Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Dorr, Michigan

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The LORD Restores!

Advent Midweek III: The Psalms of Advent: Restore Us, O God!

The LORD Restores!
Text: Psalm 126

            “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:1, 4; ESV).  “You” O LORD, “have turned my mourning into dancing,” prays King David, you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness” (Ps. 30:11).  The Lord does give us times of sadness and tears.  He chastises us and lays crosses upon us.  These are for our good.  “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6).  But so also He gives us times of refreshment.  He surprises us with joy.  The LORD hears our cries and answers our prayers.  The LORD restores. 
            The people of Judah had suffered years of exile in Babylon.  Now, under the Persian King, Cyrus, they had been allowed to return to the Promised Land, to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and the Temple, the place of God’s presence among them.  They were back where they belonged and all was right in the world.  It seemed too good to be true.  “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Ps. 126:1).  But it was real.  The LORD had brought them out of Babylon, just as He had brought them out of Egypt so many years before.  Their tears had been wiped away.  Their chastisement was at an end.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy” (v. 2).  The nations took notice of the gracious things God had done for His people.  “(T)hen they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’  The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad” (vv. 2-3).  We are filled with rejoicing and recounting the praises of our God. 
            Israel had been restored.  And yet, it was only a partial restoration, a foreshadowing of the true restoration to come in Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, our Savior.  For that, the people still had to wait nearly 500 years.  They were still waiting for the Seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  They were still waiting for the virgin to conceive and bear a Son, as Isaiah prophesied (Is. 7:14).  And so they pray: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD” (Ps. 126:4).  They had been restored.  And yet they were still waiting to be restored.  It was an “already/not yet” situation, as Luther would call it.  It is a paradox.  Restored already, but not yet fully.  The people of God continue to wait upon Him for deliverance.
            Such is always the case with God’s people.  Restored already, but not yet fully.  God restored the Children of Israel countless times in the Old Testament, yet they continued to wait for their full restoration in the Advent of the Savior.  He came, and we have a different perspective as New Testament people, as those born after our Lord’s earthly ministry and saving work.  Christ has come.  We have been restored.  Jesus did it all.  He paid for our sins on the cross.  He shed His blood to save us and claim us for Himself.  He is risen, and has won for us eternal life in heaven.  We are baptized in Him, and so all of this is ours already. Our fortunes have been restored.  We are like those who dream.  Our consciences are cleansed.  Our guilt is taken away.  The Law’s accusations are muted.  Sin has no power over us.  Death has been destroyed.  Hell has no claim on us.  And the serpent’s head is, indeed, crushed by the Seed of the woman, born of the Virgin Mary.  Our salvation is done deal.  The LORD has restored us.
            And yet, even for us, there is this sense that this is only a partial restoration.  There is more yet to come.  For we still suffer seasons of weeping.  There is still sadness.  Our consciences may be cleansed and our guilt taken away, but it doesn’t always feel like it.  We still sin.  We still feel the sting of the Law.  We know death has been defeated, but we still get sick, we still suffer physically and emotionally, and we still die.  We know it is all ultimately taken care of in Christ.  But we still have to live with it for now, for a little while.  For our restoration is a hidden reality.  It is hidden with Christ, in God ().  We are waiting for the Last Day, when Christ will raise all the dead, when what is hidden will be revealed, when Christ will deliver His people once and for all.  As God’s people in between the comings of Christ, we wait, and we pray: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD.” 
            And there is one thing you can always count on with God.  What has been brought low will be raised up.  What is wrong will be made right.  What has died will be brought to life.  What is lost will be found.  “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).  “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5).  You will be consoled.  You will be comforted.  You will be restored.  And you will have joy again.  There will be times in this life when God will dry your tears.  Perhaps you will be healed from an affliction.  Perhaps God will provide something you have lacked, or some unexpected blessing for you to enjoy.  The Lord is good, and He pours out His good gifts upon us.  He gives us each day our daily bread, with a generous slathering of butter on top.  He gives us what we need, and so much more besides.  And He gives us one another, to love and to bless and to enjoy.  Christmas is a time when many of us will be surrounded by people we love.  We’ll enjoy a lavish feast and be showered with gifts, most of which we don’t need.  This is all from God’s liberal hand, to be received with rejoicing and praise. 

            But all of that is only temporary.  This is not the true joy.  And thank God for that, for all of these earthly blessings, though good, are fleeting.  Fortunes change.  Stuff decays.  People move away.  And die.  Many find the holidays particularly difficult for this reason.  Some Christmases are spent alone, or without presents.  Thank God Christmas is not defined by what we eat and who we eat it with, or the presents under the tree.  Christmas is about God coming in the flesh to restore our fortunes.  Knowing what He has accomplished by His life, death, and resurrection; that He dwells with us now in His Word and holy Sacraments; that He will come again to take us to be with Him where He is; this is our true joy.  This is the joy that we possess even in the midst of sorrow.  We can sing of joy to the world even as we mourn or suffer, because the Lord has come.  Joy is not the absence of sorrow, but the knowledge that Christ works it all for our good in the end.  He has done everything for our salvation.  And He’s coming back for us.  He’s coming again.  He’s coming to restore us fully.  It is not a dream.  It is real.  You will meet that Day, your mouth filled with laughter and your tongue with shouts of joy.  You can laugh and shout for joy now and celebrate Christmas with hearty rejoicing.  For no matter what you are going through at this moment, You have the Lord’s sure promise.  He has restored you, and He will.  And He is restoring you now as He gathers you around His Table.  Here He turns your mourning into dancing.  He looses your sackcloth and clothes you with gladness.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmaunel comes to thee, O Israel!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (B)

December 14, 2014
Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

            The true Light that enlightens everyone, Jesus Christ, comes into the world now, since His ascension into heaven, by preaching, by proclamation, by witness, by confession.  He comes through the Word.  The Church’s task is to preach Christ crucified for sinners (1 Cor. 1:23), and to distribute the gifts of the risen Christ to His people.  St. John’s prophetic ministry was to prepare the world for Christ’s first coming as Savior.  Now that Jesus has accomplished the work of our salvation, the Church takes up John’s prophetic ministry, preparing the world for our Lord’s coming again on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.  The preparation is vital, for eternal life and death are on the line.  When Christ comes again He will raise up all the dead.  He will give eternal life to all who believe in Him, but He will cast all unbelievers into the everlasting darkness of hell.  So we preach.  Love for the world compels us to proclaim Christ, to confess Him, to bear witness about the Light that is Christ, for the same reason John came to bear witness about the Light: “that all might believe” (John 1:7; ESV), and so be saved.
            St. John is our model in this.  He is always pointing to Christ, never to himself.  His is always the work of preparation.  Jesus is the fulfillment.  “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me,” John confesses (John 1:15).  “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John proclaims (3:30).  “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).  It was all to prepare the people for the Lord’s coming.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus, “is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).  The bony finger of St. John is always extended toward his greater cousin, his lips ever proclaiming: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  John is never magnifying himself.  He is always confessing what He is not.  “‘Who are you?’  He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ … ‘Are you Elijah?’ … ‘I am not.’ … ‘Are you the Prophet?’ … ‘No’” (vv. 19-21).  John will not take any of the glory for himself.  No preacher should.  All glory belongs to Christ, and to Christ alone. 
            And so the Church.  We preach Christ crucified.  We do not preach ourselves.  Christianity has fallen into the shameless habit of self-promotion.  Look what a great congregation we are.  Look at how much we do.  Look how at how sincere we are in our love for God and for each other.  We’re friendly.  We’re relevant.  We’re convenient.  We’re fun.  Suddenly the mission becomes not so much preparing the world for the coming Judgment, but saving the institution (the congregation, the Church body) by attracting more customers.  Every one of us is prone to this thinking.  We would love to see our pews filled to capacity.  We would love a healthy bottom line.  But why?  As evidence that more people believe in Christ and have come to receive His gifts?  That is, indeed, what our new man in Christ desires.  But the old sinful flesh desires success by human standards.  The Old Adam wants his church to be the biggest and the best.  So Old Adam preaches himself.  Christ… the real One, from the Bible, anyway… is a little too messy, a little too offensive.  But come to the church and we’ll save you.  We’ll make you into a better you.  Just follow our program.  You’ll see the difference.  You’ll be inspired.  You’ll be a better husband and father, wife and mother.  Trust us.  And so the Church can so easily fall into the trap of preaching herself in place of Christ. 
            The Church that preaches herself is dead.  The Church that preaches Christ crucified lives in her risen Lord.
            Preaching Christ crucified is never popular.  It is never a recipe for success in the eyes of the world.  But it is what the world needs, desperately.  St. John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (v. 23).  So the Church cries out in the wilderness of this world, in this place of unbelief and godlessness, of violence and exploitation, of selfishness and materialism.  The Church cries out in a wilderness of darkness and death.  But in its blindness, the world believes itself an oasis of light and life.  Only the Light that is Jesus Christ can open the eyes of the blind and expose the deception in which the devil holds this generation.  What is the Church to cry in this wilderness?  “Make straight the way of the Lord” (v. 23).  Jesus is coming.  Just as He came in the flesh, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, just as He was born that first Christmas to be our Savior, to suffer and die for our sins, to be raised for our justification and life, so He is coming again.  Prepare.  Be prepared by God in the preaching of Christ, by which He comes to you even now.  That is how His way is made straight.  That is how His Light shines in the darkness.  That is how His Life triumphs over death.  John brought the Light by preaching and baptizing.  He was sent by God for this very thing.  The Church brings the Light by preaching and baptizing, by witnessing and confessing, by eating and drinking and so proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26).  The Church is planted in the world for this very thing.  The world is preserved now, in this time of grace, that Church may point to Christ crucified and declare, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your sin!  Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
            The Church preaches Christ crucified, because the Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon us and has anointed us in Baptism for this very thing (Is. 61:1).  Even as the Spirit descended upon our Lord Jesus and remained on Him at His Baptism in the Jordan, so He remains with us in our Baptism into Christ.  And He opens our lips, that our mouths may declare His praise (Ps. 51:15).  That by this Gospel preaching, Christ Himself bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Is. 61:1).  That by this preaching your sins be forgiven.  This is something the Church can never accomplish by preaching herself.  But this preaching of Christ crucified frees the Church to recognize she is not the Savior.  She cannot save anyone.  She cannot save herself.  She cannot even save her institutional structure.  Christ is the Savior.  Christ alone saves.  He saves the Church.  He saves you.  The Church is called to confess with St. John what she is not.  She confesses that she is not the Christ.  She does not take the glory for herself.  Nor should her preachers.  All glory belongs to Christ, and to Christ alone.  He must increase.  We must decrease.  We baptize in the wilderness of this world and proclaim a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  “Repent,” we preach, “for the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus, “is at hand.”  He is coming soon.  He is coming to judge.  So look to Him as Savior now.  The finger of the Church is always pointing to the cross, her lips ever proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

            John confesses that he is unworthy even to untie the strap of our Lord’s sandal (v. 27).  This was a task so menial, even slaves were excused from performing it.  John confesses himself less than a slave to his Lord Jesus.  There is a certain humility here that should mark the Christian.  It is the language of unworthiness, which is really a confession of sin.  But it is not the language of despair.  For while we are unworthy, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).  The Lamb makes us worthy with His own worthiness.  By His Blood He has ransomed us for God, ransomed a people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and made us a kingdom and priests to our God, who shall reign on the earth in the Last Day (vv. 9-10).  This is the song St. John the Baptist and all the saints in heaven sing before the throne of God.  For they see the Light with their own eyes.  The Light shines on us, too, here in the darkness.  But our eyes are not yet fully open.  We see now as in a mirror dimly.  Then we shall see fully (1 Cor. 13:12).  But we do see.  We see by the eyes of faith given in our Baptism.  We see by the preaching of Christ crucified and risen.  We see with our ears.  The Lord comes.  He speaks.  He feeds us.  We rejoice.  And we cry out in the wilderness of this world: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  We bear witness to the Light, “that all might believe.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Restore Us Again, O God of Our Salvation"

Advent Midweek II: The Psalms of Advent: Restore Us, O God!
“Restore Us Again, O God of Our Salvation”

December 10, 2014
Text: Psalm 85

            Our Psalm this evening was quite probably written and sung by the exiles returning to Jerusalem from their sojourn in Babylon.  Thus the first three verses of the Psalm recount God’s restoration of His people as a nation.  He has been favorable to the Land, the Promised Land to which the exiles are returning.  He has “restored the fortunes of Jacob” (Ps. 85:1; ESV).  He has forgiven the iniquities of the people, covered all their sin (v. 2).  He has withdrawn His wrath over their idolatry and their unfaithfulness, and turned from His hot wrath (v. 3).  But life is not all sunshine and flowers for God’s people.  Returning to the Holy City, they find a heap of rubble.  There are no homes to return to.  Accommodations are non-existent.  There is hard work to be done if the city is to be rebuilt.  They start with the Temple and with the city walls, led by Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the scribe.  But now there is opposition from the Samaritans, the remnants of the Northern tribes who had intermarried with pagan nations.  Sanballat, their governor, and his men oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and threaten to attack.  So half the people must guard the city with weapons at the ready while the other half works.  And the half who work must labor with one hand while their other hand is on their own weapon (Neh. 4:15-20).  These are scary times.  Has the LORD restored, only now to deliver His people into the hands of a new set of enemies?  When times are perilous and uncertain, the people of God recount His great deeds of faithfulness in the past and His promises for the future.  Faith clings to God’s mercy in spite of all appearances.  Nehemiah speaks this faith into the ears and hearts of the returning exiles: “Our God will fight for us” (v. 20). 
            So God’s people pray, as we do in the Psalm, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation” (Ps. 85:4).  Even as You have in the past, do so now.  Restore us, lest we perish.  Restore us, lest our enemies overtake us.  Restore us, lest all faith in You be extinguished.  The people cling to God’s mercy in the face of their enemies.  “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us Your salvation” (v. 7).  We know You love us because You promised.  We know You will save us because You promised.  And we’re holding You to it.  Do as You have done for us in the past.  Revive us again, that we may rejoice (v. 6).  And how is God to do that?  By speaking.  By speaking His living and active, life-giving and saving Word.  “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints” (v. 8).  God speaks, and by virtue of His speaking, He acts.  For His Word is performative.  It accomplishes what it says.  The people of God long to hear His Word of deliverance, because in hearing it, it is theirs.  Nehemiah gathered the congregation of returned exiles together at the Water Gate in Jerusalem.  They gathered to hear the Word of the LORD.  Ezra the scribe read the Book of the Law of Moses, the Torah, the Holy Scriptures, and the Levites “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:1-2, 8), or in other words, they preached.  God’s promises were spoken.  The Gospel was proclaimed.  And God acted.  The city was rebuilt, against all human odds.  The people’s prayers were answered. 
            Or at least partially answered, in the rebuilding of the city.  For the true answer to their prayer, the true restoring again, is the sending of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, for the redemption of His people.  Where steadfast love and faithfulness meet (v. 10), God’s steadfast love for us by which He sent His Son, Jesus’ faithfulness that counts as our own, which He gives to us as a gift.  Where righteousness and peace kiss each other (v. 10), on the cross of Christ, where the righteousness of God is satisfied and the peace of sins forgiven is bestowed upon all who look in faith on the Son of Man lifted up for their salvation.  Where faithfulness springs up from the ground, the faithfulness of the Man, Jesus Christ, toward His heavenly Father, and righteousness looks down from the sky, the righteousness of our God, Jesus Christ, which He bestows on us in the blood He sheds for us as He is suspended in the air (v. 11). 
            God’s answer to the exiles’ prayer is also His answer to us.  We pray, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation,” and He does just that, in Christ.  But we also have our challenges to be met and our enemies to be faced.  And it always appears as though they will triumph over us.  Our sins.  Our weak and corrupt flesh.  The temptations of the evil one.  The allurement of the world.  The things that make us sad.  The things that hurt us physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Disease.  Disaster.  Depression.  Death.  These are scary times, perilous and uncertain.  What are we to do?  We recount to one another our God’s great deeds of faithfulness in the past, and His promises for the future.  We hear again Nehemiah’s confession of faith: “Our God will fight for us.”  We pray with the Psalmist, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints,” to me.  For He will speak the Gospel.  He will speak my sins forgiven.  He will speak His Spirit into me, the Helper He promised, even the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17).  He will not leave me an orphan.  He will come to me in His Word (v. 18).  He will speak His life into me, His death for me, His resurrection for me, my death and resurrection in Him.  He will give me His Word to keep, and the Father will love me, and the Father and the Son will come to me and make their home in me (v. 23).  By these Words the Spirit will teach me all things and bring to my remembrance all that the Lord Jesus has said (v. 26).  And I will have true peace (v. 27) in the face of all my enemies and all of my afflictions, peace with God, peace in Jesus, for He is our Peace in the flesh.  These are the Promises of Jesus.  And by them He restores us again.  He revives us so that we rejoice (Ps. 85:6). 
            And so that we can faithfully get to work.  Assured of the LORD’s help and protection, the exiles rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.  Assured of “salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (1 Thess. 5:9-10), we set out to encourage one another, to build one another up (v. 11) into the living stones of the Holy Church of God.  We do as Paul says in our First Reading: We respect those who labor among us in the Lord and admonish us, and esteem those in love who work in His Word (vv. 12-13).  We hear the Word with gladness.  We seek to be at peace with one another (v. 13).  We admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and are patient with them all (v. 14).  Or at least we try to be.  Again, on the basis of the restoration our God has accomplished for us in Christ.  And we trust that as we work, the LORD will give what is good (Ps. 85:12).  He will provide.  And He will lead us forward to the final restoration He has in store for us, when He comes again in glory.  Then all our enemies will be defeated forever.  Then all our afflictions will be ended forever.  The Word steels us against the conflict we face now, reminding us of God’s faithfulness to us in the past, and directing us to His coming restoration in the end.

            And once again we have before us our Lord’s 3-fold Advent: His coming as a Baby to accomplish our salvation, His continual coming to us in His Word and Sacraments, and His coming again to grant His final deliverance in the resurrection of all flesh.  “Restore us again, O God of our salvation,” we pray.  He has.  He does.  He will.  And so we are comforted.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (B)

December 7, 2014
Text: Mark 1:1-8

            How are you doing with your Christmas preparation?  That is what the Season of Advent is all about: preparation for Christmas; preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But we are all too often more concerned with the preparation that must be done for the outward celebration of the season, the outward trappings of the holiday, rather than the Holy Day’s actual content: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born of the Virgin, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger; born to die, to save you.  While we’re busying ourselves with preparations for Christmas parties and family gatherings, gift exchanges and whatever else we do, we fall into the trap of thinking Christmas depends on us, on what we do, on our preparing, our purchasing, our cleaning and cooking and baking, our time spent in endless activity, hustle, and bustle.  It actually makes Christmas a rather hard time of year for many of us.  Every year I hear more than one person say, “I can’t wait until Christmas is over.”  Which is probably a phrase that should never be heard upon Christian lips.  But it is.  And it undoubtedly indicates a misdirected focus upon the busy-ness of the season, rather than upon content of the Gift: Jesus Christ, our Savior.
            Repent.  That is actually the preparation Advent calls for.  Repentance.  Self-examination.  An honest and thorough analysis of your heart, your life, your spiritual condition.  And then confession that you are empty, that you are not prepared, that you have nothing within yourself but sin and death.  You despise your neighbor.  You gossip.  You covet.  You lust.  It is no accident that in Advent we hear so much from St. John the Baptist.  Now “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; ESV).  John was sent by God to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord” (v. 3).  Here the Lord sets before us what is essential in our preparation for Christmas.  Baptism, repentance, the forgiveness of sins.  All of which go together.  St. Mark begins his account of the Gospel with Baptism, which is not a bad place to be in Advent (Dr. Peter Scaer).  Advent prepares us for Christ’s birth, and Baptism is all about our new birth in Christ by water and the Word.  Advent begins a new Church Year, and Baptism begins a new you.  And in Baptism, Christ advents, He comes, personally and intimately, to you, to make you His own.  He makes His dwelling with you.  You are baptized into Christ.  You are baptized into Christ’s death, and Christ’s resurrection.  You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, as St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).  Your death is done in Baptism, for you have been joined to Christ on His cross.  Your Old Adam, the sinful nature, has been drowned with all sin and evil desire.  You have been raised up by Christ, spiritually now as a new creation.  You already have eternal life.  You will be raised up by Christ physically, on the Last Day, when He calls your body forth from the grave.  And you are God’s own child.  He has written His Name upon you: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and marked you with the sign of Jesus’ cross.  You belong to God.  Chosen and precious.  Loved. 
            You do still sin, though, and that is why our Advent preparation calls for repentance.  In fact, the entire life of the Christian is to be a life of repentance.  Even though your sin has been done to death in your Baptism, the Old Adam, as Luther says, is a good swimmer.  He keeps popping up out of the water.  He clings to you as long as you are in this fallen flesh.  But you hate him.  You long to be rid of him.  That’s not who you are anymore now that you are in Christ.  And so you daily return to your Baptism, plunging the Old Adam under the water once again, daily drowning him, which is to say, you repent.  Repentance is nothing other than a daily return to Baptism.  It is showing the sinful nature for what it is, exposing it, naming it in confession, naming it before God, that you be absolved, forgiven, restored, made whole.  The people who came to John for Baptism came “confessing their sins” (v. 5).  The two go together.  Confession is living in your Baptism.  To confess is to crucify the flesh.  To be absolved is to be raised from the dead. 
            And that is the whole point of John’s preaching a Baptism of repentance: The Holy Absolution.  The Forgiveness of sins in Christ.  That is the third and most important component of our preparation for Christmas.  Baptism is the delivery of the forgiveness of sins.  Repentance is the plea that the Father would forgive our sins for Jesus’ sake.  Jesus came at Christmas for no other reason than to win for us and deliver to us the forgiveness of sins.  He was born to die for our sins.  He was born to be the sacrifice of atonement.  He was born to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  If you know that, if you believe that, if you trust that, then His way is prepared. 
            What is extraordinary about all of this preparation is that it is not your doing.  It is God’s doing for you.  Baptism is not your doing.  It is God’s doing.  Most of you were baptized as infants before you could even answer the baptismal questions for yourself.  Your sponsors had to do it.  Even you who were baptized as older children or adults really had nothing to do with what happened at the font.  It was done to you, by God, by His Word, by His Promise, by His Name.  Repentance… well, we usually want to take credit for that.  That’s my part in the whole thing, we think.  But is it really?  Is it not the Holy Spirit convicting you of your sin before a righteous and holy God by the preaching of His Law, and directing you to your crucified and risen Lord Jesus for forgiveness of sins by the preaching of His Gospel?  I often admonish you from the pulpit to “Repent!”  We often say, “I repent,” when we realize our sin.  We speak of repentance as our action.  But if our language were more precise, we’d speak of being repented.  The Lord repents us.  It is His Spirit in us.  Repentance is His gift.  How could it be anything else since it is simply a return to His original baptismal gift of faith in Christ and the forgiveness of sins?  Repentance is not a preparation we accomplish any more than is our Baptism.  Rather, “Repentance is an admission that we can do nothing to receive rightly the Savior and that what we have done has made a thorough hash of things.”[1]  Preparation for Christmas is not about what we do.  It is about what Christ does for us. 
            “The true Advent preparation is a getting ready to receive, not a getting ready to do.”[2]  Christ is your Christmas Gift from God.  And in Christ your loving and heavenly Father graciously gives you the forgiveness of all your sins, along with righteousness and eternal life, peace that passes all understanding, love for your neighbor, hope, joy, and every good and gracious blessing that He pours out upon you.  You’ve done nothing to make this happen.  You’ve done nothing to earn it or deserve it.  It is not your doing at all.  It is God’s doing, in Christ, for you.  Advent is about recognizing how empty you are outside of Christ, and that being filled with Christ, you are filled with all good things.  Therefore Advent is about Christ filling you with Himself by virtue of His coming to you here in the place of your Baptism, where there is repentance and forgiveness going on, where He is filling your ears with His Word, and your mouths with His Body and Blood. 
            Decking the halls has its place at Christmas time, as does all of the other preparation and celebration that goes on this time of year.  But don’t get so bogged down in all of that that you actually miss Christmas, the Christ-Mass.  We make such a big fuss this time of year about keeping Christ in Christmas, and then we don’t take the time to go to Church.  We forget that keeping Christ in Christmas necessarily means keeping the Mass in Christmas.  The Lord’s Supper is where Jesus actually is, in the flesh, and Christmas is the celebration of His coming into the flesh for you.  Deck your ears and your mouths and your hearts and your souls with Christ this Christmas.  Prepare for that.  By receiving Christ.  Baptism.  Repentance.  Forgiveness of sins.  God Himself preparing you to receive even more of His gifts, His doing, His salvation, His Jesus.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Jesus is coming.  “O Lord, how shall I meet You, how welcome You aright?” (LSB 334:1).  Simply by believing, by trusting, by receiving all that He comes to do.  He has done it all, beloved.  Having Him, you are prepared.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             



[1] The Rev. Scott Murray, “Christmas Preparation All Done,” Memorial Moment for 5 December 2014, http://www.mlchouston.org/filerequest/1726.html
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

"Give Ear, O Shepherd of Israel"

Advent Midweek I: The Psalms of Advent: Restore Us, O God!
“Give Ear, O Shepherd of Israel”

December 3, 2014
Text: Psalm 80:1-7

            Our theme for the midweek Advent services this year is “The Psalms of Advent.”  Each week we will meditate on the Psalm appointed for the previous Sunday.  In the lectionary, there is always a Psalm appointed in addition to the Introit, for use in Matins and Vespers or in other minor services, or even as an addition to the Divine Service.  The Psalms for the Sundays in Advent all in one way or another speak the petition, “Restore us, O God.”  We prayed that petition a couple of times in our Psalm this evening (Ps. 80:3, 7).  We’ll pray it again in the Introit this coming Sunday.  It is an Advent prayer, and it is the continual prayer of the Church.  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (v. 3; ESV).
            Restore us, because we are lost and broken in our sins.  Restore us, because we have been taken captive by death and the devil.  Like lost sheep who have wandered away into the perils of predators and robbers, noxious weeds and poisoned water, dangerous rocks and crevices, away from the flock, away from the Shepherd.  Psalm 80 is the prayer of a penitent people who know they are lost.  It is the prayer of a nation in distress.  Israel, the Northern Kingdom, Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh… they know they have sinned.  They have turned from God.  They have lived in luxury while despising the poor.  They have made alliances with the heathen nations and worshiped their idols.  They have not feared, loved, or trusted in their God above all things.  They have persecuted their brothers and sisters in Judah.  And now they have been taken captive by Assyria.  They are lost and they know it.  They need the LORD to rescue them and restore them.  They need the LORD to hear their petitions and lead them to safety and freedom.  “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!” (v. 1).
            This is our prayer.  We pray that our Good Shepherd would come to rescue us from the threatening perils of our sins and save us from our enemies, the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature.  We are a nation and a people in distress.  We are a house divided.  We are politically polarized.  We always believe the other side has done us injustice, and we loot and we riot when we don’t get our way.  We sit in luxury and grumble about how poor we are.  We sacrifice our babies on the altar of hedonism and nourish our self-idolatry on the sacrament of fleshly pleasure.  We view our brothers and sisters as things to be used and abused, as meat to be consumed.  We fail to see them as dear sheep for whom our Lord Christ shed His precious blood.  We peer into that upon which we should not look.  We give ear to that to which we should not listen.  Our tongues wag to the destruction of our neighbor’s reputation, as we spread the consuming fire of gossip.  We bite and devour one another.  We push with side and shoulder and thrust at the weak with our horns (Ez. 34:21).  This is the mess of a world we live in.  This is the mess you and I are in.  We have done it to ourselves.  We have wandered off.  All we like sheep have gone astray.  We have turned, every one, to his own way (Is. 53:6).  And there is nothing we can do about it.  If we are to be rescued, if we are to be restored, the Good Shepherd must come and find us.  “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,” we pray.  He must hear our helpless bleating.  He must take us in His arms, hoist us over His shoulder, and bring us back into His fold.
            That is why the Father sent the Son.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.  “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out” (Ez. 34:11).  He does it in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  He is God’s servant David, the Son of David, who feeds His sheep and is their shepherd (v. 23).  And the food He feeds us is the verdant pasture of His Word, the Table of His Body set in the midst of our enemies, and the overflowing Cup of His holy, precious, sin-cleansing Blood.  He lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:15), takes away from us all the guilt of our wandering away, of our selfishness and idolatry, our lovelessness and abuse, our soiled eyes and ears and tongues.  He lays down His life of His own accord.  And He has authority to take it up again (v18), which He does on the Third Day, that He may tend His sheep and give them life forever.
            Beloved, He hears your cry.  He knows your deep sadness over your sins.  He knows how grieved and afflicted you are living in a godless and unbelieving world.  He knows you have eaten the bread of tears (Ps 80:5), that you have been an object of contention for your neighbors (v. 6), that they have despised you and laughed at you and mocked your faith in Christ.  He knows about the thieves and robbers (John 10:8), the wolves and predators, the false teachers, the demons, and your own great weakness.  He knows.  So He does something about it.  He stirs up His might and He comes to save you (Ps. 80:2).  He advents.  We talked this past Sunday about the three ways that He comes to you.  He came as the Savior, born of the Virgin Mary, to be your Savior by suffering and dying on the cross, and rising again.  He comes to you even now in His Word and holy Sacraments.  Here He is present with you in a hidden way, to forgive your sins and strengthen you for daily life in this fallen world.  And He will come again, visibly, on the Last Day, to deliver you once and for all from all that now afflicts you.  So in this sense, there is a three-fold restoration, a three-fold answer to your prayer.  He has restored you by His first coming.  He is restoring you as He comes to you now in the means of grace.  He will restore you fully on the Last Day, when He raises you from the dead. 

            And if you doubt it… If you think that your enemies will finally triumph over you… If you think that your sins are too big for Jesus, that you cannot escape their guilt… If you think that God is unwilling to restore you, that He is angry with your prayers (v. 4), that He refuses to give ear, then believe what He says to you at the end of every Divine Service.  You pray in the Psalm, “let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (vv. 3, 7).  He answers in the benediction (God’s own Word!): “The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you” (LSB 202; Num. 6:24-26).  It is not simply a prediction for the future.  It is a promise for the present, and for all eternity.  The Lord’s face is shining upon you.  It is the face of your Risen Savior.  It is the face of a Man, God in the flesh, born of the Virgin Mary.  It is the face of the Lord who stirs up His mighty power and comes.  He comes to deliver you.  He comes that you be restored.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (B)

November 30, 2014
Text: Mark 11:1-10

            Advent means coming.  And how we need our Lord Jesus to come.  “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come,” we pray in the collect this morning.  “Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray at the dinner table.  “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus,” the Holy Church prays with St. John in Revelation (22:20; ESV).  Come and deliver us from the threatening perils of our sins.  From the threatening perils of disease and death.  From the threatening perils of fallen-ness and brokenness in this world and this flesh.  Cleanse our consciences from guilt.  Heal our bodies and our hearts and our souls.  Bring clarity to our confused minds.  “Hosanna!” (Mark 11:9).  “Save, we pray.”  Come to us and save us by Your mighty deliverance. 
            And He has.  And He does.  And He will.  We speak of three ways that our Lord comes to us: Past, present, and in the Eschaton, on the Last Day.  Advent is about all three of these things.  We tend to think of Advent primarily as the season of preparation for His coming as a Baby in Bethlehem.  It is certainly that, but it is so much more.  It is not just the countdown of shopping days left until Christmas, nor is it even simply a countdown to the Christmas Eve Candlelight service.  It is a season of preparation for all that our Lord came in the flesh to do for us.  Advent is as much a preparation for Good Friday and Easter as it is for Christmas.  Because Christmas is about so much more than the birth of a Baby.  It is about who that Baby is, and what that Baby does.  That Baby is God.  He is God in the flesh.  He is God with us, Immanuel.  That Baby is Jesus, “The LORD saves,” for He has come to save His people from their sins.  He is the promised Seed of the woman, offspring of the Virgin’s womb, come to crush the serpent’s head.  He has come to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim release to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Is. 61:1), “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (v. 2).  He has come that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers be cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead be raised up (Matt. 11:5).  He has come to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows; to be stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted for us, in our place; to be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  By His wounds we are healed (Is. 53:4-5).  Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh dwelling among us (John 1:14).  It is about God taking on our flesh and blood to redeem it by His death, and to raise it up on the Third Day, that we may have eternal life.  Advent is the season of preparation for all of that. 
            But our Lord’s Advent is not simply an historical episode you can read about in a book.  For the Church, His coming to us is an ongoing reality.  It is true that Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after His Resurrection.  He was taken up from the disciples and hidden by a cloud.  But He did not leave them, and He has not left us.  He promised: “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).  So He still comes to us, just as He came that first Christmas.  He still comes to us as God in the flesh.  He does so in His Word and Sacraments.  It is His voice that speaks to you in the proclamation of His Word.  The pastor is just the loud-speaker for Jesus.  It is Christ who baptizes, clothing you with the white robe of His righteousness as He drowns you and raises you to new life, and writes God’s own Name upon you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is Christ who bespeaks you righteous in Holy Absolution, pronouncing your sins forgiven.  It is Christ who sets a Table before you and places His own Body and Blood into your mouths.  And this is the same Body that was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid a in manger.  This is the same Blood that coursed through those tiny veins as He nursed at the bosom of the Blessed Virgin.  Jesus answers your prayer.  He comes to you, Body and Blood, in the Means of Grace.  And He does this that He might continue to do for you what He did in His earthly ministry: to proclaim good news to you, to bind up your broken heart, to release you from your captivity, to give you eyes to see Him as your Savior, ears to hear His life-giving Word, to heal your afflictions, to bear your sorrows, and finally, to raise you up in your body on the Last Day.  The Means of Grace are a foretaste of the full visible coming of the Lord on the Last Day.  His hidden presence with you now in His Word and Sacraments is a foreshadowing of His eternal presence with you in the full manifestation of His glory when He comes again to judge the living and the dead and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ. 
            Jesus is coming back.  Visibly.  That is the third way of our Lord’s coming to us, and the Season of Advent is all about preparation for that Day.  Suddenly, without warning, on a Day known only to God, the Lord Jesus will rend the heavens and come down with His holy angels, to sit in Judgment upon His throne.  The trumpet will sound.  The dead will arise.  Every eye will see Him.  Even those who pierced Him (Rev. 1:7), for they will be raised from the dead.  The Lord will separate the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers, as we heard last week.  The believers He will invite to come and inherit the Kingdom prepared for them by the Father from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:34).  But the unbelievers He will command to depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (v. 41).  The believers will receive the Kingdom inheritance because they received the Lord’s coming in faith that their sins have been forgiven, that He has come to deliver them.  The unbelievers will be cast out because they did not receive the Lord when He came.  They did not cry Hosanna, save, we pray.  They did not want the Lord to come, they did not want His forgiveness and salvation, they wanted to be left alone.  So the Lord will give them what they want on that Day.  But note that this coming is a Day of rejoicing for you who are in Christ Jesus.  It is not a Day of terror, but of joy and triumph.  For on this Day the Lord Jesus will grant you the final deliverance from your sins… You will sin no longer!  All your sins having been forgiven, you will live in eternal righteousness and purity.  On this Day the Lord Jesus will grant you the final deliverance from all your afflictions… no more sickness.  No more death.  No more mourning or crying or pain.  Your body and your soul will be made whole again.  You will be like Jesus, in His resurrection Body.  And God will wipe away every tear from your eyes (cf. Rev. 21:4).  You will dwell with God and with His Christ forever. 

            Once the Lord Jesus came in our likeness, in our flesh, to bear our sin and redeem us by His death on the cross.  Now risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, He fills all things, and He comes to us bodily in His holy Word and Sacraments, indeed, with His true Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.  And He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Past, present, and future.  Past, present, and Eschaton.  What you don’t want to do is greet the Lord’s coming with little or no preparation.  This Season of Advent, in these days before Christmas, you are worried and troubled about many things: Christmas parties, Christmas presents, Christmas this, and Christmas that.  There is the baking and the cleaning, the wrapping and the trappings, there are visitors coming for dinners yet to be cooked.  So much to do.  So little time.  Don’t get lost in all of that.  That is not the preparation to which Advent calls you.  Quite the contrary.  Advent calls upon you to repent.  The next two Sundays we will hear the voice of John the Baptist crying in this wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).  Repent and believe the Gospel.  Come to Church.  Be here where the Lord comes to you now with His precious, sin-forgiving, conscience cleansing, healing gifts.  That is your priority this Advent.  Everything else can wait.  It can.  Repent of thinking it can’t.  Prepare by confessing.  Confess the paths that are not straight.  Confess your unwillingness to receive the Lord as He comes to you now with His gifts.  Confess and be absolved.  Prepare by believing the Lord Jesus when He says your sins are forgiven.  Prepare by receiving what He has to give you here in His Church.  For no matter how crooked and messy sin has made the path, no matter how plagued you are by the sins that so easily beset you, no matter how much or how little preparation you have made, the Lord Jesus comes to you.  He advents.  To set you free from the threatening perils of your sins.  To save you by His mighty deliverance.  To deliver you from all your afflictions.  Hosanna.  Save, we pray.  Come, Lord Jesus.  He has.  He does.  He will.  For you.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Eve

November 26, 2014
Text: Luke 17:11-19

            Our Holy Gospel this evening is not a moralistic reminder that we ought to say thanks.  We should be thankful, and should express our thanksgiving to God for His gifts and to others who have done good to us.  Our mothers taught us this habit, and it is important, because it forces us to acknowledge our reliance on others.  We have to die to our selfishness and self-reliance.  We have to put away our self-congratulations and acknowledge that we would not have this good apart from God and the people who benefited us.  We should say thanks.  But the point of our Holy Gospel really is not that.  The point is the cleansing Jesus bestows, and the grateful faith that ever returns to Jesus Christ for more of His gifts. 
            That is the pattern with God.  He cleanses.  He gives His gifts.  We then respond with thanks and praise.  The order here is important.  He acts first.  He acts decisively and generously, apart from any merit or worthiness in us.  He acts for us, not because we are good (we aren’t), but because He is good.  He acts without a view toward our gratefulness and thanksgiving.  He does not need our thanks or our expressions of affirmation (“Good job, God!  You’re doing really great with all the God business!  You sure are awesome”… He doesn’t need that).  He acts because He knows we need His action: His cleansing, His healing, His forgiveness, His life.  He acts because He is gracious, bestowing favor on those who don’t deserve it.  He acts because He is merciful, not holding our trespasses against us, but covering them with the blood of Christ.  Now, hearing all of that, who would not be grateful?  If you believe all of this is true, then you will indeed give thanks, rejoice in all circumstances, and in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:6).  We give thanks because we know our God never stops giving to us.  He pours out His benefits on us, our life, our salvation, our daily bread, and every grace and blessing besides.     
            That is why the Samaritan returns to Jesus in our Holy Gospel.  It is not because he suddenly remembers what his mother taught him about saying thank you.  It is not to fulfill a duty, an obligation.  It is because he recognizes in Jesus One who can heal, not only leprosy, but every kind of uncleanness.  He recognizes in Jesus One who can heal from sin.  And save from death.  And give cleanness.  And give life.  He recognizes that Jesus is the Priest who can pronounce him clean, not just ceremonially, but really and concretely: forgiven, restored, made whole, complete.  The other nine are undoubtedly thankful they don’t have to live with leprosy anymore.  They’ve been released from their misery.  They’ve been relieved from their pain.  They are undoubtedly singing God’s praises on their way to the Jewish priests.  But the Samaritan has faith in Jesus.  And faith always returns to Jesus for more.  It is the ultimate thanksgiving. 
            Eucharist is the Greek word for thanksgiving.  We sometimes use that word for the Lord’s Supper, and in one sense it is especially appropriate.  Because what we learn from the Samaritan in our Gospel is that Christian thanksgiving is simply receiving from Jesus.  It is falling at His feet to receive all that He has to give.  We give thanks to Jesus by hearing His Word of forgiveness and life, believing that His Word is true, and at His Word taking His crucified and risen Body and Blood into our mouths at His Table.  Our Confessions and the Church Fathers speak of a two-fold effect of the Sacrament of the Altar: “the comfort of consciences and thanksgiving, or praise.”[1]  We come to the Sacrament to eat and drink the fruits of our Lord’s cross, for the forgiveness of our sins.  In this way, our consciences are comforted, and naturally we give thanks and sing God’s praises.
            Now, to give thanks is simply to acknowledge that a good has been done.  To praise is to state what that good thing is.  So when we give thanks and praise to God, we are simply saying back to God and to one another all the good things God has done for us in Christ.  In other words, we are confessing!  We are proclaiming!  We are evangelizing!  For we are speaking the Gospel.  Praise is not about telling God how great He is as if His self-esteem depends on it.  It is speaking and singing of the great things He has done for us in Christ, the Savior.  It is falling before the great High Priest of our Salvation, Jesus Christ, utterly empty in and of ourselves, that He might fill us with Himself, with the Sacrifice of Atonement that He has made for our sins before the Father, His true Body, His true Blood, given and shed on the altar of the cross.  To receive that, believing it is what He says it is, is Eucharist: Thanksgiving.
            This Thanksgiving Day, when Grandmother sets a feast before you at her table, indeed, you should say thank you.  But the best thanks Grandma could receive is for you to hold your empty plate before her and ask for another helping of her goodness.  The Lord has set a Feast before you.  Your plate is empty.  You should, indeed, say thank you to God for all that He has given you until now.  But the best thanks you can give Him is to stand before Him empty of yourself, and ask Him to fill you with Christ.  Which He does as He says to you: “Take, eat, the Body of Christ, given for you; take, drink, the blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”  Thanks be to God!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 




[1] Apol. XXIV:75 (McCain, p. 232).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (A—Proper 29)

November 23, 2014
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

            There is a Judgment Day.  There will be an end to this world as we know it.  The Lord Jesus is coming soon.  He will come in all His glory, the holy angels with Him, and He will sit on His glorious throne (Matt. 25:31).  He will raise all the dead, believers and unbelievers, in their bodies, and gather all humanity, all the nations, to Himself.  The books will be open.  What is hidden will be revealed.  And our Lord will announce His verdict for each one of us and pronounce sentence.  He will separate the believers from the unbelievers as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (v. 32).  The sheep, the believers, He will place on His right and the goats, the unbelievers, on His left (v. 33).  And then He will judge. Those on His right He will invite to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v. 34).  But those on His left He will cast out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41; ESV).  It is a fearsome thing, the Day of Judgment.  Does it strike fear in your heart?  It should at least give you pause.  For even though you know your sins are forgiven, even though you know the Judge, Jesus Christ, to be a merciful God and Savior, even though you know He will give you eternal life, you dare not take that for granted.  You dare not let it become for you a license to follow the passions of your sinful flesh, an excuse to neglect the needs of your neighbor, a pretext to be loveless and faithless.  You dare not let it keep you from watching and waiting with eager expectation for the return of Jesus Christ.
            The fact is, we live often as if there were no Judgment Day, as though Jesus will not come back in our lifetime, as though we need have no concern.  As a result, there is always the danger of that Day taking us unawares.  We should always be ready.  Each one of us, every individual, will be called to give an account before the Divine tribunal when the Lord returns.  But we do not know the day or the hour.  So we must watch.  The Lord could come tomorrow, or even yet today.  Or perhaps He will come a thousand years from now.  But He is coming soon.  Examine yourself.  Repent of your sin.  And be absolved, be forgiven of all your sins, by Christ the crucified, as He delivers that forgiveness to you in His precious Word and Sacraments.
            It strikes us Lutherans as strange that in the Judgment scene from our Holy Gospel, the sheep and the goats are judged with regard to their works, or the lack thereof.  The sheep are told that when Jesus was hungry, they gave Him food; when He was thirsty, they gave Him drink; when He was a stranger, they welcomed Him; when He was naked, they clothed Him; when He was sick or in prison, they visited Him (vv. 35-36).  For as often as they “did it to one of the least of these,” they did it unto Christ (v. 40).  So also, those on Jesus’ left are told to depart from Him because they did not do these things unto the least of these, and so they did not do it unto Christ.  It would seem that the righteous are judged righteous because of their works, and the cursed are judged cursed because they do not have those works.  What, then, of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works?  What of our Lord’s death for our sins and His life-giving resurrection, and these alone as the basis of our salvation?
            There is more going on here than first meets the eye.  For one thing, the Kingdom is given to the righteous as an inheritance, and you don’t work for an inheritance.  An inheritance is a gift, and to receive it, you simply have to be born, and the Giver has to die.  You have been born anew in Holy Baptism, born into Christ, and this is God’s work, not yours.  And Christ, the Giver, died, that you might receive the inheritance.  Believe it, and it is yours, totally apart from your works.  We are saved by faith alone, to be sure.  But then again, faith is never alone.  Works of love always follow as a result of faith.  This is simply putting the inheritance to good use.  It is, as Martin Luther says, “a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly.  It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.”[1]  It is as St. James says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).  Faith works.  Christians do works.  This is not because works earn any merit before God.  Works are simply the evidence of a living faith in Jesus Christ.  Works are the fruits of faith.  And works done in faith are rewarded in this life and in the life to come. 
            But make no mistake, the works are not the basis of salvation.  How could they be?  Believers and unbelievers alike do works.  You know this from experience.  Believers and unbelievers alike volunteer at soup kitchens.  Believers and unbelievers alike donate blood, drop their change in red kettles, do community service, and serve their fellow man.  What, then, is the difference between their works?  Why do the believers get credit, and the unbelievers do not?  What is the difference between the sheep and the goats?  The difference is faith.  The difference is Christ.  The writer to the Hebrews says that without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).  Isaiah reminds us that apart from Christ “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is. 64:6).  No matter what we do, it is all sin apart from Christ.  But in Christ, every work done in faith is baptized by the blood of Christ.  All that is sin in it, all that is wrong with it, all that is imperfect, our selfishness, our impure motives, our reluctance to help, our grumbling as we do it… all this is washed away in Christ’s blood.  The work is cleansed.  It is made righteous.  By Christ.  Christ makes a man good by dying for him, by forgiving his sin and justifying him.  Christ makes you righteous, by grace, through faith.  It is not that good works make a man righteous.  It is that a righteous man does good works.  Because he is in Christ.  A good tree bears good fruit, as our Lord says (Matt. 7:17).  If a man abides in Christ, and Christ in him, the same it is who bears much fruit.  For apart from Christ (and this is the thing with the unbelievers, the goats)… apart from Christ, you can do nothing (John 15:5).  The work is Christ’s.  Christ gets the glory.  By grace, you are given to be His vessel for the work.
            Notice that the sheep are surprised to hear that they’ve done anything good.  You’ll be surprised, beloved, when you hear the Lord Jesus say you’ve done all these things.  And why is that?  It is, first of all, as we said, because you know the sin in your every work.  That is all forgiven in Christ.  But it is also because you’re looking for the wrong works.  You think the works that the Lord Jesus is talking about are works done by superstar saints like St. Francis, spectacular works, feats of generosity and self-denial, grand gestures like giving all your money to the poor, devoting your life to “making a difference” (as we say in our culture), volunteering all your time and energy for various good causes.  You fail to see that God has surrounded you with people to serve, and given you a vocation to serve them.  Don’t despise the works God gives you to do just because they are “ordinary.”  When you feed and clothe your children, do you not feed the hungry and clothe the naked?  Changing dirty diapers is a pretty important work.  Rocking a screaming newborn at 2 in the morning is a pretty important work.  Is a newborn not the least of these?  When you show hospitality to guests, when you pay your pastor and take care of his family, when you greet visitors to our congregation, are you not welcoming the stranger?  When you take care of your frail mother, or nurse an ailing spouse, are you not visiting the sick?  When you pray for those in prison and commend them to the Lord, are you not visiting them?  If you know them, perhaps you even literally go to see them.  Are these not the very works the Lord is commending in our Holy Gospel?  These are the things you should do as you wait and as you watch.  When you do all this, you are Christ to these people.  Christ does the work through you, in your vocation.  The work has to be done, you are Christ’s hands and feet to do it.  And the great surprise is that when you’ve done all this, when you’ve served in your vocation, when you’ve simply done your duty to your family, your Church, and your community, you’ve done it unto Christ. 
            The goats have not, even though they’ve done the exact same thing you’ve done, because they didn’t do it in faith.  They didn’t do it in Christ.  Their sin still counts against them, their impure motives, their selfishness, their grumbling.  They cling to their own righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ.  They hold up their own works rather than the works of Christ.  And so they are surprised that they don’t get credit for their works.  Even their good works are sin before God and damnable, because they weren’t done in faith.  Such are your works outside of Christ.  But in Christ they are holy.  For they are given the holiness of Christ.  And you are given the righteousness of Christ.  And God works in you to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13), that His people be loved and cared for through you.
            The fact is, though, when our Lord comes again to judge the living and the dead, it will not be your works that render you righteous before Him.  It will be His works: His life, His death, His resurrection, for you.  And on account of all of this that He has done, you will hear these blessed words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         



[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954) p. xvii. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 28)

November 16, 2014
Text: Matt. 25:14-30

            Stewardship is not about money.  God doesn’t want your money.  He wants all of you.  He wants you whole.  He wants you entirely and completely as His own, all that you are and all that you have.  To be sure, you already belong to Him.  After all, He created you, knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  Before He formed you, He knew you (Jer. 1:5).  He redeemed you, body and soul, by the blood of His own dear Son, Jesus Christ.  He has written His Name on you in Holy Baptism, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He sanctifies you and keeps you in the one true faith so that you may be His own, as He says to you, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:16; ESV).  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Is. 43:1).  You belong to God already.  But He wants you to realize this, that all that you are and all that you have are gifts from His infinite goodness.  And He wants you to trust that He is an unfailing fountain of good for you, that you can use what He gives you faithfully, give it away generously to your neighbor and for the work of the Kingdom of God, and you won’t run out, because He will give you even more.  In fact, you can give yourself, as Christ gave Himself into death for you, because Christ Jesus is risen from the dead, and He will raise you, too.
            Stewardship is actually about faith.  In our Lord’s parable this morning, the Master is God and the servants to whom the Master entrusts his talents are God’s people.  What the servants do with the talents is a direct reflection of what they believe about the Master.  The servants who put their talents to work believe in the goodness of their Master.  They believe He is gracious.  They know that He wants them to be faithful with His talents.  They understand that He has bestowed His gifts upon them as a trust.  So they put the talents to work.  The servants are not called to be successful.  They are simply called to be faithful.  If the work fails, if their investments lose, they know that Master will provide for them anyway.  After all, the talents themselves are evidence of His generosity.  A talent is roughly worth 20 years of labor.  5 talents, 100 years of labor.  2 talents, 50 years of labor.  Amazing amounts of money.  And even the servant who only received one talent, well, that’s still 20 years of labor.  And they are given freedom to manage the talents as they see fit, as if the talents are their own.  But they are to be faithful with them.  For the Master will return, and then they will be called upon to give an account. 
            But the servant who received only one talent believes the Master is hard, reaping where He does not sow and gathering where He has scattered no seed.  He believes the Master to be a cold, loveless, unmerciful, and demanding slave-driver.  So this servant despises the gift.  He doesn’t want it.  He certainly doesn’t want to be accountable for it.  So he buries it, like something rotten, something dead.  He buries it where it will do no work for the Master.  He buries it so he can return it to the Master, just as it was given.  But the Master doesn’t give His gifts to be buried.  He gives them to be used.  He gives them for you to demonstrate your trust in Him.
            What do you believe about God?  Stewardship is a fruit of faith.  It is a result of what you believe about your Master.  Do you believe He is a gracious God who will provide for your every need, who has graciously poured out His gifts upon you to be used for His glory and in service and love toward your neighbor, who will rescue you in time of need, who will reward you in the end for faithful use of the gifts He gave you in the first place and bestow upon you even more gifts?  Or do you believe He is a hard God, a loveless, cold, unmerciful, demanding slave-driver?  It’s a struggle, isn’t it?  “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief” (Cf. Mark 9:24).  All-too-often you do think you need to bury the Lord’s gifts, your time, your abilities, your money, your stuff.  You keep it for yourself.  You are afraid there won’t be enough.  You are afraid the Lord will demand it from you when you don’t have it to give.  Sure, you believe God is gracious, theoretically, but for all practical purposes you’re not so sure.  And you’re reluctant, therefore, to put your money, your possessions, your life, where your mouth is.  Repent.
            Do you think your heavenly Father is unaware of your needs?  Do you think He carelessly and capriciously leaves you in the lurch when you’ve trusted Him too much?  Do you not remember Jesus’ words: “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:25, 32-33)?  Has God not been faithful to you in the past?  Are you not alive this very moment because He has fed and nourished you, housed and clothed you, protected you from all harm and danger, surrounded you with people who care for you, kept your heart beating and your lungs breathing, and added to you manifold other gifts besides?  Do you think He will suddenly stop doing these things for you?
            Or don’t you know how precious you are to Him, that He would give His Son into death to purchase you to be His own?  Talk about faithful stewardship.  Our Lord Jesus received the stewardship of the Church from His Father.  He is our Steward.  And of those whom the Father gave Him He lost not one (John 18:9).  For when a sheep strays, He goes after it.  When a coin is lost, He scours the house until He finds it.  When a prodigal son wastes the inheritance, the Lord Jesus anxiously awaits his return, and when the prodigal repents, the Lord runs out to him to embrace him and welcome him home.  He throws a party, a feast, with great rejoicing, for this sinner was dead, and is alive again, was lost, and is found.  So precious is the Church, so precious are you to Jesus, that He gave His life on the cross as the ultimate act of stewardship, that you might not perish eternally where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, but that you live with Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity.  That is why you belong to Him: His blood and death.  “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  Put your talents to work.  Give yourself for your neighbor.  Work faithfully in your vocation.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick.  Come to Church.  Serve in Church.  Yes, give money to the Church.  Fight, work, and pray for the Church, for your family, for your community.  Die for them.  You can.  In Christ, you are free to do this very thing.  For Christ is risen, and He will raise you, too.  He will not forsake you.  He will not leave you destitute.  Don’t bury your talent.  Trust your Lord who died for you. 
            He bestows His gifts, and to each He gives the right amount.  To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2, and to still another, 1.  He gives different gifts, in different quantities, but the gift is always generous, it is always undeserved, given by grace, given because of Christ, and He always gives it in wisdom and for the good of those who are His.  He gives you what He wants you to have, what He knows you need, no more, and no less.  Sometimes He bestows a cross with His gifts, and this also is a gift of His grace, for your good.  He gives you what is advantageous to your salvation.  He gives you gifts, and He desires you to use them.  He gives you what you can use faithfully.  And then He rewards you with even more gifts.  He says to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23).  He invites you into the joy of His Kingdom.  He brings you to heaven.  He raises you from the grave. 

            Stewardship is watchfulness for the Kingdom, watching and waiting for the Master’s return, putting His gifts to work before He does.  Jesus is coming back.  The end is near.  Judgment Day is when all are called to account.  Those who believed the goodness of the Master, who trusted in Christ and therefore put their talents to work, they will be eternally rewarded.  Those who believed the Master to be hard, unloving and unmerciful, and therefore buried their talents, will be cast into the outer darkness.  Notice that the difference is not work, but faith in Christ, which produces the works.  On that Day, what you did with God’s gifts will only be evidence of faith.  Faith is your righteousness before God.  Christ is your righteousness before God.  In Christ, you have eternal salvation and the favor of the Master.  And knowing that, you are not afraid to be a faithful steward over His gifts.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.