Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Midnight (Luke 2:8-12)

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’” 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 Christmas Eve is the verses just read, Luke 2, verses eight to twelve. Dear friends in Christ: Where do you encounter God? Some say that they encounter God in the quiet of the forest, others in the beauty of a sunrise. Some people claim to encounter God in those they meet as they journey through this life, seeing God in their friends, their families, their neighbors. The more religious types may find God in the quiet times in their day, when they meditate silently. For still others, God is to be found in the wonderful blessings they have received: good health, resources to live on, and the happiness that comes from being well-provided for. Where is God? Most people, including most Christians, quite righty believe that God is everywhere, and so they seek to encounter Him anywhere.

That seems to make a lot of sense—if God is everywhere, then you surely must be able to find Him anywhere—but there is a big problem with that line of thinking: it isn’t taught by the Bible! The Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, clearly teach that God is everywhere, but they do not draw the conclusion that we are to seek Him anywhere. In fact, the teaching of the Bible is quite the opposite: God is everywhere, but we are to seek Him only where He has promised to be found. For the Scriptures a God who is everywhere is as useless as a God who is nowhere—they describe a God who locates Himself. In the Old Testament, He located Himself in the tabernacle, in the temple, in the words of the prophets. If you asked an Old Testament believer where God was, they would point to the Holy of Holies, to the Ark of the Covenant, where God had promised to be. But this was only setting the stage for the mystery that John tells us about in the first chapter of his Gospel: “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.” Take everything you think about God and throw it out the window; God became flesh, He has located Himself in a human frame—when we see the man Jesus, we are to boldly declare, “There is God!” Every idea you have of what a God should be is shattered and destroyed by John’s bold declaration, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

God located Himself in a human frame; God is an embryo, a zygote, a developing child, and then, on this night, a baby, born of a virgin mother, laying in a manger. God is everywhere, but on this night God is somewhere, He has located Himself in the manger as He once located Himself in the temple. The manger is the new temple, and it is to that temple that the shepherds are sent. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’” The shepherds aren’t sent to seek for their Savior anywhere they might want to look; they aren’t to look for Him in the peace of the forest, the beauty of a sunset, or the quiet of meditation. They are to look for their Savior, their God, in a manger. God is to be found not in power and pomp and glory, but in humility. God is located in a baby born far away from home, wrapped in rags, born to a dirt-poor peasant girl.

The God who has always located Himself in specific places has promised to be found in one specific place: in the manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths. The shepherds come to Mary and Joseph and see God’s most incredible and unexpected locating of Himself, the mystery John expressed in unforgettable words: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” A God who is everywhere is as useless as a God who is nowhere, for there is no promise that we can find Him in grace, in love, in salvation. We could spend an eternity searching creation trying to find a place where this God reveals Himself in love. But our God, the God proclaimed by the Scriptures, doesn’t send us on such a wild goose chase. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” We are not to look for God anywhere, but somewhere, in a specific place, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. For there, only there, has He promised to be for our salvation.

The angel declared, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Where is God? He is the baby in the manger, the child Jesus. He is the man Jesus, grown up and preaching the Word, healing the sick, and raising the dead. Where is God? He is hanging upon the cross, dying as the required price for our sin, dying so that we will live. He is greeting the disciples on Easter evening, showing them the wounds in the hands and side of His resurrected flesh. God is everywhere, but He is present for our salvation only in the flesh of Jesus.

And nothing has changed in the nearly two thousand years since He ascended into heaven. God is still present among us in specific places, the means Christ has established to bring us His blood-bought forgiveness, life, and salvation. We aren’t to go looking everywhere for forgiveness, but to Baptism, where we are made God’s child, to the Lord’s Supper, where we are fed Christ’s very Body and Blood, the price of our salvation, and to the Word, which proclaims to us the salvation won through the cross and empty tomb. And where are these all found? They are given in the Church, on Sunday morning! That is where Christ has promised to be for our salvation, no matter how humble the building or even if there is no building at all. Where Christ’s people are gathered around the Word and the blessed Sacraments, there Christ has promised to be for our salvation.       

Saying that I can worship God just as well at home, or a fishing boat, or a tree stand, or anywhere else for that matter, then makes no sense. It’s as if you were to stop the shepherds as they are running to the manger and say to them, “Don’t you know that God is everywhere? You can worship Him just as well in your fields or in your homes as at the manger.” They would probably give you a strange look and say: “God promised to be at the manger. There are no promises of grace and forgiveness attached to our fields or our homes, but in the manger, we have the promise of a Savior.” Our God is everywhere, but we are to look for Him where He has promised to be found for our salvation: in the flesh of Jesus, in the waters of Baptism, in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, in His Word read and proclaimed. Humble means, to be sure, much less majestic than sunrises and forests, but our God has been wrapped in humble clothing before. “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Spending time in quiet forests meditating upon beautiful sunrises is certainly good for your blood pressure. But while God is everywhere, He is only found for our good, for our salvation, where He has promised to be. He is specific, He has located Himself in certain places, and only there has He promised to give us forgiveness, life, salvation. Rejoice, for you don’t have to search creation to find a gracious God—He comes to you here in this very place, right where He has told you He would be. His manger is water, bread and wine, words spoken or printed on a page. In those humble means, your God is there for your good, for your salvation. He has located Himself specifically, so there will be no doubt that here, through these means, your sins are forgiven and life everlasting is given to you. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He who is everywhere located Himself somewhere: in the manger, on the cross, in the Word and the Sacraments. In the Name of Jesus, the Word made flesh for our salvation, Amen.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Midweek (Third Article of the Nicene Creed)

“And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Tonight we reflect upon the third article of the Nicene Creed, in which we confess: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church, I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” Dear friends in Christ, how do you talk about someone that doesn’t want to talk about himself? Do you speculate, making guesses as to what he’s all about? Do you mold him into your own image of what you think he should be? Or do you simply say what there is to say, no matter how little there is, and leave it at that?

Christians get into trouble when they try to say more than the Scriptures do on any topic, but especially when talking about the Holy Spirit. Much mischief has been done throughout history because Scripture says very little about the Spirit, and we humans just can’t resist filling the gaps with our own guesswork and speculation, our ideas of what a ‘holy spirit’ should be. Who is the Holy Spirit? Is He simply a power, an emanation from God? Or is He a person, like the Father and the Son, distinct from the other two persons, yet together with them one God? Who is the Holy Spirit? Is He the mover and shaker in the Church, constantly bringing new revelations, some contrary to the Bible, and causing people to speak in tongues or do miracles? Or does He simply bring us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments, working the miracle of faith in stubborn human hearts?

Who is the Holy Spirit? We confess in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” The Holy Spirit is the One who proceeds, He is given as a gift by the Father and the Son. He comes to us in this world of sin and death, just as Jesus promised. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.” He comes to us not as some vague ‘power’ or ‘emanation’ of God, but as a distinct person, as the Nicene Creed makes clear. The Holy Spirit is a ‘He,’ not an ‘it.’ He is coequal with the Father and the Son, together with them He is one God, together with them He is worshipped and glorified. He doesn’t deserve equal worship unless He is equally God, and so with her worship the Church confesses that the Holy Spirit is true God, a distinct person, but yet one God in unity with the Father and the Son.

It seems like we learn something new about the Father or the Son on every page of the Scriptures, but information on the Spirit is comparatively sparse. There is a reason for that, a very important reason. Jesus tells us that the coming Spirit has no interest in speaking about Himself: “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.” The Holy Spirit’s joy and delight isn’t to point to Himself, but to Jesus. Like John the Baptist, the Spirit boldly declares, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” How did Simeon know that the little baby boy being brought into the temple was the Messiah? Only through the Spirit. “And [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God.” The Spirit pointed Simeon to Jesus, and Simeon made the good confession, telling all who would hear that through this child the Lord was bringing salvation. As Jesus promised us, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me.”

The Holy Spirit has never stopped bringing Jesus to people; that is what He does, the task He delights in. Jesus won salvation, shedding His blood on Calvary’s cross, breathing His last breath declaring, “It is finished.” The Son suffered and died, not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and He suffered and died in your place, bearing all of your sin. He won salvation that day, forgiveness of all your sins and deliverance from death. At the cross, your salvation was won and accomplished, it’s a done deal. But Jesus doesn’t give salvation to you there. You don’t have to fly to Jerusalem to receive the salvation He won; you didn’t have to be present that day. No, instead the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to bring salvation to you. The Holy Spirit runs the distribution network to bring the salvation accomplished by Christ through the cross and empty tomb to individual humans. He is like FedEx. Now, FedEx doesn’t make the products, instead its task is to deliver them to people. In the same way, the Holy Spirit, while intimately involved in salvation, didn’t shed His blood on the cross to win forgiveness. Jesus did that, and now it is the Spirit’s task to bring that forgiveness to you.

How does FedEx get a package to you? It takes the product from the warehouse, loads it on a truck, and hauls it to your front door. How does the Holy Spirit bring forgiveness to you? He works through the Church. We confess in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church, I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” The Church is the Holy Spirit’s distribution network, and every congregation is a delivery truck, spread throughout this world to bring forgiveness into every place. Who drives the truck? A pastor, whose only job is to bring that package to you. And those packages are familiar: the Word, read and proclaimed, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Each package contains Jesus, His forgiveness, His salvation. They are opened, and you are given eternal life. The Holy Spirit rejoices to give these gifts; that is why we call Him, “the Lord and giver of life.”

Each and every FedEx warehouse bears their logo; so does every truck, every driver, and every package. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is never absent from the distribution of salvation; He is involved wherever the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments administered. He has bound Himself to those means, and through them alone will He create faith, forgive sins, and deliver us from everlasting death. Don’t trust a ‘spirit’ that comes apart from those means; any ‘spirit’ that comes apart from the Word and the Holy Sacraments, or contrary to them, isn’t the Holy Spirit, but instead comes from the devil. Without doubt miracles still happen, we know the Spirit has worked through dreams before, and can do so now, but we never place our trust in such things above or against the Word of God. The Holy Spirit will certainly never lead the Church to speak in opposition to God’s revealed Word. That is where the Spirit has promised to work, and that is where He will work, until Christ comes again.

For the Holy Spirit is as involved with Christ’s Second Coming as He was with His first—through the Word. “The angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’” As those words were spoken, the Holy Spirit was doing the work, and the plan of our salvation was put into motion. Christmas is the Holy Spirit’s work; He proceeded from the Father to bring the Son into human flesh. And on the Last Day, it will be His great and joyful task to raise us up from the dead. The Holy Spirit worked to bring Christ into the world, He worked to bring Christ to you, and on the Last Day, He will work to bring you to Christ. Together the Trinity, our one God in three persons, planned, accomplished, and delivered salvation to us. In the Name of our loving, merciful, and saving God, the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Midweek (Second Article of the Nicene Creed)

“You shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Tonight we reflect upon the second article of the Nicene Creed, in which we confess: “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” Dear friends in Christ: C.S. Lewis, one of the most significant Christian laypeople of the twentieth century, always became very frustrated when people told him that they thought of Jesus as some kind of great teacher, but nothing more. He thought such a perspective refused to take seriously what the New Testament actually says about Jesus. In the four Gospels (not to mention the Epistles), Jesus is quite clearly identified as God in the flesh, by Himself and by others. Lewis believed that there were only three ways to explain these claims: either Jesus is a lunatic, a liar, or He is the Lord. He either thinks He is God, when He isn’t, or He knows He isn’t God, and still claims the title to deceive the masses, or else there is the tantalizing possibility that Jesus is actually telling the truth, and He’s right.

What kind of Jesus do you follow? Do you follow the Jesus that gives good advice, who can help you get along with your kids, be successful at your job, and have a happy marriage? Do you follow the Jesus who is an ancient Dr. Phil, full of tips and pointers, who gives you the tools you need to have your best life now? If you are simply following a Jesus who is a ‘good teacher’ but nothing more, who isn’t really God as He claimed, then you are following the advice of a crazy person at best, and the world’s most successful con-man at worst. What kind of Jesus do you follow? He had better be the Jesus of the Nicene Creed, or else you’re really just wasting your time. You can find good advice anywhere, but salvation is found in no one other than the Jesus of the Scriptures, the Jesus of the Nicene Creed, the Jesus who is neither lunatic nor liar, but Lord.

We confess together that we worship “one Lord Jesus Christ.” This world tries to fit Jesus into almost any mold, but there are not many Jesus’s, there is only one Jesus, the Jesus who is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds.” This means that Jesus is the Son of the Father from eternity, He is eternally the Son. The phrases that follow unpack that reality, describing the Son in terms that are hard to mistake: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” All these words boil down to one truth: the Son is true God. He is of one substance with the Father, begotten, not made. He was not created, there was never a time that He didn’t exist; He is God, of “one substance with the Father.” That phrase says it all. A Mormon cannot confess that, nor can a Jehovah’s Witness or the followers of a whole host of ancient heresies. The Son is of one substance with the Father; together with the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son are together one God. 

This Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who is outside of time and space, entered both bearing our human flesh. Saint John puts it this way: “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.” We confess it this way in the Nicene Creed: “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” In those few words, we express a great mystery; indeed, of all the mysteries of Scripture, the incarnation, the taking on of flesh by the Son of God, is the most amazing. Because of the incarnation, we can say of the man Jesus, ‘This is God;’ we can say of Mary, ‘She is the mother of God.’ The God who created all things has Himself joined His creatures in their flesh and blood. Therefore Saint Matthew say about the events of Christmas: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His Name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Jesus is God with us, God amongst His creatures. The timeless one inserted Himself into time, He who is outside of history placed Himself within it. He who fills all things localized Himself within a human body. What kind of Jesus do you follow? It had better be the Jesus who is true God, “of one substance with the Father,” and also true man, “incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.” Why? Because apart from that Jesus, you are doomed to eternal destruction.

The eternal Son of God didn’t become man simply to ‘walk a mile in our shoes,’ to experience life on our terms. Certainly a wonderful result of the incarnation is that our God has been ‘one of us,’ and can therefore sympathize with our weaknesses and sufferings, but it is not the reason why He became man in the first place. In fact, the Nicene Creed skips over all of Jesus’ teachings and miracles, taking us to the reason for His taking flesh in the first place. He was “crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.” He came to us in the flesh in order to die, to be crucified ‘for us’ under Pontius Pilate. The Nicene Creed doesn’t tell us at this point what Christ’s death and resurrection did for us; it waits until the third article to speak about things like the “remission of sins” and the “resurrection of the dead.” Here we simply confess that He was crucified also “for us.” But while brief, these two little words say it all. Jesus was crucified for us, bearing our sin, standing in our place; His crucifixion and resurrection was God’s solution to the problem of our sin. The eternal Son of God entered our time and space to give up His life as the price to save us. Only as true God could He offer a price sufficient for the sin of the world; only as true man could He live and die in our place. What kind of Jesus do you follow? Salvation is found only in the Jesus who dies on a cross, true God from eternity, and true man, born of the virgin Mary.

We believe in “one Lord Jesus Christ”—one Jesus, true God and true man, not two. And He remains one Lord for eternity. He never leaves His humanity behind, but instead enthrones it, glorifies it, and exalts it to the right hand of God. We confess in the Nicene Creed that He “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” He assumes our human flesh in the womb of Mary, and having finished His course upon this earth, He takes that human flesh to the very throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day as our judge and king, dividing those made righteous by His blood from those who rejected Him, establishing His Kingdom forever. There we will live in our bodies, glorified as His body is glorified, forever.

That is what Advent is all about: waiting for and anticipating that glorious Day. On Christmas, we celebrate that the only-begotten Son of God has taken human flesh, for when God becomes man, it is man that is changed, forever. He sits in the flesh at the right hand of the throne of God, the pledge and guarantee that our flesh will one day stand before God’s throne as well. This was the Father’s plan for our salvation all along; that is why He protected the precious line of the Messiah throughout the generations, removing every obstacle, defeating every attempt to snuff it out. Christmas is the long awaited gift of God’s Son, it is the gift of Jesus, given to you and to me for our salvation. What kind of Jesus do you follow? You follow the Jesus who is true God and yet true man, the Jesus who is God’s gift to you, bringing you forgiveness, life, and salvation. In the Name of God in the flesh, Immanuel, our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Advent 3 of Series A (Matthew 11:2-15)

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 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 eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: it was halfway through overtime in Orchard Park, New York, three seasons ago. The hapless Buffalo Bills were playing the perennial Super Bowl contenders from Pittsburgh, the Steelers. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo quarterback and Harvard graduate, took the snap around the fifty yard line, dropped back, and uncorked a high arching pass toward his endzone. It was a perfect pass, traveling through the air to the exact point where he wanted it- into the hands of his open receiver. Only one problem- the ball went right through the outstretched arms of wide receiver Steve Johnson and dropped harmlessly to the turf. But that wasn’t the end of this day’s drama. Steve Johnson ignited a firestorm when he blamed God, yes God, for his dropped pass. He posted on the internet: “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me!? How am I supposed to learn from this!?” Perhaps without even knowing it, Steve Johnson was asking one of the more popular questions in all of history- “If I follow you, Lord, why do bad things happen to me?”

That is what John the Baptist wanted to find out. He was the forerunner, the one prophesied by the Holy Scriptures. He had made the good confession of Jesus many times, he had pointed his own followers and countless others to the one whom he thought was the Messiah. And what does he earn for this work? A stay in prison. This isn’t how it is supposed to work! If John had a website, he probably would’ve written, “I praise you 24/7, and this is how you do me? How am I supposed to learn from this?” Instead, he sent messengers to Jesus to find out exactly what was going on. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” In other words, if you are truly the Messiah, why am I in prison? Are you the one I was told to prepare for, or is there someone else coming? All he received was suffering when he expected glory and triumph. And that’s no surprise, because John is human, and our human nature expects glory. We want the victorious Christian life, we want to have things go well, to receive some sort of benefit for following Jesus. And what do we get? Suffering.

We suffer because of our Christian faith, but even more often we just suffer for seemingly no reason at all. We suffer the loss of loved ones, we suffer from illness and injury, we suffer from broken relationships. Sure, our lives do go pretty well most of the time, but there always seems to be another challenge up ahead of us, another opportunity to suffer in this broken world. And there are always the lingering challenges that follow us each and every day: the pain of a lost friendship or a family conflict, or the day to day struggle of making ends meet in an economy that can’t quite seem to get back on its feet. We cry out at the injustice of it all. If Jesus, the one whom we follow, the one we pray to, the one we gather here to worship, is truly the Messiah, is truly God Himself, then why do such things happen to me? Why do I suffer if I have the Lord of the universe on my side? If Jesus is for me, surely my life has to get better, right? And if my life doesn’t get better, then maybe He isn’t who He says He is. Like John and that Buffalo Bills wide receiver, the questions begin to swirl: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me? How am I supposed to learn from this?”

Jesus says in our text that “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” but that is much easier said than done. We are offended by our own sufferings, offended that our God, our Lord and Messiah would let such things happen to us. If we expect glory and not suffering, then we may even begin to look for a God that can provide such glory, or at least a Christian congregation who proclaims only a glorious Christ. And there are plenty of congregations out there that proclaim the victorious Christian life, that proclaim only the glories of a Jesus who is so big and so awesome that He can take away all your problems. If you only believe hard enough, they will tell you, then your problems will fade away, and God will grant you success in all that you do. But if we take offense at our own sufferings, then we better stop reading Matthew at this point, for Jesus Christ Himself is headed for suffering. That poses an even more striking question, asked of Jesus Himself at the cross: If you are the Christ, why do you suffer? How can Jesus have an answer for suffering if He Himself suffers? John’s question could’ve been asked at the foot of the cross: “Are you the one who is to come?”

For this reason, many of the congregations that preach the victorious Christian life tend to avoid spending much time talking about Good Friday. And that is tragic, because it is only through His suffering that Jesus provides an answer for our suffering. Jesus has glory up ahead all right, the glory of the one seated at the right hand of the Father, but first He must suffer, first He must give His life. First He must take all of our sufferings, all of our diseases, and all of our corruption upon Himself and carry them to the cross. Every disease, every infirmity, every tragedy in your life has the same root cause- sin. It may be your sin, it may be the sin of others, or it may simply be because we live in a fallen and corrupted world, but every time you suffer, it is because of sin. Jesus also suffered because of sin, but not only because He too lived in a sinful world, He suffered to eliminate sin. He suffered to do away with the cause of all your sufferings. That is why He walked to the cross, to bring all of your burdens, each and every instance of suffering that you are experiencing in your life to the altar of salvation and do away with them there. We often think of Jesus carrying our sins to the cross, but that is only part of the story. He also bears our diseases, our broken relationships, our tragedies, our mourning, all that we suffer in this body and life. His suffering is the solution to your suffering, because He suffers for you.

In our text, we see that the elimination of suffering begins even before the cross. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus demonstrates to John’s disciples that the kingdom of God has truly broken into this world through His person and work. Diseases are being cured, infirmities are taken away, and even the dead are raised; what could be more glorious than that!? But there is something missing. All those whom Jesus has healed and even raised up will eventually die of something else. Death has been dealt a blow, but it will still claim each and every one of them. John is not miraculously released from prison, and in fact very soon his head will be delivered on a platter. The healings of Jesus then don’t seem to accomplish much, and they definitely don’t seem to apply to your life or mine. But it would be a mistake to ignore their importance. Even though they are temporary, even though death seems to still win in each and every case, Jesus is demonstrating through His healings that something new has come. He is pointing to the end of all suffering, to the reversal of all corruption, to the final solution for our sin. He is beginning to restore this fallen creation, proclaiming that He has come to conquer disease and death forever. He heals to declare that because of His suffering and death, your eternity will be filled with glory.

But suffering still comes first. Jesus’ suffering on our behalf provided a final solution for suffering, an eternal solution for suffering, but we still dwell in this veil of tears, where sin still causes suffering. Therefore, the Christian life is not some glory train, living victoriously and getting what we want. Instead the Christian life is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, but it is a path that we do not walk alone. Our Lord is with us each and every step of the way, proclaiming to us the Good News that He has conquered all suffering and death through His own suffering and death. Jesus said to John’s disciples that “the poor have good news preached to them.” That is last in the list because it is the most important. We are those poor who need the good news preached to us in the midst of our suffering. We need to hear of the victory of Jesus Christ over death when we face death in our lives. We need to hear of the glorious bodies we will have in the resurrection when our bodies seems to fail. We need to know that Jesus suffered for us, not just as some act of solidarity, but to actually pay for our sin and remove the cause of suffering. We need to know that Jesus is with us, not absent somewhere in heaven, but beside us in our suffering, speaking words of comfort. We need to know that we have a God who knows suffering, because He endured it Himself for us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just spiritual, it has a powerful physical dimension. Jesus will restore our bodies, He will raise them up on the Last Day, never to die again, never to be diseased again, in the new heavens and new earth where no relationship will ever be broken again, especially our relationship with God.
We wait for that day, we anticipate the time when the Lord will eliminate all suffering and bring us to the glory that awaits us. And make no mistake, glory is ahead for all of us, glory that is incomparable with anything we experience in this life. In our Epistle this morning, James exhorts us to wait for this glory in patience. “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord… As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” Just as the prophets of old cried out to God as they suffered, so God wants us to cry to Him in the midst of suffering, He wants us to turn to Him, and His answer to our cries is His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Christ’s sufferings mean that our sufferings will end when He renews all creation, bringing to completion what He begun by healing the sick and lame. We look toward that Day with great anticipation this Advent season, for our Lord is coming again, and He is coming to bring you and me deliverance from sin, from suffering, from death. Thanks be to God that He answers our cries with His Son, our coming Savior, Amen.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent 2 of Series A (Romans 15:4-13)

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. The text for our sermon this second Sunday of Advent comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of Romans. Dear friends in Christ, Jesse’s tree stood tall upon Mount Zion, enjoying God’s blessings, for Jesse was the father of David, God’s chosen king. But the tree became corrupted and evil, it rotted from the inside out, and so God sent axes, which cut it down, and it fell with a mighty crash. Now, all that was left was a barren, dead, withered stump, standing as a testimony to what John the Baptist said: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” But that wasn’t the end of the story; God didn’t forget His promises. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The dead, barren stump of Jesse sent forth a solitary shoot, the Messiah, the fulfillment of all the promises. And this Messiah would be far different from all who came before. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

This Shoot from the stump of Jesse stands in great contrast to the rotten, corrupted tree that it replaced, the tree that was cut down by God’s just judgment. He will judge righteously, not by appearances, but by grace. He will not exalt Himself over others, but will act in humility. He will love even His enemies, and extend forgiveness to the worst sinner. This righteous Shoot will act on behalf of the poor and meek, serving and saving them in the midst of their poverty. He will not judge by what His eyes see, or decide disputes by what He hears with His ears, but He will look to the heart and show love to all men, He will judge the world with righteousness.

We judge the world with unrighteousness; we judge by what our eyes see and our ears hear. Christian congregations are divided by fault lines based on appearances, upon gossip, upon differences that mattered little to the Shoot from the stump of Jesse. He didn’t look at appearances; we judge others based on the clothing they wear or how well they clean up. He didn’t judge based on what His ears heard; we form our opinions of others based on town gossip and the opinions of our friends. He refused to exalt himself over others; we divide one from another based on social standing, income, or family relationships. The same divisions that exist in the world we drag into the Church. We walk not in humility but in pride; we cause division as we seek to get our own way. He had forgiveness even for His enemies; we hold grudges and refuse to be reconciled. Our family conflicts and estrangements with our brothers and sisters in Christ powerfully affect our life together as a congregation. He acted on behalf of the poor and meek; we show favor to those who are high and exalted in the eyes of the world.

The Shoot from the stump of Jesse came to bring unity and harmony among all people, of every social or economic class, from every nation under the Sun; we work to bring division and disharmony, fracturing the Church through our own pride and judging by appearances. Throughout history, Christian congregations have exhibited the same prejudices and divisions that are seen in our world. Congregations have been divided, or separate congregations created, along racial, ethnic, social, or economic lines. Division has come from the pride of sinful humans, each wanting to get their own way and refusing to forgive the one who sinned against them. Welcome comes only to those who are deemed ‘acceptable’ to join the assembly. Is an alcoholic welcome here? What about a person struggling with homosexuality? Is a homeless person welcome in our midst?

John the Baptist has some fiery Law to speak to those who bring disunity, who divide and fracture the Church, who exclude people from the fellowship of their congregation: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That was the fate of Jesse’s tree, the kingly line of David. Those kings, and their people, acted not in humility before the Lord, but in pride. They didn’t seek to serve the poor and lowly, but oppressed them. Their hearts were not open in welcome to the sufferer, but they turned him away. The barren stump of Jesse is a warning to us, a warning that God is serious when He speaks such strong words through John the Baptist. Every tree that does not bear good fruit, the fruit of humility, the fruit of love for the enemy, the fruit of not judging by appearances, will be cut down and burned.

The axe was destined for us, the fire was kindled for us, but we were not the tree cut down and burned. Instead, it was the righteous Shoot. The great tree of Jesse was cut off in God’s righteous judgment, and the barren stump sent out a new green shoot, growing great and tall before God in the space of thirty years. But when the hour came, that new tree was cut down, it was cast to the ground and burned in God’s judgment. Not because it had transgressed like the tree that came before it. No, this mighty tree was righteous, perfect, and holy, but yet it was still cut down. Why? God cut down this tree because it stood in your place and mine. The righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse bore the punishment that you and I justly deserved. It was cut down when Jesus was hung upon the cross; it was burned in God’s judgment when Jesus faced the naked wrath of God over our sin. The axe was for you, as was the fire, but Jesus bore them in your place.

So you are not cut off, you do not have to fear the fire that fell upon Jesus, the righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse. You are spared from the punishment you deserved for the sake of Christ, for He put Himself in your place on that Good Friday. He won forgiveness for you, forgiveness that covers over your pride, your holding a grudge, your refusal to welcome the one who is different than you. Therefore, Christ welcomes you into the Father’s arms, to the sure and certain hope of eternal victory, life forever far from the sin of this world and its judgment. Saint Paul prays for us, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” This hope does not disappoint, for it is founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We are unified in that hope. Only that common salvation that we all have as Christians can bring harmony to a congregation filled with people who are different in so many ways. We can live in harmony because we are all forgiven sinners, the righteous Shoot stood in the place of each and every one of us. That is what we have in common, no matter what sin it is that we struggle with, how much money we make, where we live, or what family we belong to. You have that in common with your brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you, and on the basis of that common salvation you can humbly seek reconciliation even with those who have wronged you, dealing with them as a fellow redeemed sinner. There is no repentant sinner that is worse than another, and there is no forgiven saint that is better than another. Christ has welcomed us all. And so Paul encourages us, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In the congregation in Rome, the division was between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians; the fault lines for us are quite different, but the solution is the same: a focus on the common hope that we all share, proclaimed to us by the Scriptures. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

The hope of eternal life, the hope of the resurrection, made sure and certain by the shed blood of Jesus, is our common treasure. That is where our unity is founded. Our unity is expressed in worship. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Where else but on a Sunday morning can you gather together a group of people far different from one another in almost every way, and together they receive the same gifts, sing the same songs, and rejoice in their common treasure? At the communion rail, at the baptismal font, before the pulpit there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor, neither white nor black nor Hispanic. Here there exist none of the divisions that we find in our world. Even our disagreements matter little when we stand before the great gifts of God. Harmony doesn’t mean that we are all singing the same note—we’re much different from each other, after all—but it does mean that we’re singing the same song. And that song is the eternal song of praise to our saving God.

Harmony is a gift, a gift found only through that salvation, only through Jesus. The righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse came to bring unity and harmony, not just between people, but between all things. The axe is laid to His roots in order to reconcile all of creatures to each other and to their God. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” No more conflict, no more war, but peace and unity, an eternity filled with voices raised in harmony, singing joyous praises to the One who brought eternal reconciliation; Jesus, the righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse, who stood in our place. In His Name, Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Advent Midweek (First Article of the Nicene Creed)

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Tonight, we reflect on the first article of the Nicene Creed, which confesses, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Dear friends in Christ: when I read the news every morning, I’m always drawn to stories that talk about faith. I’m continually fascinated by how people express their beliefs, and almost just as interested in how the media covers what they say. Most of these stories contain vague references to ‘faith,’ ‘spirituality,’ ‘the power of belief,’ or they even speak about ‘God.’ What I don’t find, however, is anything specific. We don’t learn what church they belong to, if they go to church in the first place, or what doctrines they confess. We don’t even learn what they believe about God. Each article could be summed up this way: some person gets through their struggles with a vague ‘faith’ in some sort of non-specific ‘God.’ 

This sounds great for people who want to be spiritual, not religious, who don’t want to be tied down by actually believing in anything definite, but it is hardly Christian. Christians don’t worship a ‘higher power,’ they don’t worship an all-purpose ‘god’ that anyone can understand as they want, they worship a very specific God, a God who has revealed Himself quite clearly in the pages of Scripture. They worship, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “one God.” Not a generic ‘god,’ but a specific God, the God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They worship a God who is Triune, three in one. We don’t understand how this can be with our reason, but we simply confess what the Scriptures teach. I’m not sure we should even use the word ‘God’ all that much. All sorts of people claim to believe in ‘God,’ but do they believe in the God confessed in the Nicene Creed, do they believe in the God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? What kind of God do they have—the God revealed in the Scriptures, of some other ‘god?’ Christians should never be vague when speaking about God, because our God is never vague when speaking about Himself.

The Triune God is first reveals as the Creator, the maker, as the Nicene Creed declares, “of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” What kind of God do we worship? We worship God the Father, who created all things. Everything has its source in the Father; nothing exists apart from Him. He spoke this universe into existence, both the things that we see with our eyes and the entire unseen realm. When you read God’s own account of His creation in the first two chapters of the Bible, what stands out is order; He sets all things in their proper places. The God that we worship is a God of order, who established the laws that govern reality, for whom all things have a purpose. We don’t worship a god who created all things and then departed, we don’t worship a god who simply wound this earth up and then left the rest to evolution, we worship the God who created all things from nothing in six literal days, and has not abandoned His creation, which He made ‘very good.’

His creation was very good, His creation was orderly, from the laws of physics to the relationship between man and woman. But chaos came into that order, the chaos of sin. Humanity spoiled and corrupted what was created very good through their disobedience, introducing conflict and disorder, the war of all against all that characterizes existence in the world to this very day. The Father’s creatures rebelled against Him, and they continue to rebel against Him. You rebel against Him. I rebel against Him. We don’t want to live according to His order. We can lament the terrible state of our world as much as we want to, but the truth is, we too are responsible for its corruption. You and I certainly aren’t making this world better, because our sin continues to ruin relationships and spoil the earth, even estranging us from God the Father Almighty. You and I are culpable; we cannot escape blame for the sorry state of our world. What kind of God do we worship? We worship a God who established His Law and sorrows as we violate it.

But the Father doesn’t abandon His creation. Remember, the God we worship is not some absentee landlord, but having created all things, having even watched with sorrow as what He made good turned to evil, God the Father plans for our salvation. Our God is the God of the prophets, the God of history; as He told Moses, He is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God the Father Almighty is the One who established His covenant on Mount Sinai, who worked wonders through Elijah, the God who set aside the people of Israel to be His own. The entire Old Testament is an account of the Father calling His people back to Himself. John the Baptist is the final prophet, sent to call God’s people to repentance one last time. The angel tells Zechariah about his son: “He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Our God is the God who saw humanity in our sin and refused to leave us there to die under His just wrath. His prophets brought a message of judgment and condemnation, calling us to repentance, but they also brought a message of hope, founded on the promise of the serpent’s defeat, made by the Father just moments after the first sin. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” It was this promise of coming victory over Satan that Zechariah sang of to his eight-day old son: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath that He swore to our father Abraham.”

The Old Testament has two great themes: the preservation of the Seed and the continuation of the promise. In every generation, that Seed of a woman was threatened by enemies, by slavery, by barren wombs. And in every generation, the Triune God worked wonders to preserve His promise. Our God is the God who keeps His promises, even when all seems lost. And in each generation, God made His promise more and more specific, choosing the one through whom the promised Seed would come. Not Ishmael, but Isaac. Not Esau, but Jacob. David rather than any of his brothers, and so on through the centuries, until John the Baptist would point a trembling finger to the son of Joseph and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” 

God is the Father because He has a Son, and that Son is the fulfillment of all His promises. We worship the God who sent Jesus, for He is the only true God, and indeed He has in Christ brought a new creation, order once again from the disorder of sin, life in the place of death. Christmas is the Father’s plan all along, the culmination of centuries of preserving the promise and making it more and more specific. You see, our God is specific; He isn’t vague or generic in any way. The sending of Jesus on Christmas Eve isn’t a plan of salvation, it’s the plan, the only plan, for only this Jesus would travel to the cross, die and then rise again to reconcile this creation with its Creator. Zechariah sings that through Jesus, only Jesus, “The sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” So when someone asks you if you believe in God, don’t just say ‘yes;’ tell them about the God you believe in: the Father Almighty, who sent Jesus to destroy sin and death. When someone asks you if you have faith, tell them who your faith is in: the God who spoke by the prophets and now has spoken by His Son. We don’t believe in a higher power, we don’t believe in a vague deity or some generic God; we believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, who sent His Son into specific space and time for our salvation. In the Name of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent 1 of Series A (Romans 13:11-14)

“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.” 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 first Sunday in Advent comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, in the darkness of the Bethlehem night, a light shone. Not the light of the star, although that was certainly bright, but the light of the Son of God in the flesh, the One who would declare: “I AM the Light of the world.” When He comes, the darkness is chased away. He shines in the midst of the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome Him, although it certainly tries. The darkness attempted to snuff the Light out by nailing it to a cross, but found itself overcome and destroyed. The sun refused to shine on the Friday we call Good, but on Easter morning the Light shone again, more glorious than ever, filling the world with light.

It always seems the darkest just before the dawn. Our world is darkened, filled with the blackness of sin and death, and we are filled with dread here in the valley of the shadow of death. But the promise of Advent is the promise of light, the promise that the night is soon ending. “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” The people walking in darkness, struggling through the valley of the shadow of death, have the promise that night is ending, that the darkness has itself been overcome. The dawn is coming, here when it seems the darkest and dreariest. Christ Himself shines in our darkness, He makes His Church a beacon of light, the only light that can penetrate the darkness and give hope to those who walk in shadow. His light shone bright on Golgotha’s bloody hill, and when that Light was snuffed out and laid into a tomb, the darkness had never seemed deeper. But that night ended; early in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, the women came to the tomb and found it empty. As the sun rose, so did the Son of God, and He rose to bring an end to night forever. When He returns, there will be no more darkness; His people, you and me, will be rescued from its clutches and will dwell in eternal light. The night of sin and death is coming to an end; the day is surely coming! This is the hope of Advent, the hope that despite all the darkness crowding around us, the night will come to an end when Christ returns on the clouds.

So be ready! Wake up! The dawn is coming! “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.” Wait in eager watchfulness, keeping an eye on the horizon, looking for the coming dawn. The hour is nearer this day, this moment, than it has ever been before. I may not reach the end of this word, this sentence, this sermon. You may not make it home before the dawn breaks into the darkness. The hour is quickly coming, it could happen at any moment, so live with that urgency, live as if Christ could return at any moment, for He surely will; the night could end at any time. Do not wait in fear or terror, but wait in joy, in eager expectation. Paul says that salvation is coming to us; rejoice that the night will end, and keep watch for the coming dawn.

Do not let the darkness lull you to sleep! Do not let the long night deceive you into being comfortable in shadow. Do not get used to dreams! They pretend to be real, but as with all dreams, when morning comes they will be no more. We get used to dwelling in the night, we find a sort of perverse comfort there; even as we curse the darkness, we aren’t quite sure what we would do with light. The return of Christ seems a far off reality, and because we have never lived in the light, we fear it. Certainly our sinful nature fears the light. The deeds we do in the darkness want no exposure by the light, the cloak that the darkness provides is a comfort to us, for in its shadows we can do what we want. The powers of darkness want us to cling to the night, to be comfortable walking in the shadows, to sleep peacefully in dreamland without watching for the dawn.

Wake up, rise from your slumber! Do not dwell in dreams, do not walk in darkness, but stay awake. “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.” Do not walk in the ways of the night, do not put on the garments of darkness, but cast them far from you. The clothing of the night is made for sleep, but you are called upon to stay awake. “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” The works of the night lull us to sleep, they distract us from being alert for the return of Christ. These works are certainly sins in their own right, but their chief danger is that they distract us from being ready for the coming dawn. They keep us trapped in darkness, in dreamland, asleep, when we should be alert and ready. Addiction to alcohol or drugs quite literally puts us to sleep, it deadens our senses and our conscience, so that we are not watching for the dawn; in fact, we are not completely aware of our behavior at all. Sexual immorality takes the gift of marriage and perverts it, it undermines what God gave as good. One just has to turn on the television or search the internet to see how sexual immorality has become an all-consuming obsession. Quarreling and jealousy capture us; we spend more time fighting with our neighbors, even in the church, than watching for the coming dawn.

Cast off those works of darkness, which distract, which make us unprepared for Christ’s return. “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The sinful flesh will pass away when morning comes, along with all of its desires and behaviors. Why waste your time chasing the desires of the flesh, which are fleeting and doomed to destruction, when you should be focusing on that which endures, which will endure when the night ends? Yes, the body needs food and drink, but not to excess. Yes, sex is a good gift of God, but not apart from marriage. Yes, we are to interact with others, but not with rivalry or envy, seeking to get our own way. We are to care for our bodies, but attempting to gratify the sinful desires of the flesh only distracts us, focusing us on the things of this earth rather than the eternal things that will endure when this world of darkness fails.

“The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” When the morning is near, you rise from sleep and remove the clothing of the darkness, putting on the garments of the day. Each and every morning, you are preparing for the coming of Christ and the day which lasts forever. “So let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Cast off the garments of sleep and dress yourself for the day. Be properly attired, not in the clothing of drunkenness, sexual immorality, or conflict, but with the armor of light. Be clothed in love for your neighbor, in service of His needs. Be dressed with the clothing of worship and prayer. “Let us walk properly as in the daytime.” Wear the armor of light, for only with that clothing can you be protected from the assaults of the darkness. This is the clothing of war, the attire of battle against your cunning enemies. This is the clothing given to you in your baptism. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” You put on Christ in that font, you were dressed in Him. Put Christ on each and every day in repentance and faith; be clothed in His robe of righteousness. Stay alert by living in your baptism; putting your old Adam to death by repenting of your sin and clinging to Christ’s forgiveness in faith.

We are prepared for the coming of the dawn by coming back to the font daily; there we wash our filthy garments of darkness in the blood of the Lamb, casting them off and putting on the armor of light. And we need armor, for this world is desperate to drag us back into the deeds of darkness; Satan wants us to live in shadow forever, the endless night of hell. We are at war, and we need the implements of war given to us at the font. You all know the battles that you fight with sin, the conflicts that come from those who oppose your faith and Christian morality. We counter sin with Christ’s forgiveness; we fight the lies with the truth of His Word. The victory remains with Christ, the warfare of the night is coming to an end when the morning comes; the Light will scatter and destroy all the enemies who belong to darkness. On that glorious day all conflict will cease, as God brings eternal peace through the death and resurrection of His Son. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

With the morning comes peace; peace between nations, peace within yourself, and peace between God and man. The dawn is a dawn of peace, for the dawn brings the return of Christ, who won this peace. We wait for that Day with eager anticipation because it is a Day of salvation; the final coming of Jesus brings us joy because He came to us on Palm Sunday humble and mounted on a donkey. The Light shone on Christmas Eve, and the Light will shine when the Last Day comes, but that Light is only a cause for joy because the Light entered Jerusalem in order to die. The crowds shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Hosanna! Come save us, please! He came into that city to make the Last Day a day of joy, for He came bearing all of our sin, all that divided us from God, and He would not leave until He had accomplished our salvation. He came to be betrayed into the hands of sinners, He came to be nailed to a cross, He came to suffer and die for you, so that the coming of the dawn would not be something to fear, but the day that you eagerly expect. The Light of His cross shines as a beacon, proclaiming victory over the darkness, anticipating the morning, when night will be no more. Today you walk in the valley of the shadow of death, but the darkness will not overcome you, for you belong to the One who is the Light of the world. He is coming soon: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Hosanna to the Son of David—hosanna in the highest! Amen.

Thanksgiving Eve (Luke 17:11-19)

“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” 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 Thanksgiving Eve comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, ten lepers dwelled outside of the city, communing together in their uncleanness. Ten lepers were outcast, unable to interact with any but each other, disconnected from their families, their community, and their God. Ten lepers were desperate. Ten lepers saw Jesus at a distance, and they recognized Him as the One who had healed so many others. Ten lepers lifted up their voices: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Ten lepers heard His reply, filled with pity, with compassion, with love: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Ten lepers went, perhaps in faith, perhaps in doubt or fear, but they went just the same. “And as they went, they were cleansed.” Ten lepers were cleansed, they saw in amazement that their corrupted skin was made whole. Ten lepers were healed, but only nine continued to the temple; for the first time, their unity was broken. Ten lepers were healed; only one was saved.

All ten were afflicted, all ten cried out for mercy, all ten heard the voice of Jesus, all ten went to the temple, and all ten were cleansed. But only one returned. Imagine running with these lepers as they hurried to the temple, seeing at one moment their disease-ravaged sin, and then at the next, their skin renewed and restored, like that of a baby. Nicodemus thought it was ridiculous that anyone could be born again; he should’ve watched these lepers stop and examine their newborn skin. They were cleansed, made whole, healed! Their eyes tell the story—bodies restored, life given back, families reunited. But only one returns. Ten were healed, one was saved. The other nine focus on the gift rather than the Giver; surely they are thankful, but they give no thought as to where they should give thanks, or to whom. This is a common problem; on Thanksgiving we are encouraged, indeed commanded by our culture to give thanks. But who do we give thanks to? Where do we give thanks? Scripture teaches us that every good gift comes from God Himself, that nothing we have been given is our own. We give thanks to the God for all good gifts; the blessings that we have in this life do not come ultimately from ourselves or anyone else, but from God. Even if we earned it through our own labors, it is God who gave us our abilities and even our body. God has given us all things—what else is there to do but to give thanks?

Ten lepers have been given physical healing; their leprosy is gone, there can be no doubt of that. The priests will very soon confirm that healing and readmit them to the worship life of the community. Their skin is clean, they have been brought from living death to life. They have a new beginning, a fresh start, and a joyful reunion with their families awaits them. These are good things, blessed things, gifts from God. On this Thanksgiving Eve we thank Him for food on our table, for favorable weather, for a stable government, for policemen and firemen who protect our lives and property. We give thanks to God for good health, for family and friends, for a successful harvest. But what if you had a rough year? What if your health failed, your loved ones died, or your crop disappointed? What if you struggled with relationships, had fights with family and friends, and come here tonight wondering what there really is to be thankful for? Sure, we can say, ‘Count your blessings,’ and that is certainly true. There is always much that we have to be thankful for, if we stop to think about it. But those are hardly comforting words to one who is hurting. The leper who returned, however, gives us an example to follow. Ten lepers were healed; for nine, the physical healing was all that mattered to them. Their focus was on the things of this world. For that Samaritan, however, the most important healing was not the one on His skin.

His physical eyes saw the transformation of his flesh, but his spiritual eyes were opened to see a far greater reality. He saw Christ as His Savior. His eyes were opened in faith to recognize what the other nine didn’t—this Jesus isn’t some miracle-worker, some magician and healer, but the Messiah promised by Scripture, the One who had come to heal souls as He healed bodies. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus feet, giving Him thanks.” He was drawn back to Jesus because He realized who Jesus truly was; even if he couldn’t quite put it in words, this former leper knew that the temple was no longer the place to give thanks. The place to give thanks is at the feet of Jesus. Jesus is the new temple, the place where God’s presence dwells among men. Jesus will tell the Pharisees in just a few verses, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” The Kingdom of God is in their midst because the Kingdom of God comes in Jesus. This Kingdom comes for all people; Jesus’ fellow Jews do not return to give thanks, but this Samaritan leper, twice outcast as unclean and a foreigner, is received by grace into the Kingdom that Christ has brought. He revels in the Giver, not simply in the gift, because he has been given something much more important than physical healing; his soul has been restored, washed clean from the leprosy of sin, and he has been restored to his God.

The physical healing that he has received along with the other nine is a marker, a pointer to the greater spiritual healing that he has been given. He has a new beginning; he shows us what it means to be baptized into Christ. The same God who in Christ restored his body has renewed his soul. God gives physical gifts in greater and lesser abundance throughout our lives, and we are to give thanks for all of them. All good gifts come from God, and when all things come from God, there is nothing left besides thanksgiving. But through all of the blessings and challenges of this life, whether we receive healing or disease, life or death, good rulers or bad, poor crops or abundance, one thing stands firm, and that is where the Samaritan leper ran: Jesus. Jesus’ salvation endures, it is permanent, it cannot be moved by the changes and chances of this sinful world. We come to our Rock to give thanks this night for the greatest gifts that we have been given: the gift of cleansing from the leprosy of sin, the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation won by His shed blood, His innocent suffering and death. Those events were still in the future for the Samaritan leper—we look back to them as completed realities—but still he clung to Jesus as the promised Savior. The temple held nothing for him—Christ was everything.

Ten lepers were healed, one was saved. Ten lepers were healed; Jesus didn’t give them back their leprosy when they failed to return and give thanks. They received healing just as God gives rain and bread to all people, whether they give thanks to Him or not. But the Samaritan realized the greater reality behind his cleansing. Following Christ doesn’t mean that you will always drive a new car, never have a bad crop, will have perfect relationships with your children, or will never get sick. Following Christ means that you have eternal salvation, that you will live even though you die. Following Christ doesn’t mean that you life will always be happy and carefree; in fact, Christ promises crosses in this life, but His greater promise is that all things will work out for your eternal good, giving you joy that endures despite anything that you experience in this life. He promises that as He has died, so you have died to sin in Him. He promises that as He was raised up in victory over the grave, you too will be raised up. The salvation He gives is spiritual, but it is also physical, the renewal of your body at the Resurrection. On that Day you will see what the leper saw in preview: your flesh restored and renewed, made beautiful and perfect for eternity. Those are the promises we give thanks for on this Thanksgiving Eve. Where do we give thanks? At the feet of Jesus, in prayer, in worship, in songs of praise. What do we give thanks for? All things, but especially for the salvation that endures forever. Whether you have had a year filled with sorrow or joy, with success or failure, or somewhere in-between, you can go forth from this place with the comforting words of Jesus: “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well.” Amen.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

St. John Chrysostom on Abortion

In reading Chrysostom (347-407 AD), I am struck again and again by how 'contemporary' he is.  Much of what he says could be preached today without any changes.  This points to both the timelessness of human depravity and the timelessness of God's Word.  Chrysostom can apply the Law with a bite that no one can squirm away from, but he also declares the Gospel in all of its sweetness.  This quote is directed against men who commit sexual immorality, which often, then as now, leads to another sin.

“Drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder.  For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born.  Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing into slaughter?...  For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine.” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 520)

Chrysostom was surely speaking to our age!  What doesn't appear in this quote is the beautiful message of the Gospel, that Christ Himself hung upon the cross even for those who have committed abortion, even those who through promiscuity put another in a situation where she listened to her fears and the voices of the culture.  Jesus died for those sins, as He did for all others--there is forgiveness, there is healing in Jesus Christ.  He is the friend of sinners, all sinners, and He bore our burdens all to the cross.  Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me--Amen!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Proper 28 of Series C (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

“Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” 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 Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the final chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica. Dear friends in Christ, once I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming: Look busy!” Apparently you can goof off behind His back, but when you see Him coming, you better pretend to be busy, because He is quite literally bringing the wrath of God. There is some truth there: Jesus is coming, and He doesn’t want us to be idle as we wait. In fact, just after our Gospel lesson, Jesus warns us to be well-prepared for that day: “Watch yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” Jesus is coming: be prepared! He is surely coming, and He is coming as a thief in the night, at an hour that we do not expect, and so our task is to work while it is day, for the night of judgment is coming, when no man can work. How are we to wait? Jesus tells us: “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all the things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” We wait in prayer, in worship, and in our Epistle lesson, Paul tells us another way we are to wait: by working!
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Jesus is coming: don’t be idle! We are called to spiritual labors like prayer and worship as we wait for Christ’s return, but also physical labor. Paul commands us to work in these latter days, to stay away from laziness and avoid idle people. He has little patience for those who are able to work, who are able to earn their own living, but yet do not. “Even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Those who can work should work. Now, we shouldn’t make Paul say more than he is saying. He isn’t condemning those who cannot work because of disability, disease, or age; he isn’t giving us political fodder for debates about welfare and food stamps. He is simply giving us the principle: Christians who can work should work.

This is fundamentally a seventh commandment issue: “You shall not steal.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” The seventh commandment is all about work, the earning and management of possessions and money. Laziness steals from others, especially those writing our checks, and we do this even when we are full-time workers. I’ve been an hourly employee: I know how it goes. Even as your pastor, I humbly confess before you today that through mismanagement of my time or just plain laziness, I myself have sinned against you in this way. Idleness steals from your neighbor, because you can work, but don’t, relying on what others earn through their labors, or else when you work, through laziness you steal time and resources from the one who hired you.

Lazy, idle hands are, as the saying goes, “the devil’s playground.” Idle hands lead to many sins. Idle hands get us into much trouble. “We hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” You all know what a busybody is: someone who doesn’t have enough of their own things to do, so he or she intrudes on the business of everyone else. Not only is idleness stealing from your neighbor, in violation of the seventh commandment, but idleness can lead you into violation of nearly all the rest. Idle hands have led many into violation of the sixth commandment—“You shall not commit adultery”—and even into disobedience to the fifth commandment—“You shall not murder.” A busybody is often a gossip; add the eighth commandment to the list: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Meddling in the affairs of others, busybodies speak when they should be quiet. No wonder Paul says, “Such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

If they will not listen, if we will not listen, then Paul’s instructions to the Church are clear: “We command you brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” As with any other sinner, those who are idle busybodies are to be admonished and called to repentance, along with any who steal from their employers through laziness. If they repent, rejoice and forgive, for you have gained your brother or sister. But if they persistently refuse, Paul says to ‘keep away’ from them, that is, they are to be put out of the fellowship of the Church, both so that they will not corrupt others and also so that they will see their great sin and be brought to repentance.

Your hands were created to give to others, not simply to receive. Even Paul himself, who was entitled to receive pay for his proclamation of the Gospel, didn’t exercise that freedom in order to set an example for the Thessalonians and for us. “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any one of you.” Paul didn’t act as if he were entitled to a free meal—in fact, he never ate in Thessalonica without paying for it! “It was not because we did not have the right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.”

We are called upon to follow Paul’s example, to work, to labor, not for our own good, to fill our own checkbook or belly, but to serve others. That is what work is for—you work not for yourself, but for the good of those around you. Your neighbors need your labors: the person who you serve or who buys the product you produce, and the family you provide for with your paycheck. God gave you hands to give to others, not simply to receive. Those who can work should work, not being a burden on others, but seeking to serve others, providing for those who truly cannot work for their own bread. Jesus is coming, and we are called upon not to look busy, but to serve others as we are able, putting the gifts God has given to us to work for the good of our neighbors.

Repent of your laziness, repent of your idleness, repent of being a busybody. Repent and throw yourself on the mercy of the One who labored, who worked for you. Jesus Christ was not idle, he was not lazy, but he willingly and tirelessly put in the work that was necessary for our salvation. He lived a life in accord with all the commandments, laboring to fulfill each and every one of them on your behalf. Then He faced the whip and the scourge, He carried His cross out of the city and up the hill, and finally He endured that cross, scorning its shame. His labors were all for you and for me, to pay the price for our sin, to eliminate all that stood between us and God. He labored to win forgiveness for your idleness; His bloody work atoned for every time that you are lazy and steal from your neighbor. You are forgiven by the shed blood of Christ! His labors were excruciating, but He didn’t shrink from the terrible work he had to undertake. And then, having accomplished His labors, having finished His work, Jesus, like His Father, rested on the Sabbath, only to come forth from the tomb on Sunday victorious over death itself. Now He sits at the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day.

We wait for that Day working in service to others. Someone once asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew that Jesus was coming back the very next day. He answered, “Plant a tree.” His point was that we simply go on living, laboring, serving others in every way that we can, even as the day of our Lord’s return comes ever nearer. Christians serve others in imitation of Christ’s greater service toward us. Christians serve others in eager anticipation of His return. We serve others with an eye watching the horizon for our returning Lord, with an ear cocked to listen for the final trumpet.

“Jesus is coming: Look busy!” the bumper sticker says. I would alter that slightly—“Jesus is coming: Rejoice!” That coming Day is a day filled with joy, as God proclaims to us through Malachi: “For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You will go out leaping like calves from the stall.” We rejoice on that Day because it is the day of victory, the day when Christ gives to us the eternal inheritance that He has prepared for us, all that His labors have won. On the Last Day, Christ’s empty tomb finds its completion in our empty tomb; His rest from His labors becomes our eternal rest from our own. On that Day we will find rest, having labored in this world in service of others, carrying the burdens of our neighbors. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be work, but it will no longer be a burden, instead a great joy, for all things have been made new in Christ.

We are prepared for that day by the forgiveness that Christ won; only by His grace are we made ready for His return. Neither our physical nor even our spiritual labors can make us ready, for all that we do is stained by sin. We don’t place our trust in our work as we approach the Last Day, we place our trust in Christ. His blood-bought forgiveness makes you ready, for it cleanses you from every stain. It is His labor, not ours, that prepares us to receive Him when He comes in glory. Having been forgiven, having been cleansed, having been prepared by His gifts, we need not fear the coming final day. Instead, we can follow the words of Jesus in our Gospel lesson: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption is drawing near, won by the labors our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. He is coming soon—Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Proper 27 of Series C (2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17)

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” 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 Epistle lesson read a few moments ago, from the second chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Church in Thessalonica. Dear friends in Christ: do not be disturbed by what anybody tells you about the end times. Many false prophets have gone forth, and they will continue to go forth, pointing to signs, predicting the end, stirring you up. They sell books by the millions, they peddle their complicated calculations, they set dates, and when they are wrong, they quietly recede back into the shadows, leaving many Christians deceived. The Thessalonians were stirred up by a letter claiming to be from the apostles, and Paul writes our text to calm them down: “We ask you, brothers, to not be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Speculation on the end of the world has been going on long before Paul wrote these words, and it will continue until the end itself comes. The false epistle read by the Thessalonians is just one of many falsehoods to come (you can find many more at Barnes and Noble). But don’t listen to any of that noise. Do not be disturbed by words that don’t come from God; turn to the Scriptures to know what is going to happen at the end.

The Scriptures are clear: the end is coming, Jesus will return. That is the promise of the resurrected One, the One who cannot lie. He will come at an hour that no one expects, like a thief in the night, and when He comes, He will send forth His angels to gather in the saints. The Scriptures are also clear: before Jesus returns, before the glories of that great Day, this world will get far worse. “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” Do not be deceived: the man of lawlessness is coming. Elsewhere in Scripture, he is given this title: the antichrist. Do not be deceived; he will come, and he will bring great evil with him.

The man of lawlessness “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” He will set himself in the very temple of God; he will exercise his influence within the Church, and there he will deceive many into sin and unbelief. The rebellion led by the man of lawlessness won’t be a rebellion against governments but a rebellion against God, a turning away from Christ to antichrist, a great apostasy from the true Church to the one sitting in the temple of God. Do not be deceived! The man of lawlessness will be a leader in the Church; his threat comes from within the bride of Christ, seeking to corrupt and destroy her. He will speak convincingly, he will even do miracles, and he will lead many away from the true Christ to worship him. The end times will be filled with earthquakes and famines, wars and rumors of wars, but the greatest threat is the spiritual threat, the great apostasy brought by the man of lawlessness.

Do not be deceived, stay on your guard! The man of lawlessness, the antichrist, is coming, and he will seek to carry you and me into sin and destruction with him. If history has been filled with people predicting the end or claiming to know the signs that the end is coming, then there has been an equal amount of ink spilled trying to identify the antichrist. And some have been closer to the truth than others. The Lutheran confessions correctly find that in their time, the office of the papacy can only be described as antichrist, since the papacy set itself in the place of God by claiming that Christians cannot be saved without it. Others have suggested political or religious leaders of all kinds. Each generation has seen those who fit the description, but only God knows who is an antichrist, and who is the antichrist, the ‘man of lawlessness’ who comes before the end. Do not be deceived; our task isn’t to identify the man of lawlessness, our task is to stay clear of his influence.

Paul tells us that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” We don’t know when the man of lawlessness will come, and we don’t know who he’ll be, but we do know his spirit, the mystery of lawlessness, is already at work among us. Do not be deceived into sin by the serpent’s oldest question, “Did God really say?” Do not be deceived by the mystery of lawlessness, which explains away or defangs the law, saying that its commands are outdated or don’t apply to you. The mystery of lawlessness searches for loopholes, it finds the law flexible, seeing gray where the law is black and white. Do not be deceived by the serpent’s lie: “You will be like God.” The mystery of lawlessness wants us to call the shots, to determine right or wrong for ourselves, finally to worship ourselves in place of God; its goal is to lead us to sin, unbelief, death, and hell.

Do not be deceived, the mystery of lawlessness holds great sway in our world; even if the man of lawlessness has not yet appeared, he has many followers who hold sway in every generation. The threat is real, and it is terrifying, for the man of lawlessness is after your soul, and he will destroy your body to get at it. Those who refuse to worship him, who refuse to join him in his lawless, sinful ways, will suffer. Lawlessness is never content until all are lawless. The last days will be days where it will be terrible to be a Christians, as we experience persecution on a scale never seen before. Today we have it pretty cushy as American Christians, but we have the guarantee of Scripture that persecution is coming, that persecution will come before the end. The only thing holding back the man of lawlessness is the work of Christ Himself. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “You know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time.”

Do not be disturbed, Christ restrains the man of lawlessness through the work of the Church, the proclamation of His Word of forgiveness throughout this world. Jesus tells the disciples that because of their preaching, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.” The preaching of forgiveness defeats the mystery of lawlessness, it delivers us from the evil that seeks to lead us into unbelief and destruction. The power of the man of lawlessness is the power of sin’s bondage over you, and Christ’s Word of forgiveness, spoken through the Church, breaks those bonds. The Absolution casts Satan from heaven, Christ’s Word defeats the one who leads us into sin by forgiving that sin. Do not be disturbed, the power of Christ’s Word is the power that protects you from anything that the man of lawlessness or the mystery of lawlessness can do to you.

This fight is not ours to win. Do not be disturbed, it is Christ who fights with us and for us against lawlessness. The fight is His, and the victory is His. The man of lawlessness, the antichrist, will come, and his deception will be great, but his defeat is sure. Paul calls him the ‘son of destruction;’ he will be destroyed, because he has already been conquered. Christ fought this enemy, and He triumphed, for He defeated all evil upon the cross when He paid the price for your sin. Do not be disturbed; Christ has won the victory over all who hate us! The devil, and his ally, the man of lawlessness, are enemies crushed by the power of the cross. There Jesus won the victory, there Jesus struck the serpent’s head, there He robbed death of its power, forgiving all sin. There the law was fulfilled on your behalf. He went to battle for us on that Good Friday, and He won the victory—the empty tomb proves it! The man of lawlessness can rage all he wants; he is a defeated enemy, he will be destroyed. Do not be disturbed, the victory remains with Christ.

Paul tells us that at the end, “the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of His mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of His coming.” Christ will simply appear, and the man of lawlessness, along with all sin, all evil, and death itself, will be destroyed. The man of lawlessness will rage all he wants in the latter days, but his days are numbered; when Christ appears, he will be killed by the breath of His mouth, and the saints will be delivered, set free from his power forever. The fight is not ours to win; the fight is Christ’s, and the victory is Christ’s. When Jesus appears on the clouds, when the final trumpet sounds, your victory has come, and Christ will gather you and all the saints from the corners of the earth to dwell with him forever.

Do not be disturbed by the events of the last days. Much of what Scripture teaches us about the last days is disturbing and frankly terrifying, but Paul leaves us with comfort, with confidence, with the assurance of victory despite all that we experience. “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this He called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Stand firm, you are chosen by God in Christ. You are the chosen, the elect, the Baptized, called to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. Stand firm in that identity, do not be disturbed as this world hastens to its end. You are Christ’s forgiven saints, and you have the sure and certain promise of an eternal inheritance.

Stand firm, the same power that holds back the man of lawlessness until the proper time is the power that will destroy him in the end: the power of Christ, the power of His Word. Cling to that Word in these latter days. “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” We can only find comfort and strength in the coming tribulation and persecution by clinging to the Word, to Christ’s forgiveness. We are prepared for the Last Days by studying that Word, by receiving the Absolution, by eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood. Christ gives us His grace precisely for these latter days, to strengthen us, to comfort us, to bless us. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” Amen.