Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:1-13)

“Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Last Sunday of the Church Year is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, keep watch, for the end is coming. It is coming like a thief in the night, suddenly, at an hour that you do not expect. If the master of the house had known when the robbers would come, he would’ve been sitting in his living room at that very hour, shotgun in hand. But he doesn’t know when they are coming, and so he must constantly keep watch. There are no more events that need to occur before Jesus can return; the signs He promised have been happening since He ascended into heaven, and they will continue until He returns, exhorting us to be watchful. Every war, every natural disaster, every instance of persecution is a warning, a call to be watchful, a reminder that the end is coming. Don’t be deceived by date-setters; Jesus could come today or tomorrow or the next day; nothing needs to happen that hasn’t already occurred. Our Lord didn’t preach complacency, but vigilance; His return will be sudden, it will come at a day and an hour that no one expected except those who were constantly vigilant, constantly watchful. For such people, the kind of people Christ calls on His Church to be, the end is sudden, but not surprising.
The end is coming at a day and an hour that no one knows, but it is surely coming; no one in the Church or the world should be surprised. Jesus certainly made Himself very clear. He who died for the sin of the world, rose again in victory over the grave, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God will return from that throne on the Last Day to bring the present order to an end, establishing the new heavens and the new earth. As He said in Matthew chapter twenty-four: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” The Church has been preaching these words for over two thousand years; in fact, the Church is nothing else than those gathered in eager anticipation of Christ’s return. Why did the virgins gather? Only to meet the bridegroom. “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

The Church is the assembly of the saints crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” The world knows this, it knows the Church’s message, that her Lord is not only risen from the dead but is returning on the Last Day. Christ’s bride cannot tell the world the day or the hour, but she has always declared that He is surely coming. And if the world knows this, then surely those within the Church should know this. Why else do we gather? Only to meet the Bridegroom. When that Day comes, when the voice cries out, no person should be surprised. “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
On that Day there are no surprises; no one who was prepared will be shut out, and no one who was unprepared will be let in. There is no hidden or secret knowledge here, no codebook to learn. Jesus was quite clear, and His Church has been quite clear in preaching His Words. It has not been kept from anyone how to be prepared for that Day. But still, inexplicably, the ten virgins of the Church are not all prepared: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” All ten were virgins, make clean and pure in the waters of Holy Baptism and brought into the Church, the virgin bride of Christ. All ten carried lamps, shining out their light before men in good works, maybe even making confession with their lips. And all ten fell asleep, that is, they all, wise or foolish, died.

But the foolish virgins were lacking something; few realized it simply by looking at them, but they themselves knew. Their virgin purity shone forth in the light of their lamps, but they had forgotten something. “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” They may be in the outward fellowship of the Church, they may have been baptized, their names may appear in a church directory, but there is no oil, they have no faith. They have let their hearts grow cold toward Christ. They have long ago let the cares and concerns of this world overcome their faith. Some of them may go to worship, even partake of the Lord’s Supper, volunteer in their community and do good works in the name of Christ, but it is all a sham, a deception to impress others; they despise and reject what they hear. And they know it; whether they have abandoned the church or keep up a pretense, whether they have openly rejected Him or quietly lost their faith in apathy, they know they have discarded Christ.
The wise virgins have also been made pure in the waters of Holy Baptism, they too shine forth their lamps in good works and the confession of Christ with the lips. And they too fall asleep; being wise doesn’t spare anyone from death. But they are prepared. It is no surprise who is wise and who is foolish; neither group should be shocked. Jesus isn’t operating by deception or in secrets, He has made it quite plain what the wisdom He seeks consists in. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” The wise virgins are those who hear the Word of God and believe by the power of the Holy Spirit; the oil in their lamps are the gifts of the Gospel, received by faith. Their lamps shine because they burn with the oil given by Jesus; their good works flow from faith.

One is not prepared for the return of Christ by their outward purity, by their good works, or having their names in a church directory. None of those things matter at all apart from faith. Those who believe are prepared. And it is no surprise where this faith is given; it is no surprise where virgins are made wise and prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom: this only happens in the fellowship of the Church, gathered around Christ’s Holy Word and His precious Sacraments. There Christ puts oil in our flasks, there He makes us prepared, by forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith as we wait for His return. There we are strengthened by our fellow believers and encouraged to patience. The Church isn’t some sort of secret society, imparting the codebook that will get you into heaven; the Church preaches the Word clearly and boldly to the entire world, the Word that creates faith in our crucified and risen Savior, the only oil that can keep lamps burning and make us prepared for the Bridegroom’s return.

And He will return, as He promised. His return will be sudden, but it should take no one by surprise. And it will not surprise anyone what the consequences will be. “The bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.” On that Day, the voice will announce the Bridegroom’s return, and all those who slept the sleep of death will be awakened, wise or foolish. It will then be no surprise on that Day that the door is open to the wise, to those who believe. Their purity is not their own, but is given by Christ; they wear the robe of His righteousness. Their good works shine forth and are pleasing to God because they burn on the oil of Christ’s gifts, they flow from faith in Him. They enter only through Jesus. “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” It is then no surprise when the foolish virgins find the door shut. “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’” He doesn’t know them because they didn’t know Him; they trusted in their works or their appearances, but not in Jesus.
Many foolish virgins live their lives apart from Christ, believing that they will have a second chance to make things right with God before that Day comes, or even after it has arrived. “And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’” That is what makes them foolish; it should be no surprise that on that Day there will be no second chances, it will be too late. “But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’” The wise virgins are glad to show others where to obtain oil—the Divine Service—but on that Day, it is too late. The door is shut.
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Keep watch, as wise virgins, dear friends, not as the foolish ones. You have been made pure by the work of Christ, cleansed by Him in Holy Baptism. You have heard His Word proclaim to you that your sins are forgiven; Christ’s death and resurrection have been applied directly to you. You have received His Body and Blood, given and shed for you on the cross, given to you to eat and to drink in the Supper. The door stands open for you, because Christ died and rose again to open it for you. That door received Aaron after his idolatry, admitted David after his adultery, after his homicide; that door did not repel the disciples after they abandoned Christ, and it will not be shut against you. The same forgiveness that Christ bestowed on the saints of old belongs to you, for Christ died for all; His blood was shed for your sin, and only by His blood do you have access to the feast. You will enter in with joy, joining the Bridegroom’s feast, for you have the oil that is not your own, but has been given to you by Jesus through His Church. You are wise because you have been made wise by Christ, and therefore for you the cry of the watchman is a cry of joy: “Here is the Bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!” Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Trinity 24 (Matthew 9:18-26)

“My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” “If I only touch His garment, I will be made 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 evening comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: “…and was made man.” Four words; one profound mystery. “…and was made man.” Many Christians throughout the centuries have bowed at these words, even genuflected, kneeling to the ground in adoration. You are free to observe these words in whatever way your personal piety directs, but you are not free to ignore them. “…and was made man.” These words are so profound, so amazing, so incredible because of what has been said just before them. “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.” This same Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of one substance with the Father, was the very One 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.” God became man; the Second Person of the Trinity took on our human flesh. He did not become an angel or some other creature—He was made man. 

Faith clings to the Incarnation, it holds tightly to the wondrous words, “and was made man.” Faith adores the mystery, not as some sort of museum piece, a magic trick, but as a miracle absolutely essential to salvation. We have a God who can be touched, who can touch us, and that touch has great power, the power to save. We have a God who became like us in every way; who shared all of our sorrows, who knew all our griefs, who experienced all of our temptations, yet without sin. That is the God that we cling to; that is the God we cry out to.

Sometimes the voice of faith cries out boldly, confidently, assured of Christ’s deliverance, convinced that He will truly act. “While He was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before Him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’” Sometimes the voice of faith is confident, not in itself—no, faith is never confident in itself—but only in its object, the Word made flesh. Trust is placed in the Incarnation; that this man, walking this earth with the same anatomy as any other man, is God Almighty, God become man. The ruler doesn’t trust in a phantom, in an angel, but in a man: “Lay your hand on her, and she will live.” We are surrounded by death; death on the news, death among our friends, death in our families, death in our homes. The cruelty of death we have seen close up and personal; we have seen its cold fingers take those whom we love. There is only One who can save, only One who can help, and the voice of faith cries out with all boldness and confidence, knowing that He will come to our aid.

Sometimes the voice of faith cries out meekly, humbly, hoping against hope that the Savior will act. Sometimes the voice of faith is so beaten down by affliction that all it can do is repeat words of hope, earnestly wishing that the night of suffering is over, that the day has come. “And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His garment, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch His garment, I will be made well.’” Sometimes the voice of faith is hanging on by a thread, afraid to be bold and direct, simply yearning for the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Trust is placed in the Incarnation, that this man, walking the earth as any other man, is God of God and Light of Light, of one substance with the Father. This woman isn’t asking for help from a ghost, from the spirits of the saints of old, but she literally clings to a man, a human being, God in the flesh. “If I only touch His garment, I will be made well.” We are all dying; some more quickly than others, but from the moment when we take our first breath, we are coming closer to our last. There is only One who can help, and the voice of faith cries out in humility, knowing that it deserves nothing from the Word made flesh, but trusting in His compassion and His promises, the promises that sent Him to this earth in the first place.

And Jesus hears, He listens; He has compassion, He has mercy, He shows forth His love. “Jesus turned, and seeing her He said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.” The touch of Jesus brings healing; His garment is grasped after by a desperate soul, clinging to the promises of God in the midst of a dozen years of affliction. Her faith was not shown forth in boldness, but in meekness and humility; she was the poor in spirit to who belongs the kingdom of heaven. His grip on her was much stronger than hers on Him; it is the object of faith, not faith itself, that makes all the difference. She who was slowly dying is given life in the midst of death; the Incarnation saved her. On His way to raise the dead, Jesus heals the dying. Then He comes to the house of death, the abode of sin’s penalty. He sends away the mourners, saying, “The girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at Him. The world mocks the Incarnation, they cannot believe that any man can raise the dead. But this is not any man; this is God of God and Light of Light, very God of very God, who “was made man.” Just as the ruler so confidently declared, the confidence born only of faith in the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus heals with a touch. “He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.”

Jesus didn’t take flesh simply to ‘walk a mile in our shoes,’ or only to give us an example of how we should live according to God’s Word. We do have a God who became like us in every way; who shared all of our sorrows, who knew all our griefs, who experienced all of our temptations, yet without sin. This is all true and filled with comfort for us, but His coming in the flesh served an even greater purpose. He was made man “for us and for our salvation;” He was made man to bring life in the midst of death. Only as true man could the Son of God fulfill the Law perfectly in our place; only as true man could He be our substitute. And only as true man could the Son of God die. The Incarnation leads to the crucifixion; Christmas leads to Good Friday. We confess that this God made man “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried.” Only as true man could Jesus pay the price we owed, destroying the corruption of sin that leads inevitably to death. And only as true man could He conquer death for us by rising from the grave. “And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven.” The resurrection has meaning and significance for us, and is a true defeat of death, only if He rose again as true man.

And now, only as true man does Jesus interact with us. “…and was made man” is not some artifact of history, a tactic that God used to deliver us from our sin and then discarded. No, the same One who was made man still is man, and as man He “sits at the right hand of the Father.” And from that throne, as true man, He touches us with salvation, He drives away death from us. ‘Come and lay your hands on me, and I will live,’ we say. And He does, touching us with water joined to His Word, a washing that gives eternal life, that defeats death by giving new birth. ‘If I only touch his garment, I will be saved,’ we say. And we do, as we touch bread and wine joined to His holy Body and His precious Blood, the medicine of immortality, the antidote to death. His Incarnation touches us to give us life. Finally, on the Last Day, as true man “He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” In the new heavens and the new earth, as He is true man and remains true man, so we will be true man, truly human, as God created us to be, forever. Therefore, with joy, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Trinity 23 (Philippians 3:17-21)

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” 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 evening comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Philippi. Dear friends in Christ: Imitate me, Paul says. Follow my example. See my pattern and walk in it. Look to me as your guide. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” He doesn’t point us to the saints of old, or even to Jesus; Paul points us to himself. “Join in imitating me.” How bold, how daring, how arrogant. Just who does he think he is? We have an automatic aversion to those who set themselves up as moral examples, who tell us to look to them as a pattern of teaching or life. Politicians, pastors, and celebrities; we’ve seen them all shipwrecked just when we thought we could trust them. But Paul is a different kind of example; yes, he knows exactly who he is, and that is precisely the point. The pattern he sets is as a forgiven sinner. “Join in imitating me,” Paul says, not as a man who is sinless, but as one who has renounced the world in repentance and faith. “Join in imitating me,” Paul says, in being a foreigner and stranger in this world, as one whose citizenship is in heaven.

You see, there are only two passports that you can carry, only two citizenships that you can have, and you can’t have both at the same time. Both citizenships are given at birth; either your natural conception and birth, or the rebirth of water and the Word in Holy Baptism. There are only two paths, two ways to walk: either you will imitate Paul as a citizen of heaven, or you will imitate those around you as a citizen of earth. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Citizens of earth are enemies of Christ’s cross; they despise the cross and reject all that it stands for and all that it gives. Some use the cross as an excuse for sin, for giving in to the desires of the flesh. I’m forgiven, they say, set free from the Law, and so I can live how I want. God likes to forgive, I like to sin, so I’ll do what I want and He can do what He wants. Others have no desire for what the cross gives. They don’t believe that they are sinners, or they deny that what they are doing is sin. They look for loopholes, they try to make gray what God made black and white. They explain away God’s Law, giving in to Satan’s first lie: “Did God really say?”

Citizens of earth cling to, and even worship, the things of this world. That is what rules them, instead of the Word of God. Their natural desires and appetites, their body’s sinful inclinations, govern their actions. Citizens of this earth do what feels good, without regard for how their actions affect others or offend God. As Paul says, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Their god is their belly, or other organs; they worship the desires of their body, giving in to what their flesh, corrupted by sin since the Fall, wants. Citizens of earth glory in their shame; they boast about their sin. They take pride in what they have done. What else is a homosexual ‘wedding’ or a transgender magazine cover than glorying in shame? Do not imitate them! Their end is destruction, for they have worshipped what will be destroyed, what does not last. When you live as a citizen of this earth, dear friends, you are clinging to those things that are temporary, while forgetting of the things of eternity. You are shortsighted; your eyes are fixed on those things that corrupt you, abuse you, and then will pass away. If your god is temporary, if he will be destroyed on the Last Day, then you will be destroyed too, along with all who trusted in him.

Repent. Repent in imitation of Paul. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Renounce the things of this world; renounce your citizenship on this earth and live as a stranger and foreigner here, with your citizenship in heaven. Citizens of earth glory in their shame; citizens of heaven count all earthly glory as worthless, as rubbish. Imitate Paul in seeing every reason for boasting before the world as so much garbage next to Christ’s salvation. Imitate Paul in renouncing, putting to death the desires of the flesh in repentance. Citizens of heaven take no pride in the things of this world, in the glory that this world bestows on those who embrace its ways, its citizenship. Citizens of heaven care little for what the world says about them, for what the world threatens to do to them. They know who their Lord is; they know of His victory over the world, and in that victory they trust even if they are put to shame before the eyes of others around them. Citizens of heaven do not glory in their sins, they do not boast in them, but they repent of them, crucifying their sinful desires and appetites in repentance and faith. They put their flesh to death daily, returning to that moment in time when their citizenship in this world was removed, replaced with the citizenship of heaven. Each and every day they look to their mark of citizenship, their passport, the sign of the holy cross made upon their forehead and upon their heart as they were given a new birth in water and the Word.

Citizens of heaven cling to Christ’s cross; they know their sin and they look toward their Savior, crucified and risen, for forgiveness. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are strangers and foreigners here, bearing the mark of another citizenship, gathering in embassies scattered throughout this world, outposts of heaven upon this fallen earth, receiving grace and mercy from our Savior. Only such a Savior, Jesus Christ, could make you a citizen of heaven, a member of His Kingdom, by taking you from the citizenship of your birth, giving to you a new passport stamped in His blood. You do not have to pay for your citizenship, or earn it in any way; it is not for you or anyone else to bestow. Your citizenship was won for you by Jesus, He paid with His own life the high price required to take you from the citizenship of earth that leads only to destruction to the citizenship of heaven that gives life, and life to the full. Only such a Savior, Jesus Christ, can bring you back to your heavenly citizenship when you have strayed. He calls you back through His Law, and He forgives you through His Gospel, reaffirming your citizenship every time you repent by His mercy and love.

Citizens of heaven imitate Paul’s example of repentance and then set themselves forth as an example for others. This is not to be done in pride and arrogance, by Paul or anyone else. Instead, this is an act of service, done in humility under Christ for the good of our fellow citizens who need our help, our example. Every citizen of heaven should be able to say to their brothers and sisters in Christ: “Join in imitating me.” Imitate me in repentance, imitate me in clinging to Christ’s cross, imitate me in renouncing the desires of the flesh, and together, on the glorious Day that is coming, we will imitate Christ. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” Citizens of earth worship and serve the sinful inclinations and desires of their bodies; citizens of heaven renounce those desires and put them to death, looking toward that Day when Christ will transform these bodies of sin to be like His glorious Body. Citizens of heaven do not hate their bodies, but they do look toward the day when those bodies will be as God created them to be: without sin, pure and holy forever. Jesus is coming, and He is coming to make your body imitate His in glory, in holiness, in righteousness and purity forever. Jesus is coming and He is coming to conform you, body and soul, to Himself. The glory of Easter will one day be yours, because you are a citizen of heaven, covered in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and you await His return in glory, the very glory of heaven. He who has been given all power and all glory by virtue of His victory over sin and death will with that same power call you forth from your grave on that glorious Day, and you will finally come to your homeland, where your citizenship truly lies, to live with Him forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.