Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Smith/Young Wedding

Wedding of Shawn Young and Erin Smith
Nov. 29, 2009


Text: Gen. 2:7, 18-24

Shawn, Erin, Beloved in the Lord: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

God has given marriage for our good. In fact, even before the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, into sin… even in the perfection of the Garden of Eden, God said that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18; ESV). Mankind is made by God to be in relationship: relationship to God and relationship to one another. And so marriage is the very first thing God institutes, His gift to man for companionship, the procreation of children, and for holy use of God’s gift of the body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24).

And yet, it didn’t take long for more, much more, to be “not good” in God’s creation. Adam and Eve fell. They fell into sin. They ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and so for the first time Adam and Eve knew evil, knew they were evil, by nature sinful and unclean, knew that they had severed their once perfect relationship with God. And even their relationship with one another was severed by sin. Adam blamed Eve for their fall. “The woman You gave me, God, she gave me of the fruit, and I did eat. It wasn’t my fault. It was Eve’s fault, and ultimately Your fault, God, for creating this woman in the first place.” And at this point Eve interjects, “Now wait a minute here, Adam! Wait a minute here, God! It is really the serpent’s fault. The devil made me do it. Don’t you try to blame me!” What God had joined together man had thus separated. The relationship for which man was created, relationship with God, relationship with one another, was broken.

And here we are, the children of Adam and Eve, sinners in their likeness, by nature sinful and unclean, and we have the audacity to have a wedding. We have the audacity to claim, to vow in the presence of God and these witnesses, a lifelong union between this man and this woman. How can we do that? Erin, Shawn, Beloved in the Lord, we can only do this, establish the lifelong union of this man and this woman, because God sent His Son Jesus Christ to restore the eternal relationship between us and our heavenly Father.

The only way your marriage will survive is if you take it to the foot of the cross. The only way your marriage will survive is if it’s source is the forgiveness of sins that you have by Jesus’ blood and death alone. Because you are still sinners. That hasn’t changed. You sin against God. You sin against one another. You sin against your family. You sin against your neighbor. But you stand nonetheless, by faith, in the forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ won for you on the cross. He paid your debt to God. Your relationship to God is restored. God has forgiven you. He loves you as His own dear children. You are covered by the blood of Christ. Your sin has been punished on the cross. The only thing God sees when He looks at you, covered in Jesus’ blood as you are, is His own Son’s righteousness.

So even as your relationship to God is restored in Christ Jesus, you make bold to promise that you will never break this union you are entering into here today. You will sin against one another. You will have strife in your marriage. By no means will it be easy. It will take hard work. But God has forgiven all your sins. Isn’t that marvelous?! So now you can forgive one another. Today your marriage is sanctified, made holy, by the Word of God and by prayer. God has given you this gift: the lifelong relationship of husband and wife as one flesh, the eternal relationship to God as your heavenly Father. The good has been restored by our Lord Jesus Christ. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (C)
November 29, 2009
Text: Luke 19:28-40

Advent is about the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. The word Advent means coming. And certainly in these days before Christmas, Advent is a season of preparation for the people of God who will once again celebrate the first coming of our Savior as the Babe of Bethlehem and Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We prepare over the next four weeks to celebrate once again the coming of the Son of God in the flesh to be our substitute, to fulfill the holy Law of God on our behalf, to shed His blood for us, to bear our sins on the cross, to suffer the hell that we, by our sins, deserve, and to die in our place, to be buried in our tomb, to be raised again from the dead and ascend into heaven, that we might have the sure and certain hope of our own resurrection from the dead on the Last Day and eternal life in heaven. But so also, Advent is a season of preparation for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, His coming to judge the living and the dead, His coming to deliver us and all of fallen creation once and for all from sin, death, and the devil. Because Jesus came the first time as our Savior, we can look forward confidently, and with eager anticipation, toward His second coming as Judge, for on that Day He will say to all who believe in Him: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34; ESV). But of course, we need to be prepared for His coming. We must be careful, lest He come at a time we do not expect Him, and He find us having forsaken the faith. For on that great and dreadful Day He will say to all unbelievers: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). “Depart, unbelievers, into the eternal fire of hell.

How can we be prepared for our Lord Jesus’ second coming? By continuously receiving the benefits of His first coming. That is to say, we must stay connected to the means of grace, the holy Word of God and the blessed Sacraments, our Baptism into Christ, and the Lord’s Supper. Through these means, Jesus continually comes to us with every grace and blessing. He gives faith through these means, and He sustains us in the one true faith of Jesus Christ through these means. The Lord Jesus imparts His Holy Spirit to us through these means, and through these means the Holy Spirit does His calling to faith, His gathering into the Church, His enlightening with His gifts, and His sanctifying and preserving of the saints. By these means the Holy Spirit ever directs us to Christ alone, who comes to us with His tender Word of forgiveness and life, His washing of regeneration and renewal, His body and blood, given and shed for us, for the forgiveness of our sins. This is supremely important, because as much as we need the benefits of the cross of Christ if we are to be prepared for the Judgment, accounted righteous, and receive eternal life, we cannot go to the cross. We cannot go to the cross because it no longer exists. Jesus died on the cross 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. We are gathered in 2009 in Dorr, Michigan. Even if we went to Jerusalem, the cross has long since been destroyed. And even if we searched through all the ancient woodpiles of the holy land, how would we ever know if we found the authentic cross? And what good would it do us if we did find it? Certainly the cross is no mere good luck charm. It is the instrument of our Lord’s death on our behalf. How do we receive its benefits? Our God is so gracious. He has provided a means by we which may receive all the benefits of the sin-atoning work of Christ on the cross. He has attached His promise to words and water and bread and wine, the vehicles of His grace. These pipe in to us across the centuries and across the miles the grace and the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. These grant us salvation. So you see, there is a three-fold coming of Christ: He came to be our Savior that first Christmas. He is coming again to be our Judge at the end of time. And in the meantime, He continually comes to His people through the Word and the Sacraments.

But the question is, how shall we receive Him? That is why the Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of a new Church year, is the triumphal entry. Jesus is coming into Jerusalem, coming for the culmination of His coming into the flesh: Jesus is riding into Jerusalem to die. And the question is, how will people receive Him? The multitude of the disciples who had been following Him receive Him on the road with great rejoicing. They begin to praise God with a loud voice, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38). Yes, peace in heaven, for now there is peace between men and God. The Savior has come! And glory in the highest, for Jesus, in His death for God’s beloved, brings glory to His Father, and is Himself glorified on the cross. If only the disciples had any clue what they were saying. For though they are rejoicing, and though they say the right things, they betray their own ignorance. All they talk about on the way is the miracles Jesus has done (v. 37). Good enough. But they do not rejoice in His teaching. They do not understand who Jesus is, or what He has come to do. They do not understand that He is no earthly King, no earthly deliverer. They would not be rejoicing if they knew that Jesus rides into Jerusalem, not to muster an army to fight against the Romans, but to die. To die for the people. That is Jesus’ mission. That is why He came.

If anyone should have understood Jesus’ mission, it ought to have been the Pharisees. They are the learned men of the Law. They know the Holy Scriptures. Surely they see that the Messiah described in the writings of Moses and the prophets sits before them in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. But they reject Him. They do not receive Him. Because He threatens their comfortable, self-righteous theology. In the midst of the exultant praises of the multitude, the Pharisees say to Him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples” (v. 39). “Can’t you see that this is inappropriate, Jesus? In accepting the praises of this rabble, you claim to be God!” Of course, that’s just the point. Here is God in human flesh, riding into Jerusalem on a colt, to die, and so reconcile His people to Himself.

And so, dear friends, the text leaves the question open: What about you? How will you receive Him? Will you receive Him with great joy, as the disciples on the road, but only as long as He meets your preconceived image of who He should be and what He should do? Have you ever begun a sentence with the words, “I just can’t believe in a God who…” or “My Jesus would never…”? Repent. Or will you receive Him as the Pharisees do, perhaps knowing the Holy Scriptures, the Scriptures that are the very Word of Christ our Savior, but ignoring their truth when that truth is inconvenient, when the Scriptures teach something that makes you uncomfortable, for example, that all unbelievers go to hell, or that homosexuality is sinful, or that women are prohibited from the pastoral ministry, or… you fill in the blank with the teaching that most threatens you in your self-constructed theology? And especially when the Scriptures nail you to the wall as the sinner that you are… You must be a sinner if you need a Savior. But this is a hard truth for our self-righteous, Pharisaical flesh. Repent.

The truth is, the only way we ought to receive our Lord Jesus is in repentance and faith. Repentance, recognizing that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed. We come to the table in the matter of our salvation with nothing in our hands but sin and uncleanness. But we trust in Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness, mercy, and salvation. Jesus empties our hands by taking our sin and uncleanness into Himself on the cross. Our hands have to be good and empty, so that Jesus can fill them with Himself, with His own righteousness, with His life, with His cleanness. He does that, again, as He continually comes to us in the Word and the Sacraments. And in this way you see that while Jesus Himself must prepare us to receive Him, the more important point is that He receives us. He receives us just as we are, sinners that we are, muddy and stinking with sin as we are. He comes to us. He rides into Jerusalem. He rides into Dorr. He rides in to save sinners, to receive us into His outstretched arms, His nail-pierced hands, to cover us in His blood and so wash us clean, to speak His forgiving Word over us, to feed us at His unending feast. Jesus receives us, filthy, rotten, sinners that we are, as His beloved and holy Bride!

Jesus redeems His beloved and holy Bride in His first coming as Savior. He is coming again to take us to the wedding feast on the Last Day. In the meantime, He prepares us for the feast by coming to us and washing us, speaking words of love to us, and giving us a foretaste of the feast to come. This continual coming to us in Word and Sacrament sustains us in this time between the comings. This is a good time to remember the importance of our continual connection to Christ by His means of grace. The Advent season is upon us with its attendant extra services, extra devotions, and busy-ness of preparation for Christmas. Don’t forget, in the midst of all of these things, that the most important thing in your Advent preparation is to encounter the risen and living Lord Jesus here in His Church, in His blessed Word, and in the Sacrament of His body and blood. Jesus comes through these means. He is here, present, in the flesh! How could you miss that? If you miss it, you’ve missed the whole point. But when you are here, know that it is none other than Jesus Christ, your heavenly Bridegroom who comes to you with His gifts. The One who redeemed you with His blood comes and receives you, takes your sins away by forgiving them, and gives you Himself. And so you are prepared to meet Him when He comes to take you to the wedding feast that has no end. So let us sing it again, the words of the Jerusalem crowd, as we prepare for the Holy Supper: “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Eve
November 25, 2009
Text: Phil. 4:6-20

Paul writes, “(D)o not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6; ESV). Easy for him to say? Not really, since he writes these words while in prison, the possibility of martyrdom a constant reality. Why can Paul say such a thing? Paul knows the source of all good, spiritual and material, and that is God, that is Christ Jesus our Lord. He has given us all that we have, and He alone preserves us. That is to say, the God who made me and all creatures, and “has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses,” still takes care of them all.[1] He also gives me all that I need to support this body and life. He gives me “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have” (1st Article). And as if this were not enough, He sent His Son for me. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and also the Son of Mary according to the flesh, “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, form death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own” (2nd Article). Well, if that is true, why should I be anxious? The God who created me has also redeemed me, and He has provided for my every need. For this reason our Lord Jesus also commanded, “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will put on” (Matt. 6:25). Your heavenly Father, the One who created you and provided for your salvation by sending His only Son to die for you, He knows that you need all these things (v. 32). “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” ( v. 33).

This is not a promise of prosperity in the earthly sense. This is not to say that you will never feel any want. But this is to say that from the perspective of eternity, God has given you everything that you need, and continues to provide for you. This is why Paul can say, even from prison, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11-12). He can say this because he knows that in plenty and hunger, in abundance and need, all his good comes from the Lord alone, who has promised to take care of him in every circumstance. Therefore Paul can write boldly, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13).

Beloved in the Lord, you can make the same confession of faith along with St. Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” through our Lord Jesus Christ. For the same God who created Paul, the same God who sustains Paul, the same God who sent His Son Jesus Christ for Paul, has done so for you. The blood of the Son of God is the guarantee that God will preserve you. You have been purchased for God by the blood of Jesus Christ. How will God not also along with Him graciously give you all things (Rom. 8:32)? And so, we ought to rejoice in the Lord always, in all things, and in every circumstance. That is the admonition Paul gives two verses before our text. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). As strange as it sounds, rejoice not only in plenty, but also in hunger, not only in abundance, but also in need, recognizing that God is in control of everything, and He gives hunger as well as plenty for your good, need as well as abundance for your good. He always and only has your good in mind, even if you are unaware of what that good is at the time. What we are confessing in such rejoicing is God’s providence, that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

This helps us to foster a life of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day is not a Church holiday. It is a national, civic holiday, with a long and varied history. It is always Thanksgiving Day for the Church. But it is good and right that our government asks us once a year to especially give thanks to God for the blessings we’ve been given. How could the Church not respond to such a call? To give thanks to God is not to have an emotion, but to make a confession. To give thanks to God is literally to acknowledge verbally, with rejoicing, what He has given us, only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. We thank Him this day, above all, for our salvation in Christ Jesus, for the Gospel, for His Spirit, for eternal life, and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. And so also we thank Him for all that He has given to us for our earthly lives, the people He has surrounded us with, our family and friends and congregation and community, our homes, our nation, our livelihood, our schools, and all the “stuff” that we have in addition. And we give of our abundance for the sake of the neighbor in need. That is how the Philippians gave thanks in our text, by giving to Paul in his need. In thanksgiving, we give to the neighbor. We can do so liberally, because we know that God is never finished giving to us. We know that the more we give, our supply is never diminished, because God gives more and more and more to us, without end. And what we are giving was never really ours to begin with, but a trust from God who gives it to us that we might use it for others, and so be an instrument of His giving to our neighbor. For this, too, we give thanks.

And we are content. Our happiness is in God. Not in things, but in God. Therefore we can face any and every situation without anxiety, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make our requests known to God (Phil. 4:6). And here is the promise: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). That is the peace of knowing all your sins are forgiven in Christ Jesus. That is the peace of knowing that you belong to Him in Holy Baptism, God’s own child. That is the peace of knowing that in the end, no matter what trials and tribulations you may have to pass through now, heaven is yours for all eternity.

Let us pray: “Heavenly Father, God of all grace, govern our hearts that we may never forget Your blessings but steadfastly thank and praise You for all Your goodness in this life until, with all Your saints, we praise You eternally in Your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ,” Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.[2]

[1] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).
[2] LSB, p. 310.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (B)
November 22, 2009
Text: Mark 13:24-37

Dear Christians, stay awake! For the Lord is coming again. He is coming to judge the living and the dead. “Be on your guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33; ESV). But that the time will come you can know with absolute certainty, for it is not just any prophet who has predicted this, nor is it simply my word as a pastor, but it is the very Word of Jesus Christ, who is the Truth incarnate. His Word is absolutely trustworthy. The Day is coming, says Jesus, when every eye “will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (vv. 26-27). St. Paul gives us a little more information about how this Day will proceed in his first letter to the Thessalonians (4:16-17): “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” St. Peter tells us in his second letter (3:10): “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” Finally, Jesus Himself says of that Day (Matt. 25:31-33): “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.” The sheep, those who are in Christ Jesus by faith, will inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v. 34). The goats, those who did not believe in Christ, will be told to depart into eternal hell fire with the devil and the evil angels (v. 41).

Notice that the Last Day, the Day of the Lord’s returning, is a great blessing to those who are in Christ, and a great curse to those who have rejected Him. All the dead will be raised on that Day, believers and unbelievers alike. All those who are still alive will likewise be gathered from the four winds, which is to say, every corner of the earth. Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, appointed by the Father as Judge of the living and the dead, will sit upon His throne and divide believers from unbelievers. The believers will receive eternal joy with Christ in a new heavens and a new earth, their souls being reunited to their new resurrection bodies. The unbelievers will receive eternal punishment with the devil and his demons in the Lake of Fire that is hell. And they will go into this hell, body and soul. And understand, the unbelievers have no second chance on this Day. There is no second chance to believe once Jesus returns. Now is the time of grace. The only reason the Lord Jesus has not returned yet is so that the full number of those appointed to eternal life will come to believe. But once He returns, or once the unbeliever dies, there are no second chances. Yes, death is also the end of the time of grace for the unbeliever. It is appointed for man to die once, and after that, the judgment (Heb. 9:27). Therefore now is the time to repent. Now is the time to believe. Don’t put it off until tomorrow. The point of today’s readings is this: Tomorrow may never come! You may die before tomorrow. Jesus may return before tomorrow. Stay awake, which is to say, not literally don’t sleep, but do not allow yourself, by your sin and carelessness, to fall into the sleep of unbelief. For the Lord is returning on a Day and at an Hour you do not expect.

No one knows the Day or the Hour. Not even the angels of heaven. In fact, Jesus, in His state of humiliation, when He speaks this prophecy, does not know that Day or Hour either (Mark 13:32). He knows now, in His state of exaltation, as he always and fully uses His divine powers, but not then, at the speaking of these words. Only God knows the Day and Hour. He has not revealed it to us. And this is for good reason. Why does the man who goes on the journey in Jesus’ parable not tell the servants when he is returning? What do you suppose they would do if they knew the day or hour when he would come back? They would be tempted to let things slip until the day before the master’s return, would they not? You know what happens at work when the boss is away. But if there is the continual possibility that the master may return at any moment, the servants will keep the house in good order the whole time, for they never know when he will appear and evaluate their work. Knowing our sinful, fallen flesh, what do you suppose we would do if we knew the exact time of Jesus’ return? We would undoubtedly allow our faith in Christ to waver. In fact, we would toss it aside, giving in to the desires of the sinful flesh. After all, we have tomorrow to repent. Now, we’ll live for ourselves. Let’s eat, drink, and be merry. No holds barred. We’ll take care of the God-stuff later. The fact that Jesus has not told us the Day or Hour of His return is actually a great grace to us. It keeps us alert. There is the continual possibility that He could return today. And of course, there is the continual possibility that you or I could die today. Therefore we must stay awake, not fall into the sleep of unbelief, but stay alert, remain in the one true faith of Jesus Christ, watch.

No one knows the Day or the Hour. This also puts to rest all the 2012 nonsense going around, the idea, based not on anything in the Holy Scriptures, but on an ancient Mayan calendar that ends on December 21, 2012, that the world will come to an end on that day. Even many so-called Christians are capitalizing on this lunacy, leading weak Christians astray. No one who predicts the Day or Hour, even if they claim to have a special revelation from God, has any clue what they are talking about. They are either lying or deluded themselves. Jesus says it. No one knows the Day or Hour. But it is soon. The signs are ripe. Therefore we must be ready. Remember the lesson from the fig tree. When the branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, summer is near. Read the signs of the end of t he age. We heard about many of them last week: false christs, the falling away of the faithful, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, betrayal, persecution, martyrdom. Every human conflict, every act of violence, every natural disaster, every tribulation is a warning that the end is near. Stay awake. Watch.

How does one stay awake? Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). In the midst of things temporal, hold on to what is eternal. In the midst of that which is passing away, hold on to that which never passes away: the Word of God, the Word of Jesus Christ. For in so doing you stay in constant connection with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, your Savior, who is also coming as your Judge. And here is the good news: This Judge, Jesus Christ, is also your Advocate, your divine Defense Attorney. His defense on your behalf is this: “It is true, the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). But I have paid those wages in my own death on behalf of all humanity. I have taken the punishment for sin upon myself. I took the punishment into my body on the cross. I suffered hell on behalf of every person, the payment for all sin. I buried all sin in my tomb, and now even as I am risen, sin lies dead forever. Therefore, I pronounce the whole world innocent. And for all who believe in me, for everyone who looks to my death and resurrection for the full and free forgiveness of all sins, eternal life, and salvation, there can be no other verdict than innocent, nay, more than that, righteous, for I have given them my righteousness, received not by works but by faith alone.” Beloved in the Lord, to believe this, to know this, to trust in this, is to stay awake. And the way you come to believe this and trust this, the way your faith is strengthened in this truth, is by abiding in the Word, abiding in Scripture and preaching, Baptism and Absolution, abiding in the Supper of Jesus’ own body and blood. Receiving the gifts of Christ, you stay awake and watch for His returning. And receiving the gifts of Christ, His return will not be a day of terror for you, but a day of great rejoicing. For He will say to you on that Day: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared from you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). It is actually God who keeps you by His Spirit in this grace until that Day. It is all His gift. You simply receive. You simply trust. It is all His work on your behalf. He preserves you. He alone is able. And He is faithful. He promises to do so, and He always makes good on His promises.

The Day is surely drawing near when heaven and earth as we know them will pass away, burned up with fire, as St. Peter says. But let not your hearts be troubled. You are baptized into Christ. You are fed by His Word and Supper. The Word of the Lord abides forever. Therefore you can go into that Day confidently, knowing whose you are. You belong to Christ. He will not forsake you on that Day. He will raise you from the dead and give you, body and soul, life eternal. And so, “to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever” (Jude 24-25). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Pure Receptivity of Faith

"Faith holds out the hand and the sack and just lets the good be done to it. For as God is the giver who bestows such things in His love, we are the receivers who receive the gift through faith which does nothing. For it is not our doing and cannot be merited by our work. It has already been granted and given. You need only open your mouth, or rather, your heart, and keep still and let yourself be filled."

-- Martin Luther, quoted in Robert D. Preus, Doctrine is Life: Essays on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions, Klemet I. Preus, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006) p. 115.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (B – Proper 28)
November 15, 2009
Text: Mark 13:1-13

Beloved in the Lord, Jesus does not promise us an easy life, or a life of comfort, or a life of ease. Hear again some of the disconcerting promises He gives in the Gospel lesson: Many false christs will come. Many of the faithful will be led astray. There will be wars and rumors of wars. There will be earthquakes and famines. And these are only the beginning. The disciples of Jesus Christ will be handed over to authorities and be beaten, brought to trial, often betrayed by brothers and parents and children, even unto death. Jesus promises persecution for His followers. He even says, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mark 13:13; ESV). What kind of Gospel is this? How is this good news? Jesus tells His faithful apostles that even the very temple in Jerusalem would be torn down, that grandiose dwelling place of God with men, not one stone left upon another (v. 2). And it happened, just as Jesus prophesied. In AD 70, the Romans razed the temple. All that is left is a section of what was the north wall, now called the Wailing Wall. Is this supposed to encourage the disciples in the face of the events of Holy Week, the betrayal and crucifixion of their Teacher and Lord? Is this supposed to encourage us?

Jesus tells His disciples these things beforehand, that they may not lose heart in the face of disaster and persecution, but believe, trust in Him alone. Jesus does not want to terrify His disciples, and He does not want to terrify us. Rather, He is interpreting the signs for them. He is interpreting the signs for us. “This must take place, but the end is not yet” (v. 7). These are signs that the impending end is near. And contrary to the instincts of natural, fallen man, these signs ought not lead the Christian to terror or despair. Christians ought be on their guard. Jesus commands as much (v. 9). But Christians ought also be comforted. You ought to be comforted when you see the signs of the end. For the end is your deliverance. Persecution is only for a short time. Hardship is only for a short time. Tribulation is only for this earthly life. Then comes the rescue. Then comes the joy. Do not be anxious. In a world ever more hostile to Jesus Christ and His Christians, God is with you. He is with you to strengthen you and to uphold you and to help you and to deliver you. While nation rises against nation and kingdom against kingdom, while soldiers murder soldiers in the name of demons and politicians only offer politically correct platitudes without hope, while spouses prove unfaithful and children rebellious, brother betraying brother, father betraying son, children betraying parents, the Lord is faithful to His promise to you: All your sins are forgiven. Your salvation has come. Eternal life is yours through the death of Christ Jesus. “(T)he one who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 13).

Jesus does not promise us an easy life. He promises just the opposite, in fact. He promises hardship and disaster and persecution. He promises the breaking down of all those things that tie us to tightly to this earth and this earthly life, including our most treasured relationships. But do not be afraid. Do not be anxious. Our hope is not in temple or Synod. Our hope is not in nation or kingdom. Our hope is not in brother or sister, or father or mother, or son or daughter, or even husband or wife. Our hope is Jesus Christ alone. He has told us beforehand, because the end is near. We’ve been living in the end times since the day our risen Lord ascended into heaven, promising to return visibly to judge the living and the dead. The things Jesus promises in the Gospel lesson, the persecutions, the hardships, the tribulations, are, as He calls them, “the beginning of the birth pains” (v. 8).

What do we know about birth pains? I don’t know this from personal experience, but I have been told that giving birth is a great tribulation. And yet pregnant mothers look forward with great anticipation to that pain, that tribulation, because they know what great joy they will have in the aftermath, the birth of a precious little child. I don’t know this from personal experience, but I have been told that a mother virtually forgets her pain for the joy of holding that dear little baby in her arms. Jesus even says something to that effect: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). He goes on to say, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (v. 22). Jesus is speaking to His disciples in the context of the sorrow His impending death has caused, yet the joy that will result from His own resurrection. But we can apply this also to our situation in this fallen world, for Jesus uses this same illustration in our text to describe the birth pains of the new creation.

This is how it will be for you when you are delivered out of this present tribulation into the joy of heaven and the resurrection, the new creation in Christ Jesus. The tribulations of this life keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ and His resurrection, and so also the eternal life and salvation that He grants us. These tribulations keep us from getting distracted by the perishable things of this world that so easily become our idols otherwise. These tribulations keep us living with heaven in our minds, even while fully engaged as Christ’s emissaries in the affairs of this world. We can face these tribulations as Christians confidently, knowing the end of the story. Jesus will come again. Everything that is wrong in the fallen world, all the suffering, all the pain, all the bloodshed, all the broken relationships, everything that is out of order and rotting with the corrosion of sin, He will make right again. For He “has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins… by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:12, 14). He has offered His body on the cross, His hands and feet to receive the nails, His head to receive the crown of thorns, His side to receive the spear, His very soul to suffer all the anguish of hell in separation from His heavenly Father, all for us, to redeem us, to rescue us from the pit of hell, to pay the full penalty we, in our sins, deserve. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is crucified for you. And He is risen. God has accepted His sacrifice. All that separates us from God, our sin, our death, our fallen-ness, has been done away with by Christ. God loves us with an everlasting love. And He has marked us by Baptism, sealed us with His own Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the Day of Christ’s returning. In the meantime, none of these birth pains, the old fallen creation anticipating the new, can separate you from God. Thus St. Paul can write confidently, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Thus the Lord preserves you by His mighty power. In the midst of persecution and hardship and tribulation, the Lord is with you. You are called upon to confess Jesus Christ and His Word to a world, a society, possibly even family members, who are hostile to Jesus and His Christians. You are called upon to confess Christ in the midst of all these birth pains. But do not be anxious. Do not despair. What does Jesus say? He will give you the words to speak, by His Holy Spirit. You actually know these words already. They are the words of Scripture. They are the words of the Creed. Society, nation, family may forsake you on account of these words. But do not worry. The worst they can do is kill your body. You are marked for the resurrection. You sorrow now, but then, your joy will be full. Then you will behold the Lord face to face. “(T)he one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). You can count on it. Jesus has promised it, the one who purchased you with His blood and death.

Then everyone whose name is found written in the book of life, the book that is Jesus Christ, shall be delivered (Dan. 12:1). Then shall be the resurrection of all flesh, some to everlasting life, namely, believers in Jesus Christ, and some to everlasting contempt in hell, namely, those who have rejected Christ (v. 2). And those who are wise, enlightened by the Spirit through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, will shine like the brightness of the sky above. Those who have confessed Christ faithfully in the midst of persecution and tribulation, thus bringing many others to the righteousness that comes by faith alone in Jesus Christ, will shine like the stars forever and ever (v. 3). Let not your hearts be troubled. Do not be anxious. Be comforted and encouraged as you see these signs of the end. Rejoice and be glad. Jesus is coming. Salvation has dawned. Come now to His Table and receive His body and blood to strengthen you for that Day. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (B – Proper 27)
November 8, 2009
Text: Mark 12:38-44

What, in essence, is the difference between the generous offerings put into the temple treasury by all the rich people, and the two mites put in by the poor widow? It is true that percentage-wise, the widow put in more than all the rich people. While they gave, perhaps, the obligatory ten percent of their wealth, she, in her poverty, gave 100%. But from a human perspective, the powers that be at the temple could do a lot more with the ten percent of the rich people than they could with the 100% of the poor widow’s mites. Of course, Jesus does not evaluate these matters from a merely human perspective. Jesus looks at this episode with the eyes of God. And God is interested in the heart. What is the essential difference between the offerings of the rich and the offering of the widow? It is not the amount. It is not the percentage. The amount, the percentage, is but an outward indicator of the essential difference. No, the essential difference is this: The rich people only gave what they thought they could spare, or what they thought they had to give to keep up appearances and placate God. The poor widow gave everything in faith that God would provide for her needs. The rich people trusted in their wealth. The poor widow trusted in God. The rich people gave out of obligation, that they might be righteous before men and gain merit before God. The poor widow gave from faith, in love and thanksgiving, knowing that her only righteousness is that which God has given her. And so the point here is that two mites given in faith is a greater offering than a million dollars given without faith. Faith is the essential difference in the offerings.

Well, great Pastor, in that case, here’s my two pennies for the offering plate, given in faith. That should be sufficient, right? Only if two pennies is all you have to your name. Two pennies may be a marvelous gift of faith and love on the part of a small child who has nothing else to give, but for an adult who makes more than twenty cents or two dollars a week, it is a poor gift indeed. We ought not be misers with the gifts that God has given us. Two pennies given out of miserliness is not faith. As a matter of fact, a million dollars given out of miserliness is not faith. Miserliness actually indicates a lack of faith in God, the misplacement of faith in mammon. That which is given out of miserliness is not given in faith, or love, or thanksgiving, but only out of obligation, or for show, because that is what is expected, because everyone else is giving something. When it comes to offerings, rich and poor is not the issue. The amount is not the issue. The amount is but an indicator of what is really important. And that is the heart. Does your very heart belong to Christ? Then money and possessions will follow. Do you believe that God will provide for your every need? Then you will give generously to the Church and to your neighbor. But insofar as you withhold your money and your possessions because you think that these alone can sustain you in your earthly life and bodily needs, your heart belongs to mammon. This does not proceed from faith. Repent.

I’m not advocating reckless spending or careless stewardship. Far from it. (If you haven’t guessed by now, this is a stewardship sermon). I want you to use what God has given you wisely, to provide for your families and the well being of your household. But you need to consider the source of these gifts: God, and the purpose for which He has given them to you: for His glory and the benefit of your neighbor. Examine your hearts. Which is more important to you: the gift? Or the Giver of the gift? And do you think there is a limit to God’s gifts? Can you ever empty Him of His providence? Do you really believe that you have to hold so tightly to what he’s already given you because He is unwilling or unable to give you more? Can you ever exhaust His supply? Dear Christians, you must recognize that nothing you have belongs to you. It belongs to God. It is a trust, given to you to be used for His purposes. It is to be used generously for the mission of the Church and the help of the neighbor.

What motivates Christian giving? Consider again the example of the widow in our text. What motivates her giving is her faith. She believes that God will take care of her. She knows that she has a gracious God who has provided for her eternal salvation and forgiven all her sins. By faith she knows a God who takes note of every sparrow, every stray hair that falls from her head. By faith she knows a God whose love is never exhausted, who never tires of pouring out His good gifts on His people. By faith she knows that in this life there are trials and tribulations, including her tribulation of poverty, but she knows that God will not forsake her in her time of need. In other words, what motivates her giving is not the Law: “I must give to placate God and retain my social standing in the eyes of others.” What motivates her giving is the Gospel. God is gracious! Sins forgiven! Eternal life dispensed! Every need in the hands of the heavenly Father! Thus God becomes the number one priority in her life, and this shows in her generosity.

The same is true for you, dear Christians. What motivates your giving? May it never be the Law. May it never be that you think you have to placate God by your gifts and offerings. May it never be that you need people to see you put that envelope in the offering plate. Only the Gospel can motivate you to give freely. God is gracious! He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for your sins, including your sins of miserliness, making idols out of mammon, lack of love and concern for your neighbor, lack of zeal for the mission of the Church. All of these things were nailed to the cross of Christ. He gave His all for you, His very self, all He has, all He is. The poor widow is a picture of Christ! “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9; ESV). Jesus Christ, who is very God of very God, united Himself with us by taking on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin. Jesus Christ, of one substance with the Father, the eternal Law Giver, lived under the Law of God for our sakes, in our place, to fulfill it for us. Jesus Christ, He who knew no sin, became sin for us, was crucified for us, died for us, paid the penalty of our sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. He is risen, victorious over sin and death and grave and hell. But He still serves us. He still gives of Himself for us. He still comes to us in His Word and in the Supper with His true body and blood.

This alone motivates Christians to give; namely, the self-giving of Jesus Christ for us and to us. Our gifts in response do not merit anything before God. Nor ought they be done for a show, like the Scribes in our Gospel lesson who do everything to be seen. Nor ought we withhold anything, like the rich who put in only a fraction of what is theirs and consider that good enough. Jesus wants us whole. He wants us body and soul. He wants our everything. Because He has given His everything for us, to purchase us from the pit of hell and the devil. Our gifts to God and to the neighbor do not merit us anything. Jesus merited it all by the gift of Himself. But now our gifts are sanctified by His gift. Our gifts become sacrifices of thanksgiving. We can give them freely, because we know a gracious God whose love for us is never exhausted, who just keeps giving and giving to us, who cares for us, loves us as dear children, and sustains us through every trial and tribulation. Christians give from faith. For as St. Paul writes, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). But whatever proceeds from faith is pleasing to our Father in heaven.

The widow in our text gives her two mites in faith: She trusts God’s mercy. The widow of Zarephath in our Old Testament lesson gives what she thinks is her last jar of flour and jug of oil because she believes the Word of the Lord through the prophet Elijah. She trusts God’s mercy. And what happens when she gives her all to the God who gives her His all? Does God forsake her? By no means. “The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:16). I cannot promise you your cupboard will never be bare. But I can promise you, because God has promised you, that when the cupboard is bare, or when you have any lack, whenever you pass through any trial or tribulation, you can trust that God will provide for you and sustain you. You can trust that He who bought you at the price of His own Son’s blood will not forsake you in your hour of need. So by all means, be responsible with your money. Provide for your family and the well being of your household. Do not spend recklessly or carelessly. But know that what you have is a trust from the Lord. It is the Lord’s. You are His steward. Have faith in the Lord, and not in mammon. And give generously, out of faith, for God’s Kingdom and for your neighbor in need. Because God will take care of you. Money fails. Possessions fail. Moth and rust destroy. But God never fails. He is faithful. “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse” says the Lord God. “And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Mal. 3:10).

Beloved in the Lord, how privileged we are to be counted as saints of God, purchased by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are members of the Church, baptized into Christ, royal priests in the Kingdom of God. God grant us faithfulness to do in all things what is pleasing to Him with what He has given us. Thanks be to God for the forgiveness and freedom we have to do so in Jesus Christ. For He has given His all for us, that we might be His all for all eternity. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

VanderBaan/ Spray Wedding

Wedding of Jack VanderBaan and Vivienne Pearl Spray
November 7, 2009


Text: John 15:9-12

Jack, Vivienne, Beloved in the Lord: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Love, the love that Christians are to have for one another, has its origin not in the human heart, but in God. Jesus says to His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12; ESV). “As I have loved you,” Jesus says. And Jesus loves as the Father has loved Him. The love of the Father for the Son from all eternity is manifest for humanity in the person of Jesus. The love of the Father for the Son is poured out for all humanity on the cross. In and by the blood of Love incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, the blood-bought people of God love one another. The love of Christians for one another and for the world has its origin in God Himself. Love flows from God through the flesh and blood of Jesus to His Christians, and through His Christians to the neighbor.

Love must have its origin in God if it is to be real love. It cannot have its origin in us. Because we are fallen. We are sinners. This is the problem that even two seasoned veterans of life and of marriage like you, Jack and Vivienne, will have to face head on. I hate to break it to you, but each of you is marrying a sinner this evening. As sweet as you both are, you are both children of Adam and Eve, and that means you have inherited their sinful condition. Sin is the opposite of all things love, as we heard of it in our second reading. Unlike love, sin is envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude. Sin does insist on its own way. Sin is irritable and resentful, rejoicing in wrongdoing. And these are the things that have their origin in this fallen flesh. Jesus reminds us, “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). Notice that love is not in that list. Rather, all the things that are opposed to love proceed from the human heart.

How different is the love of God. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Christ died for our sinful hearts. Christ died for all the evil thoughts and actions just described. Christ died for you, Jack and Vivienne, and for every person here present, and for all people. Christ died for the forgiveness of your sins, for your eternal life, and salvation. And He is risen. He is risen to sustain you in that love, that you might abide in that love in this earthly life and for all eternity.

You do that by returning to the cross again and again. And the only way you can return to the cross is in the Word of God and the Sacrament. As husband and wife, come often to hear the preaching of the Word, be absolved of your sins, and receive Christ’s true body and blood in your mouths. That is what it means to abide in Jesus’ love. And abiding in His love, being immersed in the love that has its origin in God, being forgiven of all your sins, you will begin to keep the commandment to love one another, to forgive one another, to sacrifice yourselves for one another and for your fellow Christians and for the world, as the cruciform love of Christ flows to you and through you.

What a gift God has given this day, a man and a woman, in rather unlikely circumstances, joined in Holy Matrimony. The two become one flesh. You are united by this cruciform love of Christ. May our Lord Jesus keep you by His Spirit in His love, the love of the Father for the Son, the love of God for you. He alone can do it. He is faithful. His love for you compels Him to bring to completion this good work which He has begun in you. All thanks and praise be to Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In Memoriam +Bernice Mary Brunner Hills+

In Memoriam +Bernice Mary Brunner Hills+
November 6, 2009
Texts: Psalm 23; Job 19:21-27; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; John 11:17-45

Dear family and friends of Bernice, brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved in the Lord: Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This body will rise from the dead! We can be confident of this because our Lord Jesus, who died on the cross as the sacrificial Lamb of God for our sins, who is also risen from the dead, has promised it! And the Word of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, cannot be broken. Jesus once said to a grieving sister, and He says to us this morning: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26; ESV). How can we know that Jesus’ Words are trustworthy? Because He Himself is risen from the death. Death could not hold Him in captivity. He burst the bonds of death. He has all the power over death. So when Jesus says that whoever lives and believes in Him will live even though he die; when Jesus says that whoever believes in Him will never die; He has the power to deliver. Death has no mastery over Him. Bernice is baptized into Christ! She is baptized into His death, and therefore baptized into His resurrection. She is God’s own child. She is marked, sealed, for the Day of Resurrection. Beloved in the Lord, this body will rise from the dead!

Do not be deceived. I would not have you be ignorant, dear brothers and sisters. Some say that death is the end of the body. First, there are the well-meaning Christians who confess that the souls of the dearly departed in Christ are in heaven, which is true enough, and very comforting to us. But then these same well-meaning Christians neglect to confess the resurrection of the dead, the re-unification of body and soul when our risen Lord Jesus calls all the bodies of the dead forth from the grave, and gives eternal life, body and soul, to all believers in Christ, including dear Bernice. Then there are those who deny the afterlife altogether. These, sadly, live without hope, for this life only. God grant that by His Holy Spirit, they come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. And finally, there are those who believe in some sort of afterlife, but do not know the Lord who alone can give them eternal life. Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Those who, like Bernice, are united to the risen Lord Jesus by baptism and by faith know the way. They know the truth. And they have the eternal life of Jesus Christ. They confess with Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). Job and Bernice and those who believe in Jesus base their confidence in the bodily resurrection of the dead in the risen body of Jesus Christ, who is Himself the way, the truth, and the life. But there is no other way to the Father. There is no other truth. There is no other life.

Bernice knew the way. She knew the truth. And she lives in the life of Jesus Christ and knows Him even now. She lives, even now, in heaven, as her body rests peacefully on earth. And she will live in the resurrection also in this body. What a comfort! You, who are in Christ, who believe in Him, will see Bernice again! In her body! You will see her when Jesus comes again. Beloved, there is nothing Bernice wants you to know more than her Savior, and your Savior, Jesus Christ. Why do you need to know Him? Why do you need a Savior? Because, beloved, we are all, every last one of us, conceived and born in sin, and we are all, every last one of us, sinners. Oh, I know, it isn’t a pleasant topic to dwell on, especially on an occasion like this. But without sin, there wouldn’t be death. The wages of sin is death. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Bernice would be the first to tell you that she was a sinner. But she would also be the first to tell you that she has been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And she would be the first to tell you how important it is that you, also, know Christ by faith. Because knowing Him, you, too, will have the full and free forgiveness of all your sins, salvation, eternal life, and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

It sounds unbelievable, this resurrection stuff. And yet it is a reality beyond any which you have as yet experienced in this fallen, earthly existence. It is, of course, a matter of faith, not of sight. And so the Holy Spirit must grant you the faith that He gave Bernice, to see things that are beyond reason and experience. The Holy Spirit creates this faith in you as He reveals the truth of the resurrection to you in His Word. The Word of God, which cannot be broken, reveals precisely how the Day of Resurrection will proceed. We heard it this morning in our second Scripture lesson, St. Paul writing to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Again, grounding his certainty in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, St. Paul boldly declares that when Jesus descends from heaven with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God, He will command the dead to rise. And they will. Because the Word of Jesus Christ always accomplishes what it says. The dead in Christ will rise first. And then every believer who is left on earth, who is still alive, will be caught up together with the risen Christ and His risen Christians in the clouds. And we will always be with the Lord. Behold, Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord, is making all things new. The old order of things has passed away. The new has come. Christ Jesus is the death of death, and the resurrection and the life of all who believe in Him.

And so, dear friends, this body shall rise from the dead! Let this be your confession. Let this be your comfort. Let this be your joy even in the face of death, even in grief and sadness. For our Lord Jesus Christ has promised it. And His promise is the very breath of life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day
Nov. 1, 2009
Text: Rev. 7:2-17

Beloved in the Lord, it should be of great comfort to us who live in the time of tribulation that the full number of those appointed for salvation will be saved and enter into the bliss of heaven and the resurrection. For “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” as the great heavenly multitude sings in our First Lesson (Rev. 7:10; ESV). Salvation is God’s. It is the Lamb’s. It is His possession. The salvation of each and every one of us is in the hands of the God who sent His Son to be the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The salvation of each and every one of us is in the hands, the nail pierced hands of the very Lamb of God Himself, Jesus Christ. Are you concerned with your salvation? Look to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Are you concerned with the salvation of a loved one? Look to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Do you long to be reunited with your loved ones who have died in the faith, to stand with them in the heavenly throne room and sing praises to the One who created you and redeemed you? Look to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. For salvation belongs to Him. He is the source of salvation. It is the Father who sent the Son to be born under the Law, to suffer and die in our place, in the place of all humanity, for the forgiveness of our sins. It is the Son who willingly suffered as the sacrifice of atonement for us. Thus the Spirit directs our attention, our faith, our praises to the Father on the divine throne, and to the Lamb who was slain, who now stands in the midst of that same throne. Thus the Spirit-filled heavenly worship of the throngs coming out of the great tribulation, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Thus the response of the holy angels and the elders and the four living creatures, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (v. 12). These heavenly creatures praise God for His greatest act, the salvation of mankind.

The First Lesson presents us with a comforting picture of the reality that is the eternal state of blessedness of God’s people. This is your reality in Christ Jesus. May it be a great comfort to you as “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This comfort is so important now, because this heavenly reality is not yet our experience in the flesh. It is a matter of faith, not sight. What is true in Christ Jesus, what is the true experience of every believer who has died in Christ and now in their soul enjoys the beatific vision in heaven, what will be true for all of us who are in Christ on the day of resurrection, body and soul together, is not yet apparent to us who still live and operate in the Church Militant, the Church on earth. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). And so it must suffice for us that even now “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” This truth of God’s Word we must believe in the face of all that seemingly contradicts it in this life, all the tribulations we have to suffer here on earth, all the mourning and crying and pain, the hunger, the thirst, the scorching heat, the tears that freely flow from Christians living in exile in this fallen world. This must be believed in the face of unemployment and a bad economy. This must be believed in the face an ever-smaller congregation and a synod in crisis financially and theologically. This must be believed in spite of sickness and injury, wars and rumors of wars, terrorism and natural disasters. This must be believed in the face of death itself. This must be believed in the face of sin, the cause of all evil in the world.

In the Revelation of Jesus Christ, John sees the whole number of the Church on earth and in heaven. First he sees the number sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 144,000. Now there is a lot to unpack here. First, this number is not, strictly speaking, the Jews who are to be saved, but the whole number of those sealed, Jews and Gentiles, who make up the new spiritual Israel of God, the holy Christian Church on earth. This number is not the Church in heaven, the Church Triumphant, but the Church on earth, the Church Militant. They are lined up in an almost military fashion, ready to do the will of God in His mission on earth. John says that their number is 144,000. Now, don’t misunderstand this number. This is not to say that there are exactly 144,000 Christians on the earth, no more and no less. No, this number is symbolic of the completeness of the Church. Indulge me for a moment while we do a little divine mathematics. The number twelve represents the people of God. There are twelve patriarchs, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. There are twelve apostles in the New Testament, the foundation of the apostolic Church of which you, as New Testament people, are a part. 12 x 12 = 144. The number 1,000 was an infinitesimal number in the minds of the Hebrews. It would be like saying a “gazillion kajillion” in our terms. So multiply 12 x 12 x 1,000 and you get the whole number of believers on earth, the whole number of those built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone, a great number of believers on earth who have graciously been incorporated into the sheepfold of the Church by the sealing of the Holy Spirit. And that sealing is nothing less than Christian Baptism, the sealing of the Christian with the Divine Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After John has this vision of the 144,000, he gets a sweeping look at the whole number of heaven. This number is beyond counting. It is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). Needless to say, this number is far greater than 144,000. It is the whole number of believers, all those appointed for salvation from the very foundation of the world. And they’re clothed in white robes. This is to say, they’ve been covered with the righteousness of Christ. The elder tells John, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). This is the Church Triumphant, the Church in heaven. These were at one time numbered among the 144,000, who have now been transferred from the Church Militant, the Kingdom of Grace, to the Kingdom of Glory in heaven. And this is an eschatological picture, that is to say, an end times picture of the resurrection. This is the whole number of the faithful who in their earthly lives believed in Jesus Christ.

What a glorious picture this must have been. John undoubtedly saw loved ones he knew who had died in the faith among that number, many of them martyred on account of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. We can imagine what comfort it would be to see that sight. We gain that comfort from the picture John paints of it for us. There are the apostles and all the saints we know from the Bible: Moses, King David, Elijah, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, James, Mary. There is St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom. There is Martin Luther and C. F. W. Walther and Johann Sebastian Bach. There is Paul Strefling and Lyle LaCourse. There are all our loved ones who have died in the faith, all the saints who from their labors rest. The blood of Jesus Christ has brought them out of the great tribulation. They were sinners. But their sin-stained robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. They stand before the throne of God in perfect righteousness, because it is the righteousness of Christ they have been given. They stand with palm branches, greeting their crucified and risen, victorious, King, in the midst of the holy angels. They worship. They worship and serve God day and night. And God shelters them with His presence.

We cannot imagine what heaven and the resurrection will be. It is easier to define it by what it is not, since the glorious reality of it is beyond our comprehension. John says that the saints in heaven and the resurrection “shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (v. 16). That is to say, they shall be in no want. They shall lack nothing. God bestows every good thing upon them. “(T)he sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat” (v. 16). There will be no pain. Labor will not be tiresome, but pure joy. They will always be sheltered by the presence of God and of the Lamb. The Lamb will shepherd them (v. 17). They will always have Him who was slain for them as their guide. And He will lead them to springs of living water. Finally, all the sadness, all the hurt, all the desolation sin has caused will be done away with. For “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).

This changes our perspective a bit, does it not, as we languish in this fallen world? Now we are hungry and thirsty. Now the sun and the scorching heat do beat upon us. Now there are any number of things that cause us to weep and to mourn, not the least of them being death and sin. But the tears of the saints are precious in God’s sight. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:3-4). He sees your tears. He hears your sighing and your groaning. He sent His Son to deliver you. He has conquered sin and death in the death and resurrection of His Son. And this morning He gives you a glimpse of what is to come. You will finally be delivered from these things forever. You will finally come out of the tribulation. The First Lesson this morning is a description of the reality you will enjoy fully as those who have washed your robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Until then, we live in the reality of the “already/not yet.” We have already been given eternal life and every blessing by virtue of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. And yet, this is not yet our experience. So what do we do until these things are made manifest on the Last Day? We come here, to the gathering of the saints, the holy Church, as those numbered among the 144,000. And we receive a foretaste of the feast to come. We listen to the voice of the Lamb who is our good shepherd. We join the praises of the heavenly throng in liturgy and hymns. We laud and magnify the glorious Name of God with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. And then we meet them at the altar. We on earth are most at one with the saints in heaven gathered around the altar, receiving the body and blood of the Lord. You can’t see it with your eyes. But you know it by faith. For the Lord they see serves you who see Him only by faith. He serves you with His body and blood under bread and wine. And as you kneel on one side of the altar, there are all the saints who have gone before on the other side, receiving the same thing, united with you, under one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:5-6). May God open our eyes to see the spiritual reality of what happens here at the altar. May this be a great comfort to us who mourn in this life those loved ones who died in Christ. And may we come often, along with them, to receive this precious gift in the Supper. For not only do we meet the saints there, most importantly, we have a living encounter with the living Jesus, who in the Supper forgives us and strengthens us, and preserves us for that day when we, too, come out of the great tribulation to see the Lord with our own eyes. God grant it, for Jesus’ sake. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.