the Holy Spirit the one God of heaven and earth, but they are especially worshipped because they have brought salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. They are worshipped without ceasing, they are worshipped with great joy, they are worshipped in the great heavenly throne room, the Divine Service of the Lamb in His Kingdom. Their white robes show the cleansing of the blood of Jesus Christ, which has wiped away their sin, and the palm branches are a sign of victory, the victory of the Lamb over sin, death, and Satan. It is because of His victory that they stand there, that they have no part of the condemnation of hell, that they have been delivered from the great tribulation, and for that they give Him joyous worship. “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Why do they worship? They worship because “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” They worship because God has protected them, He has brought them through the great tribulation by the blood of the Lamb, and now He protects them from all evil for eternity. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.” The fires of judgment over sin will not touch the saints, for God’s wrath was poured out on the Lamb, and therefore will not be unleashed against them. They are protected by the shelter of the Lord for all eternity. “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.”

That is the picture of heavenly worship, that is the picture of your destination and your future in the presence of the Lamb who shed His blood for you. But what about earthly worship, what about today? Like the elder in our text, this morning we ask, “Who are these, sitting before this pulpit, and from where have they come?” You are those in the midst of the great tribulation, living in a world full of sin. You are those who see the effects of this sin each and every day, in your own life and that of others. You live in the midst of the great tribulation well aware of your own sin, and your need for a Savior from that sin. You are among those who bear the name of Christ, and therefore may be called upon to shed your blood for His sake, following the pattern that He set like the saints of old and your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. You wear ordinary clothes, yet those clothes say nothing at all about your status before God. For you are indeed those who have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, those cleansed by Baptism, which incorporated you into Christ’s death and resurrection. In Him you died to sin, and in Him you were raised up as His child. Even though you cannot see it with your own eyes, you truly are one of God’s saints, one of those purchased with His blood.

What do saints do? They worship. We offer praise to the Triune God for His great deliverance, we worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one God who acted to deliver us. We give praise to the Triune God as we sing the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might: Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We worship the Son as the Lamb who was slain for our sin by singing the Agnus Dei just before we receive His Body and Blood: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” On Sunday morning we are doing what the saints are doing in heaven, our worship mirrors their worship in every way, with one exception: our earthly worship is faltering, it is often weak, it can even be nonexistent. We need God’s gifts so desperately, for we are dwelling in the midst of the great tribulation and we ourselves are sinful, but sometimes we cannot even bring ourselves to where those great gifts are offered. When we do come, we can often go through the motions, following the words on the page, but forgetting the significance of those words. We are here in body, but perhaps not in mind or spirit. The saints in heaven worship God with great joy and enthusiasm, remembering His great deeds of salvation, while the saints on earth worship Him too often thinking only about lunch or the NFL. The Divine Service is a weekly proclamation of what Jesus Christ has done for us in the midst of this great tribulation, but it can become simply something we do to check off our list. Why is this? Our worship can become faltering because Satan, the world, and our sinful nature know that we need it. If they can cut us off from contact with God’s great gifts, then they can much more easily entice us away from our loving God.

Satan can roar and accuse, he can attempt to entice us away from the gifts of God. The world can encourage us to find something better to do with our time on Sunday morning. Our sinful nature can distract us from focusing on the Lamb as we worship. But that unholy trinity has no answer for the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The Lamb shed His blood to forgive your sins of faltering and weak worship. He redeems you, He forgives you, He loves you not because He has decided to ignore your sins, but because He paid for them. We come here to receive the forgiveness of Christ even for our failing to worship Him properly, we come here unable to please God on our own, but instead depending on another, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All the saints that went before us were also sinners, and so they all needed the forgiveness of Christ. They have passed through the great tribulation while we still remain in it, but we are linked together as those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. That is one of the reasons why in many churches the communion rail is a half circle. As we gather here on earth receiving the forgiveness of Jesus Christ in His Body and Blood, we can imagine the other half of the rail populated with those who have gone before us. Their worship is our worship; heaven joins earth wherever Christians gather to receive God’s gifts and give Him thanks and praise. When we come here to this place, we stand at the border between earth and heaven, and we join all the saints in the great praise they give to God: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Death takes us over that border, it brings us from earthly worship to heavenly worship. It is the last enemy, but it has already been triumphed over by the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, and therefore is simply the gate to heavenly glory. On the day that the Lord brings us to be with Himself and all the saints in eternity, we will look toward the throne of God and see “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages.” The words of the elder to Saint John at the end of our text will then describe you and me as well: “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. 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 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.” In the name of the Lamb who was slain, Amen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Reformation Day (John 8:31-36)

“If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Day comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, Martin Luther was in trouble. This monk had sparked the Reformation just four years earlier by speaking out against the Roman Church’s selling of indulgences. Railing against abuses and false teaching seemed a lot easier when he was safe and sound in Wittenberg. But now he was in Worms, standing before the pope’s representatives and the Emperor himself. Things had suddenly become much more serious. But Luther could take comfort from what God’s Word said in passages such as our Introit for today: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.” Therefore with boldness, but yet also with humility and with the knowledge of what this confession meant before God, Luther declared: “Unless I am convinced by the teachings of Holy Scripture or by plain reason- not by popes or councils alone, since they have so often erred and contradicted themselves- my consciences is bound to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand- I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Luther took his stand that day on the Word of God, he took his stand on the truth.

Jesus has some pretty amazing things to say about that Word and about that truth in our text for today. After hearing Jesus speak about His intimate connection with the Father throughout chapter eight of John’s Gospel, many people believe in Him. With joy our Lord proceeded to give them a message of encouragement, a message of strengthening, a message of Gospel. “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” What is that Word? What would be so important that Jesus would encourage us to abide in it, that Luther would take his stand upon it? Sure, it is the Bible, it is the teachings of Jesus, but it is so much more than that. It is a performative Word, a Word that does what it says. It is a Word that declares to you, “Your sins are forgiven,” “You are God’s child,” or even “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” This Word conveys to us the promises of Jesus, for this Word is Jesus Himself. He is the Word of God Incarnate, come to sinful man to give them the Truth.

Luther took His stand on the Word of God because He believed that it proclaimed to Him the truth. This is nothing other than what Jesus promised in our text. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This is not merely intellectual knowledge, but instead knowing the identity of Jesus and knowing what He has come to do. Knowing the truth means knowing that only Jesus can save us, that He has come as God’s Messiah to set us free. Knowing the truth means knowing that we have a God who loves us for the sake of His Son. Knowing the truth means trusting Jesus and Him alone, depending on no one else for our salvation. And when we know this Truth, Jesus promises that we will have what we so desperately need: freedom.

It is on that point that Jesus’ hearers object. “They answered Him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free.”’” You can imagine the shoulders of Jesus slumping at this statement. He has just given them a beautiful message of encouragement, the promise of freedom thorough Him, and they object to this!? The hearers cannot just receive with joy this wonderful proclamation of the Gospel, but instead complain, “Why do we need freedom? We’re not slaves!” Human beings, not just those who argued with Jesus that day, but you, me, and all people have a certain blind spot when it comes to seeing our own slavery. In America this is especially common, because we drink the sweet nectar of freedom and liberty each and every day, making it almost impossible to see ourselves as anywhere close to slaves. Why would I need freedom? I’m already free, free to do what I want- nothing has a hold on me!

Martin Luther knew that those objections were at best misguided, at worst, outright lies. He knew that we are all slaves to sin, because it was his own crushing awareness of sin that drove him to the Reformation in the first place. He knew that he was a poor, miserable sinner, and all he saw when he went to church was an angry God that wanted to punish him for that sin. The more he tried to amend his life by himself, the more sin wrapped its chains around him. That, my friends, is how sin works. Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Sin enslaves us, it binds us and refuses to let us go. We can see this especially with addictive sins like drugs, alcohol, or adultery, but the truth is, all sin works this way. All sin is addictive, from lying, to hurtful thoughts, to anger and gossip. We know from our own experience that this is true, we know that when we indulge in a sin we cannot just stop, but we are dragged deeper and deeper into it until we are truly slaves. This slavery does not end well, as Jesus tells us: “The slave does not remain in the house forever.” Because of our slavery, we have no permanent place in the Father’s house, we will be excluded forever. As Saint Paul teaches: “The wages of sin is death.”

That is what Luther realized- that we were all slaves to sin and that slavery excluded us from the Father’s house for eternity. His search for a merciful God seemed to hit one dead end after another, leaving him nearly in despair. But, as Luther thankfully discovered, this word of condemnation was not the final word on the subject. God had spoken another Word, in fact the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. This same Jesus said in our text for today, “The son remains forever.” The slaves could not dwell in the Father’s house, but the Son could, and because He had the authority of sonship, He could set the slaves free. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And thanks be to God that the Son did exactly that! Jesus Christ came to proclaim freedom to the captives, but not just to speak of freedom, He came to actually break our bonds, to remove the death grip of sin from us and make us ‘free indeed.’ His cross broke our bonds wide open, defeating the power of sin to hold us captive. He suffered there for your release, He shed His blood for your redemption, He allowed Himself to be bound for your freedom. The Son came and put Himself in the place of the slaves, paying for their bondage. Paul declared that “the wages of sin is death,” and on Good Friday Jesus paid that price in full for each and every one of us. Having paid that price, Jesus defeated our last enemy and slavemaster, death, by triumphing over it on Easter Sunday. Death could not hold Him captive, and it will not hold you captive either, for His victory is your victory.

The Son stood in your place, wearing your bonds so that He could break them, and therefore He gives to you the status that He has had from all eternity. Jesus declared, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the Son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” We are truly set free by the triumph of Christ, just as He is truly the Son of God, as the centurion cried on Good Friday, just as He is truly risen, as the disciples exclaimed on Easter evening. The Word incarnate came to us to proclaim the truth, that God has sent His Son to deliver the world from bondage. And the Son continues to set captives free through the truth of His Word each and every day, and especially when the body of Christ gathers here to receive His gifts. For when a pastor stands before you and says, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you are being set free from sin by the powerful Truth of God’s Word. That is how Jesus fights slavery- with forgiveness. We have been released from the eternal bondage of sin and exclusion from God’s house, but as long as we remain in this body and life we still fall into the slavery of sin. That is why Christ continues to work to break bonds each and every day with His Words of forgiveness and release. We live in the forgiveness of Christ, because without it we would easily fall back into bondage. That forgiveness testifies to us our new identity: we are no longer slaves to sin, but instead we are truly freed children of God. And it is the children who dwell in their Father’s house for all eternity.

That is the message that saved Luther, and that is the message that Luther dedicated his life to proclaiming. The entire Reformation was all about proclaiming clearly again the beautiful Gospel of the freedom from sin that Christ won for us. Luther looked around him and saw a Church that refused to proclaim that freedom, instead placing people back under the yoke of slavery. People were pointed to their works for a right relationship with God, and as he found out during his time at the monastery, such a focus on ourselves only has the effect of enmeshing us deeper and deeper in the slavery of sin. We needed a merciful God, and this merciful God came to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luther probably wouldn’t have much joy in seeing his name on church signs, for he would rather not have the focus on himself. Instead, he would find his joy in going inside of those churches and hearing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly to sinners. That is what the Reformation was about, that is why he took his stand before the Emperor, so that sinners could hear the proclamation of the Gospel again. His goal wasn’t to make something new, but instead to proclaim once again to all people the good news: Jesus Christ died to break your chains, and for His sake you will dwell in the Father’s house for all eternity. Thanks be to Jesus for His work of setting us free! In His name, Amen.