Monday, November 21, 2011

Proper 29 of Series A (Matthew 25:31-46)

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” 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 last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, who is your neighbor? When we talk about our lives in this world as Christians, this is the most important question to answer. Just who is it that I am to serve? Who is my neighbor? In our text for today, Jesus gives us the answer. Our neighbor is the one in need. The hungry one is our neighbor, the thirsty one too. The stranger is our neighbor, along with the one who has no clothing. The sick ones are our neighbors, and yes, even those in prison are our neighbors. You don’t have to know someone for them to be your neighbor, you simply have to know that they have a need. And using the resources that God has blessed you with, both your material goods and your talents, as we talked about last week, you seek to fulfill that need.

That’s what sheep do. The sheep do sheep-like things. For actual sheep, that includes eating, sleeping, and making wool. Christ’s sheep, on the other hand, serve their neighbors in each and every need. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The sheep see the needs of their neighbors, and they seek to fulfill them. They live lives directed outside of themselves, placing the needs of others ahead of their own. This is simply what sheep do. Christ’s sheep don’t do these things to become sheep, but instead they serve their neighbor because they are sheep. A sheep doesn’t produce wool in order to become a sheep, but it produces wool because it is a sheep.

It comes naturally, for Christ Himself has made them sheep through the work of His messengers, whom He describes as the “least of these my brothers” in our text for today. The one who receives the least of Christ’s brothers has the promise that they receive Christ Himself. The sheep received the messengers of Christ with great joy because they received the message they brought. Through the work of Christ’s messengers, broken sinners carrying the message of the Gospel to all nations, Jesus made sheep from goats. And these new sheep do the things that sheep do: they serve their neighbor. It comes naturally- or does it? Often the sheep look more like goats, for though they are made sheep, they never fully leave the goats behind.
And goats do goat-like things. For barnyard goats, that includes sleeping, making milk, and trying to eat literally anything. The goats of this world live only for themselves. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” The goats live focused on their own lives, their own wants and needs. They see the needs of their neighbors and they ignore them. They self-justify, saying, “I shouldn’t poke my nose in their business,” “I have enough problems of my own,” “Someone should take care of them,” or even “The church should do something.” Yes, the goats hide behind the church, passing the buck to a committee or a pastor. The goats may even live lives that seem outwardly good and moral; they don’t commit huge public sins, but instead they omit to do what needs to be done. They see their neighbor’s need and ignore it. The goats live only for themselves, with hearts opened neither to their neighbor nor to the God who created them. They rejected the messengers of Christ, refusing to welcome these strangers or provide for their needs. They rejected the messengers for they rejected the message, the beautiful Gospel that turns goats into sheep.

You and I, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, were conceived and born as goats, and have been made sheep through the power of the Gospel. Serving our neighbor should then come naturally to sheep, but it doesn’t. We instead serve ourselves, omitting the care and concern that should be directed toward those around us. You can look like a perfect sheep in the eyes of the world because you don’t commit public sins, but you are more like a goat than anything else when you neglect to care for the needs of your neighbor. People see what we do much more clearly than what we don’t do, and so we can look like sheep while living like goats. For whenever you see a need and refuse to use the gifts and abilities that God has given you to supply that need, you are living like the goat you are by nature, not the sheep you have been made by Christ.

Jesus has strong words to say against goats in our text for today: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” On this last day of the Church Year, we cannot forget that goats go to hell. This is not because they are worse sinners than the sheep, but because they rejected the salvation offered to them. They refused the messengers of Christ along with the message they bore, and so they go to the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels. These fires were not prepared for the goats; the goats don’t belong there, but through rebellion the goats go there, to be separated from the sheep and from God forever. They are shocked to find out that in refusing to receive Christ’s messengers, in living only for themselves, they were refusing to serve the King of the universe, the only One who can provide deliverance from hell. The King declares to them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

This is a terrifying image, given to drive the goats away from their inward focus toward Christ and toward their neighbors. But this picture of eternal judgment should also make us uncomfortable, for we were born goats, and although we have been made sheep, we return to our goat-like ways again and again. The message of our text is clear: goats go to hell. Where can we turn to escape the wrath of a holy God? We turn to the one who made us sheep in the first place- Christ Himself. Repent! Turn away from your goat-like ways! Cling to the One who redeemed you, who died to pay for your selfishness! Jesus Christ died for goats, Jesus Christ died because goats go to hell, Jesus Christ died to make goats His beloved sheep. Plenty of people in our world today, even some Christians, try to deny the reality of hell. How could a loving God have such a place of torment? Hell seems too terrible to actually exist. Yes, hell is terrible, yes hell is terrifying; that’s why Jesus did something about it. He didn’t waste His time trying to deny the existence of hell; instead He conquered it, robbed it of its power. Jesus knew hell is real because He endured it on the cross, for you and for me. No one needs to go there anymore, for Christ has defeated the power of hell. He bore your sin to the cross and there eliminated it, removing the eternal penalty that you owed to God. Hell has no more power over you- there is no need to fear it. Christ defeated hell itself by enduring it for you, and now none that belong to Him will face the punishment described in our text. He makes goats into sheep, transforming them through Baptism so they may live before Him forever.

Therefore you do not serve your neighbor to earn heaven and avoid hell; Christ has done that for you- He has earned heaven by enduring hell. You come into the inheritance prepared for you only because of Jesus, only because of His death and resurrection applied to you. You serve your neighbor not to become a sheep, but because you are a sheep. On that last day, you will then stand in shock with the rest of the sheep when the King reveals to you how you have served Him by serving your neighbor. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” You will be shocked because you haven’t been keeping track: sheep don’t catalogue their good works! They don’t need them to earn heaven, and so sheep simply do what sheep do. A farmer’s sheep cannot help but produce wool; you and I, Christ’s sheep, cannot help but serve our neighbor. We don’t need our good works, and neither does God: our neighbor does!

For you have been made a sheep by the powerful work of Jesus Christ, not by anything you have done. On the Last Day, you will hear the beautiful proclamation of the King: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” You are blessed for the Father has loved you in Christ; He has made you His own adopted child in the waters of Holy Baptism. You are blessed for you have a kingdom which has been delivered to you by your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has had your salvation in mind since the foundation of the world. You have been blessed since before time began, for God always knew that He would save you through Christ. On that final day, you will receive your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you in the new heavens and the new earth. You will rise from your grave with a renewed body, perfect and whole forever, to dwell with Christ for eternity. You have an inheritance that is beyond anything you can imagine. There you will know rest as you have never experienced it on this earth; there love will be perfect and whole, there your heart will be fully open to God and to one another, there joy will be an eternal reality. As one pastor puts it, going to heaven is like switching your television from black and white to color- everything will be more vivid in the kingdom prepared for you. And so we yearn for this inheritance, we long for Christ to return so that He may deliver to His beloved sheep what He won for them. On this Last Sunday of the Church Year, we turn to the second to last verse of the Bible: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

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

“For to everyone who has more will be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” 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-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, perhaps the most important detail of our parable for today was a detail that you missed. In fact, I would guess that most of the people who first heard this parable missed that detail as well. In this parable, Jesus is clearly the master. And what does Jesus say about this master? “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.” The most important lesson of this parable is the declaration that Jesus is departing, going on a journey. He will soon leave His disciples and the crowds, His followers and His enemies, behind. Many thought that He was going to establish an earthly kingdom, that He was going to reign from Jerusalem forever. But His kingdom is not of this world, and so He must depart, He must go on that journey. This message is distressing, but the parable of the talents has another important lesson to teach: Christ will not leave His people without giving them great gifts.

In fact, that is why He departs; without going on a journey, He cannot give to His people the gifts they need. His road leads to a hill outside Jerusalem; in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, He will be betrayed into the hands of sinful men. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by whom this world was created, will be handed over to the powers of this world, religious and secular, the Sanhedrin and Pontus Pilate. He will depart, He will go on a journey, for He will die, hanging upon a Roman cross. There, in the moment of His departure, He will win for you and for me every good gift. For He died bearing your sin, your guilt, your shame. He died to pay the penalty you owe, to take the punishment you deserve upon Himself. Jesus died for you! And on the third day He returned from His journey through death and the grave when He walked out of the tomb, triumphant over death forever. Jesus died to pay for your sin; He rose to give you life!

On that first Easter, the disciples once again thought that Jesus was ready to set up shop and stay, to rule this earth forever. But He had another departure yet to come. The parable of the talents first of all points to Calvary’s cross, and then forty days beyond Easter to a mountain in Galilee. There Jesus ascended, going on His journey; He would no longer be visibly present to His Church until the day of His return. That’s the message of the parable of the talents: Jesus departed so that He could return. He departed on Good Friday to return on Easter Sunday; He departed on Ascension Day to return on the Last Day. Even though you cannot see Him, you have the promise that He truly will truly be with you as you wait, to the very end of the age, sustained by His gifts given to you through the Church: forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Word and the Holy Sacraments.

Those are the most important gifts, the gifts that will sustain His people as they eagerly await His return. These are the foundational gifts, won by His own blood. These gifts make you a Christian, part of His body, they give to you the guarantee that when He returns, He will take you to be with Himself forever. These gifts sustain you as you wait, giving you strength to face the days of anticipation. But those are not the only gifts that He has given you. “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. They he went away.” He has given to each and every one of you unique abilities and gifts. He doesn’t give each person the same gifts, or even the same amount of gifts; our God is anything but boring. These gifts come in endless variety: the ability to speak well, a caring heart, skill at business, a strong work ethic. The list can go on and on; when you stop to think about it, God has blessed you with a multitude of gifts. But these gifts are not your own; they do not belong to you any more than the talents belonged to the servants. They were entrusted to take care of the talents, to watch over them, but most of all, they were to use them. The talents were not given to the servants to make them rich. They were given so that they could put them to work for their master. The gifts God has given to you are not to be used simply for your own good. Faithful servants use their gifts to spread the Gospel.

Jesus tells us, “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.” The faithful servants put the money to work, using them to gain more talents for master’s bank account. We do the same, only we deal with people. The gifts and abilities that Christ has given you aren’t to be used to simply make you wealthy or bring you power. Instead, they are to be used to gain your friends, your family, your neighbors for the kingdom of God. He has given to you the faith, fed you with His Word and Sacraments, and has even given to you unique abilities to take that same Gospel to others. He uses your gifts to bring the Gospel to people that a pastor or missionary may not have the opportunity to reach, you are His tools to bring people into contact with Christ. He uses your abilities to provide opportunities to speak of Jesus, in every situation you find yourself in. What a privilege, what an opportunity, what a responsibility!

The Master receives faithful servants with joy. “His master said to him, ‘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.” The numbers don’t matter; it doesn’t matter how many people you serve, how many times you share the Gospel, or how many believe. Remember, it was never about you in the first place. The talents belong to Jesus and so He does the work through you. You come into the joy of your Master only because of grace, for you have remained faithful to the one who redeemed you by His blood. The servants don’t keep track, for they are saved by grace alone, not by their works.

This is a great picture of the Church: the community of believers, washed in the very blood of the Lamb, fed on the forgiveness of Christ every week, going out into this world looking for opportunities to speak about the salvation that is found in no other Name that Jesus Christ. But you and I know that we often fall far short of that glorious picture. In fact, you and I all too often imitate the third servant in our text. “But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” He was selfish; he kept his master’s gifts all to himself. How often do you simply use the gifts that God has given to you for your own good, and not for the spread of the Gospel? How often do you bury the gifts of salvation in the ground, making sure that no one can tell if you are a Christian? Do you hold onto the Gospel selfishly, thinking that others don’t deserve it? Or do you through fear keep it hidden away? The faithful servants are wisely prepared for Christ’s return; they are using the gifts given to them for the work of the kingdom. The third servant is complacent; he doesn’t believe that the master will return.

But he’s wrong; the master does return, as Christ Himself promises that He will return. It’s no good pretending that Jesus won’t come back; instead, you are called upon to be ready, to watch and wait! The first two servants are brought into the joy of the master not because of anything they have done, but because they didn’t despise the gifts given to them. The third servant, however, has buried the gifts given to him through laziness and rebellion, and now something quite different than joy awaits him. “Take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who despise the gifts of God will find themselves separated from Him forever.

If we are honest with ourselves, that is what we all deserve, each and every one of us. We have all despised the gifts of Christ, we have shown that we consider them of little worth by burying them or simply using them for our own benefit. Our focus has been inward toward our own comfort and sinful desires rather than outward at those who desperately need to hear of redemption from sin and from death. Today we confess together, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And the Master is merciful. He loves you and wants to forgive you again and again, even when you despise those very gifts. He hears your confession, and He forgives. The same gifts we so often hide away from the sight of others are given over and over again in abundance to forgive such selfishness. Jesus Christ died and rose again for all of our sins, even the sin of laziness and rejection of His gifts. His grace overflows to us, as Jesus Himself says: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.” Having received such lavish grace, you go out with joy into this world and use the gifts He has given you for the work of His kingdom, relying on His forgiveness for every missed opportunity, every failure to confess the Gospel, every instance of selfishness. Then, on the Last Day, when God settles accounts with you, He will not look to you and see how much your talents earned, nor how often you buried them, but all He will see is Christ’s righteousness covering you, and He will declare with a smile: “Enter into the joy of your master.” Amen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

All Saints' Day Observed (Matthew 5:1-13)

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 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 All Saints’ Sunday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, the saints of God are in this world an oppressed bunch. They are harried by sin, threatened by death, and persecuted by all those who belong to the dominion of Satan. To the world, the saints of God are a miserable, pathetic little band. They are poor in spirit, they mourn, they are meek, they hunger and thirst. Following God hasn’t seemed to earn them anything. The world looks in scorn upon the Church, disgusted that they are merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. Those qualities only mean that it is much easier to trample on the saints, and the world does this all the time. But yet, Jesus Christ points to this wretched group, hated and despised by the world, and declares them ‘blessed.’ They are called ‘blessed’ despite every evidence to the contrary, despite the clear opinion of the world. They are blessed because of Jesus.

The poor in spirit are blessed. They have nothing to give to God, not their good works, not their pure lives, not silver or gold, not power or influence. Before God all the saints are equal, from the man dying in an African refugee camp to the president of the United States. They are all beggars, and come to God empty-handed, with no right to expect anything. And God Himself stepped into their midst and took for Himself the form of a beggar. Jesus laid aside His glory and submitted to the shame of the cross. He is Himself the poor of spirit, who won for His afflicted people the greatest treasure imaginable, the kingdom of heaven. He gives that gift into the beggars’ open, empty hands. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven.”

Those who mourn are blessed. The saints mourn over the sin and death that surrounds them. They live in a dying world, a world that is fallen, a world that gives them tragedy and hardship as a constant diet. They mourn for those whom they have lost, they mourn for the suffering that occurs every day in this corrupted world, but they also mourn for themselves. The saints see the sin that fills them, the death that one day will take them, and they mourn. They mourned on Good Friday as Christ hung upon that cross. But Easter morning dawned on an empty tomb- Christ has risen, triumphant over sin and death! “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Christ has destroyed the power of death, and the saints of God will now live, even though they die, in a new creation where death is no more. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The meek are blessed. The saints humble themselves before this world. They do not seek their own advantage, they do not exalt themselves, but instead they place the needs of others above their own. This is a recipe for persecution, for hatred and scorn. The world doubts their motives, for it cannot conceive of anyone who is not self-centered. The world takes advantage of the saints, scornfully calling them ‘meek,’ as they walk all over them. Jesus Christ humbled Himself before this world, He became meek; like a lamb led to the slaughter, so He did not open His mouth. And the world saw it as weakness, striking Him on the cheek, calling on Him to come down from that cross. But He remained humble and meek, and won for His saints an inheritance that will last forever. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness are blessed. The saints are not victims, for they are filled with the same sin that afflicts all of mankind, the same lack of righteousness that dooms all men to hell. But while the world seeks to satisfy that hunger and thirst in a multitude of other ways, the saints cry out to God in their affliction. They desperately hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, for without it, eternal punishment is the only destination. And God feeds them, He fills them with the very righteousness of His Son. Jesus gives His righteousness to hungry and thirsty people to eat and drink at this very table. The feast of His Body and Blood satisfies spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst, pointing forward to where hunger and thirst will be no more. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

The merciful are blessed. The saints show mercy to those around them, those who have a variety of different needs. They bind up wounds: physical, emotional, and spiritual. They do this not to earn God’s favor, but because God Himself has shown them mercy. It is in God’s nature to show mercy, as Jesus demonstrated throughout His time on this earth. He bound up the brokenhearted, He healed the sick, He drove from people the corruption of this sinful world. And on the cross, Christ showed mercy to all people, those who were under the threat of eternal death, those who had earned no mercy. He now shows mercy to all the sainst by forgiving sin, by delivering from death. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The pure in heart are blessed. No one can approach God unless they are pure. The elaborate system of washings and sacrifices found throughout the Old Testament were all meant to make the priests and indeed the entire nation pure so that they could interact with God. A sinful person cannot see God and live, for the hot fire of His wrath burns against sin. Unless the saints are made pure, they cannot see God, they are doomed to spend eternity separated from Him. But Christ has washed them in the blessed waters of Holy Baptism. “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.” The saints have been made clean and pure by the water joined to the Word, able to stand before the throne of God forever. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The peacemakers are blessed. The saints were at war with God, divided from Him in their rebellion and sin. But Jesus Christ is the peacemaker. Through the blood of His cross, Jesus reconciled God and man, He removed the dividing wall of hostility between Creator and creation. This is the peace that characterizes life in the new heavens and the new earth: peace between God and man, peace that will last forever. Because of this reconciliation, the saints are truly called the Sons of God. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” The saints, having been reconciled with God through Christ’s death and resurrection, then extend that peace to others. They speak the Gospel to their neighbors, calling on people to be at peace with God through Christ. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed. In some countries, the saints are actively persecuted, hunted down to be thrown into jail or killed for following Christ. In other places the saints are mocked, subtly persecuted in schools or in the media, scorned for following Jesus of Nazareth. But nothing that this sinful world throws at the saints can remove the eternal treasure that they possess for the sake of Christ. They are simply following His pattern as He promised them they would; the pattern which He set in winning that eternal treasure through His own suffering. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are blessed, for you are the saints of God; all the blessings that Jesus has proclaimed in our text belong to you. You will struggle in this world, as the saints did before you, you will mourn, you will suffer persecution, but you are blessed! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you, and you will be comforted, you will inherit the earth, you will be satisfied, you will receive mercy, you will see God, for you are truly a child of God. Christ’s death and resurrection applied to you in your baptism has made you a saint, and now all of those gifts are your present and future possession. He won them for you, He gives them into your empty hands. You are poor in spirit, but the kingdom of heaven belongs to you, as it does to all the saints.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Rejoice and be glad, dear saints of God, for you have an eternal reward. Despite whatever happens to you in this world, your treasure is eternal, it is everlasting, it is a gift won by the shed blood of your Lord Jesus Christ. The saints who have gone before you now enjoy what will one day be your own, for you are a part of that eternal company, those who still walk on this earth and those who worship in heaven, in every place and in every age, all the saints purchased with the blood of Christ. In the Name of the One who was poor in spirit, who won peace between us and our God, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.